Title: The Next Chapter

Author: Ellipses

Rating: M

Disclaimer: Don't own the characters or anything really except my own words.

Summary: After returning to District 12, how on earth did two broken souls end up finding their way back to each other? (Expanded Mockingjay chapter 27) K/P, 3-part.

AN: I know this storyline has been done to death, but I still had some questions to ask of both characters and wanted to incorporate a few missing pieces that I felt were important to the development of the relationship. It's more an insight into their state of mind than a story, because of course you already know the story and this just fits right in with the real chapter 27/epilogue. Katniss POV

Part 1

I don't know how I should feel about this place – post-rebellion Panem, recovering District 12, this house in the Victor's Village, the right here and now...it all still feels like it could all crumble down again in the blink of an eye, as if I'd just dreamt it all and I'm about to wake up at any moment in some hospital bed (again) with Prim by my side, looking after me like she shouldn't have to. I'm the one who looks after her, not the other way around.

The scent coming through the window beside me brings me back to reality. The primrose bushes Peeta planted for me. Right, a reality which goes on without her. Where I go on without her. It doesn't feel right, and it never will. Like parents outliving their children. I practically raised her. I don't even feel right about living in this house. Built by the Capitol, earned by the taking of lives. Our old house is a mere pile of ash though, so it's here or nothing.

It seems like things are starting to return to some version of normal when I go back to hunting. And although I'm alone, I don't think I would want any company anyway. I can't see Gale's face without thinking of Prim and that alone makes me wonder less about his true involvement. It doesn't matter anymore. I lost Gale as soon as I left District 12 for the Quarter Quell anyway. He was never again the same person that I thought I knew just 2 years ago when all he wanted was to run away with me. The rebellion turned him into a soldier, not my hunter, and now I wonder how he could have the heart to love me and still have been heartless enough to devise such a cruel trap. I underestimated his hatred for the Capitol in hindsight.

I scan the forest floor for the faintest of tracks; I've roped Greasy Sae into making us something more substantial for tonight's dinner pot. I haven't needed her to take care of me for a little while now, but it is Peeta's 18th birthday today and I wanted to do something special for him. And I don't want him to be alone tonight. I was lucky, I think, compared to him. At least I still have my mother, him, Gale, Haymitch...all alive. But Peeta, well, it looks like I'm all he has. I can bury my pain for one night, for him.

I take aim and hit my target – the deer will keep a lot of people fed tonight. I'm still weak though, so it takes me what feels like an eternity to carry my prize back to the gap in the fence at the Meadow. Before I reach it though, I see a familiar mop of blonde hair amongst the bushes.

"Peeta, I can see you. Could you maybe give me a hand with this?" I direct my voice towards the bushes, putting the full force of my exhaustion into it but instead it sounds more like a plea.

He emerges. "Sure. Front or back?" We tie the front, then back legs together and loop a sturdy branch between. I take up the rear since the front is heavier with the weight of its head and all.

"So, what brings you to this neck of the woods?" I ask, realising that I'm not too sure I've ever seen Peeta in these parts before.

"Memories. I couldn't find anywhere in town that I actually wanted to be. So I came out here."

We put the deer down and duck underneath the fence. The Meadow beyond is no longer a big ditch, though the grass is slowly covering the disturbed earth, like a wound healing and swallowing all those bodies whole. It reminds me of the nightmares I had about those I had killed or been responsible for killing all shovelling ashes over me in my grave. Not had, have. I still get those nightmares.

"Same. Except nabbing this little guy was also on the agenda. Surprise, happy birthday," I say lightly, feeling myself smile for the first time in...well, I can't remember the last time I smiled. I didn't smile that much before all of this happened to us anyway.

"You remembered?" He glances back at me and I shrug. Somebody else reminded me yesterday, but I'm not about to let that detail slip.

I see a few of the builders working on the construction site that used to be the town square eyeing my deer as we pass them by. I mentally note to ask Greasy Sae to make something with the leftover meat to share amongst everyone tomorrow, on me. They need the energy after all.

Later that night it's just me and Peeta in front of the fire at my house. There's not much warmth in either of our homes now that they stand virtually empty. We spend a lot of silent nights like this, sometimes interspersed with the usual "Real or not real?" whenever Peeta's thoughts wander into something unfamiliar. I can tell he's doing a lot better. He even seems normal when he interacts with anyone other than Haymitch and I. But on nights like these, when silence forces us to remember, I can see the ongoing battle he has within himself. Me, I don't think I even try to hide it since it plagues me no matter where I am, who I'm with or what I'm doing. Peeta's always been stronger than me in this way. That scent, however, it's causing untamed tears to roll down my cheek. I appreciate the gesture, it's just that that's my way of grieving for her right now. He understands that and doesn't try to comfort me or anything.

"You can hear force fields with your left ear. Real or not real?" He suddenly asks.

It makes me smile in spite of my tears. "Both. I said I could. But I can't."

"I know," he replies with a small smile. I can see what he's trying to do, and I'm glad for it. Lord knows I'm useless at that, knowing what to say.

I turn my head to look at him, wondering out loud, I guess it was. "Do you still love me?"

He doesn't look at me. He keeps looking straight at that fire and I'm reminded of the first time he admitted to his feelings. Back when I was the girl who was on fire, just not literally. We seemed like two completely different people. We were just kids back then. Some would say we still are.

I don't keep my hopes up when he doesn't answer at all and I realise I don't want him to answer. How would I deal with either? Especially when I still hadn't made up my own mind. I don't know why I even asked, but I decide we're both not ready to answer that question. Maybe one day, but not today.

We both head upstairs to my room where we fall asleep in each other's arms for the first time since...well, I can't even remember the last time. But we both keep the nightmares at bay for one night at least. I don't know what my feelings are, but at least I feel safe.

As the haze of sleep starts to fall away the next morning I remember where I am and my eyes snap open. Seeing his clear blue eyes staring right back startles me for a moment before I recognise his expression of fondness rather than the hatred I'd grown used to not long ago. When he would instead have been chained, manacled, guarded and strapped down. Dr Aurelius must be good at something after all. With that as reassurance for my own recovery, I prop myself up.

"Good morning."

"Morning," he says, and that slightly sleepy drawl is music to my ears. I don't have to worry about him not sleeping as well as I apparently have.

"Hungry?" Yes, we are of little words nowadays. He nods and we get up as if this, us sleeping like this, is the most natural and commonplace thing in the world.

We eat almost silently in the kitchen. Cereal and a few pieces of fruit. I'm glad I killed Coin sometimes, just so I never have to have rationed gruel again. Nevertheless, that move was about so much more and I'll always be glad to have done it. The only death I'm happy to claim responsibility for. President Paylor appears to be doing an excellent job too.

The silence is broken when Peeta says, "Thank you for staying with me for my birthday."

I nod my head and we both understand what he really means. But there's not really enough words for that.

He leaves not long after and I'm left to my own devices again. At least he has something purposeful to do. What am I supposed to do? Do I even have a role? With the demise of most of the merchant class in District 12, and even fewer who have returned, Peeta is teaching his baking skills to a few apprentices he is taking on to help continue his family business. We'll all have to learn something new it seems, since the mines are closed indefinitely and reconstruction is the priority. Bread seems to be in high demand. Not surprising since he's the only baker in 12 right now. Almost everything we need is being transported in by train.

He asked me to join his class one time, but I said no. It wasn't because of any real reluctance, 'no' just popped out, and maybe it's a good thing it did. Like how hunting is my thing, not ours. But hunting was our thing, me and Gale's. And look how that turned out. I'm angry at him right now, but not just because I can't forgive him. More because I feel deceived by the idea that he didn't seem to love me enough to even try to earn my forgiveness. I feel like Prim deserved at least for him to try. He'll get over me quickly. He'll probably even forget why he loved me. Or maybe he only thought he loved me because it seemed like the obvious thing to feel.

As I head out towards the Meadow I can already smell the amazing aroma of fresh bread coming from Peeta's house. That's his bakery for now while the town square is being rebuilt. I make a mental note to do what I can to help the builders finish on time. Make myself useful.

For today though, I'll hunt small game to supply fresh meat to the soup kitchen Paylor has helped Greasy Sae start up ever since I stopped needing her to take care of me. It feeds the people who are just returned and getting back on their feet. The unemployed, crippled, sick, widowed, homeless, orphaned...the list seems to go on. Even those who don't fall under any of these categories are only just scraping by right now. Still, this is better than before the rebellion since no one goes completely without. Soon they won't need me though. District 10 is helping us to set up a few small farms so that we can eventually become self-sufficient for meat. What will I do then? Take up the role of the local butcher? I think I've killed enough for a lifetime.

When I return home that afternoon I find a small basket of rolls on the kitchen bench and Peeta hunched over our book. This is a common scene but I wasn't expecting him so early. He seems to be sketching.

Wordlessly, I skin and gut the rabbit I brought back for our dinner tonight and set it aside. As I join him, I realise he's working on Rue's page. He's painting the flowers I spread around her. I think she would've been proud that I made it all this way, with the help of our alliance. I wonder what would've happened without the alliance Peeta enabled with his declaration of love for me all those years ago. I'd probably be dead so it doesn't matter.

"You're over here early," I finally say.

He seems absorbed by the shape of one of the petals so it takes him a moment to notice I'm even there. "What? Oh, that," he says as he puts down the brush. "I had a bad one today so I let everyone go home early."

Peeta has those sometimes, like nightmares except you're awake. Flashbacks, he likes to call them, but they're not really flashbacks since they're not all real memories. He grabs onto chairs, tables, anything to keep his grip on reality. He says that it helps him to control the urge to lash out. I'm glad he told me this time. He doesn't want me to worry. The bad ones tend to be about torture and screaming. I suppose it's the real memories that are hardest to get over.

I don't ask about it. Instead I wrap my arms around him and rest my head on his shoulder and he does the same. We could've stayed like that forever, but we pull away reluctantly when Buttercup starts trying to lick the paint from the palette. I grab him by the scruff of his neck and put him back on the floor. We both carry on with what we were doing.

As the rabbit stew is simmering, Dr Aurelius' call at 6 o'clock sharp interrupts our busy silence. We talk for a few minutes and promise to speak again in a few days' time. I pass the phone to Peeta when we're done and he looks better for it afterward.

We enjoy our stew with the bread and we chat about the progress District 12 seems to be making. I tell him I stopped by his new shop space and that the foreman roped me in to help out for the next week or so. Truth is, I practically had to twist his arm to let me help but Peeta would never accept that from me. I guess he just worries because it seems like we only just got each other back. He can be so overprotective sometimes but I can understand that.

Later we settle into our routine now of whiling away the evening at my house and doing various things like working on the book, sitting in front of the fire and sometimes even tuning into the new television shows. I finally ask him something I'd been wondering for a while. "Why did you come back?"

"For you." It's the answer I dreaded and hoped for at the same time.

"I'm glad you came back."

"I'm glad I came back." And that's that.

A few days later we are watching some television program Plutarch devised. That singing one he asked me to be on. We see Gale on it (not singing, thank goodness) and he seems to be enjoying his new life immensely. He seems rather at ease being in the public eye like Peeta used to be, which is a surprise. We both reach to turn it off at the same time.

"He seems happy," Peeta says. I'm not sure if he means it, or whether he's feeling bitter about it on the inside...I just can't seem to read him today.

So I ask, "Does that bother you?"

He shakes his head and replies, "No. I'm happy for him. He doesn't have to go through the sort of hell we've been through. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy."

"Is he your worst enemy?"

He turns to me and says, "No." Again I feel a little confused but then I realise he could be referring to me and the heartache I put him through all on my own. If he said that to me right now, I would be devastated. He's hated me before but not when he was sane.

"I'm sorry," I say, though I know it doesn't make any difference and I don't even know what exactly I'm apologising for. But I know that words can only do so much.

"No, don't be. It's not your fault. I'm my own worst enemy. Or at least, my thoughts and memories are."

It lifts a weight off my chest I didn't know was there. I guess I'm still carrying around my guilt about not staying with him in those last moments in the arena, though I know logically now that that was an impossible situation I could not have predicted the consequences of.

"No that means your enemy was Snow, not you. You're probably the best person I've ever known and there was never anything bad inside you. But somehow he forced it in there anyway. Those bad memories weren't real, and they weren't really yours."

He absorbs that for a moment and nods. I want to tell him daily that he's a good person and that he will never lose that no matter what Snow did to him. "You're a good person Peeta. You'll never lose that. You're a good person. You're a good person..." I say it over and over like a mantra.

"Thank you," he finally says when I've trailed off. "Do you think you could ever love me?"

"Yes," I say without hesitation. And that's that, for today.

Reviews appreciated muchly...which means the sooner I'll post the next part.