So so sorry for the long delay! This story is just too hard to write anymore! Disclaimer: If you hate angst… you're not going to like this chapter…

Chapter 12:

"Katniss?" A muffled voice tremored through the door. In her lucid state, she hazily wondered how much time had passed. Slumped against the wall with her knees drawn up, Katniss shivered, refusing to allow her eyes to focus… her mind to focus.

She was too exhausted to move. Too overwhelmed to answer. Too weak to even turn her head towards the sound of his soft knocking. She wasn't prepared to handle all of this. Each revelation burdened her with a cataclysmic weight . The pressure of it all was suffocating, like being buried alive under boulders and sand. Couldn't he give her a little while longer? Couldn't she be left alone to gather the shreds of her fractured thoughts? They just ricocheted around her head in the most painful way. She wasn't ready to give answer. She needed more time. She needed to know what was true.

"Katniss?" His voice was louder now, panicky, "Kat, I'm coming in…" from her peripheral, she saw the door open, "Katniss…" Peeta breathed as his eyes slid over her slumped form. He approached her as one would a wounded, feral animal.

Finally, registering his presence she looked across to see blue guarded eyes and a down cast brow. His mask was in place and it made her heart ice over. How easily he could slip in and out of it, like a pair of well-worn boots. It was only now that she recognized it for what it was. A facial façade he would wear to keep secret his true emotions. She used to think his disdain for her knew no bounds. But the truth, the glaring truth, was that his disdain and coldness were nothing but his mask. A mask that shielded every honest thought from her. A mask that began to slip the day both their names were drawn. And as glad as she was to know that he never truly hated her, she couldn't help but feel her heart break as a cruel realization poured in and drowned her:

She never really knew him at all.

Every moment shared between them wasn't real. It was a staggering thought that made her sick to her stomach. Shards of her memories crumbled and fell like the lonely buildings haunting the edges of the Seam. Everything would have to be deconstructed and rebuilt new now, and she doubted she had the strength or courage for it.

"You're still in your dress," his soft voice waded into her thoughts and she suddenly realized he was shoving a fluffy robe into her hands. "Please put on something warm, I don't want you to get sick." The concern laced between his words made her want to vomit. No, she didn't know him at all. She knew him as well now, as she did the day she first truly met him. They were strangers then. They were children then. Had anything really changed in five years?

"Do you ever think about it?" Her voice came out tiny and hoarse and bounced around the marble walled bathroom. Peeta looked at her hard, his eyes flaring brightly for only a moment, before they faded to a dormant state.

"Think about what?" He feigned ignorance, his practiced art.

"You know what." Her voice possessed a harshness that surprised them both.

"Do you need help with your dress?" He evaded the question further, refusing to look her in the eye.

"That night, Peeta." Her voice was low and clear with a note of urgent desperation that laced it's way through each word, piercing his heart.

"Katniss…. Don't." Peeta warned through clenched teeth as his jaw bobbed.

"I never did thank you…" He held up his hand to stop her, closing his eyes,

"Just… leave it alone." He finally gave her back his gaze, and for all the years his gaze lacked emotion, in that moment every feeling was laid bare and fully present in his blue eyes. Naked and vulnerable emotions that brimmed brightly with weakness and sacrifice.

"Is that why?" Her voice grew stronger, and rang against the marble tile of the bathroom rendering the sound hollow.

"Is what, why?" Peeta breathed as dread slunk down his throat like cold mud.

"Is that why you never… liked me… was it because of that night?"

It was one of those long suffering, quiet questions.

The sort that festers below in the dark secret spaces for years and years. When it finally surfaces, it's asked with crippling trepidation and all the impatience born from years of unknown musings.

"That doesn't make sense," he breathed, already exhausted. His evasion was an art unto itself.

"No, it doesn't. I realize that now." With each word her resolve hardened, "And yet… I don't have any other idea as to why you've been so… distant… in the past." She selected her words with extreme care, knowing just how fragile they were.

"Was that why?" she demanded again.

Peeta made no move to respond, paralyzed by her questions. "Peeta… that night… was that why?" Her voice grew shrill as the raw demand for truth weakened it. "Tell me," she begged, as tears sprang to her eyes. Her heart slammed relentlessly against her battered rib cage, "Please tell me, Peeta." Her plea came out anguished and small. Peeta's face contorted in pain, and when his own eyes pooled with tears, she had her answer before it was spoken,

"Yes…"

A rib cracking sob escaped her throat, and her voice whimpered pitiful and small, "But, it wasn't even my fault?"

In an instant, large hands clasped her ribs and pulled the sobbing form on to his lap, enveloping her in warm strong arms.

"Katniss, of course it wasn't your fault." She made to pull away, but his grip only tightened, clenching her to him desperately, "Shh, Katniss, listen…" he tucked her head under his chin, holding her fiercely against his racing heart, "You don't understand…" his voice was a whisper.

With her safely in his lap, he didn't have to look into her eyes as he made his confessions. It was cowardly, he knew this, but the words would never surface otherwise. "Please just listen," he begged, waiting for her sobbing to subside.

"It's true that that night changed everything. It's true that it was the catalyst for the walls I built against you, but you don't understand." He sucked in a ragged breath, his hands involuntarily clenching where they held her. Her shoulder, her waist. "I'd never experienced anything like that before. We were just kids..." He sucked in a raw breath, "I lied to you yesterday when I said I stopped being a child the day my father died. It isn't true." A lonely tear slipped free from the pool in his eyes, trailing down the middle of his cheek, "I stopped being a child the day I watched you almost die… The day I realized that cruelty in this world is without measure and beyond recourse." She felt his tear splash on the top of her head, and her whole body shook with the force of her jagged inhale.

"It affected me…" his voice was just a whisper.

"You are kind, and selfless and good, Katniss. You do not deserve all these awful things that keep happening to you. It's like this life you live is not content to see you merely downtrodden. Like it won't be satisfied until it sees you destroyed. Things get bad for everyone, and they bear their heavy burdens on their aching backs, but not without deep scars that taint their hearts, and poison their hopes. But most are granted a reprieve from loss and strife. For most it comes in seasons…." His voice hitched, "But for you… it just never ends."

Silent tears poured from the corners of her eyes without end.

"It isn't right. Even after you had been hurt, and left for death alone on that floor… you had to be hurt further… and I had to be there… I had to help. I couldn't cope with it. Even after all this time, I still can't." She could feel him shake his head at this. He was quiet for a long moment, his arms like vices around her slender shoulders, refusing to release her. His heart burned and ached as a sudden cruel memory stole into his mind making him sick,

"At night, when everyone was asleep, while you were still unconscious, I sat on the floor next to the bed, and whispered things to you. I convinced myself as I told you that this was the worst. That if you just held on a little longer, if you just woke up… everything would get better. That everything would be okay…" His shoulders suddenly began to shake, not from tears, but from a wild brimming anger, as his voice grew harsh from a deep vein of acrid bitterness,

"I was fucking lying to you! Because… a few days later, that heinous woman came with Cray, and they wrenched you from my bed, your body still broken, and took you right back to that same life."

"Oh, Peeta," Katniss sobbed into his chest, only realizing then that her own arms had snaked around him, and that her grip was just as desperate.

"The most perplexing thing, the thing I'll never understand… is not that it changed me… but that, it never changed you," his tone took on a quality akin only to awe, "I just can't believe you're real sometimes," he breathed quietly into her ear, "To have a heart so brimming with love in this world, is not rare… it's impossible. It's just… impossible." Peeta gently released his hold, only to tip her chin up to finally lock eyes. Their expressions were mirrors reflecting back and forth the same shared misery.

"Sometimes my heart feels like obsidian. Heavy and so dark," he made the faltering confession, never breaking contact with her eyes, "I envy the way you can look at life and still see the value in others… the value in our existence."

"Oh Peeta, you couldn't be more wrong about me," she whispered back, as fresh tears welled and she looked away from his bright seeking eyes. "Sometimes I feel the same as you… I allow my thoughts and fears to drag me into the depths of their dark spaces. Sometimes I'm consumed with regret. Sometimes, I fear my father would be disappointed in me, and I… I just feel so worthless…" her voice broke over a sob, at this. These secret words too potent and raw to allow her to go on. Words she had never admitted to herself, let alone spoken aloud to the only person whose opinion really mattered.

"Katniss," Peeta smoothed the hair back from her face, and brought his thumbs up to brush the tears across her cheeks. His eyes were bright, and the look he was giving her resembled…pity? But, no… it wasn't pity that danced in his features, it was something far more innocent. Like when a child tells you they are afraid of a monster, or something equally as imaginary and made up.

"Katniss, your value is infinite. Can't you see that the person you are honors your father every day? He was an incredibly kind man, but his kindness is a pale and sallow thing when next to yours. And we both know, he wouldn't want it any other way. He holds a legacy in our town, simply because you exist. A perfect creature born into chaos and coal dust. He would be so crushingly proud of you." The tenderness in his tone, and softness in his eyes made her aching heart melt like gold turning to liquid.

"Where have your walls gone off to now, Peeta Everdeen?" She smiled, artfully turning the conversation away from the too kind words he was pouring over her. They were like a balm to burned and scorched flesh. And for reason unknown, she feared them. While she had meant her comment to lighten the heaviness that had descended upon them, to her utter dismay, they had only resolved to shatter the warm and lovely moment.

Peeta's eyes had darkened, as his eyebrows knit together. She could feel how his muscles tensed beneath her palms, and it was as though the pressure in the air had changed.

"Peeta?" she questioned, seeking out his eyes. "What? I was just joking…" Her voice stopped as his dark gaze snapped to hers. "Peeta?" but already she could see his walls inching their way back. Closing in on this little sanctuary they had built. It scared her like nothing else ever had and without thinking she nearly yelled, "Don't! If you put them back up, Peeta… I won't survive it! Not now… " A faltering flicker passed through his gaze as her words lanced his heart. And suddenly it all came flooding back.

The fallout from his actions.

Every tear his coldness had caused to slide down her perfect face. Every smile he had denied her, which in turn, stripped her of her own. Every clipped comment, that caused her shoulders to sag in defeat. Every lingering gaze he had refused to reciprocate. Every kind word he had withheld.

It was truly a testament to her unfailing kindness that she would even speak to him after years and years of his coldness.

She watched quietly as an anguished expression tore across his face. It was almost as if she could see the trajectory of his thoughts. She would do anything in the world to spare him from the bourgeoning regret she saw there. Without forethought, she blurted,

"It's okay, Peeta, I…"

"No." His voice was firm, but there was a tormented tremor to it. "It is not okay, Katniss. Do not say that it is okay. We both know it wasn't." She looked up at him with wide eyes, inhaling slowly, absorbing his words. After a long moment, she made a simple nod.

"It could be…. If I could just understand…"

"What's there to understand, Katniss!? I was a complete prick to you."

"But why!?" It came out rushed and tortured, "Why did you build walls against me?"

"I told you…"

"There's more to it than that, Peeta, and we both know it!" A shred of bitterness darkened her tone, as the desperation to just understand, chased all patience and composure away,

"That night was the catalyst. It shook your foundations, I get that, but there is more to it than that! As we got older, it just got worse and worse. You went 52 days once, without so much as acknowledging my presence," He shot her a surprised glance, "Yeah, I counted!" She spat, feeling foolish for revealing the depth of her regard for him. "Just tell me!?"

"Katniss!" Peeta's tone was sharp, and she could tell he was growing angry too.

"I can handle it, Peeta, I'm not a child!" Her own ire was rising past the point of control.

"You were just always around after that!" He barked, "All the time! Always bringing things to us. You gave Prim all of your old dresses, which were always far nicer than anything we could have got her, you gave us bread nearly every week, we only survived through a few of those tough times because of you!" As his rushed speech went on, his anger slowly deflated, "I dropped out of school to get a job, and it didn't help…took extra shifts at the mine and it didn't help. I signed up for extra tesserae… and went hunting three times a week and it didn't help. None of it helped! None of it made enough of a difference." He let his head fall back against the tile, his voice suddenly revealing the taxing toll of the words he was offering, "I couldn't save my family, and it kills me. I can't save them. … not without you." He sighed loudly, closing his eyes, "I just… I hate feeling like this… Like a failure. My father expected me to look after them…. Take care of them… and I never could. And I hate owing you, Katniss. Of all the people in this fucking world, I hate owing you."

"Why should it matter that it's me?" Katniss breathed, her heart racing and her anger long forgotten somewhere in the middle of his concession.

"Don't you know!?" his tone was full of anguish, and he pulled his head off the wall to study the confused expression in her wide eyes, "If there was ever anyone in this world that I hoped to protect, to provide for… it was you."

"It's always been you," He breathed, pulling her tighter to him on instinct. His grip suddenly erasing the long suffering ache, replacing it with fire.

"But I can't," He went on, dejectedly, "I can't provide for you… and, as far as protecting you… I'm the world's greatest failure. Every time you ever came to school with a visible bruise, I suddenly felt like that little boy again. Completely helpless. Completely useless. Immobilized by staggering fear in the glaring injustice of it all. Too scared of the consequences to just act." Suddenly he gripped her arms tightly holding her away from him so he could stare in her eyes. His face was solemn and strong. It showed the depth of the long, yet short life he had lived and it was far too serious for anyone his age, "If I didn't have my mother and Prim to think of…. I would have risked everything for you, Katniss." His voice shook, "Every thing on this earth, for you." The hair on the back of her neck rose, and tears pricked the corners of her eyes at this confession. Words, she had only ever dreamed he might say.

"I could have just used a friend, Peeta," Katniss breathed, her voice small.

"I couldn't ever just be your friend. It's all or nothing." His tone was dark, and his eyes penetrating as he reached up to brush away one of her tears with the back of his knuckles. The gentle act juxtaposed by the fierce intensity pouring from his gaze sent a chill down her spine, as her heart slammed in her chest. She was instantly overwhelmingly aware of him, and heat crawled out from her chest and consumed her. He sucked in a deep breath, his gaze falling over her face, lingering at her lips, "If you think I could survive being near you and not making you mine… you don't understand at all."

To be cont.

A/N: Well, blame the new chapter post on New Year's resolutions! I'm drinking champagne right now to celebrate just finally getting something up. (We had several bottles left over, so it may get a bit sloppy in here!)

I do not have a beta, and no one reads this stuff before I put it up, so if there are mistakes ect., I apologize. That being said, I haven't a sounding board with this story, which is why it always means so much to me when you guys leave some kind of feedback. If there are parts that don't make sense, or you don't like, it would be so helpful to know. I also love to hear speculations. Please feel free to leave some constructive criticism. Or… just criticism. Or even nasty notes and personal attacks… the champagne will make me brave! Regardless, thank you so so much for taking the time to read this, it means so much! Happy happy New Year!