AN: At long last, here is the next chapter of ADAD. Thank you all for your patience with me as I struggled through my writing drought and everything else life has thrown at me recently. I appreciate each and every word of encouragement that you have given me. I hope you find this chapter worth the wait. Enjoy!
I wake to the sound of sparrows chirping happily outside my window. Watery, winter sunlight filters through the fine, lacy curtains and I am so blissfully cozy I do not ever intend to leave this bed. As though my mind has been read, the door across the room opens without a sound and Peeta's heavy tread fills the room as he carries in a tray full of steaming, delicious smelling food.
My mouth begins to water as I take in the sight of eggs, perfectly fried, and served alongside potatoes tossed in herbs and grainy, dark slices of toast. Thick slices of ham rest beside flakey, golden biscuits and a fresh glass of milk towers over a delicate cup of dark coffee. If I hadn't seen the feast Cora prepared us for dinner last night, I would believe that the food before me is all just a dream. My stomach growls impatiently. Years of poverty have taught my body to seize any available food it can find without hesitation.
"Good morning," Peeta whispers when he sees I'm awake, reclaiming the spot in my bed where he slept last night, his arms wrapped protectively around me to ward off any nightmares. He motions to the food now resting near his feet. "I thought you might enjoy a lazy morning in bed."
I scoot around under the covers, sitting up so that I will be able to eat, but hesitant to leave the toasty warmth beneath the soft fabric. "Won't Cora be upset? She'll know that you're up here with me."
"Let me deal with Cora's worries about reputation," he shakes his head slightly, a shadow of a smile pulling at his lips.
I didn't miss the wary gaze of Peeta's housekeeper last night when we first arrived downstairs for dinner. He swears that the older woman is only looking out for my best interest, worried that Peeta is taking advantage of me. But I have been looked at like that too many times in my lifetime to believe that's all of it. I am a Seam girl. Peeta is an heir to a fortune that I cannot even fully fathom. It would only be logical for people to be suspicious, for them to assume that I am using him for my own gain.
"I do not think she likes me very much," I mutter, nestling myself closer to the warmth his body is radiating.
"She does," he assures me, expertly spreading a generous amount of strawberry jam across the hearty bread before lifting it to my lips. I take a bite and close my eyes in pleasure as the sweet preserves melt across my taste buds followed by the earthy, warm toast. "She wouldn't cook so lavishly if she did not."
I open my eyes once I swallow and smile up at Peeta. He watches me, a whisper of sadness apparent in his gaze as I reach for a fork and spear a mouthful of fried egg, a bit of the runny yellow dripping on my lip. A thick finger brushes against the tender skin and Peeta sighs. I dig greedily into the potatoes before looking up at him again, "Is something wrong?"
I suddenly realize that my mouth is stuffed full of delicious food and Peeta has yet to take a bite for himself. I set my fork down. Maybe I have disgusted him. It isn't often that Peeta has seen me eat anything. Compared to the proper ladies he usually spends his time with, I probably look like a savage, gobbling up food as fast as my hands will let me.
His smile is bittersweet when he reaches for one of the biscuits, slicing it in half and nesting a slice of ham between each end. He lifts the delicacy to my lips and I can't stop myself from taking a bite. The smell is too intoxicating to resist.
"Nothing is wrong," he whispers, offering a halfhearted smile in my direction. "I just wish I would have brought you here sooner." He hands me the glass of milk. It's sweet and refreshingly cool on my tongue. "Instead of watching you and your family starve."
"Peeta," I whisper, trying to ignore the tightness that takes hold in my chest. He shouldn't feel this way. "It isn't as though you never tried to help. You kept me alive."
"It was not enough," he replies bitterly. "Look at everything you have suffered through-"
"Don't." I press a finger to his lips. "Do not think like that. None of that is your fault. It was never your fault. You should not think for a second that it was."
"If I had known what my mother did – if I had found you employment elsewhere –" His voice cracks and he rifles a hand through his curls. "It is not fair."
It isn't fair, but it is not as though either of us really had a choice in the matter.
I reach for a slice of toast and press a bite to his lips as he did for me only a few minutes earlier. I am not sure how else to comfort him besides offering him food. "You should eat."
Reluctantly, he takes the bread between his teeth, chewing it slowly, his eyes never leaving my face. A thrill runs up my spine as I reach for the biscuit he prepared earlier and take another bite. I am certain this moment, wrapped up in soft covers with Peeta and glorious food, is a little piece of heaven.
It strikes me suddenly that he won't be able to stay here with me forever. He has brought me to the cottage in secret and his family would start to question him if he stayed for very long. His mother would never allow it if she knew he was playing house with a Seam girl – and one that worked in a brothel at that.
"How long will you be able to stay?" I whisper, picking at the edge of the yellow quilt covering us.
He lets out a slow breath as though he's been trying to avoid thinking about this as well. It is a fact we must face together, though. There isn't much point in pretending we will be able to stay in this sanctuary together for very long.
"I left word with my father that I would be staying for a few days to gather my thoughts," he says, his voice low and even. "My mother will assume this means I am deciding how to propose to Miss Hamilton, I am sure. I catch the last train tomorrow."
"What am I to do without you here?" I question. The thought of staying in this cottage without him is nowhere near as appealing. The days will stretch on unbearably.
"Whatever you please, Katniss," he says sweetly, his hand reaching up to brush a stray lock of hair behind my ear. "You will be cared for here. You don't need to worry anymore. Do what makes you happy."
He doesn't understand how confusing his words are for me. I have become so accustom to fighting to survive that I have forgotten what it is like to enjoy idle time. I would rather be useful. I was never one to sit and do needlepoint all day and gossip over tea.
When I look up, he is watching me cautiously, his blue eyes bright. I don't know what to say to him, how to explain that I never want him to leave, that I do not know what I will do without him here. I cannot explain that this new safety is almost as terrifying to me as being under Snow's thumb in the city. Instead I nestle myself against his solid chest, resting my head in the crook of his shoulder. His fingers comb through my hair, pressing gentle circles against my scalp.
"It will be alright, Katniss. You'll see," he murmurs, the words vibrating in his chest. "This will all be over before you know it and you will be with Prim again and you will both be safe and happy together."
"How can you be so certain?" I ask, relaxing against him, his words and his touch like a soothing tonic.
"The bad can't last forever," he answers firmly. I want to tell him that this isn't true, that there has been so much bad in the Seam for longer than anyone can remember, but I don't have the heart to argue with him. I want to believe his words, so I allow them.
"So," he begins cheerfully, attempting to steer my mind away from the dour thoughts it has wandered to. "What shall we do today?"
His eyes shine happily as he gazes down at me. I shrug, the task of amusing myself for an entire day too daunting to comprehend in the warmth of this soft bed and Peeta's embrace.
He smiles, brushing a thumb along my jaw. "I have an idea. You will need to dress warmly though." He slips from under the covers, leaning in to press a quick kiss to my lips before hurrying towards the door. "I will send Cora to help."
I open my mouth to protest, still certain that Cora harbors some ill will against me, but Peeta gives me one last cheeky smile before disappearing through the doorway.
Cora appears a few minutes later, giving me a tight-lipped smile before closing the door behind her. "Mr. Peeta said you would be needing assistance with dressing," she drawls quietly, her voice smooth and even and infinitely polite.
"Only a bit," I squeak, blushing furiously as my gaze meets hers.
Surely she must have heard my moans of pleasure when Peeta and I first arrived yesterday. The walls are thin here and it would have been impossible for anyone to miss, even if they were downstairs.
"What will you be wearing today, Miss Katniss?" she questions, stepping up to the sparse wardrobe open in front of me. "Well," she huffs once she observes the single traveling suit and coat hanging before us. "I suppose it won't be a difficult choice."
The older woman's fingers are swift as they tighten the laces of my corset around me, pulling them snuggly with a flourish of her wrists. I gasp after she gives another tug. I have never been one to wear my corsets unbearably tight. It would be impossible to work under such circumstances.
"That should be tight enough, Cora," I say. "I will still need to breathe today."
"My apologies," the laces loosen some before she ties them off. "Most ladies prefer to wear their corsets tighter these days. I hear it's the fashion in Paris."
"Thank the heavens we are not in Paris, then," I reply, a smile pulling at the corner of my lips as I glance at the woman standing behind me in the mirror. I catch a glimpse of her lips curved in a quiet smile of their own before she turns and retrieves the blouse I will be wearing for the day.
Her fingers make quick work of all the hooks and buttons of my clothing. I am fully dressed only a handful of minutes later and she guides me downstairs where Peeta is waiting near the front door.
"You look lovely." He gives me a genuine smile as he holds out my coat, sliding the heavy fabric over my shoulders, allowing his hands to rest against me for a moment longer than necessary.
"Thank you," I murmur with a blush.
The morning is chilly as we exit the house and Peeta gathers up two sets of shoes with thin, metal blades on them. He grins at me as he settles the laces over his shoulder and reaches for my hand, tugging me off the beaten path and through the snow.
"What are those shoes for?" I question, doing my best to lengthen my stride in spite of the snow so that I might keep up with him.
He seems to notice my struggle and slows down considerably as he chuckles. "They aren't shoes. You'll see soon enough," he explains.
Already his cheeks are rosy with the cold and I wish I might press my lips to the pink skin. His fingers stay laced between mine as we round a patch of trees and come upon a lake, frozen so smoothly it looks like glass.
"Have you ever gone ice-skating before, Katniss?" he questions, his blue eyes alight with excitement.
"Never." I frown, looking down at my worn, leather shoes. "It's not as though Lake Michigan freezes over often enough or smoothly enough to skate upon."
He gives a somber nod before guiding me over to a bench near the edge of the lake. It takes him only minutes to lace up his own skates and then he is kneeling before me, tightening the laces of my own skates with ease.
My ankles wobble precariously when I stand, like Prim did as a toddler taking her first steps. I am certain it will only be a few moments before I land face first in the snow, but Peeta's hand reaches out for my elbow. I glance up, my breath coming out in a frozen puff of steam when he smiles at me. His eyes are alight with laughter and somehow the overcast, grey sky seems to make them bluer.
"Are you ready?" he questions, a blonde eyebrow arching as he takes a small step back towards the frozen pond. How he can walk so naturally on two thin blades of metal I shall never understand. One would think his broad, sturdy form would make ice-skating nearly impossible. I take another hesitant step, nearly losing my balance and falling backwards.
"This might be a terrible idea," I mutter, a frown pulling at my lips until I hear his gentle chuckle.
"I won't let you fall, Katniss," he promises, his grip tightening slightly on my elbow as I sway to the side.
He takes another step, tugging me along with him until suddenly we are gliding over the smooth surface of the pond. I grasp frantically at his wrist, my eyes widening as an uncharacteristic squeal escapes my lips.
"Peeta!" The word echoes slightly in the frozen silence of the winter afternoon.
He maneuvers his skates, skidding quickly to a stop in front of me. I screech as my body collides with his, unable to stop on the slippery surface below me. Peeta never loses his balance though as his arms encircle my waist, a hearty laughter ringing out as he does.
"For as elegant as you are on two feet, one would never know it when you are on ice," he jokes. The tip of his nose is red from the chill of the breeze that blows over the pond's surface. It is an endearing look for him, not that I have really found one that is not.
"It is not fair to kid," I protest, lightly punching at his shoulder though this only causes his arms around me to tighten their hold. "You have probably been skating this pond for years and I have never so much as seen an ice skate in my life."
His smile falters for a split moment before he is beaming once more. He lowers his head until his lips brush against my ear. "Then you may add it to the list of things I look forward to teaching you," he murmurs, his warm breath causing a delicious shiver through my spine.
Something about the way he speaks tells me his list is not just made up of outdoor activities he'd like to instruct me in. I am suddenly quite glad for the cold because I am certain that my cheeks would be red by now if they had not been already.
Peeta's lips brush against my heated skin, soft as a feather's touch, before he tugs my hands forward once more. "Just let one foot glide outward at a time," he instructs, pulling me along as he effortlessly begins skating backwards.
My knees shake as my skates veer away from one another. It's not ladylike at all, but he laughs anyway, grasping my elbow to help me straighten up and bring my feet together again.
"Just like that, but this time make sure you pick your feet up otherwise you'll be sitting on the ice." I frown, my lips pouting as I concentrate on his directions. I get the distinct impression that he finds my struggle amusing and my irritation begins to grow.
"This is infuriating," I blurt out as Peeta once again pulls me up into a standing position.
Peeta smiles gently, the look somehow melting my annoyance with him. He moves one hand from my elbow to wrap it around my waist, pulling me close to the warmth that he seems to eternally radiate no matter how cold it is.
"It takes some practice," he says, cupping his other hand at the nape of my neck. "We will have all the time in the world now, Katniss. There's no need to rush it."
I shiver when I look up at him, his blue eyes boring into mine. His words promise so much more than skating lessons. They promise himself, a life away from the city and all its dangers.
"Come on," he encourages, his fingers tugging lightly at mine as he pushes off backwards. "Give it another go."
This time my ankles wobble before finding their balance on the thin metal blades. The air is silent save for the soft hiss of metal cutting a path across the ice until I release a sharp squeal as Peeta's hands drop mine.
"Peeta!" I shout, but he's already skating away at a quicker pace, chuckling easily as I slide to a slow stop, my hands swinging in tight circles to keep from falling back on my bottom.
"Pick your feet up!" he calls across the ice as he continues to move in a fluid arc. "If you catch me, maybe I will give you a kiss." He flashes me a cheeky grin, purposely slowing his pace until I hesitantly lift a foot and push off, the blade grinding slightly but pushing me forward much to my surprise.
An excited burst of laughter pushes past my lips as I repeat the motion with the opposite foot and continue gliding. I am so focused on my feet that I don't notice how quiet the pond has become until a pair of strong, steady arms wrap themselves around my waist.
My feet slip out from under me, but Peeta holds me up with ease as he nuzzles past the neck of my coat, his chilled lips brushing gently along the much warmer curve of my neck. I bite at my lower lip, trying to repress the delicious shiver his touch elicits.
"I thought I was supposed to catch you, Mr. Mellark," I remind him as my hands move to rest over his and I lean into the warmth of his chest.
"I grew impatient with waiting," he replies, his voice muffled by layers of fabric as his lips suck gently on the skin where my neck joins with my shoulder. "I decided to take matters into my own hands." His fingers clutch lightly at the thick green layer of my overcoat, tugging ever so slightly as though he wishes it were not there to separate us.
I manage to shuffle my skates enough that I turn in his arms, his hands keeping me balanced where they continue to rest on my waist. I reach up, letting my fingers delve into the soft curls of his hair before I smile up at him. "What prize is there for you catching me then? I would have been rewarded with a kiss, but what do you wish for?"
His eyes darken and he is silent for a long moment, his arms tugging me closer to him. I fit myself against the curve of his body easily, as though we are two pieces of a puzzle fashioned for one another.
"I thought that answer might be quite obvious," he says, his voice containing a gruffness that causes my belly to tingle pleasantly. "I want all of you forever." The corner of his mouth quirks up in a hint of a smile and I can't stop the breathless laugh that his words steal from me.
"A simple request," I reply once I catch my breath again, leaning up on the tips of my skates to press a tender kiss to his lips. "I might be able to allow it."
He smiles brightly, taking one of my hands in his and guiding me around the pond for a long while. The sun is already beginning its decent in the sky by the time we settle onto the bench beside the pond and remove our skates. A gloved thumb brushes along my cheekbone and I look up to find Peeta staring raptly at me.
"What?" I question, brushing quickly at both cheeks, wondering if I have somehow managed to get something on my face.
He smiles. "Your cheeks are flushed such a beautiful shade of pink. I was just trying to lock it in my memory for a future painting."
"A painting?" I repeat, arching an eyebrow in disbelief.
He takes my hand, pulling me up from the bench with another smile as we begin the walk back to the cottage. "Of course," he replies, allowing our hands to swing easily between us. "You are my favorite subject, Katniss – my muse."
I snort, a small cloud of steam rising from my nostrils. His sugary words are hard to digest and I am sure that if I spend much more time around Peeta Mellark I am likely to get rotten teeth. He releases my hand only to wrap an arm wordlessly around my waist, causing us to bump hips as we walk.
The journey back to the cottage seems shorter this time and the warmth inside instantly begins to melt away the chill that seeped into my skin despite the fine coat that Peeta bought for me. He helps ease the thick, green material from my shoulders and removes his own coat before guiding me back towards the kitchen.
"Cora will have left for town," he explains when we enter the silent room. The smells of our breakfast still cling heavily to the air and my stomach grumbles hungrily although I ate my fill this morning. "Today is her shopping day and she will want to have the cottage well stocked since she will be cooking for a guest."
"She needn't to go to such trouble." I blush. It's absurd for Peeta and his servant to treat me as though I am someone of importance when I would be perfectly content making meals of the cold cuts in the icebox.
"She would refuse to listen to me even if I agreed with you," he states, opening the icebox and removing a bowl covered with cheesecloth along with several other covered ingredients. "Cora believes everyone in the house should be well fed. I wouldn't be taken aback if she brings you several special surprises when she returns. She always wished that there would be a daughter that she could dote upon in the Mellark family, much as my mother still does."
There is no bitterness in his tone when he speaks the last part, but the sorrow in his gaze is enough that I step around the counter and lace my fingers with his.
"Of course," he puts on a shaky smile, "Cora forgave me when I was born the third boy. I might even go so far as to say that I am her favorite of us Mellark brothers."
I pull his hand to my lips and press a kiss there that I hope convinces him that I am glad he was born even if no one else in the world is - that he is my favorite. My stomach twists with anger towards this gentle boy's mother. How could she have done this to him? How could she raise him and allow him to believe that he is a mistake, a disappointment? This boy who loves with every fiber of his being, who has an innate goodness about him, who can care for and protect a Seam girl – one that scowls and snaps and is hardly a lady. This boy deserves so much more than everything he has.
I lean up on my toes, pressing my lips to his cheek, still cool from the lingering chill of being outside. His fingers tighten around mine and he glances down at me wordlessly, our gazes meeting in a pregnant silence.
"I – Peeta," I stutter bringing our intertwined hands to my chest, hoping he might not notice my fluttering heartbeat beneath them. "I am glad for you." My free hand cups the firm line of his jaw. There's a day's growth of dark blond hair present on the pale skin and it scratches softly against my palm. "I couldn't…" I search for the words, the ones that mean what I am feeling inside at this moment. "I couldn't… survive without you."
His eyes soften and I see them beginning to fill with tears. I press a kiss to his knuckles and pray that I haven't upset him. Any other girl would profess her love, but I can't say those words. I have heard them whispered too often through the thin walls of The Hob by girls hoping that a rich patron will leave his family like he promises. I have seen those same girls crushed mornings later when there isn't a man in a fine bowler hat waiting on their doorstep to whisk them away.
What Peeta gives me isn't that; it is so much more. He gives me hope. He helps me survive time and time again when I should long ago have met my end.
Why is he being so quiet? Have I disappointed him? I should apologize, but I can't. My chest is too tight and I think I might cry. Why doesn't he say something?
His hand disentangles itself from mine and I know I've made a mistake. I close my eyes tightly, willing the tears that burn against the back of my eyelids to disappear.
"Peeta, I'm sorry." The words are hoarse, strangled in my tightening throat.
Still he doesn't speak. His arms encircle my hips, pulling me to his chest. Is this his goodbye to me – a gentle hug before he leads me to the nearest door and leaves me to my own devices?
A hand cups the back of my head, cradling me beneath his chin. I breathe him in, all fresh air and musk with a hint of cinnamon. His fingers make lazy patterns against the bodice of my dress and I melt in his embrace, soaking in everything it has to offer.
"I'm sorry," I repeat, the words hardly even a whisper through my throat choked with tears.
"My Katniss," he breathes against the crown of my head followed by a fervent kiss. "My dear, you have no idea the effect you have over me." I lift my head and see his blue eyes are still glassy with unshed tears as he smiles down at me. He brushes several stray hairs back from my face before adding, "I could never survive without you either."
He says it so assuredly that I could almost believe his words to be true, but the truth is that Peeta could go on surviving without me. I have done nothing for him aside from offer a few kisses and break his heart. He is the one who has fed me when I was near death, who told me of work, who pulled me from my room before Thread could deliver me into Snow's hands.
His eyes pierce through me and I look away, unable to hold his gaze anymore. He is too kind, gives me more credit than I am due. He deserves a pretty girl with good manners who has never heard of a place like The Hob and does not have one of the most notorious mob men after her. Peeta deserves a happy, simple life with blonde-haired, blue-eyed children to run around with. I will never be able to provide him that life.
I fiddle with the corner of the cheesecloth covering the bowl he pulled from the icebox.
"What is this?" I cut him off. I pretend not to notice the disappointment as he clears his throat. It's better if we change the topic of conversation sooner rather than later. He removes the cloth and reveals a lump of cold dough.
"I thought we could make cinnamon rolls for tomorrow's breakfast." He shrugs sheepishly. "It's a bit of a tradition. My dad would always make them for our final breakfast before leaving the cottage. The flour I used was from the fall's harvest. You've never tasted anything like them."
"I'm quite sure I haven't," I agree, poking the dough with a hesitant finger. His hand comes to cover mine with a chuckle.
"It is just dough, Katniss, not a monster," he assures me. His nimble hand guides mine to knead the dough in a rhythmic motion. The soft, smooth mound yields easily and there is something pleasant about the feeling, almost soothing.
I don't notice that his hands have moved until he bends forward slightly, reaching around me and spreading a handful of flour on the surface in front of us. "We should roll the dough out," he murmurs, his lips close to my ear as he reaches on either side of me, lifting the soft lump from its bowl and procuring a rolling pin as if by magic. His back is pressed to mine as he slides our palms over the wooden instrument, flattening the dough expertly in minutes.
I can't help but smile over my shoulder when he slides the last bowl towards us and hands me a well-used brush. The mixture inside the bowl is golden, a mix of butter and spices that cause my mouth to water while I paint them over our dough canvas.
I step aside once I've finished so that Peeta can roll the dough, sealing the cinnamon and butter and other wonderful spices in a swirl. He moves easily, as though he barely needs to spare a thought while he works, his eyes intent on the job before him. There's something beautiful in the way his hands move when he cuts slices from the roll and settles them onto a baking sheet. I can't recall a time I've seen him look some comfortable or at ease.
"You love this," I observe quietly, unable to contain the smile that watching him brings to my face.
He glances up, his eyes slightly glazed as though he was lost in a world all his own while he was working. "Hmm?" His throat bobs a bit as he hums and turns back to finish cutting the roll.
"You look content," I say, watching as his hands swiftly begin placing the slices on a baking sheet.
He glances up through his thick, golden lashes with another, shy smile before finishing the task at hand and rounding the corner to slide the sheet into the large oven.
"I am content," he murmurs, crossing the room and enveloping me in his embrace. "With you here, how could I be anything but?"
I close my eyes, asking myself the same question as I nestle closer to his chest. There's no trace of dishonesty in his face, but it seems an impossible truth.
"Could you be happy forever?" I ask softly, "If you were never to return home? Would you resent me if you left all your wealth behind for a simple life?"
He chuckles quietly, his breath coming in warm puffs against my forehead. "I could never be happy without you. No matter what kind of life it means, I want to spend the rest of my life with you."
He bends forward, suckling gently at the swell of my bottom lip. The tip of his tongue swipes hotly across the sensitive skin and I whimper, grasping at the front of his shirt and hoping this won't end soon. A heat that has nothing to do with the ovens in the room spreads over the surface of my skin and my heart patters erratically at my ribs as thought they are a cage and it is begging for release.
Peeta guides me backwards until my back hits the solid wood of the countertop. He gives a soft, masculine grunt, his fingers digging into my hips as he presses himself against me. The movement isn't polite and gentle like he has always been in the past. Instead there is a fervent want in the pressure of his hips against mine, a hunger evident in the growl that echoes in the back of his throat.
I bow against his form and notice, not for the first time, the bulge pressing back from within his trousers. Though I have never seen him unclothed, I know enough of the male form to understand what it is and I blush when I admit to myself that I want to touch him. Slowly, I release a hand from where I hold it bunched in his shirtfront.
Peeta doesn't notice, too preoccupied as he ducks his head to the side and begins trailing his lips across my cheeks and along my jaw. My breath hitches when he reaches the small patch of skin below my earlobe, causing my eyes to flutter shut in pleasure.
"Peeta." His name is a whisper as it falls from my lips and my hand grazes the front of his trousers, palming the bulge within.
He releases a garbled cry and stumbles backwards a few steps, his blue eyes wide with shock. A hot flush races to my cheeks and I can hear my pulse as it rushes through my ears. Perhaps I should never have tried to touch him. Perhaps that isn't normal. Johanna had spoke of how the men liked it, but maybe a true gentleman like Peeta would be mortified by such behavior.
"I- " I can't find words in the flood of humiliation that overcomes me. I begin to back out of the kitchen, sidestepping along the counter until I might make a dash for it and preserve whatever shred of dignity I have left.
But then his hand reaches out for mine, pulling me back towards him as he slants his mouth over mind, hot and needy as his tongue brushes along my palette. I moan, my knees going weak under his ministrations.
"Don't be embarrassed," he breathes when he pulls away, his lips still close enough that they brush mine with each word. "I was surprised is all. You've never mentioned wanting to do that."
I duck my gaze to the soft, blonde hairs that peak out from under the collar of his shirt where he has unfastened several buttons. "You touched me," I reason. "Why wouldn't I wish to do the same? I care for you as well."
He doesn't speak, his blue eyes wide with wonder as he lets his fingers run along my neck. His touch is soft and warm and I never want to let him go.
"May I?" I ask shyly, ignoring the rush of blood that rises to my cheeks again. "Will you show me what feels good, Peeta?"
He nods once, slowly, as though unsure of whether he should answer or not, but he takes one of my hands in his own and guides it to the front of his trousers again. He inhales sharply when my palm makes contact with him, but he doesn't cry out this time and he doesn't back away. Instead he slides my palm against the bulge, releasing a shaky breath.
I look up at him as I repeat the movement again and find that his eyes have turned the color of cobalt against the black swells of his pupils. His hips press against my touch seemingly of their own accord and a moment later Peeta's hand leaves mine to unfasten the front of his trousers. His fingers tremble against the buttons but soon enough the front of his pants are open and his underthings are visible beneath. My fingers slip under the heavy fabric of his trousers, grazing the soft, cotton.
"Is this okay?" I question hesitantly. He nods again, a stiff, subtle movement. He reaches beneath the waist of his briefs, lowering them slightly until he is bared before me.
It's a penis. I know enough of the male anatomy to know what it is called. I have even seen one or two when Mother brought me with her on her medical visits. But never have I seen one like this. The word penis doesn't seem appropriate for this. That word is for the old, sickly men, not for the strong and vibrant Peeta Mellark. A word comes to mind that I remember being shouted through the paper-thin walls of The Hob.
Clove was never known for being quiet, and the same could be said of her once she retired for the night with men. It was a night in late summer when I had the window of my bedroom open as wide as it would go in hopes of catching any whisper of a summer breeze. The moans started out quietly enough, but soon they were loud enough that it felt as though I was in the room with them.
"Oh, please!" she keened in a way that make my cheeks flush, "Your cock feels so good."
I was confused. Why would she be talking about someone's chicken during such an act? It wasn't until the next morning that Johanna explained through her laughter that the word actually has two meanings. And I never understood until this moment why someone would choose to call that part of the male anatomy by that name.
"Is this okay?" Peeta questions after the silence between us goes on for too long and I realize I've been staring at him.
"Y-yes," I stutter, reaching out my hand and waiting for him to show me what to do.
"You don't have to do this, Katniss," he assures me. "I never expected anything like this."
It's laughable that I would ever think Peeta Mellark expects me to do anything like this. He has always been the perfect gentleman, even when I allowed him to explore my own body. I smile shyly as I reach my hand forward, closing it around the surprisingly soft, almost velvety skin of his cock. It's surprisingly hard and so very warm.
Peeta whimpers softly, reaching a hand out to grasp the counter behind me for balance. I let my fingers slide gently along the exposed flesh, reveling in the way his breath hitches in his chest, the way his arm trembles and he bites his bottom lip.
"Peeta?" I question, looking up at him to find that his gaze has darkened into something that makes my heart pound against my chest. "Peeta, show me what to do. What feels good?"
"Everything," he groans when I run my thumb over the tip of him where there is a bead of liquid gathering. "Everything you do feels amazing, Katniss."
I snort in disbelief and that gains his attention again. "I haven't the faintest idea what I am doing. How can it possibly feel good?"
My thumb circles the head of his erection and he gives a low growl from deep within his chest. "It felt good when I touched you, didn't it?" he questions as his hand moves to cover mine, guiding it to grip his length.
I nod silently as his fingers press against mine, showing me the right amount of pressure to use before he guides them to slide along the velvet skin. His eyes flutter shut and his head falls to my shoulder. His breath is warm against my neck as it shudders past his lips.
"It's so soft," I murmur, unsure of what exactly I should be saying. I never paid much attention to the quiet whispers that made their way through my walls at The Hob, save for that one night with Clove. Peeta grunts, his hips thrusting forward into my hand.
Something warm swells inside my chest when he lets out another quiet whimper against my skin. I realize I want him, all of him. I don't want to share him with the rest of the world. I want him to be mine. I hate the idea that tomorrow he will leave and return to the city where his mother will try to pair him off with any number of willing girls.
"Promise me, Peeta," I beg in a desperate whisper as his hips continue to thrust into my hand. I press my lips to the curve of his neck, sucking gently at the tender skin until he releases a breathy moan. "Promise me you won't forget. Don't let them make you forget about me."
His thrusts become more erratic and his breathing becomes more labored. His lips suckle my neck, nipping and kissing between raspy moans. The sound curls deep inside my belly like a hot, burning coal, stoking a fire that I have no idea how to put out.
His fingers delve into my hair, messing the simple hairstyle that Cora fixed it in this morning. It feels glorious though and I have little concern regarding my hair when his eyes are screwed up so tight and he's whispering my name like a chant or a prayer.
"Oh, Katniss!" he whispers one final time, his eyes snapping wide open just as his cock swells in my palm and a spurt of white liquid lands on my wrist.
His breathing is ragged as his forehead falls to rest against mine. A frown mars his beautiful face and I begin to wonder what I have done wrong when he pulls out a handkerchief.
"Here," he mutters, looking rather sheepish as he gently cleans away the sticky liquid from my hand. "I'm sorry. I should have warned you. I just became so caught up and – and I – well, I lost control of myself."
"It's okay," I whisper back, twining my fingers with his. "Is that a good thing? Is that supposed to happen?"
He meets my gaze with his own wide eyes and gives me a rather silly smile. "Yes, Katniss, that is a very good thing."
I smile, rather proud of myself for a brief moment before he leans forward, taking my face in his hands and kisses me as though he might never get to again. My hands grasp at his shirtfront again and my toes curl in their well-worn boots.
When we separate, we are both pink cheeked and breathless. Peeta laughs softly and brushes his nose against mine. "Katniss Everdeen, I promise that no one could ever make me forget you in a million years. I am yours for however long you might want me."
A giggle bubbles up in my throat, a feeling so foreign that I slap a hand over my mouth to cover the strange sound. Peeta simply smiles down at me in his arms as though I am the most charming girl he's ever met.
"One day," he murmurs, his eyes filled with a warmth that spills over into my heart, "When this is all over, I will ask you to marry me, and I hope very much that you might say yes."
A key in the back door ends the moment too soon and Peeta releases me quickly so that he can fasten his pants again. Cora bustles into the kitchen just as he finishes tucking his shirt in and he smiles brightly at the motherly woman.
"What are you two doing in here?" she questions suspiciously. "I thought you were taking the girl ice-skating?"
"I did," he assures her, ruffling a hand through his curls and letting it settle on the back of his neck. I wonder if he realizes that he has this nervous tick. From the look in Cora's eye I know she's noticed it. "Katniss caught on rather quickly, but it's a cold day outside and I thought we might make some cinnamon rolls."
"It is," Cora agrees, her dark-chocolate eyes observing me closely as she speaks. "Perhaps you two ought to each take a warm bath before dinner and I can prepare you some hot tea. It will still be a while before dinner is ready."
"That sounds like a wonderful idea," Peeta agrees before heading towards the staircase in the front of the cottage.
"You'll need some help undressing then, Miss Katniss?" Cora asks but she is already following in Peeta's steps.
The silence once Cora shuts the door behind us is deafening and my body tenses in anticipation. The woman has something to say, that much is clear, and I have a feeling I won't like hearing it.
She unfastens the long row of buttons on my blouse, also undoing my skirt and allowing it to slip with a quiet hiss over my hips. It's not until she begins working on the ties of my corset that she speaks up.
"That boy is like a son to me, Miss Katniss," she states evenly, and I can tell from her tone that she means what she says. "You seem like a kind, well-meaning girl, but I don't understand what you two think will come of this."
Her hands freeze, resting against my back as she looks at me in the mirror before us. She has a point. How often have I asked myself the very same question she poses now? Peeta has never been shy about his intentions; even today he told me he wishes to marry me one day. But does he really understand what that will mean, what he will have to give up?
"He cares for you. I can see that much in the way he looks at you," Cora says, her hands beginning to work again though she never looks away from my face in the mirror. "But do you feel the same way?"
I stare, frozen and unable to defend myself. I do, or at least I think I do. I care very deeply for the boy who handed me a slightly stale loaf of bread in the rain not all that long ago. I owe him my life a dozen times over by now. He deserves whatever his heart desires, and from what he said earlier today, it desires me.
I open my mouth to speak but am cut off when Cora poses another question.
"Do you love him?"
My heart stutters in my chest at the word.
My mother loved my father and look where that got them. Plenty of girls at The Hob thought they loved the men in fancy suits and hats who would spend a night or two with them before tossing them to the gutter like used pieces of trash. Even Peeta's parents, who have every luxury that they could hope for are stuck in a loveless marriage.
Love, or the pretense of love, is a dangerous game, one I am not sure that I am ready to play. Do I love Peeta Mellark? Perhaps I could if I let myself. Maybe it's already too late.
"I don't know," I whisper, my voice unsteady, giving away my fear. My hands wring nervously against one another but the woman behind me nods solemnly as if she hears something I don't.
Without another word, she hands me a soft, warm towel and leaves the room with a swish of her skirts. Though no final parting was exchanged, I feel as though I was just given a test and I'm unsure whether or not I have passed it.
The next morning comes far too quickly. Peeta slips into my room as the sun rises, all golden curls and shy smiles and sapphire eyes. It's a sight I wouldn't mind waking up to every morning.
"When do you leave?" I ask before he has a chance to wish me good morning.
He wears a somber smile as he sets the tray he carries on the bedside table and slips beneath the covers with me. He pulls the pale, yellow linen over our heads, creating a sanctuary within our sanctuary.
"This afternoon," he whispers. "There is a two-thirty train."
I shift closer to him, pressing my chest against his with a heavy sigh and allowing my legs to tangle between his. His strong arms slip around my waist and he buries his face in my sleep-matted hair.
"I wish you did not have to leave me," I admit, wrapping my own arms around him and holding on tightly as though I might cease to exist without him. "Couldn't you just write home and tell them you have decided to live out the rest of your days as one of those celibate men in the countryside?"
"Like a hermit, you mean?" he chuckles warmly. "I do not think anyone would believe that story, particularly my brothers."
"You could try," I reason with a pout. "Unless you are glad to be rid of me and return to the city full of pretty women with large bosoms and larger dowries."
A flash of worry fills his eyes until he realizes that I am only joking. If there is one thing I am sure about, it is that Peeta Mellark has very little interest in money and he seems to quite enjoy my body, small breasts and all.
"I could try," he agrees with a smile. "Perhaps I shall write: Dear Mother, I have chosen to join the priesthood and shall not be returning to the city. I know this might come as a shock to you seeing as we are not Catholic-"
I laugh loudly, burying my face against his chest as he continues on in a dramatic tone. He kisses the top of my head once he finishes, holding back laughter of his own. His eyes are crinkled at the edges when I look up at him and I stretch to kiss his cheek.
"In all honesty, the only letter I want to write would tell them of the girl that has stolen my heart, one with eyes the color of flint and hair softer than silk." He presses a kiss against my neck, his lips curved into a soft smile as he continues. "I would write to tell them that I never intend to come home, that I wish to keep her away from the dirty, crumbling city. I want to keep her here in my arms where she is safe."
He presses a kiss to my shoulder and our gazes meet again. As much as I wish he could write such a letter, we both know it is impossible. He must return to the city and I must remain in hiding until we can be sure that Snow will not come after me again. Peeta must go back if we ever hope to learn why the leader of the mob has taken such a keen interest in me.
"You will be safe here," he assures me as though he is able to read my thoughts. "You can be sure of that."
"I know," I whisper. "I just don't like the idea of being away from you. What if they come after you to get to me?"
"And how would they ever know I mean anything to you?" he questions with a hint of amusement in his voice. "Our relationship has always been discrete so that my mother would never hear of it."
I shrug. "I don't know, but what if they do?"
He sighs, pulling me closer to him and pressing his lips to my ear before whispering, "Then I will fight them with every fiber of my being. I will make sure they are thrown in jail for all eternity and I will return to you. We will live out the rest of our lives however we please – wherever we please."
I smile, hoping that he can't tell how uneasy the idea of him fighting anyone makes me. I wish he could stay here. I wish I could keep him safe as he is doing for Prim and I. The idea that something might happen to him is unthinkable. It puts my stomach in knots.
"Let's not talk about all of that right now," Peeta says, sitting up with a smile and throwing the covers back so he can reach for the tray he carried in with him earlier. "The cinnamon rolls will be cold if we wait much longer and, though they are delicious anytime, they are absolutely heavenly while they are still warm.
He unveils the sticky, golden rolls and I smile, reaching out to take the largest one at the same time my stomach gives a loud growl. Peeta chuckles, picking up one of his own and taking a massive bite. A bit of frosting ends up on the edge of his lip and I lean forward licking the sweet sugar from his skin. His cheeks turn a lovely shade of pink and I laugh, taking a large bite of my own roll and groaning as the flakey pastry melts on my tongue.
Very quickly, I am beginning to believe that every morning with Peeta is it's own piece of heaven.
"I will be back before you even miss me," Peeta breathes, his lips brushing the shell of my ear as he wraps his arms around my waist.
"That will never be possible," I mutter against his shoulder. "You are a liar, Peeta Mellark."
"And why is that?" he questions, pulling away, his curious, blue eyes meeting with mine. My heartbeat stutters wildly under his gaze.
I throw my arms around his neck and press my lips desperately to his. He gives a surprised grunt, but returns in kind, his lips moving firmly against my own, his tongue dipping into my mouth, memorizing me one last time.
I pull away breathlessly, my palms smoothing along the sharp contour of his jaw. "It is a lie because I miss you already. I will miss you terribly the instant you step onto that train."
He smiles gently, covering my hands with his own and giving them a soft squeeze. The look he gives me says so many things, things I am not ready to admit to myself, but it warms my belly and I wish that he did not have to return to the city. How I wish he were free to stay here with me, safe in our little cottage away from the rest of the world.
The whistle blows sharply in warning that the train is about to depart and he presses one last sweet kiss to my lips. "I will write to you, Katniss. We will figure everything out," he promises. "I will return to you. If you trust nothing else, you may trust in that."
"I know," I say, though my tongue refuses to let me say what I really wish to. The words twist and jumble in my throat. I wish to tell him how I feel. I wish to tell him that he is mine and I am his, but I have never been eloquent and as the train attendant shuts the door between us, my words are left unuttered.
A knock sounds at his door and Peeta glances up to find the familiar, thin form of Glenn. The older man gives him a tight-lipped smile before stepping inside and closing the door behind him.
"Father said you were back," he states, settling down in an overstuffed, high-backed chair in the corner of the room. "Thought I would come and say hello myself."
Peeta stares at his brother quizzically. Though they have always gotten along well enough, the eldest Mellark son has always been somewhat aloof. It would be unusual that he noticed Peeta was missing at all the last several days, let alone that he would make a personal visit just to say hello.
"Mother seems to be under the impression that you will be proposing to Miss Glimmer tonight when her family joins us for dinner," Glenn adds, his cool, blue eyes pinned to Peeta so as not to miss any reaction the younger man might have.
Peeta snorts derisively before turning back to the article at hand, a piece on the increasing dissatisfaction among workers in the factories. It is buried back on page nine of the Chicago Times.
"Peet," Glenn says, his voice softer as he leans forward in his seat, his eyes pleading with the younger man to hear him, "I just want you to understand that you do not have to do this if you don't want to. Mother will be hell to deal with, I understand that, but she won't have control over you forever."
He frowns, surprised that his brother would tell him not to go along with their mother's plans. All the Mellark boys know what happens when they disobey their mother's wishes, and heaven forbid they embarrass the matriarch as well.
"What are you-"
"I just want you to be happy, Peeta," Glenn says, cutting off the younger man's question. "You are, and always have been, my sweet baby brother. You deserve to be happy. Forgive me for saying so, but I do not believe Miss Glimmer will bring you much happiness at all."
"I am not proposing to Glimmer Hamilton," Peeta states firmly, his fingers clenching at the thin newsprint he is holding.
Glenn nods, his shoulders relaxing some at Peeta's confession. He arches a pale eyebrow at the younger man, "What were you doing out at the cottage the last few days then?"
"That is none of your business," Peeta says, snapping the paper back up so he can continue reading. He hopes his older brother doesn't notice the blush that creeps up the back of his neck and spills onto his cheeks when he can't stop the memories of moments spent with Katniss from flooding his mind.
The older man's eyes narrow suspiciously. "You're sweet on someone," he states factually, standing and walking closer.
"I never said that," he retorts but Glenn is already smiling broadly at him.
"That is not a denial, little brother," he points out with a chuckle. "Who is she? Is it one of Delly's friends?"
"No," Peeta shakes his head. "She's nobody you would know. Now shut up."
Glenn laughs but backs away. "Okay, Peet. I will leave the subject for now. But I will find out who she is. If there is one thing I'm good at, it's solving a mystery."
Peeta shakes his head, feigning disinterest. In truth, he knows every word his older brother says is true. Of all the Mellark boys, Glenn is the most persistent and the sharpest. If he puts his mind to figuring something out, he won't stop until he does. It is this knowledge that leaves Peeta with a subtle uneasiness as he finishes reading the article in the newspaper. How can he honestly expect Katniss to remain a secret that only he knows?
Peeta glances up when the door to the small hotel and restaurant opens. Sure enough a familiar glint of bronze hair meets his eye as Mr. Odair steps in from the storm wailing outside. He brushes the snow from his coat as he looks about the room and gives a friendly nod when his eyes find Peeta.
"Sorry I'm late," Finnick explains, reaching out to give Peeta's hand a firm shake. "I was working out at the market today."
"Sales are going well even in this weather, then?" Peeta questions as they settle into their seats at the table near the blazing fireplace.
"I am making a killing," the fisherman agrees. "People love crab and salmon this time of year. Something about the holiday season must make people crave the fruits of the sea even if they aren't as fresh when they've been shipped inland."
Peeta laughs, waving the waiter over to their table. "Would you like anything to drink? Something to take the chill out of your bones?"
"A whiskey sounds wonderful," Finnick agrees with a nod, waiting until the waiter departs before his gaze turns serious and he leans in. "I suppose you received the letter that I sent earlier this week?"
Peeta nods. These past weeks since he returned from the cottage he has done little other than immerse himself in research. He spends hours pouring over newspaper articles, searching for any clue that might help him understand Snow's fixation with Katniss.
Upon his return home, a letter from Finnick was waiting for him. It was short, written in clear, solid script. It offered his help, stated that he had a vague understanding of what happened the night Katniss disappeared from The Hob. He wrote that he would keep an open ear and watchful eye out for any useful information and contact Peeta as soon as he had anything to tell him.
The second letter arrived earlier this week containing only a date, time, and location. That is their reason for meeting this evening and Peeta hopes Finnick has had more luck than he has when it comes to obtaining information.
"Katniss is safe?" the older man questions, a seed of worry evident in his gaze.
"She is," Peeta agrees. "As is her sister."
Finnick nods, shooting the younger man a grim smile. "I figured you made arrangements for them both. Haymitch is safe as well. Madame Trinket went to the county jail the very next morning with a sack full of cash."
"And Cinna?" he asks, swallowing thickly against the bile that rises in his throat at memory of that horrible night. He still has nightmares though it was weeks ago, nightmares that have only gotten worse now that Katniss is not within arm's reach.
"His body is with his family in Louisiana," Finnick says, his face somber at the mention of the gentle, Creole man. He coughs, clearing his throat before continuing on in a hushed voice. "I suppose you have been conducting research of your own, trying to understand why all of this has happened."
"I have," Peeta agrees, taking a long draw of his tonic and suddenly wishing he ordered something much stronger. "There is little to be found in the news. I am in much the same place I was all those weeks ago. I know Snow has a personal vendetta to settle with Katniss but I haven't the faintest idea why she has caught his eye. Surely there must have been other women who turned down his offer. Surely there are other singers who would have gladly sang in his show."
Finnick nods slowly as he listens, adding a soft hum of approval here and there.
"The only thing I have even gleaned from the papers aside from who is marrying who amongst the upper class," Peeta rolls his eyes in irritation before continuing, "is that there is a growing unrest amongst the working lower class."
Finnick holds up a finger and points it at the younger man's chest, "That. That there is the key."
He frowns, deep creases marring his brow. "What do you mean? What do the factory workers have to do with Katniss?"
"It's not so much the workers as what has inspired them to stand up now," Finnick reasons. "Why now, after all this time, have men decided that enough is enough? Things have hardly changed over the last decade. Things have always been awful for the working class; that is no different from before. People are talking – even the workers down on the docks.
"The Girl on Fire enchanted everyone who heard her sing, Peeta. People remembered her name once they left The Hob. People noticed her when she mingled amongst the crowd after shows. It started out as a whispered rumor that Katniss turned down Snow's offer to sing for him. But when he continued to send his men to proposition her, the story became real and it spread like wildfire.
"Don't you see, Peeta? She's our very own David and Goliath. This poor, skinny, little Seam girl stood up to a monster with a hold over the entire city. If she can refuse Snow and survive, why can't anybody?
"The unions have been suppressing strikes among the workers for ages because the union leaders all support Snow. Snow has his hands in the back pockets of the factory owners so it wouldn't be beneficial for the workers to strike and shut down production for weeks at a time. Not to mention the more the workers get paid, the less he's able to skim off the top."
"That's a complicated mess of power," Peeta mumbles more to himself than to the man sitting across from him but Finnick nods anyway, his eyes gleaming in the dim restaurant.
"Unwittingly, Katniss has become a symbol of hope for the people of this city. If she can dictate her own future, why shouldn't they? Snow recognizes this change and surely he's heard the stories of the Girl on Fire as well.
"My guess is that he wants to extinguish the spark before it turns into a full fledged fire." The bronze-haired man gulps down the last of his whiskey.
Peeta's mind is reeling. It makes some sense no matter how improbable it might seem. Snow makes a living off of people's fear. If the story of Katniss's refusal has truly begun to spread throughout the city, it would be imperative for the mobster to stomp out the source of the flame before a rebellion can begin.
"So this has nothing to do with Marvel?" Peeta questions dumbly. Honestly, his first instinct was that this all stemmed from the henchman's death.
"I wouldn't say nothing,'" Finnick says, swirling the ice in the bottom of his glass. "Turns out some of the guys working down on the docks knew Marvel. He was Snow's nephew – his sister's only son, as a matter of fact. So it probably has something to do with Snow's vengeance."
"Jesus," Peeta mutters, rubbing a hand over his face as he tries to grasp everything that Finnick is saying. "How did this all turn into such a mess? Katniss never meant for any of this to happen."
"She is a pretty girl with a sharp mind and a strong spirit," Finnick reasons. "People are drawn to her."
"What are we going to do, though?" Peeta questions, dread welling up inside of him like a cresting wave waiting to drown him. "How do we fix this?"
Finnick shrugs. "I haven't figured that part out myself. It's all a bit much to believe when you first hear it."
The younger man snorts, running a trembling hand over the back of his neck as he tries to see the way out of this mess. He waves over the waiter, ordering another round of drinks – this time a whiskey for himself. Peeta looses himself in thought until the waiter returns and silently sets their drinks before them.
"How do you put out a fire that's already running rampant?" Peeta questions rhetorically. "How do you stop a rebellion already put into motion?"
Finnick lifts his glass towards the other man. "That, my friend, is the question we need to answer."
AN: Thank you again for sticking with this story. Please feel free to let me know what you thought of the chapter. I adore hearing from you! Also, if you are so inclined, you can follow me on tumblr at : .com.