Chapter 1: Action Potential
Author: Ella (thesewordselope)
Fandom: The Hunger Games Trilogy
A/N: Filling in the blanks on how Katniss and Peeta grow back together at the end of Mockingjay. Pre-epilogue. Spoilers for all three books. Canon-compliant. Thanks to Jessi, Angela, and Lindsey for comments. I plan to write more fics in this series, so stay tuned.
Content notice: This chapter has been lightly censored to comply with FF's policy banning explicit content. If you are 18+ years old and wish to read the story in its original, uncensored form, you may do so at AO3 (you will be asked if you are old enough to view explicit content before you can view the story). You can find the link to my AO3 profile on my FF bio page.
I can't remember the last time that sleep came easily, and lately bedtime has turned into the distraction Olympics. I follow the ceiling fan's blades around and around with my eyes until I am dizzy. I nudge Buttercup off of the bed with my feet. I pick the dirt out from under my fingernails by moonlight. Shockingly, none of it helps me sleep. I even try touching myself, but let's be honest, that hasn't worked since the first reaping.
Actually, no, that isn't true. There had been a few times, during the relatively relaxed months between the end of the first Games and the Quarter Quell announcement, that it had worked. Not that I can remember any exact instances or anything, but it can't really have been two whole years, can it? Can a person even go that long? It occurs to me that I don't even know anyone whom I could ask a question like that.
I don't think a normal person could go that long, but I suppose I'm an extreme case.
Dr. Aurelius had given me a bottle of pills to help me sleep before I departed the Capitol for home. I keep them on the bureau on the far side of the room, mainly so that they're far enough away that I have to make a deliberate decision to get up and take them. I don't really like them and try not to take them except for in extreme circumstances. They make me feel... anchored. Like I'm floating in a bathtub with the water draining, and my limbs are slowly losing buoyancy, becoming heavy, turning to stone and weighing me down against the bottom. That part isn't so bad, and I do have to admit that they make me sleep like a rock, but they also make my vision skittish and my head fuzzy. So, like I said, I try not to take them.
Without the pills, I'm a bit short on coping mechanisms and long on thoughts that keep me awake. It hadn't always been this way. I used to have a coping mechanism that worked, but I'm afraid that too much had happened to us and between us for that to work again. I don't want to depress myself thinking about the Victory tour, so tonight I try to keep my thoughts neutral. Tomorrow I'm going to go hunting (without Gale). I'm going to bring any kills to (the Hob) the new village and sell them to (Mayor Undersee, Darius, Peeta's father) Greasy Sae. I'm going to come home (without Prim) and feed Buttercup (Prim) and sit around the house and mope for a while (about Prim) before going to Haymitch's house for tea.
I look through the window at Haymitch's house and see the lights on in the kitchen. I could probably go over there now for tea. It would be better than kidding myself in this bed any longer.
My bedclothes cover me well enough, so I slip on some shoes and head out into the pleasantly crisp night. The night sounds are soothing: leaves rustling in the light breeze, crickets chirping, gravel crunching beneath my feet. I wonder if I could sleep better outside?
I'm not sure why, but I pause outside of Peeta's house. The lights are all off, the curtains drawn. I know he's inside, though. I know it logically (where else would he be?), but I also know it viscerally. I can feel it, as if there's an invisible thread that binds us together, and I am always aware of his presence at the other end. Peeta is home. I wonder if he's having any better luck than I am with the whole sleeping thing. Somehow I doubt it. I don't exactly have a monopoly on misery.
I step up to the front porch and rest my hand on the front doorknob. I don't know if this was the plan all along, but this is what I'm doing now. The knob turns, and I push the door open slowly. The house is completely dark, but the layout is exactly the same as mine, so it isn't difficult to find the stairs and the main bedroom from there.
My eyes adjust to the darkness, and I can make out a Peeta-shaped lump in the bed with the help of a little bit of moonlight coming in through the partially-open window. I can hear him grinding his teeth in his sleep. He's on his back, with one arm thrown over his head on the pillow and the other hand tucked under his chin. Despite being asleep, he looks very uncomfortable. His prosthetic is propped up against the bedside table, and then I notice the flat sheets where his leg should be. I've actually never seen him without the prosthetic on; he used to sleep in it when we were together. It had never really occurred to me that it might have been more comfortable for him to take it off, and now I wonder why he hadn't. Maybe it would have made him even less comfortable to let me see him without it.
I take a step toward the bed, but then I pause. I don't even know if it is safe to be here. Peeta and I haven't discussed his treatment in the Capitol, so I have no idea exactly how much progress he's made, but I do know that he's come a long way. In the past few months, we've actually gotten to the point where we are fairly comfortable being alone in each other's presence during the day, taking the occasional meal together in my kitchen or his, or working on our books together. We never talk much, but we are slowly learning to be around one another without too many awkward glances or conversational missteps. Silence helps. With Peeta, the silences are almost always comfortable, just like they were with Gale. The worst that's happened so far is that I've caught him a few times looking at me like he doesn't quite know what to think, but those moments are getting fewer and further between. This is different, though, because we haven't been able to face one another in the dark yet, not without the sobering light of the sun coming in through the window, illuminating all the shadowy corners and chaperoning our every move. Even so, I think I'm safe right now. Safe enough.
The other question is whether I should wake him, if he's managed to fall asleep... but I am also positive that he's not having pleasant dreams at the moment, given that he's grinding his teeth and grimacing in his sleep. And, in a selfish way, I need him to be awake. I need to share this misery with the only person in the world who has a chance of understanding. Maybe I can help him too. It wouldn't be the first time.
I cross the remaining distance and put a hand on Peeta's arm, the one that's flung over his head. He doesn't respond, so I squeeze it gently. "Peeta," I whisper. Then, more loudly, "Peeta. Wake up."
His body tenses, and then his other hand clamps down on my forearm. He snaps into a sitting position and starts to jerk me down violently, but then realization dawns on his face. "Shit. Katniss." He lets go of my arm. "I'm sorry... are you okay?"
The shock hurt more than the squeezing and jerking, but I rub my arm anyway. I probably asked for that. "Yeah, I'm fine. I should've known better."
Peeta sighs and sits back, making room for me on the bed. I sit down next to him, letting my feet dangle just over the cold floor. "You're lucky I didn't... well... look, if you're going to wake me up, maybe you should do it from across the room from now on."
"You were grinding your teeth," is all I can think to say. It sounds lame, even to me. "Nightmares?"
"What else?" I notice his glance flitting to the prosthetic leg for a moment, but he lets it go. "You?"
"No, I couldn't sleep at all. I rarely can." I don't add the part where I was thinking about our nights together on the train.
"We used to help each other with this kind of thing." Now he's toying with the edge of the sheet, not looking at me. "Real or not real?"
"Is that why you're here?" Good fucking question.
"I guess so. I ran out of distractions." I sneak a glance over at him, and he's still playing with the sheet, folding it into pleats. Does he not want to face me? Granted, I'm staring at the doorway instead of looking at him, so we're both facing out instead of each other. After all that we've been through, can we really not look one another in the eye? We sit in silence for a few moments.
"Why didn't you come sooner?" he asks quietly, after some thought. Oh, that's why he doesn't want to look at me. I know he's afraid of how I'll respond, and I don't really know how to answer his question. Part of it was simply shell-shock, part of it was the drugs. Part of it was that I needed time to process everything that had happened in the past two years, but how much time can I reasonably expect to take? I'm not sure that any amount of time would ever be long enough, and I had already made him wait thirteen years. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't been trying to figure out how I felt about Gale, but I know now that Gale and I will never be together. Even if I really had a choice, I still wouldn't choose him. Not now. But that didn't mean I wasn't torn up about it. It didn't mean I didn't desire closure. Suddenly I felt guilty about coming over here.
"I wasn't sure if it was-"
"Safe?" he finishes for me. And yeah, that's a part of it too, so I just nod. It's simpler than trying to explain the rest of it. "I think you are safe, now. They really-" he swallows, "They did a number on me. Back at the Capitol. Dr. Aurelius gave me these pills..."
"I know all about Dr. Aurelius's pills."
Peeta nods. "He actually had some really great ideas, though. I'll tell you about them sometime." He finally turns and looks at me. "I'm guessing you didn't come here to talk right now though, huh?"
He's right. I'm in no mood to talk. Fortunately he scoots over and makes room for me to lie down next to him. To be honest, that isn't really what I want to do right now, either. I'm not even entirely sure what it is that I want to do until I'm doing it. The fact is that thinking about our nights on the train leads me to thinking about all the kisses we shared for the cameras. Thinking about those kisses makes me think of the one kiss that hadn't been for the cameras, which had left me wanting nothing but more. I've had far too much time between now and then to waste with regret. So instead of lying down, I straddle his lap and kiss him again for... not the first time since then, but that's what it feels like. Peeta tries to protest, but I just press our mouths more firmly together, stifling his startled noises. He gives in to it, to me, for a moment, but then he grabs my shoulders and pulls away.
"Who am I to you right now?" I see the slightest glint of accusation in his eyes. It's an ambiguous question, and probably deliberately so. How do I feel about him? Friend. Lover. Victor. Patient. A human morphling drip. Or, quite literally, who was he? Peeta or Gale? I think, in a weird way, he might be both right now.
"I don't know," I say honestly. "Up." Peeta raises his arms slightly so that I can pull his shirt over his head. He doesn't say anything; he just leans back and stares into my eyes. I don't want to make eye contact with him, because then there would be no ambiguity. He wouldn't be anyone or anything else; he would only be Peeta, large, strung-out, warm, tentative, unstable, thoughtful Peeta.
I can't help it. I look, and I can't quite read his expression. Is that a flicker of exasperation or confusion? Indulgence? Bemusement? Sadness? Hesitation? Or is that what I'm feeling? His blue irises have flecks of golden brown around the pupils. If not for that, I could almost pretend that they were Gale's grey eyes in this dim light. No such luck.
"Whoever I am, do you love me?"
My mouth tastes like copper coins. I wasn't prepared for this question. "I don't know."
He finally lets his eyes drop away as he looks around the room, obviously exasperated but trying not to show it. "Could you live without me?" He asks, lilting his voice a little at the word "live", and I know it is a facetious, maybe even sarcastic question.
When I think about life without Peeta, I bring back sense memories of the feel the smooth glass of the hospital syringe in my hand and the tension in my arm when aiming the Mockingjay bow. How many times did I have to gather the resolve to kill Peeta, when I thought he had allied with the Careers, when I thought the Capitol had taken us both as prisoners, when I thought he'd never come out of that awful mutt state, that he'd get in the way, that everything would be for nothing? What luck (or fate) can I thank (or blame) for the fact that it never had to happen? And... I had been prepared to kill Gale as well, hadn't I? I try to ignore the doubt that bubbles up inside me, but after all, hadn't I flaked out on that promise too? "I don't know. Maybe." I lie.
His eyes find mine again, and he's determined now. Resolved. I see a muscle flex at the corner of his jaw. "Can you... survive... without me?" There's no playful lift in his voice this time, only steel, and I feel the sting of his words like the promise of tears. I hold them back, because he doesn't know that I heard his conversation with Gale, and I don't want to change that. I let out a shaky sigh, suddenly very aware of his thighs under mine. More memories come to the surface in the space of a few seconds as I try to tease out an answer.
Gale and I sitting side by side in a tree, laughing; the easy, comfortable companionship. "I love you," Gale had said in the cabin by the lake, probably emboldened by the fact that I finally wanted to run away with him.
Peeta and I in the dripping cave, me kissing him, him delirious and overly warm, bleeding through his bandages. "I don't care if you see me," he had said by the stream that day. He had been half-naked then, and I had seen the hair on his chest just like I could now. "I care, okay?" I had replied.
Prim in her medic outfit, mouthing my name silently moments before the bomb went off a second time, the bomb that Gale conceived, a war tactic born from our hunting games in District 12.
That was the moment, I think. That was when the invisible tether binding me to Gale was cut. It wasn't his fault, of course. He hadn't given the orders, he didn't authorize Prim to travel to the Capitol, and he most certainly would never have done anything to deliberately hurt her.
And yet, none of that matters. Not now. Not where it counts.
It isn't enough that I have to mourn my sister and all the people who died for me, or because of me. I also have to mourn my friendship with Gale.
Is that why I'm here right now?
Peeta's still waiting for an answer. He's still looking right into my eyes, but I can't look back. I'm afraid to, for some reason, like with the muttation monkeys in the Arena that attacked us the moment we made eye contact with them. Eye contact is aggressive, no matter how you slice it. Even animals, even muttations know that. It demands a connection, an answer, a catharsis.
Can I survive without Peeta? I shake my head. "No." It's barely a whisper.
He sits forward at that, cupping my face with his hands, tilting my face up toward his, and he kisses me, soft at first but leaning steadily into it. I open my mouth slightly and feel his tongue pressing just against the flesh of my lips. His hands drop from my face to brush the exposed skin of my shoulders. I am very aware of my hands, which had been on my lap up to this point. What do I do with my hands? I feel a warm fluttering sensation rise from my stomach to my chest, and I decide to rest them on Peeta's sides. I can feel the fine hairs there, less coarse than the ones that had been there before the skin grafts. His hands slide down even further, to my sides, and then he pulls my shirt over my head and moves one hand forward to cup my breast, with the other hand pressed against the small of my back. I feel the cold flush of goosebumps in response to the warmth of his hands on my skin. Oh. Oh.
Our kissing has reached a steady rhythm, not relaxed but not fervent. Deliberate. Strong. I move my torso as close to his as I can, trying to squeeze out all of the space between us. Trying to push us together so that there's no room for doubts or bad memories. I need more. I need... more. I can feel him under my lap, and there's no ignoring the effect I'm having on him right now. I'm not exactly untouched myself, but I still need him closer. I need...
I pull away from him just long enough to lie down on the bed beside him and guide him on top of me. For a moment I think he's going to fall on top of me, but he finds a way to balance most of his weight on his remaining leg. From this angle, the rest of his weight pushes down on me, and he feels a bit closer, but it still isn't enough. Peeta seems very responsive to this shift in position, because his breathing picks up and he's kissing me more fervently now, pushing his tongue further into my mouth, pressing me into the mattress. My whole world is now Peeta; his presence is so immediate and... pervasive... that it blocks out all other stimuli. I notice that he's pushing against the inside of my thigh, and this realization sends a hot, tingling sensation rising from between my legs. Oh, yes.
This new sensation has me feeling bold, so I reach down between us to touch him. This was, apparently, the wrong thing to do, because he pulls away from me. "Katniss..." There's a hesitation in his voice.
"No. It's okay. I want this."
Peeta sighs. "Well, it's pretty obvious that I want it too. But this isn't really how I want it. It's not right."
I frown. "You don't need to protect me, I said it's okay. I'm perfectly capable of making that choice."
"Okay, fine." He pulls away completely at that, sitting back up beside me with an awkward little hopping motion. "Couldn't it be that I'm trying to protect myself? I mean, you come out of nowhere all of a sudden, after all this time-"
"I love you, Katniss. I remember it now, and I have since..." He shrugs. "Well, for a lot longer than you've known about it. I can't do it like this, okay? I need to know that you're..." He casts around for the right word. "That you're with me. That you're present, you know?"
This conversation is only taking us further away from what I need right now. The fact is that being with Peeta has always been the only thing that kept me from imploding. All of the distractions are gone now, and there's nothing left in my house, in my brain, but myself and my memories. The fact is that I need Peeta now more than ever. I need Peeta with me, I need Peeta inside me, because I just can't deal with being the only person inside my skin anymore.
I don't know how to articulate any of that to him. "It's too soon to know what I feel, but I know what I am. I'm yours now, the way you've always been mine. I'm here. I'm with you. No cameras, it's real." All of these things are true, but saying it feels like a weapon.
At any rate, it seems to placate him a little bit, because he settles back down next to me. If he has any big romantic thoughts about what I just said, he doesn't share them. "It's late."
"Can you sleep now?" I just look at him, because it's a stupid question. "Yeah, I know, stupid question." He adjusts his shorts, and I can see that he's still visibly excited. Now that my annoyance is fading away, even the very short distance between us is making me uncomfortable. I lean to the side to kiss him again, tilting my hips so that they're pressed against his. I want to feel him between my legs again, it's almost imperative. He places his hand on the outside of my thigh, rubbing it lightly and making the new hairs stand up on the sensitive skin grafts there. "I have an idea," he whispers.
He sits up a bit and hooks his thumbs under the band of my underwear, then he looks up at me. It takes me a moment before I realize that he's asking for permission, so I give him a small nod and lift my hips so that he can slide them down. He lies back on top of me and kisses my neck, my collarbone, my shoulder, but I'm paying more attention to the feel of him rubbing between my legs through his cotton shorts. I shift my weight down, so that he's now grinding his hips into mine and rubbing himself right up against me. It's so... close... and yet...
My breath feels too big for my chest. I open my mouth and exhale loudly. How long is he content to do this? To press himself against me without...
He pulls away slightly, but before I can protest, he moves his free hand between us and touches me. There. It isn't exactly what I wanted, but oh man, I'll take it. He touches me in small, slow circles, and it feels like I'm rising slowly toward the sky. I close my eyes and I'm somewhere in the clouds, flying higher and higher. I have an unshakeable desire to fidget, and my feet are moving back and forth against the bedsheets. I begin to level off, and it's such a delicious hunger that I dare not speak, dare not even breathe, as if the tension would begin to unravel at the slightest provocation. There are no nightmares, no thoughts, no confusion, no faces of the dead or the estranged. There's nothing up here with me, except for the comforting knowledge that Peeta is somewhere nearby, driving me forward.
In my silent concentration I can hear Peeta's breath growing unsteady and feel his body getting twitchy above mine. He's now grinding lightly but rhythmically against one of my thighs, and I imagine for a moment that instead of rubbing against me, he's pushing into me. Something deep inside me bottoms out at the thought, and instead of floating on my cloudy plateau, I'm diving, plummeting toward the ground. It comes quickly, and I let out a small, startled noise as I crash into it. My abs clench, and my back arches involuntarily off of the bed as sensation rolls over me like waves. Peeta breathes raggedly into my ear as I lose myself, and then, slowly, begin get my bearings back. He's no longer moving, but just pressing tightly into me with his forehead against my temple. We lay like that for a little while, I don't know how long, and eventually our breathing slows down to a normal pace.
When I open my eyes, he's lying on his side next to me and staring at me again. Why does he keep doing that? "What are you thinking?" I ask instead.
"You're so beautiful," he says. I don't really have a response to that, so I scrunch my nose. He chuckles softly. "Do you think you can sleep now?"
"Yeah. I feel like I could sleep for days." Something occurs to me. "What about you? Did you..." I shrug, as if to say you know what I mean. Don't make me say it.
Peeta smiles. "No, I didn't. And yeah, I probably could..."
"You should let me-" I start, but he interrupts me.
"No. I don't think I'm ready for that."
I feel selfish, but I'm already starting to feel quite sleepy. "Okay, then you should do it."
He raises an eyebrow. "What, here? Now?"
"Why not?" It's only fair.
He reaches down and touches himself lightly through his shorts, almost absently. "I would sleep better. And that was- you were-" I'm not sure I've ever seen Peeta at a loss for words before. "You just really have no idea what-"
"-what kind of effect I can have?" I finish for him. "I think I have a rough idea now. Thanks for helping me figure that out."
Peeta laughs out loud at that. "You're welcome," he says, running his thumb over himself now. After a moment, he adds, "I think I'm self-conscious. This is new."
"So close your eyes and pretend I'm not here. Or that I'm nearby but not watching you directly. In all fairness, I might fall asleep, so that should help." He considers this, and then rolls over on his back and closes his eyes. One of his hands rests behind his head, and he puts the other hand under the band of his shorts. I can tell that he's touching himself, but I can't really tell what he's doing exactly. I'm not sure why it matters to me so much, but I really want to see everything, so I grab his shorts and pull them down over his hands.
"Damnit," he rolls his hips to one side and then to the other to help me get the shorts off. "You know, I asked first."
"Shh, I'm not here." I settle back, propping my head in my hand with my elbow against the pillow, taking a long first look at what Peeta had originally been so flippant about letting me see during our first Hunger Games together. I don't care if you see me, he had said. He had also been half-delirious with fever and infection. In any event, I'm definitely seeing it now. I see moonlight illuminating the patchy skin of his stomach, which is currently pulled tightly into goosebumps. I see his pubic hair, darker blonde than the rest of his body hair and twisting into small, tight curls above his-
I thought I was going to fall asleep, but seeing Peeta unclothed brings me back into the moment. That's what he had been pressing against me. That's what I had imagined pushing inside me and what had brought me crashing down. I find myself wanting it all over again, but the desire isn't as sharp as it was before, dulled by sleepiness and my earlier release. I settle for resting my free hand on his stomach, and Peeta inhales sharply at my touch but doesn't open his eyes. He's been touching himself, slowly and deliberately at first, but with a steadily increasing speed.
I wonder how many times Peeta has done this in the past two years. Undoubtedly more often than I have, since I have a vague idea that there's more of a physiological imperative for guys than there is for girls. I wonder how often he thinks of me when he does it. Does he think of me in Cinna's elaborate dresses and makeup, or does he think of me as I was during the Games, dirty, bloody, and full of adrenaline? Did he do it on the other side of the wall from me on the train? In the elaborate Capitol showers? In his tiny bedroom back in the old town? Here, in this bed, on nights before tonight?
Now that my head is clear, I can study him without any distractions. I note the hitching in his breath, the way his head pushes back against the pillow with concentration, and the small movements he makes into his hand. I wonder if this was how he saw me, but no, it had to have been different because I am merely aroused right now and not on the brink. I'm not matching him touch for touch in my head the way he must have been doing with me before. I wonder what I had looked like through his eyes. I wonder what he had felt. I make a mental note to find out some other time. I stop watching his hand and switch my attention to his face. Short blonde curls are sticking to his forehead with sweat. His face is- he's grimacing a bit, in a very concentrated way, and that's strangely arousing, too. What if he was on top of me, pressing into me, making that face? Looking into my eyes with barely controlled desperation? I think I wouldn't mind some direct eye contact in that situation. I think I-
Peeta lets out a low moan and moves even faster. He's definitely in the clouds now. I'm a million miles away to him, but I know he knows we're tethered together, because that's how I had felt, too. My heart rate is speeding up with his movements, as sleepiness melts away and the tether pulls me closer to him. My skin is warm, my body reacting, stirring, as Peeta's movements become more desperate. "Oh, god," he says in a low, understated voice. Oh, god, I think, as his body tenses up and stops moving.
Unexpectedly, he opens his eyes and looks at me as he begins to crash. If I had to pick a word to describe the look he's giving me, the closest word would be concerned, maybe even earnest, but those aren't exactly right, either. I watch his descent, feeling it vicariously through his eyes, and he closes them again as he hits the ground, arching off of the bed a little and making small guttural noises as he comes. I don't see him come because I'm too busy watching his face, but I notice it on his chest and stomach a moment later.
He lets out a long exhale and says, "Damn," in that same understated tone, now looking up at the ceiling. The hand that he had been holding himself with drops to the bedsheet.
I can't move. I have no idea what to say, so I just lie still and wait for him to do or say something. Thankfully, he tilts his head to the side and looks at me again. Most of the intensity is gone from his face, but the sweat still glues his blonde curls to his forehead.
"I love you," he says.
"I know." I really have got to come up with a better response to that.
He gives me a short but deliberate kiss and then moves to the edge of the bed to put on his other leg. He leaves the room for a moment, and I see the light flicker on in the bathroom and hear running water. I roll back and stare at the wooden ceiling, trying not to think too deeply about what just happened. Shallow thoughts only, at least for now. Things may have changed between Peeta and I permanently, but I'll unravel that thread later. Right now, I focus on the fact that I actually feel moderately relaxed. That was good. Peeta was good. Maybe... too good. Has he done that before? I bite the inside of my cheek. As good and relaxed as I feel right now, I feel a brief twinge of irrational jealousy. I hate it.
When he returns he appears to have cleaned up. His face, chest, and stomach glisten with small water droplets that cling to his hair. After pulling his shorts back on, he grabs the covers and pulls them over us both. I can't help noticing that he's left his prosthetic on again. Peeta pulls me close against him and presses his face into my hair. I can feel him toying with the ends of my hair with one hand. "I'm never letting you go now, you know that, right?" he says against the back of my neck, and yeah, I'm okay with that. I don't want to talk anymore, so I close my eyes and listen to the soft sound of his breathing, feeling the slow rise and fall of his chest against my back. I fall asleep almost immediately, and I'm blessed with no dreams. At least, none that I can remember.
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