a/n: title and lyrics from needtobreathe's Something Beautiful. :) just a warning - this fic involves Peeta dating girls who aren't Katniss and even sleeping with a girl who isn't Katniss. if that upsets you, don't read on!

In your ocean, I'm ankle deep,
I feel the waves crashing on my feet,
It's like I know where I need to be.
But I can't figure out, yeah, I can't figure out,

Just how much air I will need to breathe,
When your tide rushes over me.
There's only one way to figure out,
Will you let me drown, will you let me drown?

The first person he ever hears say the word sex is Joel Baxter.

He is eight, they are at lunch, the noon sun hot and white above them, and Joel tells the table, a carrot in his mouth, that his mother says his brother only wants to marry a girl so he can have sex.

Peeta asks Joel what sex is, and Joel only shrugs. He doesn't know, but Archie does, and everyone around the table leans in to listen. "A boy and a girl have sex when they like each other lots and want to make babies." He takes a bite of his sandwich, proud of his knowledge. "All the girl does is stay still, and the boy kisses her and stuff, and that's sex. My mama told my sister about it."

Peeta tunes out the boys as they ask Archie more questions, and he looks over at Katniss, her dark hair braided neatly, her pretty dress spread around her knees as she sits by herself in the grass and quietly eats her lunch from a dented tin pail. He can see the dark stains of berry juice on her lips.

He wonders if she knows what sex is.

If he marries her, they'll kiss lots and have sex and make babies, right? He smiles to himself.

He asks about sex at dinner that night, 'cause he isn't sure he trusts Archie for all the details.

His father chokes on his beer. "Who told you about sex?" his mother demands, furious. Peeta freezes, unsure what made her so angry. She stabs the air in front of her with her fork. "Answer me. I need to know who told my eight-year-old son about sex. Answer me." Her face is pinched.

He looks at his brothers, but they both have their eyes on their plates.

"I just heard a kid say it at school," he mumbles. He doesn't want to be a tattletale, and he definitely doesn't want to have his mother yell at Archie or Joel or their mothers. It would be awful.

His mother wants a name, but his father gently talks her down, and Peeta is sent to his room.

A little while later, his brothers come upstairs. They lock the door, and they make Peeta sit up in his bed, and Bannock smirks at Rye. "So you want to know about sex, huh?" Rye asks, amused.

And both his brothers lean forward, elbows on their knees, and they tell him about sex. It sounds really gross and bad and Peeta isn't sure he believes them, and they laugh in his face so that he believes them even less. Bannock makes all these hand motions to demonstrate, and Rye makes a few jokes about bread and girls. Peeta knows that girls and boys are, you know, different, but he doesn't really understand. Rye falls off the bed he laughs so hard when Peeta asks a question.

At the end of the night, Peeta decides he doesn't ever want to have sex.

He hopes he can still marry Katniss and make babies with her.

He sees the changes in her, the way her eyes sink into her face, the way her collarbone slowly starts to peak out, making her skin stretch in a terrible, awful way, but he doesn't really register it all until he sees her outside his house, and she looks emaciated beyond belief. A skeleton.

The girl in his dreams doesn't look like that. The girl who sings so well, the girl with guarded grey eyes, with silky black hair in a habitual braid, the girl he loves, she doesn't look anything like that.

But this is reality. She is sick, starving, dying, and she knows it, too, he can see it in her dull eyes.

He burns his fingers alongside the bread, and his mother is furious, but Katniss deserves the bread.

She deserves to live. And it must be enough, because the angles of her bones fade a little, and life flickers back into her eyes. The first time he tentatively touches himself as he tunes out the sounds of his brothers downstairs, he pictures her face, rounder, flushed, healthy, alive, and he focuses on the slope of her shoulder and the stretch of her neck and the curve of her breasts, no longer hidden by starvation. And as he finishes in his hand, he imagines she tastes like bread when she kisses him.

The summer Peeta turns fourteen, a gaggle of girls starts to watch the boys play ball.

The first to talk to Peeta is Flora Margrey, with shiny hair the colour of honey, round cheeks, and a dimple in her small chin. He offers to walk her home from the field, and she giggles when she loops her arm through his. She smells good, and he can look down her blouse when they walk, can see the curve of her pale breasts. She asks him about classes, and she isn't hard to entertain.

(He likes that instead of all the tall, lanky boys in their grade, she chose him.)

"You're so much fun," she tells him, more giggles on her lips.

After two more walks home from the field, she leans up on her tiptoes to kiss him, and it is a soft, nervous press of her plump, glossy lips to his. Her eyes sparkle, and she giggles. He backs her against the brick of the sweetshop, boxes her in, and kisses her, a real kiss. He doesn't really know what to do, but her hands rest on his hips and she tilts her head up and lets him eagerly kiss her.

It's his first kiss.

The way she looks afterward makes his stomach swoop, her lips even plumper, her face flushed.

He waits until his brothers fall asleep to jerk off, and he tries to do it quietly, because he really doesn't need to listen to another talk from them. He remembers how her breasts looked in her blouse, and how wet and warm her mouth was as her lips parted just slightly under his. Fuck.

At least his brothers don't wake up.

He sees Katniss at lunch, her eyes on the window as Madge sits quietly across from her. He wonders what the sound of her laugh is like, and how she tastes, and what it would be like to kiss her. She isn't built like Flora, is taller, is thin and wiry, has a hollowed face and sharper features. He wonders if anyone has ever kissed her, or if she has ever wanted to kiss anyone. He imagines her fingers would dig into his shoulders when they kissed, and she wouldn't giggle into his mouth.

Madge murmurs something, and Katniss offers half a smile.

It's a marked change from her standard scowl.

(He wants so badly to touch her smile, to trace his finger along the curve of her chapped lips.)

Flora touches Peeta on the back before she kisses his cheek wetly, and she takes his hand in hers when she sits and starts chatting with their friends, bright and cheerful. A captive hand makes it a little harder for him to eat, but he doesn't mind; she is happy. He doesn't let himself look at Katniss.

His mother finds out he kissed Flora. He doesn't know how, but she hisses the fact at him, and he can only gape at her. She grasps the collar of his shirt, drags him into the back kitchen, and shoves him into a seat. She stares at him, her eyes ablaze, before she lunges forward suddenly and takes his chin in her hand. She leans so close he can see the lines in her face, her eyes sharp, narrowed.

"A girl who spreads her legs before a toasting is beneath you," she snaps.

His heart jumps at the accusation. "We didn't — it was only a kiss, and it —" he sputters, startled.

"If I found out you have —" she starts, jaw locked, thick eyebrows pinched together.

"I won't!" he swears, a little terrified. She stares at him, and after a beat she releases him. She steps back, her hands on her hips, and he forces himself to breathe. He isn't about to have sex with Flora.

"Good," she finally says, and she straightens. "It better stay that way, Peeta Mellark. A lot of girls would do anything to secure a spot in a family likes ours, and I'm not about to let your stupidity land this family with more mouths to feed, do you understand?" She doesn't wait for an answer. "If you want to gallivant around town with some idiot girl, make her use her mouth, or pull out."

He nods, and she waves her hand at him in dismissal.

He likes Flora. She is always cheerful, always ready to make a new friend, always happy to see him. She talks a lot, and he learns pretty much everything about her, and he really does like her.


He really likes to kiss her, and she lets him touch her breasts over her smock, and they're soft and warm and heavy in his hands. But she doesn't like Delly, claims that Delly wants to steal Peeta away, which is kind of ridiculous, because Delly is obsessed with Joel and blushes every time Joel even looks to her, so, yeah, she doesn't like Peeta that way, obviously. Flora doesn't believe him.

And Flora calls him Peet sometimes, which is stupid.

His name is Peeta. He doesn't call her Flor, does he?

Also, when he jerks off he tends to think about someone who isn't Flora, who has softer, darker hair and shaper, darker eyes, who saves her chatter and her laughter and her smile for people who matter, who is slimmer and tougher and, seriously, he just wants to kiss her once, just once.

He wonders if she would sigh into his mouth when he kissed her, if it would sound like a song. That might be stupid. He doesn't care. He wants to touch her hair, too, see if it feels as shiny as it looks. He knows it must. He hasn't ever seen it free from a braid. She is tall, so her face would be nearly level with his if they kissed. Her breasts are small, but he likes that; they'd fit in his hands.

It isn't really fair to take up with Flora when he wants someone else, right?

He tells Flora that they should be friends, and she looks so upset, her nose running by the time she runs from him. He feels bad, but she starts to date Joel within a week, so he doesn't feel too bad.

He kind of thinks dating Joel might be a little spiteful on several levels, but he can't really control what she does. He wraps an arm around Delly and tells her she is so much prettier and smarter and better than Flora, and Joel will realize one day. And he watches Katniss from the corner of his eye.

Bannock marries in August, and his new wife cries at the toasting. Peeta likes her.

He really wishes he didn't know that the best way to make her scream involved teeth and tongue and "the higher the thigh, the better the angle," Bannock tells Peeta, slapping his shoulder, "and Rye will tell you to finish with your head between her thighs, but I like to treat the lady first."

Angelica hugs Peeta and tells him she has always wanted a little brother, and he only smiles back.

He doesn't really date for a while.

Katniss does. Or he thinks she does, anyway. A tall boy from the Seam, a boy who looks like he could be her brother, honestly, is always around her, walking to and from school with her. Peeta watches as inconspicuously as he can, and his friends talk about the two of them every once in a while. The boy is Gale Hawthorne, Peeta learns, and he looks just gorgeous, all the girls claim.

"If he weren't from the Seam," Annabelle says, "oh." And she sighs, making her friends laugh.

"But he is, and he spends all his time with Katniss Everdeen." Poppy wrinkles her nose when she says the name, and Peeta suppresses his own sigh. He doesn't understand why people don't like Katniss. Or, well, maybe he does, but if they just paid enough attention, they would realise.

Katniss is smart and tough and beautiful and —

But she is from the Seam, and she is quiet, and she doesn't laugh, and Peeta knows what people say. She attracts a lot of attention from boys, too, which other girls don't like, especially not the pretty, pale girls from town. But Katniss is completely oblivious to all it, of course, so oblivious that she unknowingly rebuffs boys without batting an eye. Peeta loves her all the more for it.

Except Gale Hawthorne makes her laugh as they walk from school, and Peeta swallows thickly.

He likes the sound of her laugh.

Gale tugs on her braid, affectionate, and Katniss playfully slaps his hand away.

He decides if she is happy with Gale, he shouldn't bother her. His mother would tear her to pieces, like she did the poor girl that Rye called his for a couple weeks; she was from the Seam, a pretty girl who joked easily with Peeta, but his mother made two dozen snide comments about what exactly a girl from the Seam would do to keep Rye on her arm, comments that chased her away.

And his mother isn't the only person who makes comments about girls from the Seam, either.

(They just don't know Katniss, they just don't. She isn't like that. Not at all.)

He takes April Brown to the school dance, and he kisses her outside, the air cold enough for him to see his breath, her body soft and warm and pliant pressed between the school wall and his body.

For the most part, he likes the way he looks.

It isn't something he thinks about all that much. He is built like his brothers, like his father, not too tall but plenty strong, and enough attention makes him confident in his face. He sometimes wishes, though, that he could be a little taller, a little slimmer, a little darker, more attractive to her.

But that just makes him feel like utter crap, because he isn't about to wish he looked like Gale.

He doesn't. He just wishes she noticed how he looks, noticed him at all.

(He notices everything about the way she looks. How she keeps her nails short. How she has freckles just barely visible in her tanned skin. How her dark eyelashes seem to sweep across her face. How her hipbone juts out just slightly in the winter, when a little less food is around.)

Delly asks if he can be her first kiss.

He is taken aback, but her bright eyes shine nervously, and she is probably his best friend, all things considered. He chuckles a little, and she knocks her ankle affectionately against his. "It isn't that I expect anything from you," she says, "but you've dated lots of girls, so you know how to kiss, and I just really want to know. What it's like. To kiss." She drops her gaze, cheeks pinking.

He kisses her, softly, gently, a simple press of lips.

She draws back in an instant, her eyes wide, and she claps a hand over her mouth to hide a grin.

"At least now I know for sure that you really are like my brother!" she squeals, laughing. He elbows her lightly for that comment, but she only grabs his face and kisses his cheek happily.

It figures that the first time he kissed Katniss, he would be half dead. Just his luck.

He can keep up an easy conversation with anyone, is friends with most people he knows at school, and he dates cheerful Flora and sweet April and brazen, sarcastic Jilly Ulshen, the first girl to palm him through his pants, but he still never musters the courage to say so much as hello to Katniss.

She doesn't trust him as they travel to the Capitol, meet the other tributes, and train. He thinks she might not want to trust him, might not want to befriend him, and he respects that. It doesn't surprise him. She doesn't want to befriend someone she believes will have to die if she plans to live.

She is a survivor, through and through. He wouldn't have her any other way, to be honest.

He suspects she won't make any allies at all. His own aren't too keen on him. He focuses on that.

As he feels himself burn away under a thick layer of mud, he returns to that desperate wish to kiss her once, just once. All he can hope is that she is still alive, wherever she is. He needs her to live.

He needs to hope for something, after all.

And then she finds him. She tends to all his wounds, makes his heart feel a little lighter at the way she cares for him. He knows he will die, but she will not, and he won't die alone. He bites back laughter when she turns away from his nudity, and he really, really hopes his mother saw that.

So what do you have to say now, Mother, about a girl from the Seam?

She kisses him to shut him up, he knows, but it is still a kiss. And she doesn't want him to die.

If ever there were a reason to live, this is it. Katniss Everdeen.

And if he has to die, well, this is a pretty great send off.

She is tense, anxious, and he would be too if the situations were reversed. But it isn't about keeping him alive; it never has been. And he knows she can survive this. A part of him thinks she would've been better off if she had stayed away from him. Haymitch would've taken care of her, and she obviously knows how to take care of herself. Peeta might hold her back. He knows he does, in fact.

But he can't help how happy he is that she is here. Her kisses are shy, and it makes him question whether she ever did date Gale or anyone else. She sleeps close to him at night, and he can thank how sick he is for the fact that he doesn't, you know, react. He likes to watch her sleep. She looks younger, less tense, less anxious, less like she has the weight of the world on her wiry shoulders.

And her hair, even matted a little with sweat and mud, is soft under his fingers.

She talks to him for the first time, really talks to him, tells him a story at his request.

It kind of makes him hate himself for never having the guts to talk to her before the Games.

His last thought before the sleep syrup knocks him out is that it can't end like this. She can't die to save him, can't die at all, and he should've expected this determined trickery out of her, but he, who loves her so much, stupidly underestimated her. He wakes up to find her in a pool of blood.

He retches a little, but he manages to swallow it back.

She is fine, though. She is fine. He repeats it to himself until she wakes up. She is fine.

He almost doesn't believe it is real, that she really cares about him; he's almost afraid to believe it.

He shouldn't be, but to be offered what he wanted for so long terrifies him in a sudden way. He kisses her, though, the first kiss that he can really appreciate, not sick or feverish or half dead, and he never wants to stop; he wants to kiss her and kiss her and kiss her endlessly, until he dies.

(If only that could be when he is an old man, a marriage to his name, babies he raised, a lifetime of kisses from Katniss Everdeen to remember as he passes with a smile. He thinks of his mother, because if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we'd all have a happy winter, isn't that right?)

He breaks away from the kiss, and he kisses her lightly on the nose before he tends to her head.

He doesn't let himself think about what happens next until he sees her alive.

But she is alive, looks happy and healthy before she jumps him on stage, accepting his kisses, her fingers digging into his shoulders. He smiles into the kiss, holds her close, feels how alive she is. And he is alive, too. They both made it out alive. It isn't possible, but somehow it happened.

He wants to talk to her that night, but he can't, so instead he finally thinks about it. What happens next.

His mother will probably just manage to bite her tongue when she meets Katniss, but he knows his father will hug her, probably murmur something kind into her ear, and his brothers will act like they've known her their whole lives. Katniss will be quiet around them at first, withholding judgment, but she'll warm to them over time, and he thinks her own family will like him, too.

And then his mind flickers to the private moments, when cameras aren't around, when not even Haymitch can keep them apart, and they can share a thousand kisses like that single kiss in the cave, that single kiss where he wasn't sick and she wasn't anxious and they forgot the cameras.

She can take him into the woods, can show him around the Seam, can show him Prim's goat.

He can try to teach her how to bake, can introduce her to Delly, can bake her any bread she wants.

His mind circles back to the kisses, to silky hair, to soft skin, to Katniss. It makes his heart race.

(But that isn't what she thought about that night, he learns. He didn't figure into her plans for what happens next, not at all, not even a little, because it was all just for the Games. For the audience.)

He misses her like a stomachache.

The night before his tenth birthday, he ate so much icing while Bannock turned a blind eye that he nearly made himself sick with a stomachache. He hated that he did it to himself, and he hated how much it just hurt, and he hated that he couldn't even complain, because who would sympathise?

This is the same. It's his fault. He let himself become a piece of the Games at her hand, so all he has to blame is himself, no matter how much he wants it all on her. Except he does hate her, just like he hates himself, just like he hates the knowing looks from his brothers, from his father, from Delly.

And his stomach is a dead weight inside him, always, constant, aching.

The first time he wishes she had left him to die caked in mud and plants, he opens a liquor bottle, and it burns his throat and makes his eyes water, and it only makes him feel worse. He should have known it was all a show, should have known that shy kisses were fake kisses, that she just used him so she could come home to Gale, who would easily kiss away thoughts of stupid Peeta.

Jilly sits beside him on the bench in the empty Merchant Quarter. "I saw you from my window."

He nods. He offers her the bottle. She takes a dainty sip, and he kisses her as soon as she hands the bottle back. She isn't startled, and she lets him. She even curls her hands into his hair. He pulls her into his lap, tangles his hands in her hair, and kisses his way down her pretty throat. Jilly is the only daughter of the butcher, and she is loud and pretty, all legs and breasts and sly smiles.

She doesn't look like most girls from town. Her mother is from town, the daughter of the old, surly butcher, but her father is originally from the Seam, and everyone around town knows the juicy bit of gossip that Jilly was born six months after her parents married. But Peeta doesn't care; he likes the way her darker skin looks with her dirty blonde hair, her grey eyes always so mischievous.

(He refuses to look her in the eye now, though, and he refuses to acknowledge why.)

She wants this, wants to be with him, wants to kiss him. "Say my name," he demands. She moans it.

He plunges his hand into her shirt, slips his finger past her bra, and cups her bare breast, feels her nipple pebble against his hand, and he squeezes, greedy. She only nips his bottom lip, playful.

But she pulls away from him a moment later. "Come on." She takes his hand, and he dutifully follows, just like always, good little Peeta, doing what the girls tell him to do. She takes him to the back of the butcher shop. He ignores the carcasses that hang along the walls as she pushes him up against the large, cleared table in the center of the room, and he plunges his tongue into her mouth.

"I'm sorry," she tells him. He tightens his grip on her waist.

It would be nice if a single fucking person in town didn't feel the need to extend a sympathetic pat on the back for the terrible Games he had to experience. He kisses her more insistently, annoyed.

Jilly surprises him when she finishes her sentence, however. "She doesn't deserve you."

And a surge of anger and hate and pity and loneliness rolls into him like a heat wave, too many emotions for his muddled mind to handle, and he kisses Jilly roughly while her fingers deftly undo the front of her dress for him. It all happens fast, too fast, his eyes on the way her breasts bounce in her bra as she straddles his lap and fucks him. She laughs when he comes quickly, but she makes herself come with her fingers a moment later, and she seamlessly moves off him afterward.

She kisses the fringe of his sweaty hair, tells him she'll be at the bakery for dinner tomorrow night.

His mother doesn't like Jilly. She didn't like her for the month he and Jilly kissed behind hidden corners and joked together at lunch with her hand on his thigh, and she doesn't hide her contempt now any better than she did a year ago. Peeta doesn't give a flying fuck what his mother thinks.

But he and Jilly fight the same battle they fought a year ago —

"How can you let your mother talk to me like that?" And last year he protested that he had tried to make his mother see how pretty and funny and wonderful Jilly was, but it wasn't nearly enough.

(He thought he needed to save his best arguments for another girl, as bad as that sounds.)

This year he squares Jilly with a blank look. "I'm sorry it bothers you." She storms off.

He feels bad about it afterward, and he drinks for the second time, drinks so much that he blacks out in the empty living room of his empty house. He wakes up feeling like complete shit. He retches into the toilet, bakes himself a loaf just to have something to do, and takes it to Haymitch.

He thought Katniss and Haymitch were alike. At this rate, Peeta Mellark is more like his mentor.

He swears never to take another drink. It doesn't make him feel better.

He tries not to look at Katniss, not to talk to her, not to acknowledge she exists.

It isn't really possible, and they run into each other, but she always keeps it formal, so he follows her lead. It unsettles him in a way, the way she acts around him, because he doesn't understand it. It isn't the way she acts around people she doesn't like or doesn't trust; she doesn't wear a scowl, her forehead isn't creased, her lips aren't pursued. She acts like she doesn't know how to treat him.

He would've preferred a scowl. At least he would've know where they stood if she scowled.

He decides not to think about her. It's a decision he makes on a daily basis. (He can't make it stick.)

His family doesn't need his help at the bakery; they've worked out a routine without him. He bakes for himself and for Haymitch in his empty house instead, and he paints when he can't sleep, paints the nightmares in living color, and he fills the rest of his time with exercises to help his leg.

He refuses to acknowledge the time spent with thoughts of her, bitter thoughts, wondering what a real kiss from Katniss Everdeen would be like, wondering if her curves feel differently when she presses up against Gale in the safety of District 12, healthy and fed and happy, than when she slept beside Peeta in the arena, starved, cold, covered in mud, sweat, and blood. It must be different.

After all, she wants to fuck Gale.

He feels guilty as soon as he viciously thinks it, but he refuses to acknowledge that, too.

His mother invites a girl over for dinner, and Peeta doesn't know whether or not to laugh when he sees the girl is Flora Margrey, a nervous smile on her face as she rises from her seat to greet him.

She looks a little different, hair curled and shorter, her face a little thinner, her dress a little more sophisticated. He smiles at her, and he makes small talk with her and his brothers and his watchful mother. He offers to walk her home after dinner, because, well, it is on the way to his empty house.

Her fingers slip automatically into his as they walk, and she chatters about the weather and her friends and the kitten her brother bought her and the joke her father told her just yesterday. It makes him feel old and broken to be suddenly thrust into the past, like nothing changed at all.

She slows as they near her house, and he knows what she wants.

He turns a little, walks her back towards the same wall where they shared their first kiss, and she giggles, touches her hands to his shoulders, tilts her face expectantly to his. He kisses her. They're both better at this now, and he easily licks his way into her mouth, his hands running up and down her sides, his fingers just barely brushing the curve of her breasts under her soft cotton dress.

He presses a little closer to her, and the seam of his artificial leg twinges painfully at the awkward angle, but he doesn't care. He moves his mouth to her throat, and her hand starts to undo his belt buckle. It surprises him, despite everything, and he moves his hand to her wrist, starts to stop her.

He doesn't intend to date her in any capacity, not like she wants.

"Let me," she says, and her hand dips into his trousers, wraps around him. He grunts a little, his forehead pressing against the cold brick beside her temple, and she giggles. Always giggles.

And maybe it wouldn't be so bad to date Flora, to kiss her, to let her jerk him off, to listen to her chatter all day. It's not like she expects him to chatter back. But that's just it. He doesn't want to listen to her chatter. His heart stutters a little with how much he misses Katniss, and caught unawares he can't remind himself to hate her, not quickly enough to ignore that he just wants to talk to her.

He pulls Flora's hand out from his pants, and she starts to protest, says she really doesn't mind. He kisses her cheek, says he knows, and buttons his pants. "Come on. It's late." He walks her home.

Friends. He can be her friend.

He tries not to think off her when he jerks off, repeats to himself that he plans to be her friend, and he pictures faceless girls with heavy, tanned breasts and plump lips and warm pliant flesh, pictures that don't mean much but help him finish the job easily enough.

It isn't his fault that Katniss always manages to worm her way into his mind, half a smile on her face, her lips thin and chapped and cold when she kisses him, because that is all he knows, and he isn't supposed to imagine what her breasts look like or how her soft her dark hair would feel against his thighs, but he still does, endlessly, and he feels yet again as if he is trapped in the past.

Peeta Mellark, in love with an obvious, unattainable Katniss Everdeen.

But this isn't the past. He actually knows her now, really knows her. They can be friends.

If he pulls his head out of his ass, they can be friends.

He wants to be her friend. She is a survivor. He knew that from the start. He loved that about her, and maybe he still loves that about her. He can't fault her for it. He was the one that let himself believe it was real when all she did was try to survive to return to the people she really loved.

She still found him. She still nursed him back to health. She still cared about him, even if it wasn't the way he wanted, even if it wasn't the way she feels about Gale, even if it wasn't the way he feels.

They fall into the snow when she jumps him with a kiss, and he can feel how nervous she is; it strums through her body. He tries to hold her steady, to kiss away the tension, and it works. He can feel her smile against his lips. They'll be friends, and he'll protect her from Snow, and that's it.

She isn't uncomfortable when he intertwines their hands. Friends can hold hands, after all.

He likes her hands. Her fingers are thin and tough just like the rest of her, and he likes how they are perpetually cold, so a cold hand in his is always a small reminder that she is right beside him.

They don't kiss when the cameras aren't on, but she never needs an excuse to reach for his hand.

The first time he wakes up hard with Katniss right beside him in bed, he freezes. She is still asleep.

A small miracle, he thinks. He gently pulls away from her, and he refuses to think about the way her soft hair brushes against his arm, how she smells clean and sweet and wonderful, the feel of her bare calf against his leg. He can't think about all of that, because she can't wake up to this. He wills himself to think of something else, to think of the Games, of all the horrors, and it works.

It's twisted, but it works.

Katniss turns to face him, and her eyes are open. She wasn't asleep. Fuck.

But she doesn't say something about it, and her eyes are guilty, he realises, guilty the way they always are when he says something that she deems too sweet, when he acts on his feelings for her in any way and he can almost hear her desperate cry for him to stop it. He almost laughs.

She feels guilty that she made him hard. He wants to kiss her for that, for how very Katniss it is, for the innocence of it all, however ridiculous and silly. He just wants to kiss her. He doesn't.

All the other victors tease Katniss, and he can't hide his amusement. She must understand.

But she doesn't. She bites his head off, and she won't talk to him, and he is at a loss, to be honest.

It isn't a weakness that she is so innocent in that last, small way. A part of him is so glad for that, glad that despite everything, despite all the death and all the pain and just everything, a piece of Katniss is still innocent. He knows now that she hasn't had sex with Gale, but that isn't what matters. He suspects she will, after Peeta makes sure she wins the Games, but it'll be on her terms.

Married. A family. Happy. Always pure in a way she probably won't ever understand. Alive.

And that's what matters.

It's like the last Games. Just one kiss, a kiss to live for and to die by. Just one kiss, that's all he needs. She kisses him to shut him up, just like last year, but this is a real kiss. His blood runs hot with the knowledge. He knows her lips so well, knows a fake kiss from Katniss like he knows how to breathe, and this is so achingly real as her hands curl into his hair and she kisses him.

Her lips are wet and unpractised; she doesn't know how to kiss for real.

She pulls him closer, her breasts flush against his chest, and her mouth opens a little wider.

The crash of lightening ends the kiss, and he hasn't ever hated fake lightening so much.

He fights so hard to hold onto that last kiss. His memories distort inside his own mind. They twist and turn, tortured, they bleed and bruise, broken, and they finally shatter, lost, and he starts to forget himself. He forgets what he knows, what he believes, what he wants. He forgets the world.

But, oh, he tries so hard to fight it. They can beat his body, they can electrocute him, they can tear screams from his throat until he coughs up blood, but if can just keep his own battered mind —

He can't. They steal it away. He grips the last few real shards he has left with all his might, but they peel back his fingers and they take those shards one by one, until all that's left is the kiss. He remembers how it was real, how she tasted and smelled and felt, how he realised that she must love him in her own way, must love him somehow, even if she doesn't understand it. He clings to that.

The day that final shard is taken, the kiss stolen, shattered on the ground, forgotten, the battle ends.

He isn't Peeta Mellark. He is just the boy who hates Katniss Everdeen. And he will kill her.

No matter how many times he tells himself it's just her manipulation, he still has feelings for her.

It makes him hate her more, because she has warped him so much that he can't not love her, and all he wants is another chance to strangle her, but they won't let him. They tell him he loves her, tell him the Capitol has warped his mind, not Katniss, tell him they just want to help him be himself.

He starts to dream about her. And they're happy dreams. A sun sets as she is curled against him, and she tells him to shut up and eat his pears. He doesn't have competition anywhere because he carries her down the stairs so she can have a change of scenery while on best rest, and her smile is so much prettier than her scowl, but he loves it all, the smile, the scowl, everything that is Katniss.

The dreams become nightmares, or maybe he just wakes up and reality is a nightmare.

If he could just kill her, it would all end.

He wouldn't dream about her kisses, wouldn't want to trace her collarbone with his tongue, wouldn't imagine the softness of her hair, wouldn't want to make her blush at a cheeky comment, if he could just kill her, could finally put to rest the anger in his head, and he wouldn't dream about —

Fuck. He hates her for this. He hates her. Fuck.

He finds his mind at last, but hers is lost.

And he still doesn't really know who he is, so many memories that shaped him still lost, but he knows that Katniss can help him, can remind him who is. She is the only person left who really knows him, who maybe even loves him. But she can't really help him when she can't help herself.

The sight of her makes his heart curl in a painful way, but he already feels more like himself. It shouldn't be that way; a dirty mane of matted hair down her back shouldn't make him feel like a person; her pasty patchwork skin, stretched over bones that protrude sharply, shouldn't make him feel like himself. But at the sight of her broken body, a fierce protective wave surges up in him, and he can remember the taste of desperation as he burned bread for her, can remember his worry over her in the cave, her head badly bandaged, can remember that he will do anything to keep her alive.

If he knows nothing else, he knows that Peeta Mellark is the boy who loves Katniss Everdeen.

It's a pitiful way to describe himself, but it's all he has, and he knows that he is all she has, too.

He wakes up to find her eyes on his face, and he doesn't really know how to react.

The room is dark, the wind that ruffles the curtains cold, but enough moonlight shines for him to see the lines of her face, so close to his he can feel her sleep sour breath warm against his lips.

And she smiles as her hand reaches out to touch his face, to let the tips of her fingers ghost against the burn scars that just peak up from his neck to curl around his jaw. The intimacy of it makes his breath catch, and he wonders if this is a dream. They share a bed, and they have since the very first week he returned, but they don't talk much, and they certainly don't kiss or caress each other.

Her fingers are so wonderfully cold as they trace the curve under his eye, and he lets his eye flicker shut when her thumb softly brushes along his eyelashes. She shifts a little, her legs tangled with his, and she kisses the corner of his lip as soft as a whisper. He shudders a little, afraid to breathe.

She kisses him, bolder. Her hand cups his face now, her cold fingers sliding into the hair that brushes his ear, and his own hand slides up to rest on the warm skin of her hip. Another soft kiss.

And she snuggles closer to him so that her head is on his chest, right over his heartbeat.

It takes him a long time to fall back asleep.

The kisses become constant. They never talk about it, but there isn't much say.

He tries to control himself, knows that these kisses are only a kind of comfort to her.

But with her arms wrapped around him, her mouth open under his, warm and wet, kissing him, he just can't control himself. The first time he doesn't pull back soon enough, he knows she can feel it.

He waits to see the guilt bloom in her eyes, but it doesn't. He doesn't know what does, but it isn't guilt, and she shifts her leg up over his, trapping his erection against her belly, and he muffles a groan into the skin of her throat. He presses kisses along her neck, nuzzles his nose against the hollow of her throat, and her hands are under his shirt, so cold yet burning a hot trail in their wake.

He is on top of her, really, his hands buried in her hair, and he trails kisses down to the tops of her breasts, and his hand slides down over the slope of her shoulder to toy with the strap of her night gown. He waits, breathing hotly against her. She arches against him, letting his face slide down, and he tears down her night gown and kisses her breast, licks, sucks, his mind hazy, barely aware of her laboured breath, how her hands are now curled into fists in his hair. His other hand finds her other breast, easily sliding under her nightgown to cup the bare flesh. She lets out a throaty moan.

He rocks against her a little, trying to find some kind of relief, unsure this isn't just a dream, and he doesn't mean for it to happen, he really doesn't, but her night gown is suddenly torn down to her stomach and shoved up to her waist, and she kisses him wetly, whimpering and whispering nonsense to him, her hands grappling along his arms and his back and his neck, slick with sweat.

And he finally has half a mind to stop, to realise what is about to happen, but her hands are on his waist, tugging down his sleep pants. Before he can ask her if this is really what she wants, she surges up, always taking charge, always fierce and brave and determined, and he thrusts into her.

Her nails dig into his arms, and all he can think is that this is too much, is warm and wet and tight, clenching and unclenching around him, and he can't remember what it must have been like before, the handful of times he has done this; it doesn't matter. This is all that matters, all that exists, all that he ever wants to know or to feel, and his whole body strums with the need to move, wants more.

But he finds her eyes, half-lidded, dark, and she presses a shaky kiss to his shoulder.

"What — what happens now?" she asks. "Is that all?"

His heart flops a little in his chest.

"No," he breathes. "I'm gonna move," he says. "Just pull out, and — and push back in. If I start to hurt you —" He shifts his hand a little to cup her face, and she nods, kissing the palm of his hand.

His other hand squeezes her bare hip, and he pulls out. Her body almost seems to follow him, but he slides back in, and he knows it won't last long. He pants against her shoulder, and his hand finds her breast, thumb rubbing circles around her nipple until she whimpers a little. He kisses her, or he tries to, anyway, but he can't really focus, and he just can't wait, can't keep up this slow act.

He pulls out and thrusts back in as gently as he can. "Katniss," he says, his voice strangled.

And she knows. She just knows. Her lips are against his ear. "Let go, sweetheart."

The endearment shoots down his spine, and she kisses his ear as he snaps his hips and hikes her leg up a little. It doesn't take much longer, his movements quicker and deeper, and he continues to thrust into her, slowly, lazier, as he finishes and finally collapses against her, heart hot in his chest.

Her hands pet his hair, making him sleepy, the affection in it all nearly too much for him to handle, and he almost wants to cry. He can't look at her face when he finally asks her if she loves him. He keeps his face buried against the pillow, her flushed, sweaty cheek pressed against his.

But it's real.

He fingers her a few minutes later, unsure what to do, old advice from his dead brothers only so much help.

She is shy, closing her eyes, but he kisses her lightly and tells her to look at him, and she does. He rewards her with a small smile. He takes a breast in one hand, squeezes, and he curls a finger of his other hand inside her, and she arches against his hand, says his name like a kind of plea, breathless.

As she comes, her whole body sinking into the mattress, boneless in the aftermath, he finally pulls off her nightgown, gently sliding it down her legs. He kisses the faded pink scars that start at her knee, and he follows the scars up to her thigh, across her stomach, curling against her breast, up to her shoulder, and she turns to him to meet his kiss when he finally reaches her lips.

"It was always going to be you," she says softly, fondly, her hand flat against his heart.

It takes a moment for his muddled mind to understand. He kisses her as soon as he does, and she laughs into his mouth, the sound so happy. He tugs on a lock of her dark hair, just because he can.

The first time he makes her come with his mouth, they're on the back porch.

It's hot out, so unbearably hot, the humidity thick enough to make even his eyes feel heavy under it, and the air conditioning is broken, just like most of the house, now that no one in the Capitol cares.

He is spread out on the cool wood floor, trying to will himself to feel cooler, and he tells Katniss he is too hot to do anything today, to bake, to paint, to answer any letters. Katniss asks, teasing, if he is really too hot to do absolutely anything, and he props himself up on his elbow to look at her.

She sits sprawled in the white wicker chair, her splayed legs so unladylike that Effie would have a fit if she could see it. Her sweaty hair is pinned up, and her skin is pink and shines with sweat.

It makes his mouth water, the sight of her.

And he crawls towards her, making her laugh loudly at him before he kisses her ankle.

"Peeta," she says, a half-hearted reprimand. He kisses his way up her calf. "If Haymitch walks into his backyard," she starts, but her legs spread a little wider, hitching her dress up. "Too hot, huh?"

The skin along the inside of her thigh is so soft, and he licks a bead of sweat that curls down across her skin before his fingers find the edge of her underwear. The sun burns the back of his neck, but he makes her fall apart on his tongue, and he hasn't ever loved hot weather more.

Haymitch comes by for lunch half an hour later, a fan under his arm, and Katniss eagerly snares it from him. Haymitch frowns at her, and his eyes dart to Peeta. "It smells like sex." He scowls.

Peeta grins wolfishly, Haymitch stomps into the house, muttering under his breath, and Katniss flushes still pinker, laughing into her hands as Peeta presses another affectionate kiss to her ankle.

She comes home with a rabbit for dinner, and she greets him with a smile, sets the rabbit in the pot, and starts washing her hands, splashing a little water on her face. He asks about her day, and she answers that it was fine as she shrugs off her coat and pulls off her shoes. She looks happy, her face still flushed pink from the cold, her hair shining with the snow that melts into her braid.

He likes these easy moments, when she returns from the woods and he bakes bread and they catch up; they could do this every day, he knows, and he wouldn't ever tire of it, of their routine, of them.

She comes to stand behind him and wraps her arms around his waist, her chin on his shoulder.

Her fingers lazily thread through the belt loops of his trousers, and she smells like the woods.

"I traded for a little honey, too," she says. "Mrs. Gulliver makes the best honey in the District."

He nods. She does, and he knows Katniss prefers to make trades around town for goods rather than send to the Capitol for them. He wouldn't have it any other way either. "It'll be perfect with the poppy seed loaf I have in the oven," he tells her, and she leans up a little to kiss his cheek, her nose cold against his ear. As she turns away, telling him she left a rabbit with Haymitch, he realises.

The way she hugged him from behind, close, familiar, a kiss for no reason — she doesn't do that.

At least, she didn't. He looks over the counter to where she sits at the kitchen table, her blue cotton shirt slipping a little to show the skin of her tanned shoulder, her hand waving dramatically in the air as she talks, and he almost wants to ask her if this is real or not real. But it is. He knows it is.

He smiles, and he tunes in to her talk of what Thom said at the market, and this is their life. Real.

"If I asked you to marry me, would you?"

He just sort of says it, and he doesn't mean to, but he can't take it back. They're at the lake, her feet in the water, her dark hair warm from the sun as she uses his stomach for a pillow. She shifts at the words, turning to look at him, her chin propped up on his rib cage, her eyes a little sheepish.

"I sort of thought we already were married," she admits.

It surprises him. "I guess we kind of are." They live together, and they have for over a year, and it isn't like he ever intends to be with anyone else; the very idea is completely unfathomable, in fact.

Katniss sits up a little, reaching forward to brush his wet hair from his forehead.

"But you want a toasting," she says, and it's a question.

He nods. "I know it's kind of stupid. Who would even show up to our toasting? I don't know. I just thought it'd be nice, or something." He shrugs. She stares at him for a moment, and she runs her hands along his ribs, down to his hip, and she pulls up his swim shorts so that she can see the seam where his artificial leg is attached. She leans down to kiss the spot before she smiles at him.

"It's not stupid. Let's do it."

And people do show up.

Thom looks healthy and happy when he arrives with his two brothers, and Greasy Sae brings her granddaughter. The two boys that Peeta hired to help out at the bakery both attend, too, bringing with them girls with the familiar dark hair and dark eyes of the Seam, and Delly is there, too, having just returned to District 12 a week before, and she brings a solider from District 13 with her, a lanky man that stands over six feet, his brown hair cropped short but his smile wide.

Peeta definitely doesn't expect Rory and Posy to come, and he doesn't even know how they know, but Katniss blinks back tears as she hugs them. A few minutes before the toasting, she picks a primrose from the yard and asks if Rory would hold it during the toasting. He nods quietly, and he apologises for Gale, who just couldn't take the time off. Peeta knows that someday Katniss will want to face all of that, will finally admit that she misses her best friend, but today isn't that day.

Annie arrives on the morning train, a pudgy baby with a tuft of fuzzy red hair in her arms, Johanna right beside her. Annie cries endlessly as she hugs and kisses Katniss and Peeta two dozen times.

Johanna rolls her eyes, but she is the first person to say the name Mrs. Mellark.

Effie makes a spectacle of herself when she runs into the house at the last minute, her purple hair wind swept, one of her heels broken. "I'm here! I'm here! You can start!" Peeta laughs so hard he starts to tear up, because Effie Trinket is finally late to something, and it's what matters most.

But she still actually came all the way to District 12, and she didn't bring a single camera with her.

It's Haymitch, sober and dressed in a suit jacket, that says something afterward, while everyone smiles and Peeta can't take his eyes off Katniss. He raises his glass. "To my stupid kids!" It makes the small collection of people laugh, but Peeta sees the way Katniss softens, and it's enough.

The best part of it all is still once all their guests have left, though, and they're alone, and he can't stop saying it, over and over again, repeating it into her mouth and into her hair and into her breasts, "you're my wife, Katniss, my wife, Katniss, you're my wife," and she only laughs softly.

But as she moves over him, her hands steadied on his chest, her dark hair falling around her shoulders, she whispers the words back, her eyes intent on his. "You're my husband, Peeta."

He comes inside her at the words.

Katniss never makes any noise when she walks, but he knows she must be awake.

He puts another pan in the oven and takes the stairs two at a time to check on her; he really hopes today isn't one of those days, when she lies in bed listlessly, unable to acknowledge him or to face the world, not even willing to get out of bed to eat let alone to hunt and to live her life.

It isn't. She is awake, standing in the bathroom, and she isn't wearing a stitch of clothing.

His eyes sweep over the changes in her body that he knows from touch, from her hips, wider than he realised, over the slightest swell of her stomach, to her fuller breasts, up to her rounder face. He still can't really believe that this is real, that Katniss finally agreed after years, that she is pregnant.

She turns a little to the side, looking at herself in the mirror, and her hands run over her stomach.

Her expression is critical, and he doesn't like that.

He walks over to her, and she doesn't acknowledge him as he comes to stand behind her. He rests his hands on her hips and smiles at her in the mirror. She doesn't smile back. He knows she doesn't like pregnancy, and he feels bad. He moves his hands over her stomach, rests on the baby bump.

"I feel like this isn't my body," she whispers. "Not even my scars are my own."

Her skin is a map of scars, some pink and smooth, others whites and waxy, but it hasn't ever really bothered her, and all he can think at the sight of every scar on her body, scars he knows as well as her, is that she is alive, that she survived, that she healed. The pregnancy has distorted them all.

"They're still yours," he tells her.

She leans back against him, and he slides his hands up to cup her breasts.

"They're too heavy," she says. She scowls a little at him in the mirror. "But you like them."

He chuckles. "I do. But I've liked your breasts since we were thirteen, so that's nothing new."

She wrinkles her nose at him, finally tilting her head up to look him in the eye rather than in the mirror, and he leans down to bop her nose with his. "You look beautiful," he murmurs, and they both look back at the mirror. She tilts her head at her reflection, clearly unconvinced.

"To you," she says, petulant.

"Always," he replies.

The first time his daughter says the word sex, Peeta chokes on a pear.

She only looks at him with her big blue eyes, waiting, expectant. And he looks wildly at Katniss, but she just stares at him expectantly, too, amusement just peeking out from the corner of her lips.

"It's for married people," he finally says, "to make babies." There. That isn't so bad.

Dani seems to consider her answer. She takes a bite of her pear, thoughtful. "Okay," she says. He thinks that might be it, and he sinks into his seat, reaching for his water. "But what is sex?" Katniss snorts, clapping a hand over her face too late to hide it, but Dani only waits for an answer.

"If two people love each other in a special way," Peeta starts carefully, "they marry, and sex is a special kind of kiss. For married people. Who love each other. And are married. And old." He thinks that settles it. Katniss nods firmly at him, mockery in the gesture. He shoots her a stink eye.

Again, it's quiet for a moment. Dani still looks thoughtful. Peeta watches her, worried.

"I told Trick that I would marry him if I couldn't marry Finnick," Dani says, and Peeta knows this can't be good, and he starts to shake his head, but she continues, "so will Trick and I have sex?"

"No!" Peeta cries, horrified, and Katniss can't hold back. She starts to laugh, burying her face in her hands, and Huck sees her laughter and starts to giggle, too, looking happily at his mama.

This is ridiculous. His daughter is six. Who told her about sex? "What's so funny?" Dani demands.

He is at a loss for words, but Katniss wipes tears of laughter from her eyes as she stands from the table, and she comes around to kneel in front of Dani. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. It isn't funny. I just thought of that joke your papa told yesterday." She touches Dani on the knee, her eyes soft.

Dani nods, accepts the excuse, and waits.

"I know you have lots of questions about sex," Katniss continues, "but the truth is that you can't really understand it until you're older. But I'll tell you this — it is very special, and you should only think about sex when you find somebody that you love as much as I love your papa, okay?"

"And that's a whole lot, right?" Dani asks.

"Yes," Katniss says, and she glances at Peeta, "that's a whole lot." Dani is finally satisfied.

Peeta thinks randomly of Joel Baxter. He smiles to himself.


And the water is rising quick,
And for years I was scared of it.
We can't be sure when it will subside.
So I won't leave your side,.
No, I can't leave your side.,

Hey now, this is my desire,
Consume me like a fire.
'Cause I just want something beautiful,
To touch me, I know that I'm in reach.
'Cause I am down on my knees.
I'm waiting for something beautiful.