Chapter 22

We lie quietly in bed, under the covers that hide us from the world. Exposed underneath them, but only to ourselves. A privilege we gifted each other as our skins touched amidst sweat and elation. Our bodies and souls like magnets, oppositely connected. I thought Peeta may have fallen asleep, but the movement of his hand as it strokes my hair lets me know otherwise. His eyes are still closed, while I watch the small curve on the corner of his mouth. A lot subtler than the smile I'm wearing. Timidly thinking about how he catered to my hunger. How his warm body entwined in mine tells me it won't be long until I'm famished again.

I can't help but think about how far we've come. Loaves of bread were tossed. Names picked from a bowl on reaping day. The way his voice cought when he confessed his feelings to Caesar Flickerman. The rush I felt when I realized that not only Peeta was trying to protect me from the careers, but a rule change could take us home together. Our kisses in the cave. The first one that made me want more. Rebellion in the form of small berries in our hands. Confusion and distance. His trust despite my actions. Desperation from another reaping. His arms around me on the train. Little knots in my hair as we shut ourselves from the world on the rooftop. Promises and yearning on the beach. Then life turned inside out from feeling his hate instead of love. A new understanding of what we were paired with bitterness, fear, and a faint glimmer of hope that we could be once again. War, pain, bombs. Fire mutts made of patchwork. Our lives inevitably compromised, even as he saved me once again. Finally, a sensation that grows along with our old skin, which fights through the burn patches only to accept that the scars are here to stay. Though it doesn't mean they're all we have. There's more to life than pain and nightmares, I discover, by giving Peeta all of me.

I understand now what he said to me before our second games. He chose a different time for his request, faced with the possibility of losing each other one more time. But not me. Unknowingly, I saved my wish for later. If I could freeze one moment and live in it forever, I'd choose this one. Vulnerable, yet never stronger. Lying next to him, whose arms are the only ones that could ever make me feel this safe.

I think this is what could be described as perfect. Except I deny myself such a thought. It'd feel like overbearing indulgence next to my frame of mind, now always more fragile than before that hot reaping day. Because although I feel protected, I also feel more scared than I've been in a long time. If, before, the possibility of Peeta's death could have damaged me beyond repair, the very thought of him walking away could lead me to the edge of sanity. I take a deep breath to remember that the games are over. Snow is gone forever and he can't take Peeta away from me. At least not again. Not even Coin can pit us against each other. But logic and rational arguments can't stop my heart from sinking to the pit of my stomach. Whatever I'm feeling is stronger than me. This quiet agony that lets me know we are now inseparable. I need him and he needs me. I am his, and he is mine. If Peeta were to die and leave me alone in this world, I'd meet him at midnight in the hanging tree. We'd be side by side as I've now decided we should be.

Peeta turns to me and awakes me from my morbid thoughts. My fear of losing him getting the best of me. He gives me a long kiss and I gladly surrender my defences to him once again, until he stops to trace the scars on my arm with his fingers. He runs through them like a winding road and resumes his kissing shortly after. He's speechless, like before. Though I don't dare say a word, either. Terrified I could ruin this moment, the one I chose for our peek into infinity. So I rest my head on his arm, and we watch ourselves in each other's eyes. It's dark, but even with the curtains Peeta remembered to pull shut, I can still see how blue his eyes really are. In the dusk of his bedroom, they look navy blue, like the water that glistened in the moonlight by our beach in the arena. I could swear it even shines likes the waves that moved rhythmically towards the sand. I'm fascinated by the complexity of his irises; something I've paid more attention to ever since I learned to fear dilated pupils and clutched hands on his behalf. Knowing Peeta has a better grip of reality is rewarding in a strange way. As if his journey back to himself is also a journey back to me. I truly belong to his reality now, as he belongs to mine.

I lean in closer again and Peeta kisses my forehead, not before he touches the same spot where my wound set, dripping blood in the cave as I fought through light-headedness and the desire to keep his lips on mine. It's been only two years, but it was enough time for me to die and come back to life on multiple occasions. Every time, a little different. Transformed. Growing into something the sixteen-year-old me could have never envisioned. Learning that I don't always have to do things on my own and put on a permanent scowl to evade the outside world that had hurt me so much. Help is okay. The twisted lesson from the games that has become some sort of blessing. You make allies, sometimes you make friends. Some of them take you by surprise when they change into nothing less than family. And then there's Peeta, who's fought his way in through my hard exterior to take refuge in my mind as ally, friend, and family. More than all of that, really.

The truth is I can't survive on my own. Mockingjays need their wings, and I need the certainty that life isn't lost. Something to help me to keep fighting. Something bigger than the bow and arrows my father left me. I wince at the realization that my fear of losing everything is justified by the conviction that being left alone would make me fade away. I'd lose myself too. Wasn't that the case years ago when we slowly disappeared from starvation? If it wasn't for Prim, I could have given up. I could have let myself slip just like I tried to at the training centre, unaware of my trial and how Haymitch made arrangements to bring me back home.

My flinching brings Peeta back to wherever his mind had wandered as he drew awkward circles on my thigh with the tips of his fingers. Causing goose bumps all over my body.

"Sorry. I didn't mean to..." he says, finally finding his voice again.

"What are you apologizing for?" I ask.

"I don't know. I'm still trying to tell whether I'm really here," he confesses. His blue eyes size me up and touches my cheek, almost as if it check whether I'm here or if it's just an apparition.

I place my hand on top of his and then bring it to my mouth, kissing each one of his fingers before I place a peck on the corner of his mouth. "Well, I don't know about you, but I'm here. See?" I say and pretend to pinch him.

"Yes, you are," he mutters, eventually convinced that this is no delusion created by his haunted mind. The venom isn't tricking him this time. And really, how could it? Everything we just went through being so new and so unexpected. Yet, the only logical progression given what I feel for Peeta.

"Katniss..." he whispers when I lodge my head on his bare chest, suddenly wishing to draw clumsy circles on his skin too.

"Yes?" I look up, a faint smile on my face.

"Nothing," he shakes his head on the pillow and seemingly loses his ability to speak again. Silently watching the ceiling, even though there's nothing to see in the blunt darkness but the outline of our faces and bodies. He wraps both of his arms around me again. His firm grip lets me know my fear of losing him is not unlike his own fear of watching me slip away. Like the many times before we searched for each other in the night and found nothing but emptiness.

Why do we have to go through so much pain, to lose each other and to lose ourselves, to finally be able to see what matters most? Life is a tricky game, not unlike the fight to the death in the arenas where we used to seek each other. I struggle trying to understand, why me? Why us? What is it that makes us the chosen ones that get to live on while everybody else perished? My sweet Prim, who never hurt anyone. Finnick, who will never meet his baby boy. Boggs and Cinna, friends I found in distress and lost under not much different circumstances. Little Rue, who gave mockingjays a song to sign and, in a similar way, helped me become the person I had to be to give her death meaning. Even my father, who inadvertently earned me a medal for his death. The Capitol's twisted way of rewarding tragedy. Only send bombs after us. Wiping Peeta's family away in the process. Killing the sweet man who thought of giving me cookies, even as I marched to my death alongside his son. No. Who gets to decide that they go and we have to stay?

I'm troubled by my mix of emotions, especially as a stubborn tear slides from my eye into Peeta's chest. He brings his hand to my face, checking if I really am crying. It's when the floodgates open. His eyes widen, now really worried that something's wrong. Always careful and concerned with my well-being, even in the way he made me his. I don't want him to think any of this is his fault, since this is only me bringing every feeling to the surface tonight. I lift myself up until my face is directly above his. He looks at me, observant, as one more tear falls down. He wipes it off while holding my gaze, seemingly trying to read my deepest thoughts. Without saying a word, he tells me it will be all right. That whatever enemy I'm fighting, whatever's stabbing my heart this time, will go away come morning light. He brings me down for a kiss and comforts me in the way only Peeta knows how. Every worry, every thought of injustice is lifted from my shoulders and my mind. Replaced with the sinking knowledge that the truth is that nobody gets to decide who stays and who goes. We just don't get to choose. But that doesn't change the fact that we are the ones who did stay. Our burden at times larger than that carried by those who are gone forever. Because we are left with the memories and the moments we'll never get back. All we can do is try to survive. We try to keep going. And in that way, we honour our losses. We do. We. Together.

And this is when it hits me. My moment of reckoning found in between Peeta's lips. The one it took me two years to understand. The one he's waited for since he was five years old. The understanding that though I can be strong on my own, I can be better and get better by his side. That what I need to survive is not Gale's fire, kindled with rage and hatred. I have plenty of fire myself. What I need is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again. And only Peeta can give me that.

I kiss him once more, hoping to convey my wish to move on by his side. To make it count and wait for better days. With no more confusion, no more riddles. Lovers, at last. No longer star-crossed, I'm happy to finally recognize.

So after, when he whispers, "You love me. Real or not real?"

I tell him, "Real."

A/N: Well, this is it. I hope you enjoyed the ride as much as I did. I will be back with more Everlark stories and I'm planning something special for the epilogue in later. If you're interested in keeping up with them, all you have to do is add me to your author alerts. You can find chapter 21 here from Peeta's pov: /s/8372682/1/Piece_by_Piece

Thank you for your amazing reviews throughout this journey. They were very helpful, and even one line was enough to make me smile.

Reminder that I changed the rating to M just to allow me some more flexibility with Katniss' "thoughts," but I tried to keep the actual rating as close to something that could have been in the book as possible.