Note on Chapter Rating: M for sexual content. This is a slightly censored version meant to comply with FF policy. The uncensored version is posted at AO3: archiveofourown works / 371526 / chapters / 991062 (remove spaces)
Author's Note: I just want to thank all my lovely readers for your enthusiasm and encouragement. I have appreciated every comment, favorite, and kudos. I'm sad for SKW to end, but I have other HG fics in the works, including Britannia et Panem, which I started for PiP. If you're interested or want to fangirl with me, check me out on tumblr: justadram . tumblr . com


Chapter Eleven

I have my dark days, but I have Peeta and when I forget what that means, I have the list. Our routine is much the same, settling back into our own brand of normal. Until one morning, while I dip hunks of sweet potato bread into the hot chocolate Peeta ordered for my birthday as part of our bimonthly supplies shipment from the Capitol, he looks up from the dough he's kneading and announces that he wants to take me to the part of town where the shops have gone up.

The new merchant area.

I scowl, pushing the bread between my lips. The bread is sweet enough that the last thing it needs is hot chocolate, but now that I'm feeling better again, food has become my only real indulgence. I don't indulge my sadness or the urge to sleep sixteen hours a day, but I feast upon whatever my greedy hands can reach, most of which is prepared by Peeta. Pies bubbling to the brim with fresh berries I picked in the woods, carrot cake cupcakes iced in thick swirls of cream cheese icing, sugar cookies dusted in giant, sparkling sugar crystals, stacks of pancakes we eat for breakfast or dinner drenched in sticky syrup, salty pretzel bread dipped in honey mustard, flatbread spread with goat cheese mixed with herbs, and greasy cheese buns, always cheese buns. Half of what Peeta makes I've never tasted before, but it's all delicious. Even the things he declares disasters seem good to me, and I simply can't get enough. I'm his best customer.

"I've seen it," I say, swallowing the bread I've been chewing.

The changes happening in our district have gotten harder to avoid. I don't hate them in the same way I did initially. I accept the new houses and little shops that make it harder to remember what came before. It's part of the thorny path towards healing. But if Peeta wants to give me a grand guided tour, I'm not particularly interested.

"You haven't seen this," he assures me, as he pushes the heels of his hands into the ball he works on the floured surface of our kitchen counter. "And I've wanted to show you for a while now. After deliveries?"

I lick a drip of hot chocolate off the side of my hand, and he smirks before dropping his attention to the dough. Peeta's very businesslike about making his deliveries as promised—even though half his customers can't pay—but I think I could distract him enough to forego punctuality or at least enough to burn a loaf or two. Of course, that would probably only delay this little surprise.

"I don't like surprises."

"I know. This is good though, I promise."

I can hear a hint of nervousness in his voice that he tries to pass off as enthusiasm as he grabs for a pastry cutter and flashes me another smile. It's his anxiety that convinces me. Whatever this is about, Peeta needs me.

I spend half the day wondering what it is that Peeta needs to show me. If it's good, I don't see how we'll find it in the merchant side of town, where his lost family and lost friends burned. That's what I associate with the shops that line the street in that part of town even as the past is slowly erased and replaced with the new. But it can't be about the past: he promised it would be a good surprise.

A good surprise.

I chant that to myself to keep my nerves from fraying, as I walk alongside of him. It keeps me from fleeing, keeps me following him right into the center of town. I try to ignore the heads that turn as we walk by. We don't often go for strolls together like this, where people are more likely see us. They're more accustomed to Peeta out and about on his deliveries alone. I'm almost a stranger, keeping as much to myself as possible. So, it's no wonder we draw some attention. It's District 12 though, and people are good enough not to approach us and let us go about our business unmolested.

What our business is, however, I'm not sure, even as Peeta slows his steps and looks at me with his brows arched and mouth drawn tight, expecting me to say or do something.

I glance around and the only thing I see is a fresh concrete foundation poured with just a quarter wall constructed around three sides. There's no way of telling what it will be once it's finished other than a merchant building, but Peeta's eyes keep darting over to it like it's important somehow.

"This is it," he says, walking towards the bricked wall.

It is important to Peeta, because this is the surprise. I scan the construction site to see if I've missed something. "This?"

If this is meant to be a good surprise, my response is lackluster at best, but if he's disappointed, he doesn't show it. He's almost giddy. That's the only way to explain why his hands clutch my waist without warning and lift so that I find myself deposited atop the wall. Like a sack of flour.

I glower down at him, mostly trying to hide the fact that heat is rising up my neck and cheeks, as his hands slide to my hips and linger longer than need be. His whole maneuver was completely unnecessary. I'm short, but not so short that I couldn't see this incomplete merchant building without being perched atop an incomplete wall. What's worse, anyone could have seen him hoist me up here, which only heightens my embarrassment over the hot twinge I felt at his ridiculous show of strength.

He gives me a broad smile like he can read it in my face. He's getting good at that again—the ability to read people almost effortlessly.

He rubs his chin and gestures to the building site, tools left scattered about, bricks piled at the ready next to empty tubs for mixing mortar. "I copied the footprint of the old bakery, but I decided to build here, instead of over the old one." There's a twitch in his cheek, and without having to say it, I understand why he'd choose to build somewhere else. "It won't be quite as big either. With no one living here, it seemed wasteful."

There's a fair chance he says more, but my attention is now firmly fixed upon the building. The world grinds to a halt as I try to make out how this will become the Mellark Bakery. I inhale slowly, as I try to absorb the realization that Peeta's well enough that he can resurrect his family's bakery. The meadow turns green and Peeta will hang a Mellark Bakery sign above a new store.

Peeta, the boy with the bread.

His back is straight, his chin lifted as he gestures to something, as he no doubt sees the bakery taking shape in his mind, according to the plans he has devised, and the setting sun catches the pale gold of his lashes. He looks proud. He should be.

"Katniss?"

I rest my hand on the back of Peeta's neck, drawing my fingers through the curls there, forgetting for a moment that people might see us, letting the worry that we're always being watched slip away for a moment. "You never breathed a word of it."

He slides hands into his pockets, rocking slightly. "I wanted to make sure I could go through with it. But it feels good."

I don't like the distance between us, where I stand atop the wall with my head unaccustomedly higher than his, so I plop down to sit and let my legs dangle into what will someday soon be a warm bakery full of beautifully decorated cakes and cookies and nourishing bread. I nudge his shoulder with mine and attempt to smile though a strange sense of loss that floods my chest, a selfish wanting that threatens to eat away at the happiness of this moment. This bakery will be his world, not mine, not ours. It will take him away from me.

Peeta kicks at the wall with his prosthetic and his shoe makes an odd hollow sound. "The bakery could take care of us. We wouldn't have to depend on the Capitol. I thought that might be better. For both of us."

There's an appeal to not relying on the Capitol. I've never been comfortable with it and the revolution didn't change that. Still, part of me wants to say that it isn't his responsibility to take care of me. Of course, we've been taking care of each other for years now. That's what we do, even if we're not really married, even if we've never toasted.

If I could learn to let him take care of me in this new way, where would I fit in, sitting at home, trying not to sleep the day away, and occasionally slinking off into the woods to hunt or stare into the middle distance? I don't want to be a burden, someone who profits off Peeta's hard work with nothing to contribute. "What about me?"

"I want this for us."

"The customers won't want my biscuits."

Haymitch's geese rejected the last batch. He claimed they were afraid they'd break a tooth on them.

"As fond as I am of your brick like biscuits, I don't think they'd be a big seller," he says with a grin. "But I'll need help in front, dealing with customers."

I side eye him, quirking one brow at this very bad idea. "You want me to work in the front?"

"With your sunny disposition, you'd be perfect."

I roll my eyes at him, but his teasing helps soothe the wanting, the fear of losing him to this place, to the people of the District who need him.

He pulls his hand free of his pants pocket and places it on my thigh, squeezing. His touch is warm. I can feel the heat of him through the thin fabric. This constant heat he radiates must be why we have to sleep with the windows open.

"You'll keep me from making horrible decisions that bankrupt us."

"I might not be terribly good at that job either." Yes, I often point out to Peeta that he gives away as much as he sells, but in truth, I admire that about him—the ability to be generous after everything. Pain and loss hasn't made him hard. That generosity saved me once. It could save someone else. "But, I'll help if that's what you want."

"I want," he begins, but stops, tapping his pointer finger on my thigh. A group of children runs by, shrieking with joy, playing at some game and completely oblivious to our presence. As they pass and silence envelops us once more, I can hear him swallow. "I want the sign above the door—Mellark's—to mean you too. I still want that. Or I want it again."

It's not a proposal. But it's a confession of sorts, and unlike before, it doesn't make me feel guilty or confused or uncomfortable. I thought the Capitol had taken Peeta's love from me, but it's still there. He wants me. Again. Always. He just had to remember. And maybe I've been so worried about him not ever truly remembering, of us being too broken or patched together like sad ragdolls that I forgot to notice all the signs that he'd remembered a long time ago.

I hop down from the wall. "Let's go home."

"Is everything okay?"

"Yeah, it's really good."

I can't even bring myself to feel bad about feeling this surge of happiness and relief and want. I want to go home with Peeta. I want to be inside with the door shut and the windows open and I want him to kiss me until I can't breathe.

He laces his fingers through mine, and I don't care who sees us as we walk home.

As the door to our house closes behind us, Peeta opens his mouth. I can see from the line between his brows that he's about to question me about the bakery, about dragging him back here with an urgency I can see he's misunderstood. I stop him with a tug on his shirt, bringing his lips down to mine.

Just a brush of my lips over his, and I feel the tug, the spark light me up from the inside.

Whatever protest he intended on making, it withers on the vine, when I say I want to go upstairs and add a please for good measure. Peeta's not exactly known for his speed, but he makes it up the stairs quick enough, and I don't have to worry about further explanation, when he catches me in his arms and backs me into our bedroom. With his hot mouth latched onto the sensitive spot below my ear and the backs of my knees hitting the bed, it seems he's figured out what I want.

It's a flurry of fumbling fingers and panted assurances, and finally I'm staring up at Peeta, as he breathes raggedly against my brow, the both of us stripped to our underwear. He's on top of me like I wanted, heavy and solid with the smell of his soap in my nose and his curls brushing my forehead. I want to ignite the fire between us again, I want to burn. My hands skate over his firm stomach and toy at the band of his shorts, my fingers trailing through the hair that peeks just over the edge.

He whispers my name, his hands balling up the sheets on either side of my head. It doesn't feel like the beginning of an episode, but I peer up into his eyes to be sure. Blue eyes dominated by huge pupils stare back at me. He looks like he doesn't quite believe we're here.

I blindly slide his shorts further down his hips, holding his gaze. "I don't know what I'm doing."

I don't want a repeat of the night, when I'd rubbed against him on the couch and ended up spending the next hour scouring the kitchen, while I listened to the shower run upstairs for three times longer than usual. I'm not sure he understands the depth of my ignorance, despite having teased me once for being pure. It was a mix of shame and fear that made me clam up that night. Still straddling him, while he pressed kisses along my neck, I had no response to his question, "Did you?"

I still don't know what he meant by his question. It's like Peeta was talking in codes and I'm at a complete loss to solve it. I didn't have the nerve to ask him what he meant, but I know I want tonight to end differently.

He lowers his lips to mine, kissing me as if I hadn't just warned him that whatever his expectations, he better lower them. His one hand slides behind my back, pulling me into him, where I can feel him hard against my stomach. I may only have the barest notion of what we're about, but the feel of him only confirms it: I want more. I imagine what he might feel like inside of me and it's like a jolt of electricity, sending my heart racing.

I arch my back, pressing into him. I like the sound he makes. It's the best sound this little bed has ever heard, all raw and needy and good, and I want to hear him make it again. I hook my leg up and rock against him, and for a moment we're moving together and he's nipping and kissing and sucking and everything is so right. But then his hand clutches at my hip, stilling my eager movements and his lips leave my skin wet and dotted with goose bumps, and we're not moving, we're not heading towards that thing I've chased.

"I need to know something." He breathes purposefully through his nose. "Why?"

Why do you want this? Why me? Why now? It's all packed into that one heavy word.

Once that question would have been almost impossible for me to answer, a superhuman task of trying to unravel the mess of my feelings, tangled up in guilt, fear, and loneliness. But it's not experimentation, it's not proximity, it's not pity or an escape or the base need to feel something.

"Because I want that too. The sign on the bakery. Our home. Our bed. I want that."

"You want that," he repeats, and the look of wonder on his face is almost too much and I let my eyes slip closed. I'm not worth all that marvel, all that joy, but I understand, because I feel it too, I feel that same thing that brightens Peeta's face. I feel it for him.

My yes is as much an agreement as an encouragement, because his lips are on me again, hot and driven by an impatience that I share. I feel that thing again, the hunger that overtook me on the beach. The sensation inside me grows warmer and spreads out from my center, down through my body, out along my arms and legs to the tips of my curling toes.

He doesn't ask permission to run the flat of his tongue over my sensitive skin or slide his hand down my stomach, under the elastic of my underwear, down to the source of the heat, and I don't have the breath to give it if he did. Instead of satisfying me, the kisses have had the opposite effect, making my need greater. I never quite understood why people wanted each other like this. I thought I was something of an expert on hunger, but this is an entirely new kind.

"Like this?"

I don't know if his touch is what I expected, but it feels new and good, so I nod my head vigorously.

I desperately want him to feel what I'm feeling, so we're together in this, sharing goodness instead of pain. My hand snakes down between us, and I fumble to reach into his shorts. His throaty whispered nonsense, as he tilts his head to watch, makes me smile against his curls. I can barely move with his chest pressing into me and our arms tangled together, but the strangled noise Peeta makes in the back of his throat makes me think it doesn't matter that the angle is awkward and I'm completely inexpert.

I was naked with him in the shower once, but I've never touched him like this. I've never touched anyone like this. His hand on me, my hand on him makes my stomach feel like it's dropped and my chest heave. I writhe underneath his touch, wanting more, more, more. More of him, more of us, now.

My mouth runs ahead of my brain, as I stutter and shake. "Underwear. Take them off," I demand, tripping over my words, while my legs wrap around him and probably make it impossible for him to comply.

When he tells me to hold on and extricates himself from my clawing hands, leaving the bed and moving towards the dresser, I experience a moment of panic, my newfound confidence shaken. I cross my arms over my chest and scoot up towards the pillows. He doesn't look like he's leaving, but I can't figure out why he's gotten up to dig through his drawer. I wanted him to remove clothes, not put them on.

"I, um…" Peeta turns and his cheeks are tinged pink. He holds out a box and walks back to me. "I should probably use one of these," he says, settling back on the bed with the neon orange box between us on the sheets.

It says it boldly in black on the box, so I know what it contains even though I've never actually seen one. Condoms are something people in the Capitol had access too, but you couldn't even get them for sale in the Hob before the rebellion. Procreation—particularly in the districts, which labored and made possible the lifestyle enjoyed in the Capitol—was too important for Panem's future, for anyone to have access to contraception of any kind.

I'm staring at them like he's just produced a hoard of treasure—they're about as rare and potentially as expensive—from his drawer, where he keeps his undershirts and shorts. "Where did you get these?"

"One of our Capitol shipments." My eyes widen, as I picture him putting in an order for condoms along with flour and sugar. "I'm not the one who ordered them." He opens the box and pulls out a square foil wrapper. "Haymitch gave them to me."

I pull my legs up to my chest, my face twisting into a grimace. "That's…unsettling."

"You didn't have to sit through the tutorial."

A laugh bubbles up from my stomach, making my eyes crease and my naked flesh jiggle. My laughter proves to be more contagious than the tears we sometimes shed at night in each other's arms. I hope he's joking, but whether or not he actually endured a sexual education seminar from Haymitch, our laughter cuts through the tension, and I can feel the panic oozing out of my muscles. When his hand wraps around my ankle and pulls, my legs unwind willingly, my limbs pliable in his hands.

Underwear tossed off the side of the bed, breathless kisses, and a slightly clumsy opening of a packet leads us to the moment where it's clear that Peeta really did learn at some point how to use a condom, and then I'm caged by his arms with my heels pressing into the small of his back.

He shifts and wraps his hand around mine, guiding it down. "Help me."

Together, together, together.

My breath catches in my throat. "Slow," I warn him. It's only just occurred to me that this is probably going to hurt.

At first it doesn't. It's all anticipation and thrill that this is really happening, when I didn't think it was possible for me, for us. And then it almost feels like too much, a strange intrusion that my body doesn't know what to do with. I squeeze his bicep at the feeling of thick fullness that overwhelms me, as our bodies meet flush together.

I've known real pain and this isn't anything like that, but it's uncomfortable. It's a nagging pinch. I'm about to tell him not to move, when I realize that his face is contorted and the muscles in his arms are visibly tensed. I draw my fingers through his curls, trying to get him to open his eyes.

"Okay?"

"You feel so good…I'm not going to last."

I'm not romantic. I never really fantasized or had expectations about this moment. All I want is for this to be real, for both of us. Nothing false, nothing contrived, just us together. The rest will come.

I dig my heels in, urging him to move. "S'okay." That's what the rest of the box is for.

He doesn't last, but for as long as he does, I kiss his cheeks, his lips, his nose, and when his eyes screw shut and hips falter and I feel his exhale as if it comes from inside of me, I whisper his name, because it's just us and it was always supposed to be this way.

He rolls off of me to the side. His breathing still hasn't quite slowed and his eyes fix on me with intensity that makes my legs squirm in the sheets. I can almost see him thinking, planning something. When his hand steals between my legs, I almost protest, but his touch is gentle and causes no pain. It might be his hand or it might be the promises he whispers against my temple and the unspoken things I hear in his voice, but suddenly I'm not chasing that thing anymore. Suddenly it's upon me and my whole world collapses in on itself until my nails dig crescent moons into Peeta's flesh, and all I see are the bright stars behind my closed lids.

It's early yet, but my limbs are heavy with a good sort of exhaustion, when I flop onto my back, brushing wisps of hair off my face with the back of my hand. There's a shyness that steals over me, thinking over what we've just done, as he fumbles alongside of me—probably with the condom. There's been a shift between us, and I don't know if I have adequate words to explain to Peeta what this meant to me, what he means to me.

I lean over the edge of the bed, grabbing for whatever I can reach to slip on over my quickly cooling skin. It happens to be his t-shirt—white and soft and smelling of the cinnamon he used in baking this morning—that I pull it over my head.

He's still watching me, when I turn back to him, and his hand reaches out to brush my hip, where the t-shirt pools, too long and too wide for me. His other hand is right above the place where his prosthetic fits over what's left of his leg. It's an angry red, I realize, and he's unconsciously rubbing it.

"Here," I say, moving to unlatch the prosthetic and remove the source of his discomfort.

I've watched him remove it time and again, I know what to do. Compared to what we've just done, this isn't what most people would call intimate: it's just a piece of metal and plastic, it's not him, not really. But he goes still under my questing fingers, as I undo first one latch and then another. The ragged breath he draws, when I finish and prop the leg up by the bed, makes it sound like he'd been holding his breath, and maybe he had. Maybe we've both been holding our breath for months.

"Katniss," he whispers, his hand slipping up into my messy braid. "You love me. Real or not real?"

I didn't know whether I was capable of loving someone like this, and there aren't really words enough to describe my feelings. But, I don't need flowery speeches. I don't need the right words. I think he already knows, because I think we both know for certain; so, I only need one.

"Real."

THE END