Chapter 2: Exocytosis

See Chapter 1 for other notes.

Warning: This chapter contains graphic depictions of violence.

Peeta soaks in the river, staring at the birds flying overhead. The sunlight dapples through the leaves of the tall trees far above him, glimmering gold and orange and fading slowly to red. His tracker jacker stings feel almost alive with the way they make his senses buzz and tingle, but the soaking helps a little. The gash in his leg is much, much worse, and he's too terrified to look at it right now. He honestly doesn't know how he even made it as far as the river with such a bad cut.

He closes his eyes, trying to concentrate on breathing through the pain, but it's hard to stay afloat with his eyes closed because his sense of balance is all off-kilter. "Proooo-priiii-ooooh-cept-ion" he says out loud, feeling the roundness of the word stretching his numb lips. He has no idea where he learned that word. It doesn't feel like something from this life; it feels like it comes from someone else's memories, but that doesn't even make sense. None of this makes sense. None of this is real.

Real bleeds into not real because, he thinks, there is no way that his skin is really undulating like that. He watches as little bumps begin to rise all along on his arms and then begin to move in seemingly random patterns. Peeta's heart speeds up as the bumps- the things under his skin- start to move up from his limbs and toward his face. He tries to push them back down his arms with his hands, but they just tunnel deeper under his skin. They buzz more loudly, and Peeta gets the very surreal impression that whatever they are, they're angry. Peeta starts to see black blossoms in front of his vision, and he's afraid that he's actually going to pass out from fear. He has no idea what to do, so he starts screaming.

He feels her hands grip the back of his jacket before he sees her. "Shut up, Peeta, someone will hear you," she hisses, pulling him out of the water and up onto the river bank, where she unbuckles his belt and pulls off his soaking wet pants. She lifts his torso and pulls his shirt over his head, and finally she takes out a knife and cuts off his underwear. He wants to ask her what the hell she's doing or how she found him, but he's rooted to the spot with fear, unable to move his limbs or his lips. Then, she says, "You're not going to like this," and plunges her fingers knuckle-deep into each of his stings. She pulls a live tracker jacker out of each of his wounds, and now he knows what has been moving around under his skin, vibrating his entire body. He wants to scream again, but this time he can't find his breath.

Slowly, she pulls them all out one by one, each time sticking her fingers under his skin and digging until she can get a good grip on one of the insects. He feels her fingers wriggling under his skin, and it doesn't hurt, but it makes him dizzy and nauseous. As the buzzing and crawling feeling begins to melt away, he feels his breathing and his heartbeat begin to slow down. When she's finally finished, she bends down and kisses every sting, and the touch of her lips burns for a moment, sealing the open wound closed. She kisses his neck, down each arm, down his chest, around his hips, and down his legs, more times than he can count, cauterizing his skin as she goes. With each kiss, he feels himself drift further and further from panic, and his arms and legs, which he didn't realize he'd been clenching, go limp. She kisses back up his legs, brushing his bare groin with her cheek, letting her hair linger on him, tickling the exposed skin.

He closes his eyes for a moment, just a moment, and when he opens them again, she's hovering above him, naked and glistening with river water that drips into his face. She lies on top of him and kisses him on the lips. He's still in a lot of pain, but the body kisses have relaxed him a bit and primed him for arousal all the same, so he opens up to her. She scrapes his lips with her teeth, grabbing his hand and placing it between her legs. He feels around confusedly for a moment before finding her hood with his index finger, and she moans into his mouth. "I want you to kiss me," she says, "You love me, don't you? That's what you said? Show me you love me." I am kissing you, he wants to say, but he can't get enough force behind his breath to make a sound. She pulls away from him and kneels over his face, with one leg on each side of his head. "I want you to kiss me here," she says, so he kisses her there. She tastes like saltwater.

He runs his tongue up and down between her folds, kissing her skin lightly and softly as she hums with delight above him. "Show me you love me," she pants again, "Show me. Show me." She rocks herself against his face, riding his lips and his tongue, gripping the sides of his head. He can't breathe, but the taste of her is so tangy and invigorating, and her breath is so heavy, that he can't bring himself to stop. It's all he can do to hold on to consciousness.

After a while she moves away, sliding back down his body until they're face to face again, and she grinds her hips down against him. She rubs herself firmly back and forth against his erection, pressing down but not letting him enter her, and his eyes roll up. It's almost painful, but it's so, so delicious. He balls his hands into fists and grips the air because he can't breathe, can't move, can't think. "Do you want to be inside of me?" she whispers into his ear, and he can just barely nod his head. (Please, he thinks, please stop. Please.)

"Well, I want to be inside of you too," she says, and he has a split second to wonder what she means before he feels the blinding white pain of his skin splitting open. Bright red divots open up across his chest with each slash of her knife, spreading until they reach his sides. His flesh flaps open, bisecting his ribcage, and he can see his intercostal muscles under the dermis. When he inhales, they open wider, like perverse red lips spreading to expose bone teeth. She tugs on the skin above his left nipple, and it parts easily, rending connective tissue from muscle and bone (it sounds like ripping open a sack of flour) until he can see his own heart beating in time with his breath.

He tries to scream, but nothing comes out. He can't hear anything but the thud of his heartbeat and the sound of wind blowing through the branches of the trees above his head. His vision fades completely to black, and when he regains consciousness, his skin is whole again, and she is gone. He looks up at the moon through the leaves (how much time has gone by?), and it glows enormous and shiny like a silver coin, or like bubbles slowly rising to the surface of a lake. As it turns out, it isn't the moon at all. He watches the bubbles drift lazily upward over his head as he exhales.

He looks down, and he finds himself underwater, swimming just above her. He can just barely see her black hair, drifting up to brush against the skin of his stomach. She's naked again, and he can see her whole body, her olive skin, by the moonlight filtering through the water, making the surface of her shimmer and glow. He can see the curve of her breasts, her hips, the soft dip of her center, and his lungs burn with desire- no- with the rapidly firing electrical signals of dying cells, devoid of oxygen, suffocating on their own waste. He reaches down to cup her breast, and he feels her nipple harden against his thumb. She swims up to kiss him again, cupping him in the palm of her hand. She strokes him gently with her hand, licking his lips and biting his neck softly. He feels himself growing hard in her delicate fist, and his vision starts to go all... swimmy. She smiles at him and then swims down, taking him in her mouth.

He gasps, and the last of his air escapes his mouth, floating in small bubbles to the surface. She runs her tongue over him, brushing her teeth lightly against his foreskin, and he feels all of his blood and energy collecting in his groin. Her hands grip the base of his erection, pulling him into her mouth as she sucks the blood and sexual energy further and deeper. His heartbeat throbs in his ears as his vision starts to darken. The fire in his chest grows stronger until his heartbeat is as loud as a drum and he can feel it pulsing throughout his entire body, in his throat, in the palms of his hands, in the balls of his feet, in his erection inside her mouth. He tries to breathe, and his lungs fill with water. It seeps into all his nooks and crannies, coating his lungs, filling him, stuffing him, turning him hard and turgid. He's not sure, but he thinks he hears her laughing.

He blacks out again, and when his vision fades to white, he finds himself on the ground- or at least he thinks he's on the ground- and he inhales... and he inhales, and this time air fills his lungs, cold and crisp like autumn, like leaves turning color and lighting up the entire District with their fire. The trees burn like she burns- like they had burned together- and they take the buildings and the people with them, turning everything to ash and coal and charred husks of foundations, of bodies. He sees her silhouette backlit by the fire that follows in her wake, scorching the ground as she walks toward him.

When she reaches him, he sees that she glows blue like a low gas flame. He feels the heat radiating from her, but her touch doesn't scorch him. His skin is immune to her fire, but not to her touch, and when she puts a hand on his chest, his lungs burn again. That's when he realizes that he's burning, too. His flame is greenish-yellow, and it originates from his solar plexus, spreading down his legs and arms to a bright white-yellow at his fingertips.

He reaches out to her, touching her shoulder, and her clothes burn away, turning to ash and floating off into the air. She looks into his eyes and says, "Touch me," so he does. He kisses her, and her fire burns his throat, coating the inside of his body with damp warmth, a flickering, fluttering desire. She gives off energy like a small star, and he feels it humming, vibrating, through his chest, down to his groin and legs. "More," she says, so he picks her up, and she wraps her legs around his waist until he can back her up against a tree.

To say that he enters her would be to give him more agency than he really has. It is much more accurate to say that she pulls him into her, as if there is a black hole at her core that draws him and everything else towards her center, to be crushed under the weight of their own mass and condensed to nothingness. He burns white hot inside of her, and when he closes his eyes he sees every blood vessel in the thin skin of his eyelids, as though he were trying to block out the sun.

Her hair flutters up to tickle his face and wrap around his neck like a constrictor, tightening its hold as he pushes deeper inside her, cutting off his air until his lungs are full of nothing but a dry heat. Even still, he cannot stop. She rides him like he's some sort of half-human half-animal muttation, and it's the filthiest, most shameful, most beautiful thing he's ever done. Her skin has turned into the brightest white light, and her eyes glow until he can no longer make out iris from sclera from pupil. Her hair surrounds her face like a wispy black corona. He tries to speak her name, but he has no air, and again he can hear his heartbeat throbbing in his ears while he throbs inside her with a desperation unlike anything he's ever known.

This is nothing like the stolen moments under the covers, jerking himself furiously but silently with his lips clamped shut to avoid waking his brothers, and it is nothing like the sophomoric fumblings in the dark with the merchant girls who had lips skilled enough at kissing to arouse him but had clumsy hands that were too ineffective to get him off. (But he'd always gotten them off, hadn't he? That Peeta, he such a giver. Always giving and never taking.) No, this is so much more than that. This is everything and nothing. This is the purest and dirtiest thing in the entire cosmos. This is the very act of creation itself, the cleansing fire before the world can be rebuilt, and it is taking him down with it.

He feels the pressure building up in his torso, boiling slowly but steadily before losing control, atoms splitting and spinning off and colliding into one another. It's a chain reaction causing chaos in his body until he's splitting in two, exploding outwards, radiating from his groin to his stomach to his heart. He doesn't need to breathe anymore, because he finds that his body is now shattered into a million tiny pieces.

He floats like this, for a while. The million tiny pieces that used to be his body float like grains of sand, forming constellations in the infinite vacuum of space. He watches the stars expand, enlarge, implode, and die. This happens in the space of minutes, and he sees the whole universe expanding, spreading itself thin, until there's nothing left, until the entire thing collapses in on itself and turns inside out with a bang. He watches as everything in existence is made anew from the emptiness, as his body is pieced back together, as his bones knit and flesh weaves and cells reanimate.

He inhales, and he's back on the forest floor once more, staring up at the moon. He's shaking violently, shivering from the cold and the exposure. His pants are sticky, and he's pretty sure he's come all over the inside of them, but he can't wash them out right now. He tries to stand, but his leg won't support his weight, so he crawls into a thicket of bushes and covers himself with as many leaves as he can reach. His vision still dances with small points of shining yellow light (or are those just sparkle bugs?), but he thinks, for now, that this is real.

When Peeta wakes up, the first thing he always does is look around to figure out where he is. Even though he knows that he's been waking up in the same house in District 12 every morning for the past several months, he still doesn't quite trust it. Every morning, he fully expects to wake up in a cave, or on a beach, or in a prison cell or hospital room. He just has a hard time believing that it's all over.

Sometimes he wonders if the war will ever truly be over or if it will continue to linger on in the bodies and minds of the people who had to live through it and the people who were broken by it, the way he was, and countless others like him were. Peeta mourns his dead friends (he has not had time to process the death of his family, and he has no idea when he'll get around to doing that), but what really concerns him are the survivors, people like Johanna and Annie, or Katniss and Haymitch, people who were just broken and then dumped in this strange new world to fix themselves. He doesn't think that any of them are fully capable of fixing themselves, but he thinks that they might be able to help each other, at least, which is why he had insisted on returning to Victor's Village. He knows that between the three of them, they will always be triggering memories for one another, but he also knows that they need each other because no one else will understand. Sometimes misery just needs company.

Peeta wakes up and stares at the familiar wooden beams over his bed, watching (a million tiny) dust mites dance in the sunlight from the window. The illusion of safety is intact for at least one more day, because he's back in District 12, back in his house between those belonging to Katniss and Haymitch. He glances over at Katniss, who is lying next to him, still asleep. She had moved away from him in the night, toward the edge of the bed, but the sole of her foot is pressed against the calf of his good leg. She's facing away from him, and he can see her long dark hair spread out on the pillow (like a black corona). Though her hair is normally quite dark- almost black, even- the sunlight reflecting off of it gives it the shade of mahogany with slightly red tinges along the edges.

He picks up a lock of her hair and turns it over and over in his fingers, watching the way it changes color when light reflects off of it at different angles. More yellowish this way, more reddish that way, with dark brown and black over here (turning color like leaves in autumn).

As strange as it seems, considering what happened last night, he has no idea how comfortable he is supposed to be with her body right now. They had never had a whole lot of boundaries with one another, but that had been mainly out of survival (in one way or another). What he really wants to do is spoon up against her back and breathe next to her neck, but he doesn't know how she would react to that. They had crossed the line into a new level of intimacy last night (and this was true intimacy, as nobody had been watching; he would at least allow himself to believe that much), but he doesn't know what that means here and now in the cool, clear light of day.

They hadn't exactly discussed it, and although Peeta is fairly excellent at reading people, he just isn't in the business of making assumptions where Katniss is concerned. He's never been the kind of guy who just reaches out and takes whatever he wants- and he isn't stupid: he knows that some people would consider him a lesser man for that, but he doesn't care. He doesn't want the kind of manhood that doesn't take anyone else into account.

He contents himself with just lying next to her until she wakes up, at which time he'll take his cue from her on what to do. Until then, he twists the lock of hair back and forth between his fingers, watching the fire red highlights light up and fade away with the direction of the sun.

Fire. That sparks a memory from his dream last night (they burned together). He can only pull back wisps of it that he doesn't fully understand (such as why the taste of saltwater is threatening to give him an erection right now), but he knows that the gist of it was the memory of his tracker jacker hallucinations during the first Games. He remembers having otherworldly dreams- almost nightmares- about being with Katniss and the two of them doing disgusting and transcendent things to one another.

He isn't entirely surprised that he dreamed about that last night. At the time, he had been experiencing a lot of confusion about what to do and how to feel, much less how to even decode what she was thinking. The original hallucinations likely reflected his fears and insecurities (and desires) at the time, and bringing it back up now must be directly related to the manifestation- the extraction- of those same insecurities and desires when she finally came to him last night.

The sad thing- the sick thing- is that he doesn't even know if his memories of his own hallucinations are real, or if they were also tainted by the hijacking. He imagines that they were, but he guesses that he will never know the full extent to which they've been modified, since nobody else can really tell him whether something that happened entirely in his own mind was real or not real. On the one hand, it would have been hard for them to manipulate memories that they couldn't even know about since no record exists of them on tape. On the other hand, tracker jacker venom works directly on the fear center in the brain, so it could have seeped into those strange, erotic memories on its own, without any prodding from the Peacekeepers who detained him.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about it, though, was that despite how terrifying the memory should have been, Peeta hadn't been afraid. There are so few memories of the past three years that don't completely dismantle him, awake or asleep, that he has no idea how he managed to get through it last night without waking up in terror. He vaguely remembers something Dr. Aurelius told him once about the importance of brain chemistry in determining how one reacts to the recollection of memories, and he wonders if that has anything to do with it? Maybe he should give Aurelius a call this afternoon.

Katniss begins to stir now, rubbing her eyes and looking blearily around his room. She looks confused for a moment until her eyes focus on him, and then they calm with recognition. She has little red lines down her cheek from the embroidery on the pillows. Peeta smiles and says quietly, "Good morning." She grunts in affirmation and stretches, and when the sheet pulls away to expose her breasts, she either doesn't notice or doesn't mind, because she takes a moment before covering back up. (Peeta thinks of saltwater again and feels a stirring in his groin, but he pushes the sensation to the back of his mind- for now.) "How did you sleep?"

"Good," Katniss says lazily, as if she doesn't quite believe it yet. "Really good, actually." She bunches up the sheet and sits up, and Peeta can see her vertebrae poking out under her skin all down the line of her back, down to her- "How about you?"

Peeta looks up quickly. "Oh, you know. It wasn't entirely unpleasant, which I guess is saying something." He adjusts the blankets around his midsection, trying to be subtle.

Katniss doesn't look at him, but she does smile slightly to herself. "Yeah," she says, digging around at the foot of the bed for her clothes. She finds her shirt and pulls it on, then stands up to pull up her shorts. She pulls the blanket back up to the pillow on her side of the bed and smoothes it out next to him, her finger lingering for a moment on the embroidery. "I should probably go back home."

Peeta sits up at that. "Wait. Do... you want some breakfast or something?" He doesn't say, Don't go, please. I just got you back. Don't go already.

She thinks about this as she twists her hair up on top of her head, securing it with a ribbon from her pocket. "Greasy Sae is probably already on her way over. I really ought to be there." She looks at Peeta for a moment with a look that he can't quite read, and then she leans over to kiss him on the forehead. "You can join us in a little while... if you want? Okay?" It sounds to him as if she wants him to come over but doesn't actually want to come out and say as much. She probably wants some time alone to think. Katniss always wants time alone to think through things. It's frustrating as hell... but he respects it.

"Okay," he says. They exchange goodbyes (and another brief kiss), and she leaves. He waits until he hears her footsteps descending the creaky stairs and the sound of his door latching shut, and then he flops backward into the bed, feeling heavy with thoughts and emotions. He lies there for a while- he doesn't know how long- and thinks about the events of last night. He turns each memory over and over in his mind like a child collecting pebbles, picking out the smoothest, shiniest ones and pocketing them for later.

He was struck by how easily they had moved together, with a kind of familiarity that he'd never experienced before with any of the other girls. It made sense, since they had spent so much time together in such strange and extreme circumstances, that they would have picked up some subconscious sense of one another's body language. Even still, he had not been prepared to see her in such a light. He had wanted it, yes, desperately, but it was almost as though he never actually expected it to happen.

Peeta exhales loudly into the silent room, overcome with images from the night before. He's overwhelmed by this new erotic element of their relationship, and that's putting it lightly. He can easily picture her body, the swell of her small breasts, the curve of her hips, and her long, black hair sticking to her collarbone with sweat. He can hear the noises she made when he touched her, small, soft humming noises and sharp gasps, and he can feel the way her body responded to his touch, arching off of the bed and shaking with impatience. He can even smell her, primarily like girl sweat but with light undertones of bar soap. He exhales again, much more shakily, and reaches down to feel his erection under the covers.

He realizes that he's not going to get anything done today until he can clear his head of these intoxicating images of her. He hasn't had this much pent up sexual energy in longer than he can remember. His sex drive has been awfully perfunctory for a few years now, much more like opening a valve every so often to release steam than something to enjoy, so this is an incredibly welcome turn of events.

He slips his hand inside his shorts and strokes himself slowly for a while to savor the deliciousness of it, the desire and the passion that has been absent for so long because of everything his poor mind and body have been through. He replays the events of last night in his mind's eye, feeling himself grow harder as he retraces how he had been able to get Katniss Everdeen to come in his hands. He had held her, touched her body, and made her make those little noises. Thinking about her while touching himself is not a new thing; Katniss had been a recurring character in his sexual fantasies ever since he had figured out what men and women do together. She hadn't been there every time, but often enough to stick out in his mind- just like how in real life, he had noticed other girls and been with other girls, but somehow his mind just kept coming back to her sooner or later. It's different this time, though, because he doesn't have to speculate; he knows what she looks like, sounds like, and smells like. He wants to know even more- what she tastes like and feels like on the inside.

He wants to be back on top of her, manipulating her body with his fingertips, making her sigh and squirm. He wants to make her come again- if he could do nothing else for the rest of his life, he would just want to make her come over and over. And- he barely wants to admit this to himself, even in his own fantasies- but he wants to be inside her. He feels himself flushing at the thought of it, and he strokes himself faster, spurred on by a sudden vigor. Oh, god, he wants to be inside her, to manipulate her not with his fingers but with his body, and to make her come around him so that he can feel it. Peeta lets out a few harsh breaths, clenching his free hand and his abdominal muscles as his body tenses up and then releases in waves as he comes.

He lets out a few more shallow breaths as his muscles relax and go limp. He lies back and closes his eyes, just breathing for a little while. When his head clears, he feels a bit sheepish because he knows that he'd have no idea what to actually do with his body to make her come like that, but it's just- it's an instinct that takes over when he thinks about being on top of her. And it isn't- it isn't just about that. He knows that, even though he gets... overwhelmed by her sometimes.

It strikes Peeta- not for the first time- how strange it is to be in love. Love makes a man want to do the most animalistic things with the very person for whom he has the most tender feelings. Not violent things, just... crude things. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to him when he doesn't have an erection, but it's the truth. And, to get away from the crudeness for a moment and focus on the bigger picture, something else very important had happened last night. She hadn't said she loved him, but she had said that she was his. That's something. He didn't know what, but it was definitely something. It felt more like a promise than an affirmation- it didn't give any labels to what was going on between them (after everything that had happened in the past few years, it would feel absolutely absurd to call Katniss anything quite so mundane as his girlfriend), but it acknowledged that there is something going on- something genuine this time, something that may eventually get a name if he can be patient. He could live with that.