Author's Note: Soooo...apparently I didn't make it clear enough in the last chapter that this story was over. Totally my fault. That is a problem I have with my writing...ending things too abruptly. So this is for everyone who reviewed, everyone who subscribed, everyone who was disappointed in how the story ended originally. Consider it an early Christmas present. I hope you like! :)
Six Months Later
"Cinna, how am I going to do this?"
I'm in my room in the Victor's Village, staring at the reflection that stares back at me from the full-length mirror in the corner. It is the morning of the Victory Tour, and for two hours now I have been trying on the clothes Cinna has designed as my wardrobe for the trip. The dress he has created for me to wear the night of the banquet in the Capitol is both gorgeous and completely overwhelming. I am not made to wear clothes like these.
"What do you mean?" he asks from behind me, where he's sitting on my bed. "You look beautiful, Katniss. And wait until I do your hair and the makeup to go with it. You'll be stunning."
"But I'm not this girl, Cinna. They're going to hate me! I'm going to ruin everything!"
"Hey," he says and comes to stand in front of me. He takes my hands in his and says, "Look at me."
When I finally raise my eyes to his, he smiles gently at me.
"Nobody is going to hate you. You don't have to be anybody but who you are. These people, Katniss...you know how much they adore Peeta. And Peeta loves you, so they will, too. They want to love you, which is half the battle right there. You won't be able to do any wrong in their eyes."
"Do you really think so?" I ask, already feeling better.
"I'd bet on it, Katniss."
I smile at him. I never would have believed I could like someone from the Capitol as much as I like Cinna. I knew from the start that he was not like the rest of them.
We first met three months ago when he came to meet me and get my measurements for the Tour. President Snow had decided I was important enough to the appeasement of the citizens of Panem to not only accompany Peeta on the Tour, but to merit my own stylist. Cinna, as the designated stylist for the girl tribute of District 12, was thus sent to glamorize me and we had become almost instant friends.
"Now," he says, and walks to the rack holding all of my new clothes. "Let's get your traveling clothes on. The cameras will be here soon."
Ten minutes later I am comfortably dressed in a far more casual outfit, and Cinna and I leave my room to join the rest of the team downstairs. We meet Peeta and his stylist, Portia, at the top of the stairs after they exit his room down the hall from mine.
That Peeta and I live together now will not be made common knowledge. The fact that my mother and Prim live here, too, and that we have separate bedrooms, seemed to make no difference to Effie when she found out.
"You're too young!" She had exclaimed. "Yours is supposed to be an innocent, pure love. We can't allow any element of tawdriness to enter into it!"
Peeta and I didn't argue with her...after all, it wasn't anybody's business anyway. I did take umbrage at her choice of words, though. There was certainly nothing tawdry about our living arrangement.
Peeta had first suggested the move about two months after he had returned from the Games. I had been resistant at first, as always reluctant to take anything that could be construed as charity. Of course, though, Peeta has a gift for words, and can be very convincing when he wants to be.
"You'd be doing me the favor, Katniss, not the other way around," he told me. "I get so lonely in that huge house by myself at night. I have four bedrooms, three of which are just standing empty. It's ridiculous. Besides, it would be so much easier on you…you're always having to walk back and forth between there and the Seam. Just stay in the Village with me and be home."
And by that point he knew me well enough to know my one true weakness.
"Think of Prim. Think how nice it will be for her this winter, to live in a warm house…to always have plenty to eat. I can do that for her, Katniss, if you'll just let me. Please."
So a week later we had made the move. My mother hadn't put up much resistance—as always she was content to take my lead. It turned out to be a nice arrangement for us all. My mother and Prim both doted on Peeta, at first out of gratitude, and then out of genuine fondness. And Peeta loved them in return; my mother, even with her weaknesses, was a far better parent to Peeta than his own mother had ever been, and Prim and he were great friends and allies.
Prim, much to my bemusement, had also decided to take Haymitch under her wing. Somehow she was always convincing him to come over for meals or just to visit. He was as surly as ever, but nobody can resist Prim. He drank less around her, too, which was a good thing for everybody. And Peeta's father and brothers were frequent visitors as well. Peeta was happy.
And I was happy, too. Happy to see Prim so well taken care of, happy to see my mother wake up a little, happy to be near Peeta. To be there for Peeta. Because as I found out the first night we moved in, Peeta needed me.
His screams had woken the whole house. My mother and Prim had both met me in the hallway, their faces white with shock. They followed me to the door to Peeta's room, which I had opened to see him thrashing in his bed, still trapped in his nightmare. I flew to him.
When I finally managed to wake him, he had taken one look at me, as though in disbelief that I was really there, and then had seized me in his arms, clinging to me as though he thought I would disappear at any moment. I rocked him back and forth in my arms, rubbing soothing circles on his back, and pretending not to notice the tears soaking my nightshirt.
When he had finally calmed down enough to speak, Peeta had simply asked, "Stay with me?"
I looked over my shoulder to see that my mother and Prim had long since disappeared, having shut the door behind them. I don't think Peeta had ever even known they were there.
I turned back to Peeta and answered, "Always."
Wrapped safely in my arms, Peeta had slept the rest of the night through. And that is how we have spent every night since. If my mother knows of our arrangement, she doesn't say anything. I try to be discreet, waiting until everyone is in bed before sneaking down the hall, but honestly she couldn't stop me even if she wanted to, and I think she knows it.
Truly, the only regret I have about moving into Peeta's house is the effect it has had on my friendship with Gale. Things had been tense between us ever since Peeta's return, and the day I told him we were moving, they exploded.
"You can't be serious," he had said. We were in the forest at the time, just finishing up walking the trap line. Gale stopped to turn and face me.
"Why shouldn't I?" I had answered, defensive. "He has more than enough for all of us."
"That's not the point."
"So what is the point?"
"The point, Katniss, is that if you move in with him, that's it. You're with him for good. You won't be able to back out after that."
I had just looked at him for a moment, realization falling over me.
"Gale," I had said softly. "I am with Peeta for good. I'm never going to want to back out. I love him."
"No you don't. You've just tricked yourself into thinking that, because he loves you and because of the Games and because of the Capitol. But you don't love him. Not really. You don't even know him."
"You're wrong, Gale," was all I could say.
"And what about me?"
"What about you?"
"I'm just supposed to sit here and watch you go off with him forever? After one kiss? All these years, Katniss, it's been you and me. Taking care of each other, working together, being together. And now this townie just swoops in, whispers a few sweet nothings in your ear and all of a sudden I count for nothing?"
"You don't count for nothing, Gale! That's absurd."
"You know," Gale cut in quickly. "When all of this started I didn't think much of it. So the guy has a crush on you. And you're flattered. Big deal. He's not going to make it home, anyway. And then you go on television declaring your love for him, and it bothers me, but I get it. I understand. You've got to try and help the guy, right? But then he actually comes back, and you don't drop the act after the cameras leave. And now you tell me you're moving in with him? How is that supposed to make me feel?"
"I'm sorry, Gale," is all I can say. "I didn't know…"
"Didn't know what? That I wanted you?"
"You never said anything…"
"I didn't think I had to. I thought you knew. I thought we had time…that we would eventually…" He let out a gusty sigh and looked at me. "I guess I thought wrong."
He started to walk away.
"Gale!" I called out after him.
"Just leave me alone, Katniss," he said over his shoulder. "I need some time."
With that, he had disappeared into the woods. I've barely seen him since, even though I've reached out to him a few times. I feel his absence in my life every day.
But I can't give Peeta up. Not even for Gale.
All of this flies through my head as I watch Peeta walk towards me. He smiles, takes my hands in his, and leans forward to kiss my cheek.
"You look beautiful," he says.
"Thanks," I say, blushing.
Cinna and Portia smile at us and continue on down the stairs together, silently agreeing to give us a moment alone together.
"You ready for this?" he asks quietly.
"Not really," I laugh. "To be honest, I'm petrified. I'll survive, though."
I realize my mistake immediately as Peeta's face falls.
"Katniss, I'm so sorry…"
"Stop," I interrupt him. "For the hundredth time, Peeta, none of this is your fault. It's going to be fine. We'll be fine. I can do this, I promise."
Peeta takes me in his arms. "I'm still sorry," he whispers into my ear.
"I know. I'm sorry, too. Neither of us should have to do this."
"This will be the hardest year, Haymitch says. With all the attention on us. After that it's just mentoring, and the Capitol will fall in love with a new Victor. They'll leave us alone, eventually."
"I know," I say. We've had this conversation many, many times.
For a moment we just stand there, holding each other. Then the peace is shattered by Effie's piercing voice.
"Peeta! Katniss! It's time to go! Get down here, quickly!"
We break apart and smile sadly at each other.
"On with the show, I guess," says Peeta as he takes my hand and leads me down the stairs and back into the spotlight of the Capitol.
It's the night of the party at the Capitol, and I'm watching as Katniss is swept around the dance floor by Finnick Odair. I don't like it. To say Finnick has a reputation would be a major understatement.
Not that I don't trust Katniss. I do. Of course I do. I just can't help feeling insecure sometimes when it comes to her.
"You should see the look on your face," a voice comes from beside me. I turn to see Johanna Mason standing there, a smirk on her face. She and I had first been introduced when our train had stopped back in District 7, and I still am undecided about whether I like her or not. My fellow Victors are an interesting bunch, that's for certain.
"Don't worry," she goes on. "Finnick's harmless. Trust me."
"Are you telling me Finnick doesn't deserve his reputation?" I ask doubtfully.
"Oh, no...Finnick's been around. But the truth is he's in love with a girl back home, just like you."
"If he's in love, then why has he 'been around?'"
Johanna scoffs and just looks at me pityingly. "Still an innocent, aren't you? Don't worry-you'll learn. In fact, if it wasn't for your little romance I have no doubt you'd end up just like Finnick. You have no idea how lucky you are."
"What do you mean?"
"Practically the day he turned eighteen, Snow sold Finnick off to the highest bidder. Been doing it ever since."
"And Finnick just goes along with it?" I ask, shocked.
Johanna just looks at me, an eyebrow raised, and it hits me what an idiot I'm being.
Of course Finnick goes along with it. Did I really think Snow would give him a choice? What did he do, threaten Finnick's family, his girl? What wouldn't I be willing to do to keep Katniss safe? My brothers? Anybody at all that I loved?
With a sickening feeling I remember that Haymitch has nobody but me, and, sort of, Katniss and her family. Before the last Hunger Games he was completely alone. I had always assumed that had been his own choice to live his life that way, but now I think I was wrong. What had Haymitch done to merit such a punishment?
Could that happen to me? Will that happen to me?
Johanna must see the stark fear crossing over my face, because she takes pity on me.
"Look, don't worry. Like I said…I think your relationship with Katniss will save you. Your Capitol image is all built around your love for that girl. Your reputation would be ruined if you were seen, or even suspected, to be unfaithful to her. Snow knows that."
This does relieve me somewhat, but it also makes me wonder what other horrible way Snow will think up to wield his power over me. I turn back to face the dance floor, and I watch Finnick with new eyes. How has he stood it for so long?
The music ends and Finnick escorts Katniss back to my side. I pull her arm through mine possessively, glad to have her back where she belongs.
"I envy you, Peeta. That's quite a girl you've got there," Finnick says with a grin. I can see Katniss roll her eyes beside me.
"I'm well aware of how lucky I am, I assure you, Finnick," I say, matching his light tone.
"I would try to steal her from you, but anyone can see it would be a hopeless cause," Finnick continues, putting the charm on full force. "Besides, my heart already belongs to this beauty right here. Hello, Johanna."
"Finnick," Johanna nods in acknowledgment of his elaborate bow.
"Dance with me, my angel?"
Johanna rolls her eyes but takes Finnick's proffered hand. They start to walk back to the dance floor, but then Johanna suddenly turns back to me, saying, "One last piece of advice…" She leans over to whisper in my ear.
"Whatever you do, don't knock her up. That kid would get reaped so fast it'll make your head spin."
She gives me a kiss on the cheek and a saucy wink before she turns back to Finnick, who whisks her away. I turn to Katniss to see her glaring at me.
"What?" I ask innocently.
"What was that all about? You and Johanna Mason?" she asks.
I can't help but laugh. I start pulling her towards the dance floor.
"Come on, let's dance before we're swarmed with admirers again."
As I take her in my arms I can feel her relax just slightly.
"Johanna was just trying to annoy you, Katniss. Don't let her get to you. Besides, I could ask the same about you and Finnick," I tease her. I can't help that I'm a little bit tickled that's she jealous over me. After all the years I've spent being jealous of Gale Hawthorne, it seems only fair.
"Finnick? Ugh," Katniss says, wrinkling her nose. I'll have to tell her the truth about him later. "But what did she whisper to you?"
"I'll tell you the whole conversation later, but basically she was just giving me some advice and inside information about being a Victor. The whisper was her telling me that you and I should never have children."
"Well, we'd already figured that out for ourselves," she says.
Katniss and I have discussed our occasionally over the past six months, and from the first Katniss has been adamant about not having children. I know she's right, but I can't pretend it doesn't break my heart a little. I can't help but hope that something will change by the time we're old enough for it to be an option.
"How's your leg?" Katniss asks me now.
"It's fine," I answer. It's only a small lie. All the dancing and walking around we've been doing over the past couple of weeks has taken its toll, and I can't deny the ache radiating down my right leg. But it's nothing I can't stand, and I don't want Katniss to worry.
I haven't forgotten the lesson Haymitch gave me when I first woke up after the Games. Not a day goes by that I'm not thankful that all I lost in the arena was my leg. But still, I prefer to think about it as little as possible, and I wish Katniss could forget about it entirely.
In the beginning I hid my leg from her at all times, afraid to see the look of revulsion on her face when she saw the scarred tissue of my stump. After I had finally convinced her to move in with me and she started spending the nights in my bed, though, the issue became impossible to avoid.
The second night after she and her family moved in was hot and stuffy. Even having the windows open in my bedroom didn't help, as there was no breeze to be had. I remember tossing and turning, sweat dripping down my face as I tried to ignore the heat and fall asleep. Finally Katniss, who I was keeping awake along with me, had had enough.
"Peeta, why don't you go put on some shorts? You're going to roast to death in those long pants."
I had desperately racked my brain for a good excuse for not following her excellent advice, and came up completely blank. Sensing my hesitation, Katniss sat up and looked at me.
"Peeta," she said gently. "I'm going to have to see your leg sooner or later, you know. Maybe we should just get it over with."
Of course she already knew what was bothering me. She had gotten to know me so well in such a short time. And I couldn't deny the truth of her words.
"Alright," I finally whispered, my heart sinking with dread.
I got up, grabbed some shorts from my dresser, and went into the adjacent bathroom to change. It took me about a full five minutes to work up the nerve to return to the bedroom. When I finally opened the door, I realized Katniss had turned on the lights, and she was sitting up in the bed waiting for me. I couldn't meet her eyes as I moved as quickly as I could back to the bed, climbing in and covering myself up with the blankets. Katniss reached her hand out and stopped me.
"Let me see," she said.
My hands shaking, I released my grip on the covers and let her pull them back. I stared determinedly out the window—I still couldn't bear to look at her. Couldn't stand to see the look of disgust that I knew would be there on her face.
There was total silence for a moment. Then I gasped as I felt her hand gently caress the damaged skin just above the place where my prosthetic attached. She quickly pulled her hand back.
"Did I hurt you?" she asked in a small voice, and I finally looked at her.
"No," I told her honestly. "I was just surprised." I had thought she would want to avoid touching it all costs…keep as far away as she could.
She nodded and looked back at my leg, reaching her hand back towards it. With her fingertips she gently traced the lines of my scars. My heart continued to thud erratically as I watched her. I saw no disgust, no revulsion on her face. There was only curiosity and concern there.
What she did next completely shocked me. Moving very slowly, she leaned over and planted a soft kiss on the worst of my scars. Then she sat up, pulled the covers back over my legs, and looked at me.
"There, now. That wasn't so bad, was it?" She spoke in a very matter-of-fact way.
I could only look at her in awe. She smiled, pushed me back down onto the pillows, and snuggled into me.
"Good night, Peeta."
"'Night," I managed in a croaky whisper.
I stayed up for half the night after that, not because of the heat, and not for fear of my nightmares, but simply so I could relish being able to hold this amazing girl in my arms. To marvel once again at the fact that she had chosen me. That she was really mine.
I am still marveling as I sweep her around the dance floor here in Snow's mansion.
"Have I told you how beautiful you look tonight?" I whisper in her ear.
"Only about five times, Peeta, but thank you," Katniss grins at me.
"Ready to go home?" I ask.
"So ready. I'm glad this trip is almost over. Is that completely ungrateful of me?"
"Not at all," I assure her. "It may be luxurious here, but it's also kind of horrifying, isn't it? The way they indulge themselves when there are children dying of starvation back in the Districts."
"Exactly. Sometimes I find it very hard to be nice to these people. I have to keep reminding myself that most of them are probably completely unaware of what it's like where we come from."
"You've been wonderful, though," I tell her. "Everyone agrees you've done really well in the interviews and everything. Panem loves you."
"Do you think things will ever change, Peeta?" she asks me, ignoring my compliments.
"I don't know. I hope so."
Now is not the time to discuss such things in depth, however.
We continue to dance in silence until we are interrupted by more Capitol officials wanting to meet us. For the next hour or so we mingle and chat and make ourselves agreeable. Finally, Effie comes to usher us away. We track down Haymitch, who is assisted in walking by two Avoxes, and the rest of our team and before we know it we are heading to the train that will carry us home.
Later that night, as I hold Katniss in my arms and try to sleep, I think back to Katniss' question.
The truth is I have a feeling that change is coming. In almost every District we stopped in over the past several days, I have sensed a subtle current of discontent in the people. There is nothing I could point to directly, only a mood of unrest and anger. A feeling that it would take only a small spark to set the fire of rebellion ablaze. I remember my conversation with Johanna earlier, my growing fear of what the future will bring, and hope flares hot in my chest. Things must change.
The rocking of the train and the gently rhythm of Katniss' breaths eventually lull me to sleep. Tomorrow we will be home.