"War is not an adventure. It is a disease."
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery
"War is not its own end, except in some catastrophic slide into absolute damnation. It's peace that's wanted. Some better peace than the one you started with."
-Lois McMaster Bujold
It was raining in the woods. Storms always made it more difficult to track my prey. Footprints were erased when the trails were flooded out. Most sane living things went deep into hiding when the weather was like this.
But I wasn't tracking anything sane. He had proved that time and time again. I stood with my back pressed up against a tree, peering around to see the clearing before me. He was here. I knew everything about his tactics. His skills. His mind. We were so connected at this point it was as though I could feel him breathing through my own lungs.
I tried to tell myself that what I was doing was right. That if I really loved him, I would kill him. That it was like putting a rabid dog out of its misery.
And most importantly, I reminded myself that if I didn't kill him, the Capitol would. And it would be slow. Torturous. Painful. And I couldn't bear the thought of putting him through that again.
No. This ended today. Right now.
My hand tensed on my bow when I heard his footsteps, my other hand automatically going to the quiver of arrows on my back, branches crunching under his heavy footfalls as he lurked around the edge of the clearing on the other side.
"What, no cameras?" I heard his voice, strong and clear even over the worsening storm, and my heart twisted with misery. He was laughing. Mocking the situation. He didn't understand. "The star-crossed tributes are finally coming to death blows. But I guess seeing me kill you in cold blood would ruin the fantasy, wouldn't it? You're the death dealer. The Girl on Fire. The Mockingjay. And I'm just your bitch, right?"
"Stop." My voice breaks with misery as I step out from behind the tree, facing him at last. "Don't say that."
"Well, it's true, isn't it? That's the role I'm supposed to play, right?" Peeta laughed humorlessly, unsheathing a knife from a holster at his side and almost lazily examining it. "That's why Snow tortured me. Because he knew I'd break. He knew I was the weak one. And he knew it would hurt you."
I pressed my lips together, wanting to go to him so badly it hurt. He was having one of his rare moments of clarity, and moments like these always gave me false hope. Like maybe this time it would stick.
"So." Peeta crossed his arms over his chest. "Let's get this over with."
I nodded, tears already slipping down my cheeks, mixing in with the rain, as I pulled out an arrow and lined up my shot.
"Wait." Peeta held up his hand. "Not like I'm one of your fucking squirrels. If you're going to kill me, do it like you mean it. No bow and arrow. Up close and personal. Hand-to-hand combat."
"No." I shook my head.
"What's wrong, Kat? Scared you'll lose?" He sneered.
I felt my blood boiling at his words. If he only knew all that I'd gone through trying to protect him. Trying to convince everyone else that he was worth saving. But it had all been for nothing. He was too far gone. Everyone had been right. And now he had the audacity to laugh in my face, after everything I'd done for him?
I threw my bow to the ground, stripping my quiver off my shoulders and casting it aside as well. Peeta just watched me walking towards him for a moment before forcefully sticking his knife in a tree, and walking forward to meet me halfway.
We stopped in the middle of the clearing, face to face, rain dripping off our noses and chins as we stared each other down. Peeta held out his hand. "Don't hold back."
I shook it hard. "I never do."
We started circling each other, Peeta raising his fists to protect his face, my entire body tensed with anticipation. He took the first swing, but I dodged it, crouching down and swinging my leg in a circular motion to sweep his legs out from under him. He recovered quickly, and when we both got to our feet, the fight became more vicious. We'd both had little training in close-range fighting, but when two people had this much hurt and anger between them, training seemed unnecessary. Any time it seemed like one of us was getting the upper hand, the tides would turn. When he had me pinned from behind, I swung back viciously and broke his nose with my elbow. When I had him on the ground with my forearm pressed into his neck, Peeta lifted me off of him with sheer strength, grunting with exertion as he threw me to the ground beside him. We didn't say a word, moving like animals, the only sounds our cries and growls as we crashed into each other, again and again.
As time passed, it became clear that exhaustion was setting in for us both. The rain had soaked through our clothes entirely, making our movements heavy and sluggish. My muscles were starting to quiver with overuse, and I suspected even Peeta's stronger build was wearing out. But we couldn't stop now that we'd started. There was no walking away from this.
Peeta shoved me backwards, pinning me against a tree, his hands closing around my throat as I clutched his shoulders, trying to push him off. His eyes were a darker blue than usual, full of rage. I had lost him fully now. There was no trace of him left.
His grip tightened, and my head started to swim from lack of oxygen, my hands dropping back to my sides. Peeta leaned in closer, his face bloody and ravaged, our foreheads almost touching, our positioning bizarrely similar to lovers if his hands hadn't been around my throat.
I kept my eyes on his as I reached behind my back, my hand closing around a knife I had kept hidden in case it came to this. This was it. The killing blow. And if I didn't do it quickly, I would be the one dead on the ground.
But just as I withdrew the knife, drawing back to prepare to plunge it into his stomach, the strangest thing happened. He released me, the madness draining out of his eyes like a poisonous liquid being sucked out of his body. Peeta shook his head miserably, his eyes full of tears. "I…I can't."
I opened my mouth to speak, but suddenly, he was kissing me, taking my face in his hands, the bark of the tree rough against my hands as I stumbled back against it. The knife fell out of my hand, clattering uselessly onto the ground as I regained my balance and wrapped my arms around his neck, kissing him back, fury standing no chance against passion as we started pulling at each other's clothes, breathing hard into each other's mouths as our bodies started pulsing with an entirely different kind of energy.
When we finally had enough clothes out of the way, I wrapped my leg around his waist, gripping a tree branch above our heads for balance, my breath catching in my throat when I finally felt him thrust inside me, my hand tangling in his blond hair as his head fell against my shoulder, his other arm wrapped around my waist as I started to move rhythmically against him. He groaned out words against the skin of my neck, saying things someone as nice and well mannered as Peeta should never say, about me, about my body, things that I never thought I would love hearing. Maybe it was the darker side of him talking, maybe it was the madness making him act like this, but I didn't care. My whole body flooded with heat, feeling him, feeling this, down to my bones, into my soul—
And suddenly I woke up, the unpleasant sound of my alarm blaring in my ears. I turned off the alarm and sat up in bed, embarrassed to find myself twisted up in sweaty sheets like a horny teenager.
This was ridiculous. I wasn't a teenager anymore, and even when I had been, I hadn't had time for hormones. Maybe once you have something, it becomes harder to live without. I hadn't known what I was missing back then, so sex had held little to no interest for me. Now I knew what I was missing, and Peeta had been out of town for two weeks, and I felt like I was going crazy. Again. Peeta had told me once that I was "a very physical being" and I'd always wondered what he meant until now. It wasn't that I was known for being extremely physically affectionate, but whenever more than a few days passed without having sex with my husband, I found it incredibly difficult to feel close to him, or even loved by him at all. I started questioning everything—whether or not he loved me, whether or not I was good enough—everything. I couldn't even remember the last time we'd spent more than a night apart, and his absence had taken a much harder toll on me than I would ever admit to anyone.
So I had a sex dream about my husband. Big deal. Such was my right. But why was I fantasizing about what he had been like during the worst time in our lives, when Peeta was inflicted with a madness I had spent thirteen years pulling him back from? Why in the hell would I want to go back to that?
I ran a hand through my long, dark hair, getting up and taking a freezing cold shower to try and shock myself back to reality. Afterwards, I got dressed in a green button-up shirt and khaki pants, brushing out my hair to braid it but stopping in surprise when I heard someone banging around in the kitchen.
Peeta had called to say he'd be home this afternoon, and it was only nine in the morning. Was he already here? I hurried down the stairs, my face falling with disappointment when I saw who it really was.
"You could knock, you know." I sighed.
Haymitch looked up with a smile from where he was frying bacon at the stove. "Oh. Look. The man of the house."
"Shut up." I grinned, sitting down at the kitchen table. "Seriously. What are you doing here?"
"I know it's your boy's big homecoming day. Thought I'd make you breakfast. Figured you'd need your strength for later." Haymitch raised his eyebrows at me.
I wrinkled my nose. "Please stop talking."
"When are you two having kids, anyway?" Haymitch flipped the bacon expertly. "It feels like you've been married forever."
"Eight years is not forever." I rubbed my forehead wearily. "Did Peeta put you up to this?"
"Asking me about having kids."
"No. Geez, kid, don't be so paranoid. We're not like plotting things behind your back."
"Oh, yeah. Because that would just be unheard of."
"Okay, okay." Haymitch laughed. "Not anymore."
I leaned back in my chair. "I'll make you a deal. I'll have kids when you marry your girlfriend."
Haymitch's entire face turned red. "She…Quinn and I…we understand each other. She gets that I'm not the marrying kind."
"Well, maybe I'm not the mothering kind." I pointed out.
"Then maybe you shouldn't have gotten married at all. Or at least, not to the guy who's wanted a family replacement ever since his got completely incinerated." Haymitch nodded his head towards a picture of Peeta and me on our wedding day framed on the wall.
There was a long, awkward silence between us. Haymitch had just said everything I feared to be true. Peeta should have married someone who wanted the same things he wanted. After he'd come home a war hero, I know thousands of girls would have been more than happy to give him a veritable army of adorable, blond, blue-eyed children. But he'd married me. And I still had no clue why.
I cleared my throat. "Can we talk about something else, please?"
"Yeah, sure." Haymitch handed over a plate of bacon and eggs to me. "I know Peeta's been making the charity rounds at the schools, but I think we should all make an appearance this weekend."
Haymitch was talking about the annual charity dinner the three of us hosted for the families of the victims of the war. This was the first year the dinner was going to be held in the Capitol, and just thinking about going back there made me break out in a cold sweat. Peeta had been asked to give a speech commemorating the anniversary of the end of the war at local schools in all twelve districts in the weeks prior to the dinner, but had insisted I didn't need to join him. He knew I hated public speaking, and that I became very restless and irritable when I was away from home too long. It was one of the strange aftereffects of everything we had been through—I felt like my throat was closing up any time I left the district we had spent so many years rebuilding, like if I was gone too long, it would be burning and destroyed again when we returned.
"We'll be there. Of course."
"Good. I guess I'll have to dust off my tux." Haymitch grinned, taking a bite of bacon as he sat down beside me. "I'm sorry, kid. I didn't mean to bust your balls about the kid thing. It's none of my business. I'll keep my big mouth shut from now on, I swear."
"It's fine." I shrugged. "Hardly the worst I've heard."
"From your mom?"
"And everyone else we meet."
"Well, you're celebrities. Of course people are interested. It's just part of the deal."
"I know, I know." I sighed. "I guess I should clean this place up before Peeta gets back. He always keeps everything so spotless."
Haymitch looked at me for a moment, an odd expression on his face. He reached out, his hand resting on my shoulder. "He's not going anywhere, kid. He loves you."
I shrugged out of his grasp, speaking with a tone of cold finality. "Thanks for the breakfast."
"Kat, come on."
"We'll come see you and Quinn tomorrow, all right?" I couldn't talk to him about my marriage. Haymitch knew us both way too well. It always made me nervous. And I'd always secretly suspected that he thought Peeta could have done better than me. I secretly suspected everyone thought that. Everyone loved Peeta. Kids. Adults. Fans. Customers at his bakery. No one ever seemed to really know what to do with me, his strange, sullen wife.
I belonged in the middle of a revolution. I was good with war. I had no clue what to do with peace.
There was smoke coming out of our chimney when I returned home later that evening. I cringed inwardly—Peeta had beaten me home. I don't ever wear a watch. Usually I just watched the sun's movement, but I must have lost track of time while I was hunting, and it was nearly dinnertime. Peeta had come home to an empty house after a two-week absence. I tried not to picture him coming home, heavy-laden with luggage, calling out to me and receiving no answer.
I hung up my kills outside to butcher for dinner, wiping off my hands on my pants and briefly checking my reflection in one of the back windows before quickly looking away. Yikes. I imagined that a good wife would greet her husband wearing a freshly ironed dress and high heels, hair curled and make-up done, waiting in the kitchen with a delicious dinner already prepared. But no. Peeta came home to me, hair coming out of my braid, nose red from the freezing cold weather, and clothes loose-fitting and covered with dirt. Very sexy, I thought to myself with a sigh, thinking I had no business being married if I was this bad at it.
I let myself in the back door, not sure how to greet him. Should I apologize for being late? Had he been worried about where I was? I hadn't left a note or anything.
"Kat?" I heard his voice when I closed the back door behind me, and then his footsteps thundering down the stairs.
"Down here." I called back unnecessarily, walking towards the entryway to see that Peeta had now reached the bottom of the stairs, beaming at me. I couldn't help smiling back, suddenly forgetting everything I had been worrying about only seconds before. Peeta had that effect on people—it was very hard to be unhappy in his presence. "Hey, stranger," he said, "you miss me?
"Maybe a little." I grinned, stepping forward and hugging him tightly, Peeta wrapping his arms around me immediately. I breathed him in for a moment. He felt the same, but smelled different—like the kind of cologne I imagined a very rich man wearing. He must have been using the fancy hotel soap and bath products while he traveled.
He pulled back slightly after a moment, his hand on my cheek as he looked me over closely, almost hungrily. "Well, I sure as hell missed you."
I licked my lips, feeling a little nervous under such scrutiny. "I'm sorry, I look awful—I was just—"
"Hunting. I know." He cut me off with a smile. "Believe it or not, I have learned a little about you after thirteen years."
"Has it really been that long?" I shook my head. "We're getting old."
"I think we may have a few good years left." Peeta laughed, leaning in and finally kissing me. I closed my eyes at the blissfully familiar, steady feeling of his mouth against mine, my hands sliding into his soft blond hair when he started to kiss my neck, backing me up against the railing of the staircase. When he started unbuttoning my shirt, I smiled, speaking into his ear. "You don't waste any time, do you?"
"It's been two weeks. Do you really want to waste any more time?" Peeta mumbled against my skin.
"Good point." I laughed, pulling his face back up to mine to kiss him deeply. When we parted, I leaned my forehead against his, both of us breathing hard when I spoke again. "Let's go take a shower. Before dinner."
"Oh, fine, twist my arm." Peeta laughed, stripping off my shirt as I undid his pants, making our way up the stairs rather slowly as we both kept getting distracted by the beginnings of a long-awaited reunion. We left quite an impressive trail of clothes behind, underwear and socks coming off last, right outside of the bathroom door, Peeta turning on the hot water and kicking the door closed behind us as steam began to fill the air.
Later that night, I found myself restless and wide-awake while Peeta was passed out asleep beside me. Apparently I'd worn him out in my efforts to prove I wasn't completely worthless as a wife. Poor guy, I thought with a small smile, stretching my arms over my head. I had found that I never felt tired after we'd had really good sex. Usually orgasms just made me want to go kill things. I didn't really want to examine what that said about me.
Once I was absolutely sure he was asleep, I climbed out of bed, pulling on my underwear and sports bra, relieved to see his bare chest rising and falling with a peaceful sleep. I was grateful for every night that passed without us being tormented by nightmares. In the beginning of our life together after the war, more often than not one or both of us would wake up in a cold sweat, holding on to each other for dear life, Peeta stroking my hair and reminding me that we were safe now, trying to comfort me even when he was close to tears himself.
Those days had passed for the most part, and now the nightmares had become a rare occurrence for us both. Now Peeta usually slept through the night, whereas I had found the best coping mechanism for me was just to not sleep much at all. I pulled on a warm pair of socks over my bare feet, touching Peeta's cheek and feeling such a strong surge of affection for my husband that it still caught me off guard, even after all these yeares. I pulled the heavy quilt up over his bare chest, covering him up protectively. The house was freezing cold but still Peeta had fallen asleep wearing nothing at all. I could never fall asleep naked. It made me feel vulnerable. Defenseless. Two things I had sworn to never, ever allow myself to be again.
This was our usual nighttime routine, although Peeta didn't know it. We'd have sex, he'd fall asleep, and I would get redressed and patrol the house like a watchdog.
My teeth were chattering as I made my way downstairs, but I refused to completely bundle up. I liked to think the cold kept me alert and awake. I made my rounds, checking all the locks, peering out every window, looking behind every door. I never told Peeta about doing this, because even I knew it was an odd, compulsive behavior, but I didn't care. Better to be odd and compulsive and alive than overly relaxed and dead.
I felt especially protective of my home now that Peeta was in it as well—there was something almost primal about this instinct to fiercely guard what was mine. I think that was another reason I was so reluctant to have children—once we had kids, all I could think about was them becoming someone else we could lose. It seemed reckless to me, having kids—almost as if we'd be tempting fate by doing it, saying "We're absolutely sure nothing else bad will ever happen to us, even though our entire lives up to this point have provided evidence to the contrary!"
I knew what Peeta would say if I told him this. He'd shake his head with that weary look in his blue eyes, and say, "The war's over, Katniss." He'd tell me that we didn't fight so hard to live our lives in constant fear. And even though I knew he was right, it didn't change the way I felt. I was always afraid, now more so than ever. I felt like all of this—Peeta, our home, District 12—could be taken away from me in an instant, and I'd be damned if I was going to drop my guard and let that happen. So I was always alert. Always watchful. Never trusting a moment a true happiness for a second, because I'd seen firsthand how quickly and completely it could all be taken away.
Once I was satisfied that the house was secure, I went back upstairs to our bedroom, walking through the open door and stopping with surprise when I found Peeta out of bed, wearing a sweatshirt and boxer shorts, kindling a flame to life in the fireplace across the room from the bed. He looked up at me when I entered, his expression hard to read. Concerned? Frustrated? I couldn't tell. He didn't say anything for a long moment, so I finally broke the silence.
"Did I wake you?" I asked.
"No. It was too cold to sleep." Peeta shrugged, still looking at me with that odd expression. "Where'd you go?"
"I…I thought I heard something downstairs."
Peeta gave a small laugh, the newly formed flames illuminating the strong line of his jaw when he looked away from me in the semi-darkness. "It's nice to know some things never change."
"What do you mean?"
He looked back up to me. "You're still a shitty liar."
I crossed my arms over my chest defensively. "What exactly are you suspicious of me doing?"
"Living like you're in a permanent war zone." Peeta rose to his feet.
"And what would you have me do?" I practically growled, years of frustration straining my voice. "I'm sorry, okay? I'm sorry I'm not like you, and I can't just turn it off! I am so fucking tired of being the bad guy just because I can't pretend like nothing bad ever happened to us!"
"No one's asking you to do that!" Peeta yelled back. Clearly I wasn't the only one who had been holding some things inside. "You think I just forgot what happened to us? I can't forget it." He looked down at his prosthetic leg. "At least you're still whole. At least you could still fight if it came to that."
"You did fight, Peeta." I reminded him. "It didn't matter what horrible things they did to you. You fought til the end."
"Yeah. Until the end." He repeated, stepping closer to me. "You just said it yourself. It's over." He put his hands on my arms, looking down at me seriously. "This is what we fought for, Katniss. A real life. A real family. You and me, together. I don't know why you're so afraid to just let yourself be happy."
I shook my head. "Because I don't trust it."
"Don't trust what?"
Peeta sighed. "But you do trust me, right?"
Apparently I hesitated too long in answering. Peeta's eyes darkened with anger as he released my arms, shaking his head with disgust. "I never thought I'd live to see the day. My wife, a coward."
I slapped him hard, Peeta's hand clutching his reddened cheek when he looked back to me. There was a long silence as we just glared at each other. I was practically shaking I was so furious with him. I grabbed my pillow and a blanket from the bed, stalking out of the room and snarling over my shoulder—"I'll just leave you to your happy thoughts."
"You two look like hell." Haymitch said immediately upon greeting us at the train station in District 12, his arm slung over his girlfriend Quinn's shoulder. Quinn was a girl Haymitch had known before his bout at the Hunger Games, and apparently, the one he'd never really gotten over. Five years ago, once he'd finally gotten sober enough to function as a human being, he had tracked her down and brought her back home to District 12 with him. They'd been together ever since.
"Good to see you again too, Haymitch." Peeta sighed, the arm not holding our luggage kept tightly at his side and most definitely not slung over my shoulders, or even anywhere near touching me. Peeta and I had barely spoken more than three icy words to each other all morning, packing in separate rooms and walking to the train station in complete silence.
We rarely fought like this, and it seemed neither one of us knew quite what to do with ourselves now that we were in the middle of a conflict. Someone would have to wave the white flag and say they were sorry, but we were both far too stubborn to admit defeat this quickly.
After the four of us boarded the train, the ride to the Capitol felt endless. Haymitch did his best to fill the awkward silences when the four of us were together, but it when it was just me and Peeta, we reverted to the cold politeness we had relied on after our initial round of the Hunger Games. It had been torturous back then to maintain the façade of somewhat amicable indifference towards him, but now with eight years of marriage behind us, it was almost impossible to not tell him everything, not sleep in his arms, not just break down and say I was sorry. But I wasn't sorry for what I had said. I was a little sorry for slapping him. But I thought he should be the one to apologize for calling me a coward. So the stand-off continued.
On the last day of our journey, we were sitting together in our train compartment. I was staring out the window, watching the gleaming skyscrapers of the Capitol approach, trying to remind myself that it wasn't the nexus of a dictatorship any longer, that now it was just the center of commerce for a free nation. I knew there was nothing left to fear from this place, knew we had been here before and returned safely back home, but I couldn't ignore the suffocating sense of dread growing within me. I started to feel short of breath, my heartbeat thudding in my throat, my vision swimming slightly, biting down on the inside of my cheek, trying to focus on something else— like the fact that Peeta was suddenly holding my hand, so tightly I gasped slightly with surprise.
I turned to look at him, but he wasn't looking at me. He was staring out the window as well, his skin chalk white, a thin sheen of sweat glistening on his forehead. "I hate this place," he said through clenched teeth. "I really do."
I laced my fingers through his before I looked back out the window, dread changing into relief as I realized I wasn't alone. He felt the same way. He hadn't forgotten. How could he? I could still feel the scars on his wrist when it was pressed up against mine like this—scars from his restraints, the painful shackles that had kept him focused during the war when his mind threatened to slip back into madness. We didn't say anything else, sitting in silence until the train pulled into the station.
But he didn't let go of my hand. And I didn't want him to. Fight or no fight, Peeta had been right about one thing. Some things never changed. We still needed each other, just as much as we had had fifteen years ago when we made this same train ride from District 12 to the Capitol, barely more than strangers, just two scared kids thrown together to face down near-certain death.
I turned back towards him, the man who was now my husband, seeing the boy he had been all those years ago, the boy who had always shown me kindness even when I hadn't come close to deserving it. "Hey." I said softly, squeezing his hand when he still wouldn't look at me.
Peeta's eyes finally met mine. "Hey."
There was a strange, charged moment between us, and without thinking or questioning the impulse, I leaned closer to him, and Peeta didn't pull away, our lips barely touching when there was a knock on our compartment door, Haymitch wandering in without waiting for our permission.
He blinked with surprise, taking in our flushed cheeks and guilty expressions. "Oh. Sorry, guys. After your little freeze-out, I didn't think there'd be anything to interrupt."
"It's fine." Peeta recovered first, getting to his feet and pulling off unassuming much better than I ever could. "Should we get the bags?"
"Yeah." Haymitch laughed, looking amused as ever by our relationship. "Come on, kid. Let's show the girls how dashing and chivalrous we can be." He slapped Peeta on the shoulder before turning to me. "Quinn's outside waiting for a cab. I'm sure she'd like some company."
"Okay." I said, getting to my feet and nearly running into Peeta when we both tried to leave the compartment at the same time. "S-Sorry." I mumbled, Peeta stepping back to let me by, a smile playing at the edge of his mouth, almost like he shared Haymitch's amusement at how awkwardly I was acting.
I stalked past them both, suddenly fine with getting off this train, Capitol or no Capitol.
"Hey, can you help me with this?" I walked out of the bathroom, hair and make-up finished, my dress on and zipped as high up my back as I could reach.
Peeta had been sitting on the edge of the bed in our hotel room, waiting on me. He looked incredibly handsome in an all black suit, his blond hair brushed back, and his new black shoes so shiny I imagined I could probably see my reflection in them. When he looked up to see what I was wearing, he shook his head with a small smile. "Nice. Cinna would be so proud."
"You think?" I pulled my long dark hair over one shoulder with my back to him.
"I know." Peeta said, zipping me up.
I turned back around to face him, smoothing down my dress. He was right. Cinna would have loved this dress. It was a simple shift dress, but made entirely out of black leather, with cut-outs over my shoulder blades in the back. The dress hit right above my knees, and I was wearing black high heels crisscrossed with studded leather straps from my ankles to my toes. I had kept my make-up bare except for heavy black liner around my eyes, and slicked my hair back into a tight, low ponytail.
"It's not too much?" I asked Peeta.
"No way." Peeta shook his head. "I think it's a nice statement."
"What do you mean?" My brow furrowed with confusion.
Peeta leaned in to me, his hand going to the small of my back as he pulled me closer. "Now you're fireproof."
I smiled. "I didn't even think about that."
"I know." Peeta laughed. "I love it. You're just inherently subversive."
I had no clue what he was talking about, or why he was suddenly kissing me, but I definitely didn't mind, my arms sliding around his neck.
"Can we just make up already?" Peeta asked quietly when we parted.
"Depends. Are you saying sorry?" I looked up at him with a playful smile, fully ready to accept his apology.
But Peeta's eyes just narrowed. "Are you?"
"Why should I be sorry?" I dropped my arms from around his neck.
"Because you—" Peeta caught himself before he launched into an angry tirade, sighing heavily and rubbing his forehead. "Forget it. Let's just go to the party."
"Oh, that's really mature." I sneered as he stomped past me to the door. "Just storm off."
"You want to talk about maturity?" Peeta wheeled around, his blue eyes dark with anger. "Let's talk about it. Let's talk about you hiding out at home for the last two weeks like some kind of shut-in while I have to smile and shake everyone's hands and try to pretend it's not killing me to be without you. And those kids at the schools, Katniss. You should have seen their faces when it was just me who showed up. Do you know how many of them asked me about you? How many of them told me that you're their hero? Some of them have waited their whole lives to meet you. And you let them down." He pauses, as if unsure whether or not to go on. Then he does. "You let me down."
I press my lips together, his words hitting me like a punch in the stomach. It takes me a moment to find my voice, but when I do, I'm surprised to find it steady and clear, hopefully masking my hurt. "You told me not to go."
"Then I guess I'm a coward too." Peeta sighed. "I was too afraid of losing you to tell you the truth."
I raised my eyebrows. "Which is?"
"You're going to ruin your whole life trying to save it." He shook his head. "I mean, why even bother changing the world if you're not going to live in it?"
I felt tears brimming in my eyes, knowing he was right, but not ready to admit it. I forced a tight smile on my face. "Oh, please, keep going. Your self-righteous sermons really just never get old."
"I'm sorry. I won't bore you any longer." Peeta said coldly. "Just do me one favor. Tonight, at least pretend you're still in love with me. For the audience's sake. You should remember how to do that, right?"
"Peeta—" I reached out to him, but he pulled away, leading the way to the elevator and not saying a word to me on the way down.
He takes my hand with an iron tight grip right before we enter the ballroom, neither of us looking at each other as we're ushered through the double doors.
My husband really is the master of the art of small talk. I watch him talk to the richest denizens of the Capitol, all of those insufferable snobs laughing heartily at some joke Peeta makes, Peeta shrugging in a self-deprecating way after they clap him on the back. I refuse to leave the bar, drinking too much and finding myself more and more fuzzy headed as I try to stave off having to actually face our marital issues.
Not like I'm the only one in denial. I left Peeta alone about a half hour ago, and he hasn't come looking for me, or even looked in my direction. I feel miserable. I already feel a headache pounding at my temples. My dress is so skintight that I can hardly breathe. My shoes are pinching my feet. I sigh irritably, checking my watch. Only 9:15. This party's got another four hours in it, at least.
I swallow down the last of my fourth glass of champagne, unable to look away from Peeta. Did he mean what he said? Does he really think I'm not in love with him anymore? I mean, I don't say it much. He says "I love you" to me all the time. But I just can't. It feels false, to just say it at the end of every conversation.
But when was the last time I did say it? Why is it so hard to tell him how I feel? Why am I forever holding back from the only person on this earth I unequivocally trust?
Because every other good thing in your life has been blown to bits when you got too close. Because even the strongest fire burns out.
Because I haven't gotten better, and he has.
I hand off my champagne glass for a refill, getting it back and sipping plaintively as I watch the couples laughing and spinning on the dance floor. I feel sick to my stomach at the sight of them. How do they all make it look so easy, being in love? In my experience, it just hurts like hell.
I literally choke on my sip of my champagne, surprised I manage not to drop the glass. It's been over a decade since I've seen Gale Hawthorne face to face, and when I turn to face him, I find him changed in so many subtle ways that it all adds up to an oddly disturbing sight. He's still handsome, but much less lean and wiry than the Gale I remember, his broad shoulders slackened and waistline slightly expanded from the comforts of wealth. He's wearing a wedding ring, and I realize I have no idea who the person I once called my best friend married. There's a slight graying in the dark hair at his temples. His eyes look tired, even bleary, and I realize I'm not the only one who's been drinking too much at this party.
"Gotta love an open bar, huh?" he says casually, leaning back against the bar beside me, as comfortably and easily as if no time has passed since we last saw each other.
As if the past never happened. As if he didn't kill my sister. Unwittingly, yes, but with his own insidious designs.
I rack my brain for words, but I find I have nothing to say to him. Luckily, Gale keeps talking. "I'm guessing you're not the one who added me to the guest list."
I finish the rest of my new glass of champagne, setting it down on the bar a little unsteadily. I suddenly have the embarrassing notion that I couldn't walk away without stumbling., but I try to still appear cool and collected. "Why wouldn't you be invited? I keep hearing how rich you are these days. This should be like your natural habitat."
"You been keeping tabs on me?" Gale grins.
"No. I just heard you did well for yourself." I said politely. I notice Gale looking down at the silver wedding band on my left ring finger.
"So you really married The Noble Baker, huh?" Gale's mouth twists into a smirk.
"Yes." I say, almost defensively. "What about you? Your family?"
"My family." Gale lets out a humorless laugh that startles me with its coldness. "Has gotten way too fucking big."
"What do you mean?"
He leans over, as if telling me a secret. "Don't. Ever. Have Kids."
"You have kids?" This is just too much. It seems impossible this much has happened to Gale while Peeta and I have just been peacefully ensconced in District 12.
"Four kids. Well, five in a couple weeks." Gale shrugs, sounding a little bored. "Once you have one, you'll have another. And it just keeps going, until you end up with a houseful of howling demons who take all your money, ruin your sex life, and ruin everything nice you own."
I cross my arms over my chest, not impressed by Gale's apparent disinterest in his family. "Why'd you have so many? If it's so stressful."
"Britt…sorry, my wife, Britton…she wanted a house full of kids."
"And you didn't?" I ask.
"No, I mean…I thought I did. At the beginning." Gale swallows down a disturbingly large gulp of his very strong-smelling drink, and I'm suddenly reminded of Haymitch.
"Is she here? Your wife?" I looked around the room, trying to guess which girl she might be.
"Yeah. Green dress. By the punch." Gale nods his head towards her.
I follow his gaze, not at all surprised to discover that she's absolutely stunning. Long platinum blond hair, green eyes, huge breasts that miraculously are not sagging down to her waist after having four kids. She's one of those rare pregnant women whose condition doesn't seem to be making her absolutely miserable. In fact, she looks blissfully happy, her hand resting instinctively on her stomach as she talks to a group of women who seem to be congratulating her on her forthcoming arrival.
"She's beautiful." I say, suddenly feeling very sad watching this woman go on and on about her and Gale's baby when he's all but telling me at the same moment that he doesn't want it.
Gale doesn't say anything in response, and when I turn back to look at him, he's staring at me with an oddly thoughtful expression.
"What?" I demand, feeling uncomfortable under such close scrutiny.
"Nothing. That's just…some dress." His full lips twist into a smile.
I could feel my cheeks flush red at the way he was looking at me. "Thanks. Peeta said it's my new statement. Fireproof."
"Clever guy." Gale shook his head. "He could talk anyone into anything." He pauses for a moment. "Even you."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"Come on, Katniss. You, his little wife? How did he swing that one? Guilt? Pity? Cheese-covered baked goods?"
"Stop acting like you know the first thing about my life now." I warn him in an angry hiss.
"Are you happy?" Gale challenged.
"Right. That's why you're drinking alone at your own charity party."
"Why did you even come over here? We're not friends, Gale. We haven't spoken in years."
"So let's catch up." The tips of Gale's fingers suddenly brushed mine on the bar. "I have to come up to the Capitol every week for work. You should meet me for a drink sometime."
I look up at him, my eyes narrowed. "What exactly are you asking?"
"Come on." Gale's voice is suddenly quiet. "Eighteen years of foreplay. You know it'd be amazing."
Suddenly I don't feel nervous anymore. Just disgusted. "If four kisses in eighteen years is your idea of great foreplay, I feel sorry for your wife."
There. I'm actually pretty proud of that comeback.
But Gale doesn't look as wounded as I hoped. He just laughs. "I knew it. It's still there."
"The fire." He tucks a strand of my hair behind my ear, and before I can even react—
"It's time for our speech."
Peeta's ice-cold voice shocks me into action, and I hurriedly distance myself from Gale, my cheeks burning with shame, but Gale is still wearing that maddeningly unflappable smile as he turns to Peeta. "Hey, man. Good to see you."
"Yeah, buddy, you too." Peeta mumbles sarcastically, barely giving Gale a perfunctory glance before looking back to me. "You ready?"
I just nod, taking Peeta's arm as we leave Gale behind and make our way towards the stage.
"Peeta, nothing happened." I say under my breath. "He was drunk—"
"Just stop, okay?" Peeta says through gritted teeth, his voice so quiet I can barely hear him. "I don't even care."
This silences me. I haven't heard this much bitterness and anger in his voice since the days he was actively seeking my death.
We miraculously manage to get through a hopefully inspiring speech, remaining arm-in-arm, looking at each other with rehearsed adoring smiles that no one seems to question until I notice that Haymitch is watching from offstage with a funny look on his face. He knows something's up. Gale's watching us too, his wife back at his side, saying something in his ear before she kisses his cheek. She applauds heartily when we finish the speech, Gale half-heartedly clapping along, and Haymitch crossing his arms over his chest, wearing an expression somewhere between bemused and concerned.
Afterwards, it all feels too sickeningly familiar, far too much like our days on the Victory Tour—Peeta and me playing perfect couple while it feels like things are falling apart between us.
As the night is drawing to a close, Britton, Gale's wife, makes a beeline for us, dragging Gale along behind her. She catches my arm, and I stiffen slightly before turning to face her. Physical contact from strangers still makes me uncomfortable, and I have to fight down an almost violently defensive urge that shoots through me whenever anyone I don't know touches me.
I manage to put on my party face. "Hi. You must be Britton."
"Britton Hawthorne." She shakes my hand with a surprisingly strong grip. "And you're Katniss Everdeen."
"Did you keep your last name when you got married?" Gale asks me curiously.
"Oh. No. No, I'm sorry. Katniss Mellark." I correct myself. I so rarely have to introduce myself to anyone in my every day life that I have little to no practice with my married name.
"You don't have to say that. Go by whatever you want." Peeta speaks up unexpectedly, practically spitting nails.
An awkward silence follows. Britton looks between us before shooting Gale a confused look. Gale slings an arm around his wife's shoulders. "Well, we should probably call it a night. I hope we start seeing more of you here in the Capitol." He gives me a rather significant look, and I quickly look away.
I round on Peeta as soon as they're gone. "What is your problem?"
"Not here." Peeta mutters, and have to finish our rounds and say good-bye to the rest of the party attendants, a procession that begins to feel endless.
When Peeta and I finally return to our room, immediately strips off his party clothes, not saying a word to me and locking himself in the bathroom to take a shower. I kick off my shoes, take down my hair, and unzip my dress, gratefully freeing myself from the tight, unforgiving material and relishing the ability to finally draw a full breath as I lie back on the bed in my bra and underwear.
My head is pounding from the champagne, and it feels like the bed is slowly revolving beneath me. I turn my head so my cheek rests against the cool white sheets of the hotel bed, and close my eyes. Whenever I feel this—that strange, vague hopelessness that often overtakes me, usually when I drink—I try to force myself to remember something good. A moment when I was really, truly happy. One immediately comes to mind, and given the current feud between Peeta and me, I'm surprised by how immediate the memory still feels.
We had both returned to District 12 after the war, our minds still tainted and bodies beaten by the battle we'd both miraculously survived. He had just shown up at my house one day, and after he stayed that first night, we both just accepted our odd imitation of domesticity as the new normal. I would hunt. He would bake. We'd divide up chores and work on our book. Buttercup became more or less our pet. Haymitch occasionally came over, and I realized Peeta's prediction in the first Games had come true—Haymitch was our neighbor, and we were glad to have him around.
Peeta and I spent every night in each other's arms, but nothing more happened between us for the first three months. Then one night, seemingly without our permission or approval, a force stronger and deeper than our friendship resurfaced, and the only question left to answer was whether or not we would finally give in to it.
"Katniss! Come on, come back…"
I was thrashing in the sheets, my voice hoarse from screaming, still in the grip of a nightmare where Prim was blown to bits over and over and I was chained up and forced to watch it happen, again and again. Peeta had to literally pin down my arms against the mattress to wake me up.
The moment I woke up, he pulled me up into his arms and we clung to each other for dear life. I was shaking like a leaf, and as I held on to his strong shoulders, I realized he was shivering even though his thin t-shirt was soaked in sweat.
"You too?" I asked quietly.
"Yeah." Peeta smoothed down my hair with his hand, and slowly, our breathing began to slow down and fall into the same rhythm. It was one of our odd rituals for dealing with the nightmares—breathing together. It reconnected us, to each other, to reality, to the truth—we were safe. It was over. And for a moment, there in bed with him, I could believe it.
I pulled back slightly to look at him just as Peeta turned his face towards mine, and we both froze, realizing our lips were barely inches apart. We moved towards each other at the same moment, Peeta's hand tangling in my hair as he pulled me closer, my hands sliding up over his shoulders.
But after a brief, passionate moment, he broke away, already apologizing. "I'm sorry, Katniss, you don't have to—"
"I know." I cut him off. "I want to." And I kissed him hard, silencing his protests, and after a brief moment of hesitation, he was kissing me back. And when the kiss deepened, it was there again. That feeling, that heat, that part of me that only he could find. I'd felt it only twice before—in the cave, and then even more intensely, that stormy night on the beach in the Quarter Quell, and now I felt it again. A need, a hunger just as real and urgent as starvation. And this time, we were finally alone. For once, no one could interrupt or kill the moment. After all these years, all this time, it was finally just us.
And I couldn't get enough. I had no idea what I was doing, and neither did he, but it didn't really seem to matter. Soon there was nothing left between us, and he was kissing me, and then suddenly, I felt him inside me. We just looked at each other for a moment, not even realizing we were both holding our breaths.
Finally, Peeta breathed out, his hand on my cheek. "I love you. I love you so much."
"Come here." I said breathlessly, pulling him back down for a kiss, my eyes sliding shut as he finally started to move against me. I'd never felt so connected to another person in my life, didn't even think I was capable of such a thing, thought I was doomed to forever feel cold and cut-off from everything.
But it was warm and safe here, and making love to him felt like coming up for air, like I was finally breaking the surface of dark, endless waters to find that the sun was bright and shining down above me.
Afterwards, neither of us spoke for a long time, laying side by side and facing each other. He looked completely overwhelmed, his skin flushed, and his blond hair messy and unkempt. But he also looked like himself, all of the sweetness and steadiness and hope I remembered in his eyes. He had finally come back to me, Peeta, the real Peeta, the one I thought I'd lost forever.
I needed to say it. I felt it, like never before. But I felt overwhelmed too, and oddly nervous, and the words wouldn't come out.
He reached out, brushing a sweaty strand of hair back off my forehead, giving me a small smile, and I knew he saw how scared he was. So he did what Peeta always did. He saved me. "You love me. Real or not real?"
The next morning, he had been so sweet and nervous, bringing me breakfast in bed, unable to stop smiling. After we ate breakfast together, I watched him clean up. When he sat back down next to me on the bed, I felt an immense sense of calm settle over me. And in that one moment, I wasn't afraid.
"Peeta?" I reached out, my hand over his.
"I love you."
I said it, and the world didn't end. Birds were still singing cheerily outside. A slight breeze was blowing through the open windows of our bedroom. We were still safe.
"I love you too." He smiled, turning his hand over in mine to interlace our fingers. "We're going it make through this. As long as we're together, we can make it through anything."
"I know." I smiled back, leaning forward to kiss him.
I dropped my hand from my eyes, seeing the hotel room ceiling above me and feeling a million miles away from that perfect morning. How had we lost that? When had I stopped feeling safe?
I sat up when I heard the bathroom door close, Peeta walking out with a towel wrapped around his waist, his blond hair damp and messy from the shower. He walked past me without a word, his back to me as he rummaged around in his suitcase for his pajamas.
"Do you remember that morning? After the first time?" I ask him, unable to stand the silence any longer.
Peeta freezes, but doesn't turn around. I can see the muscles in his shoulders tense. "Why are you asking me that?"
"I was just thinking about how happy I felt then…how safe."
"But not anymore?"
"It's like I can only be happy when I stop thinking. When I can just turn my mind off. When I'm hunting. When we make love. But as soon as those things end, and I remember all the shit that's happened to us, I feel like it's…irresponsible to be happy. Like if I let my guard down, it will all disappear."
Peeta does turn around then, and I can tell he's surprised. I'm not much of a talker, and definitely not one for expressing my feelings. But this isn't the time to keep things from him. Not when it feels like I'm losing him.
"What if you had married Gale? Then would you feel safe?" Peeta catches me completely off guard with this question.
"What are you talking about?"
"I saw you with him, Kat! I saw the way you were looking at each other!" Peeta runs a hand through his hair, trying to keep his temper. "I get it, okay? I get the Gale thing. Don't think I'm not constantly reminded every time I turn on the TV. He's richer than me, he's taller, he's better-looking, you two have so much history…I get it."
"If I wanted to be with Gale, I'd be with him." I get to my feet, crossing to Peeta.
But he shakes his head, his eyes still narrowed with suspicion. "Don't act like you weren't thinking about it tonight. What would have happened if you hadn't picked me. The life you could have had with him."
"What life?" I throw my hands up. "Playing perfect little housewife in District 2 while he cheats on me in the Capitol? No, thank you."
"How do you know he cheats on his wife?" Peeta asked curiously.
"Because he asked me to meet here next week. To 'catch up.'" I went so far as to use air quotes.
"That son of a bitch—" Peeta growls.
But I catch his arm. "Who cares, Peeta? Gale and his wife and their miserable existence has nothing to do with us. Nothing to do with me. Not anymore. When Prim died…that part of my life died with her. When I think about him, it's like I'm remembering another life."
"And what if she hadn't died?" Peeta asked. "What if Prim had lived through the war? Then what would have happened?"
"What does it matter?"
"I need to know!" he shouted. "What if I hadn't just been the last man standing? What if you'd actually had to choose?"
I sighed, running a hand through my hair. "Peeta. The things I feel when I'm with you are nothing like the things I felt for him. Gale and I…he was my best friend. And yes, I loved him. But I'm in love with you. And something happens when you kiss me, and when we're together, that never happened with him." I stumble for words, frustrated that I can't put a name to the way he makes me feel. "I'm sorry that I can't explain it any better, but…you and I need each other. We always have. But I don't just need you. I want you. Losing Gale, when he moved away and I knew it was over between us for good…it was hard, but it didn't break me. If I lost you…I'd be broken. Beyond repair."
"Katniss—" his eyes are softening, but I'm not finished.
"And I think that's what scares me most of all. I never wanted to be in love like that because I didn't want to end up like my mother. If it wasn't for me and Prim, I think she would have just killed herself after my father died." I hesitate for a moment before speaking the harsh truth I've never said out loud to anyone else. "She might as well have killed herself, for all the good she was to anyone. And if you and I have kids, and then somehow I lost you, I'm terrified that I'd be just like her. When you were hijacked, and they told me I'd probably never get you back, I felt like someone had ripped my heart out. I was like a zombie, that whole year. I looked in the mirror, and I didn't even know who I was without you. And that was when I still had a chance of getting you back. If I ever lost you for good…" My voice catches in my throat. "I couldn't…" I raise my hand up to his cheek. "You're my heart, Peeta. And I can't survive without it."
He covered my hand with his. "I'm not going anywhere."
"But you can't be sure of that." I shake my head, tears spilling down my cheeks.
"I know. You're right. But I'm sure about some things." He reaches out to me, smiling as he brushes the tears off my cheek with his thumb. "I haven't seen you cry like this since you were fake-pregnant on the island."
I can't help but laugh. "I'm pouring my heart out here. Please don't make jokes."
He laughs too. "Sorry." Peeta leans forward, wrapping his arms around me in a tight hug, and I feel my whole body relax against him when he speaks, his lips against my neck. "You're not the only one, you know. I'm scared too."
"You are?" I breathe out, oddly relieved by this statement.
"Every day." Peeta pulls back to look at me. "I guess I just didn't want you to know. I wanted to be the strong one for once."
"You're the strongest person I know."
"Not as strong as you. Nobody is." Peeta shakes his head.
"You still think I'm strong? Even after everything I just told you?"
"You still love me?"
He kisses me then, and I feel it again. Safe. We're back in each other's arms, no more secrets between us, and it feels amazing. I've never been this honest, never, and I know right then that if it wasn't for Peeta, and the way he loves me without a single reservation or string attached, I never could have been this honest with another person.
It's like he said, that morning after—as long as we're together, it doesn't matter what's to come. As long as we're together, we can survive anything.
Soon, we're all tangled up in the hotel sheets, and just when it seems like we're going to be up all night for a much more exciting reason than a fight, he suddenly stops.
I look down at him, practically panting. "W-What's wrong?"
"Nothing. Just…" Peeta grins mischievously. "I just kind of want to see what it would be like if you kept the leather dress on. During. And the heels. The heels too."
"Because you looked hot as hell at that party, and now that we've made up, I don't have to pretend I didn't want to throw you up against the wall in the nearest coat closet all night."
I blush slightly. This is anther thing I love about Peeta—most of the time, he seems so nice, and then he says something like that. I get to my feet, putting the dress and shoes back on and standing over him.
Peeta nods, pushing the dress up around my hips to take off my underwear before I straddle him on the bed. "Never better." We kiss, and as I start to move against him, we both burst out laughing.
"Okay, okay, so the leather dress fantasy is a little…squeaky." He grins up at me.
"Shut up." I put my hand over his mouth, still moving my hips against his. Things are starting to feel really good, and I'm suddenly not in the mood for talking.
"Yes, master." Peeta salutes me with a smile, and soon we realize that, squeaky or not, this was one of his better ideas. And much more easily achieved than my apparent anger-sex-with-weapons-in-a-forest-during-a-thunderstorm fantasy. I mean, never say never, but…
Afterwards, Peeta's flat on his back on the hotel bed, and as I lay on top of him, both of us catching our breath as he traces lazy circles on my back with his fingers.
"Let's fight more." Peeta breathes out.
"Okay." I turn my head slightly to kiss his shoulder. We don't get much sleep that night, and when we finally do doze off in the early morning, the leather dress is balled up on the floor.
I have a feeling this might be its swan song. It was fun for a night, but screwing my husband in a dress and heels—it's just not me. I find myself longing for District 12, and the woods, and my comfortable boots, and clothes that don't cut off my air supply…
It's time to go home.
We check out the next morning, and happily leave the Capitol behind us. I don't see Gale again, except occasionally on television. Peeta and I return home with the feeling that a new phase of life is starting, and sure enough, three months later, when we step outside to get some fresh air at Haymitch's long overdue wedding, I tell Peeta the thing I've been suspicious of for weeks but have just recently had confirmed by the local doctor.
We're going to be parents.
"You're sure?" Peeta holds me out at arms-length, his face pale with shock.
I nod. "I'm sure."
He laughs out loud, deliriously happy, barely daring to let himself believe it. And when he takes my face in his hands, kissing every part of me he can reach before enveloping me in his arms, I find that I'm smiling too.
This is his dandelion in the spring. His new beginning. And six months later, when I'm holding our daughter in my arms, looking out at the peaceful summer sunset over the tops of the trees, her first on this earth, I know that she isn't just his new beginning.
A/N- Thanks for reading! I love reviews.