Here we go, one last time...dedicated to my real life nurse!Peeta...I love you!

"Two may talk together under the same roof for many years, yet never really meet; and two others at first speech are old friends."

- Mary Catherwood

2000: 10 years & 12 years old...

The russet orange summer sky was streaked with purple tendrils of twilight. It would soon be time to go home but the knobby-kneed boy was still hesitant to commit to what the little girl with two dark braids had suggested. He agreed yesterday but his sense bravado quickly faltered when she pulled the pocket knife from her backpack. "C'mon, Gale!" The rail-thin girl whined, "Everyone already thinks you're my brother. Let's make it official." The girl was right - they looked like family. Both children were blessed with thick, wavy dark hair and striking gray eyes, and the similarities between the two did not end with physical appearance, either. The best friends were stubborn, fiery, and extremely loyal to one another and what they held dear.

He chewed nervously on his thumbnail. Gale really liked to weigh his options and Katniss only sprung this crazy idea on him yesterday. It is always her ideas getting him in trouble. Since he was two years older he always ended up taking the heat when things turned sour. "I dunno. Catnip, you know my parents will freak and so will yours." Gale was not really concerned about getting in trouble; his mom probably would not even notice a new scrape on the growing boy. Truthfully, it was the possible pain he was worried about. There was no way he would ever admit that to his brave best friend. "What about infection?"

"Cheezus Sprite!" Katniss exclaimed, "Infection? We aren't performing an amputation here Gale. Just two quick cuts and BAM," she loudly clapped her hands together, "just like that we are blood related."

"Catnip, what does it matter? We will always be best friends. What does cutting our hands have to do with anything?"

"It's just..." Katniss twisted a braid nervously between her fingertips trying to find the right words to convince Gale to go through with it. "When school starts I'll still be in elementary and you will be in middle school…why would you still want to hang out with a 4th grade baby like me?"

Katniss's heartfelt admission surprised Gale. He knew Katniss was not afraid of anything, so for her to admit that she feared losing their friendship was a big deal. He flashed his biggest grin at her and grabbed for the pocket knife she held. "Nothing could come between us. You and me, Catnip, we're best friends forever!" He winced slightly as he dug the knife into his palm and then quickly extended it to Katniss. He watched as she repeated the same action on her palm. "Now what?"

Katniss reached for Gale's hand and matched up the homemade incisions. "Just grab and rub…I think. It's okay if we just make it up as we go along."

2012: Present day...

Peeta and I eat breakfast practically naked. The conversation is light and the mood is relaxed – for once we aren't focused on holding back. It feels fantastic, like the weight we were shouldering has dissipated and we can just be together. Being here with him is easy, and it feels like where I was supposed to be all along.

I could get used to this.

I excuse myself and head to my house to shower and change, take care of Harper and check in with Johanna. Peeta promises to be by in an hour so we can visit Bubby and I can invite him to the wedding. I can't wait to introduce him to Prim and Gale. It'll be good for Bubby too, I hope, especially since he and Gale are the same age that they'll hit it off.

When Peeta shows up, I can sense that his mood has changed since I left him and he confirms this as soon as we pull out of the driveway, "I need to talk to you a little bit about Bubby." He keeps his eyes on the road and reaches over to take my hand as he starts to explain, but I'm not sure if it is more for me or for him. "His condition has changed a bit over the last week and... well, he may not exactly be himself today."

It's like a kick in the stomach when I realize that Peeta has been keeping this from me and I have no clue what he is talking about. Condition sounds serious, but I'm new to all of this. "What happened? Is he sick?" I don't know if it's that Peeta didn't think he could tell me or if he was withholding for the sake of the rules. Fuck the rules. Had I known that Bubby was sick I would have been there.

"See that's the thing…" His voice is steady and unwavering, but his grip on my hand doesn't let up. "Bubby will never recover from his injuries. His state is constantly evolving. He had a pretty nasty seizure the other day after over a month of not having one."

The only seizure I've ever seen was on television - it was a terrifying, flailing thing. I squeeze Peeta's hand as hard as I can as my heart stutters in my chest. "What caused it? Is he going to be okay?"

Peeta sighs heavily. "Last time I was there, he was pretty out of it but that's normal. I just wanted to let you know because I didn't want it to be a surprise if he wasn't the same Bubby you were used too."

We ride in silence the rest of the way, sharing the occasional smile and sideways glance. Peeta eventually turns down a winding drive and I'm shocked when the residential home comes into view. It isn't at all what I was expecting.

At all.

It's clinical and not even remotely homelike - in many ways it reminds me of a medical facility for the elderly. I'm shocked. We walk in and the strong odor of disinfectant mingled with the earthy scent of illness greets us. I have a hard time not shielding my nose because the smell is so foreign, but Peeta seems unfazed. He walks up to the round nurses station, exchanges words with the ladies there and looks over a chart before tugging on my hand and leading us towards a hallway.

It's blatantly obvious why Peeta wishes that his brother lived with him. There is nothing wrong with this place, but it doesn't seem suited to the vivacious nature of Bubby's personality. The two don't reconcile - Bubby is light and laughter while his home is sterile and unfeeling.

Peeta enters his room first and I stand at the doorway waiting for the signal that Bubby is up for visitors. Then I hear angry words and realize that Bubby is yelling at Peeta. That's unusual; he always seems so happy, even when tired. The exchange continues and I hear my name, so I enter the room fully. Bubby's face is contorted into a grimace as he and Peeta discuss our visit, but when he sees me he drops his eyes and stares at his hands. This must be the different that Peeta was talking about - the mood swings. I pretend like I don't notice and greet Bubby like I would any other day. "Hey Bubby, how are you today?"

He doesn't look up at me, just nods. I note the dark circles under his eyes and tremor in his hands. He looks ragged compared to when I saw him a few weeks ago. When he still hasn't answered, Peeta touches my shoulder reassuringly. "I told him we won't stay long so he can get some rest."

"I don't need rest!" Bubby exclaims loudly, his words running together and culminating with a sharp hiss. "What I need is those fucking nurses to leave me alone."

I gasp. Yeah, I curse - and I've heard Peeta do his fair share, too - but it's a bit disarming hearing Bubby talk this way.

"Bubby..." Peeta warns, but I cut him off before things can escalate.

"You know who misses you?" I interject brightly. Bubby doesn't take the bait but the lines around his eyes soften a bit. "Harper does. Everytime we go to Peeta's he runs around sniffing all over looking for you!"

Bubby looks up and stares at me. I've caught his attention with this.

"Do you know what he does next?" I ask, waiting to see if I'll get a response out of him this time.

Bubby's blue eyes, so much like his brother's, train on my face. With a heavy blink, his curiosity finally wins out. "What's he do?"

"Sits. He sits in front of the door to your bedroom. If I didn't know any better I would think that you were trying to steal my dog." I intentionally keep my voice light and relaxed, trying to relay the same feeling to Bubby.

Bubby doesn't smile, but his mouth softens. "That's my plan, Katniss," he jests back, and while it isn't accompanied by the beaming Bubby grin I'm used to, I'll take it.

"I know Peeta said we wouldn't stay long," I venture, "but we came to ask you something and I'm going to do just that." I doubt the situation is completely diffused but at least Bubby is now paying rapt attention to me. "Remember my friend I was telling you about? Gale?" He nods slowly and gives me a brief glimpse of a smile. "How'd you like to be my guest at his wedding? And just so you know, I'm not taking no for an answer."

Bubby considers this. The silence stretches on longer than I anticipated, and for a moment I'm worried - I don't want to be on the receiving end of what Peeta was earlier. Finally, he answers, "On two conditions."

"And what are these conditions?" Peeta quickly asks.

"Peets has to get me a new shirt to wear, so the ladies can see how handsome I am." Peeta and I both laugh. "And," Bubby continues, "Harper gets to stay the night with me."

He's a long way from being in the mood I'm used to, but this is a nice start.

The drive back to Peeta's house is a silent one. He keeps glancing over at me and I'm not exactly sure what to say because I'm thinking entirely too many things to articulate them all. I don't like where Bubby lives. I don't like it at all, and I wish I would have realized that residential home was just another term for a medical facility staffed by nurses and care aides. No wonder Peeta wants his brother out of there. I want him out of there, too, and I've only known him a short time. He deserves better, and I realize now that is part of the reason why Peeta works nights - the pay is higher and will hopefully allow him to someday bring Bubby home.

Peeta reaches over and squeezes my knee, then leaves his hand to rest on my thigh. My shorts have ridden up and his palm is on my bare leg. It's an innocent touch meant to provide comfort - a tangible way for us to be connected - but my body doesn't realize that. Peeta's hand is especially warm where the AC was blowing directly on my legs. Goosebumps pebble across my cool skin and my hips tilt slightly as I fight the urge to drag his hand further up my thigh. I inhale deeply and try to steady my breathing as a sort of heat pools in my stomach - does Peeta realize the effect his touch has on me? I want him and I want him badly, but right now we need to focus on talking about what happened.

I cover his hand with mine, lacing our fingers together. "How long will it take for Bubby to recover?"

Peeta quickly glances over at me before turning his eyes back on the road and tightens his grip on my fingers. "It depends. But inviting him to the wedding gave him the motivation to listen to his nurses and rest - it gave him something to look forward to, which will help. It's easy for him to get depressed, but you gave him something aside from what's going on with his health to focus on."

Peeta's thankfulness for each small improvement in Bubby's well-being makes me realize how pointless it has been for me to focus on my own mixed feelings about where his brother lives. I lean over and press a kiss to his shoulder. "He won't be there forever Peeta. I want to know everything about him. I want to help. I love you, and I love Bubby too, and I'm in this for both of you." He doesn't respond, doesn't even squeeze my hand, and I briefly wonder if I've said the wrong thing.

Peeta flips on his blinker before completing a hasty u-turn. He directs the car into the Lake Posner reserve and pulls off into a camping area. I just sit there, unsure of what's going on until he unbuckles his seat belt and leans over the console, capturing my lips with his own and pressing my back up against the door. His kiss is frantic and consuming; his lips rough against mine, constantly moving as his hands tangle in my hair. It's like he suddenly gets it. I'm not going anywhere. He's been waiting for the ball to drop, the situation to get too sticky for me to stay, but I'm here with him. He doesn't have to be alone in this anymore.

Before I fully realize what's going on the kisses have escalated, my seat buckle is unclasped, and my shirt is up over my head. Peeta has shifted over into my seat and I'm straddling him. His hands rest on my hips as he guides me in a rocking motion back and forth over the seam of his shorts. His lips are everywhere - sucking and nipping at my neck, the soft hollow above my collarbone, and the peaks of my breasts. His hands work areas his lips can't reach - squeezing and rubbing at my clit through the fabric of my shorts, and pulling roughly at my hair. It's like he is trying to overwhelm me with sensation - with him - and it's euphoric.

As much as I want to be consumed by his hungry lips and hands, I want to take care of him even more. A quick fuck in the car would be amazing, but the thought pales in comparison to the idea of making this moment all about Peeta. The pain he carries over Bubby is probably not something that can ever be completely healed, but right now I can help Peeta bear the burden by showing him that he is the top priority in my life.

What better way to show him that he comes first, than making him come first?

We don't have much room to work with, so I break away from Peeta and open the passenger's door. A quick glance around makes it obvious that we are all alone and I proceed to tug on his shorts. He just stares at me. "Help me get these down."

"Katniss?" Peeta questions, unsure despite the want made evident by the rasp in his voice. He lifts his hips and I draw his shorts and underwear down together, allowing his cock to spring back up and lie flat against his stomach. I slip halfway out of the vehicle, my feet planted on the ground as lean over Peeta's lap, resting my elbow on his thigh. I take his cock in my hand and softly start pumping him. He brings his hands up along either side of my face, weaving his fingertips into my hair, and guides my lips up towards his where they meet in a gentle kiss.

The kiss deepens as Peeta thrusts up into my hand. He groans as I pull away from his mouth and dip my head down to lick at the tip of his cock, flicking my tongue teasingly against his slit. Peeta's skin is salty and warm and seems to heat my entire body from where my lips surround him. I want him inside me so badly. There will be plenty of time for that later, though - right now I want him to come in my mouth.

I work him in between my lips, swallowing him deeper with each pass as I stroke the lower part of his shaft with my hand at the same time. He moans my name and I hum my response into his heated skin, sucking to the rhythm of his light thrusts. In a haze of pleasure, his fingers find the edge of my bra and roughly tug the cups down beneath my breasts, palming each soft mound before rolling my sensitive nipples between thumb and forefinger. When he tugs on them lightly, I groan with his cock between my lips, consuming him with renewed energy as my underwear grow noticeably wetter. Peeta tries to slow me down, grunting that he is going to come if I don't stop, but that's exactly what I want. I try to take him deeper, tightening my grip on his shaft and moving my hand faster in time with the ministrations of my mouth. We connect in the moment that he comes, locking eyes as he lets go of himself in my mouth and I swallow every last drop of him.

Peeta pulls me back into the Jeep and holds me close to him, wrapping his arms around me as he buries his face in my hair. We sit there for long enough to witness the glowing orange sunset because we have all the time in the world.

The shrill ring of my phone's wake-up tone cuts through the silence. It's on the nightstand, but I'm in my old room at my mom's house and unaccustomed to how far I have to reach out to grab it, so I end up pushing it off the table instead. By the time I retrieve it, the tone has gotten progressively louder and I'm pretty much awake. Outside it's still dark, the early morning sky purple as the first fingers of dawn creep up from the horizon.

Today is the day that my best friend becomes someone's husband and we are starting it off right with a fishing trip. By the time I brush my teeth and make my way out to the fishing hole, Gale, Rory, Vick, and Thresh are already there picking through a box of doughnuts and passing around a jug of orange juice. "You guys are disgusting! Ever heard of a cup?" I tease as I flip open the pastry box to find one, lone doughnut.

"Aww, well shit, Catnip! I was there when Madge asked you if you wanted to join the bridesmaids for mimosas and manicures. That doesn't start until nine so if you leave now you'll get there in plenty of time." Gale lightly wraps an arm around my shoulders before mussing my hair.

I squirm free from his grasp and snatch up the last pastry. "Fuck you, Hawthorne," I tease. I cram half the doughnut in my mouth before hugging each of the boys. "Come on. Let's get our poles in the water."

We may not get much fishing done, but we do our fair share of bullshitting. I had expected Gale to be a nervous wreck - he isn't though. In fact, he is the most relaxed I may have ever seen him, joking with everyone, laughing, and just having a grand time all around. If I was the one getting married I'm sure I'd be insufferable. I mean, these are the last few hours he'll ever be single and that doesn't even seem to faze him. When I see him stand and start walking towards the edge of the lake, over near the secluded alcove that is hard to get to but worth the trouble in catfish, I follow.

"Nothing against Madge, but you know I have to ask..." Gale turns to look at me expectantly, the pole resting on his knees as he balances on the steep embankment. "Are you sure she's the one?"

His response is a deep chuckle, "Positive, Catnip. Madge is it for me."

"You seem so at ease. Aren't you nervous?"

Gale leaves his pole propped between two fallen tree logs and comes to sit beside me. We face outwards, gazing over the water. "I wish I didn't have to wear that monkey suit and stand in front of everyone, but marrying her feels natural. No, I'm not nervous. I can't wait." There is hope in his voice - something I haven't heard from him before but am happy to recognize now.

We simply sit there side-by-side for a while, the murmurs of voices across the lake occasionally breaking through the cacophony of bullfrogs and the buzzing of mosquitoes, reminding us that we aren't alone. Gale rises to check on his pole, but mine lays beside me untouched. "Did you always know it was her?"

I stare at his back, the stained shorts and shirt with the cut-off sleeves reminding me of the boy who was my best friend through some of the darkest times in my life. His response, though, is that of the man he is today. "It took me longer to realize than it should have because my mind was a fog with past hurts. But when my head cleared up, it was like loving Madge was the most natural thing in the world." Gale's voice is thick with emotion as he continues on. "With her there is no trying, it just is, and that may not make any sense to you now...but I hope to God that someday it does, Katniss. I hope it does because you deserve that."

When he turns to face me I wonder if he can see the tears in my eyes. I'm glad Gale has this. He deserves Madge and a life with her. I try to be nonchalant as a shrug my shoulders and smile at him - I want to relay that I'm happy for him and that, surprisingly, I know exactly what he is talking about. After all, loving Peeta came so naturally that it happened without me even realizing it.

"I can't imagine my life without her. I'm not saying that I wouldn't have been happy, I just don't think I would have ever known what true happiness could be. I dunno." As he comes to sit back down beside me, he explains. "With her it just is. I can be so mad at her one moment and the next we'll be laughing over how stupid my temper is. Or, she'll get caught up in the minute details of something that doesn't matter and go off on me, and then ten minutes later she's apologizing. I think it is the difference between knowing better, and being better - Madge, well, she makes me better."

I frown a little bit. I understand what he's saying, but I also want him to know that he was just fine before. "I don't know about that. I've always liked you just the way you are."

Gale laughs lightly, "You're missing the point Katniss. I was fine without her, but she helps me be the best me and I do the same for her. When you find that, whether it's with Mellark or anyone else, promise me you'll hold onto that."

There it is again, that tightening in my throat and the stinging behind my eyes - I'm about to cry. I want to tell Gale I have found it and it is with Peeta, but today isn't about me. It's about him. So I lay my head on his shoulder and respond with, "I promise." Gale squeezes me in a quick hug and nods into my hair.

As we break apart, I remember the painting that Peeta so painstakingly created. He pushed the canvas into my hands as I was packing up the car and asked me to give it to Gale this morning, but I want to wait. I want Peeta to be there. I want Madge to be there. "Speaking of Peeta, he made something special for you guys. Don't let me forget to give it to you tonight."

The wedding went off without a hitch.

Madge was stunning, the vows were moving, and Gale even cried a little. Bubby was a hit and is smitten with Prim. Peeta told me I looked beautiful and I allowed it. Then he held me tight and kissed me and I didn't even let myself worry about who saw. So far, it's been a magical night filled with laughter, cake, and lots and lots of love.

My best friend is happy.

He's not just happy, he is ecstatic - I've never seen Gale smile so much. Even before our dads died, I can't remember a time in which he was this happy. Madge swipes at something on the collar of his shirt and he dips down, pressing a kiss to the tip of her nose with a laugh. For the first time all night, they are seemingly alone as the crowd around them has grown smaller and most of the guests are busy dancing and drinking. It's the perfect time to give them the painting. I tug on Peeta's hand and pull him towards the bride and groom. "They are finally alone Peeta, now's our chance."

He tugs back. "Exactly. They are finally alone, Katniss." Peeta gestures to the couple, bent towards one another quietly talking, "Look at them. You want to interrupt that?"

"Yup. C'mon." I walk ahead and turn around to see Peeta cemented to his spot. "Seriously Peeta, don't be nervous. He's going to love it and I want to see his reaction so we need to do this now."

Peeta falls into step behind me, reaching forward and weaving his fingers in between mine. He's nervous about showing the painting Gale even though I have no clue why - he's been trying to pawn off the duty on me since before yesterday. I'm not nervous though. I know Gale will love it, and most of all, I'm sure it'll show him just how special Peeta is. Gale doesn't have to love him, but it'd be nice if they got along since I plan on keeping Peeta around.

Gale and Madge both stand as we approach and it's Madge who catches me first, wrapping her slender, lace-covered arms around me. Peeta and Gale shake hands and then we trade, Madge giving Peeta a welcoming squeeze as Gale crushes me against his chest. "Hawthorne, let go! Christ, get a hold of yourself. You're wrinkling my fancy suit."

He releases me with a deep laugh. "Cool it Catnip. It's not everyday your best friend gets married. It's okay to get carried away a bit!"

"But seriously, congratulations you two. I'm so happy for you both. Any chance we can steal you from your guests for a few minutes?"

Madge wraps her arm around Gale's waist as she leans into him, tilting her head towards his. "I don't think that's a problem, do you Mr. Hawthorne?" I fight the urge to make gagging sounds at her saccharine endearment.

"Sure thing, Mrs. Hawthorne," Gale replies. Well. That was unexpectedly cheesy and kind of precious in an I-want-to-puke-on-my-shoes kind of way. I'm happy for Gale and love has changed my perspective a bit but I seriously doubt that I'll ever act as syrupy as these two. Peeta is wearing a goofy grin though - he loves this stuff. I'd chide him but he's too adorable for words right now, so I just smile.

"Okay, well, let's get this show on the road before you two consummate your marriage on the buffet table or something." Madge giggles and Gale raises his eyebrows at me, but they both follow Peeta and I out to the vehicle.

We crowd around the door and the happy couple just stares at us expectantly until I nudge Peeta with my elbow. "Oh, right." He pulls the painting from the car, wrapped in a sheet, and holds it close to his chest. "Um, so, it's not much, but I thought you would like some art for your home."

"Peeta, you painted for us?" Madge exclaims. She presses a hand to Gale's chest. "Isn't that the sweetest thing? Thank you!"

Peeta shifts on his feet, the tension from the uncertainty he feels is rolling off him in waves. I take the painting and hand it to Gale who rests it against the vehicle before uncovering it. The instant the bright colors of the painting are visible, he drops to a squat in front of it with a large huff. Madge gasps and positions herself behind Gale, hands on his shoulders rubbing as he scrubs at the front of his face with an open palm. I tuck myself into Peeta's side and his arm comes around my waist as we watch Gale take in the scene depicted on canvas.

Gale reaches out with his fingers and traces the lines of the painting, he turns to look at us and his eyes are glossed over and shiny. I've seen him cry once today, but I don't think I can handle it again. "I - I...I don't know what to say..." He trails off and swallows hard.

"Peeta, it's perfect," Madge's voice cracks, tears streaking her cheeks as she finishes for Gale. "Just perfect."

It's a heavy moment, punctuated only by the music from the reception in the background and the sounds of our own breathing. Beside me, Peeta tenses and then squats down next to Gale. "You look like him, you know? It was an honor to paint this for you and it's an honor to know you. Congrats, man."

Gale looks at Peeta before standing and offering him his hand, pulling him up. They share an awkward, one-armed hug and Gale grips his shoulder tightly. "Thanks." They both nod as if coming to some sort of unspoken agreement just before Gale clears his throat and suggests we all go hit the dance floor. With the painting under one arm and his new bride under the other, we follow him back to the party. Peeta and I head over to where Bubby and Prim are sitting while Gale makes a beeline for his mom - I can only imagine how Hazelle will react to the painting.

Bubby looks exhausted, but there is a big smile on his face as he explains to Prim the difference between college football and the NFL. Prim listens carefully, asking questions and nodding at all the appropriate times. "Hey Bubs, talking Prim's ear off?" Peeta asks as we walk up to them.

"Nah. She's doing her fair share."

"How you holding up? 'Bout ready to hit the road?" Bubby shakes his head 'no', but his slurred speech and heavy eyelids tell a different story. "I'm going to take Katniss for one more spin on the dance floor and then we are out of here," Peeta informs his brother who puffs out his bottom lip in disappointment.

The crowd has slowly dwindled down and there are only a few couples on the dance floor, but Peeta doesn't seem to mind as he pulls my chest flush with his. "It was such a great idea to bring Bubs. He looks beat, but I think he had a great time. Thank you."

I lay my head on Peeta's chest and he rests his chin lightly on top of my head. "Gale is so happy," I murmur. "I've never seen him like this. I hope that feeling never fades, you know?"

The steady thrum of Peeta's heartbeat is comforting. He is solid and real. I let myself adjust to the reality that Peeta isn't going anywhere - he's here to stay. He seems to be thinking the same thing. "It's only the beginning, Katniss. Just imagine what they've got ahead of them." He stops swaying and he grips me tightly. "Us, too. It's only up from here." He presses a kiss to my hair and rests his cheek there.

What was I thinking, holding back? The way I feel right now, the warmth and the comfort - that is what I've been missing since my dad died. But it's different in a way. This feeling I have with Peeta is incomparable and brand new. I think I like this whole being-in-love thing just fine.

"Peeta," I start. He pulls back slightly and looks me in the eye. "This is different, you know? ... You feel it too, right?" His exquisite blue eyes widen as a smile spreads from ear-to-ear before he answers.

"Yeah, it is." Peeta's voice is as steady and unwavering as I know our devotion is to one another.

I think of the vows that Gale and Madge shared this evening, and while I'm not ready for that type of commitment, there are some things that I can assure Peeta of now. "I can't promise that I won't piss you off or hurt your feelings sometimes, but just know that no matter what, I love you and we'll get through it." I finish my words in a breathy rush, making it sound much more dramatic than I intended, but Peeta doesn't seem to care.

He tucks a errant piece of hair behind my ear. "That's a lofty promise." His eyes soften and he kisses me lightly on the mouth. "But, I know exactly what you mean. I love you so much, Katniss, and sometimes that feels crazy seeing as we've only known each other for six weeks-"

I kiss him, cutting off his words. He breaks away just to finish his thought even though I know it to be true without his confirmation. "I do though. I do love you."

We are in this together, Peeta and I. No matter what. I see this now. He makes me better and I make him better. We belong together, and while I don't know what my future holds, I do know that it holds him.

In the not so distant future: 4 years & 5 years old…

The cool, crisp air carried notes of earth and water. The breeze itself was light enough that didn't make it too windy for the children to play outside, but it still stirred the leaves up around their feet as they traced shapes into the wet soil. Side-by-side, the pair could almost be mistaken for twins. Wispy, wavy strands of honey blonde hair framed their their bright pink, wind-chapped cheeks. Their eyes, however, were different - the little girl's were the same clear blue as her mother's while the boy's eyes were unmistakably grey, like those of his own mama.

They were beautiful, cherubic children, and they were best friends.

"Whaddya' drawling?" The girl looked over at her friend's mud rendering. Unsurprisingly, his was much more clear and detailed than hers. She wasn't jealous though, because she was proud to have a best friend who was so good at drawing.

The little boy looked up at her, grey eyes catching the light. "Unka Bubs! See, here's him chair and right der beside him, dat's Addercus." He carefully used the tip of his stick to point to his Uncle's wheelchair and then to the large dog beside it, Atticus.

Upon hearing his name, the chocolate brown lab meandered over to the children from his perch beside Bubby on the wraparound porch. The little girl stood and wrapped her arms around the gentle dog's thick, furry neck, "Wow! I wuv it!" She boldly exclaimed, impressed with her friend and his artistic skill.

The small boy stood, dropping his stick and wiping his hands on his pants before reaching his tiny fingers out for hers. "I wanna show Unka Bubs." The pair crawled up the hill to the porch where the boy's uncle kept watch over them, or had at least been attempting to, because it was now obvious to the pair that he was snoozing in the warm sunlight with a blanket tucked over his lap.

The little girl's dad, Gale, was sitting beside the sleeping man, tying fishing flies in preparation for the rest of the week. The cabin, located high in the mountains, was a joint purchase between the Mellarks and Hawthornes, and while they both spent as many weekends there as they could, it was a rare treat when both families were able to enjoy it together. This time of year was perfect for fly fishing, and both Gale and Katniss planned to capitalize on that, hopefully bestowing a love for their favorite pastime upon their youngest children.

Gale greeted his daughter and her best friend as they approached. "Are you guys getting hungry?" Putting aside the fishing tackle, he pulled the little blonde girl onto his lap and tickled her sides before turning to ruffle the blond boy's hair and address him. "Last I checked, your dad and sister were making a pot of soup that smelled really good!"

The children exchanged a look and giggled. The boy's dad was a great cook and they always loved his grilled cheese sandwiches, but the mention of his sister helping out seemed silly - she was much more like her mom, who had never been very good around the kitchen. The sound of the kids' laughter woke the sleeping man in the wheelchair beside them. "Who's making all the noise?" Bubby teased, letting them know he was awake.

"Unka Bubs! I drawled you and I wanna show you." The little boy clamored to his uncle's side, eyes flashing with excitement. Gale lifted the child up, helping to position him on Bubby's lap.

"Sure thing, kiddo," the man stammered, but if the boy noticed the difficulty with which his beloved uncle spoke, he didn't let on. He simply tucked his head under his uncle's chin and wrapped his little arms around his neck. "Do you mind?" Bubby asked, turning to Gale, who then placed his daughter on his shoulders before unlocking the brakes on the wheelchair and easing all three of them down the ramp towards the spot where the children had been playing.

"Watch out! Da' drawling was here," the girl warned, wiggling to indicate that she wanted to get down and join the little boy, who had already scrambled down the side of the chair.

Both children knelt beside the muddy creation and animatedly informed Bubby about all the details of the drawing and what he had missed while he was sleeping. Gale listened with a smile on his face. They were so much like him and Katniss - his daughter and her son - that sometimes it was hard to believe. Sure, the blond-haired children were spitting images of each of their spouses, but all-in-all, the girl was a Hawthorne and the boy was a Mellark, and their friendship perfectly mirrored that of their parents. It was timeless and enduring, and Gale took heart in the knowledge that they would have one another to cling to whenever the road got rocky and times got tough.

Wow! I can't believe this is it...last a/n:

Thank you so much for all the love and support over the months that it took to tell this story. Let me know what you thought, you can find me here or on tumblr (kismetff). I appreciate every review, follow, favorite, PM, awesome anon asks that cheered me on, and tumblr message more than you could possibly know. I hope that you enjoyed the conclusion, and I look forward to sharing a few one shots from this universe on the 'Outtakes' thread...Please keep your eyes open for them!

Ro Nordman created a beautiful banner for this story, the link is in my profile. Also, I need to thank one (or some) of you that nominated First Speech and The Rules: First Speech Outtakes for the Everlark Smut Awards because it won a category and placed in a few others. I was blown away when this happened and can't thank you guys enough!

I would be remiss if I did not thank a few special people who helped me along the way. Thank you to Court81981 and Alexabee for stepping up and beta'ing when necessary, providing emotional support when I thought I couldn't do it, and just helping me retain my focus - you guys rock!

Wildharp, I don't even know where to start so I'll just say this my twinster friend, you are the best! From the beta work to the cheese sandwich discussions, I knew I could always count on you and your friendship is a gift. Thank you so much!