Slow and Steady Wins The Race
AU. Prim and Peeta were never Reaped. Without the Hunger Games throwing them together will Peeta get a chance with his dream girl?
This AU comes out of a "what if" that wouldn't leave me alone. It also comes from my great love of these characters but great discomfort with the brutality and bleakness of many aspects of the HG universe. I just wanted to explore daily life in District 12.
Mostly Peeta POV but there are a few lines here and there from other POVs (mostly Katniss). Hopefully it will be clear and evident when you read it.
Unbeta-ed for now, so please point out any errors if you see them or suggestions if you have them. It's very long, could easily have been several chapters, but I wanted to serve it all up in one.
Enjoy! Pace yourself!
When neither of them are Reaped their fifth year, Peeta decides this will be the year he musters his courage and talks to Katniss. No one in District 12 knows how long they have left and he doesn't want to be standing here next year regretting it.
But his courage doesn't muster. He does experience breasts for the first time that year, but they aren't hers. The closest he comes to talking to Katniss is handing her a glass of water. This, pitiably, is still an improvement on every other year so far.
She is chosen to sing the Anthem at the screening of the Opening Ceremony in 12's Town Square. When he finds out, Peeta volunteers as stage crew for the event.
The other volunteers are all Seam kids participating in exchange for the free meal, because they need it badly. They raise eyebrows at the merchant boy who doesn't need to be there, who has a meal waiting for him at home, but he's strong enough to lift anything they task him with so he soon makes allies of them. Peeta makes friends easily.
Her voice over the loudspeaker carries past the District fences, beyond the woods, and just as he remembers from childhood, the birds stop to listen. Peeta has tears in his eyes by the end of the song, and they aren't patriotic.
Peeta often wonders how it's possible he still feels so strongly drawn to Katniss when he doesn't even know her. Over the years since that first day he heard her sing in school he's waited to stop feeling like a five year old with a crush. As of yet, he hasn't.
She tries to disappear when she steps off stage, pulling at her braid self-consciously as she waits to be dismissed from her duty. It's only because Peeta watches her so carefully that he notices she's thirsty and appears at her side with a glass of water. She isn't alarmed at his sudden appearance; his footfalls are heavier than anything she tracks in the woods.
He jumps a foot in the air though when she appears silently beside him to hand back the empty glass.
"Thank you," she looks at him briefly before walking away.
The first words she's ever said to him directly. He treasures them all year.
When his name isn't drawn at his sixth Reaping, Peeta convinces himself this will be the year.
Gale Hawthorne leaves school this year, so theoretically he has a better chance of getting access to her. But she's hard to track down. Sometimes he sees her with the Mayor's daughter, always looking like she doesn't want to be interrupted.
Peeta is elected class president. Between student council meetings and football games time passes quicker than he wants it to.
One cold afternoon he is chatting and keeping warm with a group of friends at their usual spot in the school yard when he notices a fight break out over where the Seam kids hang out. He doesn't pay it much attention until he sees the swish of a braid he knows so well.
It's Katniss. She's in a fist fight.
Peeta can't believe no one's rushing to help her and then remembers Gale is working in the mines now. He gets up from his friends' bench, untangling his hand from Ava Burrows' fingers. His girlfriend shouts after him as he sprints across the yard, winding himself.
Peeta's legs can't move fast enough. As he pushes through the small crowd gathering, he sees Katniss is on top of a wiry oily Seam boy from their year who pulls viciously at her braid while she punches him clean in the face. The next moment he's rolled them over and steps on her wrist so she can't move, hitting her across the jaw.
Peeta yanks the boy off Katniss, throwing him against the yard wall like a sack of flour.
"What's going on?" he means to shout it more menacingly but he's out of breath.
"What's it got to do with you, Mellark?" the Seam boy spits.
Peeta looks at Katniss on the ground, her thin abdomen bouncing with heavy breaths, hair in her eyes, split lip bleeding and she doesn't contradict the Seam boy.
Peeta offers a hand to help her up and she ignores it, wincing as she pulls herself to her feet. She squares off against Peeta, embarrassed to be caught and angry he got involved and maybe just a little grateful to him for helping.
"Are you all right?" he asks Katniss softly, unable to hide his obvious concern.
"Fine," she replies sharply, holding her chin proud and managing to find some impossible grace in the moment.
"His brother stole my sister's goat," she glares at the boy, "He came over to brag about it."
"Where's her sister's goat?" Peeta rounds on the boy furiously, fully aware of how inappropriate his involvement is.
Several of his friends have run over to see what the fuss was and are calling to him, wondering why he's getting mixed up in a typical rowdy fight between Seam kids. None of them know about Katniss. Maybe they will after today because he's being painfully obvious.
"I can handle it. Your friends are waiting," she gives him a look that clearly means go away.
He feels awkward and this is all wrong, like when he tried to help her years ago by throwing her some bread and she gave him awful looks for months afterwards, no doubt—rightfully—angry that he hadn't done more.
"We took the goat back, we only wanted milk," the Seam boy flinches as Katniss hisses at him.
"Come trade for it like a decent person, then. You and your brother are entitled and lazy," she spits. Laziness is one of the worst traits a person can possess in District 12.
It's impossible to miss the red welt darkening on Katniss' face. Peeta longs to press ice to it, to whisper soothing words and hold her against his chest. But evidently he's the last person she needs to take care of her.
"Did nobody ever tell you not to hit girls?" Peeta is still furious with the boy.
"It's not a girl, it's Katniss," the boy scoffs.
Peeta's fists clench at the comment.
To be fair she has more than held her own, giving a boy bigger than her two black eyes. But her incredible talents aside, to Peeta she'll never be anything less than a lady; an Angel.
"Just because she can kick the stuffing out of you, doesn't mean you shouldn't treat her with respect," Peeta smacks the boy about the head himself. Once for being so rude and again for being so stupid.
The Seam boy grits his teeth. He isn't about to start a fight with Peeta Mellark. Not when some of Peeta's many friends have already come over to watch. They might be pampered merchant kids but some of them are stocky and muscled, like Peeta, and there are enough of them that he wouldn't want to make enemies of the lot.
While Peeta attempts to defend her honor, Katniss is already retreating from the scene.
"Come near my sister's pets again and I'll have Gale throw you down a mine shaft" she threatens over her shoulder, as she makes for the farthest end of the yard.
Her braid came loose in the fight and she pulls the hair free to redo it, making Peeta stare after her. She catches his eye over her shoulder and her look is somewhere between a thank you for coming to her assistance, embarrassment at the situation, and why are you staring at me as I walk away.
"Don't be an idiot," Peeta says to himself as much as the boy.
"And don't you dare ever hit her again," that's just for the boy.
Because it's Peeta Mellark and his friends are still nearby the boy doesn't mock how ridiculous he is to defend a Seam girl and her family like he cares about them.
His final Reaping day comes and goes and Peeta barely gives it a thought.
He is supremely distracted because he could kick himself for not asking her to their end of school dance. It could be his last chance to see her for some time. He has no idea what she plans to do when they leave school. (His fears range from her moving in with Gale Hawthorne to her disappearing into the woods and never coming back.)
After years of watching her from afar, hours spent dreaming of one day, the opportunity finally comes to find out if she has any interest in him, if she even knows who he is, and Peeta can't bring himself to do it.
He plans it well. Even picks a bunch of wild flowers to give her, rehearses his speech for weeks, walks over to the Seam with sweaty palms, ignoring the stares at his merchant clothing, and nearly makes it to her garden. He sees her from a distance laughing freely with her sister, happier than she is at school. Then he sees that they are laughing at Gale Hawthorne, his huge muscular frame wincing comically as Primrose plucks a splinter from his finger.
And even Gale's presence won't deter Peeta. He grits his teeth against assumptions about Gale. Gathers all his resolve, his mind racing with his lines,
Hi Katniss. I don't know if you remember me…I know we've never properly spoken, but I've been meaning to tell you for a long time what an amazing person you are...
He begins to doubt the speech he rehearsed. At best it sounds creepy, at worst completely superficial.
I'm sure you already have plans for the dance, but it's my last chance to ask you on a date and if I don't do it now…I'm sorry, I'm usually better with words but you're not like any other girl, I wish I knew what you wanted to hear…I picked you these wild flowers. I know you deserve more and one day, if you'll let me I know I can make you…
Peeta's steps halt feet from her house. Primrose is occupied with her goat and he sees, as if in slow motion, Katniss raise Gale's splinter-free finger to her lips. Watches her eyes shine at Gale in a way that makes his chest ache.
Peeta can't watch any more, can't march over there and ask her now. He turns sharply, dropping the flowers in his haste to get away before they see him.
That week he sees Prim wearing a garland made of the wild flowers braided together. He must made it far enough that they found them where he dropped them. He's glad. They were meant for her. Well, for her sister.
He tries to imagine Katniss wearing the garland, but knows she isn't frivolous like her sister in that way. He tries to imagine Katniss finding the flowers, somehow knowing they were from him, wanting to thank him with a kiss as sweet as she gave Gale's finger…
Peeta knows Gale is more than likely her boyfriend. He probably has been for a long time; the two of them are irritatingly inseparable. On more than one occasion Peeta has wondered if he's completely missed his chance to Gale and been paralyzed with dread.
The dance would have been the perfect opportunity to have a valid excuse to ask Katniss out without making her too uncomfortable if she wanted to refuse. And he let it slip past. So what if she was kissing Gale's finger? Maybe they're just friends. Uncomfortably good friends. When it comes down to it, Peeta's courage didn't muster when it mattered.
So instead he's at the end of school dance in the town hall with a perfectly nice, sweet, pretty red headed girl he has very little interest in. He doesn't know if Katniss is even here at all. He hasn't seen her all night. He's been looking.
She appears just before the end of the dance with Gale Hawthorne, looking like she's been dragged there under duress. When Peeta sees her in the grey chiffon dress the exact color of her piercing eyes and those elaborate braids he loves so much, he trails off completely in the middle of a sentence, his breath caught in his throat. He knows his poor date must think he's soft in the head.
For the rest of the night over the top of his date's pretty red hair, Peeta watches Gale sway with Katniss and hold her against him. His hands rest on her waist. It causes Peeta unspeakable anguish. Katniss looks around the room over Gale's shoulder and Peeta has to look away quickly because she almost catches him staring.
He consoles himself that she at least looks a little uncomfortable with her eyes darting everywhere, though he supposes it's more likely the dancing than Gale pressed against her.
Peeta is so distracted for the rest of the dance that he's beyond surprised when his date invites him to walk the long way home. She must be very sweet or very smitten not to write him off as loopy after his distracted behavior.
He doesn't want her to have a bad memory of her only ever end of school dance, so he turns his attention to her properly on their walk home, charms her with bad jokes and kisses her breathless on her doorstep.
She talks him into taking her out to the meadow, practically begs him, even though he tells her he's not looking for a girlfriend. But it is their end of school dance and so many of their friends are doing it tonight, so why shouldn't they?
He wonders if this is something he should save for Katniss. She's probably doing it with Gale at this very moment, so there's no harm in getting a bit of practice. So he'll really be able to sweep her off her feet when the time comes. And there's nothing to stop him from thinking about her in that grey chiffon dress while he does it. No one will know if his eyes are closed. Just like there's been no harm thinking of her the past few years doing it with his own hand.
So his takes his lovely redheaded date out to the meadow. All the time he dreads what Katniss is doing with Gale somewhere else in town. Are their bodies still pressed close together? He laments his cowardice. If he'd asked, it could have been her he presses into under cover of the moonlit grass tonight.
He's missed his chance, he knows it. It's too late. She's already chosen, it's not him, he never even put himself in the running, and Peeta will spend the rest of his life regretting every minute he didn't tell her. She'll go on with her life without ever knowing. His wasted heart will love her forever.
More than his friends and classes and the sports he played, he'll miss that school allowed him to see Katniss every day.
Peeta begins his career as a baker the very day school ends.
To his incredible delight, working full time in the bakery allows him to see Katniss quite often. She comes with game to trade a few times a week and he makes sure he's around when she visits. This is a second opportunity to pluck up the courage to tell her one day, and he won't waste this one.
Though they've never talked about it directly, his father recognizes the signs and understands Peeta's pull towards Katniss all too well. A kind and generous man, he encourages his lovesick son, stepping aside so he can deal with Katniss when she comes by. She seems content and healthy when she visits, and Mr Mellark knows how important it is to Peeta to keep checking that she is.
He wants the love story he didn't have for his son. Sometimes he can't entirely distinguish Peeta's hopeful-hopelessness from the blurred lines of his own when he notices his boy staring after the eldest Everdeen girl and the tall handsome Seam boy.
"All yours son," his father nods when Katniss approaches on Peeta's first week of work. He ducks into the front of the shop.
Katniss appears at the back door, the strap of her game bag tugging on her braid so she winces as she shifts it on her shoulder. Peeta itches to go take its weight from her.
"Hello," she says, looking him up and down.
He is not who she expected. But of course he must be working here now they've graduated.
"Hi," Peeta smiles his warmest widest smile. It has the opposite effect to what he intended. Katniss seems almost suspicious of his joy.
"Is your father here?" she asks, looking out the door she came through as though she expects someone to be watching them.
Peeta knows from years of observation that she's not one for small talk, but it's jarring when he's trying to think of something witty to say that will make her fall in love with him.
"I can help you," he smiles broadly again.
"I'd rather deal with him," she doesn't make any effort to hide her distrust.
Peeta is not about to force her to want to talk to him. There's time to work on his approach. Next time she comes, he'll be better prepared.
"Dad!" he calls into the front of the shop.
"Peeta?" His father's broad head pokes around the kitchen door.
"Oh, Katniss!" he grins broadly for her as though he hadn't seen her coming a few minutes ago and ducked out of the way.
"How are you Mr Mellark?" Katniss returns his smile genuinely, lighting up the entire kitchen.
Peeta knows it's silly that he gets a thrill from Katniss having a pleasant conversation with his father. Imagining this is just a lovely family conversation.
"Busy out here today," Peeta's father is his hero.
"I'll come back another time," Katniss reaches for the door.
"Don't be silly. My boy here can help you. You know Peeta from school?" Mr Mellark asks good-naturedly.
"He's working here every day now. If I'm too busy, you can do business with him. He's very trustworthy," Mr Mellark winks.
Peeta finds himself once again appraised by Katniss' intense gaze. He meets it, challengingly. He might be imagining the slight softness in her eyes as she sizes him up, the momentary glaze of nostalgia…
"All right," Katniss nods again and warmth spreads through Peeta to have passed her approval.
It doesn't take long before they begin to chat during her visits. He usually starts it but she's taken to holding up her end of a conversation most of the time.
Peeta is thrilled this means Katniss either trusts him enough or finds him interesting enough to entertain for a moment. She doesn't waste her time on people that don't interest her. The few short conversations a month are a victory.
They aren't much. Just brief exchanges about the weather or a person from school who's getting married. They don't have any common friends. Peeta has a lot of friends but Katniss never had many at all and has only grown more distant since leaving school. Still, in a District of their size, everyone knows each other, and at their age everyone seems in a rush to be getting married.
Peeta replays their little conversations in his head more than he should, looking for hidden meanings that aren't there in a small smile at a joke he tells or a brush against his leg as she bends to empty her game bag.
He knows it's arrogant to take credit for it but Peeta likes to think he notices a general improvement in Katniss' mood after a few months. She's not always so anxious, in survival mode all the time—she relaxes and enjoys herself more, her shining spirit showing more of its warmth than its toughness.
It may just be that she's opening up to him. Maybe those close to her get to see this version of Katniss all the time, or maybe her regular chats with him have improved her mood (he's been known to cheer people up), or maybe it's just the inordinate amount of free cakes and pastries he manages to slip her over the months.
She must know he has a crush on her. She's perceptive enough and he's obvious enough about it; usually unintentionally. But she doesn't seem to mind and certainly never acknowledges it.
When she asks him once why he doesn't have a steady girlfriend he just shrugs and blushes. She tells him she has no plans to marry either, which surprises him. He's been dreading the day she'll announce her engagement to Gale Hawthorne.
This morning he is icing small cakes and she puts her hand on his arm when she leans over to get a better look.
"These are beautiful, Peeta." She is humming to herself and his heart flutters with the song caressing his ear.
"Thanks," he grins, acutely aware of the warmth of her palm on his bicep.
While she trades his father squirrels for cheese buns, he does a quick one with an elaborate "K.E." design in purple icing. He knows his father won't mind.
"Here," he holds it out hastily as she's about to leave.
She looks almost angry for a moment before her face softens, like she's consciously reminding herself how to receive a gift.
"You didn't have to," she sounds guilty for admiring them.
"I know," he grins, sucking stray icing from his thumb, unaware how deeply Katniss feels the whimsical gesture.
His father sees the interaction and winks at them.
"Take this one, too. For your sister," Peeta holds out another, decorated with a P.E. and a tiny primrose.
"She'll love it," Katniss swallows heavily, smiling at Peeta and his father, unable to bring up any more thank yous.
She nods gratefully and puts them both in her bag.
"Only thank you this one needs is another sweet tune, little lady," his father chuckles from the stove.
Peeta wants to throw a cake at him. The man gets away with murder.
Katniss smiles awkwardly but she starts to sing softly as she zips up her game bag. Peeta's heart stops, and then she is standing and leaving, taking her song with her.
A few weeks later he's icing again when she comes and she notices,
"Those cakes again?"
He nods, smiling. He likes that they're friendly enough that she'll be casual with him. She started off so cold and formal, now they feel almost like friends.
"Prim loved hers," she is genuinely smiling at him and he thinks his face might explode with happiness.
"And you?" maybe it's the April breeze but he feels confident enough to be a little mischievous today.
"I did too," he's brave enough to wink at her, the way he does with other girls. She doesn't giggle like they do but she doesn't seem angry about it either.
"Want to see how it's done?" this is a bold move.
But she lets him show her. Peeta has to remind himself to breathe as she stands between his body and the table so he can put his hand over hers to guide the icing bag as she squeezes it. Her back is touching his chest and he can feel her soft heartbeat as he waffles on about icing patterns, just to break the silence.
Katniss seems relaxed, defenses lowered, narrowing her eyes in genuine concentration at the cake and smiling at him over her shoulder when she successfully writes a "K".
It's a huge leap forward for them, he thinks. She's not one to let her guard down with anybody and here she's standing in his kitchen practically encased in his arms, letting him guide her hand as he accidentally bumps her hips up against the worktable in his nervousness.
They stop icing when his father comes in and Katniss leaves a little too abruptly, his father elbowing him and ruffling his hair, beaming with pride.
Katniss has only walked a few feet away when the bombs start.
A far away whistling grows impossibly close very quickly. The ground trembles as something near them is blown to pieces. Peeta's father puts his hands over his head, ducking from things he can't see. A cloud of debris patters against their window, smoke filling the street.
Then another distant screech.
"Bombs! Bombs! We're being bombed!" his mother bursts into the kitchen, curlers in her hair, her wail in frightening harmony with the onslaught of screeches. More debris clatters against the window pane. Pieces crumble from their ceiling.
"Get to the shelter!" it shakes Peeta to his core to hear his father's staid jovial voice stricken with fear.
"I've got two loaves!" his eldest brother grabs them under each arm as he runs out the door. They don't know how long they could be down there.
Peeta is running out the door after his brother, hands still sticky with icing, as the door frame trembles around him. There is only one thought in his head, and it's not his own safety.
"Katniss!" he coughs in the thick smoke.
She is already running, her game bag discarded, rubble scattering all around them. The smoke thickens and his eyes water.
He runs to her, grabs her hand in his icing covered one, not stopping to think this is the first time he's held her hand, just needing to drag her to safety.
"Katniss, we have shelters on every block in the Quarter! This way!"
"No!" she yanks her hand away, "Prim! I have to get Prim!"
She is fast but he is stronger, and he will not see her hurt. Not for anything. She struggles against him, but he picks her up as easily as a sack of flour, holding her tight and running for the shelter as she fights and kicks against him.
"Prim! No!" she claws at his arms, "Prim! I have to get her! Get off me!" she screams hysterically as he carries her away from the Seam. There's no way she'd reach it before the bombs destroyed it.
Her cries cut into Peeta's heart. His arms are tight around her, her kicks bruise his abdomen. It's the wrong time to be aware of her wriggling body against his but a part of him can't help it.
He paws an arm over her head, forcibly tucking it into his chest as a bomb explodes near them, nearly knocking him off his feet and sending a rain of tiny shards of glass that whip sharply at his face. But not hers. Tucked safely under his chin, her face is buried unharmed in his sweaty undershirt. He is her human shield. He runs harder.
His mind races as he dodges explosions on every side of them. He won't let her risk her life to find her sister. There's almost no chance of her finding her without getting hurt. But he knows if Prim is hurt, or worse, it would break Katniss' heart. They are at the shelter. He has only one option, and no time at all to think about it.
"I'll get her," he tells Katniss, pushing her into the shelter on their block.
"No!" she struggles against his impossibly strong arms, forcing her way back out. But she has nothing on a sack of flour. Another bomb hits near them, shaking the ground under their feet. Peeta all but throws her into the shelter.
She obviously doesn't trust him, but he will prove she can. He will rescue her sister. He won't let her get hurt.
"Dad!" his father, already in the shelter, comes to entrance, understands instantly and holds Katniss back while Peeta runs.
"I'm going to get her sister," he is already running as his father calls, "Knock three times! Be safe, son!"
Mr. Mellark's wife and sons watch as he tries to soothe the hysterical daughter of the woman he loves.
There are ten agonizing minutes of bombs screaming through their air, shaking the foundations of the shelter, and merchant families staring at the hysterical Seam girl who paces furiously around the shelter, pounding at the locked door. The kind baker holds her to his chest, shushing, until she fights him off again.
And then there are three frantic knocks at the door.
A bruised and bleeding Peeta bursts in with Prim in his arms. She is covered in dust but unscathed except for smears of Peeta's blood marring her yellow dress.
He sets her down before collapsing to the ground as his brothers slam the door against the bombs.
"Prim!" Katniss clutches her sister for dear life, checking her intently for injury.
"Katniss!" Prim hugs back, shaken. "I'm all right."
Satisfied that she is, Katniss pulls away and to everyone's surprise launches herself with similar force at Peeta, who is still on the ground, catching his breath. He staggers with surprise at the impact before he remembers to hold on to her.
"Your mother is with Gale and his family," he breathes, winded. "They're all safe."
"You could have been killed," Katniss sounds furious, "The both of you," her eyes dart to Prim and back. "Do you have any idea how lucky you are that you aren't dead?"
Her eyes roam his face and body, examining his injuries. Establishing none are life-threatening gives her momentum to launch into a fresh admonishing,
"I should kill you myself for being so stupid."
She wipes a trail of blood from his head wound with her sleeve.
"Why did you do that?" she frowns, angry with him for saving her, and her sister, again. That makes two debts she can never possibly repay. Along with countless baked goods and attempts at chivalry.
"What's this?" her frown deepens, running a finger under his blackening eye. Surprisingly gentle for someone so strong.
"Gale tried to stop me taking Prim," Peeta answers, not caring that she's angry as long as she keeps touching him so carefully.
"I told him I was taking her to you…I don't think he believed I'd make it back here with her."
Katniss scoffs agreement, raising her eyebrows. Her whole body trembles with fear and rage.
She notices Peeta's father is smiling, watching them as though she is congratulating Peeta, not berating him. Mr Mellark has taken off his wool cardigan and wrapped it around Prim, patting her shoulders to quiet her shivering. If they weren't so distracted someone might notice she looks like a daughter he could have had in another life.
"Well. You did." Katniss say jerkily, shuddering involuntarily, tracing under Peeta's eye again. There is warmth in her voice now. Something like trust and surprise under the anger and fear.
"Thank you," she says, as though the words are foreign to her.
She wants to add that she still thinks it was a stupid thing to do and he should have just let her go, but it doesn't seem right now.
When they open the hatch hours later, the eerie silence is pierced by cries of despair at the ruined town; among them, Mrs Mellark's scream as she sees the rubble of their bakery.
Peeta isn't happy about it either but feels badly that he mostly can't stop thinking about Katniss in his arms, touching his face with concern.
Destruction is a great equalizer. Some of the younger fitter merchants find work in the mines while their livelihoods are rebuilt. Being largely underground the mines are the one industry minimally affected by the bombing, and for the first time in District 12's history, residents of the Seam find themselves at an advantage. By chance, many of the slum houses are also still standing.
Gale jokes that whoever attacked must have thought they weren't worth bombing.
All three Mellark boys are taken on at the mines. Competition for jobs among displaced merchant workers is high but all three are strong, obedient and hard working. Katniss sees Peeta and his brothers pass the edge of the Seam from her kitchen most evenings; their golden hair coal-blackened beyond recognition then magically golden again the next morning, like three stocky beacons of hope.
Katniss continues to bring game for the Mellarks, even though they now have no bread to trade. She sends a message to work with Gale arranging to meet Peeta at the gate whenever she has a good haul. Sometimes he can hear her humming to herself from a few feet away as she waits for him, like a meat-bearing Angel.
Hungry eyes follow the meat when he brings it back to the refugee camp. He usually ends up sharing it around, which makes his father proud and his mother angry.
"You don't owe me anything," he tells Katniss repeatedly, though he appreciates the meat more than he can possibly say.
"I know," she dismisses, fixing him with one of her intent looks that both delights and terrifies him.
Sometimes, on a whim, Peeta stops by her garden on his way from work. He greets Lady with a smile and a carrot that delights Prim to no end. Katniss shakes her head at the wasted vegetable but can't help smiling at how Prim's eyes light up when Peeta talks to Lady indulgently. She couldn't imagine doing it herself, so it's nice that someone does. Prim loves the silly thing so much.
Peeta's levity and cheeriness is a welcome influence for Prim. There certainly isn't much of it around the Seam. So Katniss tolerates Peeta's visits.
Begrudgingly, she enjoys them herself sometimes, though she doesn't laugh her head off and beam at him the way Prim does. Hers is more a quiet appreciation of the sense of joy and calm—so elusive in the grind of her life—that seems to travel in the air with Peeta.
Katniss never tells Peeta to stop calling by, so he assumes she doesn't mind. She even seems glad to see him occasionally, engaging in conversation, very occasionally laughing at his terrible jokes, more often calling him out on the ones that are too bad to laugh at.
Katniss continues to give him as much as she can spare a few times a week until the new bakery opens. She doesn't mention it when Peeta is able to hand her the first loaf in months. Just puts it in her bag as though their trade had never been interrupted and smiles when she says,
"I'm glad the bakery is back. Coal wasn't a good look for you."
Merchants rebuild, time passes, things return to normal. Threat—from unexplained bombs and elsewhere—is ever present, but people go about their lives; laugh, trade, survive.
Peeta is shocked when he hears Gale is getting married. And it's not to Katniss.
Although she insists she'll never marry, he'd always assumed—feared—they eventually would. Though it didn't stop him trying to out-wait Gale for her affections.
The night before Gale's wedding Peeta delivers the cake he decorated, freezing
outside the door when he overhears Gale arguing with Katniss in the kitchen. Katniss sounds more unrestrained than he's ever heard her, wild with emotion, her voice carrying into the night through the open window,
"…that's not what I mean! I love you, you know I do!" Peeta's gut clenches like ice water.
"What do you want me to say, Katniss?" Gale sounds equally distressed, "I waited for you. I asked you to marry me! You said no."
Peeta swallows hard.
"If you tell me not to marry her, I'll call it off tonight. Tell me you want me and I'll be with you."
The painful silence is broken by Katniss starting to cry.
"See, this is your choice," Gale's voice is strained.
"I'll always love you," Katniss sniffles, through tears, "But not like that. I can't. I can't be that for you. Gale…" and then her sobbing is muffled by Gale's chest as he wraps his arms around her.
"I know, Catnip. I know," Gale's voice is muffled too as he buries his face in her hair, "We tried. At least we know we tried."
"We tried. I tried," she affirms. Peeta tries not to imagine what that means.
"I just couldn't. But I'll always be yours in a way," she chokes on tears, "The way we're good together."
"I know," Gale soothes, Peeta knows the sounds of her crying must be upsetting Gale. He certainly feels it.
"I'm yours, too," Gale promises, "The way you want me."
"She'll never love you like I do," Katniss mumbles into his chest.
"No," Gale answers sadly, "She'll love me better."
Peeta backs away from the house, praying they are too distracted to hear his clumsy footfalls retreating. He can't take the cake in there now. He feels raw and violated for having overheard, but he couldn't tear himself away. At the same time he feels a sick triumph; glad to be the only one left in the race now.
Whether Gale loves her as much or more than him he couldn't say, but he knows he'll never give up on her like Gale did. If she ever wants him, he'll be ready.
Gale's wedding is beautiful and Peeta can't take his eyes off Katniss' smooth shoulders in her cream dress.
The time spent at the celebration means he is up late that night finishing the dough for the morning's buns when she appears at the back door.
She's still wearing the cream dress with her hunting boots and mutters something about rabbits, throwing her game bag into the kitchen.
Peeta offers her a loaf, and she shakes her head. Her movements are jerky and her eyes dart around wildly and she trips over a sack of flour and cries out in agitation, falling to right the ground like she's been shot by an invisible arrow.
Peeta drops the sieve in his rush to go to her and finds a long cut on her palm from the floor and tear tracks down her face.
"It'll be OK," he says, helping her up, taking her to the sink, pressing a damp cloth to her palm, holding her small hand carefully in his big square one. He hopes she understands that he means it about more than the cut on her palm.
"I'm sorry. I don't know why I came here," she says, suddenly avoiding looking at him, and he feels awful that she's embarrassed.
"It's OK," Peeta says again, not sure what she wants to hear, wanting so desperately to say the right thing in this moment.
"It's always a pleasure to see you," he offers a hesitant smile.
"Don't you ever get tired of being nice to me?" she looks up, frowning, genuinely curious.
"No," he answers honestly.
"I don't deserve it," she watches as he returns to rolling out the dough, wielding the wooden rolling pin in his large hands, "I'm hardly ever nice to you."
"Any time you want to be, you're more than welcome to," his eyes twinkle. She almost laughs.
"You're so charming. Kind. Disarming," she picks at the cloth on her palm, "Why don't you have a girlfriend?"
"I've had girlfriends," he answers quickly, a little defiant.
"Why didn't you marry any of them?"
Peeta goes quiet. Looks intently at his bread.
"You know why," he mumbles.
Katniss locks eyes with him and he's scared she'll leave. That was too big of a reveal. But she comes closer and starts tracing patterns in the flour on the table.
"You don't want me," she mutters, "I'm not built to love like that."
"You don't know what I want," is he really saying this out loud to her? "You haven't tried loving me yet. Maybe you could."
Katniss shakes her head. Draws in the flour with her fingers.
"Even if I could, I won't," she sighs. "That's the price we pay for independence."
Peeta watches her speak as she traces patterns unseeingly in the flour.
"I want to be free. The Capitol already has too much control over me. I don't want to belong to a husband too," she shudders,
"To be in love is to be helpless—look what good it did my mother. I won't ever choose to give something that control over me," she looks at Peeta intently.
"Doesn't it feel awful?" she asks softly.
"Sometimes," he whispers, caught between holding her blazing gaze and hiding his eyes in his dough.
"When I think about how hopeless it is. How you—I mean, how the person you love—will probably never feel that way about you."
He smiles sadly, and Katniss' chest tightens painfully.
"But the good feeling makes it worth it," his smile grows involuntarily. He is so easy to talk to, so free with his words and uncomplicated with his thoughts.
"When the whole day gets better because you spend a few minutes with the person you love, or when a look or smile from her can make your afternoon…"
Katniss starts to get uncomfortable as she remembers he is talking about her. She's not used to having that kind of power over someone.
"But what's the point of it?" she interrupts, angrily. She can't let herself get caught up in the light feeling Peeta provokes,
"At best I'd eventually loose control of my body to babies and spend the rest of my life worrying about them. I have enough to worry about now."
Peeta doesn't say anything. It's true, she has more to worry about than she should. He starts to sieve flour for the next batch. Katniss' finger patterns in the flour on the table become more frantic until she breaks the silence,
"Sometimes I think: What am I going to do when I'm the only one left?" her floury fingers tremble, "Prim will get married one day. She already has a boyfriend. She's so easily made happy. My mother will die. Like my father did. And I'll be…"
"You won't be alone," Peeta's voice comes out harsher than he means it with the conviction. He reaches for her flour covered hand. "You won't ever be alone."
He's afraid of how vulnerable she looks, how unguarded her face is, so close to his.
And then she leans up and kisses him. Before he can realize it's happening, Katniss is kissing him.
Slowly, experimentally at first, but then she grabs his shirt collar to pull him in closer. Draws him into her, opens her mouth for him.
He kisses back, dazed with wonder. She tastes like wine from the day's celebration; it makes him dizzy. She is all warm and he's surprised. He thought she'd feel cold.
Her mouth is wet and grows increasingly urgent, clumsily pressing against his. He welcomes her hungrily, too dazed to think straight. His arms go around her, lifting her easily and her strong legs wrap around his waist, cream dress riding up her thighs where his hands squeeze.
He sweeps tomorrow's buns off the worktable, setting her down on top of it, and she nestles him between her thighs, the buckles of her hunting boots pressing against his legs. She is burning with a passion long pent up and he meets her kiss for kiss, gives her access as she fumbles with the ties of his apron.
"Peeta," his name on her breath against his lips stirs something huge and primal inside him.
His kisses move along her jaw, down her neck, her skin salty with a day's sweat. He runs his lips reverently over the same exquisite shoulders he'd admired from afar earlier and is hit with a surreal feeling. Cream straps fall out of his way, revealing cappuccino skin.
Katniss pulls his mouth back to hers hungrily, maneuvering so one of his legs is between hers and rubbing up against his thigh, trying to gain friction. Already, he is painfully hard. She grins eagerly, popping the button on his pants.
But he wants to take his time. He lays her out on the worktable, worshipping every part of her body he can reach with soft kisses. He wants to be gentle, tender, explore the woman he has been waiting years to know; wants her to feel his kisses not just on her skin but in her soul. Let her feel his love in every pore, feel how much she means to him with each kiss.
Hands trace tenderly down the top of her spine, feathery kisses along her collar bone, his lips seal promises on the soft flesh of each wrist…but her heels are at his back and they dig in sharply.
"Peeta, hurry up," she urges, a frustrated frown between her eyebrows.
He tries to kiss it away but she is already slipping her hand into his pants and then it's very hard to concentrate.
"Come on," she urges, sucking on his neck, stroking his erection.
He stills her hand with his own.
"Kat…Katniss, slow down," he begs, stuttering to regain control as she tries to stroke him again.
Peeta fleetingly wonders if she's done this with Gale. How many times. That could be why she seems so comfortable speeding through it, as straightforward as a transaction for bread. He tries not to think about it.
He is wondering how to slow her down, relax her frantic mood, show her how special this is to him, when she lifts her legs so her dress rides up around her waist, and his focus is drawn to the new areas revealed for his attention. His hand slides reverently along a smooth muscular calf, holding just above her knee, his mouth following with kisses ever so softly.
She gets agitated again, groaning in frustration, pushing the top of her dress down to expose small pert breasts, her nipples already hard.
"Peeta," she draws his face to her chest, guiding his mouth to her, "I need..."
"Katniss, I…" he turns his head away with more difficulty than any man has ever experienced, kissing her ribcage instead, over her heart.
He looks up at her earnestly,
"I want to do this right…I want you to feel…" he is so nervous, this moment is so important to him.
Katniss huffs in despair, panic flashing in her eyes. She shakes her head violently, as though trying to dislodge something that's stuck. Her strong arms push his torso off her body with surprising force.
"Forget it," she shoves him away and slides off the table, pulling up the cream straps, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand as if she could scrub off his kisses.
She grabs her game bag and slings it violently over her shoulder, turning to see Peeta confused and broken-hearted, his hair dishevelled, flour everywhere, pants undone. The tight feeling appears in her chest again at the forlorn look in his sad-puppy blue eyes.
"Just forget it," she mumbles angrily. The door slams as she leaves.
Peeta is left stunned and dismayed among the ruined buns that he will have to remake before tomorrow.
Katniss comes by with squirrels the next week like nothing happened. She refuses to talk about it and things carry on as they were except she is cold to him again, the way she was before they got to know each other. Months of building something between them are lost and he'll never know why.
As he's resolved to love her for the rest of his life, this breaks Peeta's heart every time he sees her. They came so close. He had been so overjoyed that she finally opened up to him; in their conversation, and then the kiss, the physical affection, more than he could hope for.
What did he do wrong that made her so repulsed suddenly? He worries that she was disgusted by him, or worse that he hurt her, or frightened her. He tears himself up about it, but she won't even discuss it, changing the conversation or abruptly leaving if he gets anywhere close to personal talk.
So he lets it drop. He knew it wasn't Panem's Greatest Romance yet, but he'd thought they'd started to build a bond that would last in the face of disagreements. That she couldn't renege on as though it were nothing to her.
Apparently they hadn't. Now he fears if he pushes her to talk more than she offers he may just never see her again. And that would be worst of all.
Things don't become right between them again until his father dies.
The night Katniss finds out she comes straight over and finds Peeta with his head in his hands on the bakery steps.
"Peeta, I'm so sorry."
He looks up with tears rolling down his cheeks and Katniss goes to him as though it were automatic. She hugs him like she hasn't been brushing him off for months. Her arms circle him tight and hold him firm to her like it's the most natural thing in the world.
And Peeta buries his face in the crook of her neck, inhales her skin, tangles his hands in her coarse hair and she is so solid a comfort. He doesn't dare speak in case she suddenly pushes him away again, but after a long time of him crying into her shoulder she doesn't seem to be going anywhere. Her own hands thread through his messy hair soothingly, she presses a firm kiss to the side of his head and her jacket grows damp with his tears.
"Aren't you cold out here?" she asks, her voice gentler than he's ever heard it.
"I don't want to go back in there," he jerks his head towards the bakery, "There are memories of him everywhere."
"Come on," she says, taking his hand and undoing his apron ten times more tenderly than when she last did.
Katniss takes him through the Seam, under the fence, to the field where she came when her father died; tells him about the day she came here. A little hope is rekindled inside him as she starts opening up, and he listens raptly to her stories of that awful time.
They build a fire and talk into the night, sharing memories of his father.
"He loved you, you know," he tells her, though it must have been obvious.
She smiles sadly, her face illuminated by the firelight.
"He told me about the Everdeen girls before I was old enough to know what a girl was," Peeta smiles at the memory.
"He loved you more," Katniss shifts to get comfortable and Peeta's head rests on her stomach.
"He was a good man," Peeta says, letting the words carry into the night.
"He was," Katniss agrees solemnly. Her fingers run absent-mindedly through Peeta's thick hair and he turns towards her touch.
They fall asleep out in the field. It's a warm night next to the fire and she's wrapped around him, protecting him with her body.
When Peeta wakes the next morning, Katniss is wearing his jacket, aiming her bow at a rabbit, and he's never seen a more beautiful sight in his life.
They bring the fire back to life to cook the rabbit and eat it for breakfast, sticky and delicious on their fingers.
They eat in comfortable silence. Peeta should tell her the funeral is today but then they will have to go back to town and leave this impossibly perfect world of just the two of them and bury his father, so he can't bring himself to say it.
"The funeral is today," she says. His heart sinks. Back to reality.
"Let's go," she helps him to his feet and holds his hand all the way back to town, rabbit still greasy on their twined fingers.
At the funeral sweet over-perfumed Delly Cartwright hugs him a little longer than necessary and kisses his cheek when she says how sorry she is for his loss.
"She's nice," Katniss appears at his ear.
"Delly's always nice," he frowns at her raised eyebrows.
"She's not married," Katniss is looking up at him, watching his reaction. "I hear she doesn't have a boyfriend." She seems to mean to be encouraging, but it makes Peeta's heart fall to the bottom of his stomach.
He reaches for her hand and she lets him hold it.
Gale's wife is three months pregnant when he's arrested for anti-patriotic activity.
There are rumours he's been turned into an Avox, but he reappears a week later, whipped and beaten to within an inch of his life.
Peeta doesn't see Katniss for two weeks. His brothers tell him it's just because she doesn't have any extra to trade now. He takes her a bag of cheese buns partly to make sure she has enough to eat, partly just to see with his own eyes that she's OK.
She refuses them, but thanks him for the offer.
"Times are hard for you too since your father…take care of yourself. I'll be fine," she frowns.
"Katniss, you can't hunt," worry strains his voice, "Everyone's saying they've turned the fences on since Gale..."
"They have," she looks him straight in the eye as she lifts up her shirt to reveal a jagged pink burn along her smooth belly.
Peeta gasps and falls to his knees before he can stop himself, reaching out to inspect the injury.
"I don't have time for this," Katniss pulls her shirt down and turns away. "Until Gale recovers, I've got three families to feed."
Still she won't let him leave the cheese buns.
"Take them to Gale," she eventually concedes, "If you want to be useful."
"He split a bag of grain last week staring after you."
Katniss smirks involuntarily.
"I wish you'd just put him out of his misery and tell him he has no chance."
The tray of pastries Peeta is carrying clatters to the floor as he hears his mother's voice through the kitchen door.
"Two squirrels," Katniss dumps them on the table, graciously refusing to acknowledge his mother's comments.
Peeta's mother can be mean when she's trying to make a point. Cruel to be kind; she'll insist it's in his best interest. She is blunt and practical and has no time for things like the idea of being in love, especially when it makes her son so distracted he ruins a morning's worth of cheese buns.
Peeta enters the kitchen flustered, his eyes fixed on the tray in his hands, his cheeks burning. Mercilessly, his mother continues.
"I've told him you wouldn't look twice at him. If you were interested you would have said so,"
Peeta drops the salvaged pastries again. His mother tuts. Katniss brushes past her and kneels to help him pick them up. Her hand bumps against his and she squeezes his fingers in sympathy. He looks away quickly, getting up awkwardly, and turning to the sink, his back to them both, praying his mother won't make Katniss so uncomfortable that she refuses to continue trading with him.
Peeta is certain he will die of shame.
"He wants to keep his mind on his work, not in his underpants."
A dish slips from Peeta's nervous hands and smashes to pieces.
"Clumsy idiot!" his mother shouts, whipping around.
It is absurd to see a tiny old woman grab a strong man by the ear and watch his steady eyes turn as frightened as a little boy's.
"Breaking our china? You'll go hungry tonight to pay for that, you clumsy fool!" his mother shakes him roughly, her hand drawing back to whack him.
Mrs Mellark gasps, her hand frozen mid-strike as the bread knife sails past an inch from her face and lodges in the wooden drying rack.
Peeta looks across the room to see Katniss glowering at his mother like a lioness.
"Don't touch him," her voice is low and dangerous.
It's completely unnerving for Peeta to see his mother scared of someone. Katniss doesn't stop glaring at her until Mrs Mellark leaves the kitchen, muttering "Seam brat…as daft as each other" angrily.
"Next time I won't miss," Katniss calls as the door slams.
She catches Peeta's eye. Without warning they both start laughing uncontrollably. Their bellies shake so deep it hurts. Peeta can't remember the last time he laughed so hard.
Katniss crosses in front of him to pull the knife out of the drying rack. The moment she touches it their laughter starts over again. Wiping away tears and grinning, Katniss turns to him with shining eyes.
Peeta's hand twitches out involuntarily to brush her hair out of her eyes. Their laughter fades to catching breath. She leans in to him. Her hands find his chest.
Suddenly they are kissing, with all the passion of that night long ago in this very kitchen and all the warmth of the laughter still bubbling in them. Katniss' hand finds his.
"Come on," she drags him to the back door, and he would have followed her anyway.
"I don't want her coming back in," she explains huskily as she presses him up against the outside brick stove.
She melts up into his mouth, soft and compliant against him. Peeta tastes the bread in the air mixed with Katniss' earthy taste. Her hands grip his broad shoulders and his grab her hips then sweep up her back, clutching at her like he might wake up at any moment. He presses kisses along her jaw, her neck, into her hair, covering every part of her he can reach with love.
"If we get married, you can't ever tell me what to do."
Peeta freezes, his mouth hung open, mid kiss. Katniss' eyes sparkle and she rests her forehead against his and plays with his buttons and what did she just say?
"And I won't have children. Not as long as there are still Hunger Games. I'll hunt whenever I want. Prim can live with us as long as she wants to. And I can't promise I'll be civil to your mother."
She can't really be saying this. Peeta tries to do anything but stare at her in wonder. Fails. He realises he's been silent for too long when a little panick appears in Katniss' eyes. She delivered her terms with such sincerity. And he can't bear for her to feel unsure, ever, so he finds his voice.
"OK," is all that comes. Soft, uncertain, hardly daring to smile.
"OK," she replies, drawing his face down to kiss him impossibly tenderly, like he were even more delicate than Prim.
"Go on then, ask me," she whispers. Her eyes meet his and he sees she is really serious. And best of all, not at all afraid.
"Ask you?" she covers his hands on her hips with hers to still their trembling.
"Ask me to marry you," if he didn't know her better he'd think she looks shy as she dips her head.
Peeta cradles her small strong hands between his own, between their bodies. If he really gets to ask this, then he must ask it right. So he kneels.
"Will you marry me, Katniss?" he can't believe the words are his.
"Yes," she smiles hesitantly down at him, the question in her eyes: if you want me to.
And then he is kissing her and kissing her and feeling like he'll explode with happiness.
"You really will?" he draws back in wonderment, as though he has to keep checking.
"Yes. I will, Peeta," she rolls her eyes, grinning, runs her fingers through his hair indulgently.
"You'll be my wife," he is still not quite sure it's real. She is smiling and her eyes are bright and more open to him than they've ever been and he thinks he couldn't possibly get any luckier. He can work on changing her mind about having children later, for now this is more than he dared hope.
"I'll take care of you," he strokes her cheek, amazed that he's allowed to.
"I know you will," her eyes are soft, "I'll take care of you too."
When he practiced proposals in his head, this was never how he imagined it would happen. He should have known she'd want to do things her way.
"I'm not like other girls," Katniss frowns, "Are you sure you want that?"
"Yes," he answers too quickly, kissing her frown away. "I want you more than anything."
"I'm sorry I was cold to you after…that night….in the kitchen," she trails off. Tries again.
"I was confused. Scared. There's something I haven't told you," Katniss looks down at her hands.
"What is it?" Apprehension coils in Peeta's gut. He waits for this dream to be shattered.
She is fingering his buttons again and he almost misses it when she mumbles,
"I love you. More than anyone," her quiet sincerity is honest.
Peeta's heart contracts at her declaration, the new softness she's revealing to him. Can this possibly be real? He puts one of her hands over his hammering heart.
"Me too. Katniss, I love you so much," he breathes, still savouring her words. More than anyone. Even Prim? He wonders. Prim who everyone knows she'd die for…
"I've loved you as long as I can remember." Of course she already knows it, but it feels so good to say it to her. To watch her eyes widen and soften as she looks up at him, feel her soft exhale against his Adam's apple when she hears it.
"Thank you," she smiles.
"For what?" he fingers her long braid, relishing the thought that as his wife he'll get to touch her braid whenever he likes the look of it (which is always).
"For loving me so much. For being such a good man."
Peeta can't express how honoured he feels to be allowed to see this affectionate side of Katniss, reserved for those she cares about. To have finally earned her love.
"I…" but she cuts him off with a deep kiss and nothing else matters now, not in this moment and not in the whole of Panem, and there's time to kiss a little more against the cool bricks and then a wedding to plan tomorrow.