It's in District Four (renamed Oceania, but everyone still calls it District Four), sitting over tea with her mother where she says something very dumb.
She's in Four, two years after everything ended, with Peeta, to be present at the opening of Primrose Wing—the wing of the hospital her mother founded named after her late sister. It's natural that Peeta is with her because he is always with her, like a limb she's especially fond of (her shooting arm, for example).
"So," her mother says, smiling at her over the teacup. Her mother has something new in her eyes, something she hasn't seen for almost ten years. It's like her eyes were one of those big, blank canvases Peeta sends out for, and now they're one of his masterpieces splashed across them. "How are you? I have to say, I'm happy to see you here. I never thought you'd come, not in a million years."
Katniss has to agree. A couple weeks ago, Peeta had come into her house—their house, really—with two official-looking envelopes in his hand. He had set his cane by the door (his leg hurts him some days, and the long hours spent at the new bakery don't help), and then limped over to the couch, where she had been sitting, knitting a scarf. She enjoys knitting. Greasy Sae taught her how a few months back, and as always, Katniss Everdeen enjoys doing something practical. Peeta has a new hat and scarf for when winter drops on top of them, and she has some cozy socks she wears all the time.
"Hi," he had said, tugging on her hair. It was loose, over her shoulders, almost hitting the bottom of her breasts. "We have mail."
Her brow had smooshed together, and she couldn't help feeling anxious. People all but left them alone, and she liked that just fine.
"Read them to me," she had commanded of Peeta, smiling a bit. Another of their new hobbies involves Peeta and the ancient history books Paylor had sent him. They had been in Snow's library, marked under "confidential and highly dangerous." He reads them to her nightly, and they're almost like myths. Centralized governments, something called democracy, freedom of all kinds, and the lands of Panem broken into several dozen masses of land called states.
"Back then, where we live? We would have lived in a state called West Virginia. Or maybe Pennsylvania," he had told her one night, squinting at an old map in the book and a new map of Panem (renamed Harmonious, but no one calls it that, either).
"Either is pretty," she'd replied, looking over his shoulder at the book.
Drawing her back, Peeta had opened the letters. There had been two invitations—one to District Four (Oceania, she reminded him, playfully haughty), to be present at the opening of Prim's wing. Her heart had squeezed tightly, and Peeta had taken her hand. The other was to the new Capitol, to the second anniversary celebration of the new government's rise. They had asked them to attend last year, but Katniss had chucked it into the fire as soon as Peeta had started reading it.
But when Peeta had looked up at her then, trying to hide his smile, he made her heart tug in that way only he could.
"You want to go, don't you?" she had asked, folding her legs underneath her. "Don't lie."
"Not if you don't want to," he had said, and if the Hijacking had done anything, it had erased his talent for lying. It had taken away his ability to want to lie, really, because the truth—what was real and what wasn't—was more important to him than anything.
"I'm not sure," she had said. "What do you think? There will be cameras, Peeta. And people we both hate. And—" Gale, she had almost said, but didn't, because that hurt, too.
"I know," he had admitted, looking down at his legs. "God, this thing is killing me."
"Let me," she'd insisted, pressing on the clasp that held the hinges of his prosthetic together. They had released, and she had pressed them back, hearing the quiet humming of his fake leg go quiet. It'd dropped onto the couch, and Peeta had reached for a blanket to cover his stump.
"Don't," she had insisted. "Don't hide." She had gotten up to retrieve his special cream, and he had watched her, his eyes trying to hide how lovesick he still was. Quiet moments like this always made Katniss feel strange, because even though they were closer now than they had ever been. And even though sometimes, in the quiet of the night, she had wanted to trace his every scar, and even though sometimes, in the morning, she had woken up to something pressing in to her backside, they were still just friends, rebuilding their lives together. They had kissed a couple times, but that was a while ago, when he had first returned and they were both still terrified of their own shadows.
And she was scared, she had realized, rubbing the rough skin of his thigh, just above the point of connection. Scared of knocking down their tenuous house of cards by admitting that she had grown to need him to survive, just as Gale had predicted so long ago. Scared because it was more than that, still. Peeta was the only one who could make her laugh, and he was the only one she confided in. He humored all of her new hobbies, even the time she had decided she was going to learn how to cut hair, and he had ended up almost bald in the back, tufts of blonde in the front.
He gave affection freely, and his touch was not only something she tolerated, but something she was almost starved for (a head on his strong shoulder while watching the television, a hand to hold walking down the street, lips on her damp forehead after a bad nightmare). And even though they were few and far between, when he had a bad spell, her voice murmuring in his ear, her hands in his hair, her mouth kissing his face when it was all over—it was the only thing in the world that brought him back.
"We can't hide," she had murmured, putting the top back on his lotion and settling into his arms. "If we're going to go, we can't hide. We can't be ashamed of who we are. They should see what their war has done to—to the—"
"Star-crossed lovers of District Twelve," he had laughed, combing his gentle fingers through her hair.
"Exactly." She had put her hand on his leg, the bad one. "Don't hide from me anymore, Peeta. Please." And she could've sworn she saw that look in his eyes, the old flash, the one he had every time she said something that might mean she felt for him what he felt for her.
"Katniss?" Her mother brings her back to the present, setting down her cup. "Have I said something?"
"No, mom." She drags her hand through her tangled bed-head, sighing. "Just thinking."
Her mother sighs, picking up their now-empty breakfast plates. "How's Peeta?"
Katniss watches her wash off the plates for a few moments without answering. She's trying to answer well enough without giving too much away. A lot of things have changed, yes, but she still values her privacy. She's accepted that the country will always have an interest in her, and she owes the people who took her in as their leader and battled around her, for her, and for what she represented to them. But there are things, like Peeta, that she wants to keep to herself, buried down deep so nothing can ever touch them again.
"You saw him yesterday," she answers eventually. "How do you think he is?"
"Polite as ever." Her mother leans against the counter, waiting for more water to boil. "He looks much healthier. And he's still in love with you."
"Mom," she snips. "Don't."
"Oh, Katniss." Mrs. Everdeen has sympathy written all over her face, and Katniss can't stand it. "You two have been through so much together. You can't drag him along forever."
"That's not what I'm doing!" she shouts, slapping her hands against the wooden table. "You—you—" She hasn't been so angry in years. Sad, yes. Confused, yes. Upset, sure. But anger takes passion, and passions burns. A girl who was on fire knows too much about burning. "You don't know anything about Peeta and me."
"So tell me." Her mother has stayed calm, obviously used to Katniss' outbursts. "I know I haven't—I've made a lot of mistakes when it comes to my children." Her voice becomes shaky.
"Don't cry." Katniss' voice is cold. "Stop it."
"I'm still your mother, regardless of what life has thrown at us. I've written you countless times, asking you to move out here with me. We're family, Katniss. We need each other."
"I've already chosen my family. And I would never leave Twelve."
"You can bring Peeta. Like you'd be able to stop him from following you all over Panem."
"Don't talk about him like he's my pet!" She's incensed, and her gut is boiling over. She hopes she doesn't do something stupid like throw up. "Peeta isn't the only thing holding me to Twelve, but I'd never ask him to leave. He has a business. He has a purpose. We both do. Like I said, Mom. We can't help the family we're born with, but I've chosen the family I want. Peeta, Haymitch, Greasy Sae. The customers at the bakery. The people who've known me all my life and still see me as Katniss, not some—not some—not some mantelpiece! Not some burden! Not some girl dressed up in costumes. They know me. And I want to know them. You've had no interest in me all my young life, and now that Prim is—" She swallows over the word, not able to say it. "Now that she's not here, you've finally remembered you have another daughter."
"It's nothing like that, Katniss. You haven't needed me for years, and I just thought—"
"I needed you when Dad died. I needed you to keep working, to tell Prim and me that everything was going to be okay, even if that wasn't the truth. You made me not need you. You made me fend for myself. But, I'm grateful for that now. I understand you now. Why you checked out. I did it myself for a while. But my family never gave up on me, and even though I'll never be—I'll never be who I could have been, I'm still here. I'm eating. I'm talking. I'm laughing. I'm okay."
Her mother hugs her tightly, and Katniss slumps, the fight gone from her. She's glad of it, truly. It takes so much energy to be angry, and she's exhausted.
"I didn't mean to start a fight with you," her mother says, just above a whisper. "I just wanted you to know that I'm here, if you ever want a relationship with me."
"We have a relationship," Katniss says, drawing back. "This is our relationship. You're my mother, and you always will be. But I made my choice a long time ago, and so did you. We both chose to move forward, but in different ways."
Mrs. Everdeen cups Katniss' face. "When did you get so strong?"
"No, Katniss. Let me say this. You've always been stronger than me, but it's not hard to be. No, now, you're strong within your own right. Your strength isn't comparable to anything in this world. I'm proud of you. I always have been, and I always will be."
Katniss turns away, fighting back stupid tears. "Thanks." But that's the first time she's ever heard her mother say that, and it jars her.
"So," her mother says, pouring them another cup of peppermint tea. "Please allow your old mother just one question. What is Peeta to you?"
She struggles to answer, because she's yet to truly confront that herself. "He's my friend. But—it's more. We're friends. With benefits." She smiles to herself, happy with that answer. Yes, that's good. They're friends, but there's mutually beneficial things between them that she thinks are more than just friendship. Like how she can tell him anything, and he won't pass judgment. Like how sometimes she just has to touch him, to make sure he's really there, and he lets her, nodding, whispering "real" to her. Like when she wakes up crying, and he lets her cry, never telling her to quiet down or that it was just a dream because he knows, better than anyone, that most of the things she sees behind her eyes aren't figments of her imagination.
Her mother looks surprised and a little bit scandalized when she catches Katniss' eye. "Really?"
"Yes," Katniss responds. "There are many benefits to our relationship. He's so good, Mom. Everything he does is just good."
Her mother doesn't correct her, but she does give Peeta a once-over when he descends the stairs a few minutes later, kissing Katniss' head and wishing everyone a good morning.
"That was nice," Peeta says the next day, as the train takes off from Four, heading to the Capitol.
Katniss leans against him, her throat tight. She's been holding back tears for hours, ever since she saw her sister smiling down at her from a huge painting on the wall. She had recognized those brushstrokes immediately, looking curiously to Peeta. He had nodded, and she had remembered when he'd gone out of town a month or so back. He had said he was commissioned to paint a memorial at a hospital, but he didn't say which. She hadn't really thought of it, though, so miserable that week he was gone. She had jumped on him when he'd returned and followed him everywhere the next couple days.
"Your painting was beautiful," she tells him, her chin on his shoulder. "I'm so glad it was you. You knew her. No one else could have done it. She was just a pretty young girl who died in the line of duty, one of many, to everyone else. The Mockingjay's sister, even. But you knew her. Thank you."
His arm goes around her, scooting her closer. She wraps her arms around his middle, blinking around her tears as they drip down her face. "I miss her," she chokes.
"I know," he murmurs. Of course he knows; his whole family is gone. She forgets that a lot, because he never talks about it. She figures he will someday, and she's not the kind to push.
"We should do something for your family," she says, leaning back, looking up at him. "Back in Twelve."
"Twelve already has a war memorial," he reminds her. There's a wall downtown, made of onyx, listing the names of all Twelve citizens lost during the war.
"I know. Something different. Maybe something at the bakery?"
"Like what?" He's smiling softly, the smile he reserves only for her. Peeta has a lot of smiles: his stage smile, his customer smile, his Haymitch smile (which is usually sarcastic). But Katniss knows this smile, and it's just for her. He hasn't told her he loves her since before the war, but she thinks that this smile says it for him. She thinks maybe she has a smile for him, too.
She shrugs. "I'll think of something."
"I know you will." His quiet faith in her has never waned, and that means more to her than any declaration to Caesar Flickerman.
"Fancy seeing you two here," announces a very familiar voice. She would know that slur anywhere.
"Haymitch," Peeta acknowledges, watching him drop onto the couch opposite them. "When did you get here?"
"Arrived in Four—oh, excuse me, Oceania—this morning. Hopped the train when you two did, I s'pose. They're so touchy when you call it Four, aren't they? I nearly got my head bit off, buying my ticket. 'Four to the Capitol,' I said. Got a lecture from the man behind the counter about how we should be calling all the districts by their new names because what was the point of the war if we can't move forward? Said I didn't know, but I'd make sure to ask Katniss Everdeen when I saw her. Shut him up quick."
Katniss rolls her eyes at him. "They're just happy because their name is so nice-sounding. Twelve's name is ridiculous."
"Appalachia," they all grumble at the same time. "I can't even spell it," Haymitch adds.
"Well, it does make sense, because we live in what was once called the Appalachian Mountains—" Peeta starts.
"Yeah, yeah, don't start on your history lecture, boy. Hundreds of years ago, that was. I can't even remember what I had for breakfast."
"White liquor, probably," Katniss drawls. "I can't believe you came along."
"I could say the same," Haymitch snaps back, settling down into the couch. "But when I heard my kids were coming, couldn't say no, could I? You two always seem to get yourselves into trouble. Someone's gotta be around to make sure you two don't start another damn revolution."
Katniss and Peeta share a smile. Haymitch tries so hard to hide how much he cares for them, but the man is getting almost sentimental in his old age.
"Besides," Haymitch says, his eyes closing. "You two know why I'm really here."
"The refreshments," Katniss and Peeta answer, trying not to laugh, but it's an old joke by now.
"The American Civil War, often referred to as The Civil War in the United States, was a civil war fought over the secession of the Confederacy. In response to the election of an anti-slavery Republican as President, 11 southern slave states…"
Katniss tucks her feet under Peeta's legs as he reads on. The sounds of his voice is a nice backdrop as she concentrates on the scarf she's trying to make herself, now that Peeta's all taken care of.
"It's weird," he says, putting down the book. "They talk of America like it was the Golden Age, yet they had tons of wars. I haven't even gotten to the 1900s and the 2000s yet. Just wait until you hear about the Great War of 2030. It wasn't so perfect back then, either."
"I think people just like to believe things are perfect, so they have something to hope for. I don't know." She shrugs, her tongue between her teeth as she concentrates.
"That makes sense," he concedes. "Although things are pretty perfect right now. I can't imagine things getting much better."
"Really?" She finally looks up at him, carefully putting her knitting down next to the bed. Their train bed isn't nearly as comfortable as their bed at home, but it'll do. "You think?"
"Oh, definitely. I mean—things could be better, of course. I don't know why I said that. It's like I momentarily forgot everything we've been through. It was stupid. Forget it."
"Peeta." She puts her hand on his ankle. "Sometimes, I forget, too. It's okay."
"Yeah. And then I feel so guilty. How could I have forgotten that all this—" she gestures around them, "came with a price? A very heavy price? How can I forget about—about Prim?" She trails off, self-loathing kicking in. "We live so peacefully. A peace I never thought would be possible. And Prim—she would have been so happy. I can be so selfish," she whispers. "It's selfish to be happy."
"No, it's not. It isn't. You deserve to have happiness in your life after all you've been through."
She scoffs, rolling her eyes. "Stop it. That's what everyone says. You sound like Dr. Aurelius. You know just as well as I do that I don't deserve anything. I've killed so many people. I've ruined so many lives. My sister is dead because of me."
"And you. I hurt you. All the time. So much. I don't know how you can stand to look at me, let alone be around me. You must be a glutton for punishment, because I know you're not an idiot. When you were hijacked—that's the only time you made sense. Even though I hated you for it, you finally saw me as you should. Do you remember what you said? I do. Something like, 'what's so special about you? You're not even particularly pretty.'"
Peeta winces, looking down. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. I was just—I was so confused, and I was angry. I didn't—"
"You meant it. Don't lie. I'm not pretty or special. Especially not now. If I was pretty before, now I'm just a burnt-out shell. You know what Haymitch told me once? 'You could live a hundred lifetimes and not deserve him.' I knew he was right then, and I know that now. You deserve—"
"If you don't like me telling you what you deserve, what makes think I'd like it? It's not about deserving, you're right. It's about taking the pieces of what's left and trying to put them back together in a way that fits, in a way that won't make everything fall apart again. At least you never tried to kill me! I tried to kill you countless times while I was under, and I still have bad spells. I always tell you to run, but you don't listen; of course you don't listen! You sit on my lap and sing in my ear until I'm back, but you don't know, Katniss; you don't know how close I've come to snapping."
"You haven't come close in a long time."
"No, that's true. But back then, back then? I was a walking time bomb. But you're just as self-destructive as ever. And I know, Katniss. I know you got stuck with me, that I wasn't your choice—I was the only choice left, because if we do anything well, it's protect each other, like you said. We both survived, and you got stuck choosing me."
"I could have chosen nothing!" she shouts. This is the second time she's gotten gut-boiling angry in the past 48 hours. This can't be good for her health, but it feels good for some reason. For so long, she's been empty. Sure, she's filled it up with hobbies and a little bit of laughter and the woods and Peeta's presence, but she's been floating through life. Her anger is planting her firmly to the ground. "I could have chosen to move to some random District where I'd never have to see you again! But I came back to Twelve because it's my home, and I let you in because I wanted you there! You, Peeta!" She wipes angry tears off of her cheeks. "I chose you like Annie chose Finnick, knowing he could die. Knowing at any second he could be carted off and die in some sewer in the Capitol. Finnick deserved a hero's death, and Annie must be so angry because he—but she stayed alive, and she has Finn, that beautiful little boy—that's what she chose!"
She's not sure why she thought of Annie and Finnick and their son, and she's not even sure why she related Annie's choice to hers, because Annie loved Finnick, anyone could see, and she's not sure if—well, it isn't the same, is it?
Peeta seems to confused, too, because she's rendered the articulate man completely speechless. He opens his mouth, closes it, opens it once more, then closes it, swallowing. "I—"
"You're so stupid, Peeta!" she shouts, getting up from the bed, storming out of the room, and slamming the door behind her.
Much later, she and Haymitch are in the bar car, and she's a little drunk. Her whole body feels light, and she keeps laughing at everything he says. How has she never noticed how funny Haymitch is? He's the funniest. Much funnier than Peeta. Peeta is so stupid. So stupid with his honest blue eyes and that smile only for her and his strong arms and all the muscle he's gained from labor that she tries not to stare at. Like that time she was bringing folded laundry up the stairs and she collided with him right after his shower, with only a towel around his waist, and she smacked right into his damp chest that smelled so clean and was so soft and his scars were like a patchwork quilt, like the one Grandma Everdeen made for her parents' wedding that her mom sleeps with every night.
Stupid man that came home to her when he could have gone anywhere in Panem because everyone loves a hero, especially one who fought against the Evil Capitol to be himself again, the man that the whole country fell in love with when he was only sixteen. And he's almost twenty-one now, and any trace of awkwardness his youth might have held has smoothed out into a strong, beautiful man whose scars don't make him ugly, no, they make him interesting, or so simpered a celebrity reporter on TV one night. Peeta had turned beet red and changed the channel, and she had laughed so hard she almost puked up dinner.
"Are you listening to me?" Haymitch slurs, knocking into her as he sways on his stool.
"No," Katniss answers, slinging back another shot of white liquor. How many was that? Seven? Eight?
"I was saying—I said—you're an idiot." He burps, not bothering to cover up his mouth. "You're not sixteen anymore, Mockingjay."
"Don't call me that. I hate it."
"I couldn't care less what you hate. It's time to stop being so brooding and misunderstood. It's time to figure out what you have in Peeta, because for some reason, that boy has stood by your side for almost five years, waiting in the wings. I bet he has the worst case of blue balls."
"Ugh," she groans, covering up her ears. She had woken up in the middle of the night, not too long ago, to find Peeta gone from the bed. Anxious, she had gotten up, quiet with her hunter's grace. She heard a noise from the bathroom and crept over to the ajar door. The light was on, so she peeked in, breathing a sigh of relief when she saw Peeta's reflection in the mirror. But then, she had accidentally slammed the door when she saw—his hand fisting himself, his other hand propped against the counter, and his face contorted into something that looked like pain, eyes closed, mouth dropped, eyebrows knitted.
He had come back to bed five minutes later, and she had screwed her eyes shut, fake snoring, even though she wasn't even sure if she snored. Peeta wasn't convinced, because he wouldn't meet her eyes the next morning.
"I told my mother, and I'll tell you," she announces, slamming back another shot because that memory makes her feel weird just below her belly button. "Peeta and I are friends with benefits."
Haymitch actually spits out his drink, coughing. "What—what kind of benefits?" he asks around his coughing fit.
She sighs, exasperated. "I don't know! We comfort each other. We tell each other jokes so we can laugh. We hold hands. Those are benefits I wouldn't have if we were just friends."
Haymitch looks at her for a good ten seconds before he falls into laughter so raucous, she shushes him, afraid he'll wake up the whole damn train. "You—told—your mother—friends—with—benefits—ha!"
"What's so funny?" she hisses, yanking on his arm. "Stop it!"
"Oh, sweetheart," he chuckles, when he finally calms down. "That's not—"
A sleepy voice calls her name, and she whips around so fast she almost falls off the stool.
"Steady now." Haymitch grabs her arm to keep her upright.
"Peeta—hi," she breathes, smoothing down her hair. "We were just—"
"I see what you were just." His voice is detached. "Can you two keep it down? The rest of us are trying to sleep." He turns, limping, ready to go back to sleep.
"Wait." She gets off the stool, wobbly, and this time, Peeta catches her. "I'm coming. Tired."
She bids Haymitch a good night. She's so unsteady on her feet that Peeta picks her up halfway down the hall, carrying her like she weighs nothing. She sighs, burying her face in his chest.
"You smell nice," she murmurs, her nose in his neck.
"I took a shower."
"I think I need one."
"Me, too. A cold one."
"Don't be mad," she pleads, hooking her fingers in his hair. "Please. I can't stand it."
He sighs, his breath such a familiar smell against her face. "I'm not mad, Katniss."
He chuckles; she can feel the rumble of his chest against her. It's so nice. She feels so small when he's got her all wrapped up like this, and she wishes—not for the first time—that she could disappear inside of him, safe. She's never felt safer than when Peeta has been close. That will never change, she suspects. "Hi," he whispers in her hair. "You smell like Haymitch."
Well, that won't do. When he makes it to their room—it occurs to her that she never once thought of getting a separate room—he goes to place her on the bed, but she tugs on his sleeve and whispers, "Bath."
He sets her down, the marble cool underneath her feet. She leans against him, craving his sleepy warmth.
"Go on," he murmurs.
She brings her shirt over her head, leaving her in black leggings and her bra. Peeta blushes, and she's so charmed that someone who's seen as much destruction as he has can still blush over a girl in her underwear.
He goes to leave, but she puts a hand on his arm. "Stay?"
Their eyes meet, and she knows she's taking advantage of him, because he can't deny her anything—he's never been able to.
But he does turn away as she undresses, staying that way until she's fully covered by bubbles. He sits on the toilet, sweating. Eventually, he takes off his t-shirt and sits next to the tub, holding her hand under the water.
"Sorry I yelled," she tells him, her eyes closed, leaning against the back of the tub. She could fall asleep right now, she thinks.
She trails her fingers up his arm, rubbing her thumb against the big vein she finds. "I hate my scars," she tells him suddenly. She's confided in him a lot of things, but she's never been a vain person. Only recently has she stood naked in front of a mirror, wishing for a giant eraser to remove all the imperfections her fire has left her with.
"For all they remind you of?" he questions, looking up at her.
She shakes her head, smiling. Just like Peeta, to assume she's being deep when really, she's being shallow. "No," she whispers. "Because I miss—I miss you thinking I'm pretty. I know it's stupid, but I do."
"Katniss." His hand tightens around hers, water rushing out from between their palms. "I never stopped thinking that. You'll never stop being beautiful to me."
"But you said—"
"I know what I said," he interrupts. "I also know that when they tried to make me hate you, in the long run, they really only succeeded in making me love you more. I fought so hard to get back to who I am, and who I am has revolved around my love for you for as long as I can remember. For fifteen years."
She swallows, her belly warm. She brings her wet hand out of the tub and places her open palm over Peeta's heart, feeling the beat between her fingers.
"I remember when I did this once, in the Quarter Quell, and there wasn't anything there. Your heartbeat was gone. Usually, when I'm afraid, my mind copes by coming up with some sort of defensive action. But when your heart stopped, my mind went blank. If Finnick hadn't—if he didn't—" She squeezes her hand into a fist, and he puts his big hands around her smaller one, "I would have begged them to let me join you."
He bends down, placing a kiss on her knuckles. She can feel his breath against her fingers, and the warmth in her stomach settles lower.
"It's ridiculous," he continues after a pause, "to think that I could ever see you as something besides beautiful. I know your flaws, Katniss. You're stubborn, flighty, a little selfish. You act before thinking things through, and you'd rather run away from your problems than facing them head-on. I know these things. I think it's safe to say that I know you better than anyone. And there are things I get to see that no one else does. How you sing while you do chores. The way your nose scrunches up when you're annoyed with me. How every night, without fail, I wake up without any covers, because you've stolen them all and wrapped yourself in them."
He scoots closer to the tub, and her hand falls to his lap. He scoops it up, folding her hand into his. "You wear your hair down now, because you know I like it. You always ask me what kind of game I want for dinner before you hunt. When you show up at the bakery, don't think I don't notice you slipping cookies to the children. And that one time, when the little boy said, 'Thanks, Mrs. Mellark'—I saw the look on your face, Katniss. You were terrified, but you smiled. You smiled. I—"
He can't go any further, because Katniss leans forward and kisses him for the first time in over a year. She's an idiot; she must be to not realize that everything was leading up to this.
He breathes out his surprise against her lips, and then he makes a noise in his throat; Katniss answers him with a noise of her own. She's kissed Peeta more times than she can count, so without realizing it, she's taken inventory of what he likes. She wants more noises from him, so she bites down on his lower lip after she sucks it into her mouth. Everything is wet—her bare chest pressed against his, their lips, their tongues, between her legs. He wraps an arm around her back, all but dragging her out of the tub.
Her arms go around his neck, her fingers grabbing his hair tightly, weaving it like one of Mags' baskets. Her nipples harden in the cool air, and when they scrape against his chest, they both groan.
He drags his lips away from hers, burying his face into her neck. He's panting like he's just run a marathon. "We should—maybe we should—"
"No, we shouldn't."
"Katniss, you're drunk. I don't—you don't—I would die if you woke up tomorrow regretting this."
She pulls back, and he tries so hard not to look down at her body. "Look," she pleads. "Look at me."
"Why?" she demands.
"If I look, I'll never look away."
She takes his hand, and it's so warm when she places it over her breast. His palm twitches against her nipple, and then they're kissing again, his hand wrapping around her. She squeezes it, guiding him, and they both make a noise: she, a deep groan, and he: kind of like he's dying inside.
He walks her backwards out of the bathroom, guiding her down to the bed. His weight on top of her is delicious, better than any dish ever served to her. He presses her down with his hips, his legs straddling hers. She feels him, him, against her stomach, and she reaches down, grabbing.
He breaks away, his forehead against hers, and she can't pinpoint the noise he makes. It almost sounds like he's in pain. He palms her breast again, his fingers curling around her nipple, and she squeezes him harder in response.
She grapples with his pajama pants, trying to get her hand inside.
He puts his hand over hers. "Katniss," he groans, his breath hot against her neck.
"Let me," she argues. "Let me feel."
He whimpers, and she gets his pants over his hips. She breaks away from his lips to look, and she understands what he meant when he said if I look, I'll never look away. She's never seen a naked man before, not in this way. She's sure if it was anyone else, she'd be a little grossed out, but it's not anyone else. It's Peeta, and he's beautiful.
His tight stomach muscles trail down to a V, almost pointing to where she has her hand. He's so hard, but the skin is so soft, like the fabric of one of Cinna's creations. She runs her hand up and down, at a loss what to really do, but if his reactions are any indication, she's doing something right.
He falls to the side as she explores, and his fingers trail down her stomach to find her sloppy wet and warm, and she bites her lip so hard she tastes blood.
"Is this right?" he whispers, finding the swollen part of her and circling.
"Yes," she breathes, and her hips move in time to the twitch of his fingers. "Is this?"
"God, yes." He thrusts up into her hand as he sinks a finger into her. It simulates what she wants to do so badly that she tightens around his finger as it moves. A couple more minutes, and she's shaking, his thumb painting circles against her as his finger gets deeper and deeper inside. Her hand has stopped moving up and down, just squeezing, because what he's doing is so distracting, and she's chasing something, not sure what will happen when she catches it.
"Let go," he tells her, and thirty seconds later, she does, shattering underneath him.
"Oh, Katniss," he groans into her neck as she picks her activities back up, running her fist up and down the length of him. "That's—that was—"
"That was one more thing you'll get to see," she whispers against his ear, kissing the lobe. "One more thing you'll get to see that no one else does."
That does it: he comes with a shout, all over her hands and his stomach. She continues until he puts his hand over hers, stopping her. He's twitching, shaking. She kisses his face, murmuring his name, because she knows he likes it. She pets his hair until he has the breath to kiss her back.
She rolls off the bed. He stops her, grabbing her arm. "Where are you going?"
"Just a washcloth," she says, kissing him. "Stop. I'm not running."
"I swear, Peeta."
He finally lets go, and she wets a washcloth in the sink, staring at herself in the mirror. She's flushed, her lips swollen, her hair flyaway around her head. But she smiles, and despite her scars, she might understand what Peeta sees in her.
The next morning, she's awoken by a loud knock on her door.
"It's a big, big day!" the voice on the other side calls.
"Effie?" she asks, her eyes cracking open. Her head hurts, and she's a little nauseous, but she feels lighter than she has in years. She looks to Peeta's side of the bed, but he's gone. She feels the sheets—they're cold. He hasn't been in bed for a while.
Frowning, she throws the sheets off of her.
"Yes, it's me! Can you believe it? They sent me to collect you and Peeta! Can I come in?"
She's still naked. "Uh… hold on." She runs to her suitcase, throwing on the first things she finds: underwear, a bra, the black leggings from last night, and a loose red tunic.
She opens the door, and Effie Trinket throws her arms around Katniss. She's much changed. Her hair is soft around her shoulders, blonde, and she has barely a trace of makeup on her youthful face. Katniss hasn't thought about it, but Effie really is very young: only twenty-five now.
"You look beautiful," Katniss says truthfully. Even Effie's clothes are modest, but she's wearing heels. She smiles at that, glad not everything changes.
"I already saw Peeta," she tells Katniss as they walk down the hall, the familiar sound of Effie's clacking heels threatening to draw her back to a place she doesn't want to go. "He's ever so handsome, isn't he? And sweet as syrup, of course! How's married life?"
"Um—fine." She's completely forgotten that most of the country thinks she's married. She doesn't want to shatter their illusions, so she guesses she'll have to keep it up. "Where is he?"
"Can't keep track of your own husband, can you, dear?" She combs her fingers through Katniss' hair in an affectionate way. "The last time I saw him, he was in the breakfast car. But since we're in the Capitol, he may have already left the train. He insisted I let you sleep, so I waited as long as I could, I really did!"
"I'm sure you did," she smiles, pacifying her. She wasn't aware that she missed Effie until now, and she wonders who else she'll see that will make her feel this way.
They arrive at the breakfast car. Haymitch is there, pouring something from his flask into a cup of orange juice.
"Morning, sweetheart." He screws the cap back on his flask, tucking it in his vest pocket. "Hungry?"
She rubs her stomach. It churns unpleasantly, both at the thought of food on her hung-over stomach, and because Peeta isn't there. "Um, not really."
"You should eat," he says in a way that sounds like a command, so she sits down, grabbing some toast.
"Have you seen Peeta?" she asks after she finishes her bread.
"Lost your husband, eh?" He gives her a look, and she understands. Remember that he's your husband to these idiots.
"Yeah." She cuts her eyes to Effie, who's watching their exchange with a smile.
"He went that way." He hooks his thumb to the door behind him.
She gets up, thanking him. "We have to leave in twenty minutes! We can't be late!" Effie calls.
She waves, indicating she's heard. The door closes behind her, and she starts down the hallway. "Peeta?" She calls his name twice more, almost panicky, before she hears him reply.
She opens a door to find him staring out the window, a pencil in his hand, paper beneath him.
"Hi," he says, not looking at her.
"You were gone." She crosses her arms over chest, annoyed by his behavior. "Why?"
"I woke up early and couldn't fall back asleep."
"You should have woken me."
"I couldn't. You were sleeping so soundly, I didn't have the heart to wake you."
"Don't lie!" Her shout is loud, and she's glad the door is shut behind her. She doesn't want Effie to know that Panem's—Harmionious'—golden couple is having a fight. She stalks over to him, ripping the sketching pad from underneath his hands.
"You ran. You. Not me."
She throws his beloved sketchbook across the room. He doesn't even blink, so intent on watching her. "You regret it, and I don't. I guess I deserve it. Is that what this is? Payback for all of those years?"
"Then what is it? I don't understand. Last night was—it was—"
"Perfect," he whispers, looking down at his hands.
"Look at me," she demands. "Look at me. Don't look away. Tell me the truth."
"I was scared." He stands up, walking to the window. His limp is deep; she wonders if he fell asleep with his prosthetic attached. "I woke up early, and I worked myself into a panic, thinking you would either completely regret it or worse, not remember. Do you know what that's like? Knowing someone doesn't remember?"
"No," she retorts sarcastically. "I have no idea what it's like to face the person you care for completely forgetting his feelings for you."
He rubs his hands over his face. "I'm such an idiot. I don't remember much about our first Games, but some place deep in me must know what it feels like to hear it was all for the audience."
She sighs, moving over to him. Inching her hand under his shirt, she rests it on his bare back. The skin is clammy. He must be in tons of pain. "There's no audience. Peeta—"
He turns, and her fingers trail along his skin, stopping at his stomach. She draws them up his chest and rests them on his heart.
"Last night was the best night of my life. I haven't had many perfect nights, completely uninterrupted by fear, anxiety. But last night was that. You gave me that. And I had to ruin it by doubting you."
She buries her face in his chest, wrapping her arms around him. "You didn't ruin anything. I understand. You've forgiven me for so much—it's my turn."
He puts his chin on top of her head, slumping a little as she traces her fingernails against his back. "Okay."
"And anyway," she smiles, looking up at him, "I think I came up with the perfect description of what we are."
"Oh? Little miss articulate, tell me."
"Well, to the Capitol, we're married. But, my mom and Haymitch—they both asked me what we are to each other. And I came up with a good response, for once. Friends with benefits."
He makes a noise like he's just swallowed his tongue. "You said—you said what?"
"Friends with benefits," she repeats, wondering at his response. "Haymitch laughed his freaking head off, though."
"Katniss," Peeta starts, like he's talking to a small child. "You do know what you're saying, don't you?"
"Well, yeah," she murmurs, getting lost in his scent. "We're friends, but our relationship has other benefits that friends wouldn't have. Like how we sleep next to each other every night. And the way we can make each other laugh like no one else. And—"
"God," he groans. "No wonder your mother gave me that huge talking to right before we left."
"She did what?"
"She said that if I was going to sleep in your bed every night, I should make an honest woman of you. I had no idea what she was talking about. I thought it offended her that I didn't take the spare room. I tried to explain to her about our nightmares, but she just patted me on the shoulder and gave me the stink eye."
"I don't understand."
"Sweetheart." He pulls her back, smiling. "Friends with benefits—I can't believe I'm explaining this to you. It's cute, really. I forget sometimes, how truly innocent you are, after everything we've seen. Friends with benefits means you're, um, having sex with someone without being in a relationship with them."
Katniss feels her face turn hot. "No, it doesn't. Please tell me it doesn't."
"It does. That's why Haymitch laughed. It's kind of an old saying, but that's what it means. So, I wouldn't go around using that."
"Ugh," she groans, putting her head in her hands. "Here I thought I'd come up with something so clever. I guess I should leave the explanations to you from now on."
"That's always a safe bet." He tips her chin up. "Although, I think some things have changed?"
She kisses him as her answer, and when Haymitch finds them five minutes later, he yells for a very long time about how he's too old to see things like that. Katniss straightens her bra, and Peeta buttons his pants, but they're both grinning.
When they arrive at the reunion party, the crowd bursts into an applause so loud, Katniss feels like she's caught in a thunderstorm. There are cameras everywhere, bulbs popping in front of her face. She hears several reporters announcing their arrival, and she's shaking so many hands in the sea of faces, she can't tell who is who.
"Peeta," she calls, her panic rising. Why did she agree to this? Her throat is closing up, and she misses her woods, wide spaces, the smell of Greasy Sae's cooking and the day-and-night honking of Haymitch's geese. "Peeta!"
She stands stock still, her eyes closed. She isn't ready for this. Not even close. Where's Peeta? Where is he? They were separated in the surge of the crowd, and if she closes her eyes tightly enough, she can see herself on top of a tree, crying out his name after Claudius Templesmith announces she can go home with him. That's all she wants, all she's ever wanted: to go home with Peeta.
He finds her, as she knew he would. That's what they do; they protect each other. "Come on, sweetheart." His voice is close to her ear, and she can smell him again. "I'm sorry I lost you. But I've got you now, and I won't let go." He grabs her hand tightly, lacing their fingers together. "Walk with me, now. There are seats for us up front, away from all this."
"Home," she whispers in his ear as he steers her forward. She can hear the loud thump of his leg against the floor. He's limping terribly. She has Morphling in her suitcase; she'll give him some as soon as they get back to the train.
"I want to go home, too," he tells her. "Soon. We're going home soon."
"This was a terrible idea." A surge of the crowd, all straining to see Peeta and her, almost knocks Katniss down. Peeta wraps his arm around her waist, using his strong body as a shield from the crowd.
"We're not fucking animals," he says angrily. She hardly ever hears him swear. He must be more mad than he's showing. "This is ridiculous. Come on. Up you go."
"No, Peeta, your leg—" But he picks her up, despite her protests, carrying her the rest of the way.
Katniss stays buried in Peeta's side for the rest of the party. The reporters beg her for a word, but she won't say a thing. She refuses. Isn't it enough that she came? Will it ever be enough? This was a terrible idea, putting herself out there for the world to see. She just wanted to come express her thanks to the people, but all it does is remind her why she became a recluse to begin with.
Peeta speaks for both of them, assuring everyone that they're as happy as ever, and no, they're not expecting any children yet. Why won't Katniss say anything, Peeta? Can you get her to smile for us? She won't smile for anyone unless she wants to, he had replied. She won't smile for you, Peeta? I don't want her to smile unless she wants to.
She sees Johanna; Katniss waves, and Johanna mimes that she'll call her soon. When the party starts to die down, Peeta takes her hand so they can make a run for it. They're almost back to the train when someone calls her name.
Peeta turns first, thinking it's some wayward reporter trying to catch her unawares. But Peeta doesn't respond, only tugs on her hand to get her to turn around.
Tall, dark, and striking: Gale Hawthorne stands with his hands in his pockets, a tentative smile on his face.
Katniss doesn't know what to say. She figured that he'd be here, but never dreamed he'd try to speak to her. He must know; she spelt it out so clearly. Those bombs, those tricky little bombs that exploded here, where her sister took her last breath.
"I'll leave you to talk," Peeta says, but Katniss grips his hand so hard, her knuckles turn white.
The smile on Gale's face falters, but he doesn't leave. "How've you been?"
"Good." Go away, Gale. This night, this place, it's all been too much. She feels like she's regressed years because of this. She can practically smell her melting skin, see the shocked look on her sister's face before it turned into fire—
"I'm glad. Mellark," Gale acknowledges, nodding towards Peeta.
"Hawthorne," he answers back, squeezing Katniss' hand. "You look well."
"I am." He takes a step forward, and it takes every inch of Katniss' willpower not to shrink back. She thought she'd forgiven him long ago, and maybe she has, but that doesn't change the fact that she stopped being Catnip years ago. "Did you get my letters?"
"Yes," Katniss says. "But I didn't have anything to say."
He takes another step forward. "Well, I have tons to say." Gale brushes invisible lint off his expensive-looking shirt. "Like, why haven't you answered me? We could use you out here, helping. We need manpower, people who were involved with the revolution. Jo—"
"Jo?" she asks.
"Oh, um. Johanna." He fiddles with his buckle and clears his throat. "She's here, helping. We could use both of you."
"I'm tired of being used for someone else's cause," she says, heated. "I'm just ready to go back to Twelve—"
"Appalachia," Gale corrects.
"Twelve," she repeats. "I'm ready to go back there, away from all this."
"I thought—we all thought—you coming back here meant you were ready to join the cause again."
"The cause? I hate the cause. I want the effect. That's what I'm living with. The effect, the aftermath. I—we're—putting our lives back together and trying to find purpose again."
"We can help you find purpose," Gale argues.
"Don't you understand?" She's almost yelling. "I didn't want to start a revolution! I just wanted to get back home."
"You could have killed him," he says, nodding towards Peeta. "If that's all you wanted to do."
"I wanted him with me. If they'd have just left us alone, we'd have gone through with it—committed suicide. People saw my actions as something they weren't, and I was swept along with it. I only agreed to be your Mockingjay when I knew Coin wouldn't punish him for his actions. I only did the propos when he was rescued. It's always been about him. I've never cared about war or the cause. Now that I have the life I wanted—now that I'm just left alone—I'm not going to ruin it to be someone's masthead again."
She says goodbye to Gale and allows Peeta to carry her the rest of the way to the train. She's learned by now that sometimes you don't get closure, and that's just how it is in life. Gale will always be a hurt spot in her life, but not because he got away. Because she let him go, and it hurts to realize she doesn't give a damn either way.
After much persuasion, Peeta lets her feed him a Morphling. She takes one, too, even though she's not in pain. Sometimes she does this when she's tired of feeling so much. She'll never allow herself to get addicted again, but sometimes she needs this indulgence.
"I'm never coming back." She's fresh out of the shower, rummaging through her suitcase for her nightdress. It's a soft, white thing that she hardly wears, because it has tiny straps and only hits her mid-thigh, but she wants to feel pretty tonight. For Peeta.
"Good." He's lounging on their bed, clad only in his boxers. "Wow, Katniss."
"Cinna made it," she tells him, crawling onto the bed. "Take off your leg. I know it's killing you."
"I'm okay," he insists. "The pill made me feel better."
"Don't hide," she reminds him. She takes off his leg for him, and then reaches for his cream, perched on the bedside table. "Did you fall asleep with it on?"
"Yeah," he sighs. "That feels good." She rubs the cream in slowly, letting it sink down to his bones.
"Good." She kisses what there is of his thigh, and he runs his fingers through her hair. "I'm so sleepy."
"Me, too." He hauls her up to his chest, where she rests her head. It's perfect, where she fits, like that little crevice was designed for her. She kisses his shoulder, wiggling her toes as he draws the covers up over them.
"Peeta," she whispers, on the precipice of sleep.
"Why don't you ever want me to see you without your leg?"
He breathes out slowly, rustling her hair. "Because it makes me feel like I'm in pieces. Not whole. Not a whole man."
"But you are," she insists. "You're the most whole person I've ever met. You refused to change, even when they tried to force you. You found your way back, because you knew you weren't being you. You have more wholeness in you than most people have in their pinky. And besides," she adds, barely awake. "I like seeing it. It's one of those things I get to see that no one else does."
He whispers something, but she's already asleep.
They're back in Twelve the next night, and Katniss could cry from relief. As soon as she steps out of the train, she takes a deep breath of mountain air. She walks with Peeta and Haymitch to Victor's Village, where they say goodbye to Haymitch. He promises he'll come by for dinner one night, though they all know he's probably lying.
Before she's even unpacked, she has her quiver around her back, her bow in her hand. She asks Peeta what he wants for dinner, and he replies, "anything." He's already elbow deep in flour, and when he kisses her cheek, he gets a streak of flour across her forehead.
She doesn't wipe it off.
Deep in the woods, she sits on a fallen log, waiting for something to cross her path. The animals have come back, finally. They reproduced in the spring, and now that it's fall, the babies are big enough to be a good kill.
As she sits, her mind wanders over the last few days. Things have changed again, but this time, she feels like she's ready. During the war, situations changed minute-to-minute. She had to be quick on her feet, even quicker to think. But now, she has time to relax and linger in her thoughts—and even stranger, she wants to. These thoughts don't hurt, don't even sting a little. For the first time in her life, Katniss doesn't have to think like a hunter. She can be the prey, just waiting to be caught.
A few minutes later, a family of squirrels make themselves known. As she lines up the nock to the bow string, she takes a deep breath, and fires. One. Two. Three.
They eat a big dinner: squirrel and mashed katniss casserole, greens and tons of freshly baked bread. There's even bread stuffed with a rich white cheese, just for her. She eats until she's positively stuffed, leaning back in her chair, rubbing her stomach.
"I'm so glad to be home," Peeta tells her as they clean up. She washes everything, and he dries. Even though they have one of those fancy things that both washes and dries the dishes, neither she nor Peeta had one growing up, and they like the routine in doing it themselves.
After they clean up, they end up on the couch. She chooses which history book she wants him to read, and she grabs her knitting bag, intent on finishing the scarf before the first snow.
Soon, she finds herself distracted. It's so familiar, being with him like this. The sound of his voice filling up the house along with her needles clicking together. Buttercup has settled against her feet, and there is a fire crackling, warming their sides.
When he finishes up a chapter about the War on Terrorism, she clicks on the TV.
"It's big, big news!" The reporter is smiling into the camera. "There has been a lot of speculation since last night's Second Annual Harmonious Gala about how our favorite couple has really been doing." A video of Katniss, tucked into Peeta's side, looking feverish and caught, flashes across the screen. "It certainly seemed to all who were present that our Mockingjay's wings had been clipped, and some even speculated that the once gentle Peeta Mellark had turned for the worse, despite his doctor assuring us that he was fine. None of us wanted our Katniss to be in a relationship with someone who wouldn't even let her speak! But, we have a special video to show all of you, that confirms for us that our golden couple is just as in love as always!"
A video, taken through a train window, shows Peeta and Katniss laughing as they make-out furiously against the wall. As her hand descends into his pants, the video cuts off.
"I don't know about you, but we're so relieved! This is Pepper Golden, for Harmonious Celebrity News!" Music plays, and then it cuts to a commercial.
Katniss and Peeta sit there, stunned. Then, she starts to laugh. Peeta stares at her like she's lost it, but she just keeps laughing. After watching her for a minute, he joins in, wanting to share her joy. They both laugh until they cry, and then she's really crying, having held it back for so long.
"I'm here. I'm right here," he tells her, gathering her up.
"Just—show me," she sobs, and then she kisses him.
It's like the kiss before, because everything is wet; this time from her tears. But it's different, too, because Peeta isn't tentative, and he doesn't suggest stopping. Again, she ends up flat on her back, but they're in their bed now. It smells like them, their sweat and tears and life. Their clothes end up all around the room, and she laughs when she spies her underwear hanging off the ceiling fan.
His fingers move down to find her again, but she bats them away, spreading her legs wide. "No. Just you," she pleads, kissing his neck.
"Okay," he says. "Okay."
She helps him, wrapping her fingers around where he's so hard for this, guiding him to where she's open for him to change her life again.
She closes her eyes when she feels him slide in, but he begs her to open them, to look at him. Look.
She does. His mouth is open, his nostrils flared. He's beautiful in this, in pleasure. She was wrong, so wrong when she thought that his face looked like he was in pain that time she caught him, because she understands finally how something can feel this impossibly good.
He finds an easy movement, pushing in and out, and she gropes for something to hang on to, something to anchor her. She finds his hands on the bed, and they lace their fingers together as he picks up speed. He's turning her inside out, bringing parts of her outside every time draws away, and putting parts of him inside whenever he thrusts back in. His hips find fluidity, an internal metronome, and she hardly recognizes her voice as she calls out to Peeta, to God, to anyone that can hear her.
He doesn't last long, it being his first time and it being them and this, and he muffles his shout in her neck. She pushes hair back from his forehead as he kisses her lazily, sucking on her lips, like they have all the time in the world.
Well, she thinks, I guess we do.
The next morning, she wakes up with a blond head between her legs. She grabs onto that hair for dear life as she melts underneath his tongue. When she's finished, he climbs on top of her again, and lasts a little bit longer this time. It doesn't matter, she tells him, as he babbles an apology against her lips. We have time. And each other. And yes, Peeta. Real.
Her toes are still tingling as she fixes breakfast. Fresh from the shower, he wraps his arms around her middle and kisses her face, and she wonders why it took her so long to give in to what they could be. She's looking forward to continue to discover things about Peeta.
Those things that only she gets to see.
This was my second attempt at a Hunger Games fic. It's so hard to get inside Katniss' head, so I help I did well enough, and that this monster of a one shot didn't bore you to tears. Also, I got my information about the Civil War off of its Wikipedia page. Let me know what you think, maybe? xo