Chapter Fourteen: Appetites and Awakenings

Sometimes she would find herself lulled by his steady breathing,
the warmth of his coat and the gentle musky smell of bear.
She would drift into sleep and dream of a prince, young and handsome.
~ East of the Sun, West of the Moon, retold by Jackie Morris

I slept but my heart was awake.
Listen! My beloved is knocking…
~Song of Solomon 5:2a (NIV)

I wake as I always have since coming to this house: alone in my enormous bed, curled on my side, tucked snugly beneath soft sheets and thick furs, and though I sigh a little at the realization, I'm not surprised, nor even especially disappointed. This burrow of dark wood and deerskin is my bed and I belong in it. At some point in the night Peeta brought me up here and tucked me in, no doubt thinking of my comfort. Surely if we'd slept all night in front of the living room fire, even with an abundance of pillows and fur coverlets – and, I recall with a bright flush across the apples of my cheeks, the heat and cushion of each other's body – we'd wake with stiff backs and crooks in our necks. Always-considerate Peeta wanted me to wake in comfort; he might even have waited to bring me here till he got up to start the morning's baking. To be sure, my body remembers the sweet warmth of his body between the furs as though it was taken away only a moment ago.

I perk up a little at the thought. The sky outside my window is catkin-silver; it's still relatively early, and Peeta might very well have put me in bed simply because he needed to get up and didn't want to leave me alone in our nest of fire-warmed furs.

There's a hushed scraping sound from outside my window – a shovel cutting through snow – and I smile slowly. Maybe Peeta simply needed his bearskin and gently relocated the fox kit who was sleeping on it.

My smile sprawls wide and I bury my face deep in deerskin with an elated little giggle.

I love him. I love him. I love him.

I remind myself firmly, much like a scolding parent who isn't actually upset in the least with their errant child, that I absolutely can't continue to think, let alone act, like this. Peeta will catch on eventually – with his keen mind, sooner rather than later – and then all the horrors I've imagined, as well as countless others that I haven't, will ensue, crumbling to pieces this bliss I've come to savor; even devour, like steaming spoonfuls of ginger cake soaked with custard.

It's utterly imperative that I stop grinning like an idiot at the merest thought of Peeta Mellark. If I have any sense remaining, I'll go back to sleep for another hour or two and meet him downstairs for breakfast like every other morning.

I throw back the covers and sit up, bright-eyed and eager as a fledgling.

I glance briefly at my companion's side of the bed, curious whether he slept here without me and enjoyed the sweets I left for him, and catch my breath at the sight of his pillow – the rabbit-skin one I made for him and sealed with a sweetheart ribbon on New Year's night. At its center sits the perfect bird's nest I found on New Year's Eve and presented with a cargo of golden honey-eggs, but this morning it holds a sleek black tail feather, iridescent even in the low light from the fire. A blackbird's feather, likelier than not, though it could just as easily have come from a mockingjay. After all, my companion has proven himself beloved of the woods and in possession of its rarest and loveliest treasures.

Don't get your hopes up, I warned him. I think this one is just a common blackbird.

A black bird she is indeed, he agreed. I've never seen her like, let alone so close, but I think she might be a mockingjay.

My breath stills in a gasp as one last shred of reason adamantly insists that what I'm imagining is complete and utter madness. I know beyond all doubt that Peeta is not my night companion and the absolute proof of it lies in the absence of my red ribbon yesterday. When I gave him the antlers he put on the ribbon I'd tied around them almost immediately, and that wasn't even a proper New Year's ribbon. If he'd received any such token from me on the holiday itself he would have been wearing it tied round his sleeve at breakfast yesterday, sweetheart or no.

Oh, why didn't I give him a proper ribbon on New Year's? Why didn't I tie one around that stupid rabbit-skin muffler like I did with my companion's pillow? Peeta might even have tied it on right there at the fireside, for me to touch and maybe even press with a quick, shy kiss.

Why, oh why didn't I claim a sweetheart's kiss for myself?

I envision Peeta bending to brush his soft, sweet mouth against mine and am certain my heart cracks open with grief.

I focus stubbornly on the black feather in its nest and recall my idea of using the little twig-bowl as a place to leave future treats for my companion. I did nothing to communicate this to him, save for presenting the nest on New Year's Eve with a festive cargo of honey-buttons, but he must share that intention because he's left a present there himself; another treasure, no less precious than the ribbon-wrapped orange and the vibrant wintergreen sprig.

I reach across to his pillow – it feels daring; forbidden, almost, to touch his side of our bed while I'm still in my own – and take the silky feather between my fingers, drawing it to my face for a closer look. It's exactly the sort of present my mysterious woods-beloved companion – not Peeta – would give me.

Scooting out of bed, I press a kiss to the feather and tuck it away in my drawer of precious things alongside the wintergreen sprig and the orange, which I decide to split with my companion tonight, peel and all. Perhaps my visitor is a bird himself, I think, a little madly, wooed by my newfound gentleness in the woods, and the feather is his own. Oranges are very precious, of course, but many birds love fruit, peels and rinds and all, and I resolve to ask Peeta if he's found one that prefers oranges yet. There's no doubt in my mind that he's tried it already.

"We'd make a fine pair," I tell my absent companion as I collect the nest from his pillow and carry it to my dresser-top to await this evening's treat. "Two lonely blackbirds sharing an orange and a nest."

I chuckle at the thought. I'm not truly lonely, of course, not living here with Peeta and Pollux and Lavinia, not to mention little Rye and the chipmunk and all the birds drawn in by Peeta's gentleness and generosity, but it makes a ridiculous amount of sense for my companion to be a wild creature himself, and a bird could find his way to my bed much easier than a lumbering white bear, and with a wintergreen sprig in his beak besides.

I wonder if my bird-companion has lost his sweetheart too. My father told me stories of birds devoting themselves to stone sculptures, a pretty pleasure-boat with a swan-shaped prow, and even a school of minnows, bringing seeds and insects to the water's edge out of confusion, misguided love, or grief.

"Perhaps we could feather this nest together," I muse, only half-joking, as I trace the edge of the twig-bowl with a fingertip. "I'll never be with my sweetheart either. We could fill this nest with speckled pebbles, and maybe if we kept it warm enough, little black and gold nestlings would hatch out, with voices like starlight."

Don't be silly, Katniss, echoes a chiding voice in my mind. It would take the heat of the sun itself to hatch anything from pebbles, speckled or otherwise.

I turn away from the dresser with a weak laugh. Lavinia's laid out clothes for me already and I have a hand on the sweater when I become aware of the snow-shoveling sounds once more and go to the window instead, peering down in search of the source. In the dim light I can just make out a bulky white blue-capped form on the edge of the garden, shovel in hand, scooping and hefting heaps of something even whiter. Peeta's cutting a snow path, but not a really necessary one – to the woodpile, the stable, or even the garden bench. He's shoveling the path to the woods: the path I take most often on my hunting trips.

The path no one but me really needs.

I love him.

I run headlong down the stairs in my festive New Year's nightgown, pausing just long enough to clamber barefoot into my fleece-lined boots, though not to tie more than a quick, cursory bow with the laces, and barrel outside, sprinting through the fresh snow like a hare. I don't slow down as I approach and provoke a muffled, satisfying "Oof!" as I broadside Peeta and topple us both into the snow.

We crumple together in a breathless heap of white fur and beribboned black braids, chickadee-patterned flannel and soft corduroy trousers and heavy, snow-packed boots. For an eternity of moments all I want to do is luxuriate in a faceful of frosty bearskin, a radiant cloud of boy-musk and a mouthwatering whiff of yeast, but I push through the bliss, determined, and scramble up to pin my quarry with eager little paws on either brawny shoulder and fierce strong thighs splayed bare across the fur to trap his powerful lower body.


Yours, little songbird, answers an exquisite wisp of a fireside dream. Always and entirely yours.

I gaze down at a wide-eyed mismatch of outerwear: a jaunty crested stocking cap patterned to resemble a blue jay's plumage, with two fat yellow curls peeping out on one side; a luminous coat of thick white fur, such as a prince would wear in a winter tale – and a rabbit-skin muffler, sewn by a wild huntress, wrapped snugly around everything from nose bridge down to collarbones. What lies beneath me might barely be human but for a pair of wheat-pale eyebrows and two over-bright blue eyes, lashed about with golden winter grasses.

My mouthless quarry gasps beneath me – from startlement, surely; my weight is hardly sufficient to put any sort of pressure on his precious lungs – and I pounce, covering everything I can reach with merry kit-kisses and blissful beak-nuzzles. A blue-crested forehead and black-strapped cheeks; a lush, silky expanse of panting gray-brown rabbit fur and dense goose down, concealing a hundred delights – then, impatient and ravenous, I tug down the fur barrier with greedy paws and kiss nose, cheeks, and chin, all flushed and warm and delicious with both boy-musk and rabbit-musk, and even duck my head to nuzzle eagerly at his throat and the tender underside of his jaw.

Silky black ropes woven and wound with scarlet fall in my face and I toss them out of the way. So much to kiss, I think giddily, even with lips forbidden me, and at a thought I scoot back up to rub my nose and cheekbone against that soft, sweet mouth, back and forth again. A kit's kiss, followed by a daring vixen's: a firm, fierce poke of pursed lips in the shallow indent at one corner of his mouth.

I grin down at my gaping sweetheart and do it all over again, this time in gosling-fashion, with quick happy beak-pecks everywhere, finishing with a giddy patter of peep-like kisses deposited squarely on the end of his nose before sitting up and triumphantly regarding my prize.

Mine. Mine. Mine.

Always, always, always.

"Greedy gosling," Peeta whispers, and his voice is thinner than a shadow. His eyes are dazed and dreamlike, and for a moment I wonder whether either of us is actually awake or even really here – but yes, the air is sharp and pure as ice against my face and my thighs are peppered with goosebumps on the sides not bolstered by bearskin, and the world is a gasping, blue-eyed cloud of flushed pink skin and sweet boy-musk and downy milkweed lashes.

"Greedy gosling," he tries again; a little stronger, but only just. "What are you doing out of your nest? I-I haven't even started your breakfast yet."

"I don't want breakfast," I inform him. "Not yet. I just want you."

His eyes go, somehow, wider still. "Well," he says, a little hoarsely, "here I am."

Something crackles and flares in my heart; a fresh pine branch igniting with the love already kindled there and adding to the radiant heat of its glow.

Peeta spreads his arms in a gesture of surrender – I'm still pinning his torso firmly but he could throw me off with very little effort – and asks softly, "Now that you've got me, what are you going to do with me?"

I consider this quite seriously for a moment. I want to wrap him up in my fox fur coverlet beside the living room fire and kiss the chill from his nose and cheeks. I want to take his hand and lead him upstairs to my den of deerskin and down, where we'll burrow together like newborn mousekins, all soft bare skin and eyes closed tightly. I want to sit in his lap, legs knotted around his waist, and toy with his curls, giggling as my small fingers make them bounce and spring back toward his scalp, and finally kiss him squarely on the mouth, right when he least expects it.

I want to roll up his trousers – or better yet, remove them completely – and spend the day lavishing love on what remains of his poor right leg with gentle fingertips and careful, lingering kisses. That much wasn't a dream – the blunt, smooth knob of bone and warm tender skin nestling like a determined, oversized fledgling in the curve of my palm – and I remember all too well Peeta's heartbreaking words about returning home damaged, unworthy of his sweetheart's hand.

A cripple and a laughingstock. Weak. Maimed. Haunted by living nightmares.

I remember equally well the moment that led to that grief: the glossy wolverine, compact and snarling; his fanged maw closing around Peeta's powerful calf and wrenching viciously. Wolverines have an angled back tooth to help them effectively tear flesh; they explained this – showed this – in the recap and I left the room, crying so hard that I threw up what little was in my stomach.

"I'm going to put you somewhere you can't get hurt," I blurt.

Peeta ventures a small smile and gently brushes a gloved hand against my shivering leg where it brackets his hip. "You've found it, I think," he murmurs. "I can't imagine a safer shelter than beneath my songbird's wings. But maybe we could move it someplace a little warmer?"

I cock my head at him, reluctant to relocate, despite the cold. I like this perch; like my boy safe and snug between my thighs. "What did you have in mind?" I wonder, and Peeta reaches shyly between us to unhook the fastenings on his bearskin.

"Ah," I reply, echoing his smile, and shift a little, scooting back onto his thighs so he can reach all the clasps. Beneath the fur he's still half in his pajamas, with a gray thermal undershirt above his corduroys. "You're hardly outfitted for the weather yourself," I chide lightly, brushing a hand over his ribs, then I tuck in my legs for a moment to let the bearskin fall open and scurry back up to blanket him with my small body.

"Oh, little vixen," he sighs, curling his arms around me and enveloping us both in a dense cocoon of warm white plushness. "How does this suit you?"

"Very well indeed," I reply, burrowing deeply into the crooks and hollows of his body, and press my face into the curve of his neck with a happy whuff of breath. "It's a good day's hunt when straight out of the den you bag a plump, unwitting gander."

Peeta makes a small disgruntled sound; the audible equivalent of a scowl. "Did you just call me 'fat,' Katniss?" he wonders, and I giggle against his throat.

"Well, it sounds ridiculous to describe a gander as 'strong and stocky,' " I reply, leaning up to meet his eyes with a grin. "Did you just admit to being captured unawares by a hungry little vixen?"

"Captured, always," he murmurs, snugging his arms across my back so the bearskin won't fall open behind me, "but unawares, only once. And anyway, I thought you weren't hungry," he says softly.

"Not for breakfast," I tell him, glinting down mischief, and lick my lips. "But foxes love geese, and lonely ganders best of all."

Peeta catches his breath, a quick jerk of his chest against mine. "Do they, now?" he whispers.

"It's a well-known fact," I reply merrily, and dip my face in a playful mock-nip at his throat, making him gasp. "We vixens are small but mighty and our appetites are legendary. You're a goner, lonely gander," I inform him, brushing the tip of my nose against his in a gentle sort of sniff-nuzzle.

"I've known that much for a while," he says, and his voice is more husky than playful. "Do you mean to gobble me up, greedy vixen?"

"Only a little," I answer. His strange somberness is puzzling but hardly off-putting, not when I'm so deeply entrenched in the game. "It's going to be a long winter, and you're a feast of a catch," I explain. "I think I'll tuck you away in the pantry and nibble at you at intervals."

"You'd best start with my beak, then," he advises, and the playfulness is back in his voice but there's something else beneath it now, something tugging and heated in both his voice and his eyes that makes my belly clench. "A lonely gander in the larder promises no end of complaining," he warns softly, "and I might nip at you when you stop by for a bite."

I trace his "beak" with a fingertip, sweeping down the bridge of his nose, around its fleshy base and the oval of his mouth, then sweeping up again on the opposite side. "Can't do it," I tell him cheerfully. "I quite like your beak, I'm afraid, so I think I'll save that for last. I like the idea of you honking away at me till there's nothing left of you but a beak," I tease, "and maybe regular nips are just what I need."

You're writing new tales, catkin, murmurs my father's voice in my mind, rich with amusement. The vixen who caught a gander and kept him through the winter – easier to take a bite whenever she grew hungry than to carve him up and store him for the season – and instead she fell in love with his honks and hisses and frightened toothy nips.

"I could manage that," Peeta concedes, to my surprise, "if you'd be so kind as to lie on the floor once you've eaten everything but my beak, so I can still find and nip you without eyes."

"There's no need for that," I assure him. "You can trawl along the floor and nip at my toes like a minnow."

He grins at the thought. "I could nip at your toes now, if you'd like," he says impishly, waggling his brows. "Ganders are especially fond of dusky little vixen-toes, you know, and lonely ganders fondest of all."

I catch my breath in a strange sort of anticipation, a cross between what you feel before tickling fingers descend and a stab of something hot and fierce, like I felt when Peeta briefly sucked on my fingertips beside the fire on New Year's Day. I envision us in bed together and his curly golden head disappearing beneath the covers in search of dusky toes to nip, and suddenly I can't breathe at all.

Peeta must catch on to my discomfort because his air of mischief fades immediately, supplanted by a faint rosy blush. "Or I could do no such thing," he adds quickly. "I could make you a winter's worth of delicious goose-free meals so there would be no need to concern ourselves with nipping each other to death – or a beak."

He mentions the beak almost hopefully, making me suspect that he's as fond of our game as I am and equally reluctant to see it end. I pretend to give his proposal thorough consideration but "It's no good," I tell him at last. "I mean, it's a good try, but this vixen needs her winter gander in the pantry. After all, geese supply down as well as meat and bone and I'm such a very small fox. I want a coat of gander-down to keep out the cold."

"Well, I suppose you could harvest a pinch whenever you come by for your daily nip," Peeta suggests equably.

That's good, my father says in my mind. The gander is crafty; bargaining for his life. It'll take far more than a winter's worth of down pinches to make a coat for even the smallest fox, and he'll come up with more shrewd delays as the season wears on. "The down must mature a good six months or it will shrivel when plucked" or "Surely it would be better to let the down grow evenly and harvest it all at once."

And the twist comes in spring, he adds, when you learn that the lonely gander deliberately allowed himself to be captured because he loves the little vixen with all his heart and would rather be eaten by her than live without her.

That's wrong, Dad, I retort silently, not to mention ridiculous. The vixen wanted the gander for food and down and so she tracked him and trapped him. He was clumsy and amiable – and yes, silver-tongued when it came to bargaining – and the vixen, who was lonely too, fell hopelessly in love with her quarry, in opposition to every last screaming fiber of her being, and as the winter wore on she made her own delays for neither eating him nor plucking his fine coat. When spring's thaw ensued she despaired, for she must make good on her promise and eat the gander, but how could she devour her beloved?

Little Katniss, Granny Ashpet's voice chimes in, as always, you overlook the obvious. The gander and the vixen love each other and always have, ever since he was a round downy gosling and she a shy and scrawny kit, peering out from the shadows beneath her father's foreleg. She didn't hunt him as a meal but as a mate and he willingly gave himself up to his carnivorous sweetheart, content to be eaten if that was all she could offer him. That winter was for wooing, for wild courtship gifts and shy careful preens and nesting, and the spring that followed was for kits and chicks.

"Goslings," I correct my grandmother out loud, exasperated. "And exactly what sort of mutt-offspring would that union yield? Live-born goslings with silky fur instead of feathers? Downy kits that hatch from eggs?"

"Katniss," interjects Peeta's voice quietly, "what are you talking about?"

I shake my head to clear it and peer down at my boy, whose eyes are soft and bright with something like fascination – no, wonder – and I realize what I just said…and the implications thereof. "A folktale!" I blurt, frantically and a little too loud. "The oldest ones always had people marrying animals and different animal species marrying each other like it was the most natural thing in the world, and somehow they always had babies. Dad told me a few tales like that but I never understood how – things – were supposed to work. How…"

I trail off, hot and mortified beneath Peeta's gaze. He nodded in understanding when I mentioned the folktale but that strange, bright softness still illumines his eyes. "H-How a gander and a vixen could marry," I fumble out. "I was thinking about a tale where that happens –" I neatly sidestep the fact that it was a brand-new tale that I just invented in my head with the help of my dead father and grandmother – "a-and trying to figure out what sort of young they would have."

"Kitlings," he says suddenly. "Downy kits that hatch from eggs."

I frown, thoroughly nonplussed by this response, and he goes on, "Or goslits – your live-born goslings with silky fur instead of feathers. The gander could feed the goslits plants and things and the vixen could nurse the kitlings. They…they could share protective duties," he says, coloring fiercely beneath my gaze, "a-and teaching the babies how to swim and hunt, but…it could work, Katniss," he concludes in a small, soft voice. "It sounds kind of perfect, actually."

I envision myself naked in a broad nest of fur with an armful of downy, freshly hatched kitlings yipping for milk and a lapful of silky newborn goslits peeping for katniss – for tender stalks and leaves and blossoms, maybe a small tuber or two – and have to bite down on my lip to hold back a keening cry. "It does," I whisper. "It sounds so nice."

Peeta steals a hand from my waist to brush my cheek. "We could write that story," he murmurs, and blushes darker still. "I-I mean," he amends quickly, "we both love old tales and I like to draw and paint. We could make a storybook of your folktale for our – for the future," he says.

My mouth drops open, as much in captivation as surprise. Books – books not printed, approved, and issued by the Capitol – are rarer than gold. It wasn't always so, I'm told, but in this day and age if anyone owns a book that didn't originate in the Capitol, likelier than not it's handwritten and hand-bound and precious beyond price, like my family's plant book. Hundreds of years ago, my father said – in much the same manner as he talked about princes and fairies and castles – beautifully illustrated books were common and, impossible as it is to believe now, both accessible and inexpensive. Even a child as poor as I was would have a generous handful of picture-books; secondhand and tattered, perhaps, but all their own nonetheless. Our imaginations took the place of such illustrations, of course, but I always wished that there could have been a picture of my grandmother's cinder-lass namesake in her pretty red dress and matching dance-slippers or my father's wily, winsome, lucky namesake, merry and dashing in his magic boots with a mourning dove on his shoulder and a pail overflowing with gold at his feet.

"That would be wonderful," I whisper, ignoring for the moment that in order for this to happen, I have to decide how the tale goes and tell it to Peeta, all the while pretending that it's an ancient story that has nothing whatsoever to do with me or my feelings for him. "But it would be so much work –"

"There are few things I would rather devote my time to than drawing pictures for you, Katniss," he interrupts, his color still high, "and I would love to make you a picture-book – if that isn't too childish, of course," he adds with a wince. "We had a little handful of picture-books that earlier generations of Mellarks wrote and illustrated and we pored over them every night at bedtime, stroking the handwritten pages and tracing the colorful paintings, drinking in every last little detail. They'll end up being Marko's, for his kids," he explains, his voice brimming with apology, "or I would have brought them out here to share with you."

My heart cracks painfully, both at Peeta's regret and his impulse to share such a precious heirloom with me. I resolve to show him the plant book at the earliest opportunity; to press it into his big hands and see if he can help me find the stories hidden in its pages. "You're too sweet," I murmur, reaching a hand to his temple where the two curls are peeping out, "but it's okay, really. My family didn't have any picture-books, so it's not like I'm missing them now."

"None at all?" he wonders with the same sort of dismayed disbelief as when I told him I'd never tasted lemon before, and when I shake my head his face falls as though I just told him someone died. "That's terrible, Katniss," he says in a hushed, stricken voice. "I'll make you a whole shelf full of books about vixens and redcapped songbirds and greedy goslings," he resolves in an eager rush of breath. "And beautiful princesses with long black braids too."

I shake my head, blushing for reasons I don't quite understand. "But that would take a lifetime!" I protest.

"We have a lifetime ahead of us," he reminds me gently. "And I can't imagine a better way to spend my share than making beautiful things for you and your children."

Something hot and sharp splinters in my heart. "No children," I tell him in a whisper because there won't be, ever, not with Peeta married to his Seam sweetheart and filling her womb with little black and gold nestlings at every turn. "Y-You'd be better off making presents for your kids," I suggest weakly and turn my face with a stifled whimper to avoid those heartbreaking, beloved eyes.

"Katniss," he says softly, bringing a hand to my averted cheek, but he doesn't turn my face to meet his gaze. "The gifts are yours," he murmurs, "the whole lifetime's worth, regardless of whether or not you ever have kids. And let me assure you –" He sits up beneath me, just enough to rest his cheek against mine, and whispers, "The only children that will ever fill this house will be your own."

My breath catches and now I do I turn toward him, but he's so close that I only manage to drive my cheek firmly against his. "That's madness, Peeta," I whisper back. "You were born to be a father, to –" But I can't manage more than that because I want, more than anything else in all the world, the future that dances on the edges of his words. Black-haired goslits and honey-curled kitlings, a shelf full of picture-books illustrated by Peeta's skillful hands and this gentle, perfect boy as my husband; cooking my meals, cutting my snow-paths, sharing my bed…

I resolve here and now to do everything in my power, however crude and clumsy, to make his life as rich and sweet as he does mine.

"Let me make you breakfast," I offer in a rush; the first thing to come to mind. "I'm nowhere near as good a cook as you, obviously, but I can make squirrel guts tasty enough that Prim will gobble them up without hesitation – not that I'll be making you squirrel guts, of course, but –"

He lays back in the snow, flushed and twinkling, and grins up at me. "I've missed a good squirrel in the pot," he teases, "but a fried egg or two wouldn't go amiss either."

"I can make fried eggs," I answer eagerly. "Soft, hard, somewhere in-between–?"

"Surprise me," he replies, only to immediately hedge, "I mean – if you want to. I'm almost done here, really, and I was going to –"

"I want to make you breakfast," I tell him firmly. "I want to make you lunch and supper too, and all kinds of little snacks and treats and hot drinks. I want to take care of you so badly –"

"Why?" he wonders, all wide innocent eyes, but there's a tiny impish smile tugging at the corners of his mouth and I know he knows the answer – the one I gave him last night. He just, for some strange reason, wants to hear it again, and I have no aversion to telling him.

"Because you're the most precious thing in the world to me, Peeta Mellark," I reply smartly and flick his nose with the tip of my tongue. "Now finish cutting my snow-path, lazy gander, so I can go a-hunting and bring you home a nice fat squirrel."

I try to stand with aplomb but his arms – and the bearskin – are still wrapped around me and I manage to push up a scant inch or two before falling smack-down on top of him again. "I like this plan exceedingly," he informs me; a warm, moist nuzzle against my ear that makes me shudder and ache deep in my belly. "I'm just not altogether ready to let go of you, little vixen. It's not often that a gander gets the upper hand – er, wing – in a situation like this and I'm afraid if I let you go you might try to gobble me up or, worse yet, run away and leave me all alone."

There's a startlingly plaintive note in these words and I lean against him, rubbing my cheek against his mouth in a kit-like, reassuring fashion. "I'm not a turkey, silly gander," I remind him, "though I can't promise there won't be any gobbling ever, and anyway, where would I go? You are my home."

I lean back just a whisper to meet his eyes and this time it's a serious exchange. Silly as we may be in our banter of ganders and vixens, my dedication to this boy is absolute, and the resulting catch in his breath implies that he understands this, maybe for the first time ever. "I'll do everything I can to be worthy of that," he whispers. "To be worthy of you," and I shush him with my forehead pressed to his.

"Everything about you is better than any part of me could ever hope to be," I murmur. "I'm just a strange wild creature of feather, fur, and bone; no more special than any bird or beast in these woods, but I care so much about you. Please let me make you breakfast."

He gives a broken little chuckle and tips his head so our noses brush. "Every creature in these woods is precious, Katniss," he replies, "every last bird and beast, and you are their very queen. I would be delighted – nay, humbled beyond measure – to eat a meal you prepared."

It's just pretty lies, of course, more sweet honeyed nonsense spilling effortlessly from Peeta's golden tongue, but my heart sighs in response nonetheless. "Well then," I murmur, brushing his nose in turn, "you should probably let me go."

Peeta presses his lips together, narrows his eyes, and makes a sound in his throat that resembles nothing so much as a whine: the painful, wrenching sort made by a hungry, injured, or abandoned animal. "I don't want to," he whispers, and there's nothing silly or teasing or playful about it. "I-I mean: I want both things," he clarifies with a thin smile, as though trying to cover up the vulnerability in his previous statement. "I want breakfast – breakfast made by you – and I need to finish cutting the snow-paths, but…I want so badly to keep holding you," he concludes in a small, sheepish voice.

I swallow back half a dozen sounds of pleasure – a sigh, a moan, a whimper, a giddy little laugh – and chase a cheeky smile onto my face. "Well," I suggest delicately, "I can easily make breakfast while you finish the snow-paths, then you can come in and we can eat together, maybe on the sofa, and if you wanted to you – maybe you – could…could hold me then."

I don't know how I get the words out without blushing or dissolving into a fit of euphoric giggles. This can't be real; none of it. Peeta Mellark is holding me like a lover and wants to continue doing so, even at the cost of his breakfast, and I'm gleefully coming up with ways to make that happen.

"I was hoping you would say something like that," he confesses, and now the sheepishness is in his smile. "But I really want my present too, which means I need to let you work this morning…"

My brows fly upward in mock-affront and I sit up sharply. Peeta's hold around me loosens but doesn't break and his arms slide down my back to encircle my hips, anchoring me snugly over his pelvis. "First of all," I declare, as frightfully as I can manage, "how dare you assume that it's your decision whether I snuggle with you or stretch a deerskin."

Peeta's eyes gape in genuine horror and I consider reassuring him with a flicker of a smile, but not quite yet. "Secondly," I forge on, every bit as sternly, "I'm appalled that you persist in assuming that this deerskin of mine is meant for you in some way."

"I'm sorry," he whispers, mortified and contrite. "I-I thought maybe, since you wouldn't let me help or even be out there –"

"And thirdly," I thunder on, "I managed to sew and stuff a rabbit-skin muffler and a pillow without your knowledge, without shirking any of my huntress duties or, as far as you were concerned, altering my schedule in any way. Do you really think –?" The smile breaks through then, spiraling irrepressibly from the corners of my mouth. "Do you really think," I say, "that I can't manage to work a deerskin and cook a meal and still find all the time in the world to be with you?"

Peeta sighs, a deep sinking moan of relief. "I'll concede that," he replies, mirthful but ragged, as though he can't quite believe that I'm not really upset with him. "But we weren't snuggling back then," he points out, "and snuggling with a wild creature is a serious business, not to be taken lightly or for granted."

"Is that so?" I wonder teasingly, cocking my head at him in inquisitive-bird-fashion.

"You never know when – or if – it will happen again," he says, and it's another naked confession, like his refusal to let me go. "All that sweet soft fur and bright eyes and nuzzling – so much nuzzling," he moans, closing his eyes for a moment. "And I know that's the nature of lo– of befriending a wild thing: learning patience and earning trust; never pursuing, no matter how badly you want to, but always waiting for her to come to you, but…there's a vixen on top of me," he breathes, opening his eyes once more. "The very queen of these wild woods, who left her snug warm den to find me; to topple me in the snow and nuzzle me to bits. I don't think I can bear it if that never happens again," he confesses in a whisper. "I know it's a terrible thing, holding onto an animal that's trying to get away, but –"

I need him to stop talking. If he says another word my heart will literally fly out my mouth and hit him in the face, a damp and downy redbird with only one song to sing, and she'll trill it over and over and over again, damning me and destroying this – this wonderful, breathless, magical thing between me and Peeta that feels so good, so impossibly good that it almost hurts – forever. So I do the only thing I can think of.

I kiss him squarely on the mouth, right when he least expects it.

I realize it's a terrible idea as it's happening – the worst idea I've ever had; maybe the worst idea anyone's ever had in all the world – but it's too late; far too late to stop. Before Peeta can begin to guess what I'm doing I plunge my head down like a heron seeking a fat perch and press my mouth firmly over his, driving his blue-crested head back into the snow.

It's an awful kiss, even worse than my first attempt. Everything about it is wrong. Peeta's rigid beneath me – horrified, I would imagine, if not terrified – not yielding and warm, and my mouth is hard and beastlike; a vixen's gruff chiding kiss to her errant kit. His lips, still moving with words when mine crashed down, are tight and frozen, like the door of the shack after an ice storm, and I want to burst into tears.

Of course he doesn't want my kiss. He doesn't want me at all.

Katniss, what have you done?

I've kissed – am still kissing – Peeta Mellark, without reason or ribbon. I only did it to shut him up, to stop him saying more tender, beautiful things that would make me blurt out my love, but surely by kissing him I've done just that.

It's over now, all of it. Rabbit skins and deerskins and falling asleep in each other's arms amid furs and firelight. Oranges and ribbons and the promise of a whole crate of lemons. Goslits and kitlings and a shelf full of priceless hand-painted storybooks.

I sit up, gasping air back into my lungs to apologize one last time.

Peeta gazes up at me with wide eyes, the pupils so huge and dark that the bright blue barely makes a thumbnail moon around them, and he's panting a little too; quick, shallow puffs of frost leave his lips as his chest jerks beneath me. He's about to tell me to go, I know it; to take my father's coat and my hunting boots and start trekking back to town, and if I can just find my tongue before he finds his I won't have to hear him say it.

"What was that for?" he whispers, and just like that, I'm transported back to my bird dream. To a drab little brown-black bird rubbing her tiny head against the bare chest of a gentle blond boy, right over his heart.

Somehow, impossibly, he's not angry with me. Stunned and perplexed, yes – of course; naturally, how else could he feel in response to such a wildly unexpected act? – but not angry.

Maybe it doesn't count as a real kiss if it comes from a wild creature.

In other circumstances this would be a heartbreaking thought but right now it's the sweetest to ever cross my mind. Instinct kicks in swift and keen and I bring a hand to the neckline of my nightgown, twining the loops of its red ribbon-tie around my fingers. "I missed one," I tell him with unfeigned shyness. "One more ribbon means one more kiss, right?"

Peeta's face lights up like the dawn, or maybe it's literally the dawn itself – the sun rising through the woods just beyond us and shimmering over the fresh snow, all pink and gold – spilling across his sweet face. "I thought maybe you didn't notice," he says with equal shyness, raising a hand to brush the ribbon at my throat. "Or…or maybe it didn't count."

"Didn't notice?" I echo, not bothering to hide the aghast note in my voice. "What sort of huntress do you take me for, to overlook something so vibrant and precious?"

Sweetheart ribbons are bright as winter berries and even more precious to receive, but of course I don't tell Peeta that. If I understand his reasoning correctly, I can have as many kisses as he's given me red ribbons, whether I received them at New Year's or not.

I like this game very much.

"And now I think of it," I go on merrily – no, greedily, and shamelessly so, like a cat spying an unattended bowl filled to its brim with fresh cream or maybe a vixen with an oblivious, tender young chicken in her sights – "you tied a ribbon around my New Year's jar of applesauce."

I dip my head with a grin, eager to dispense another kiss, but Peeta stops me with a hand at my shoulder. "Actually," he croaks, "I-I was hoping I could save that kiss for a little while."

Far from being dismayed, I laugh aloud. "You can't save up New Year's kisses, silly beak," I tease, tapping his beloved mouth with a fingertip. "They'll go bad before summer; everyone knows that."

"I wasn't thinking so long as that," he replies. "I, um…it's my birthday in a couple of months and –" He breaks off, blushing hot and fierce. "I-I thought…I might like to have a kiss then," he concludes in a very small voice.

"Oh," I breathe, my mind filling with the image of Peeta sitting alone at his kitchen table with a pretty little birthday cake and no one to share it with him but his beloved garden birds.

Of course, his sweetheart won't be giving him anything for his birthday, let alone a precious kiss, and I'd hazard a guess he didn't get many birthday kisses as a child either.

My poor sweet boy.

I have no idea when Peeta's birthday is – March, perhaps? – but it would make the perfect occasion to give him the deerskin – along with dozens of other wild presents, of course.

"A birthday kiss is easy enough," I assure him, endeavoring to hide my delight at the prospect. "I'm happy to save one till then. But what about the ribbon you tied around my mug handle last night?" I wonder with a playful, foxy grin. He's not holding me back with any real force, and if he lets his arm slack I can nip down and steal another kiss with ease.

Peeta promptly looks out across the garden, evading my eyes. "I thought…I-I thought maybe I could have two kisses for my birthday," he confesses to the snow, sounding like nothing so much as a sad little boy, at once defeated and hopeful. "If that's excessive or…or greedy, though," he says quickly, looking up at me once more, "we can scrap that second kiss altogether or –"

"Two kisses sounds quite reasonable," I break in, tracing his mouth with a gentle fingertip. He really has no idea, my precious, kiss-starved sweetheart. Come his birthday I'll give him more kisses than he could ever dream of. I'll smother him with kisses, gleeful and giddy, without a single breath of hesitation before any one of them.

"And what about all the little ribbon scraps?" I wonder quietly. "The ones tied around my braids, from your evergreen sprigs last night."

He turns his head just enough to press a small kiss to my fingertip where it lingers against his mouth. "I thought they might be nice before I leave for the Games," he says softly. "Or maybe after I get back."

My heart breaks open at these words. My poor sweet boy, rationing his New Year's kisses like his last loaf of bread; saving them for what will surely be the time of greatest need, of grief and sorrow and fear. The first Games since his own, when he has to go back to the Capitol and try to save the life of one of two doomed kids who might be former classmates, neighbors, even friends.

No matter what happens he'll come home broken, little better than after his own Games.

I'll kiss him so much before he leaves, regardless of ribbons, that he'll barely notice the Reaping, the Capitol, or their terrible Games, and afterward I'll bound to him at the train platform, catch him up in my arms in a cascade of soothing kisses, and carry him home to a nest of silky furs. I'll bathe him in the stone tub, gently scrubbing the grime of Capitol corruption and cruelty from his precious body, then I'll tuck him into my own bed and feed him hearty spoonfuls of rabbit stew and love him with all my might.

But of course, I tell him none of this.

"That's an awfully long time for a kiss to keep," I say instead, lightly. "You'd do just as well to enjoy them now and get a fresh batch when summer comes."

Peeta gazes up at me with hungry, hopeful eyes. "See, I was thinking," he says, a little raggedly, "if we could find a jar with a nice snug lid, maybe I could keep those kisses indefinitely – till I need them, you know? They're just little kisses, after all – half-kisses, even – so if we kept them tucked away, safe and sound –"

I lean down slowly; intently, but slow enough that Peeta could stop me if he wanted to. His breath catches but his hand slacks and slips against my shoulder as I gently, so very, very gently, kiss his mouth: a soft, careful, unhurried press of lips followed by a nuzzle, brushing my mouth across his again and again.

I wonder why I avoided his lips earlier when it feels so nice and good and right to kiss him there. There's an almost magnetic draw between my mouth and his; now that I've found it, it feels impossible to break away from. Like my mouth was crafted for his, to meet and interlock – no, meld together – in an exquisite new whole.

Stolen kisses, my conscience chides harshly in Peeta's mother's voice. You aren't the girl he loves. There'll be a limit to these friendly kisses, mark my words, and your heart will break beyond repair when he finally has to tell you it can't go on.

I pull back just enough to meet Peeta's eyes, which are wide and stunned but not in an unpleasant way. He looks like he's just witnessed something wondrous beyond compare, like a solar eclipse or a doe birthing triplets. "Don't worry, sweet boy," I soothe, brushing the tip of his nose with mine. "You'll still get your birthday kisses and Reaping kisses and post-Games kisses – all the little half-kisses you could ever want. That one was for the ribbon on the spile."

"Come here," he groans, and he pulls me down into his arms, somehow even deeper than before, and hugs me so tightly to him that I'm half-certain he's fused us together. "Can I keep you, Katniss?" he whispers against my cheek, rocking me against him. "Will you stay with me for as long as you live and be my very own vixen, my redcap, my precious little goose?"

"Yes," I promise, answering without teasing or hesitation in a wild flood of bliss. "I'll stay with you forever."

This, I imagine dazedly, is how the tale of the fox and the little prince should have gone. When the moment of departure arrived, the prince would catch up his tamed companion and carry her off with him on endless adventures among the stars – or better still, he'd choose to stay and build a life with her, amidst apple trees and wheat fields and stolen chickens, instead of returning to his lonely planet and his proud, foolish rose.

"Please keep me forever, little prince," I plead, a muffled whimper against his throat, and Peeta eagerly moans his assent.

"I could never let you go, little fox," he whispers, squeezing me so tightly that it crushes the breath from my lungs and makes stars dance behind my eyes. "My precious little fox."

"I might nip you," I warn him feebly, my heart soaring. "I'm fierce a-and positively greedy when it comes to food and….and I like chicken way too much –"

"I know all of that already and love every bit," Peeta says huskily. "I love it when you're fierce and love it even more when you nip me. I love how greedy you are for my cooking – how furious you get when I try to feed you someone else's – and I'll make you chicken for every meal for the rest of your days if it means you'll stay with me forever."

Something in his words makes me ache between my legs, a deep, hollow yearning that I try to ease by shifting my pelvis against his – the thing I wanted so badly to do last night, to be close and complete as we held each other on the sofa – and we fit together like a sigh, just as I'd imagined. The slight, firm rise between his legs nestles perfectly into the empty, aching cleft between mine and it feels so overwhelmingly, breathtakingly good that I rock and twist my hips in hopes of even more, rubbing blissfully against him with soft, eager little mews.

Peeta gives a muffled cry; a sharp, pained sound, and I clamber backwards onto his thighs, horrified to have hurt him and, no doubt, mortified him all at once. I can't begin to guess why rubbing against his groin felt so good, but I'm intelligent enough to know that his most private and sensitive parts are housed there and it must be uncomfortable, if not downright painful, to have my weight pressing down, squashing them.

"I'm so sorry!" I blurt, squeezing my eyes shut so I don't have to look at him after this appalling mistake. "I didn't mean to hurt you! It just felt so good to be close to you that I wanted…" I wanted to be even closer, I add silently, but I can't begin to understand what that means. "I-I don't know what I was thinking," I whisper, "and I'm so incredibly sorry."

To my utter astonishment, this is met with a breathy chuckle and a gentle brush of gloved fingers against my cheek. "Katniss," Peeta says, and his voice is as uneven as his laughter. "You absolutely didn't hurt me, or do anything wrong whatsoever. It felt –" He breaks off and hesitates for a long moment, clearing his throat several times. "It felt wonderfulbeyond wonderful – to have you so close to me," he murmurs. "It…took me by surprise, how good it felt."

I open my eyes to frown dubiously down at him. This is so obviously a kind lie – that it could be anything short of excruciating to have someone sitting heavily atop your groin – that it hurts to hear, but it's sweet and selfless of him to say it nonetheless. "Don't lie to spare my feelings," I scowl.

Peeta shakes his crested head with a sad, crooked smile. "Oh Katniss," he sighs, "I shudder to think where we would be right now if you allowed yourself to believe even half of the things you're convinced can't be true."

I blink rapidly, tangled up in the riddle of his words. "What's that supposed to mean?" I ask.

He grins suddenly, seizing both of my hands and bringing them to his mouth for a sprinkling of sound kisses. "It means," he replies, "that at this moment, I want breakfast made by these two little hands more than anything else in the whole world."

I cock my head in contemplative bird-fashion and narrow my eyes in thought. Peeta's clearly a skillful liar and what he's saying is true in part, but: "No, you don't," I determine. "You want to snuggle with me some more."

At this Peeta bursts out laughing, so hard that it jostles me on my perch across his thighs and brings tears to his bright eyes. "Oh, little goose," he says, gasping through his laughter and squeezing my hands. "Only you could say such a thing and make it sound like bad weather is on the way. You're absolutely right," he informs me merrily, "and I adore you.

"Please make me breakfast, little sweetheart," he beseeches, swinging our joined hands like an imploring child. "I'll finish your snow-path in two shakes and then I'll come in and we can eat, or just curl up together if you want, or curl up together for eating and –"

"Okay," I squeak, because every one of these prospects – minus getting off of Peeta and having to go inside without him – sounds like heaven. "What would you like for breakfast, lazy gander?" I ask breathlessly. "I mean, besides your fried eggs."

He grins. "Fried eggs from you would be a feast for a king," he says. "That's enough, really – more than enough – so long as I get a few dusky vixen toes to nibble afterward."

I flush fiercely at this request and not just from silliness. "That sounds easy enough," I reply, a half-lie. He's going to get much more than fried eggs, of course, and I have no intention of presenting him with my bare toes to nibble, however playfully.

I scramble to my feet, eager to start on his meal, and flinch as the cold air strikes me like a blow. Without the warmth of Peeta's coat and body I could well die out here in my nightgown.

"Hey, hold on," Peeta says, clambering up out of our snow-hollow, and he rushes to enfold me in the bearskin. "You can't go back to the house like that," he says, hugging me to him with the fur. "You'll freeze."

"It's less than fifty feet away," I point out, but in a contented sort of haze. I hadn't expected to be wrapped in boy-musk and bearskin again so soon and now I have even less desire to forsake it.

"Still," he says, and we make our way back to the house in a lopsided three-legged-race fashion, hugging each other about the middle and stumbling over each other's feet and laughing all the while. Peeta insists on walking me up the steps, even, but once the door is open he tries to gently eject me directly from the bearskin into the house without bringing himself inside, a plan I neatly derail by catching hold of his waistband and tugging him over the threshold along with me.

"You'll freeze too," I chide and re-bundle him snugly, closing the clasps on the bearskin, tugging up the muffler to cover him from cheeks to breastbone, adjusting his crested cap for maximum coverage, and even retrieving one of my father's scarves for an extra layer of warmth around his head and neck.

He looks not unlike a child when I'm done; a round Merchant boy in a patchwork of mismatched outerwear, and I giggle at the sight. "I hope you're pleased with yourself, little vixen," he teases – or rather his eyes do; the only part of him that's still clearly visible. "The next time you go hunting I get to bundle you up."

I envision standing beside the living room fire while Peeta swaddles me in so many furs that I can barely walk, let alone climb a tree or draw my bow, and imagine shedding those furs like a chrysalis to leap jubilantly on my boy in a scarlet swirl of newborn wings – or better still, parting the furs just enough to slip my boy inside; my bear-mate, to hibernate with me all winter through, all downy bare skin and sweet musk and moist, sleepy nuzzles about each other's ears and throat.

"That sounds fair," I reply, and with a kiss to the furry hillock of Peeta's nose I turn him about and nudge him back out the door, with a dusting sweep down the back of his bearskin for good measure.

I watch him return dutifully to his snow-shovel and turn back to give me a little wave before he resumes his work, and I'm so overcome with happiness that I almost can't breathe. I'm bursting with it; half-stupid with it. I love Peeta and he adores –

Yes, I realize, like a certain whisper over the stilled breath in my lungs. No, Peeta doesn't love me, not like a man loves a woman or even like a boy loves a girl, but this isn't just indulgence, not anymore. This is the prince kneeling in the meadow and opening his arms for his little fox to spring into. His pink cheek rubbing her sleek one, his big hands cradling her small body snugly to his chest.

A little sound leaves my throat, half a laugh and half a sob, and I feel dampness at the corners of my eyes.

My boy adores me.

Fox-Katniss and bird-Katniss – redcap-Katniss and greedy-gosling-Katniss – but Katniss nonetheless.

The urge to take care of him, to bundle him up in my love and wrap him snug as a babe almost suffocates me. It's a pleasant urge but an overwhelming one, the likes of which I've never felt before. If I'd managed to doubt it till now it would be undeniable in this moment.

I love him. Love him so much that there's no room for anything else, neither sleep nor hunger nor thought for breath.

Confirming just how thoroughly I've lost my mind, I dissolve into a fit of giggles.

This must be how Grandpa Asa felt during that long hopeless year of wooing Granny Ashpet. It feels wonderful and aches all at once, like an over-full belly, only it's my heart that's full to brimming and spilling over.

Where does the extra love go? I wonder silently, foolishly, as I kick off my boots. I'm such a small fox with such a small, stubborn heart – a bird's heart in a girl's breast, no bigger than a thimble, and with no greater capacity. Whatever will I do with so much love? Shall I seal it in jars for a colder season? Gather it up in baskets and spin it into thread, to sew garments for my beloved?

At the thought of jars I go to the back of the pantry, where Peeta keeps empty ones for future canning needs, and find one with a nice wide neck – wide enough that Peeta could fit his hand inside if he curled his fingers together. I untie the ribbon scraps – the half-kisses – from around my braids, sprinkle them one by one into the jar and screw the lid on again, but only just, with a sprawling smile and feverishly hot cheeks. This will go in the living room, to remind my boy of the little presents lying in store for him but also – I flush even hotter – in the event that he gets impatient, or I do. This jar isn't sealed and my paws are swift and stealthy. It would be so easy to let a kiss out early; a slender redwing or two, darting quick as a hummingbird, and perhaps if two escaped they might mate and create even more redwings: a tree-full – no, a sky-full – of tiny, merry kisses.

A sky-full of tiny, merry kisses… I tuck away that thought for safekeeping as I set the jar on the living room's fireside table with a festive little peal of glass on wood. What sort of gift might equal a sky-full of tiny, merry kisses?

I pause beside the sofa, surveying the area thoughtfully. Peeta wants to snuggle with me, so badly that he was willing to lie in the snow and indefinitely postpone his breakfast in order to prolong it – a thought that leaves me positively dizzy with pleasure. Suppose I set up a place for us to do just that: a cuddle-nest of sorts?

It's surely the most absurd notion that anyone ever had, but that doesn't stop me making two trips upstairs to retrieve armfuls of furs and pillows from both of our bedrooms and shaping the full breadth of the sofa into a plush and inviting hollow. I'd prefer the floor like last night: knitting ourselves together like newborn kits or lovers with the warm dance of pine flames across our faces, but that feels too daring somehow, especially this morning, with my body craving that heady new closeness and fumbling against his to find it. Peeta was impossibly sweet about it but I know I hurt him; he wouldn't have cried out otherwise, and at the very least I made him terribly uncomfortable, perching on his groin like that, never mind how breathtakingly good it felt for me.

No, better to make certain that our bodies never fit together that way again, I resolve, plumping my deerskin pillows along the arms of the sofa. We can cuddle each other delirious in this nest without touching in any such forbidden fashion, and I intend for us to do just that as soon as we've finished breakfast.

Breakfast made by these two little hands. The thing my sweetheart wants more than anything in the whole world – after more snuggling with me.

I return to the kitchen and dance merrily between the pantry and the icebox, feeling like a fairytale maiden in a treasure room. In this moment every last one of these treasures is mine – every silky scoop of flour, every jar of fragrant spice, every drop of milk and morsel of cheese – to use in preparation of a meal for my sweetheart.

So what shall it be?

Peeta's only request was fried eggs so those, of course, are a must, though I decide to dress them up a bit. My father used to make something he called "egg in a nest," a favorite of Grandpa Asa's, where you cut a hole in a piece of bread with the rim of a cup and then fry an egg in the hole or "nest." It was silly and sustaining and a good way to stretch bread – one child could eat the "nest" while her parent ate the leftover circle of bread, perhaps with a few stolen dips of rich yolk – and I suspect Peeta will love it. He's made today's bread already, a moist white-and-gold loaf that smells of honey, and I decide to whisk up a sweet griddle-toast batter of milk and egg with a few drops of precious vanilla and a cloud of Peeta's beloved nutmeg to dip the "nest" in before putting it in the skillet. This makes the "nest" just as special as the egg; a sweet contrast to the savory egg and much more nourishing for my hardworking boy.

That's last on my agenda, though. My strong, sweet boy needs much more than a couple of eggs fried into griddle-toast; his muscles need meat and potatoes after carving snow-paths.

Potatoes are easy enough. I slice up three plump ones, still with their tender golden skins on, along with shallots and onions and a clove of garlic, and set them aside to fry just before I start the griddle-toast. Bacon would make them better still, though, so I go to the icebox to snatch a few of the thick-cut strips Rooba sent in payment for her portion of the deer. I'll chop them into small bits and fry them crisp, then use the bacon fat to fry the potatoes in.

Peeta likes sausage, I remember all at once, recalling yesterday's meaty egg bake and Marko's tiny sausage-and-gravy pie. Loves it, even. Rooba sent us several of her delicious sage and apple sausages but I want the spicy kind like Marko used; ground, not in casings, and I think we have some of that frozen. I can't manage a Mellark-caliber pie crust, not even on the best of days, but a small batch of drop biscuits is easy enough, with peppered cream gravy to go over.

I open the freezer side of the icebox, intent on a fat chub of sausage, and the first thing I see is a broad, flat parcel. A very familiar butcher-paper parcel labeled in bold black letters.

Peeta's Sweetheart

My heart lurches with something halfway between fury and panic. My venison ribs, the ones I parceled up as a gift for Peeta's girl, along with a few pounds of choice meat, are still here – in Peeta's own icebox.

What are they doing back here? How can they possibly be here?

I'm so mad at Pollux that I could spit nails. As much as I resent Peeta's mystery sweetheart, the ribs were supposed to be delivered fresh for her poor family's New Year's dinner – and yet here they are, frozen and stored away at our house.

Does Peeta know they're here?

He must. They're shelved smack in the middle of his meat freezer. He can't not know.

My anger drains like water down a plughole and is immediately replaced by a queasy sort of dread. Peeta knew I was planning to send venison to his sweetheart and he half told me not to. Just…send what you were planning on, he said when I asked how many were in her family, regarding the parcels we'd already discussed, and…keep plenty for yourself. That'll take care of it.

Instead I sent her half of the coveted ribs and several fine cuts of venison besides – meat I would have loved to give to my own family or better still, keep for Peeta – and here it is, back in my hands.

So what happened?

I exhale slowly, deliberately calming my racing heart. I told Pollux to deliver her parcel along with the one for Peeta's family, but it's entirely possible that they didn't want to be stuck in the middle of this strange lopsided courtship and sent it back with him. Maybe Pollux tried to deliver the parcel directly, knowing the girl's identity, and she refused it, or maybe he checked with Peeta before going to town and Peeta told him not to deliver it.

After all, Peeta hasn't declared himself – if last night's strange and wondrous bedtime story is to be believed, he can't – and I came crashing into the scenario with a clumsy, resentful love letter scrawled boldly across a parcel of raw meat.

It's almost certainly not Pollux's fault and I should be relieved that the parcel is back – or still – here, not in the Seam. I get to enjoy another round of tender, flavorful ribs with Peeta, who's been spared undue embarrassment from my bull-headed mistake, and that mysterious black-haired girl, named for a white flower, with silver eyes and a voice like starlight, remains ignorant of his love.

I carefully reach around the venison parcel and pick up the sausage chub I was seeking to begin with.

Perhaps the ribs think I'm Peeta's sweetheart, I think with a wild little laugh. After all, a slab of venison ribs can't tell one black-braided Seam girl from another.

Maybe they came back to me on purpose.

I close the icebox door with a scoff that sounds ever so slightly like a whimper.

The stove is full in no time: a pan of drop biscuits in one of the ovens, one skillet hissing with aromatic crumbles of spicy sausage and another sizzling with bacon, with a third on deck for griddling up "egg in a nest" once everything else is done. I've got a bowl of flour, salt, garlic, and freshly ground black peppercorns waiting to become cream gravy, a heap of potatoes and onions itching to be fried crisp, and six perfect brown eggs circling my griddle-batter bowl, just hankering to be cracked into their bread "nests."

I'm not especially skilled when it comes to coffee, not the luxurious way Peeta makes it, so I simmer a pot of cider with a pinch of ground ginger and a handful of cranberries added. The tiny gem-bright fruits will lend their vibrant color to the brew and their tart flavor, coupled with the fiery but soothing ginger, will be perfect for Peeta's throat and lungs after breathing in so much cold air.

I'm surrounded by luscious smells: the smells of my own cooking; the first real meal I've prepared since leaving home, but instead of my mother and sister I'm preparing to feed my sweetheart. My sweet boy, my Peeta, my lonely, silly, lazy gander.

I laugh, a bright and glorious sound fueled by sheer, cascading waves of joy.

I never dreamt I could be this happy, let alone with a barb in my heart where my beloved loves another, but I can and I am. This must be what love – or being in love – truly feels like, not the aching and heartbreak and tears of yesterday afternoon in the stable. I feel radiant and foolish all at once, and before I can think twice about it, a song is spilling out of me in merry silver motes, like raindrops caught in leaves in the gentle gust that follows a downpour:

Fox, a goose I saw you stealing
Give it back to me!
Give it back to me!
Lest the hunter come to get you
With his arrows three-ee-ee!
With his bow and knife and hatchet
And his arrows three!

It's a silly folk song but an uncommon one, even precious: a gift from Granny Ashpet's father, about whom I know almost nothing. I don't know his name – Dad always referred to him as "Granny Ashpet's father," not "Grandpa" or even "my mama's papa" – or if he was even married to her mother Elspeth, a Seam girl who died giving birth to their only child. Granny Ashpet was raised by her aunt and grandmother and given their last name, Greenbrier, but her father often came to see her, at least when she was very young, and by all accounts he adored his little daughter. He was the one who took her to the woods and taught her to hunt while nurturing her love of songs and old tales, things he had shared with her mother.

If ever there was true fairy blood in my lineage it would have come from Granny Ashpet's father. Even in my father's least fanciful accounts he sounded like an elfin king from the very heart of the wild woods: a stern, fierce man with green-gold eyes who spoke poetry like liebchen and liebling, words never heard before or since in Twelve, who called his daughter Aschenputtel rather than Ashpet and told of magic hazel-trees growing from graves and white doves bearing dresses of silver and gold.

The silly fox-and-goose song I sing now he learned as a child and taught to both Granny Ashpet and later, in one of their rare encounters, my father. He called it "Liebes Füchslein" – he knew the whole song in its original fairy-words; strange beautiful words like Jäger ("hunter"), Dieb ("thief"), and Gänsebraten (a savory mouthful meaning "roast goose" and nearly as delicious on the tongue as the dish itself) – but the reason why isn't clear till the end.

The second verse is macabre but in a light-hearted manner, as the singer warns the thieving fox of what will become of it if it persists in making off with its prize:

Hunter swift his bow will draw
Loose three long quills at you!
Three long quills at you!
Off your pelt comes for his fine cap
And your bones for ste-ew-ew!
Meat for roasting, blood for sausage
And your bones for stew!

The final verse, the favorite of all three generations of singers – four now, including myself – finally identifies the thief as not just any old fox but a small female one. "Liebes Füchslein," Granny Ashpet's father sang – "dear little vixen" – and usually with a chuckle in his voice, indicating that the singer has a certain measure of affection for the vulpine thief:

Little vixen, heed my counsel:
Do not be a thief!
Do not be a thief!
Mouse is goose for such as you are
And shall cause less grie-ie-ief!
Keep to mice! Though far less tasty,
They shall cause less grief!

My father and I sang this song together countless times in the woods, often adding a plaintive honk-honk! to punctuate a phrase, and laughed till our bellies ached at the image of a small stubborn vixen, her mouth full of goose neck with a desperate snapping bill on one side and a plump quivering body on the other, being forced to relinquish her feast in favor of a field mouse the size of one dainty paw.

This goose, I silently and solemnly inform Granny Ashpet's fairy father, Granny Ashpet herself, and my own father all at once, this plump and lonely gander, is mine, whole and entire. I'm afraid no mouse can compare to this prize and I'm not about to trade him for one. I want a winter's worth of fairy stories and yellow down to nestle in and a clever beak to nip at my neck and fingers and toes.

I want goslits and kitlings too – this gander's own sweet and downy younglings, carried inside me and birthed in a nest of silky furs – to eat my foragings and drink my milk, but I'm not about to tell my stern fairy great-grandfather that.

Though now I think of it, he was none too impressed by Granny Ashpet's choice of husband – not until Grandpa Asa spoke up to his imperative would-be father-in-law and proved that he wasn't simply another dirt-poor miner with a scrawny body and a plain face – and he had absolutely no problem with his fierce, stunning daughter exhibiting pride and independence well above her social station, so maybe he wouldn't take exception to his little vixen of a great-grandchild having designs upon an oblivious gander whose heart is otherwise engaged.

In any case, I abandon further declarations to set the kitchen table, complete with a few fat beeswax candles and pine sprigs stolen from the dining room, and start the song over from the beginning.

Fox, a goose I saw you stealing
Give it back to me!
Give it back to me!
Lest the hunter come to get you
With his arrows three-ee-ee!

My ears perk up at a sound – the creak of the back door opening, followed by the heavy stamp of snow-packed boots – from the direction of the mudroom and I grin with all my might. My boy is back and his timing is perfect: I'm just scooping the last egg in its sweet griddle-nest out onto a platter – no mere plate for my sweetheart! – heaped high with drop biscuit hillocks drowning in an avalanche of hot sausage gravy, with a valley of crisp-fried potatoes and bacon in-between. I'll feed my gander so well he'll never dream of leaving my den, not even for the prettiest goose in the gaggle, I jest silently, and keep singing. He's going to sneak up on me, I'm sure of it, to catch me up in a hug from behind and perhaps even a nuzzle at my neck, and I need to pretend I didn't hear him and keep nonchalantly laying the table or he won't try.

He won't really surprise me, of course. I doubt he can, not walking on those heavy feet, but I so badly want him to try.

I go to the stove to ladle out a crimson mugful of cranberry cider, deliberately turning my back in anticipation of strong arms and a beloved frosty face burrowing into my nape, and continue idly with my song.

Hunter swift his bow will draw
Loose three long quills at you!
Three long quills at you!

But soon the third verse is done, the table is fully set, and still Peeta hasn't appeared; in fact, there's no longer any sound from the mudroom at all. I know he came in the house and there's no way he could have left the mudroom without me hearing, which means he must still be out there.

My mind darts in twelve terrified directions at once. Peeta took longer outside than I expected; maybe he wore himself out and he's too tired to come through to the kitchen. Maybe he has a weak heart like Grandpa Asa and he's sitting on the bench beneath the coat hooks, white-faced and gasping for breath. Maybe he hurt his leg and it took him all this while to make it back to the house – and here I am, singing silly songs and ignoring his pain.

I toss my apron onto the counter and bolt out to the mudroom, my heart stumbling over itself with worry, to find Peeta sitting on the bench, divested of his outer garments but still wearing his boots, leaning back against his bearskin with his eyes closed and breathing slow and deep.

Could he simply be so tired that he fell asleep? It's very early still and he's already worked so hard…

Then again, more than one miner's heart has given out in the process of scooping heavy snow.

"Oh no," I breathe and hurry over to him, kneeling between his legs and reaching up to cradle his face. "What's wrong, sweethear – sweet boy?" I whisper, catching myself at the very last second. He can't just be "Peeta" anymore, soft and sweet though his name is on my tongue, but I can't begin to think of an appropriate alternative. I can't call him "sweetheart" or "darling," to say nothing of "beloved," and adorable as "lonely/lazy/silly gander" is, it's hardly a lover's endearment.

Grandpa Asa persistently called Granny Ashpet acushla, an endearment in his own fairy tongue, long before she had any intention of becoming his sweetheart and it used to drive her crazy. My father addressed my mother that way sometimes too, usually in the dark of night, whispered breathlessly across their pillows, and now and again I've heard it tossed between the oldest miners and their wives, but do I dare use it for Peeta?

I abandon this ridiculous query and lean up to peck him briskly on the still-chilly tip of his nose, making him open his eyes with a start.

"Little songbird," he gasps. His eyes are soft and dreamlike, neither wet nor over-bright nor ringed with redness, making it likeliest that he simply drifted off to sleep upon sitting down.

Even so, I need to know if my boy needs care, and without another speck of delay. "Are you hurt?" I ask, impatiently but as gentle as I can manage. "Is it your leg? Your heart? Did you –?"

He interrupts me with a tender laugh and leans in to brush our noses together. "I can't say my heart is unaffected," he murmurs, "but I'm entirely fine, little sweetheart. You were singing," he says, his voice catching slightly, "so I sat down to listen. I-I really like it when you sing."

I can't imagine why. My voice is pleasant but surely nothing out of the common way, not like my father's beautiful voice that could silence every bird in the woods, and certainly not while casually singing such a foolish little song. "Silly folk songs about foxes and geese?" I wonder dryly.

"They are the very best ones," he replies with a crooked smile.

I inch my hands up to his temples and push back his curls, made limp and fuzzy by his cap. They've grown longer since I first came here; they're slowly creeping forward to frame his face, and I love it. "I thought you were going to surprise me," I confess softly, and hear my disappointment creeping through.

"I was going to," he answers, rocking his head slowly from side to side, leaning into my touch. "But I thought maybe you had a surprise planned that I would ruin if I came in, and then I heard you singing..." He sighs, long and deep and blissful. "That's more than enough, to be honest," he says huskily. "All the breakfast I need, and then some. You don't need to make me any food. We can just cut a few slices of the bread I baked earlier and eat them with butter and honey."

"I beg your pardon?" I demand, dropping my hands from his face and leaning away with a sudden scowl, but Peeta catches my hands with a laugh and draws them back for a shower of emphatic, happy kisses. "I'd be content with nothing but a song in my belly," he says, "but whatever you've got in the kitchen smells too good to be real. That's part of the reason I sat out here," he admits. "It's been so long since someone's made me a meal – someone who cares about me – and when I walked in, this place felt more like home than ever before. The smell of a delicious hot breakfast a-and your beautiful voice… You sounded so happy," he whispers. "It was like a dream and I didn't want it to end."

"It's not going to end," I assure him wildly, "not ever. I'll cook for you, every meal of every day for the rest of your life, and I'll –" I look down at his boots, recalling them all at once. "I'll do this too," I tell him quickly, working them off with efficient care and gently chafing his stockinged left foot between my small hands. His right foot isn't real, of course, but I'll find other ways to tend to that side. "I'll make you a nice hot bath after you eat," I offer, working my fingers up around his ankle bones. "I know it's hard to get into and out of the tub so I'll help you if you want, and afterward I'll warm some oil for your leg and –"

"Katniss," he croaks, his cheeks crimson as he eases my hands away from his foot, but I've never seen him look so happy. "Katniss, little sweetheart, you don't have to do any of that," he says, but his voice falters in a manner that I'm painfully familiar with: the way it breaks and wavers when you try to refuse something that you want very much indeed.

"You didn't even have to make me breakfast," he tells me. "You offered a-and I was just teasing, telling you to make me fried eggs –"

I smile and lean up to bump the tip of his nose with mine. "You don't want your eggs, then?" I ask him, wide-eyed and mock-wounded. "And after I worked so very hard to make them? Well –" I give a melancholy sigh – "I'm sure there's a little marten or raccoon in your woods who'd be over the moon to have –"

"No, I do want them," he interrupts in a breathy rush. "Oh please, Katniss, I want them," he pleads, catching up my hands and squeezing them tightly. "Your delicious fried eggs a-and everything else you made. I want everything you want to give me. I want –"

"You want the moon," I answer for him with a small, soft smile. "And you shall have it, my sweet boy, one shimmering sliver at a time."

"Oh Katniss," he moans, and all at once I'm up in his lap with a knee alongside either hip, Peeta's arms wrapped around me and his face buried in my neck.

"That comes later," I tell him bemusedly, cupping his golden head with both hands. "I made us a cuddle-nest on the sofa, for after."

He gives a little whimper against my throat. "I was kidding about that too, Katniss," he protests, but weakly, and I chuckle and draw him a little closer.

"No, you weren't," I counter, but so gently, the way I might curl my hand around an injured songbird. "You were lying then and you're lying now. Why is it so hard for you to tell me what you want?"

He makes a hollow, desolate sound, half a sigh and half a moan, that prickles the fine hairs on my back – not with fear but familiarity. Where could I have heard such a haunting sound before? The woods, surely, except it's not quite the cry of any animal I can think of, wounded or otherwise. And why does it feel like heartbreak?

"Because," he says hoarsely, "because I want –"

He breaks off suddenly with a slight jerk of his face against my throat. "I-I want too much," he explains, leaning back just enough to meet my eyes, and his voice is a little stronger, albeit rueful. "There's nothing you could offer me that I wouldn't want, Katniss."

I consider the possibilities amid a cacophony of wild heartbeats.

Deerskin. Antlers. Pine bark.

Sweetheart ribbons, twined gaily about a present harvested from the depths of a wild wood.

Merry kit-kisses sprinkled over his beloved face and blissful beak-nuzzles burrowing into the musky hollow of his throat.

Real kisses, pressed squarely on that soft, sweet mouth.

I catch my breath with a little squeak because that, I know, is too far, and yet Peeta seemed so overwhelmingly happy afterward, clinging to me in the snow and rocking me against him and whispering such exquisite things – things that make me tremble and ache even now – simply because I kissed him and promised future kisses.

Because he needs love, I realize. He's the very embodiment of it – like the sun, beaming his nourishing golden light on everyone in his wake – but he gets so little in return. He only has Pollux and Lavinia now and while they adore him, their affection is primarily exchanged with each other. He has no mother or sister or sweetheart to rub his feet or shoulders after a hard day's work, to make him a fortifying meal or a hot bath or even to turn back his covers at night.

There's only me, a strange, wild Seam girl who loves him to the roots of her hair and the marrow of her bones, who pounces and nips at him like a kit in her den – and he adores it.

He adores me.

I draw him close once more and lean down to rest my cheek on his curls. "I'll give you anything, Peeta," I tell him softly. "Everything. I have so little to offer, but it's yours if you want it – all of it."

Always and entirely yours, I add silently. Whole and entire.

"Oh Katniss," he sighs against my throat. "You can't imagine how I want it."

I smile to myself, caressing his nape and firmly ignoring the hollow, heavy ache kindling low in my belly – the thing that made me sink and rub against his groin earlier, that even now is urging me to scoot forward a half-inch and find that comforting lump in his trousers again. There's little enough I can offer my boy – well and truly offer – but he wants it all and he shall have it.

I inch back just enough to press a small kiss to his temple. "Does that include your breakfast?" I tease, and Peeta moans in reply.

"Yes please!" he says, leaning back to reveal a crooked grin and bright, hungry eyes. "I don't think I've ever been so excited for a meal in all my life."

I blush at this false praise, however sincerely intended. Peeta's had sixteen years of Harvest Festivals, New Year's celebrations, and even, over the past six months, Capitol-quality feasts to look forward to. A simple breakfast prepared by an untrained cook, however rich and filling, is nothing to get excited about.

I climb off his lap and lead him the few steps to the kitchen, reaching impulsively for his hand to tug him through the doorway. I'm giddy with anticipation, with love for my boy and pride in what I've prepared for him, and Peeta's reaction upon seeing the table does not disappoint.

"Biscuits and gravy!" he cries with the pure, unfeigned delight of a child. "Cream gravy with sausage; that's my favorite, and – eggy in a basket!" His voice soars up in a squeal as he bounds forward for a closer look, pulling me along with him. "You made eggy in a basket, Katniss!" he exclaims, turning to me, and his face is radiant with joy. "I don't think I've had that since Grandma Lydda died. How did you know?"

I duck my head, my cheeks feverish with pleasure. "Grandpa Asa loved it," I tell him, "and Dad used to make it too. We called it 'egg in a nest' a-and I –"

"You griddled the bread!" he interjects, looking back at the table as though he just solved a niggling riddle. "Grandma Lydda just used ordinary toast – it was quick and easy – but this looks so much better!"

"I hope I did okay on that," I warn. "I've never used vanilla extract before and I didn't want to use up too much of something so precious – and I probably used way too much nutmeg –"

"Not possible," he says happily, whirling back to face me. "I love nutmeg so much."

"I know you do," I remind him gently, and he hugs me to him with a choked little laugh. "Oh Katniss," he says, for probably the fiftieth time today, and I love the sound of it every bit as much as the first time. "How did you know? Eggy and biscuits and –" I feel him perk up, spying something else over my shoulder. "Fried potatoes with bacon!" he crows. "Ohhh!"

I chuckle at his exclamation, all anticipation and hunger and bliss. "There's cranberry cider too," I inform him, as casually as I can manage. "I mean, not real cranberry cider – just some apple cider simmered with cranberries and a little ginger –"

"Perfect," he moans, hugging me so tightly that I can barely draw breath. "It's perfect, Katniss. You're perfect."

I try to laugh this aside but it's too hard with my powerful sweetheart squeezing the living daylights out of me, so instead I croak, "I'm not, you know. I-I just care about you. And I listen."

"You do," he breathes, drawing back carefully to meet my eyes. "You remembered all the things I like."

"Not quite," I admit, feeling a little shamed beneath the full glow of those bright eyes and sweet words. "I mean, I remembered cream-coffee, I'm just no good at making it – not the way you do – so I warmed up the cider instead."

Peeta brushes my flushed cheek with an affectionate hand. "Something tells me that, given free rein in the kitchen, you'd whip up better cream-coffee than I ever could," he says. "Come, little vixen: come and eat with me."

I didn't make myself a plate of food but this only deters Peeta for about two seconds. "No plate for yourself?" he puzzles, then, "Share with me!" he insists, settling into a chair and tugging me merrily into his lap.

"This isn't going to work," I inform him with a laugh. "You can't even see your food, silly gander, let alone reach it." I may be small and slight but I'm quite wide enough to block the platter, and we're sharing a kitchen chair, not an armchair. There's no place to hunker back to, so Peeta can reach around me for forkfuls of food.

He gives a disgruntled chuckle and reaches sideways to grab another chair and pull it flush against the side of his, then he gently shifts me over into it and scoops up my legs in their festive flannel cocoon to lie across his thighs. "Better?" he wonders, and I laugh.

"We can eat in the living room, if you'd rather," I remind him.

"No, you set up breakfast here," he says firmly, "and beautifully, if I haven't already said so. And anyway, you said something about a cuddle-nest, and I don't like to spoil surprises."

"All I did was put a blanket in the armchair," I tell him impishly. "Well, two blankets, the regular wool ones, to wrap yourself up in, and I'm going to go back up to my bed."

He looks at me as though I just punched him in the gut and broke his heart all at once, only to quickly veil it behind a sensible, considering sort of frown. "Thank you, Katniss," he says, genuinely enough, if a little stiffly. "That, um…that sounds really nice. I can do some sketching by the fire and –"

I lean over with a giggle to peck his cheek with my nose. "Silly boy," I chide affectionately, "I'm kidding. You can't cuddle all by yourself, and anyway: why would I ever go back to bed in the middle of the morning unless –"

I break off in a hot blush beneath his hopeful, wide-eyed gaze. If my joke about being alone in the armchair devastated him, this briefest affirmation to the contrary has made him joyous beyond measure.

"Unless?" he prompts eagerly, cradling my knee with one strong hand as he leans toward me for my reply, and I blush hotter still.

"Unless…I was going to curl up with you," I confess, squeezing my eyes shut in mortification, but Peeta gives a jubilant laugh and seizes me in a snug one-armed hug.

"Little vixen," he sighs, "you can curl up with me anytime you want – or-or not," he adds quickly. "If you don't want to."

"Mmm," I croon against his cheek, trying to imagine an occasion when I wouldn't want to be buried in thick furs and nestled deeply into the contours of this powerful, precious body. "That sounds fair."

He chuckles softly and leans back into his seat. "You sound sleepy already," he says, mistaking my contentment for drowsiness. "You worked so hard on breakfast, sweetheart. Would you like to lie down and I can bring you a plate of food?"

It's a delicious thought but I'm not truly tired, just eager to be wrapped up in soft coverlets and my sweet boy. "I'm okay," I assure him. "Let's just eat here. Less to get in the way of snuggling," I add without thinking and am mortified to hear the words aloud, but Peeta makes a plaintive little sound, half pleasure and half anticipation, and presses his cheek against mine.

"Works for me," he says, and his voice breaks a little. "That sounds so nice."

I smother my elation at the thought of how happy – almost hungry – Peeta sounds for more time in each other's arms. It's a true hunger in its own way; I feel it too, keenly.

Strange, to develop such a powerful appetite for something you've never really had before.

He cuts the first forkful of biscuit and gravy and, to my surprise, offers it to me. "That's yours," I remind him, but he shakes his head with a smile and brings it to my mouth. "You didn't steal a single bite while you were cooking, did you?" he says, playfully nudging my lips with the fork till I open them and accept the bite.

I roll the heady scoop of flaky biscuit, peppery cream gravy, and fiery sausage around my mouth, savoring the successful mix of flavors with no little pride, and shake my head. "I tasted the gravy to make sure it was flavorful enough," I reply "and a sip of the cider for the same reason, but I didn't want to take more than that. I made all of this for you," I remind him, and he veritably glows in response.

"My sweet, selfless vixen," he says. "Next time have all you want – and make a plate for yourself too, come to it."

"And miss the chance to share with you?" I wonder with a crooked smile, and he chuckles.

"Okay, forget the plate," he concedes. "We can share one plate for the rest of time –"

"And one cup," I chime in.

"– and one cup," he agrees. "But you have to steal tastes of everything, Katniss. It's what cooks do, honest," he says. "My dad, Grandma Lydda, Aunt Rooba… It helps you figure out if you need to add anything else to the dish, as you know, but it also keeps you going. Cooking is hard work, after all."

I look at those strong hands that cut paths through snowbanks and stoke fires and prepare the most wonderful meals and my heart gives a little gush of love. "You work so hard," I murmur, taking his free hand in both of mine, and he blushes wildly but doesn't try to free himself.

"I want to," he reminds me, curling his hand against mine. "I like making you meals – like doing everything for you, Katniss. It…it doesn't feel like work," he says simply, "doing things for you."

"I feel the same way," I tell him. "I, um…I'm not sure I've ever been happier than when I made this meal for you."

I leave out the fact that I love him to the very depths of my soul, of course, and that I was flying with elation after our cuddling and kisses in the snow, and Peeta gazes back at me as though I've just handed him another shimmering sliver of the moon he wants so badly.

"What a predicament," he says raggedly. "I want to cook for you so much, but if it makes you this happy – so happy that you sing –" His voice breaks. "I-I don't know what to do," he says, and he looks genuinely distressed by the decision.

I chuckle and squeeze his hand. "Taste my cooking first, sweet boy, before you make up your mind," I tease. "I'm not terrible but I surely can't hold a candle to you, especially after all the extra practicing you did to impress your sweetheart."

He gazes at me for a long, silent moment. "You really like my cooking, Katniss?" he asks softly.

I give an exasperated laugh. "Of course I do, silly boy!" I exclaim. "I love every single thing you make. How could you ever doubt it?"

His mouth curls in a bittersweet smile. "Then all that extra practice served its purpose," he says strangely, and turns back to his platter.

His first bite, cut from the biscuit as well, is, unsurprisingly, a slow, considering one – not unlike the way I ate the bite he gave me, only this time it ends with a moan. "Oh Katniss," he breathes. "This tastes like heaven."

"Don't flatter me," I tell him, but he doesn't stop to argue. His hand slips from mine to steady the platter and suddenly he's devouring the biscuit, bite after gravy-soaked bite shoveled into a wide mouth, then chewed and swallowed with audible relish before eagerly – almost frantically – cutting another bite.

I've never seen Peeta eat like this, not even in the arena. He gobbles up the first biscuit like he's never eaten before in his life, then he shifts to take careful first bites of everything else on the platter, along with a sip of the cranberry cider, to a chorus of pleasurable little groans. "Oh Katniss," he says, over and over again, between the ensuing greedy gulps and grunts and swallows. "Oh Katniss, Katniss, Katniss," he chants. "Katniss, sweetheart…this is so good."

I try to laugh at his enthusiasm but it doesn't feel like a laughing matter; not at all. Peeta's eating like a cross between a starving man and something that makes my neck and chest flush and the place between my legs feel damp. Something that's stirring up my innermost secret parts just as fiercely as my New Year's dream of Peeta's shy fingers on my bare breast, and yet I can't quite identify it.

Like a lover, I realize suddenly, simultaneously savoring and devouring what lies before him. My parents had moments like that; stolen, unguarded ones when they thought I couldn't see or was too young to care, and it's the way boys and girls usually kiss against the school wall and behind the Hob. Hungrily – no, voraciously.

I clear my throat and attempt a joke because if I don't say something soon I'll either run away and hide till suppertime or bring my lips to Peeta's neck to satisfy their own escalating hunger. "A-Are you – did you still want to share that with me?" I ask, suddenly and acutely aware of the heat of his legs beneath mine. "B-Because I'm happy to make up my own plate and –"

Peeta immediately drops his fork and turns to me with an expression so full of shame that my heart cries out in reply. "Katniss," he croaks. "I-I didn't mean…" He looks slowly back at the platter, all but wiped clean, and makes a small horrified sound. "How could I be so greedy?" he whispers, burying his face in his hands, but I quickly draw them away again.

"You're hungry, silly gander, not greedy," I tell him, giving his hands an emphatic squeeze before placing them back on the table, to either side of his platter. "And rightly so, after all the work you've done just this morning. And even if you were to be greedy," I add quickly, "it would be absolutely fine because I made all of this for you. I should've just given you a fork and let you gobble every last plate clean in turn."

He shakes his head and inches the nearly-empty platter several deliberate inches toward me. "I'm so sorry, Katniss," he says. "I promised to share – told you to share with me – and then promptly ate all your food."

"There's plenty left," I point out and steal his fork to take one of the bread circles – the cut-out nest pieces, griddled in the same sweet batter for an extra treat – and nibble at it demonstratively. "No vixens going hungry here," I tell him with an over-wide, foxy grin.

"But there is a greedy gosling," he says miserably. "One small, fierce greedy gosling who expressly told me to get up extra early this morning to make her breakfast, but instead I went out in the snow and told her to make breakfast for me."

"I've always been willing to cook for you," I remind him, narrowly resisting the urge to give him a good shake about the shoulders to punctuate this truth. "Back when you first asked me to come and live with you, I offered you everything but all you wanted was my company."

"The more fool me," he says with stark self-deprecation but there's a playful note creeping beneath it now. "I chose the desire to feed you over this!"

His humor, though faint, is catching. "It's not too late," I tease. "I can cook for you anytime, you know."

He gazes at the table, then at me for a long searching moment. "You swear this makes you happy?" he says at last.

"Of course," I reply, frankly and without hesitation. "Why would I lie?"

His mouth quirks in a wry expression and he holds up a hand. "To not hurt my feelings," he ticks off. "To repay a debt. To –"

I close my hand around his. "It makes me happy, Peeta," I tell him firmly, looking him in the eye to banish any doubt. "Happier than you can imagine. Happier than I can remember ever being before."

His head sinks a little in a sigh and I lean in to meet it, resting my forehead against his, almost without thought. "Is it so hard to believe?" I wonder softly, shifting my grip on his hand to thread my fingers through his.

He sighs again, even deeper this time, and gently butts his forehead against mine. "No," he says at last. "It's not hard to believe at all.

"I, um… I used to eat a lot of my mom's cooking," he explains in a small, quiet voice. "She's actually a really good cook but…her meals always left me feeling empty, somehow. Dad could make the same meal the exact same way and it would be totally different. You could taste the affection; it filled you up, somehow."

"I know what you mean," I answer with a smile, tipping my face just enough to brush noses with him. "Your food tastes of the most wonderful things, every last bite of it. Things like comfort and laughter and autumn sunsets," I explain, neatly leaving off the thing I love most. The thing that flows out of him in golden waves and bathes everything in its gentle glow but can never ever belong to me.

He chuckles faintly. "That's not surprising," he says. "I mean, it's a little surprising that you could taste such specific things, not that they were there."

"Food is like a language with you," I tell him, leaning back to meet his eyes. "It took me a little while to learn it, but now it's almost like looking at one of your pictures or hearing you tell a beautiful story."

His free hand reaches up to brush my cheek. "You're too clever by half, Katniss Everdeen," he says softly. "Is that how you did it?"

I shake my head in puzzlement. "Did what?" I wonder.

He takes one beribboned braid between his thumb and forefinger and gently follows the silky red strand from root to tail. "This meal tastes like happiness," he murmurs, curling the tail of my braid around his fingertip. "It's bursting with it, actually; with happiness and affection and…a-and –" He breaks off with a sharp, strange cry, quickly stifled. "With…other wonderful things," he says hoarsely.

That's where the extra love went, I realize in horror. There was never a chance to store it away. It spilled out of me and right into his food.

For a brief, mad moment I wonder if I've poisoned him somehow. If I've drugged or sickened this precious boy by pouring enough love into his food to choke the veriest glutton.

"It tastes like home," he goes on, "but…like a home I've never known before. A rich and wondrous place," he breathes, "that might not even exist, or maybe never will."

My breath catches in something like a whimper because I know what he tasted in this meal; what streamed through my fingertips as they cracked and sliced and stirred and fell like rain in the silver motes of my song: our home – this beautiful house in the woods – but the way that I see it. Pine smoke and cider and hearty rabbit stew, furs and skins and glorious old tales and a wild vixen with fairy blood who loves a golden prince with all her might.

He's tasting my hunger for him: to hold him close and kiss him breathless, my mouth moving eagerly over every inch of his sweet, soft skin. To share bread and wine and lie together as husband and wife, merging our bodies with breathless, halting tenderness. To give him kits and chicks, kindled and carried in the secret hearth at the root of my belly.

Except he doesn't know that. The images swirling through each bite – downy fox kits tumbling from eggshells of shimmering pearl, silky-furred goslings birthed from a womb and cradled to a dusky breast, a nest of catkin-studded willow branches threaded with miles of scarlet ribbon and lined with deerskin and furs and dandelion down – are straight out of the strangest folktale.

And he can't ever be allowed to guess it. I have to guard my heart and hands more carefully, especially in these moments of joyous abandon, lest they betray the full appalling truth and he's forced to send me away forever.

"It will exist, Peeta," I vow, thinking of his Seam sweetheart and swallowing back my grief as I press my forehead against his. "One day, very soon. A home where you're cherished and adored, every last part of you. It's close," I soothe, letting a single slender thread of the truth – my love for him – seep through in my voice. "So close, my sweet boy."

He leans back with a sad smile to meet my eyes. "I can wait," he says softly. "I could wait a hundred years if that place lay on the other side of it."

I try to picture this sturdy Merchant boy cradling a newly hatched kitling in the bowl of a willow-cradle and wish that it wasn't so easy, nor so heartbreakingly beautiful. "Not half so long as that," I promise, mentally exchanging the kitling for a black- or golden-haired infant in turn – the likely offspring of his marriage – and finding it no less natural or painful. "And in the meantime I'll give you as much of it – of that home," I add quickly. "Of that…that happiness – as I can."

"You've already given me so much of it," he murmurs. "So much more than you realize, Katniss. I think the full measure might well stop my heart."

I force a clumsy chuckle. "Well, we don't want that," I say. "I'll aim for seventy-five percent happiness."

To my surprise this makes him laugh in turn, a bright, genuine chuckle that crinkles his eyes at the corners. "You're nearing eighty already at the least, gosling mine," he insists. "Throw in a cuddle-nest and it's a solid eighty-five."

I laugh heartily and the spell is broken, at least for the moment. "The cuddle-nest is a cert," I assure him. "This gosling's breakfast, however, appears to be a doubtful prospect –"

"Come here, you," he growls playfully and hauls me up into his lap again, bringing my back flush against his chest. "I knew I had the right idea to begin with," he says, wrapping his arms around my waist like a belt of warm steel. "Now you can have all you want and you get to decide when – or if – I get any more bites."

"You'll get bites," I assure him. "All the bites you could possibly want. I want to keep my toes, after all."

"I was going to ask about those," he says. "The only other thing I asked for and you couldn't be bothered to include them in your menu. Miserly vixen," he scolds teasingly and I feel his mouth at my right shoulder, taking a mock-bite against the flannel, the way you pretend-gobble at a small child.

The place between my legs pulses faintly and I reach back to cup his downy-curled head and draw it over to my nape. "I knew I should've started with your beak," I murmur and win a ragged sigh in response.

"Not my beak, please," he whines against the sensitive ridge of my spine. "I need it for gobbling up eggy and biscuits and unwary vixens – and of course, for crowing your praises."

"Are you a gander, a tom, or a rooster?" I tease, but because I love and want all of the things he just listed to take place, I don't bother to protest further.

The rest of the meal is largely uneventful, if pleasant beyond imagining. Peeta insists that I eat an entire platterful before he'll let me off his lap – and snugs his arms about my ribs to enforce the order – but I only manage small portions of each dish. There's something other than hunger – hunger for food – getting in the way of my stomach, and while everything tastes as wonderful as I'd hoped, I eat about a third of what I'd typically put away, even at the lightest of meals at Peeta's house. It's like I'm hungry for something else, anticipating something else, and my body's not interested in the alternatives.

I finally slink off his lap, revealing a small expanse of platters still holding generous portions of food, to a troubled frown from Peeta. "Are you sure you didn't eat more before I came in?" he puzzles, even though he knows full well that I took only tiny tasting bites before setting the table for him and he felt every one of the many bites I took in his lap with his arms enclosing my middle. "You didn't have to save me so much."

That was only part of it, of course, but I shrug and allow him to cut more bites of everything and feed them to me, all tenderness and worry, soft encouragements and gentle eyes. To be honest, I don't have much of an appetite at all this morning but I can't not accept food from Peeta's hands, and I eat a respectable serving of each dish under his care – and enjoy it.

I made just enough for the pair of us to finish it all, with Peeta eating everything that remains after I firmly insist that I'm full, so there's nothing to put away and only a few platters and forks and one cup to wash. I consider doing that now, with or without Peeta's help, but the cuddle-nest is calling and to Peeta even more than me. Snow-shoveling coupled with this glut of hearty food has left him pleasantly droopy, and I help him to his feet with a smile.

"Almost naptime," I promise. "I made a special place for you, remember?"

"For us," he corrects, curling his hand around mine with more wakefulness than I thought he possessed in this moment. "You promised snuggling."

Delight skitters out of me in a merry giggle. "So I did," I agree, curling my hand around his in turn, and snatch one of the still-burning candles for good measure. It's one of the New Year's candles, with bits of spices embedded in the golden beeswax, and falling asleep to the scent of warm spiced honey sounds too exquisite not to try.

I head toward the living room, tugging drowsy Peeta behind me like a wayward duckling, feeling a little silly and ridiculously happy. My boy wants to snuggle with me and I've made a place for us to do just that in a matter of moments.

We're on the wrong side of the house to see the sunrise but its pale gold light is filtering through the woods and around the house to skip across the frozen lake on glittering fairy-feet. It's a little early for Peeta's nap; deliciously early still, with more than enough time before lunch to cuddle and doze and still work on the deerskin – if I can manage to make myself leave Peeta's arms.

I lead him to the sofa, almost beside myself with glee to present our cuddle-nest. "As promised," I begin, only to look at it – really look for the first time – and drop his hand with a distressed little squeak.

"What's wrong?" Peeta asks, turning to me and quickly snatching the candle from my other hand – the likeliest culprit – and discarding it on the low table. "Did the wax spill over?' he wonders, taking my hand in both of his and carefully turning it every which way to look for wounds. "Did you burn yourself, little sweetheart?"

I shake my head but can't find the words – daren't find the words – to explain.

I've turned the sofa into a plush lover's bed and brazenly marched my unwitting sweetheart straight to it.

People – men and women – don't lie down together in the middle of the day. That is, they might, but not for cuddling and a few stolen hours of extra slumber.

I was so young – surely too young to remember – but on many a Sunday afternoon, especially before Prim was born, if it was too cold or dangerous for his weekly trip to the woods my father would tuck me into bed after lunch with a kiss and a song or a folktale and then he and my mother would go to their own bed or some other place in the house – a hearthrug once, I recall vaguely, spread so close to the flames that it should have burned them – to make love in the drowsy midday sunlight. They so rarely saw each other's body by daylight, that I recall clearly, between Dad's work in the mines and the necessity of spending his Sundays in the woods, and those moments were languid, unhurried and drenched with bliss. Pale hair turned to a rippling pool of white-gold spilling over dingy pillows or soot-stained floorboards while black hair brushed fair skin like willow branches dusting the surface of the lake.

It was a strange but beautiful thing, witnessing the union of my parents' bodies. It should have been crude, perhaps even frightening, but there was so much love in the act.

The way it would be if I ever lay naked with my boy.

A pool of downy golden curls – no, a lake of unbound black hair – on a pillow the color of sunset and a pale face crowned with yellow curls kissing a tender path over skin the color of a mourning dove's breast.

"Katniss, what's wrong?" Peeta asks again, his sweet, concerned voice breaking into the dream, but of course I can't tell him, not any of it.

"I-I think I'm going upstairs after all," I say, tugging my hand free of his and making a helpless gesture toward the stairs. "Or-or outside, maybe. I-I –"

"Shh," he soothes, almost suddenly, his eyes soft with a strange understanding, and he doesn't try to touch me or take my hand again. "It's okay," he assures me. "Absolutely, entirely okay.

"Tell you what," he suggests gently, "it's almost my naptime anyway, so I'll lay down in this wonderful cozy nest that you built, little songbird, and if you change your mind you can crawl in with me whenever you want, okay?"

I realize what he's doing then and it's so sweet it makes my heart hurt. He's remembering last night when I fled my perch in his lap – remembering all the times I've inexplicably fled from his touch when just a half-second before I'd pressed into it. Peeta knows I'm a wild thing and is giving me the choice to come to him or not, to touch and be touched, or not, never mind how eagerly I planned for and told him about – even promised him – this cuddle-nest.

I draw a slow breath. It's less terrifying, somehow – less presumptuous, less…provocative – to think of crawling in with him once he's settled. "I, um…" I croak, and Peeta shushes me with a tender smile and a shake of his head. "You don't have to explain, little wildling," he says. "Your trust is a priceless gift, never ever taken for granted, and every demonstration of it is equally precious.

"Remember," he quotes softly, those beautiful words I never heard my father say: "a boy learns patience while a bird learns trust, but in the end both are tamed."

As comforting as this is to hear, it's miserable and embarrassing at the same time because that's not the reason, not at all. "I trust you, Peeta," I whisper. "With all my heart, I trust you."

It's me that I don't trust. Me who wants more, other, strange things that I can't begin to comprehend, who can't help seeing this nest as a lover's den.

"Katniss," he says, "it's okay. You don't have to say anything." He half-reaches for me, as though he wants to touch my cheek or my braid but thinks better of it, expecting me to flinch or pull away from the caress, and I catch his hand firmly with both of mine before he can draw it back – an act that wins a small smile.

"I love the nest and I'd love for us to share it," he murmurs, gazing between us at where our hands are joined. "But only if you want."

"But I do want," I whimper, squeezing my eyes shut to hide from my own admission. "Maybe…m-maybe if you got in first?" I suggest, opening my eyes a hesitant crack for his response.

"Of course," he says, his smile growing, and he brings my hands to his mouth for a quick shy kiss over both sets of knuckles before gently releasing me and going to the sofa. My fox fur coverlet serves as the topmost layer of the nest and he draws it back as carefully as if it were woven of dewdrops and spidersilk. "This is the den of a little fox," he remarks lightly, as though to himself. "How warm and snug she's made it with her clever paws! This lonely gander is cold and foolish with drowsiness and good food. Surely it would be safe for me to lie down here awhile and warm my beak upon her pillows."

I bring a hand to my mouth, overcome by this unexpected, adorable approach.

He lifts the fox fur and climbs beneath it, stretching out and wriggling a little, like a kit or cub, to find just the right place. "Oh, this is lovely!" he sighs, plumping a deerskin pillow beneath his head and very deliberately not looking at me. "What a huntress my hostess is, to furnish her bed with furs and skins of all kinds. I shall lay but a little," he declares with a genuine yawn. "But surely I shall be in no danger here, even should she return before I wake. What interest could there be in a plump, unwitting gander for a vixen who rose before dawn and ate the merest thimbleful at breakfast?"

His face is pressed blissfully against the deerskin and down and he opens one eye to look at me – one bright, beloved, merry blue eye – and I am done for. The strange tryst-like feel of the nest is long gone, banished by a sweet, silver-tongued boy with a love for old tales.

I tip my head, considering, and pad silently out to the mudroom. I suspect my gander is disappointed by this decision, though he needn't be – and won't, in another moment.

I take his bearskin from its hook and stagger a little beneath its heft. For all the times I've been wrapped in it, I've never had to support the full weight by myself, and I wonder whether wearing such a heavy garment whenever he's outside for any length of time has actually made Peeta even stronger.

The hem is still a little damp from shoveling – or, more likely, from all that time he spent lying in the snow beneath a greedy vixen – but that's of little consequence. I drape the length of lush fur across my arms and pad back into the living room. "Stars o' my!" I exclaim quietly. "'Tis a goose in my nest, plump and unwitting! I am a small fox and very hungry from my labors, but I am cold too. I could pluck off all his down and make a soft bed of it, then gobble him up for good measure, but how long this would take! And I am so very weary."

I tiptoe closer. Peeta's eyes are squeezed determinedly closed but his mouth is curving up into a giddy smile. "I suppose I could make do with the down still on the gander," I concede with a disappointed sigh. "So warm he'll be with a beating heart, and I could burrow myself amongst his feathers. He's clearly too foolish and lazy to perceive any danger in sharing a nest with a vixen, and I can gobble him up when I wake."

I spread the bearskin over Peeta then draw both it and the fox fur back. He still hasn't moved or opened his beautiful eyes but his smile is now almost blinding. "How he dreams!" I marvel. "Of sweet corn, I suppose; of tender water-grasses and plump katniss tubers to nibble. Little does he know," I observe slyly, "that it is he who will be gobbled up afore his rest is done!"

Peeta's stretched out his stocky frame to fill the sofa, as well he should, and there's little enough space for me to crawl in beside him.

But of course, I have absolutely no interest in lying beside him.

I carefully ease my thigh over his hips and settle down to lie on top of him, much as we were in the snow – my favorite place: legs parted to hug his thighs with my torso resting fully on his and my face in the curve of his neck – before letting the furs sink over us. Peeta moans softly in response – to my presence or the extra warmth, I can't begin to guess – but still does not move or speak.

"Yes, this a fine place to burrow!" I murmur deliciously into the thermal weave of Peeta's pajama top and slip my arms beneath him, but I misjudge the space – or do I? – and one hand slips between the hem of his shirt and the bare skin of his back.

Oh! I cry silently as my very being shatters with bliss. Oh oh OH!

I've never felt anything so wonderful in my life and the breath skitters out of me in a mix of terror and elation, a sound echoed almost identically by Peeta, who started at the touch. I want this more than breath: warm, soft Peeta-skin beneath my little hands, to caress and savor and tickle with dancing mousekin fingers, but I can't.

But I can't pull away either. The hunger – touch-hunger – is too strong. My fingers have finally located what they want and aren't about to let it go, even though the rest of my arm is twitching with desperation to withdraw.

"I believe I have been caught," Peeta observes raggedly. "The vixen has returned and has me in her power. If only –" His voice breaks in something that might be either pain or pleasure and he tries again. "If only she knew that I was hers to command," he whispers, "long before she found me in her den."

I lift my face from its nest in the sweet hollow of his throat to gaze down at him. His eyes are open now, wide and dark as a kitten's and full of something that transcends happiness. "Hello, foolish gander," I say.

"Hello, clever vixen," he replies, so softly. "Which would you like first: my down, my flesh, or my still-beating heart?"

"I want you all," I whisper with tremulous hope and greed. "And all of you."

I feel him tremble against my hands – one on fabric, one on skin – and wonder how a small wild girl could be capable of so deeply terrifying a powerful young bear of a boy.

"Well," he says hoarsely, "here I am."

I dip my head and place a kiss over his breastbone, the impenetrable rock face guarding the thing I want most of all, and his arms enfold me desperately in warmth and musk and a deep, plaintive groan, as full of grief as pleasure.

"Katniss," he whispers. "Oh, little Katniss, my songbird, my vixen –"

"Please don't get married," I plead – stupidly, but it's all I can think of in this moment of almost suffocating bliss: its inevitable end. "Give me five, ten – fifteen years," I beg.

Fifteen years of this will pass in an eyeblink. He'll only be thirty-one then, almost thirty-two; not even starting to gray. Late to marry in Twelve, perhaps, and almost too late for his wife to conceive, but not with good food and herbs and even medicines available to help.

He laughs, a wry and ragged sound. "Katniss, all of my days are yours to command," he murmurs. "If I'm allowed a hundred years you'll own them all, every last minute of every precious hour, to spend in whichever way you choose."

I laugh in response but it's a humorless sound – a quick alternative to the sob that's pounding at my lungs from inside, desperate to come out. Don't tease me, I tell him in my mind because I can't bear to say it aloud, or hear his response. It's not enough to live beside you, to hunt and tan hides and sew warm things for you, to share meals or even cook for you – sustaining, if humble, fare filled with the extra nourishment of my love. Not once your bride is here, drinking up your kisses and carrying your love in her womb.

"I'm a jealous fox," I tell him. "Jealous the way it used to mean, and I want this gander all to myself."

In a move worthy of a wrestling champion – not the runner-up – Peeta rolls up onto his side, quickly but carefully, so I'm pinned between his powerful body and the back of the sofa, with one leg caught fast beneath his ribs.

"Has no one ever told you, wild thing," he murmurs, his face aglow with humor and sheer delight, "that mouse is goose for such as you are and shall cause less grief?"

"Mouse!" I scoff, even as I tug instinctively – and futilely – to free my leg. "Whatever should I do with a mouse? The merest mouthful of meat and barely enough fur to warm a single pad of one paw!"

"Ah yes," he says merrily, his bright eyes gleaming as delight turns to glee. "Your greed has made you the greater fool, vixen, for now at last I shall claim my prize!" He rolls onto his back, pinioning my right leg fully beneath his warm bulk, then he catches hold of my left leg and, bending the knee back toward me, brings my foot to rest on his chest.

"Oho!" he cries, flexing my foot with his strong thumbs to place my toes in front of his face. "What have we here? Five perfect vixen toes! Ripe gooseberries they are," he proclaims, "or rather, four plump gooseberries – " he counts them with a fingertip, beginning with the smallest – "and one round little plum!" He licks his lips and waggles his eyebrows at me. "Shall I gobble them all up this very instant," he wonders giddily, "or shall I begin with a single bite and save the rest for later, as you meant to do with me?"

His breath is hot and moist on my toes and the hem of my nightgown has slid up to bare that leg to the knee. I shake my head, desperate for freedom and for his mouth all at once, and Peeta pounces, drawing my foot down with cupped hands and closing his lips around the tender pad of my little toe with a playful gobbling sound, followed by quick, fluttering strokes with the tip of his tongue.

I squeal and giggle and thrash, tugging wildly at my ankle with both hands, but Peeta's hold is too strong, and with my other leg pinned beneath him I have no leverage at all. He proceeds to nibble at each of my toes in turn, greedily and with visible relish: his eyes closed, his mouth like a minnow's – and yet nothing like a minnow's – and his tongue scaling the breadth of each round toe pad in rapid, hungry laps.

I can do nothing but writhe in his hold and laugh desperately while the place between my legs warms and pulses and aches. There's a growing dampness there that confuses and frightens me even as it feels wonderful, or like the start of something impossibly wonderful, and I can't bear another second of it.

"Stop!" I plead through a frantic little laugh. "Oh, please stop!"

He does, of course – Peeta's too gentle-hearted to ignore the cries of a trapped wild thing – but he doesn't release my foot. "Stop when I've only just claimed my prize?" he teases, nuzzling my toes with his nose, and he sounds a little out of breath, as though he's the one who's been struggling all this while. "I warned you to eat my beak first, overconfident vixen," he reminds me, "and see how I have triumphed by your refusal!"

He leans up to press a wet open-mouthed kiss to my big toe and I whimper softly. The place between my legs is half pressed against his thigh because of our pose and I can't help wondering if rubbing against that solid warmth might appease the strange hunger.

"Please," I beg, because continued devotion to my toes, however exquisite in its way, will only make the ache unbearable, and rubbing against Peeta will only make him recoil in horror, maybe even repulsion. I can't lose this exquisite new thing we've just found together; this place of ganders and vixens, of shared nests and passionate hugs and mouths moving playfully against each other's skin.

Peeta regards me silently for several moments, searching my face for signs of genuine distress. "Your cause moves me to pity, vixen mine," he says at last, a little grandly. "I will relinquish all ten toes: these five delectable fruits –" he counts them again carefully with a fingertip – "and the other five I have in keeping –" he rolls his back against the leg beneath him with a grin – "but you must pay me a forfeit for your freedom."

Kisses! I think wildly. Kisses are the only forfeit I know of, and one I would gladly pay to be free of this delicious agony. Can Peeta possibly want another kiss from me, let alone so soon?

"Anything," I promise him in a rush of breath. "Unto half of my kingdom, greedy gander."

He raises his brows in surprise. "Your domain is vast, little wild queen," he remarks, "rich with pines and furs and the bounty of fruiting trees, but I crave another treasure – indeed, a greater one."

My heart beats so fast and fierce against my eardrums that I'm certain I'll be deaf in a moment. "Anything," I whisper. "Anything you can dream of. I'll give it freely, whatever you want."

Peeta gazes at me with a sad sort of disbelief, as though I can't possibly mean what I've said and certainly don't intend to give him whatever precious thing he wants so badly – a thing I can't even begin to guess at. What can this boy, who tries to refuse my gifts at every turn, possibly want from me at this moment? What could I possibly give him that he would consider a true treasure?

"I want a song," he blurts, his expression suddenly and absolutely terrified. "One song, any song you wish, sung here and now and just for me."

I frown to hide my disappointment. "That is a small price," I tell him, "and one easily paid. But do you wish for nothing else?"

"I wish for everything else," he answers simply. "But your forfeit is a song. Will you pay it?"

"Gladly," I tell him without hesitation, and the joy blazing from his eyes makes my heart stumble. "But surely I can give you some further token as well," I insist. "You ask for a pebble when you might have a crown."

He shakes his head. "I ask for a pearl," he whispers, "the rarest and most precious of all."

I want the moon.

And I know exactly what song to sing.

"Can I…c-could I maybe…hold you while I sing?" I ask, and Peeta gives a quiet moan that I feel as much as hear, a plaintive shiver through my heel where it still presses against his chest. "Or…or is that an unfair condition? It's just…well, it's sort of a lullaby," I explain in a rush. "I-I thought you might fall asleep and – "

"Yes," Peeta whispers – no, whimpers – his eyes dark with longing. "I would love for you to hold me, Katniss."

He releases my foot and eases my knee out of its bend, letting my leg drape across his thigh, then he slips off the sofa, freeing my trapped right leg from its snug, sweet prison. "Wh-where?" he says, the word little more than a croak. "Where do you…h-how should I –?"

I slink down to lie on my back across the sofa, much as Peeta was doing a moment ago, and beckon him back over. There isn't enough room for us to lie next to each other unless one or both of us is up on our side, but that's not what I want. "Lie down here," I tell him, gesturing at the remaining edge of the cushions – and me.

Of course, Peeta would never just lie down on top of me – his eyes go wide at the suggestion – and I scoot blushingly deeper into the back of the sofa, affording him an extra inch or two at the front.

"Here," I urge, stretching out my arm. "Lay your head on me and I'll put my arms around you. There's more than enough room for both of us, honest."

He sits on the edge of the cushion, eyeing me warily, and I give his shoulders an enthusiastic tug with both hands. There are a few moments of breathy grunts and fumbling and apologies but we finally end up almost exactly as I'd wanted: wrapped snugly in each other's arms, Peeta lying half beside me, half on top on me, with his hip and legs on the cushions and his cheek on my chest – or nearly. That is, it's there but almost hovering, like he's afraid to put the full weight of his head on me.

I suppose my chicken-egg breast makes a mediocre pillow at best.

"Lie down, silly boy," I chuckle, cupping the back of his head and drawing it firmly toward my shoulder, and he allows it with a deep exhalation, sinking down to rest his face at the base of my throat and warming my neck with his crown of curls.

"That's better," I sigh and cradle him as close as I can, leaning up to kiss the top of his head. His hair smells so good that my womb aches.

"A-Are you comfortable?" I croak, rocking him slightly against me. "Can you fall asleep like this?"

"I expect I could die like this," he says hoarsely. "And I'm a little afraid that I might."

"Not on my watch," I reply, perhaps too fiercely for the context, but I'll abide no suggestion of my beloved dying, let alone in this precious moment when I've finally got him so exquisitely close. "Close your little eyes, gosling mine," I soothe, a tender parroting of his endearment from earlier. "Let me sing you to sleep."

The words trigger another deep ache, a hunger not merely for Peeta and the act that would unite our bodies – no, our very beings – but also the child that such an act would create. A small yellow-curled boy or black-braided girl, lying between us in my bed of deerskin and furs, begging for just one more story before sleep-time.

Gosling mine, I echo silently, wistfully, and wish for a half-second that I wasn't holding Peeta so I could bring a hand to my empty belly.

"This was Grandpa Asa's favorite song," I murmur, rubbing my cheek against Peeta's curls. "It's a song for a winter's night: a song about wishing for the impossible while cherishing everything that's given to you."

I kiss his head once more, settle back against the pillows, and sing to my sweetheart, my voice soft and low and spilling over with love:

Give me an ear and a watchful eye
Watching me change as the seasons go by
Give me the joy of a loving look
Give me a story, story book

Give me the love that you'd give to a child
Keep me from hunger, from fear, and from cold
Give me the love that you'd give to a child
Give me the moon in a silver bowl…

Peeta's breath is speeding up, not slowing down for slumber, as it should, so I rock him a little, drawing him even closer to me and stroking my chin soothingly against the crown of his head. Sleep, little jay-chick, I coax him silently, my sweetling, my squirrel kit, my honey bear-cub, and sing on:

Give me the moon in a silver bowl
Give me the moon in a silver bowl

Turn back the night and keep me from fright
And hold me until sleepy wings can unfold

His breath is catching on the inhale; uneven, ragged, wet…the very last thing I wanted, and I hug him with all my might, cradling his head in the crook of my wing and pressing his face snugly against my chest, the way I'd hold Prim if she was frightened or sad. I can't imagine what's so upsetting about these sweet words, but perhaps those that lie ahead will prove more soothing.

What's gone is gone and can't be done over
What's past is past and won't come again
But still there's the love that's shared by true lovers
And still there's the comfort that's felt among friends

What's gone is gone and can't be done over
What's past is past and won't come again
But just for tonight can we turn out the light
And you'll hold me and tell me again and again
That you'll give me the moon in a silver bowl…

The words drift away in the firelit dawn and it's undeniable. The patch of flannel just above my right breast – the place where Peeta's cheek is pressed – is sodden and cold and his breath comes quick and shallow.

My boy is crying.

"Oh, sweet boy," I whisper, longing to cry myself for having hurt him with the gift he wanted so badly. "I didn't mean to make you sad. I-I thought you might like the song –"

"Little Katniss," he breaks in hoarsely, almost kissing the words into my breastbone. "Oh, little Katniss: I loved your song," he whispers, "every word of it. I'm crying at how beautiful it was. At…at how beautiful you are," he breathes. "Such a fierce and lovely vixen, all silk and teeth and clever, deadly paws, and yet you cradle and nuzzle me as tenderly as your very own kit and sing lullabies to me in a voice lovelier than any bird's. You are more than I ever dreamed, Katniss," he whispers. "More than I ever could have imagined."

"I'm not," I protest weakly, but his words are so sweet and seemingly genuine, almost naked in the emotion beneath. Peeta says overly nice and generous things – kind lies – to me all the time, but this one is impossible to reject, and it frightens me a little for that reason. Or rather, not frighten exactly…it stills and steals my breath and makes me tremble in a place deeper than skin and bone. I feel found, caught,sighted in my hiding place by the most inexperienced hunter, and the wild thing within me is flailing and crying out for escape but I don't know what to do. I want to bolt but there's no threat here, only warmth and kindness, even affection, from the boy I love with all my heart, and so I slowly, carefully, deliberately force my body to relax onto the cushions.

"Oh…" Peeta breathes, a soft, wondrous sigh, and I realize that he felt the change in me, however subtle and suppressed. The boy who knows I'm going to flee almost before I do knows I fought the urge this time, or maybe that it faded of its own accord, and the pleasure in his ragged voice threatens to shatter my heart.

I feel fresh tears, still warm through the damp flannel over my breast. "Please don't cry," I beg him, because if he persists there's only one thing I can think of to staunch these tears and it involves something I've essentially promised to refrain from till his birthday. The forbidden magic of kisses, heady and powerful and not to be administered lightly.

"Oh Katniss," he moans, rubbing his cheek against me, "there's something I want so badly…s-so badly that it hurts. Sometimes it feels like I could just reach out and cup it in my hand like a tame sparrow, and sometimes it seems as impossible as catching the wind itself."

I know what he wants, of course, or most of it. Between his beautiful words and stark longing, it practically paints a picture: a picture of a black-braided girl in a red plaid dress, singing like a bird as she cradles their chick-child, or lying naked beside Peeta in that bed of sunset, matching his tender kisses and gestures with her own.

"Shh, sweet boy," I soothe. "Even the wind can be caught – or harnessed, at least."

They "farm" the wind in another district – Three, I think, or could it be Ten with their endless plains? – catching it in enormous turbines and channeling its power to a station below.

"I don't want to harness her," he answers hoarsely. "I want her to be free, wild and happy and safe, but I –" His voice breaks. "I want her too," he whispers. "I want –"

"Shh," I say again, tucking him against me to silence his words, in part because I can't bear to hear them but also because I have a small idea that might bring him comfort. "I know what you want," I tell him gently. "Once upon a time there was a little boy: a baker's son who loved cheese buns and shortbread and birds –"

"I know all about that boy," he breaks in sadly, as though dismissing this suggestion.

"Then you only know half of it," I say, "because there is a girl in this story as well."

"I know about the girl too," he replies, miserably now. "I know everything about her, except what lies on her heart."

I caress what lies on my heart, downy and pale as a newly hatched chick, and feel my lips curve in a smile, safely hidden from Peeta's gaze. "Then listen," I urge him. "Perhaps I can guess.

"Once upon a time there was a girl," I go on, "a small, scrawny sparrow-child with long black braids who lived on the poorest fringe of a village. She knew of the boy; a golden apple-dumpling he was, shy and sweet and smelling always of soap and fresh bread and honey, and she smiled to look on him without quite knowing why."

"Did she love him too?" Peeta whispers, and a breathless silence falls as I consider this.

Did I love Peeta when I was a child?

I'm supposed to be talking about his girl, of course, not about me, but I don't know her story. I don't even know her name.

But there's no doubt in my mind as to what will happen once she learns of Peeta's love, so I opt to recount what he's told me or all of Panem, through his interviews, and fill in the blanks with myself, minus any details that might give it away.

"I don't know that even she could have said for sure," I admit at last. "In the Seam love is a matter for family: for spouses and children, not skinny miner's daughters and red-cheeked baker's sons. It would never have occurred to this small girl that the sweet boy, round and golden as one of his beloved cheese buns, might belong to her, whole and entire, the way her strong, handsome father belonged to her mother."

"Couldn't she see it?" Peeta wonders quietly. "The love that poured from him as he gazed on her, day after day?"

There's no doubt in my mind on this one. "I'm afraid not," I tell him. "Perhaps the boy hid it too well, or perhaps the girl couldn't see what she didn't expect – and indeed, wouldn't believe even if she could see it. For example," I add, warming to my topic, "this girl had absolutely no idea that she was beautiful."

Is she really, I wonder, or could Peeta love a plain girl?

Of course he could, but he won't have. That's simply not the way these things work. His beloved will be something out of a fairy tale, all silky braids and flashing eyes.

If only I knew who she was.

"This girl had no idea that she was beautiful," I say again, "radiant as the sun and luminous as the moon in turns, for she was shy and somber and preoccupied with her own lot. She did not feel the admiring glances of her male classmates and certainly not the adoring ones of her boy.

"Indeed, she did not think about her boy much at all," I admit – no, invent, because this isn't supposed to be my story – with a pang around my heart for Peeta's sake. "Her life was a hard one, much like those of the other poor folk living on the fringe of their village, with little room in it for sentiment. But she noticed him," I assure Peeta, "in the way that she noticed the pale, heady blossoms on his family's old apple tree and the soft silver catkins spangling the meadow-willow. He was a fixture of her world; on the periphery of it, steady and golden and kind, like the sun itself.

"She noticed the day his mother hit him," I murmur, so carefully, because he can't know that his beloved was there to witness it. "Surely he had done nothing wrong – nothing that could merit such a blow – but a cruel dark rose bloomed on his cheek nonetheless and swelled up beneath one sweet blue eye. She might have kissed that wound, the girl thought later, and brought him a little comfort, this boy who should mean nothing to her and to whom she must mean less than nothing."

"But she did kiss him," Peeta whispers. "The day he was called away on his terrible journey, his girl came to see him and kissed his cheek, right where that blow had fallen five years before."

My breath stills in grief at these words. I should have thought of that bruise – the very evidence of Peeta's efforts to help me – at the Justice Building when I kissed him on the cheek, so impulsively, as a final desperate gesture of thanks for the act that earned him that awful blow. His sweetheart had done as much, despite not having been present for his injury, let alone the cause of it, and had given him some long-needed comfort along with her tender kiss.

I wonder how there could have been two of us in the Justice Building that day: two horribly out-of-place Seam girls dressed in their mother's shabby best, kissing Peeta Mellark goodbye.

"When the boy was called away – oh, how to say what was in that girl's heart," I pretend to recount, pushing through the regret to continue the story for my boy. "She was nothing to him, so far as she knew, yet he had somehow become precious to her in ways she couldn't begin to comprehend.

"She cried when they took him away," I whisper. "She went somewhere no one could find her and her heart just broke apart with grief."

A long, ragged sigh skitters across my chest. "She did?" Peeta breathes, almost in wonder.

"She cried more than she had ever cried in her life," I confess. "She cried when they took him away and she cried at every terrible thing that befell him on his journey. She pressed a blanket to her mouth to muffle her scream when the wol…w-when the creature savaged him," I rasp. "It haunts her to this day, to have witnessed her sweetheart's pain and been powerless to stop it."

His breath catches sharply and I feel it deep in my breast. "What did you say?" he whispers.

"That it haunts her to this day," I say again, puzzled why such a sweet confession – invention, Katniss! – should be so shocking. "That she could do nothing to stop that horrible attack or even help to tend him after."

He lifts his head a little, just enough to meet my eyes, and his own are red-rimmed but very wide. "You said…" he whispers. "You called him 'her sweetheart.' "

I force my features to stay calm, though I can't prevent a gulp of terror as I mentally flail about for an explanation beneath the direct gaze of those beloved eyes. How could I have let the words slip out? How could I not have caught myself?

Because I didn't need to catch myself, I recall all at once. Because I'm not telling him about me, I'm telling him about his girl. If I fell in love with him without realizing it, surely anyone could.

And then I remember the scrap of red cotton still, always, tied at his wrist: the red plaid of his beloved's childhood dress and his own dreams of their joyful marriage. "She didn't realize it then," I tell him, "nor indeed, for a long time after, but sweetheart he had become, whole and entire. Perhaps her heart knew it before her head and led her to give him the bit of red cloth, for surely she would never have been so bold as to openly present him with a sweetheart's token, let alone at such a time."

Peeta tips his head a little from side to side, processing this. "That makes sense," he says at last, but he continues to gaze at me for a long time, his eyes soft and wistful, before letting his head sink back to my chest. This time, however, he scoots up to burrow his damp face into the curve of my neck, like a drowsy but determined new pup. "Tell me more about this girl," he instructs, sounding strangely content and even a little sleepy. "Tell me about how she loved her boy."

For some reason this makes me chuckle and I don't hesitate in my reply. "This boy was a little greedy for his sweetheart's affection," I tease, "but he had a right to be, I suppose, having loved her for so long. And his girl was shy," I remind him, deliberately forcing myself to envision another, faceless Seam girl who must love Peeta Mellark with all her heart, "but oh, how she loved him. When he returned from his terrible journey, weak and wounded but still so beautiful and wondrously, blessedly alive, how she ached to bound to him and catch him up in her arms, to hug him breathless in her joy and relief and shower him with kisses!

"But of course, she could do no such thing," I remind him – remind both of us, really. "For he had become so wealthy through his trials, like a miller's son in an old tale, that this poor girl dared not even meet his eyes, let alone think about touching him."

"But she did anyway," Peeta insists, much like a rapt child listening to just such an old tale, and I smile.

"She thought – indeed, dreamt – of that and more," I agree. "She imagined their home and their babes and – a-and the begetting of them," I finish in a rush, because even though it's a girl who might as well be imaginary – not me – that I'm talking about, or supposed to be, love-making is a mortifying topic, especially when you're talking to the person you want to engage in it with.

My face burns like a coal but Peeta gives a soft grunt against my throat and nestles himself even snugger against me. "More," he whuffles. "Tell me about the babies and where they would come from."

In spite of myself and the grief this request should cause, I laugh aloud, because he sounds like a child wheedling for a continuation of his bedtime story, only the subject matter is rather more grown-up in nature. "Well, I suppose they would share a bed, as mothers and fathers are wont to do," I tell him with teasing patience. "They would undress and lie down together, so closely that their bodies would…w-would fill each other's empty places," I say, stammering only a little. "And the emptiest place of all – the secret hollow deep inside the girl's belly – he would seed like a garden with…w-with his love," I forge on, fiery-cheeked and wholly out of my depth. "And from it the most beautiful blossoms would spring: blue-eyed sparrow-girls with skinny black braids and chubby dumpling-boys with golden curls and silver eyes."

My womb aches again, empty and plaintive and almost hungry for this future I'm painting for Peeta, and he sighs in echo of its silent pang. "So beautiful," he murmurs sleepily against my throat. "Babies…such beautiful babies… Lying with…m' sweetheart and planting babies inside her…"

I can't take it anymore.

I hook my right knee under his and give a firm tug. Peeta's body is heavy but pliant in this drowsy state and he rolls a little up onto me, so his right leg – the precious, wounded one – falls between mine and his belly presses firmly into my right hipbone. It feels wonderful but insufficient, so I work my right leg up under his left and heft it inward as well, so both of his legs lie between mine.

The space between my hipbones gives a silent croon of pleasure, from my navel all the way down between my thighs, but it's still not quite enough, and I hitch my pelvis against Peeta's belly, as though I could simply scoop up this glorious mass of boy with that tiny cradle of bone and heft him just a little higher on my body.

He lifts his head with a strange garbled sound, halfway between a gasp and a groan. "Katniss, a-are you sure this is okay?" he croaks, his eyes wide and very awake. "I-I'm awfully heavy –"

"You're perfect," I assure him, because I've never felt anything half so wonderful as his warm weight over me, all boy-musk and pulses and quick soft breaths. It should crush me – or the breath from my lungs at the very least – having so much Peeta Mellark on top of me, but instead I want more – all of it.

All of him.

I slip my hands into his back pockets, evoking a sharp gasp – unmistakable this time – and even wider eyes, and give an impatient tug at the stubborn bulk of his backside. "Scoot up," I grumble, because I'd have a better chance shifting a boulder. "Tuck into me."

He looses a ragged, shallow breath and gazes down at me for a long moment with eyes at once troubled and hungry and sad beyond measure. "You feel so good," I whisper, suddenly sheepish, and ease my hands out of his pockets with a shamed wince. "I-I'm sorry if I –"

I have no idea how to finish that sentence – If I made you uncomfortable? If I took advantage in some way? – but thankfully I never have to. Peeta dips his head to brush his nose against my cheek and with a minute surge from that powerful torso everything shifts an inch or two and he's there, right where I want him and covering me like a blanket, and this time the croon that escapes me is audible, half a mewl and half a moan. His face presses into the pillow above my shoulder with a deep lowing groan that I'd rather fell on my neck, but it's a small price to pay to feel his groin nestled up against mine. The strange lump is harder than I remember from that blissful half-second in the snow; more rigid against me, somehow, but it feels even better with the weight of his body behind it, butting heavily against the juncture of my thighs.

I can't help wondering how it would feel if I wasn't wearing this nightgown; if I was in trousers or leggings or underwear – or nothing at all – and could curl my legs around his hips, pressing back against that exquisite hardness, and I bite back a cry at such an unworthy thought. Peeta's selflessly given me yet another wonderful gift; how dare I take it greedily and demand more? He can't imagine how this feels or why I could possibly want it and yet he gave it to me anyway, despite his clear reservations.

I know I'll never get this again – can't ever, ever ask for it again – and so I resolve to make the most of it for both of us. It can't feel much better to lie on your private parts, pressing them against a bony surface of someone else's body, than to have that someone sitting squarely on top of them, so I bring my hands to Peeta's back, thinking a hug or a little caress might help counter the discomfort. Only my hands aren't content to be on top of fabric anymore, not after that wondrous accident earlier, and they slip beneath the hem of his shirt without hesitation, skittering about like ecstatic mousekins at the first touch of soft warm skin beneath.

Peeta moans against my ear and sinks over me, warm and heavy and limp with bliss.

I hadn't realized, being on top of him for all that time this morning, just how wonderful it would feel to have him on top of me. How much freedom it would give me to touch, or how alluring the back side of his body could be. There's so much of it that I can't think where to start: his broad shoulder blades, the long groove of his spine, his downy nape…? Do I steal a hand – or both hands – away to bury in his crown of buoyant curls?

Or could I simply take hold of the hem and drag it up over his head, to be engulfed in musky warm bulk and bare skin?

I jerk my hands out from beneath his shirt with a terrified squeak because it's back: that awful feeling from when I first marched Peeta up to this lover's nest. Everything I've done so far has been innocent, if a little strange, but trying to pull his shirt off would be an obvious demand for something that will never, can never be mine, and the fact that I even thought to attempt such a thing in the midst of this exquisite interlude, however innocently, is so horrifying that I feel sick.

Peeta must feel it too, or something equally awful, because he scrambles off me so quickly that he almost falls off the sofa, his sleep-clumsied limbs tangling in bearskin and fox fur. He frantically rights the covers over me and clambers down to crouch beside the sofa with feverishly flushed cheeks and the most miserable expression I've ever seen on his sweet face.

This is it, of course. He has to send me away now, for groping under his shirt and making him lie so intimately over me. Why couldn't I just hold him like I said and leave well enough alone?

"I'm so sorry," he blurts, his breath short and ragged as though he's just run the length of the Seam. "I shouldn't have…have…any of that."

"But…you didn't do anything," I counter, too perplexed by his apology to temper my reply. "It was me, all of it. I can't seem to stop doing bad things today."

The misery fades from his expression, replaced by confusion and something like sadness. "Katniss, nothing you've done today – or ever, that I can recall," he says, "could possibly be construed as 'bad.'"

I bite my lips together because him being nice – playing stupid, really – about it only makes me feel worse. "I keep doing these things, Peeta," I whisper helplessly. "Things I don't intend to do or even really understand –"

"And that makes them bad?" he wonders softly.

I cock my head like a bird's, frowning down at him. What makes these things so terrible is that they're lover's gestures, another girl's right and unwanted by Peeta…or are they?

He's accepted all my kisses – even the ones on the mouth – in the contexts of playfulness and comfort and has yet to shrink from my touch; could it be that none of this feels loverlike to him? He's an affectionate boy to begin with, and he's been isolated in this fairytale house in the woods for so long that he feeds and befriends everything in sight. Could it be that this gentle, lonely boy drinks up my touch with the same bliss as I gobble up his? That he felt even half as much pleasure at my hands on his back as it felt to have his bare skin beneath my fingers?

I sit up a little, eyeing him like a nearly-tamed fox: wary and tenuously hopeful. "Aren't they bad?" I croak.

His sadness vanishes, snuffed like a candle flame, and a whisper of a smile tugs at his sweet mouth. "Only if…if you don't like it," he says quietly. "Every touch from you feels like a blessing, but I would never want you to feel obligated or uncomfortable."

I sit up fully, gazing at him in disbelief, and reach for his left hand where it lies against the bearskin. "Blessing?" I echo, carefully curling my fingers around his, and his smile glows into fullness, spreading across his face like a sunrise as he turns his hand beneath mine.

"Blessing," he confirms, stroking the back of my hand with his thumb, "of the most wondrous variety. The sort given by good fairies at a christening, without merit or recompense of any sort."

"I-I wouldn't say without recompense," I fumble out, or for that matter, without merit, I add silently, because if anyone is deserving of comforting touch it's Peeta Mellark, and receiving his touch in return is a tenfold – no, thousandfold – reward. It's like giving someone a pebble and receiving a palace in return.

This time it's Peeta who's confused, tilting his head in puzzlement at my words, and I want so badly to kiss him that I just do it, leaning forward to take his curly head in both hands and planting my lips squarely against the crown. "Touching you – and being touched by you in turn – feels like home," I murmur against his scalp. "I could never hope to earn such a comfort, let alone dream of paying it back."

He leans back just enough to meet my eyes, so slight a movement that it doesn't even shift my hands from their gentle anchors on the sides of his head. "I thought we were past earning and paying back," he says softly, but he doesn't sound upset or troubled in the least. He sounds curious, tender…hopeful, even, but in a deep, almost hungry sort of way.

"I sincerely hope we are," I whisper, because there's no way I could ever even begin to rectify the debt between us.

"Then could you please hold me a little longer?" he whispers back. "Because it feels so good to be in your arms that it hurts to be like this, so close and so far apart all at once."

"Does it?" I rasp, because it's excruciating on my end. It hurts more than I would ever have dreamt the absence of something could. My body aches everywhere, as though I'm being pulled constantly and inexorably by a strange sort of gravity, only that force is pulling me toward Peeta, not the earth, and every moment that I hold myself back from him is like trying to stop yourself from crashing into the earth in a freefall from a tall tree. I feel empty and cold and almost incomplete, as if anytime I'm not physically in contact with him, I'm missing pieces; crucial pieces of my heart and lungs and even that profound, elusive thing my father called a soul, and I'm beginning to wonder if I'll ever be whole again. Touch, however tender and affectionate, is fleeting, even shallow in its comfort. I feel like I need Peeta inside me – his warmth and musk and gold flooding that heavy, pulsing hollow at the root of my belly that aches worst of all – to ever truly quench that hunger; that desperation for wholeness, and the impossibility of that is heartbreaking, even terrifying.

"If-If you don't want to –" he wavers, but there was never any shadow of hesitation in my body or my mind. I kick back the furs and tug him up beside me, immediately climbing into his lap and winding myself around him like a particularly affectionate snake; arms snug around his neck and legs knotted about his waist, and squeeze him so hard that he whimpers.

Mine mine mine mine mine.

"Katniss," he rasps, slipping his arms about my waist in turn. "C-Can you –?"

"Yes," I sigh into a faceful of downy curls, sinking down onto him and rocking him up against me all at once. "Anything. Just name it."

He shakes his head against my throat. "Never mind," he says, "I…it-it's stupid –"

"Tell me," I murmur, gently prodding his head with my chin like an insistent snout, and I feel him concede.

"Can you…c-can you put your hands on my back again?" he whispers. "I-If you want to, I mean. It felt...nice."

My breath skitters out in elated disbelief. I want to lean back a little, to find Peeta's eyes and confirm what I think he just asked, but we're so entwined that it would be like hacking a honeysuckle to pieces just to peer at the oak beneath, and just as painful to both parties.

So instead I curl a handful of shirt at his nape, gently tugging upward, and bring my other hand to the small expanse of bared skin above his waistband. Peeta moans at the touch; a deep hollow sound, at once sated and plaintive, and that's all the confirmation I need to bury both hands beneath his shirt, palms soaring greedily over the powerful planes of his back.

"So good," he groans, his head sagging heavily against me. "Feels so good, Katniss."

"I'd better keep up with my tanning, then," I jest weakly. Between warm, downy skin beneath my hands and my legs wrapped around Peeta's waist, my nightgown bunched up around my thighs with barely a fold of flannel between the pulsing cleft of my groin and the enticing bulge of his, I feel tight and breathless and on the verge of a strange and glorious shatter. "Callused huntress fingers won't feel half so nice," I croak.

"Agreed," Peeta murmurs, startling me in the midst of my euphoric haze. "They'll feel twice as good."

I give a little yip of dismay because this isn't the time or the way to tease me and force myself not to whip my hands out from exactly where they want to be, like I would under any other circumstances. "Don't make fun of me, Peeta," I say, stilling my swirling fingertips against his skin, and butt my jaw against his crown for emphasis. "Please don't."

"I'm not," he says – no, croons, the words hot and hushed against my throat. "Oh Katniss, I would never. Didn't I tell you? Ganders are especially fond of dusky little vixen-toes, and lonely ganders fondest of all."

"I thought you were teasing then too," I grumble, but with no fire whatsoever. "Or that you wanted to nibble my toes for a joke."

Peeta chuckles softly, a deep husky sound that makes something curl in my belly. "I'll happily nibble your toes – both fore and hind ones – for any reason, or none at all," he informs me. "I would never joke about something so important."

Of course, this only serves to prove that he is kidding, about all of it, and yet somehow, impossibly, I don't mind. I rock back a little and nuzzle at his curly head till we're aligned, brows to nose tips, and sigh across his lips. "Silly gander," I tell him, combing my fingertips gently over his ribs. "My fat, foolish, golden goose: this is no good; no good at all."

"What's no good?" he wonders, tilting his head delicately to pip the very tip of his nose against mine, and the drowsy contentment in his voice melts my resolve like sunlight on a honey-pot. "Tell me what you want and you'll have it, vixen mine."

I want you! cry my heart and my hot, hollow belly all at once. I want your downy warmth over me, bare and musky and pressing into me with gentle eagerness, and your babes – oh, how I want your babes, be they furred or feathered, hooved or human-kind.

I want you all, and all of you.

"I-I mean," I fumble out, "this business of cuddling is wondrous fine, but we'll never get anything done if…i-if we keep carrying on in such a fashion."

He tips his head back to meet my eyes, his own heavy-lidded with sleepiness and sheer bliss, and smiles slowly. "And what else is there," he wonders, "my stubborn little songbird, that so presses on our time at this moment? We have enough food to outlast a month-long blizzard without ever stinting on portions, and I can make fresh bread and cakes at the drop of a hat. What am I forgetting?"

I press a small, measured kiss to the tip of his nose. "Your birthday, gosling mine," I reply simply. "And presents, the making of which may require the full use of dusky vixen paws."

At these words he whirls us about so quickly that my back is against the sofa almost before I've blinked. I'm curled like a kit between his radiant warm bulk and the back of the sofa, with my cheek on one sturdy shoulder and a mound of silky furs tugged hastily over us both. "Time for sleep," grunts the soft mouth against my forehead, with no little amusement and so much affection it blinds me, even with my eyes closed tight. "No more leisurely cuddling, you lazy thing, just a quick fortifying nap. I want a whole heap of birthday presents made by crafty vixen paws," he murmurs gleefully.

I chuckle against his chest, my heart so swollen with love that the happy jostle of laughter almost hurts. "Yes, greedy gander," I reply meekly. "Though it might help if I knew how much time I have to work on said presents."

Peeta makes a strange little sound; a sort of whine, almost, and I lift my head to find him regarding me with lips pressed firmly together, as though he'd rather admit anything in the world than the answer to my question. "If your birthday is in June, I will eat you here and now," I inform him. "You may be the most precious thing in the world to me, but no present I can dream up would require six months of abstaining from cuddling."

He grins crookedly. "It's March, actually," he says. "March 19th."

I exhale in a little huff, somewhere between disappointment and despair. My sweetheart's birthday is a yawning two and a half months away. Closer to two than three, maybe, but June was a joke: March 19th feels like an eternity from now. I'm not sure I can hold onto the deerskin that long, but that's not the worst of it.

Before I can stop myself, my eyes drift to the jar on the low table: the jar full of red ribbon scraps that Peeta can't possibly have spotted yet. I promised no more kisses till his birthday; how in the world will I suffer through two and a half months?

"Is that a problem?" he wonders softly. "We can celebrate my birthday whenever you want, Katniss – or skip it entirely, really; it's not a big –"

I dip my head to brush a swift feather-kiss across his mouth and quickly burrow against him once more, my burning face buried in his shirt.

"Ah," he says, and one big gentle hand cups the back of my head. "I'd call you a thief, scamp," he murmurs tenderly, caressing my scalp with his fingertips, "except you are so fiercely determined to give, not to take."

If you only knew, I think miserably. How greedy I am to touch and kiss any part of you, and your lips most of all. How happy I am to gobble up your kisses like stolen toffee buttons.

I am a thief, and the very worst kind: stealing kisses and embraces that belong to another girl – and a Seam girl at that, as like me as can be imagined. How would I feel to learn another Seam girl had been kissing and cuddling Peeta while he waited for my heart?

I press my face hard against his chest with a sharp, hopeless whimper.

"Shh, little one," Peeta soothes, curling his body to form a nest for mine and fitting snugly around me, guiding my face to rest against his throat and scooping his knees beneath my backside.

For the first time it occurs to me how vulnerable he's made himself, this gentle boy: persistently presenting his bare throat to a fierce and deadly vixen.

I might nip you, I warned him earlier, as he held me so tightly in the snow.

I love it when you're fierce, he replied, and love it even more when you nip me.

I wonder how my father would feel about this method of taming, and if the prince in the old tale ever tried this approach with his fox.

"You're safe, Katniss," Peeta murmurs, a sweet hum against my face as he gathers me to him. "Home. Warm and protected and…and cared for, treasured, cherished, so very much. Tell me what's making you sad and I'll fix it," he says huskily. "I promise. I can't bear it when you're sad."

I shake my head against him because the last thing I can do right now – no, ever – is tell him why it hurts to be in his arms, let alone dare to hope he could "fix" the problem. "I can't," I whisper. "It's not something you can fix anyway."

"I can try," he reminds me gently, and I have to swallow a whimper as his fingers inch up to caress my nape. I want to lean back into the touch and bring those fingers to my lips all at once, and I don't dare do either one.

"I hope someday you can tell me, little sweetheart," he says, stroking his chin against my head and tucking me a little closer against his throat, as though he heard the cry I didn't utter. "That you'll trust me with the deepest, most painful burden of your heart. I'd do anything to take it from you," he whispers. "Anything to stop you from hurting."

I know he's telling the truth and that makes it even worse. This sweet boy practically lives to ensure my comfort and it's probably driving him out of his mind that there's a hurt he can't heal – can't even reach – but it wouldn't help anything if I told him. He's not going to love me just because I wish that he could, but he'd probably try to find some way to make me happy; give me all the trappings of a sweetheart and none of the love, perhaps, and break his own heart in the process.

So I give the only I answer I can. "I hope someday I can tell you too," I whisper back, and sink into his solid warmth with a bittersweet sigh.

Peeta echoes it, and almost at once his breath slows to a content and steady pattern of long and deep. He's so tired and so overdue for his nap that I'm a little surprised it took him this long to drop off, but just when I'm certain he's out he murmurs, softly but clear: "Thank you, Katniss…for everything. For your songs and for the cuddle-nest, for the wonderful breakfast and…a-and the kisses and…the story about my sweetheart. Thank you for…for…" His voice breaks but in a long, determined yawn, not hesitation. "For hope," he says simply; sleepily, and with a little croon of breath he drifts off beneath me, his powerful body limp and heavy and blissful in slumber.

I smile and tuck a shy kiss into the hollow of his throat. "Thank you, sweet boy," I whisper, and settle down to dream against his shoulder.

I'm in a place at once familiar and impossible: the Seam house I grew up in, yet as I've never seen it before. There is a merry, sooty coal fire on the hearth, blazing cheerfully beneath a beribboned garland of pine, and all about are the comforting scents of snow-dampened wool and leather and furs, of rabbit stew, deer-blood sausage, and hot acorn bread spread with goat cheese and honey.

It feels like home, but not my own.

I'm sitting in Granny Ashpet's rocking chair, wearing a long dress of soft red plaid cotton. My lap is draped with a familiar ashen-silver fur with glints of copper; my fox fur – my true skin, I think idly – and I curl forward to hug the firm, proud swell of my belly with both arms.

The babies are elated.

I don't know how I know this, but I do. They're so full of joy that it almost hurts. They're coming soon, so soon now, and I'm impatient to cradle and cuddle them, to guide a hungry little mouth to each breast and kiss their sweet tiny faces as they suckle.

My grandmother is seated on a crate with my bare feet in her lap, massaging them with her strong tanned hands. She's older than she ever lived to be: her hair, pinned in a slapdash sort of bun at her nape, is almost entirely silver, and her striking face is lined by decades of happiness and hours spent hunting beneath the sun, and yet she's still the most beautiful woman I've ever seen. "It's not often we get a visit from the moon herself," she remarks, as though we've been at this conversation for some time, not just beginning it. "And how are the fawnlings today?" she wonders, looking up with a dazzling smile.

"Fawns?" says a man's voice, brimming with laughter, and Grandpa Asa comes up beside her, a jaunty cap tugged low over his wild shock of gray hair and the beginnings of a stick dolly in one hand. "'Tis a peeping fat goose, acushla," he corrects her with a wink, "silver as dandelion-down, and a merry golden kit. Goslit and kitling," he informs us, gently laying his free hand on my belly. "None other could it be."

He is neither handsome nor ugly, this man I have never quite been able to picture in my mind, with his hooked nose and soft gray eyes. He has a face that instantly feels like home, like sooty fires and musty quilts and ancient lullabies, and I no longer wonder why Granny Ashpet chose a slight, plain dreamer of a boy over every other in the district.

My grandfather is gentleness incarnate, and I see the adoration in Granny Ashpet's face as she looks up at him – a feat not often achieved between the two of them, owing to my grandmother's superior height. "Think you so, lover?" she wonders. "This doe wants fawns, make no mistake, and her golden boy is crowned with antlers."

"That signifies little enough," says Aunt Laurel in passing and I look up with a grin, half expecting her to be wearing her own antlers, but she looks so wonderfully ordinary and Seam-born with her muddy boots and flannel coat and silver-threaded braids that I want to clamber up from this chair and hug her about the waist. She's about an inch taller than her aging father, making it painfully clear just how diminutive he truly is, and takes full advantage of this by pressing a sound smack of a kiss atop his capped head.

"Have you never seen her mate, Papa?" she wonders. "The sun himself, he is. She carries the stars in her womb, Morning and Evening both. Jackie!" she calls. "Tell them. You know better than anyone."

My father emerges from the next room, wreathed in smiles and handsomer than ever, his faintly silvered black hair tied back at the temples. "You silly lot!" he laughs fondly. "You're all more hair than wit. Catkin has loved the white bear since long before she understood it. She wept like a bereaved lover not to have him in her arms when she was just five years old, make no mistake about it. I told her he would come to her in time; all she need do was wait, and so he did.

"Catkins and cubs," he declares, coming over to press a kiss to the kerchief tied about my braids like a little red cap. "Snowy white bear-cubs and downy silver catkins," he says, with a caress of my cheek. "My daughter would have nothing less."

"Beloved!" cries a muffled voice that makes my heart leap and the babes in my belly surge about wildly. "What madness is your kin conspiring with all this talk of animals?"

My husband has come.

Warm golden light seeps around the edges of the front door, brighter and more beautiful than any lantern or torch. The light of the sun itself, powerful enough to hatch black and gold nestlings from pebbles.

"Open the door to me, Katniss," he implores, "for I am heavy-burdened with gifts and mean to kiss you at once, and thoroughly, upon my entering."

I laugh delightedly and shake off my kin, wriggling out of the chair with a great heave for my heavy belly. I'm half-delirious with eagerness and the babies are twice so, tremoring inside me with anticipation for their father. The promised kiss, of course, is only the beginning. My beloved intends to carry me to the nearest bed of musty quilts and there love me from head to foot, lavishing an immeasurable span of time on my belly, where our children lie, and lower down; the secret place, where he entered to plant them inside me. His touches there are the sweetest of all, and I blush deeply at the thought of engaging in such delicious intimacies while my family waits in the room adjacent, but a little embarrassment is not enough to give me pause, not when I am so near to joining with my beloved once more.

"Whatever form he appears in is the form the babes will take!" Granny Ashpet whispers urgently, somewhere behind me.

"I'll take that bet," her daughter whispers back.

"Don't bother with your trappings," Granny Ashpet calls to my unseen beloved. "Your bride is anxious to see your face."

"As am I for hers," he calls in reply, then beseeches me with blatant adoration: "Moon-willow, vixen, sweet songbird who made her nest in my heart: please let me in! I am dying for want of your lips on mine and your precious body in my arms."

I take hold of the latch, the metal gently warmed by his presence on the other side, and lift it with eager, trembling fingers. Whatever waits for me beyond this door – a magnificent golden buck, a great white bear, a silly yellow gander, or a young man incandescent with the sun's own light – I love him all, and all of him, and I ache to see our babes and hold them in my arms.

But not before I hold him, and love him with all my might.

I fling the door wide open to a glorious blaze of hot, honey-golden light –

– and I wake with an audible pang, my belly heavy and hollow and my heart a cold knot of grief.

No mysterious, unseen beloved. No babes. My father and his family are all dead, not surrounding me in gentle affection and making playful guesses as to the nature of my unborn twins.

And yet I'm not alone.

I'm lying beside – half on top of – a soundly sleeping Peeta, his powerful body cocooned around mine, snugging me solidly between his glorious warm bulk and the cushioned back of the sofa.

I smile.

"Welcome, beloved," I whisper soundlessly, tracing his heart with a fingertip, and shiver at the daring words cascading from my tongue, still caught up in the bittersweet, beautiful dream. "My door is always open to you, and my arms."

He gives a soft grunt in response, making me start, and one strong hand slides over my body to cover my hand on his chest. "Sweetheart," he drowses. "M' little sweetheart…"

"Not quite," I tell him sadly, almost silently. "You've caught a little black bird – tamed her, in fact – but she's not the right one."

"Only one," he slurs insistently.

"I know, sweet boy," I assure him with a gentle kiss to his forehead. "There's only one bird for you, and always has been. We'll get her for you, even if I have to lay the snare myself."

"She lays the snares," he sighs. "Lays snares for me…shimmering nets of moonlight…in her eyes."

"And you want the moon," I reply, intending to comfort him with the reminder, but I can barely choke out the words.

"I watch her," he whispers. "Look for her every day in the sky, but she never comes near the sun. She's barely close enough to feel his light…never close enough to hold."

"She will be," I promise, even as it breaks my heart to identify his sweetheart – some other birdlike Seam girl – as the huntress-moon. "Perhaps she'll surprise you and catch hold of you herself," I suggest. "She is a huntress, after all."

"My huntress," he grunts, squeezing my hand, and I let a smile sneak onto my lips. However wildly he dreams of his sweetheart, he still knows who I am, even in slumber.

"Yours, whole and entire," I agree, dipping my head to kiss his hand where it covers mine on his chest. "Always and entirely yours."

He gives a pleasured little "Mmm…" in reply and sinks into slow deep breaths once more. It's the hardest thing I'll ever have to do in my life, I'm sure of it, but I carefully extricate myself from his embrace and slip off the sofa – not because I want to, not in any measure, but because I've been commissioned to make birthday presents, and if I spend much more time in proximity to my sweetheart I'm fairly certain I'll burst, from my heart or my belly or perhaps both at once. The secret place between my legs feels a little damp, almost slippery, though the heady, urgent ache from earlier has faded to a warm, pleasant sort of heaviness that feels full and empty all at once.

I pull the furs up over Peeta while firmly, blushingly resisting the urge to glance at his groin, to find the lump in his trousers that fits my aching hollow like a key and makes stars dance behind my eyes. I understand that less than anything so far, and the further I can get away from that strange, troubling, thoroughly senseless ecstasy, the better.

I slip upstairs and dress in the sweater and trousers Lavinia must have laid out last night, taking a quick peek inside my underwear as I do. There's a small patch of colorless dampness on the crotch, where the fabric rests against the most intimate part of me, and the sight of it jars a terrifying rush in my head; a dizzying, ringing sort of pulsation. I don't know what this means and I'm afraid to guess at it – to even think about it. I know I'm not sick as such; there's nothing physically wrong with me – there couldn't be, not under Peeta and Lavinia's devoted care – but this is something I've neither seen nor heard of before and therefore frightening, like the first time I got my menses, about six months after Peeta gave me burned bread and I gorged myself on dandelions and sunshine and hope.

I gorged myself on the full bounty of the woods that autumn in anticipation of another desperate winter, thinking perhaps I could stuff myself till the food was all gone and then sleep away some of the hollow nights like a hibernating bear, and I was up to my eyes in a bowl of honey-and-acorn mush with a cold boiled egg, mashed with wild onions and chives and buttery dandelion petals, when I felt the first pang in my belly – not my stomach; somewhere lower, deeper, more primal – and in the shack by the lake when I discovered the first blot of blood on my underthings. I was terrified that I'd ruptured my insides with so much food or grown a bleeding ulcer, or maybe I'd finally eaten a bad mushroom or berry and was slowly hemorrhaging to death, and my mother was no help then, even if I could have swallowed my resentment for the bad months after Dad died and gone to her. I was desperate to keep the news from Prim, certain I was dying and my tiny, delicate sister would surely be next, and finally, trembling and in tears from both the terror and the nauseating pain, I caught Greasy Sae alone at her stewpot and blubbered out my worst fears.

After her initial guffaws of laughter the old Seamwife pulled together a pouch of clean rags, threw in a hearty chunk of the wild ginger I'd just traded her to steep for an earthy but effective pain tea, and gave me a gruff hug for good measure. I found our own rag-bag when I got home – or rather, finally understood what and why it was – and warmed a big lake stone to lay on my belly when I knew Prim wouldn't see. I still didn't want her to know what was happening to me, certain she would despair at this strange, gory rite of passage that her always-strong sister was suffering through. She figured it out eventually, of course, and in her wise and quiet way, did little things to try and make it easier for me, like steeping great pots of willow bark tea for me and trying to make that hideous cat of hers lie in my lap as a source of radiant heat that we wouldn't have to pay for.

I haven't had my menses since the first snowfall in October. I lost too much weight this winter; it's a common thing when you live in the Seam, where food is constantly, perilously scarce, and I wonder if this bizarre new bodily response – the pleasant, heavy ache between my legs, the damp spot in my underwear – is related somehow. Maybe it's an indication that I'm getting my cycle back – the moon cycle, the Seamwives call it, or sometimes the blood tide, but in a mystical sort of fashion, not a violent or grotesque one – and the thought brings an inexplicable smile to my lips. Having a menstrual flow again would mean I'm truly healthy – whole, even – but it feels like more than that. Like something momentous, even wonderful, is coming, not merely one week out of four characterized by acute abdominal pain, daylong bouts of irritability, and a heap of bloodstained linens to bleach and scrub.

I shrug off these troubling thoughts and cross to the bathroom to splash my face at the sink. The pulsing rush in my brain has eased with no flush in my cheeks to show for it, but I still feel hot and uncomfortable and even a little shaken. Going outside and working on the deerskin will do wonders for that, though, and provide distraction aplenty.

I look in on Peeta to ensure he's still sleeping comfortably in his – our – nest of pillows and furs then return to the kitchen, where I make quick work of the dishes and pull together the "scraps" I set aside earlier: eggshells, breadcrumbs, a tiny handful of cranberries, and one perfect drop biscuit that I designated for Peeta's birds from the very beginning and now crumble for ease of sharing among many tiny beaks. As an afterthought I scrape up the little pockets of rich bacon fat still clinging to the skillet and make thumbnail-sized "bird cake" suet nuggets with the breadcrumbs and a few nubbins of biscuit. Peeta's birds will be delighted by the unexpected feast, and it makes me deliriously happy to be able to do something wonderful for someone he loves.

With this thought in mind, I duck into the pantry and fill my pockets with sugar cubes.

I emerge from the house in my cardinal cap and go straight to the garden to scatter the meal for Peeta's birds – no, our birds. A few sparrows, feathers fluffed up against the chill, linger on dormant raspberry canes as I come near and greet me with loud, reproachful cheeps, making me laugh. "I'm sorry, little darlings," I tell them as I toss a handful of suet nuggets in their direction. "Peeta was up plenty early to feed you, but I'm afraid he got distracted."

By me, I think in a flood of foolish happiness. I pounced on him and kissed him senseless and cooked him breakfast. I made him so happy that he forgot to feed the birds – who, judging by their sleek plumpness and bright, healthy eyes, would be none the worse for a missed meal or two, let alone a slightly delayed breakfast.

All at once I have to tell someone; anyone; have to share this wild, shimmering fountain of joy that has me breathless and bursting at the seams. I'm beginning to understand why girls feel the need to discuss every detail of their crushes with their sisters and school friends, but of course I can't tell Prim about any of this. Could I write to Madge? I wonder. Quiet golden Madge is the closest thing I have to a school friend, and she just sent me those beautiful sugar plums, so it wouldn't be completely out of the blue to receive a letter from me in reply.

Then again, Madge immediately assumed that Peeta would leap into bed with me as soon as we got out here – and offered me Capitol pills to prevent a pregnancy – so for a myriad of reasons, it can't be her.

I glance at the stable, thinking of the faithful animal companions in every good fairy tale, hearing all and sharing none, and bound inside: straight for Rye's stall, where his long white face is already looming out, curiosity piqued by my unusually noisy manner of arrival. "Oh, Rye!" I cry, tossing aside the empty bird tray to unlatch the stall door with trembling fingers, and slip inside to fling my arms around the pony's broad shaggy neck and bury my face in his mane.

I don't consider for a moment that I'm hugging a creature large enough to crush me with a simple shift of its weight or batter me to death with its heavy hooves, and sweet placid Rye gives me no reason to; just a deep, understanding sort of whuffle in reply.

"Oh, Rye," I say again, a long sigh into a faceful of coarse pale hair, "I love Peeta. I love him so much; love him with all my might – and we just took a nap together; the two of us, snuggled together on the sofa like mousekins in a nest! I cooked breakfast for him and he loved it, every last bite – and I kissed him out in the snow! I knocked him over and nuzzled him to bits and I kissed him on the mouth!" I squeal. "And he wasn't angry or anything; he just asked what it was for, like in my bird dream, when I rubbed my little head against his heart."

The pony whuffles again – somehow, all the response I require – and dips his head toward my hip pocket, lipping intently at the corduroy.

"All right, you greedy thing," I giggle, nipping out of the stall and latching the door firmly behind me before producing two sugar cubes from the pocket he was pursuing. "I'll trade you sugar cubes for secrets," I tell him in my toughest trader voice, proffering the cubes just out of reach, and wave them about tantalizingly. "One cube for each sympathetic whuffle," I tease. "Take it or leave it."

Rye snorts and tosses his head impatiently – as close to a nod as I'm going to get – and I give him the cubes, and a quick kiss on the nose for good measure. "Done," I declare. "And may I say, lazy lump, you've snagged yourself quite a bargain."

But that isn't quite enough. The fountain of my heart is still bubbling up wildly; a quick hug and a rambled confession barely lessened the sweet pressure in my chest, and so I dart back outside in search of my mourning dove. The garden is already full of merry, greedy birds enjoying their breakfast feast but she won't be in the midst of them.

"Where are you, little one?" I call softly. "Please, I want to tell you something."

There's a familiar chittering wing-whistle, much nearer than I anticipate, and a small, beloved creamy brown bird comes to land about twenty feet away: along the most distant edge of the crumb-swath, sown just for her, safely away from the competitive cacophony of iridescent blackbirds and striking blue jays and fat, ornery sparrows.

I creep forward and crouch in the snow, crumbless, to extend an empty palm in greeting. "I love Peeta Mellark," I tell her in a whisper. "The sweet honey-boy with the golden curls who brings you food every day. Oh, how I love him, little bird."

She gives a suet nugget several investigative pecks with her slender beak – she's a wild dove, after all, not a near-pet like Rye – before briefly but keenly fixing her bright black eyes on me. I wonder if she'll tell every bird in the woods till the trees and dry winter grasses sigh my secret in the slightest breeze, like in the ancient tale of the donkey-eared king.

Katniss loves Peeta Mellark… The huntress loves the gentle boy… The moon loves the sun…

Will every wild creature look at me knowingly now? A wry slant of eye as they quiver and breathe their last, impaled by my arrows? I am not so poor off as you, it would say. My pain is brief and about to end; yours is embedded in your very soul and will endure even after your body expires – will hurt to the very end of time.

No, my dove is as shy as I am and will carry my secret in her heart.

Is this, I wonder, why dove's hearts made love potions in the old tales? They held the love of the unrequited one and the beloved consumed it in their drink?

I wonder idly if making more meals for Peeta might serve the same purpose. Filling him with my love till it seeps from his belly into his bloodstream, then surges like lightning to his lungs and heart and mind –

No, I can't think like that. Peeta is not mine; never mine, and it's unkind, unworthy, and downright wicked of me to wish otherwise, knowing now what I do of his sweetheart. Love means wanting the best for someone, even if that isn't you, and Peeta deserves nothing less than the bride he's longed for since he was five years old.

But that doesn't mean I can't shower him with my love at every turn; can't pour my love into him till he glows with it like a toasting fire.

I think of last night's dream of heartbreaking beauty, of katniss blossoms and bridal doeskins and sharing a rich man's toasting meal with the sun himself. His very light is his love for you, Aunt Laurel said, and you in your turn are radiant with it, but it's the other way around. It's me who's incandescent with love and Peeta who will be made radiant by its light.

The next step in that direction is, of course, completing the deerskin to wrap around my sun-boy like a cape of soft and supple gold, fit for the sun himself, and I return to the stable on eager fox-feet to find Pollux uncovering the sleigh in a positive sulk. Dressed in trousers, a thermal undershirt, and suspenders, he stomps glowering and stocking-footed to retrieve Rye's harness.

He looks up at me for a moment, narrows his eyes in a scowl, and storms back to the sleigh, making cross little noises in his throat.

He's grumpy.

I've never seen him like this, and it's absolutely delightful.

"And a fine 'good morning' to you too," I tease, crossing to nonchalantly ruffle Rye's ears as he regards Pollux, a little bemused by this peculiar behavior from his neighbor – from everyone this morning, probably. "What's eating you?"

Pollux produces a scrap of paper from a pocket and shakes it crossly in my direction, still glowering, but I'm too far away to make out the words written there. It's unlikely he'd be waving around a love note, though, and even more unlikely that Lavinia would have given one to him, so it must be instructions of some kind from Peeta.

But Peeta's still asleep in our nest, and he came straight from shoveling snow to breakfast and then on to the sofa with me. When would he have had time – or opportunity – to leave Pollux a note? And he just assured me that we have enough food to outlast a month-long blizzard, so what in the world could he possibly want from town, let alone so urgently that he dragged Pollux out of bed to retrieve it?

"What's that?" I ask, coming over for a closer look at these mysterious orders, but Pollux pulls the paper out of reach with a grumble – which, naturally, makes me even more curious.

"Oh, come on," I wheedle, making a valiant, unsuccessful grab for the note. "What's so secret about milk and eggs? We were bound to run out eventually."

Lavinia laughs nearby and I look up to see her at the foot of the stairs, dressed in leggings and one of Pollux's sweaters, her fiery hair wild about her face and her stunning caramel eyes soft and sleepy. Somehow she looks more beautiful than ever.

Which, I suppose, explains why Pollux was so cross to leave his bed this morning.

"Hello," I greet her, pushing past my embarrassment with vigorous cheerfulness and more teasing. "This one is in quite the mood this morning."

She raises her black brows and comes to take the note from Pollux's unresisting fingers, and the message must be short indeed because she reads it in an instant and flashes me a furtive grin that crinkles her eyes at the corners.

I've never felt so curious or nosy in my life. "What is it?" I ask. "What does he want from town?"

She ducks away with a jubilant laugh, the paper curled securely in one slim hand, and tugs the canvas back over the sleigh, then she presses an impish kiss to Pollux's cheek, gestures demonstratively between the harness and Rye, and skips back upstairs.

Openly perplexed, Pollux retrieves his boots from beside the stable stove but duly leads the pony out of his stall and buckles him into the belled harness. In the midst of this Lavinia returns, thoroughly bundled in her scarf, fine new coat, and boots, with her brilliant hair tucked up inside Pollux's sparrow-cap, and takes my beautiful new skis from a cupboard.

I wonder for a half-second where I'm supposed to be going and then she gestures to Pollux to lead the pony outside, where I look on in surprise and sudden comprehending laughter as ever-practical Lavinia straps her feet into the skis, hooks Rye's harness around her waist, and takes the reins in either hand, in lieu of poles.

Apparently she means to save time and effort by skipping the sleigh and simply skiing to town on Peeta's errand.

She waves Pollux to her and tugs him down for a long, hearty kiss, square on the mouth, then she whistles sharply to Rye and he prances off toward the lake with her in tow, as though this new arrangement is the most normal thing in the world. Or maybe he's so happy to pull a featherlight load that he doesn't particularly care how or why it came about.

I look at Pollux, gazing bereftly after his clever wife, and giggle in spite of myself. I no longer wonder how Lavinia made it from the Capitol to the wilds of District Twelve before being captured; rather, I wonder if she could teach me a thing or two about resourcefulness and resolve to take her into the woods with me at the first opportunity.

"Cheer up," I tell him, coming up to plant a playful peck on one bearded cheek. "She'll come back to you, I'm sure of it – unless, of course, she finds someone more promising in town."

He scowls down at me, albeit with a flicker of genuine fear that his beautiful wife might indeed find a better prospect during a quick run to the grocer's, then in one fell swoop he picks me up and slings me over one burly shoulder like a particularly bothersome burden. By this point laughter is inevitable and I giggle myself breathless as he totes me into the workshop and deposits me with a huff beside the deerskin in its frame, then quickly produces his slate and chalk.

You and your mischief stay in here, he writes sternly. I'm going back to bed and I don't want to see anyone but my wife for the rest of the day.

I answer this with a shameless grin. "Fair enough," I say, "but if she finds a better offer in town, I'm waking you at dawn tomorrow morning with a bucket of snow on your head, you wonderful grumpy thing."

He curls an arm around my neck and presses a gruff kiss to the top of my head. My life was so much easier before you came along, imp, he writes, bracing the slate against me. You two will wear me out with these fool errands of yours.

"I haven't sent you on any errands yet," I remind him, while squealing inwardly at this confirmation that whatever Peeta wants so badly from town is intended, at least in some measure, for me.

And then I remember: I did send Pollux on an errand; a very particular one that ended all wrong.

"Pollux, the venison ribs," I say softly, catching him by a suspender to keep him close. "Why didn't you deliver them to Peeta's sweetheart?"

He raises his brows in surprise. I brought the parcel to the bakery, just like you said, he writes. How do you know she didn't receive it?

For some reason this question makes me blush, as though I've been snooping into matters that are none of my business, and I already feel terrible for meddling in Peeta's careful courtship of his sweetheart. "Because I found them in the freezer this morning," I reply, quieter still. "I was looking for a chub of sausage and there they were, large as life."

His lips curl in a strange smile: a gratified, almost victorious one that makes no sense whatsoever. FAIRIES, he writes firmly. That's how these things happen in your stories, isn't it?

I shake my head in puzzlement, more confused now than ever. "Sometimes," I concede, dismissing for the moment that fairies don't exist outside of the old tales, and never have. "But why on earth would fairies spirit away a package of venison from a bakery icebox and return it to the giver?"

Why indeed, he writes cryptically, and gives my braids an affectionate toss before leaving the room.

I stare at the stretched deerskin for several long, pensive moments. Pollux wouldn't lie about completing his errand – if he hadn't delivered the parcel he would have told me so, and why – which means someone at the bakery intercepted the ribs and sent them back without his knowledge, tucked among the gifts or maybe with the meat parcel from Rooba. Maybe Peeta's father or one of his brothers expected the girl to reject the present and wanted to save everyone undue embarrassment, or maybe they know about the strange conditions of his courtship.

In any case, I should focus on the myriad blessings that resulted from this bungled errand. I get to share another slab of delicious venison ribs – and several fine cuts of meat besides – with Peeta, and we've all escaped a lot of embarrassment. And it might even reflect well on me for the baker's family to know I sent a New Year's gift for Peeta's sweetheart. After all, I could hardly be in love with the boy myself if I'm sending a goodwill present to the girl he loves.

The girl whose identity I need to root out, here and now.

Today's workload includes stretching the damp skin to thoroughly break the fibers and buffing it soft with Pollux's sandpaper blocks and roughly sawn pieces of bone, though I rule, after seemingly endless internal debate, that I don't need to repeat the braining, which would require a trip to the woods for half a dozen rabbits and a repeat of yesterday's labors. As fine as it would be to touch Peeta with renewed brain-softened hands, I don't need to butcher half a dozen rabbits on top of today's tasks and if I did, I'd want the preservation of their skins to be the top priority for that precious brain tissue. I'll make Peeta something – possibly many somethings – with rabbit-skin for his birthday, but that's a project for another day. Today is reserved for the endless task of stretching and softening a deerskin, and to help pass the time, I've set my mind to solving the riddle that is Peeta's sweetheart.

There's a strange old tale where the unlikely solution to an unthinkable problem is to guess a name. A wicked gnome makes a bargain with a young queen to steal away her firstborn child, and the only way to prevent it – to defeat him wholly – is to guess his name. When she does at last, with a bit of help, the furious creature stomps himself into the ground and tears himself in two for good measure.

Of course, I don't wish any such gory end for Peeta's beloved, but I can't help wondering if I could make her go away by guessing her name.

Being named for a flower is fairly common in Twelve as our principal industry, unlike those of other districts, doesn't exactly lend itself to charming children's names, let alone for girls. Some families, like Peeta's, build a legacy with repeat family names while others, like Granny Ashpet's father and Granny Ashpet in her turn, choose names from favorite old tales, but remote as we are from the rest of Panem, nature itself serves as a favorite, reliable source of names.

Merchants tend to snap up the sumptuous or dainty flower names such as Rose, Lily, and Iris, though it's not unheard of nor even uncommon for a Seam girl to bear such a name. In general, though, Seam parents gravitate toward more common – less pretentious, perhaps – wildflower names like Clover, Honeysuckle, or Daisy. Primrose, my sister's name, strikes a perfect balance between the delicacy of a Merchant garden bloom and the hardiness of a wild Seam weed.

While I stretch the deerskin with deep weighted presses of a long bone, I wrack my brain for all the girls my age who could be named for white flowers. I've never paid much attention to my classmates at all, let alone the female ones, and I berate myself silently and thoroughly for this oversight. There are around 100 kids in my class, among which I recall two Lilys, one Rose, and a Daisy, but all of them are full-blooded blonde, blue-eyed Merchant girls, hardly Peeta's beautiful little bird, all black and silver and creamy dove-brown. There's a Seam girl called Clover and another simply named Blossom, which would probably qualify, but the more I think of it, even Anne and Cicely are the names of white flowers – and Alyssum too, for that matter, though my mother typically associated herself with the deep purple variety.

And then it hits me like a tribute's death cannon.

Columbine Wilhearn, named for the woodland flower with its delicate star-shaped blooms and long tails tipped with nectar. She's easily the prettiest girl in the Seam; maybe the prettiest in the entire district, and she's like me only better – impossibly so.

Half-Merchant and half-Seam, her father is the youngest son of the town tailor, who didn't care to have a Seam daughter-in-law living above their fine shop in town but wasn't bothered overmuch by his son setting up his own business in the Seam and taking a healthy portion of their customers with him. To be fair, Columbine's father probably doesn't make all that much more than my Merchant-born mother did in her capacity as Seam apothecary, but his wife is still alive and well and working alongside him, which means extra takings – and of course, that he didn't give up on life for several years and have to rebuild from starvation and hollow cupboards. His rates are cheap and flexible enough that most Seam folk can afford to have a piece of clothing mended or made to fit, but there are also plenty of Merchant folk who continue to patronize his shop because his work is so good – at half the price of his father's.

In other words, the Wilhearns are the closest the Seam has to affluence, which means that Columbine, who would have been stunning even lean and scrawny and covered in coal dust, sports the healthy curves, round cheeks, and thick, shiny hair that are her Merchant heritage. Her skin is fairer than that of most Seam girls – closer to cream than cream-coffee, though still more olive than fair – and her hair, though a decided Seam-black, has a becoming bit of curl when she wears it down.

Naturally, all the boys like her. She's a Seam girl who doesn't look too Seam – probably a bit like Granny Ashpet in her day, minus the striking cougar eyes, of course – so even the proudest Merchant boys turn their heads when she walks by.

Sweet Peeta Mellark, with his love of old tales and fairy maids, would have fallen head over heels at first sight.

The only wrinkle in my theory is that Columbine is a year older than us, but Peeta only said that he saw and fell in love with his girl on the first day of school, not that they were in the same class – and really, there's no one else it could possibly be. Columbine Wilhearn is the only girl in Twelve who could even remotely resemble the silver moon come to earth, and while I can't recall ever hearing her sing, with a face as pretty as hers, every word that leaves her mouth will sound like starlight, especially to a boy in love.

No wonder Peeta's been so reluctant to court his fabled sweetheart. Columbine has her pick of the boys, both Merchant and Seam, and her family is comfortable enough in funds not to desperately need his Victor's winnings, while still Seam enough to feel obliged to repay any gift and pressured to accept if he proposed.

I think of sending Columbine Wilhearn a parcel of raw venison as a New Year's gift and set down my crude bone scraper to cradle my burning cheeks.

I suddenly want Rye here so badly, so I could bury my face in his broad neck and cry my broken heart out, but of course he's still in town, merrily toting Lavinia on her mysterious errand. I consider going upstairs to pester Pollux till I'm thoroughly distracted or even just stretch out beside him on the bed so I don't have to weather this new hurt alone, but that doesn't quite seem like the right thing to do, even though I strongly suspect he wouldn't mind.

I want – need – someone to hold me while I ache and whimper and sob; someone to stroke my back and lay their cheek on my hair as they murmur gentle soothing things, but there are no such comforting arms for me here. Peeta would hold me in a heartbeat, of course, but I can't expect him to comfort my grief at discovering the identity of his beloved.

So I retreat to the back door of the workshop, sit on the edge of the stoop, and curl around myself, burying my face between my bent knees.

None of this is new except for her name, I remind myself firmly, though it does nothing to staunch or even slow the tears, and it's not surprising in the least that Peeta's sweetheart should be the prettiest girl in Twelve.

I have far too much work to finish today to sit here crying for an hour. Ten minutes, however, seems very reasonable.

The tears trickle forth like a quiet stream, unceasing and unbidden, and I will the heartbreak to leave my body with them. Loving Peeta means wanting what's right for him, even and especially if that isn't me, and it's never going to get easier. Soon I'll be making courting gifts and wedding gifts for his bride and, all too soon after that, baby gifts –

I raise my head from the burrow of my knees with a soft cry of pure agony. Will I catch a little rabbit-skin to make a baby bunting for Peeta and Columbine's child? I ask the woods in a silent shriek. For their beautiful star-child with soft white skin, golden curls and silver eyes?

Will I bring home game and roots and berries for their table and then cook for them while they curl together on the sofa like Peeta and I did this morning, only with a great deal more kissing and passion? Where will I look when Columbine sits in my corner of the sofa, wrapped in Peeta's snowy bearskin and nursing their perfect baby? Will I be expected to sleep across the hall from their bridal bed of sunset and listen to their pleasured gasps and cries and words of love for the rest of my life?

How can I do it? How will I bear it?

A quiet chirrup sounds nearby, but there's no food back here. There's never food back here – except yesterday, of course, when Peeta brought me that heartbreaking little dove cake, and there are certainly no crumbs of it remaining outside of my drawer of precious things.

"Go away, greedy thing," I cry to the open air, swiping at my hot eyes. "I don't have anything for you."

The chirrup comes again and this time my eyes find the source: a mourning dove – no, my mourning dove – little more than an arm's length away from the toes of my boots with a small red object in her beak. She sets it down in the snow between us and peers up at me with her black-bead eyes.

It's a half of a tiny cranberry, pecked free from its string on the apple tree.

When she's certain she holds my attention, she dips her head again and gives the berry fragment a little nudge toward me.

It takes over a minute for the realization to dawn.

My mourning dove has brought me food; has harvested food and brought it to me in my grief. A wild creature is showing gentleness, compassion – perhaps even the shy beginnings of devotion – toward a huntress.

I'm being tamed by a bird.

"Oh!" I breathe, clapping a hand to my mouth in disbelief, and fresh hot tears pool in my eyes.

The woods loves you, little Katniss. The woods and everything in it.

Peeta saw it. The spirit of my long-dead aunt saw it.

I am loved by the woods; truly, deeply loved. It provides for me, protects me, and now shows me undeniable care.

The dove waits, silent and unblinking and so very patient, and now I know beyond a doubt that she's descended from my father's dove because she's acting like him – like my father himself; not like a dove, even a tamed one – and he's been dead too long for this young bird to ever have witnessed him at his taming.

I wonder how many wise and gentle doves populate these woods, just waiting for a sad and lonely human to tame.

I reach cautiously for the berry with two fingers and the dove skitters back in the snow a little but doesn't fly away. "There's plenty for two here," I whisper, raising the half-berry to my mouth and taking an infinitesimally small bite of its tart, icy flesh before rolling the remaining portion into my palm and holding it out to her.

The dove cocks her head and eyes me for long moment, and I tip my palm to let the berry roll off into the snow toward her. She retrieves it with two pecks and places it directly back on the edge of my palm nearest to her.

Sharing, it seems, is something we'll have to work on.

"Oh, little sweetheart," I whisper. "Thank you so much."

I carefully take the berry with my opposite hand and bring it to my mouth. It half melts on my tongue; a frozen bead of sharp, sweet tartness that tastes like New Year's kisses and makes happiness feel possible again. My open palm I leave hovering over the snow, hopeful that a careful finger-stroke might be possible, but once the berry is gone the dove flies off in a familiar chittering-whistle of wings.

I'm still sitting, silent and stunned, where she left me when she returns with a second cranberry, this one almost whole, to deposit on the toe of my boot, and I laugh through my tears. "Am I your chick?" I tease her gently. "Do I look hungry and abandoned?" But I've loved her from the first and this is all so wonderfully impossible – truly, something out of a fairy tale – and of course I don't mind her ministrations one bit.

She brings me two more berries after that, depositing each one in my hand and waiting till I eat it entirely before leaving for another, and in a burst of wild nerve I go back into the shop after the fourth berry but leave the door open. It's madness to expect a wild creature to follow me into a building at the start of such a shyly kindled friendship but somehow, impossibly, she does.

I'm standing beside the workbench, watching and waiting, when I hear the beloved whistle of returning wings. The dove lands on the back stoop where I had been sitting and lingers there curiously for about three seconds before fluttering through the open doorway and up onto the bench.

I wonder briefly if she's sick, this dove, to come so close and perch so boldly on a huntress's table with half a dozen knives in easy reach, but no: she sets down a fifth cranberry on the clean sheet of butcher paper and looks up at me expectantly. "I'm more than happy to eat your food, little mama," I reply, almost overcome by her persistence, "but I have to go back to work now. You –" My voice breaks, and I wonder why I'm so nervous about making an offer to a bird who surely can't understand human speech. "Y-You could stay, though, if you like," I croak out. "I, um…there's no blood or brains or meat today, just…just stretching and sanding, and if…i-if you were okay with that, you could…could…"

She's still on the workbench, still watching me, and I breathlessly inch my hand toward her, palm up and open. I only mean to get near enough to touch her dusky breast with the edge of my finger, but I'm not quite close enough to do that when she hops into my palm.

Small clawed feet perch trustingly on a human hand for the first time since my father died. "Oh, little one!" I breathe. She's heavier than the blackbirds I used to make meals of, but not by much, and she's so beautiful I want to cry all over again.

It's too soon, far too soon to even dream of more, but this is Peeta's fairytale world and this dove has chosen me, and so I lift her gently to eye level and brush her smooth cream-coffee breast with the trembling fingers of my left hand.

We're the same color, just as I'd guessed; my skin a dusky dove-brown that matches her feathers as though painted by the same brush. "Are you mine, little one?" I wonder, daring a fingertip-stroke across her tiny head, and she closes her black-bead eyes in unmistakable pleasure.

It's as inevitable as it is irresistible. I lean in, almost without thought, to brush her head with my lips, and she answers with a hushed, throaty coo that exudes sheer contentment. "Oh, I love you!" I whisper, my eyes beading with disbelief and joy and an overwhelming flood of affection for this first wild thing to reach out to me, to trust and love and care for the huntress who's killed so many of the woods' inhabitants for food and furs and nourishing bone broth. I should be more like my patient father but I'm too sad, too eager, too hungry for more, and I curl my free hand around my tiny sweetheart and bring her to my chest, pressing her gently over my heart.

Thankfully, this particular dove has waited a long time to tame me and doesn't flail or strain or struggle at the sudden intensity of contact; rather, she curls her tiny claws in the weave of my sweater and coos drowsily as I stroke her in wonder, over and over again.

Taming goes both ways, my father says in Peeta's voice, and with a mourning dove nestled against my heart, I finally understand what this means. There must be trust and a measure of surrender on both sides, especially when you endeavor to tame something bigger, stronger, or more dangerous than yourself. This dove tamed me, not the other way around; she came back to me again and again with food, knowing full well that I could hurt or even kill her, until I finally reached out for her touch.

There's a sort of legend – my father's own account, but surely more fairy tale than truth – that the cougar Granny Ashpet killed to save Grandpa Asa was like a sister to her. Two huntresses sharing territory and a sort of mutual respect – sometimes even a portion of their kills, Dad claimed, but even he was never quite sure who had tamed whom.

That tale weaves itself through the present moment and brings to mind Peeta, the powerful yet impossibly gentle boy who chose to tame the wildest, perhaps deadliest creature in these woods without promise or hope of reward, and I marvel at the trust and surrender he's demonstrated toward me. From our first moments alone in the sleigh I snapped and snarled at him as fiercely as any cougar and yet, like this dove, he's persistently put himself at my mercy, holding out his hand or opening his arms to me. Twice this morning he lay without resistance or protest of any kind as I climbed over him, nuzzling his throat and kissing him to bits like the merriest, most besotted of kits, and these moments turn the concept of taming on its head. In a true taming the wild thing is always in control, of course, but I had never before realized how the tamer must also trust – must, in their patience, surrender to the tamed one, and ultimately be tamed in their turn.

I rub my cheek against my dove's velvet shoulder and give a quiet coo of my own. "Catching and taming are very different things," I quote softly. "A bird learns patience where a girl learns trust, but in the end both are tamed."

I try to pace myself, to not be too greedy with my finger-strokes and kisses and nuzzles, and it's only minutely easier to exercise restraint with my dove than with Peeta. I wonder if my father would be disappointed in this behavior and decide almost at once that he would be amused, perhaps even pleased with me. After all, I'm the tamed one in this scenario, not the tamer, and therefore not subject to the same rules of patience and optimism and hope beyond hope; of careful movements and soft words. I handle her so gently – more gently than I would ever have dreamt I was capable of – and murmur all manner of tender nonsense against soft powdery feathers, but my brave dove demonstrates nothing short of bliss in the nest of my cupped hands, and I wonder how long and patiently she's waited for this moment.

I wonder how long and patiently Peeta has waited to be pounced upon and nipped and nuzzled and veil my burning cheek against sweet dusky feathers that perfectly mirror my own skin. I can't imagine why he'd want any of that from me, especially when his heart belongs so thoroughly to beautiful Columbine Wilhearn, but I also have no interest in questioning it. I'm his companion – his songbird, his vixen, his greedy little gosling – and while I can't begin to comprehend it, he responded to this morning's exuberant displays of affection with a bliss to rival that of the dove presently nestled against my heart.

"I love you," I tell her again, as natural and fearless as breathing, and wonder if I might say the same to Peeta with equal ease. I'm more animal than human to him, really – in a beautiful fashion, not a condescending one – and the love of a wild thing is twice as precious as its trust. It would be little more than another effusive response from a small gray fox who's dizzily happy to be tamed by her prince – nothing like a Seam girl telling a Merchant boy that she loves him. That she wants to wear his ribbons and share a dance at the Harvest Festival and toast bread together over his parents' hearth, to lie in his bed and kiss his mouth and take his golden light inside her.

I think of the pressure in my heart every time I'm in his presence: pleasant but painful, swollen up with love as it is, and wonder if saying the words to him just once would ease it, even a little.

"Perhaps," I whisper to my dove, and my heart quavers a little at my daring. "Perhaps I might."

Of course, these words serve all too well as a reminder of the task I've forsaken in order to cuddle my new friend, and I lay my cheek against her wing as I admit, "I really do have to get back to work, little one. I'm making a deerskin blanket for my sweetheart, and today that means stretching the skin. Would…would you like to stay for a little?" I wonder tremulously. "Or…or would you rather go back out with your friends?"

All at once I feel terrible for holding her so long, however content she seemed to be, and guide her up onto my right hand, to hold her out at arm's length. "You're free," I choke out, because with a wild thing there is no guarantee that a display of affection, even if initiated by the animal, will ever be repeated, and the last several minutes were effectively my own doing. This dove may well have satisfied her curiosity about human touch and never come near me again, except to claim her portion of kitchen scraps, and even then she might never again draw nearer than any of her greedy fellows. "I didn't mean to…to confine you," I whisper, "and if you'd like to go –"

She takes wing at the bidding, as I half expected – but not to fly away. Instead, she flutters with a merry wing-whistle to perch atop my head, as particularly friendly or curious birds did to my father, every now and again, on our foraging walks in the woods, and just like him, I respond in joyous laughter, albeit with a mist of happy tears at the corners of my eyes. "Fair enough," I chuckle. "I'll even plait a braid-nest up there if you like, but today I need to look out for my sweetheart ribbons." I reach up to coax her onto my hand again and bring her down to my left shoulder. "My sweater is hardier than those ribbons," I tell her delicately, with a finger-caress the length of one tucked wing, and wonder if Lavinia will raise a brow at the presence of dove droppings on my clothing.

To my surprise the dove inches a little closer to my neck, ducking under my dancing pigtail as I return to my hide-stretching and fluffing up her feathers, so near they brush the tender skin like a shy and fleeting kiss. "If you're planning to stick around," I tease, turning a little to stroke her with my cheek, "I suppose we ought to name you."

And for the second time this morning I play a name-guessing game, but this time it's a happy one. I've never had an animal of my own to name, and the task presents a unique sort of challenge. The first to come to mind is "Laurel," curiously enough, but it feels odd to name my dove for a person, especially one who seems so alive in my subconscious, so I try to think of things related to my new life here – white bears and snow maidens and the huntress-moon's longing love for the sun – but nothing feels quite right. "Moon-dove," I try on my tongue, like an endearment, then, with a little laugh: "Cream-Coffee?"

I think of honey, cream, and cloves; of bread pudding and sticky buns and ginger cake slathered in custard. The comfort of earth and spice, of taming and nuzzles and Peeta. "Nutmeg!" I exclaim, making her start a little in surprise, and this one's better than the rest but still not quite right.

I frown and caress her idly with my knuckles. I don't like creative problems with several possible answers – not simply a single correct one – to evaluate individually and choose between. A name for a wild thing is little better than a nickname, really, so I'd do just as well to call her something silly like "Chirrup," "Flutter," or "Coo."

But this dove is special beyond measure and deserves to be addressed accordingly. "Oh, little sweetheart," I sigh in defeat – and just like that, I have my answer.

"Acushla," I breathe.

Most people who still use that ancient fairy-tongue endearment toss it about like a casual sweetheart or darling, but my father always spoke it with a certain reverence, and when I asked him what it meant, he did a strange thing – the same thing, he said, that Grandpa Asa did when Granny Ashpet asked him the same question – albeit with far more exasperation than I had. He sat me down beside him – we were in the woods that day and took a fallen tree for our bench – and brought my cheek to his chest, so my ear rested over his heart.

Do you hear it, catkin? he asked, and I nodded eagerly against him. I knew the sound of my father's heartbeat better than any bird call or peeper's song: so strong and steady and safe, it was, and I loved it more than every other sound in all the world, save for his beautiful voice. When we napped together on Sunday afternoons I often wriggled up to pillow my head on his chest for that very reason: to fall asleep to the beloved pulse of my father's heart.

That is acushla, he said softly. The pulse of my heart.

'Acushla' is something of a shorthand, he went on. 'Acushla machree,' it should be – but so much has been lost to time, and the meaning effectively remains the same. For on its own acushla simply means 'pulse,' and a pulse requires a heart, and in whose heart but your own would you wish your beloved's name to pulse?

I pressed my ear against his heart again, insistently this time, and strained with all my might, as though I might be able to make out the syllables of my mother's name if I listened hard enough, and my father, chuckling in perfect understanding, lifted me up to sit in his lap. My mama claimed she heard her name in the pulse of my papa's heart that day, he said, and that frightened the living daylights out of her. She so badly didn't want to care for that scrawny, helpless toymaker, but when she heard her name echoed by his heart – his weak miner's heart, pulsing her name like a beacon of pure, radiant love: Ash-pet, Ash-pet, Ash-pet – she tore off into the woods like a pack of wild dogs was in pursuit.

The hounds of love, he chuckled, and I lifted my head with a start. Do we need to watch out for them? I wondered foolishly, for even the smallest threat in the woods was not to be ignored.

He regarded me solemnly for a long moment, tracing my cheek with a fingertip. Yes, catkin, he said at last, I think your fierce little fox-heart will run from love, but not so stubbornly, nor so long, as your granny's.

Don't be afraid, he soothed to my wide eyes. The flight is a frightful thing, perhaps, but the capture is not. It is nothing more nor less than being caught up in the arms of the one you already love with all your might; dropping your every last defense and allowing their heart to touch your own.

Was that the day Grandpa Asa found her in the shack? I asked. The day she listened to his heart and ran from what it said?

My father laughed at this, but so gently. No, that was still many months in coming, he replied, but as a direct result of that flight, if you will – for that was the day she found the first white doe. She half stumbled upon it, he explained, so blinded was she in her flight, and was almost afraid to shoot it, for she had never seen its like in the woods and white deer are rumored to be magical creatures, imbued with strange and wondrous powers. In the end she thought of the three small sisters of the scrawny boy who loved her and resolved to use the profits of this fine animal for their benefit – or so she told herself. She could sell the meat and blood and bone, even the organs, for a fine price and hide away those funds till such a time as she could convey them – slowly, of course, and in secret – to the girls or to their mother.

And the deerskin? I prompted, for I knew only how it ended up, not how it got there.

The skin she tanned with breathless care, even reverence, he said, and smoked delicately, keeping it as pale as she could to reflect the beauty of the living doe. She was certain she would never find a fitting use for such a treasure, not even when she found the second white doe and had two perfect ivory skins to wrap and store and puzzle over. One day her hands simply reached for those carefully parceled skins and began to shape them into a beautiful garment, such as might be worn by a woodland queen on her wedding day – without informing her head, she told me, and bypassing her stubborn heart altogether. Even when she slipped it on for fittings, the obvious reason for its creation eluded her, even as she sang of love and fitted my papa's ten-penny clasps into her hair.

T'was a pity she could not lay her cheek upon her breast and listen to her own heart, he concluded with a soft smile, for that might have saved a bit of time – though like as not, my mama would have been even more terrified to hear the toymaker's name echoed by her heart than she was to hear her own name upon his. Though she never said as much, I suspect she heard it in her slumber, he confided, curled on her side like a small burrowing creature with an arm beneath her head. The wrist-pulse is weaker and yet distinct, he said, and her stubborn heart was bursting with love by the time she finally surrendered to its longing. It would have sought any and every opportunity to make itself heard.

I brought my wrist to my ear and pressed as hard as I could, closing my eyes and straining to hear the secret that echoed in the pulse of my own heart, but my father drew it away with another gentle laugh and a sound kiss to my forehead. Oh, catkin, he assured me, when your heart finds its mate, you will not need to listen at pulses to know his name.

Smiling at the memory, I tip my head and lift my shoulder a little, bringing my dove close enough to rub my cheek against her. "Acushla machree," I murmur, thinking again of the secret loves stored within doves' hearts, and wonder if this gentle, intuitive moon-bird is up to the monumental weight of my own impossible love.

Under the right circumstances, I think my heart might well chirrup and coo…and even take wing with a chittering whistle.

I press a kiss to her tiny head and feel my heart ease a little with our shared burden. This brave, patient dove could not have come to me at a better time. "Oh, Acushla," I sigh. "Thank you, so very much."

Content with her naming and the tasks that occupy my hands and focus, Acushla alternates between a perch on my shoulder and a nest at the base of my neck, depending on how vigorously I'm working at any given moment. I tell her the origin of her name and a little about Granny Ashpet, the stubborn, beautiful huntress with her mysterious elf-king father and secret burrow of courting gifts from a poor, plain toymaker, and I'm just about to sing her a little of the ancient lover's song when a discreet knock sounds at the back door of the workshop.

I don't need to listen for the sound of rapidly retreating boots in snow.

I grin at Acushla, my heart fiercely aglow. "That's lunch, I reckon," I inform her merrily. "Shall we see what the sweet sun-boy has left for us?"

Lunch awaits in a basket today, with a jaunty red ribbon tied about its handle and a note tucked beneath the lip of its lid:

Greedy gosling,

I hope I packed enough for both you and your new friend. I wanted so badly to come in and say hello, but she's a shy one and I didn't want to interrupt your time together.

I'm sorry to leave you to another solo meal, but I'm dizzy from this morning's vixen-cuddling and wanted to work through lunch on your present. Hope okay. Will endeavor to compensate with supper.

Your affectionate Gander

P.S. I've enclosed an initial sketch for our storybook. I hope I made the babies right.

All thoughts of food forgotten – to say nothing of the realization that, somehow or other, Peeta has seen me with Acushla already – I set aside the note with a kiss to its sweet words and toss back the lid of the basket. Placed atop our meal is an exquisite pencil drawing, splashed here and there with gentle color, that makes my breath catch in a whimper.

In a nest of earth and evergreen boughs lies a fox kit furred with damp tufts of pale golden down; its eyes closed tightly and its body still curled from the confines of its moon-patterned egg, the luminous fragments of which lie scattered about its small, spent form. Beside the kit lies a newborn gosling, its sleek black fur still sticky from the womb, but its eyes are open, bright and eager, and its small dark bill is raised and parted slightly in a plaintive peep!

No, not a kit and a gosling: a goslit and a kitling, the offspring of a honey-feathered gander and a small black fox.

I hug the sketch to my heart with a quiet cry, overcome by the need to cradle these precious, impossible twins; to nurse my downy kitling, so weary from the efforts of hatching, and cuddle my silken goslit as I guide tender water grasses and tiny katniss blooms to its peeping mouth. "Oh, Acushla," I whisper. "How does he know? How can he see them so clearly?"

How, cries my heart, painfully aware of the reality of Columbine Wilhearn, can he see these babes – draw these babes – in such detail, down to the moon-pattern of the kitling's egg, and not realize they're his children, birthed by you?

"It's just as well," I tell my heart, by way of Acushla. "I told him it was a folktale – the gander and the vixen – and he's depicting it as such, embellishing with pretty details from other stories and our life here in the woods. It's impossible for these babies to exist anyway," I remind us both, "so why should he even bother to imagine who their parents might be?"

She answers this with a distinctly askance look in her black-bead eyes, but before I can counter with some manner of cross or clever retort we hear the wide wooden doors of the stable creak open and Acushla, startled by the noise, flies out the back door with a chittering whistle of dusky wings.

To my surprise, I'm not dismayed in the least by her departure. I still have a basketful of food for her to partake in, after all, and as much as I think she enjoyed having the last word in our conversation, I suspect she'll be back for more.

That, and perhaps she cares for me a little.

Grinning like a fool at the thought, I tuck Peeta's precious picture back inside the basket and carry it in to the workbench but leave the back door open, just in case Acushla should return, before heading up to investigate the new arrival. It's Lavinia, of course, bright-cheeked from the cold and suspiciously empty-handed, save for my fine new skis tucked under an arm, as she leads a frosty-coated – and equally unburdened – Rye inside.

"And just where is this special thing you so urgently had to fetch?" I ask, only half-teasing, as I approach, eyeing them both like a hawk. Rye gives a delighted whuffle in greeting and instantly dips his nose toward my hip pocket, where several sugar cubes still remain, and I give his neck an affectionate scratch, right along the line of his mane, while Lavinia raises a brow and looks askance at my left shoulder, in a manner amusingly similar to Acushla.

"I have a new friend," I inform her, "who isn't quite trained to indoor living as yet. I'll wash it myself," I finagle, "if you tell me what my present is – or even where it is."

It's a pointless offer, really, since Lavinia has happily scrubbed much nastier things out of my hunting clothes from the first and wouldn't dream of making me rinse out a few good clean bird droppings, but I'm impatient to see what was so needful that Peeta tried hauling Pollux out of bed to fetch it. There's no guarantee that it's a present, of course, but Pollux's attitude toward me earlier more than suggests that whatever she brought back is intended for me in some way.

Lavinia shakes her head with a grin and produces a small piece of paper from her coat pocket. I expect the contents to be written by her, perhaps in anticipation of this moment, but instead Peeta's beloved handwriting reaches out to me like a sweetheart's embrace.

No clues, little snoop, and no poking your sly snout in at windows or doors either. I shall need till precisely 5:00 to enact my secret plans and your patience will be handsomely rewarded.

If desired, I will arrange a bedtime cuddle-nest for you in exchange for a story.

Your grateful and devoted servant,

Lonely Gander

P.S. Would consider a short song in place of a story.

I look up from the note with a tingling belly and melting bones. I can't begin to guess what Peeta is planning for this evening but it sounds like a repeat of last night, only with a meal prepared by him rather than his brother – the only factor that, if hard-pressed, I could have called less than perfect. I wonder if he means for us to share the cuddle-nest all night and that sweet warm ache, damp and yearning and heavy with emptiness, kindles deep between my hipbones. It's startling and oddly wonderful – or rather, like the faintest flicker of something impossibly wonderful, lying just out of reach – and I try to imagine what this exquisite hollowness could possibly have to do with Peeta, and why feeling him nestled between my legs makes it better and worse all at once.

Lavinia takes merry advantage of my distraction, depositing Rye's reins in my free hand with a chuckle before going to put away the skis, and I lean in to nuzzle my cheek against the pony's, grateful to have my confidante back at last. "You'll give me a hint about my surprise, won't you, lazy lump?" I murmur teasingly, filling my lungs with the comforting odors of pony-musk and brisk air and all those elusive whispers of winter-in-Twelve, and I curl an arm about his broad brown neck. "I have a new friend," I tell him. "A wee moon-bird who brought me berries and perched on my head and kept me company for most of the morning. She knows my secret too."

Impatient with cuddles and confidences when there's sugar to be had, Rye whuffles stubbornly and makes another nose-dive at my pocket; this one determined, with a flash of a grazer's strong teeth. I nip out of reach, giggling at his single-minded persistence, and bring out one lonely sugar cube, which he lips up eagerly before dipping his head down in search of another.

"You only allowed me one secret," I remind him, "and gave me one impatient little whuffle in return. That equals one cube, greedy thing. If you stay with me while I'm working, like Acushla does," I tease, "maybe you can have another. Or maybe I'll just give them all to her."

There's a scramble of heavy, frantic footfalls on the steps, causing both Rye and me to look up with curiosity and amusement, and Pollux charges in, sleep-rumpled and still half-dressed in his trousers, thermal shirt, and suspenders. He meets Lavinia on her return from the ski cupboard and veritably leaps on her, wrapping her in his arms and kissing her with startling force – no, not force: hunger. A voracious kiss, the kind boys and girls exchange against the school wall and behind the Hob.

The way I would never in a million years have thought Pollux could kiss anybody.

Lavinia tolerates it for a few breathless seconds, then she pushes him back with a laugh and ducks under his arm to return to Rye, but she's barely taken the reins from my hand when Pollux is behind her, his arms curled around her waist and his face buried in her neck – or rather, as best he can access it between her scarf and coat collar. She laughs again, but breathily, and gives his mussed head an affectionate sort of pat, to which he responds with a desperate tug at her throat coverings and a muffled groan as his mouth finally meets her skin.

She gives a shallow sigh and flashes me a look of supreme apology as she hands back the reins, but there's something soft and hungry in her eyes that I've never seen before, and no sooner do I have the pony in hand once more than Lavinia turns in her husband's arms, but not to kiss him. She holds him at arm's length with a gloved hand on his chest and tilts her sparrow-capped head in an expression that I can only guess at, with her back to me, but it must present a satisfying counter-offer, because she doesn't resist or laugh when Pollux scoops her up in his arms. Instead she tugs off the cap, letting her glorious hair tumble free, and leans in to press a brief, careful kiss to his mouth.

Burdened with his prize, Pollux turns for the stairs and ascends, stocking-footed, with an agility I wouldn't have dreamt he possessed. And because I'm already so stunned by everything that's just unfolded before me, I let the reins slip from nerveless fingers and follow silently after, my heart beating loud and thickly in my ears.

People don't lie down together in the middle of the day. Not for cuddling and a few stolen hours of extra slumber.

I don't know why I do it. I have no intention of watching Pollux and Lavinia at their lovemaking and I certainly don't want to, but upon reaching the top of the stairs all I can do is stare, slack-jawed and transfixed and riveted to the spot.

Somehow Lavinia is even more excruciatingly beautiful without clothes on.

She hooks her deft white fingers under Pollux's suspenders and tugs them down, then drags his shirt up and over his head, and all the while he's kissing her – lips, ears, throat, collarbones; whatever he can reach – with hushed, tremulous moans, as though he can't quite believe any of this is happening. Once his shirt is gone Lavinia sinks back against the pillows and he moves up eagerly in response, closing his bearded mouth around one perfect pale breast and winning a pleasured little mewl in return as her fingers delve for purchase in his thick hair.

He lingers at her breasts like a starving man at a lavish meal: now gazing with hunger and longing, now nibbling, now devouring, his mouth enveloping one plump peak as his strong fingers explore the other, drifting and stroking and squeezing in counterpoint to the wet sounds of vigorous sucks and swallows and low guttural moans. Lavinia's face is soft and rapturous and she arches a little beneath him, both hands buried in his hair, as though beseeching for more. They continue like this for an eternity then Pollux slowly lifts his head, letting her breast slip from his mouth with a gentle bounce, and kisses his way to the curve of her belly.

My neck and chest catch fire and my heart lobs against my eardrums like muffled hammer blows, but still I can't look away.

Kneeling between his wife's legs, Pollux curls his arms beneath her backside and gently angles her hips, pressing lingering open-mouthed kisses over every inch of skin between her hipbones and then repeating the path with slow nuzzles of first one bearded cheek, then the other. Lavinia leans up on her elbows, watching him with blatant adoration, and raises one finger to trace his mouth.

He moves lower still then, his face sinking into the bush of dark curls between her legs with a long, shuddering moan, and something jolts in my belly in response. An almost violent tremor, halfway between shock and disgust and a fierce, bizarre longing, but whatever it is, I'm grateful, because it shatters my paralysis. I scramble back down the stairs as quickly and quietly as I can and reach the safety of the stable hot and shaken and even trembling a little.

In the sudden absence of all of his caretakers, Rye – still in his harness – has wandered into his stall and is presently nosing about the corners of his hay bin, which Pollux, remaining crossly abed all morning and now thoroughly preoccupied there with his beautiful naked wife, hasn't yet refilled. I absently fetch a few generous pitchforks' worth of hay along with a scoop of oats then go out to close the heavy front doors, but the frigid air cools the fire in my skin, if not my blood, so instead I hunker down on the threshold to breathe in more icy comfort.

It's not so different from Mom and Dad in their day, I tell myself. While some of what Pollux and Lavinia were doing was startling to my eyes – eyes that are no longer those of a small child, to whom lovers' gestures are silly at best and embarrassing at the worst – to the best of my knowledge, it's all part and parcel of lovemaking with your spouse. Or maybe it's what lovemaking looks like in the Capitol.

It must be nice for your husband to kiss you everywhere

I think of Peeta's soft, sweet mouth closing around my breast rather than the round pad of my toe – that beloved, greedy minnow-mouth lapping, nibbling, gobbling at my nipple like a ripe little fruit – and I curl around myself with a cry. The thought of it almost hurts, but not like any kind of pain I've ever known before. It hurts like a void, like the hot ache of emptiness in my belly, only even more acute. Unbidden, I envision myself in Lavinia's place, lying naked beneath the stable rafters and looking on in adoration as Peeta buries his face in the hair between my legs, and I bite down on my knuckle with a whimper. The secret part of me is damp again – no, more than damp: wet, like during my menses, but the ache that seems to cause it is nothing like the pain of menstrual cramps. It hurts and almost – almost – feels good at the same time, like the anticipation of something that just might be wondrous, only something – some terribly crucial element – is missing.

Somehow I know that this something is the act itself; these things that I'm envisioning. Maybe this kind of daydream, especially after witnessing what I just have, is so real that the body reacts accordingly, flooding you with vivid sensations, as though you actually were on the brink of that experience.

What is happening to me? I cry silently to the snow-blanketed garden, the apple tree with its sparse garland of bright berries, the greedy blackbirds fighting over the last remaining crumbs of breakfast. Why would anyone even want such things – a grown man's mouth at your breast or his face between your legs – and why does it hurt so exquisitely to envision it? Why is the feel of Peeta's groin against mine so wonderful that I can't seem to get enough? What is this wetness in my secret place and why do thoughts of Peeta provoke it?

The only reply is a beloved chittering wing-whistle as Acushla flies up out of nowhere to land on my head. "I'm terrible company right now," I warn her, but with no real fire, and she proceeds to peck among the roots of my hair in what is almost certainly a mock-search for crumbs.

"Hungry, are we?" I joke weakly, and reach up to coax her onto my hand. "You're good for me, little mama," I tell her, and peck her tiny head in turn with a quick kiss before relegating her to my shoulder. "Come, let's think about safe things like deerskins and lunch."

I heft the large front doors closed with an echoing thud and hurry past the stairs to the safety of the workshop. I can't hear anything from the loft, thankfully, not even a stray creak of a mattress, but I'm also trying desperately hard not to. Now that I think of it, I realize Pollux and Lavinia could have been upstairs making love any day – every day – that I was working down here. They could have done so all this while and I never knew. It's jarring to consider but not impossible – nor, judging by their actions of a few minutes ago, unlikely either.

It shouldn't bother me that a young married couple is so passionately abandoning themselves in their idle moments – haven't I expected the same will happen when Peeta and Columbine are finally together? – but it does, or rather, not bother so much as unsettle. I'm not offended or disgusted by what they're doing, though I haven't a clue how I'm going to look either Pollux or Lavinia in the eye ever again; I'm…shaken. Roused. Breathing like I've just run a sprint, fever-flushed and hungry, but not for food, and I hate it. I want to be the child I was when I woke up this morning, pouncing on my sweetheart and kissing him senseless with nary a thought of bare breasts, a lover's mouth, and damp secret places.

As it's the only thing I can think to do, I fetch a handful of fresh snow from out the back door and stuff it down the front of my sweater. I hiss and yelp and squirm, to Acushla's clear amusement, as the icy powder melts its way down my chest to pool in my bra and the waistband of my trousers, but it serves as a fine distraction from my thoughts while cooling my blood enough for me to explore the lunch hamper.

Peeta's prepared a simple but hearty meal today, appropriately heavy on leftover New Year's venison. There's a small crock of hot stew, plus two stray cheese buns – I was certain we'd eaten them all – stuffed with piney morsels of roast venison and crumbles of sweet cheese; a flask of strong cinnamon tea with steeping curls of orange peel; a pouch of cranberries and honey-glazed nuts, perfect for quick sustaining bites when I return to work; a ripe golden pear – and a slice of New Year's wedding cake, as wide as my splayed palm.

I resolve to feed that to Acushla, every last rich crumb of it, but I know it's a hopeless plan.

Ordinarily I'd either eat quickly at the bench, barely stopping at my work, or go out to sit beside the stable stove, but I have several hours to burn before I'm allowed back in the house and I can't quite stomach the prospect of eating by the stove – in the stable at all, really – with Pollux and Lavinia at their lovemaking just above. So I make a hasty clean-up of the droppings on my sweater then bundle up and go out to the garden bench, with Acushla riding along on the beribboned hamper handle.

I've eaten in colder places while far less warmly dressed, and after the luxury of the past two days it feels downright wonderful to eat in the woods, or at least, on the fringe of it – and this time I've got a little friend to share my meal. Acushla perches on my knee and takes crumbs from my hand like it's second nature, and I wonder again how long she's been waiting for this. Even the boldest bird wouldn't adapt to human ways so quickly. I wonder if she took her cues from Peeta and the chipmunk – an opportunistic rodent teaching a human boy to bring him treats, I think with a chuckle, and wonder who tamed whom in that relationship.

I give her a more-than-generous portion of cake – "Enough to make a feast of you if I wanted," I tease, "like Mrs. Cartwright's fat brown hens!" – but I eat every last lick of buttery icing and creamy orange curd myself, which wins me another askance, even indignant, look from those black-bead eyes. "You don't need all this sugar!" I laugh through a mouthful so delicious it almost brings tears to my eyes. "Do you think you're a hummingbird, little beak?"

There's a sink in the loft, of course, but I have no intention of going up there anytime soon – or possibly ever again – so instead I rinse the dishes with some fresh snow, dry them with one of the napkins Peeta provided, and return them to the hamper, then I doff my cardinal cap to tie the new ribbon across my brow like a fairy crown.

"This, of course, is a kiss," I inform Acushla, returned to her perch on the hamper, with a toss of the ribbon's long tails, and grin like a fool. "A proper kiss, nice and long and square on the mouth. I'm not altogether sure I'll be able to redeem it right away," I admit, "but I intend to try."

I wonder if Peeta, so desperate to store up his kisses for the uncertain future, thought about kisses when he tied this ribbon around the hamper handle. Now that I think of it, many of his everyday gifts have had a red ribbon of some size tied about them and I never gave it a second thought till today. Surely he can't have intended kisses in return for a spile or a mug of cream-coffee or, for that matter, a basket of lunch, the likes of which he provides on a daily basis.

Except this morning was all about ribbons and kisses: quick little half-kisses, stored up like sweets in a jar, and long proper kisses for long proper ribbons. Peeta must know that presenting me with any sort of red ribbon at this point is tantamount to giving permission for me to kiss him.

Or asking me to kiss him.

I stand with a frantic little squeak and scoop up the hamper, with a thoroughly confused Acushla clinging to its handle for dear life. "Let's go pick some pinecones," I urge her in a breathless rush. "We've got time and plenty still to finish the deerskin work for the day."

As always, the woods embraces me at once and rapidly soothes my unquiet heart. Acushla suffers the swaying hamper for a few steps before fluttering up to my shoulder, but my father's hunting jacket has served as a bird-perch many times before and I'm not worried overmuch about cleanup. At one point I even playfully cover her with my cap, laughing like a child as her slender body disappears beneath jaunty red knit, save for the very tip of her long tail feathers.

I think I like having a friend.

I start out looking for cones for the living room fire but quickly find myself looking for nice, gift-worthy ones; large or exceptionally pretty or in perfect condition. They were intended for Peeta from the first, of course, but even if he uses the cones for kindling, I want him to have the very finest to choose from.

I love him.

"Peeta's birthday is coming up," I tell Acushla as I bend in pursuit of a long slim cone, still closed up tightly. "Quickly, but not soon enough. I don't think I can wait almost three months to give him the deerskin."

I think of Granny Ashpet building her dowry of wild gifts over several months and wonder how she managed not to burst with anticipation and impatience – or leap on her unsuspecting sweetheart.

"I could make him another, once I know how," I think aloud, "but it won't be exciting after the first one. I'm going to make him something with rabbit skins, of course, but I want there to be kisses too."

Acushla gives a chirp at this, as dry and direct as her bright gaze, and I chuckle. "Not like that, silly thing," I say. "Kisses worked into the present itself. But I can't just tie them around a bough like at New Year's – and anyway, that's not nearly enough kisses."

A brave pair of rabbits watches us from their own lunching-place among the roots of a tree, and I smile slowly as a delicious idea takes shape in my mind. "Acushla," I muse, "I could make a rabbit-skin blanket: a patchwork, like the rag-quilts they make back home and tie with yarn where the squares meet, only instead of yarn I could use thin red ribbon."

I know they sell such a thing at the mercantile, as some of the shops use it at New Year's to tie around daintier sweetheart gifts, like pretty confections or embellished hair clasps. "Every junction would be tied off with a kiss," I explain, my voice rising with excitement. "And I could make it as large as I like, strewn from edge to edge with tiny red kisses – hummingbird kisses!" I squeal, laughing delightedly. "Small and swift and bright; just what he needs in the months to come. More kisses than he could ever dream of!" I conclude, euphoric at the thought.

A beautiful wild gift to keep Peeta warm, spangled like the night sky with tiny, merry kisses-in-keeping, to be cashed in whenever we like.

Of course, Peeta might not want all those kisses, especially on top of the ones I've already stored away – the jar of half-kisses that I still need to show him – but the fact that he wants to save up his kisses suggests that he values them, at least a little, because he wants to make sure of having some in the future. Sixteen years of Seam living have taught me that much. You don't save something that isn't precious in some way – that you don't want to last or don't care if you have in the future.

With a kiss to her tiny head Acushla flutters off into the trees and I practically skip back to the workshop, a hamper of perfect pinecones in tow. I'm sorely tempted to fetch my bow and go back out for a rabbit or two to make a start on Peeta's birthday quilt, but the deerskin is still today's priority, if for no other reason than that Peeta showered me with kisses when he realized what I was planning. As wonderful as it feels to kiss him, being kissed by him – any part of me, in any fashion – is a hundred times more exquisite, and I wonder what I could do to win a kiss of some kind before the day is over. He's already seen to my feet, of course, and thoroughly, with all those eager laps and nibbles and nuzzles at my toes, but maybe I could weasel away a quick little kiss on my knuckles or the top of my head.

I remind myself yet again of Columbine Wilhearn, the absent beloved for whom this woodland palace – and the gentle golden boy dwelling within it – has been so carefully and lovingly prepared, but in the next breath I recognize that Peeta would never do anything to betray that devotion, let alone to hurt his sweetheart. If he chooses to kiss or cuddle me or even share a nest-bed for the night, he's doing so willingly and with the purest of intentions, and while this means that he must feel neither love nor longing for me in any of those tender acts, somehow that feels like anything but a loss. After all, he said just this morning that he adores me, and adoration is exquisitely close to love – not to mention, last night in our cuddle-nest, his breathtaking slip of the tongue had him confessing to a playful sort of love for me, or rather, the little goose side of my disposition.

I allow myself to imagine for one half-second that Peeta's touches might be motivated by love – even the chastest, vaguest, most unromantic sort – and my heart trembles like a trapped rabbit kit.

I wonder again, and wildly, if I dare say it. If love doesn't always mean in love – aching and yearning; ribbons and kisses and toastings and babes – why shouldn't I tell Peeta that I love him? Why shouldn't my sweet lonely boy, for whom tenderness and affection have been such rare gifts, know that he is loved – not by the girl he wishes for, of course, but loved nonetheless?

I debate this silently and endlessly as I shed my cap and jacket, add Peeta's precious notes and the sketch of the goslit and kitling to the hamper of pinecones, and return to working the deerskin. On one hand, both Pollux and Lavinia have told Peeta they love him, ages ago now, and there was never the least suspicion of underlying romantic feelings – but then, they were practically a couple by the time they moved out here. I'm an unattached young girl who's given Peeta handmade gifts, an unmistakable sweetheart ribbon, and several kisses – not to mention those intimate moments this morning, when I caught hold of his backside and rubbed my groin against his or slipped my hands under his shirt and wrapped my legs around his waist. However genuinely unromantic our physical interactions may be, an I love you would mean something far different in such a context, and it might just be the last straw for kind, patient Peeta. What would I do if he sent me away – or worse yet, allowed me to remain here after a gentle but firm lecture explaining that I can't touch and kiss and act toward him the way that I have been these past few days? It would shatter me to be kept at arm's length, however kindly, and I can't do anything to risk it.

I stretch and buff the skin, starting at the top and taking care to work every inch thoroughly, all the way out to the edges, where they're tethered to the frame. It's hot, vigorous work, but it distracts me from all the unsettling thoughts and images of the day, and feeling the skin grow soft beneath my cheek is more than enough reward for my labors. I know I won't manage the velvet texture of Granny Ashpet's bridal doeskins, not on this first attempt and maybe not ever, but as long as the skin is supple enough to wrap around Peeta's shoulders or spread over him like a blanket, I'll be satisfied. I've already made strides of improvement from my first rabbit skins and both Peeta and my companion were moved to tears by those gifts, however crude.

Not to mention, Peeta covered my face with happy kisses at the mere prospect of receiving a deerskin. He'll be over the moon to have this in his hands, no matter how the tanning turns out.

I wonder if he'll use it for anything special. Of course, a blanket or wrap is more than special enough and I can't bear to think of cutting into this painstakingly processed material, but if Peeta asked, I could try to fashion it into a simple sort of garment. It's long enough that I could cut a hole at its center for pulling over his head and he could belt it at the waist like an open-sided tunic, for wearing in warmer weather. It would be a more primitive look than I can quite imagine on Peeta: a native woodsman, like in the oldest tales, requiring a bushy blond beard and long tumbling curls, but I'd oblige if he wanted – and endeavor not to giggle too much in the process.

I wonder suddenly, madly, if he might ever ask me to put on the deerskin myself – after all, I've told him a fair bit about Granny Ashpet and her bridal doeskins and he might be curious for a visual demonstration – and I drop the sandpaper block with a gasp. The best I could do is wrap the skin around my torso and tuck it in at my breasts, which, short as I am, should cover me from armpits to ankles at the least, but still the image feels wild and daring and primal, like a fox-woman or deer-woman in human form, wrapping herself in her shed skin for a modicum of decency. I would certainly have on underwear as well but somehow in this mad daydream I'm naked beneath the deerskin; a doe-bride awaiting her mate's gentle hand at her breast, loosing the garment and baring her slim dusky body to the adoration of his eyes and hands and mouth.

I imagine the velvet hush of deerskin drifting down my body, baring only my little breasts at first, and feel a sweet, soft mouth, damp and so gentle, closing about one dark nipple with a blissful sigh –

I shake myself hard, rubbing an arm across my chest for good measure, and retrieve the dropped sanding block, my face and throat burning. I'm half-tempted to fetch more snow to stuff down my shirt but I'm worried it might actually hurt this time; my breasts feel so tight and sensitive. I don't understand what's happening to me but I need to beat it; even banish it, so I can finish my tanning work and go back to being around Peeta like an ordinary friend without envisioning mouths on bare breasts or igniting that damp, hollow heat between my legs. If I wasn't so mortified at the thought, I'd ask Lavinia what's wrong with me and how to fix it, but I can't think how I'll even manage to look her in the eyes ever again, let alone start a conversation about strange hungers and how they manifest in my body.

The deerskin is progressing better than I could have imagined – it must know it's intended for Peeta and is behaving itself accordingly – and I'm satisfied with the softening a full half-hour before I'm allowed to come back to the house. The final step, smoking the skin to make it washable and set its rich golden hue, is a day's project in itself, and there isn't time to go for a rabbit or seek out another present for Peeta tonight. I could walk in the woods a little and maybe meet up with Acushla again, but it's late enough that she's probably back in her nest, and being alone with my thoughts is the last thing I need right now.

I decide instead to visit Rye and fill him with sugar and secrets till it's time to go in, and I walk out into the stable to see Pollux in the pony's stall, brushing him down, and Lavinia sitting on a stool beside the stove with a parcel in her arms – waiting for me, clearly, because as soon as I enter her line of vision she hops up with a smile and crosses to me, taking hold of my hand and tugging me toward the stairs to the loft.

To say I'm stricken would be a gross understatement. Somehow I'd imagined that Pollux and Lavinia would still be upstairs, either in the midst of lovemaking or slumbering in its aftermath, or maybe Pollux would be working outside and Lavinia would have returned to the house; certainly not that I'd leave the workshop and stumble upon both of them at once – and never that they'd try to bring me upstairs, to the very scene of my mortification.

I shake my head rapidly and take a few steps backward, tugging at Lavinia's hold, but she only chuckles and tows me more firmly, albeit merrily, toward the stairs. Pollux glances over at us and grins before returning to his brushing, and I realize that they can't possibly know that I saw them earlier. They're both acting so ordinary and playful; not embarrassed in the least, even though I'm certain I've gone crimson from head to toe, and so I reluctantly follow Lavinia up the stairs, willing my flush to fade and wishing fervently for a handful of snow in my face.

Upon reaching the loft I'm relieved to find that the bed has been neatly made and the room aired out; it smells like snow and woodsmoke, not the strange tang of sweat and musk and tangled bodies that lingered earlier, faint but jarring. Someone – Lavinia, I shouldn't wonder – has made a clear effort to conceal the fact that this is anything but a lonely bachelor's living space.

When I turn to look at her, her smile is gone, faded to a grave, sympathetic expression as she takes a folded piece of paper from her parcel and hands it to me.

I know you saw us, and I'm so very sorry.

Horrified, I meet her eyes with a start but she shakes her head, pointing back at the letter.

We're always so careful, Katniss. Never when you or Peeta might see or hear, never ever when you're so close by.

Today was – special. I can't tell you why yet, but Pollux really didn't want to leave me this morning. He would never have acted that way at a simple request from Peeta, and he feels terrible about it now. He never expected me to go to town in his place – he assumed he'd grumble a bit and then leave like any other day – but I was in such good spirits this morning, I just leapt in and made the trip myself, and when I got back he was – we were both – overcome by the need to be close again. It's no excuse for our behavior, but it's the reason for it.

Pollux doesn't know and I'll make sure he never does. He adores you, utterly and completely, but he also holds you in the highest regard and he would die of shame if he knew you saw, let alone what you saw. I wouldn't put it past him to ask Peeta to send him back to the Capitol, he would be so ashamed.

Please understand: what we were doing was incredibly intimate, intended for no one's eyes but our own, but there was nothing shameful in it. Pollux would be ashamed not of his actions but that you of all people saw him in such a moment of passionate abandon. If it makes you feel better, Peeta's happened upon us twice, and one of those occasions was an even more intimate moment than the one you witnessed. We've been so guarded since then, but as I said, today was special. I should have taken Pollux back to my room instead of going to the loft with him, but I was caught up in the moment, and I'm so incredibly sorry for putting you in such an awkward position.

"But it wasn't your fault at all!" I blurt, certain that my face, throat and chest are now, literally, on fire. "I just…walked up here like a complete idiot! I had no reason and – and I didn't even want to, I just –"

She puts a hand over my mouth, gently stopping my words, and takes out her slate.

I know, she writes, and it's okay.

"But I saw you," I whisper. Somehow that seems to be all the explanation I need.

Her lips curve in a tiny, gentle smile. I know, she writes again, with palpable patience. And it's okay, Katniss.

The words tumble out before I can stop them. "Is that normal?" I squeak. "I mean – what he was…is that just what lovers do?"

I'm so convinced she's going to laugh that I almost burst into tears of relief and gratitude when she doesn't. Instead she sets down her parcel and, with the softest, most compassionate expression she's ever worn, she wraps her arms around me and lays her cheek against my hair, making little wordless crooning noises all the while, like a mother soothing a frightened child.

She hugs me so tightly, as though her embrace might somehow tell me the things her mutilated mouth no longer can, and when she lets go of me, it's only to cross quickly to the bed and return with Pollux's notebook, open to a blank page.

There is no "normal" in lovemaking, sweet Katniss, she writes, and I'll gut anyone who tries to tell you otherwise. The act is, or should be, as unique as the lovers themselves. A few gestures are instinctive or more common, as certain parts of the body are more sensitive to touch or more appealing to a lover in general, but there is no right or wrong way to engage intimately with your sweetheart, nor should there be.

Pollux is shy and bold and clumsy – maybe a little less of the latter now that we've been together for a few months – and it's wonderful. Sometimes he cries, sometimes we both do, because it feels so amazing and sometimes we laugh because it's such an incredibly happy thing. It's just for us – we're not trying to impress each other or anyone else – and it's so good, Katniss.

She looks up at me with a smile and her caramel eyes are a little over-bright, as though she's on the verge of tears, but I simply stare back, even more perplexed and unsettled than I was at the start of this conversation. My mind is half-full of vivid memories of Pollux kissing his way down this woman's beautiful naked body and half-full of hazy visions of Peeta and I in their place. I wonder if Peeta's lovemaking would be shy and bold and clumsy and if he would laugh and cry in turns.

And once again, the words are out before I can stop them. "Would Peeta be like that?" I whisper, and to my shock, Lavinia's teary smile vanishes in an instant, replaced by a look any District citizen recognizes as unmistakable warning. She leads me to the table and quickly scratches out a message on the page before pushing the notebook over to me.

NEVER say that out loud. Never say anything like that about him where they might hear.

Chastened and confused all at once, I write back: Because of Columbine?

She looks up from the question with unfeigned puzzlement – clearly the name means nothing to her, but it's possible that Peeta hasn't told her his sweetheart's name yet – and I add: Peeta's sweetheart – the Seam girl. Would it endanger her somehow?

She frowns and tips her head back and forth, as though she needs to untangle or decipher my question. His sweetheart would be in terrible danger, yes, she writes at last. But so will he. He's told you that much, hasn't he?

I think back to last night's tale of the valiant baker's son and the Troll who means him harm. The ending was murky at best but if I understand correctly, Peeta can't be with his sweetheart until that vague danger from the Capitol has passed.

I write this in the notebook and Lavinia concurs with a grim nod. They can't know how close he is, she writes. It's a dance, like Pollux and me, but the stakes are much, much higher and the timing is so crucial.

I love him, I write in a rush. He has to be safe and happy, no matter what I have to do to ensure it. Tell me how to protect him – save him – from them.

To my surprise this brings back her smile, albeit a careful, measured variant. You're already more powerful than they could ever dream, she writes cryptically. Simply continue to do what you've done so beautifully all this while – loving him in that fierce, startled, breathtaking fashion of a wild creature – and you will protect him better than any bodyguard.

None of this makes any sense whatsoever and I attempt to convey as much with a thoroughly lost expression, which wins another smile, this one reaching her beautiful golden eyes. And further, little goose, she writes with a glint of humor, you can ask questions like the one you asked earlier as long as you ask it in writing and we burn the paper after. But since I doubt that you can put it into words on a page, I'll answer what I think you're wanting to know, though I strongly suspect you already know the answer all too well.

Peeta Mellark will be the kindest, gentlest, most devoted lover that ever lived. His sweetheart is like a queen in his eyes, so clever and beautiful and so far beyond his reach that I suspect their first time – and indeed, many times after – will be full of hesitation, tears, disbelief, and wonder.

I swallow fiercely at the sob welling in my throat and try to remember why the pairing of wonder and disbelief is so familiar, almost hopeful.

I know he is not mine, I scratch out, quickly, before the admission can bring tears. Not mine, never mine, not for me – but when I touch him, hold him, even kiss him, he seems to – not mind it overmuch. It's the most wonderful feeling in the world, being close to him, but I don't want to hurt or anger him or take advantage of his kind nature, and surely the moment will come when –

Lavinia's hand covers mine to stop the words – clearly, she's been reading as I write – and she shakes her head gently. I don't know Peeta the way you do, of course, but I can't foresee a day when he would ever push you away or refuse your touch, she replies. He cares for you like no other and he drinks up your touch – your love, even though he doesn't recognize it as such – like a man dying of thirst. You're in far greater danger of spending the rest of the winter entwined with Peeta in a cuddle-nest than you are of him ever pushing you away. To which end!

She retrieves her parcel and sets it on the table between us, along with the back side of her note from earlier.

You work so hard and New Year's was the only time you allowed yourself to simply look pretty and enjoy Peeta's company. Without giving away this evening's surprise, I wanted you to have something nice to change into before you go in.

She nudges the parcel toward me and I peel back the paper to find a dress much like the ones she often wears: calico, long-sleeved, almost old-fashioned with its accents of lace and cheery bric-a-brac, but unlike Lavinia's muted blues and greens, this dress is the sunny yellow of a dandelion, patterned with tiny red flowers and tying beneath the breasts with a wide red ribbon. It's the sort of dress a Merchant girl would wear for an autumn picnic in the meadow with her sweetheart – and utterly adorable to boot.

It's the kind of thing Prim should wear, not a wild fox-maiden who's madly in love with a boy she can never, ever have, but I'm strangely delighted by Lavinia's idea. I know Peeta has no interest whatsoever in how I look, but it would be a wonderful surprise to exchange my work clothes – particularly the sweater stained by Acushla's droppings – for a pretty picnicking dress he's never seen before. I never have cause to wear pretty things and less still to put on a dress, and I can't help thinking that Peeta would appreciate the effort: a neatly turned-out companion arriving for supper instead of his everyday huntress, all mucky from tanning.

"You're sure he doesn't have an elaborate bath prepared?" I ask, only half-teasing. "I'd hate to do a quick clean-up and change of clothes out here only to find that he's filled the tub with honey and cream again."

Lavinia shakes her head firmly. Much too busy for that today, she assures me. While I can guarantee that he wished he had time to make you a bath, preparing your surprise will have taken up his entire afternoon, especially in light of his late start.

"What did you bring from town?" I wheedle without any real hope of a reply. "Can't you even give me a hint?"

She grins. I brought back exactly one item, aside from your new outfit, she answers. One very specific item that he didn't have already and without which the entire surprise would have been impossible.

While her answer could hardly be vaguer, it's more than I expected and I process the clue accordingly. It's likeliest that the mysterious item is a special ingredient for our supper, and if Peeta didn't have it already it's probably something I've never tasted before. And considering his desperation to get ahold of it for tonight – sending Lavinia to town just for one special item instead of requesting it at the next regular run – I'd hazard a guess that it's going to be one of the most delicious things I've ever had in my life.

"That sounds wonderful – and well worth a change of clothes," I tell Lavinia with a grin.

She helps me out of my sweater, boots, and trousers and into the pretty yellow dress, which is an astonishingly good fit; almost perfect. I've gained some badly needed weight over the past month and slowly begun to develop tiny healthy curves at breast and backside, but I'm still so little, compared to the average Merchant girl who wears ready-made dresses from the mercantile, that it seems impossible Lavinia could have found anything in that shop that would fit me even half this well.

When I remark on this she laughs delightedly. Little one, the mercantile has stocked their shelves with Katniss-sized EVERYTHING, she writes. You're Victor Peeta Mellark's cherished companion and they're constantly hoping he'll buy you more clothes. I don't even have to look for your size anymore, I just walk in the door and a clerk rushes over to show me all the new stock that they hope will suit your needs.

"Why on earth would they do that?" I sputter, stunned and embarrassed by this news. The mercantile is the largest store in Twelve and I can't even begin to comprehend that they would order special things just for me – or rather, not for me so much as to woo me; to pique my interest and win my business, like I'm someone rich or important.

She laughs again, but gentler this time. Because a certain wealthy boy is a trifle besotted with you, little goose, she writes. They weren't prepared when he first went in to buy clothes for you and they're afraid they lost business because of it, so they're vigilant now about keeping plenty of Katniss-stock on hand, just in case. It's quite practical if you think about it, and it keeps Peeta's money in the District rather than going directly to the Capitol for commissions and special orders. The grocer does it too – he keeps an extra case of molasses in stock because he knows Peeta makes you a ginger cake every Sunday – and the creamery sets aside two quarts of cream every Monday and Thursday for your coffee.

I flush deeply. I've barely given a moment's thought to the shops back home since moving out here and I never in a million years would have dreamt they would stock special things because of me. It makes sense the way Lavinia explained it – Peeta's orders are probably fairly consistent from week to week and Merchants would naturally want to anticipate these orders so they have the stock on hand when needed – but it's still mortifying to learn that our habits are common knowledge in town.

Lavinia laces me into a pair of little cherry-red shoes, snug but deliciously supple, like a dancer would wear, then writes, Even the shoe shop keeps you in mind, but I suppose it helps that Peeta's uncle works there. These came ready-made but Marek hand-softened the leather for you. He says you're every inch a fairytale maiden and you had to have a pair of little red dancing shoes, like your beautiful granny, and he wouldn't take payment for them. They're a belated New Year's gift, he said.

It takes me a moment to figure out what he meant. Granny Ashpet never had a special pair of red shoes that I know of but her namesake, the beautiful cinder-lass, did: little red dance-slippers to go with the fine calico dress that she wore to the dance where she met her prince. Ashpet is primarily a Seam heroine, though; a coal miner's daydream, not a Merchant's, and I wonder what could have brought her to the mind of Peeta's bachelor shoemaker uncle – or for that matter, why he would have been thinking about me at all, let alone softening a pair of pretty shoes for me.

Lavinia's already written the answer. You're more beloved – and important – than you realize, Katniss. You matter a great deal to a lot of people because you matter so much to Peeta.

I wiggle my toes against buttery-soft leather and think of Marko's box of tiny pies, Peeta's father enfolding me in his strong arms as I wept over the hamper of food, and Rooba patiently teaching Peeta how to cut and prepare meat so he could cook for me. It's unbelievable enough that this sweet, gentle boy could care for me at all but it's almost incomprehensible to think of his family, to whom I must mean less than nothing, caring about me by extension.

I let Lavinia guide me into a chair at the table and sit, silent and thoughtful, as she unplaits my hair, carefully removing all the sweetheart ribbons, and brushes it out in long, thorough, decadent strokes from roots to ends that feel so good, they half put me to sleep. Just wear today's ribbon, she advises when she's finished. The one from the lunch hamper – tie it like a headband. Your hair is so lovely when you leave it down, and I'll bring the other ribbons back to your room.

"Fair enough," I concede, looping the ribbon in question so the band of red satin lies just above my hairline and tying it snugly at my nape. "But if I do that, can we maybe talk like this again sometime?"

The request is made half in jest and it's a weak bargain to boot, but I can't resist. Lavinia is a woman of so few words that the exchange of these past several minutes feels like a lavish gift. It's a comfort I hadn't realized I was missing, having another female to talk to – about anything, really – and after the day I've had, I'm a little terrified of losing it. I doubt I'll ever manage to ask her anything specific about my body or its hot, damp, hunger for more of Peeta, but somehow it's enough to know that I could ask if I wanted.

She smiles warmly in reply and presses a kiss to the top of my head. Are you sure your pony won't mind? she writes.

I chuckle. "He's not exactly the best listener," I inform her, "and anyway, he's not mine."

She looks like she wants to debate this but all she writes is, Anytime, Katniss. You can ask me anything you like or just talk at me if it helps. I can't promise that I'll always give a satisfying answer but I'd never ignore you. I know I'm not as "chatty" as Pollux but I think it'll help us both to have a girl to talk to, especially now.

I look at her with eyebrows raised in curiosity and she blushes, faintly but unmistakable. I've heard it said that certain girls blush beautifully but this is the first I've ever witnessed it, and it's every bit as true as they say. Lavinia looks like an entirely different person with a dusting of rose in her porcelain cheeks – and somehow more startlingly beautiful than ever.

My instincts inform me that I need to get out of here before Pollux comes rushing back in to make love to his blushing vision of a wife – far more than I need an explanation for said blush. "Thank you," I tell her, a little too quickly. "A-And now I should really get back to the house…"

She eyes me for a moment, as though she can't quite decide whether to giggle at my sudden haste or frown in concern, but she duly steps back to let me up from the table. However, I've barely reached the steps when her fingers curl around the bow at the back of my ribs, gently checking my progress. "Now what?" I demand with an exasperated chuckle, but she only nudges me to go downstairs ahead of her. For some reason she just wanted to slow me down a little, and this begins to make sense when I reach the foot of the stairs and see Pollux peering through what can't be more than a hairline crack between the stable doors. He looks back at us – at Lavinia, actually – and holds up a hand in a halting gesture, though his eyes are positively dancing, then he peeks quickly outside again.

Where, I don't doubt, the final touches are being applied to my surprise.

"You were stalling me, weren't you?" I exclaim, turning about to face Lavinia and debating whether or not to playfully shake her by the shoulders. "You don't care two pins about me having pretty clothes! It was just a back-up plan in case Peeta needed more time –"

She hugs me so hard it squashes the breath from my lungs, laughing and rocking me a little from side to side, and waves Pollux over to borrow his larger slate. Back-up plan, yes, she admits. But pretty Katniss = also true. The clothes would have gone to you regardless – and the chat too, she adds meaningfully, before I can accuse her of only opening up to me to kill a little time and maybe even making up lies to fill more minutes. Everything I told you was true, even if the telling was suspiciously well-timed.

Pollux, being necessarily dragged into this by the slate around his neck, glances between Lavinia's words and my face with a curious frown, and I'm immensely grateful that he can't guess what his wife and I could have had to talk about for these past several minutes.

"Can I please go see my sweetheart, then?" I ask dutifully. "Or is he still up to mischief just outside the stable door?"

They exchange quick, somber glances and I wonder for a paralyzing moment if I've done it again: if I've inadvertently said something that, if picked up by the Capitol bugs, might endanger Peeta. I've gathered that he has to be extremely careful what he says about his sweetheart – that we both do, I suppose – but of course that's nothing to do with me. My feelings toward him, foolish and hopeless as they are, shouldn't matter to the Capitol in the slightest. I shouldn't have said it so brazenly, of course, but Pollux and Lavinia both know that I love Peeta and my heart is fit to burst with keeping it in. I need to tell someone other than a greedy pony and a sweet, silent dove.

Pollux's bright eyes crinkle ever so slightly at the corners: an eloquent, if cryptic, remark directed solely at his wife, and she releases me with a slow sigh and a wave toward the door.

"I'm sorry," I blurt in a whisper, turning back to face her. "I don't mean to keep –"

But she only shakes her head with a strange smile. So powerful, she writes cryptically on her own slate. You have no idea, little one.

With an impish swat at my backside she chases me to the door, though Pollux has the good sense to retrieve my hamper and jacket and toss the latter about my shoulders before I plunge out into a bitter January dusk, dressed like a Merchant girl on her way to a picnic or festival, dainty slippers and all. At first glance the path between the stable and the house doesn't look particularly different – and then I spy it, about three feet ahead: a nugget of creamy gold tucked carefully into the snow at the center of the path, like a half-hidden treasure.

I crouch to pick up the mysterious object, which is tantalizingly warm to the touch, and have to stop myself from popping it instantly into my mouth. It looks like a butter cookie "kiss" – a little star-shaped tuft of golden dough – but there's something new in the aroma of this one. Something delicately tart that makes my mouth water at the merest whiff.

I allow myself a nibble – half the cookie in one careful bite – and it melts in my mouth like a bead of sunrise. Sweet, rich, buttery – and yes, exquisitely tart, in the manner of something I tasted last night for the very first time.

And I know exactly what Lavinia brought back from town today.

I have every intention of saving the remaining half of this impossibly perfect cookie to feed to Peeta upon my arrival and then my eyes leap ahead to the rest of the path, where I can make out identical dots of creamy gold tucked into the snow at regular intervals. A path of tiny lemon-flavored butter cookies, leading me to the back door, and I clap a hand over my mouth in sheer delight.

"So you've laid a trail of sweet crumbs, my boy," I muse as I scoop up each still-warm cookie in turn and alternate between greedily stuffing them into my mouth and tucking them into a pocket of my jacket to save for later. "But do you mean to catch or tame, I wonder?" I ask the open air. "And what do you hope to reel in with your decadent little lures: a shy doe or a hungry songbird, perhaps? What will you do if your quarry is a wild and greedy thing, not half so sweet or gentle?"

Whatever Peeta's decided to trap or tame, he's left a reward for following his trail at the back step: a tiny lemon tart, little bigger than the cookies; flaky-crusted with a pale yellow filling that bursts on my tongue and brings tears to my eyes with its sunny, sweet-tart flavor.

I love you, I inform my pocketsful of precious lemon cookies and the delicate crust-crumbs I lick off my fingers. I love you so much I'm afraid I'll devour you in kisses the moment we lay eyes on each other.

Breathless with anticipation, I edge open the door to find a mug – my battered little mug from home, so cherished in Peeta's kitchen – waiting just inside, its steaming contents a curious cloudy yellow. Having never drunk anything like this in all my life, my first sip is tiny and cautious and still makes me whimper with pleasure. It's a lemon beverage of some kind, sweetened with fragrant honey and spiced with ginger and cinnamon and cloves, like a tart yellow cider – and the perfect temperature for cozy sipping.

Greedy as I am for more lemon bliss – and knowing that infinitely more must lie just ahead – I don't take the time to sip; rather, I drain the little mug with a greedy moan and leave it on one of the mudroom benches, along with my father's jacket and its store of cookies. I can't begin to guess where Peeta waits for me but a clue lies at the edge of the mudroom: a glittering curl of pale yellow, like a petal from the sun itself.

Thanks to the special New Year's treat Peeta made from the remains of our precious orange, I quickly guess what this might be, but nothing can prepare me for the experience of biting into a tender piece of candied lemon peel. "Oh!" I cry, "oh oh ohhh!" and I wouldn't hold back the ecstasy even if I were capable of doing so. I want to curl up right here and eat candied lemon peel till I cry myself into a stupor over how wonderful it is; each bite so intense that my mouth puckers and tingles and waters all at once.

I almost weep with relief to spy more curls of lemon peel laid out ahead, leading me onward toward the living room. "Oh, sweet boy," I whisper as I fill my hand with golden slivers of sugared bliss. "You've become a skillful hunter indeed."

I round the corner into the living room and almost drop my candied treasure with a squeak. All the furniture has been pushed back to open up the center of the room, where a red-checked cloth has been spread before the fire and covered from edge to edge with food: a winter picnic made of sunshine and pure gold.

There's a platter of herbed venison ribs with a half-lemon laid prominently to either side and a whole roast chicken covered with lemon slices, a bowl of many-grained rice and another of glistening boiled potatoes, a pile of pale sweet buns flecked with something dandelion-bright, with a dish of honey-butter to hand, and a pot of thick golden soup, almost the color of pumpkin but, I suspect, something else entirely and even more magical. There's a mountain of tiny tarts, like the one that awaited me on the back step, and another of lemon butter cookies; a round yellow cake, bright as sunrise, dripping with a sugary white glaze and garnished with delicate curls of candied lemon peel, and a small pretty bowl heaped with the rest of the decadent peels. Finally, nearest the fire stand two ceramic pitchers, one steaming and the mouths of both glinting with pale liquid, along with two mugs, two glasses, and all the other dishes and utensils required for two lovers to partake in this lavish golden feast.

I feel him then, in the shadows of the hall behind me but not encroaching; never encroaching, and my whole being trembles at his nearness. I take three swift steps into the living room – not in evasion; never in evasion – and crouch deftly to pour my handful of candied peels into the bowl atop their fellows for safekeeping and set the hamper to one side, then I linger like a doe at a watering hole: wary and defenseless as I will my sweetheart to approach.

Catch me, I plead in my mind. Oh, please catch me, sweet boy. I've been waiting all day for him to surprise me with his arms and waiting even a few more heartbeats is excruciating.

But those heartbeats pass, and more after that, and still he doesn't reach out, though I can feel the tremble of anticipation and longing in his stillness. He doesn't grab, this boy, no matter how badly he might wish to. He knows, even better than I do, the difference between catching and taming.

But I am tame! I beseech him silently. Little prince, I am yours, whole and entire – can't you see it?

And just like that, I know exactly how – and what – to tell him.

I shall show you how happy I am!

I uncurl from my crouch and rise to hurl myself at my waiting boy with a joyous yip, leaping up to wind my legs around his waist, or rather, as best I can in this long skirt. He gasps and teeters a little at the sudden burden but catches me soundly and draws me closer still, his arms beneath my backside as I bury myself in as much of him as I can reach, breathing in greedy lungfuls of melted butter and boy-musk, roast chicken and honey and lemonso much lemon. Everywhere lemon, tart and sweet and mingling with the beloved scents of his strong, beautiful body.

"If you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life," I quote against his curls, then press half a dozen kisses to them for good measure. Once again we are fox and prince and better served by their dynamic than any pair of fairytale lovers. "I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others," I murmur."Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow.

"And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder?" I wonder, and he shifts me back in his embrace; just enough to meet my eyes. His own are dark and enormous, the pupils swollen up as though to drink in every last drop of light in my being.

"I do not eat bread," I explain in the person of the fox; a line I've never quite understood as, in my experience, foxes seem quite content to make off with whatever food they can clamp their muzzles around; even slices of tessera bread if left unattended long enough."Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold," I whisper, combing my fingertips through those buoyant, beloved curls."Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat," I conclude, resting my forehead against his with a long, gusty sigh.

"You would have to go a long way to find wheat, little fox," he says at last, hoarsely.

"There is more than wheat to bring me thoughts of you, little prince," I reply, taking cues from the poetry of the fox's declaration to provide examples from my own experience, and tick off each one with a kiss. "The dry winter grasses with their pale golden stalks," I say tenderly, with a kiss to the crown of his head, "the ripe ears of corn in the grocer's window" – a kiss to his right temple – "the precious jar of creamed honey in the pantry" – a kiss to his left temple – "all of these recall you to me."

"Oh Katniss," he whispers. "Why must you give me so much – and continue to give, again and again and again – even after I beg you to stop?"

These words strike like a blow and I quickly uncurl my legs from his waist in a wounded scramble to free myself, but though he lets me drop to my feet his arms remain about me, not confining – never confining – and yet refusing, this time, to let me flee. "Don't go, little vixen," he murmurs against my brow. "I love everything you've given me and want still more – more than the greediest gosling would ask for in his wildest, most indulgent dreams – but I can give you so little in return. A meal or a silly little drawing –"

"You give me treasures," I correct him firmly, butting my nose against his cheek. "Rich feasts and cuddle-nests and the most beautiful presents, such as a fairy queen would blush to possess."

"And how many fairy queens do you know," he wonders lightly, "who would blush over a sketch of a goslit and kitling?"

I lean back to meet his eyes with no doubt in my mind that my own cheeks are dark as ripe plums. "They're perfect, Peeta," I breathe. "The babies; our ba – for our storybook," I amend quickly. "You drew them exactly as I'd pictured them. I wanted to –"

I break off abruptly and try to find something fascinating to look at but it's impossible to evade Peeta at this proximity, and while he'd never, ever force me to do or say anything I didn't wish, I can't resist his gentle curiosity. "Wanted to what, Katniss?" he asks softly.

"I-I wanted them to be my babies," I confess in a whisper. "My very own. I wanted to nurse the little kitling – as strange a-and awful as that sounds – a-and cuddle the newborn goslit in our nest…"

"I worked on the wrong present," he says raggedly. "Instead of this silly lemon picnic I should have finished –"

"No," I tell him without waiting to hear about this other mysterious gift that has something to do with my wild babies and would almost certainly have split my heart open with its beauty. "The picnic is perfect – beyond perfect," I assure him, taking his face in my hands and pressing a kiss to the tip of his nose because it's all I can do not to kiss the sweet, soft, half-parted lips just below. "I'm overwhelmed by all the wonderful things you made."

"You'd never had lemon before," he recalls in a whisper. "And you liked it so much that I wanted you to taste lemon everything – right away, so you'd know I remembered –"

"You remember everything," I soothe, winding my arms around him and nestling my body into the contours of his. "You notice everything and pay attention to the smallest details."

"Like…like this?" he wonders, and I feel his fingers in my hair, so gentle, tracing the single red ribbon at my hairline. "Your hair was all ribbons this morning, little redcap, but unless I miss my guess, this one is new."

I lean back with a chuckle. "It arrived on the handle of a truly splendid lunch," I reply, "which seemed to occasion wearing it for supper."

"I'm sure the giver is flattered," he says, a smile dancing at the corners of his mouth. "Especially to see it paired with such a stunning new dress – and shoes, too, I think?"

Before I can even begin to guess what he's thinking I'm scooped up in strong arms and cradled to his chest, with my red-slippered feet held aloft to one side for his consideration. "Little red dancing shoes," he declares, more than a little bemused, "and the prettiest calico dress in all the world. My darling vixen, are you trying to tell me that I need to take you to a ball?" he wonders playfully. "Or is there some fairy power at work here?"

"A very wicked and devious redhaired fairy," I reply without hesitation. "She wouldn't let me go in for my supper unless I put on these clothes," I lament, "and she brushed out my braids too."

"I may have to reward this clever fairy," he muses, "or reprimand her; I can't decide. I'm accustomed to dining with a magnificent wild creature and tonight I was sent a princess instead, all merry skirts and dancing shoes and long silky hair."

"If you put a ball gown on a vixen," I challenge, breathless at his beautiful words, "does that make her a princess?"

"It makes her a queen," he answers huskily, pressing a careful, almost delicate kiss to the tip of my nose. "Or rather, acknowledges her for being one all along, and you, my little wild queen –" he punctuates the words with another kiss, this one slow and soft and nestled between my brows – "are radiant as the sun this evening."

I melt against him, done in by his pretty nonsense and meaningless but heavenly little kisses, and tuck my face into his neck. "Well, it is a yellow dress," I concede with a drowsy sort of contentment. "Bright as a buttercup and about as subtle."

"I rather enjoy you 'not subtle,'" Peeta murmurs, turning about and carrying me toward the fireside. "Don't get me wrong: I love you in greens and grays and browns, all stealth and shadows and enormous silver eyes, but you're stunning in bright colors. A queen in truth."

Still cradling me to him, he crouches down, favoring his prosthesis ever so slightly, to set me at the head of our picnic feast, with the venison ribs and roast chicken to either hand, then seats himself beside me. "What shall I serve you first, my queen?" he asks, his eyes glinting with merriment but still so warm and dark, as though addressing me as his queen is anything but a joke, and I snake out a hand to catch his.

"If you please, sir, there's no goose in this feast," I inform him gravely, toying with his fingers. "Nor gander neither, and this vixen-in-a-ball-gown is woefully disappointed at the absence of her favorite dish."

"Ah," he says with equal gravity, curling his fingers around mine and staring pointedly at the magnificent meal spread before us. "As to that: there is no gander in the feast, true enough, but there is a gander at the feast – a plump and wholesome one – should…should you prefer him to the main courses provided."

I gaze between our hands and his averted face and wonder why my breath is speeding up – and why this dialogue suddenly doesn't feel silly in the least. "I-I think I've taken more than my share of nips today," I stammer, tracing a tendon on the back of his hand with my thumb. "If…if I want this gander to last till spring, I need to give him a few days' respite to regrow some feathers."

Peeta's hand trembles in my hold. "He's a mighty plump gander, vixen mine," he says raggedly, still persistently evading my eyes. "I daresay you could take another nip or two without jeopardizing your winter store."

Trembling myself now, I take his hand in both of mine and turn it gently palm-up, then raise his palm to my mouth and press a lingering kiss at its center. It feels foolish and daring all at once, and Peeta's resulting moan kindles the hot ache in my belly in less than a heartbeat. His hand smells almost dizzyingly of lemons, sharp and sweet and golden as midwinter sun, and I want to close my mouth around each strong finger in turn and suck at them like hard candies, till my belly is flooded with the musk and honey of Peeta and lemons –

"Oh!" I cry, mortified at this mad, revolting urge, and drop his hand like a hot pan. "I-I'm so sorry, Peeta."

"For…f-for what?" he asks gently, if a little hoarsely, reaching out to brush my sleeve with his fingers. "I like your nips, little vixen, and would happily take the place of your supper if you wished."

He's teasing now; I can hear it clearly in his voice, and I peer through shame-lowered lashes to meet encouraging – if still unusually dark – eyes. "I-I'm greedy to taste this picnic feast," I tell him, barely a lie at all. "But an after-dinner nip – or-or two – might be a nice treat."

"I look forward to it," he replies with a grin. "Shall I make a half-hearted and fruitless attempt to run away or happily surrender to my captor?"

I return his grin and lean over to take a playful mock-bite at his shoulder, encased now, appropriately enough, in a sweater the downy yellow of a newly hatched chick. I wonder if he chose the garment to correspond with the lemon theme of our meal or perhaps in keeping with my description of him as a golden goose – or maybe Lavinia is more devious than I realized and brought him a sunny garment as well for our winter picnic. "I give you the meal to decide," I declare grandly. "But remember, lonely gander: this vixen has sharp little teeth and is a greedy beast indeed. We may be scarcely past New Year's but this winter has been long and cold already, and a small hungry fox would be hard-pressed not to devour a fat, foolish, golden goose who lingers so willingly in her presence."

"Oh, little vixen," he sighs, a slow exhalation that positively exudes bliss. "Surely you know by now that I am yours to do with as you please?"

I contemplate these words and the sweet boy who uttered them, my head cocked like a curious kit's, then I pick up his arm by the wrist, wriggle into the created hollow beneath, drape the arm around me like a shawl and scoot my hip snugly against his. "Ah, you fierce, greedy thing," he chuckles, planting a kiss on the top of my head. "What's a gander to do when even his wings are in such demand?"

"I like your wings immensely," I inform him, tucking myself as tightly against his warmth as I can. "Maybe I'll save them for last instead of your beak."

"I have an idea, if you're amenable," he says lightly. "It's not quite so cozy, I'm afraid, but I'd rather like to serve you and it's tricky – albeit manageable," he adds quickly, "with one arm otherwise engaged."

I tip my head back against him in sleepy kit-fashion. "I like all of your ideas," I remind him. "What exactly did you have in mind?"

He lowers his arm from around my shoulders and inches a little away from me, but before I can feel too dismayed, he folds his legs around me from behind and scoots close, aligning our torsos front to back as he gathers me to him with all four limbs and fully envelops me in his solid warmth. The change of position is more than satisfactory – enough to melt me against him with pleasure – and then he roots his face into my unbound hair till he reaches the skin of my neck with a plaintive little groan and nestles there, like a burrowing creature at the first snowfall, all quick warm breaths and drowsy coos.

I moan softly and cover his arms with my own, hugging them even tighter about me. "Oh, I'm amenable, Peeta," I sigh. "I don't know how either of us will manage to eat like this, but then, food doesn't seem especially important at the moment."

"A frantic afternoon of turning a case of lemons into a feast fit for a queen and it doesn't seem especially important to you?" Peeta replies in mock-affront, an exquisite grumble of dancing lips and moist breath against the tender skin of my neck, but he doesn't move so much as a hairsbreadth away from me.

I lift his hands and nuzzle my face greedily into the well between them, sighing to my bones at how wonderful those strong callused palms feel against my skin. "I missed you," I confess, as much to myself as to him. "Your arms and your breath and your warmth. I hated leaving our nest to go to work, even if it was on your present."

He strokes my face a little, blindly but so gentle. "I missed you too, little songbird," he murmurs. "Perhaps we should dispense with secret presents altogether. Then neither of us would have to go away ever again."

I consider this prospect for a long delicious moment, my face nestled deep between his hands, but ultimately shake my head. "I like surprising you – and being surprised by you," I admit, "though spending more time together might be nice too."

He chuckles softly. "That's handy indeed, greedy gosling," he replies, "because I've got a project for us to work on after supper – if you want to, of course. If we ever actually eat supper," he adds teasingly, "and decide on something other than cuddling to fill the rest of the evening."

I want to retort with something shocked and reproachful but he's so right that I can't drum up the effort to lie, even in jest. "Well, you did promise me another nest," I point out.

"In exchange for a story, lazy thing," he reminds me, "or a short song, if you're really in a hurry." His lips catch at my neck in a playful admonishing nip, as tender as a kiss, but still it makes me catch my breath, and not because it hurt. All at once I'm overcome by the desire to turn in his embrace, knot my legs around his waist and press against his groin till this acute hunger between my legs is sated, and I hate it. I hate how incredible it felt and how something deep inside me whispers of feeling even more wonderful – more wonderful than I can imagine – if I would dare to continue; to rub and gasp and strain against him till I'm damp and boneless and trembling with pleasure.

I scramble out of his embrace so fast it's a wonder I don't upset every dish on the blanket, but this time I don't simply move away: I stumble to my feet and run to the kitchen, but that doesn't seem far enough so I continue into the dark pantry and tuck myself between two barrels, flushed and miserable and on the brink of furious tears.

Why can't I do this right? Why is my body being so awful, longing and even striving for the most inappropriate things right when Peeta and I have found this wonderful new intimacy of foxes and geese, of cuddles and kisses and stories and songs? What is this terrible, powerful wanting in my belly that's only stoked hotter and fiercer as the day went on, and how can I make it go away?

"Katniss," murmurs a beloved voice. "Katniss, I'm so sorry."

He's in the kitchen, just outside the open pantry door and therefore beyond my line of vision but not encroaching, never encroaching. "I shouldn't have done that," he says quietly. "I-I keep getting carried away with our game, and I'm so sorry for making you uncomfortable. I'll go upstairs and work for the rest of the night, and when you've eaten as much of the supper as you want, just leave the dishes and I'll clean up later."

"But when will you eat?" I croak, a stupid question but the only reply I can force out.

"I'm a plump gander, remember?" he says lightly, forcing a chuckle. "I can skip a feast or two, or take some bread and cheese up to my room – and anyway, I stole plenty of little tastes while I was cooking. You don't need to worry about me getting enough to eat."

"But I do," I answer miserably. "I worry about you being hungry…or-or sick or sad or cold or hurt or in danger –"

"Oh, sweetheart, I'm none of those things," he assures me, and his voice is closer now, as though he took a step nearer the doorway. "Not now, not in a long time – not since you came to live here. You've done so much for me – more than you could ever imagine – by simply being here," he says softly. "I respect your wildness – I-I love it – and I'm ashamed of myself for…for getting so close and spooking you."

"You don't understand," I lament, driving my hot face against my bent knees and feeling wretched beyond measure that this gentle, patient boy could blame himself in any way for my repeated flights. "Everything you do is perfect: the meals, the baths, the cuddle-nests, all your wonderful presents. It's not you I'm running from," I whisper.

There's a quiet creak and a settling of weight in reply and I realize Peeta sat down on the floor just outside, so patiently – always so patient. "Then what are you running from, Katniss?" he asks softly. "And how can I make it go away? Please tell me, whatever it is, and I'll fix it."

I creep out of my hiding place on hands and knees and crawl over to settle just inside the doorway, still not quite close enough to see him. "It's me that's the problem," I confess. "I-I warned you that I was greedy, sweet boy, and somehow, the more you give me, the more I want."

"I'll give you anything and everything, gladly," he answers, quietly but without hesitation. "You must know that by now."

I shake my head, never mind he can't see it, and give a hopeless moan. Not this, I tell him silently. Never this. But I'm a greedy vixen aching with love for an impossibly generous gander, so I do what my entire being is crying out for: I inch out the doorway to where Peeta waits, legs folded in front of him and eyes carefully directed away from the pantry, and sink down to lay my head on his thigh; a wild thing in search of forgiveness.

I whimper at the feel of firm muscle and skin-warmed corduroy beneath my cheek and Peeta answers with a moan, settling a hand on my head and stroking my hair with cautious, trembling fingers. "Oh Katniss," he whispers, and it almost sounds like he's in pain. "Please, please tell me what you want and I'll give it to you, whatever it is."

I exhale for the first time in what feels like an hour and lean up to press a little kiss to his knee. "This," I murmur, nestling my cheek against his thigh, and it's not a lie, if also not the whole truth. "You."

"Well," he rasps, "here I am."

Before I can think twice about it I climb into his lap, legs draped to one side, and butt my head against his chest, as though I could reach his heart if I were a little more determined. His arms come up to enfold me like it's second nature and I melt against him with a wordless croon.

"This is okay, you know," he says, his voice low and husky. "This and nothing else, for as long as we live, if that's what you want. You don't have to hunt or tan hides or make me anything ever again –"

"But you have to cook and bake or we'll never eat," I point out, without any real force, but Peeta only chuckles and hugs me even closer.

"Oh, my greedy gosling," he sighs rocking me a little, "we've both lived on so little that a diet of fruit and cheese and cold sausage would be a banquet, and Pollux and Lavinia could always bring us hot meals from town – or cook for us, if we were really desperate. They're both respectable cooks, believe it or not, and they'd planned on doing that sort of thing when they first agreed to come and live with me. They'd be more than willing to cook for us if I asked."

I tilt my head, intending to meet his eyes, but he instead he brings his forehead to mine and rubs against me in a nuzzling gesture. "I just want you to be happy, little Katniss," he murmurs. "It's the only thing I want in all the world. Tell me what would make you happy and you'll have it."

I curl my fingers in the yellow down of his sweater. "Goslits and kitlings," I whisper, at once a riddle, the wishing-well prayer of a barren fairytale wife, and the literal cry of my heart. "Twin baby fawns cradled to my breast," I go on, my voice catching in longing and grief. "One golden as the sun and the other silvery as the moon, and…and a snow-white bear cub, just the right size for my arms."

"Is…is that everything?" Peeta asks hoarsely. He stiffened a little when I began the impossible list but this is the first he's spoken or reacted in any way, and it doesn't feel like a scoff or a tease.

I think back to this morning's heartbreakingly perfect dream; of my family's guesses as to the nature of my unborn twins, and add the most impossible wish of all – the one that's been in my mind and heart since the night I agreed to stay here forever. "And the Morning and Evening Star," I say with a broken little laugh, as though I'm back in the Seam, thin and gray and dying of starvation, and asking for sugar and fresh cream for my pine needle tea.

"I've been wondering if they aren't twins as well," he says softly, "or the first- and second-born of the sun and moon: two children instead of one. A silver girl and a golden boy."

I sit up, wide-eyed, to meet Peeta's sweet, sad smile. "I can give you all of that, sweetheart," he murmurs, cupping my cheek in one strong hand. "Tonight, even – this very moment, if you want – but I'd like a little more time to work on some of your wishes, if that's okay."

I shake my head in utter confusion, staring at him like he's lost his mind. "I'll show you what I mean, if you want," he offers. "I…I'd like to show you what I mean, if it would make you happy."

My mind whirls, at once perplexed and euphoric and ever so slightly terrified. Peeta doesn't know how literally I want those impossible babies and he certainly doesn't mean to take me upstairs to his bed of autumn and sunset and plant them inside me, but then what can he possibly mean? How are these wild wishes so unsurprising to him and how can he possibly think he can grant them right now?

"Have supper with me, little sweetheart," he urges, so gently, inching his hand back to cradle and caress my nape, "and afterward I'll grant your first wish."

"Okay," I whisper, and somehow I'm aloft in his arms once more and being carried to the living room as though I weigh no more than the feather he once described me as, but this time I'm cradled like a sleepy child, small and snug and so close to his heart. I feel like I should protest this for some reason, but as I can't seem to think just what that reason is, I burrow into the warm musky down of his sweater and let him carry me back to our picnic.

He places me back where I started, with the chicken and ribs to either side, and I catch at the front of his sweater before he can move away to seat himself. "I've never seen you in yellow before, you who pay attention to the tiniest details," I tease. "Did you wear this to go along with the meal?"

He grins through a delightful blush and plants himself beside me. "More than you know," he replies. "I've had it since the Victory Tour but it made me feel like a fluffy chick, so I haven't worn it since –"

"You feel entirely like a fluffy chick," I concur, stroking his chest with an answering grin. "And tonight?"

"Well, it's sort of lemon-colored," he explains, blushing deeper, "and I thought there was the slightest chance you might sit down for supper and just start grabbing and devouring yellow things –"

"An intriguing course of action and one I haven't entirely ruled out," I warn him playfully, with a wide foxy grin and a meaningful lick of my lips.

"Or if I didn't pass as a lemon dish," he adds quietly, staring down at our meal, "it's downy and somewhat golden and, well…you were hunting for down and a golden goose for the better part of the morning…"

I consider this for a moment. "And you didn't think I'd recognize you without your feathers?" I wonder, but suddenly it doesn't feel like either of us is joking.

Peeta hesitates for a long moment before replying. "Let's just say I wanted to make sure there was a golden goose waiting for a certain hungry little fox when she came looking for her supper," he says.

I don't understand why, but the urge is overwhelming and irresistible, and I lean in to plant a sound kiss on his cheek. "I like you, silly gander," I inform him, "exceedingly," and I rub my face against his downy shoulder for good measure.

Peeta moans softly. "You're welcome to burrow amongst my feathers as long as you like, cold little one," he murmurs, "and then gobble me up when you wake."

I lift my head, recalling this dialogue from earlier – my own words from our breathless fox-and-goose encounter in the cuddle-nest – and shunt myself into the warm niche of his lap and arms with a little hop. "Well, I am surpassing fond of nests," I reply, wriggling into the hollow between his folded legs, "and downy gander-nests most of all."

He kisses the top of my head with a gusty sigh and curls his arms around me. "It's yours, whole and entire, little nestling," he says. "Now what can I serve you for refreshment?"

I gaze at the luxurious picnic spread before us and grin at the obvious reply. "The chicken, of course," I answer merrily. "Unless there's some rule against a gander serving chicken to a fox?"

Peeta chuckles at this. "It sounds like a shrewd course of action, to be honest," he replies: "a good way to save his own skin – and feathers," and he reaches around me for the platter of chicken, which he duly sets on my knees. "Shall I carve for you, my queen?" he teases.

I seize a drumstick with gusto and bite into the plump end, only to give a squeak of delighted surprise. The crisp, tart skin and buttery meat is cold: icebox-cold, not cooled naturally after coming out of the oven. Peeta roasted a chicken for me and chilled it straightaway because he knows how passionately I love cold chicken. To cool it this thoroughly, he would have had to start the chicken before any of the other dishes and then, likelier than not, pop it outside on the porch for an hour or two.

I carefully set the chicken platter back on the picnic blanket and turn in the nest of Peeta's body, bracketing his hips with my bent legs, to face him, drumstick in hand. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to kiss you," I croak, intending to tease but utterly unable to do so. "J-Just once, for the chicken. It-It's a new rule," I stammer. "If you let the fox's chicken get cold you have to pay a forfeit."

Peeta stares at me, wide-eyed and clearly confused, and my heart lurches with dread. He knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that I love cold chicken and therefore, that this is nothing but a clumsy – and stupid – excuse to kiss him again.

"I've served you rather a lot of cold chicken over the past weeks," he says at last, and his quiet voice trembles. "D-Does this new rule require back payments for previous offenses? Because if so –" His voice breaks. "I-I'd like to request a short extension before you…collect on all those forfeits."

I can't do this. Can't make my sweet boy miserable because of my foolish longing for more kisses. "No," I blurt. "I-I mean: the rule has been retracted. No forfeits required."

He frowns delicately. "But surely," he says, "this is a major offense." He takes the wrist of the hand holding the drumstick and holds it gently aloft. "A perfectly good roast chicken that came piping hot and golden from the oven, and now look at it: cold as ice. My vixen's favorite food, reduced to –"

"I love cold chicken," I blurt. "Even more than warm chicken."

The corners of his mouth twitch; a smile in determined hiding. "I had noticed that," he says lightly. "But you're entitled to change your mind at any –"

"My mind isn't changed," I interrupt miserably. "I love cold chicken a-and this is the best I've ever tasted."

His smile creeps out then, ever so slightly: the first rosy peep of sunrise over the horizon. "Thank you," he says with almost aggravating patience. "I'm so happy you like it."

He doesn't say a word about forfeits or kisses but gazes down at me in contented silence, still with that small sweet smile, while the shame boils and festers in my chest, and after about eight seconds I can't take it anymore. "I didn't mean to make you angry or sad," I explain in a rush, "I-I just…I wanted to kiss you because the chicken is so good."

He raises his pale brows as though this thought had never occurred to him. "That would be high praise indeed," he replies. "The very highest – more reward than compliment."

He's teasing me, never mind his smile hasn't broadened into a grin and his eyes are almost somber, and I scowl up at him. "You think that's funny?" I snap. "That I wanted to give you a kiss because I liked something you cooked?"

He bursts out laughing – an undeniable affirmative – and takes my face in his hands. "I think it's adorable," he says, pecking my nose with a quick, merry kiss, "that you liked one bite of cold lemon chicken so much you made up a completely different excuse to kiss me, and when I tried to tell you how nice that sounded you got angry – only you're nestled in my lap and brandishing a drumstick. Which is plenty fearsome, don't get me wrong, but…"

He trails off, laughing even harder, and I shove my upper body against his, intending to tackle him backwards in consternation, but he's too strong and entirely too prepared and he simply catches me to him and hugs me as tightly as he can. "Oh, little Katniss," he sighs through his laughter, "my furious little vixen: you can kiss me anytime you feel like it. No excuses or forfeits necessary."

"I don't want to kiss you anymore," I inform him, with as much cold dignity as I can manage with my face mashed into a chick-down sweater and the solid chest and warm boy-musk beneath. "I think I shan't ever want to kiss you again."

"You're a terrible liar, Katniss," he laughs, but without mocking of any kind – as though this lie about not wanting to kiss him is genuinely amusing – and kisses the top of my head to punctuate it. "I found your jar of little kisses-in-keeping – with a lid not nearly snug enough, I might add – and I strongly suspect that, in response to your cold lemon chicken, you'd like nothing better than to pounce on my chest and peck my face with happy kisses."

"You have a very high opinion of your stupid cold chicken," I answer dryly, still muffled by his chest. "It's barely worth one little kiss, let alone a faceful."

"Well, there's plenty of other food on the blanket," he says lightly. "Maybe one of those dishes would be worth a kiss?"

He sounds so abruptly downcast that I lean back in his loosened embrace to meet his eyes, and they're even sadder than I'd imagined. He looks ashamed and heartbroken all at once, and it can't simply be because I insulted his roast chicken, though that seems like a good place to start making amends.

"Your chicken isn't stupid, sweet boy," I placate, brushing the tip of my nose against his. "That was a terrible thing for me to say. It's the most delicious chicken I've ever tasted, and all your chicken is incredible, so that's pretty high praise, in my opinion."

"And you don't have to kiss me, now or ever," he croaks. "Not for cold chicken or…or any other reason."

But this kiss is painfully overdue and welling up in my chest, and so I lean in and press my mouth against his with a throaty croon. This time his lips soften under mine and even part slightly in a little gasp, and it feels so exquisitely good that I linger and sink against his mouth, drinking in his breath and his warmth and the delicious closeness of his sweet face; so close I can almost feel his endless golden eyelashes against my cheek.

I wonder wildly how it would feel if he were kissing me in return and nudge his soft, still mouth like an impatient kit, desperate for some kind of response, only to duck away immediately with a mortified little whimper.

"Shh, what's this?" Peeta wonders, catching my face in his hands, and his eyes are so dark that meeting them makes me a little dizzy. "I said you didn't have to kiss me and now it's made you sad."

I shake my head helplessly against his hands. "I like kissing you," I whisper, and he looks at me like I've just handed him the moon.

"You're free to do so whenever you want – or not," he reminds me, so gently. "Why are you sad, sweetheart?"

I can't say it. Not sitting in his lap at the fireside, with my face cradled in his strong hands and his priceless lemon feast spread like a picnic behind me – to say nothing of the cold drumstick still in my hand.

"Because I want a kiss too," I whisper, squeezing my eyes shut and longing to bury my head beneath the picnic blanket at the sharp catch of his breath. "I-I know I haven't done anything to earn one, b-but…I thought it might be nice…"

I've finally asked for something he can't and won't give me; finally proven myself to be even greedier than either of us could have guessed. This boy has wrapped me in luxury and comfort, even adoration, and I had the gall to tell him I wanted something even more precious: one of the priceless kisses he's storing up for his bride.

I wonder if he'll send me back to my family or maybe just toss me out into the snow. I've heard old tales like that, where a girl goes from poverty to a palace and, through curiosity or greed, asks for the one thing that's been forbidden her, which sends her right back to where she started, only worse, because now she's experienced all those wonderful things and knows that it was her own folly that lost them forever.

"I-I said you could kiss me whenever you want," Peeta says woodenly. He's gone stock-still everywhere our bodies are touching except for his hands, which tremble a little against my cheeks.

He doesn't understand. He thinks I just want to kiss him again, and we've gone too far for me not to clarify my unthinkable request.

I open my eyes to shamed slits to find him staring at me with a wide-eyed, almost hunted look, and my miserable heart sinks. "Please let me go upstairs," I beg him. "It was terrible of me to ask for something so precious. I-I'll stay up there for the rest of the night, or the week, or for good if you want –"

"Because…you wanted a kiss?" he puzzles, his sweet voice a halting rasp.

"Because I wanted a kiss from you," I explain, certain my cheeks must be scalding his palms and feeling like an idiot for having to spell it out, as though I asked wrong or clumsily. "Please forget I asked, or if you can't, just let me go upstairs for a little bit."

"Because you wanted me to kiss you?" he wonders, barely a whisper.

I wonder if he's being deliberately obtuse but there's nothing in his face to suggest it. He looks stunned and wary and genuinely uncertain, even after I laid out my request as plain as day. "Yes," I answer hopelessly. "Because I wanted you to kiss me."

His thumb inches cautiously to the corner of my mouth and traces an unsteady outline of my lips. "You…you're sure, Katniss?" he says, his eyes, so somber and concerned, flitting up to meet mine. "You…you want me to kiss you? It would make you happy?"

I give a tiny, breathless nod over the wild clamoring of my heart. "If…if it doesn't hurt or upset or…or offend you," I reply, "then yes, it would make me happy."

He tips my chin as carefully as if I were made of new-fallen snow and leans in to bring his mouth to mine. It's a gentle, breathless kiss with almost no pressure behind it, as though he's afraid I'll bolt or maybe crumble at the touch, but it's more than sufficient to detonate something hot and heady as spiced wine deep inside me; something sweet and warm and welling and wonderful, like honey and sunlight and molten gold, flooding my heart and my belly and the place behind my eyes all at once.

It's all I can do not to lunge against his mouth and kiss him, devour him, gobble him up; my fierce little mouth clambering desperately for more of him – all of him – and I can't hold back a whimper as he leans back again, as slowly and carefully as he leaned in, taking away his sweet, soft mouth and with it all that glorious honey and gold that can never, ever be mine.

He exhales raggedly against my lips, almost a sob, and I open my eyes to find tears in his. "Oh, sweet boy," I breathe, because of course he's shamed and angry that I've connived him out of one of the most precious things he's storing up for his beloved, but he shakes his head before I can say anything more and gathers me to him in an almost crushing embrace.

"No apologies," he whispers fiercely against my crown, his pulse fluttering and stumbling and racing beneath my cheek like the heart of a caught thing that has been waiting long years for the hands of its captor. "Not this time, Katniss. Not for this."

"But you're crying –" I attempt, but he only shakes his head against mine and hugs me tighter.

"Tears can mean a myriad of things," he murmurs, rocking me gently from side to side. "These are the good ones, sweetling – the very best."

I don't understand this in the least, but I release the resistance in my upper body and surrender to his embrace with a sigh. Peeta acknowledges this with a groan and lifts me against him, just enough to ease his thighs under my backside, and I hitch forward gratefully, hooking my calves behind him and sinking onto his groin.

Somehow it feels even better this time. The heat and dampness between my legs are both present and apparent, as is the mysterious hard nub at the center of him that I nestle over as deeply as my skirts will allow, and the sheer bliss of the contact is almost dizzying, but there's an unexpected comfort in it as well. Something good and warm and full and right, as though Peeta and I were created as one being, knit together at this secret place, and this position is something like a reunion.

I burrow my free hand under his sweater to encounter, with a grunt of disconcertion, a thin undershirt, which I impatiently tug free of his waistband to root beneath, my fingers as voracious for warm tender skin as winter mousekins in a grain store, and Peeta gasps and laughs all at once. "That might be easier, greedy thing," he pants, "if you weren't holding a drumstick."

I lift my right hand behind Peeta's back to find the fingers still stubbornly clinging to the bone end of the chicken leg that caused all this trouble, and the sight of it provides some much-needed calm and clarification in the heightened emotions of the moment. "Food," I fumble out through limp lips, as though it's one of Granny Ashpet's father's foreign fairy words. "We should eat before your cold chicken warms up and any warm things get cold."

Peeta exhales against my neck in a hot whuff that feels both amused and disgruntled. "I'd hate for my hard work to go to waste," he agrees, "and we can't exactly eat like this," but his arms don't ease in any measure in their powerful hold about my torso.

I grin and peck the side of his head with a kiss. "We can split a chicken leg," I remind him, guiding it between our faces, and he laughs so hard his entire body shakes.

"That one's yours, little foxling, whole and entire," he assures me. "I shudder to think what would happen if I dared to take a bite."

I nip his nose with a happy bark. "I like gander beak best of all," I concede, "but cold roast lemon chicken is more than enough to stall me – at least till after supper."

"And then comes the gobbling-up?" he asks hopefully, not unlike a wheedling child, and I laugh in reply.

"Then comes the nibbling, gooseling mine," I tell him with playful patience. "Who knows how long this winter will last, and I don't want to finish off the plumpest, richest bird in my pantry before the month is up."

"Oh Katniss, you finished me off a long time ago," he sighs, "but you're right: a little temperance in the pantry in the dead of winter surely wouldn't go amiss."

We untangle with countless little sounds of reluctance and I plant myself alongside him on the floor, feeling flushed and somehow emptier between my legs than ever. The absence of Peeta's solid warmth fitted so perfectly into my hollow places makes me shiver, despite the crackling hearth at my back.

"Are you cold, sweetling?" he asks and gets up to fetch a blanket before I can refuse. Of course, I can't tell him that this isn't the heat I'm looking for – that I need – and he drapes the warmed wool about me with such tenderness and concern that it goes a long way toward making up the difference.

"Stay by the fire and I'll serve you," he says, and adds with a grin, "That was my plan all along anyway."

I shake my head at my sweet boy's indomitable determination to treat me like a queen but can't hold back an answering smile. "I want to taste everything," I warn. "So, little bites to start."

He laughs merrily. " 'Little bites,' after all your hard work today? I saw you bite into that drumstick," he reminds me. "So it's moderate bites at the very least."

I have no objection whatsoever to this plan and look on with delight as he fills a plate with at least two bites worth of everything in sight – including, with a broad wink, a chicken wing. "I know the breast meat is the best, but I'm afraid if I give you that first you'll be devouring it by the fistful," he says, laying the plate in my blanket-draped lap. "And as much as I would enjoy the sight of that, I was hoping to save a little to make sandwiches for your lunches."

"I'd be very indignant indeed if you didn't have a good reason," I reply, but his mix of playfulness and very astute observation is melting me to the bone.

I heartily polish off the drumstick while Peeta pours me a glass from one pitcher and a mug from the other. "This is lemonade," he explains, almost reverently, as he hands me the glass. "The hot one is more of what I left for you in the mudroom. It's a honey-lemon drink Grandma Lydda made sometimes when we were sick, only I dressed it up with extra honey and spices to create a sort of lemon cider. It was always so comforting, even when all you had was a chill, but if it's too medicinal – or-or strange –"

"It's wonderful," I assure him, setting down my chicken bone to take the mug handle, and wash down the buttery dark meat with a generous mouthful of tangy spiced warmth from one hand then the lemonade from the other, which is brow-ticklingly tart and tastes like winter sunlight: sweet and cold and blindingly bright.

I tell Peeta as much and he blushes with pleasure. "I know it's more of a summer drink," he says, "but I so wanted you to try it now."

"It's perfect now," I assure him. "I can't imagine waiting till summer to drink it."

"It's nice and cooling in hot weather," he explains, "but I'll make it for you whenever you like. Any time or season."

I inevitably seize the sweet bun next and Peeta quickly ladles out a small bowl of soup to sneak into my free hand. "This, I truly hope you love," he says. "I tasted it on the Victory Tour and instantly thought of it as 'sunshine soup.'"

I set down the bun to bring a spoonful of the grainy yellow liquid to my mouth and moan as it spills across my tongue. Whatever this is – lentils, maybe? – is tart and sweet and savory and spicy all at once, and I abandon the spoon to lift the bowl to my lips and fill my mouth with this impossible liquid gold.

Sunshine soup indeed.

There's rice in here too, tender grains to give the soup more body, plus little bits of onion and even chicken, and after about four greedy gulps the bowl is drained and I'm wiping it clean with the sweet bun, making blissful little noises all the while at the vibrant bursts of lemon baked right into the dough.

"That's lemon zest, by the way," Peeta remarks and I look up in mortification, my mouth crammed with delicious bites of soup-sweepings and zest-bread, to find him grinning like he's just been handed everything he's ever dreamed of. "Grated lemon peel," he explains. "And that's really just lentil soup made with a hearty portion of lemon and about a dozen spices – including nutmeg, by the way."

I bolt down the current mouthful to tease, "Is that how it's usually made or was that your own invention?"

"It's the traditional recipe, they tell me, though I was only too glad to embrace it," he replies, his grin wider still at the question. "I had to try it out as soon as I got home and I've been waiting for a special occasion to make it again."

"There's snow on the ground," I tell him firmly. "That should be the only 'occasion' required."

He laughs delightedly. "I used every last lemon from the crate making this," he replies, sweeping a hand over the picnic. "They're powerful but tiny, so some of these dishes took a lot, but I'll send for more straightaway if you want."

"You'd better tack it onto your usual order or you'll never get Pollux to go," I say without thinking and instantly flush to the roots of my hair.

Peeta narrows his brows in a thoughtful frown. "Lavinia brought them," he recalls, "which struck me as odd, but not unheard-of. I know she took your skis instead of the sleigh and when she brought in the case she was in more of a hurry than usual, but I figured I'd hear the story eventually. Do you know something about it?"

I flush hotter still and focus entirely on my plate. "I-I know Pollux didn't feel like, erm, getting out of bed today," I mumble. "He, um…he was sulking when I saw him this morning so Lavinia went to town for him."

"And that's worth blushing over?" he says curiously, not quite teasing.

"Well, Lavinia came home eventually," I retort, as though this explains everything, and look up at him pointedly, willing him to comprehend so I don't have to say it.

"And she – ah," he says, with a perception I could kiss him for. "Went back to bed. You, um…heard?"

I shake my head miserably and his brows fly to his hairline.

"They're usually so discreet," he puzzles. "I'll talk to them tomorrow –"

"No!" I blurt. "Please don't. It…wasn't their fault."

His bright eyes fix on me like a raptor's on a rabbit, albeit significantly more gentle, and I'd rather die than say it but somehow I know he'll find out anyway. "I…I followed them," I choke out. "I don't know why."

His gaze softens and something deep inside me relaxes in response. "First of all, you're not the only one who's seen them," he says quietly. "I wasn't, erm, looking as such, and they had an unguarded moment – moments," he adds with a fiery blush of his own. "It was before you came here and we were all mortified, especially the, erm, second time."

I recall Lavinia explaining that Peeta had witnessed "an even more intimate moment" than I did and realize that he must have seen them in the act itself. "Oh!" I squeak.

"And, um…" he says after a moment, his eyes very deliberately on the picnic blanket, "it's…difficult not to look, no matter how badly you don't want to."

"Is it?" I croak.

"Especially, um…when it's so foreign," he says slowly, almost as though he's sounding out the words. "I, um… My parents never…I don't think at all after I was born, to tell the truth, and I don't… I've never –" He bites his lips together for a long moment, still looking everywhere but at me. "It's strange and…you're curious," he says at last. "Captivated, even…especially if it's something you've never really seen or heard or…or done."

Something irrationally wild and joyous stirs to life in my heart, something like exhilaration and hope and relief at the thought that Peeta might be even half as lost and innocent as I am. "But…you've been to the Capitol," I say stupidly.

"And I love someone here," he answers hotly, finally raising his eyes to mine, and they're blazing with an anger as bright and fierce as lightning. "I'm not interested in anything the Capitol has to offer and especially not in that line."

My breath stills in a gasp. What he's said isn't rebellious as such but smacks of it, especially in a Victor who's been fêted by the Capitol these past six months – whose nearly every belonging was purchased with their money. As a result of his unthinkable ordeal in the arena, yes, but it's no less their money for being "earned" in such a cruel fashion.

Peeta senses it too then, or maybe acknowledges it, because he gives a deliberate, albeit convincing, sigh and adds, more gently, "I'm not interested in anyone else, Katniss, and never have been. Not in Twelve, not in the Capitol; not anywhere."

"Was Larkspur really your first kiss?" I whisper, and he gapes at me in reply, disbelieving and almost hurt.

"Why would I lie about that?" he asks. "Of course she was. I never thought twice about giving her that last request, but…but I did wonder later if my sweetheart… If it would matter to her at all," he says quietly.

"I think it mattered to her a great deal," I venture, "that you would give something so precious to a dying girl who wanted so little." I think of beautiful Columbine Wilhearn, who's had at least a boyfriend or two that I can recall and more kisses than I can count, and add carefully, "Anyway, she's probably kissed a few boys already, so she surely wouldn't mind that –"

"Has she?" he wonders, looking at me strangely. "I have…reason to believe she's rather new to kissing herself."

"Columbine?" I blurt, suddenly furious on his behalf. "She's walked out with boys from both sides of town and –"

"Columbine?" he echoes, bewildered and possibly, almost, ever so slightly amused. "Columbine Wilhearn? I think she gave Luka a sweetheart ribbon once, which of course drove Mom crazy, but he's after someone else entirely."

It's my turn to gape. "But…but…she's your sweetheart," I puzzle. "Isn't she?"

"Of course not," he replies, so matter-of-factly, despite his escalating amusement, that it can't be anything but the truth.

"But she's a beautiful Seam girl who was named for a white flower!" I sputter, because all my careful deduction can't have been wrong, and Peeta's merriment fades in an instant.

"You've been thinking about this," he says softly. "Does it matter so much to you, who my sweetheart is?"

"Of course it does," I snap, "because I'll have to share a home with her for the rest of my life and take care of her and all the babies that come along and…and you deserve so much," I confess, the true heart of my objections. "Someone who adores you; every last bit of you. Someone to whom you're not just a new pair of lips and a lifetime of luxury."

"That sounds so wonderful," he whispers, and I reach over to take his hand in both of mine.

"You deserve that and more, Peeta – so much more – and you'll have it," I swear. "I won't let any girl near you who won't cherish you to the roots of your hair and the tips of your toes – th-the five you have and the five you lost," I choke out, because he needs to understand that any girl who truly loves him has to both grieve the loss of his leg and treasure what remains of it, and I bring his hand to my lips to punctuate the thought.

"Are you my little dragon now?" he says huskily, bringing his free hand to my hair. "Will you keep me in a tower and repel all the unworthy maidens with your fiery breath?"

"Don't make fun of me," I scowl. "It's not a laughing matter."

He leans in to press a quick, sound kiss to my forehead. "I'm not, and I agree," he assures me with only the faintest glimmer of a smile, but it's a happy expression, not an amused one. "I want to be cherished, Katniss," he says, his voice breaking, "but that's hardly something you can ask of a girl, let alone expect."

"You shouldn't have to ask, and if you do, she's the wrong girl," I counter firmly. "Your sweetheart should love you without measure and without thought; maybe even without hope," I add, thinking of my father's years of devotion to my oblivious mother. "If she's worthy of you, she would love you long before she knew that you loved her. To be loved by you would be unexpected and overwhelming to such a girl."

"She was nothing to him, so far as she knew, yet he had somehow become precious to her in ways she couldn't begin to comprehend," he murmurs, and I recall the words from my story of his sweetheart – my carefully veiled confession – this morning on the sofa. "Do you really think she might feel that way for me?" he asks quietly. "Not now, of course, but in time?"

"I would rather she felt that way for you now, and for a long time already," I reply, my heart aching for my boy, who can't bring himself to truly hope that his beloved could love him of her own accord. "But I suppose some hearts are slow to open and slower still to realize they've let someone in to take root and blossom."

"What if I let you choose my bride?" he asks, and his voice is both gentle and wholly serious. "Would that bring you some comfort, my little dragon?"

I drop his hand with a frown. "You've already chosen her," I reply. "This house and everything in it; the bridal nest of your dreams –"

"And you'll know before I ask her," he reminds me, catching my right hand before I can snatch it away entirely and enfolding it between both of his. "I told you that last night. When the time comes I'll tell you who I love and you can decide whether or not she meets your standards."

"And if she doesn't, you'll give her up, just like that?" I ask, flattered and flustered and even a little furious at the thought. "You'd forget – and forsake – the girl you've loved all your life just because I don't like her?"

"Well, I would hope it was more a matter of her not loving me than you not liking her," he says, with just a shadow of a smile playing about his lips. "But if she doesn't cherish me the way you think I deserve and you don't believe she ever could, then I wouldn't pursue her any further. It wouldn't be kind or fair to either of us."

I consider this for a long moment, gazing down at our joined hands. "If…if you don't marry her," I ask hesitantly, "would you look for someone else? Would you send me to town in search of a girl who cherishes you like you deserve?"

"There is no one else, Katniss, and never will be," he answers with a sad smile, raising my hand to press a little kiss against my curled fingers. "So sending you to town in search of a new sweetheart would be pointless and, I think, painful for both of us to bear."

I tip my head in curious kit-fashion and Peeta laughs in reply. "Put your plate down and get over here, little fox," he says, and pulls me into a deep hug in the nest of his lap as soon as I've obliged.

"I couldn't bear this house without you, little sweetheart," he murmurs against my hair, rocking me with his body. "Not even for a few days. And I have a hard time imagining anything you'd enjoy less than searching the district for a bride for me."

I consider the nastiest stages of gutting, skinning, and butchering – and realize he's entirely right. "But I'll do it if you want," I insist, nuzzling him with the side of my head. "I'll do whatever you ask me, sweet boy."

He groans softly and hugs me a little tighter. "Oh little Katniss, I would never," he soothes. "I'd never ask you to do anything you didn't want to. And if my sweetheart doesn't love me – not the way you think I deserve – I'd rather things stay as they are now," he says. "Just you and me in our woodland nest, our days a pattern of shared meals and fireside tales and the exchange of little gifts."

And kisses? I wonder silently, even as his words kindle my heart to euphoric flame. Kisses and cuddle-nests and the treasure-trove of warm skin beneath wool and corduroy? "What about children, Peeta?" I ask gently. "Blue-eyed sparrow girls with skinny black braids and chubby dumpling-boys with golden curls and silver eyes – and everything that goes into creating them? A wife to share your bed and –"

I break off at a sharp hopeless sound from Peeta's throat, a cry of longing and despair all at once, and I'm sure he's about to shove me away but he only holds me tighter as he whispers, "Oh Katniss, of course I want those things, so badly my heart aches just to think of them, but I don't want them with anyone else. If my sweetheart doesn't love me, I'll live without children and…and physical love, and gladly."

I resolve in this moment that if Peeta can't marry his sweetheart, whether by her decision or my own, I'll offer myself to fill that void: a warm woman's body to hold in the darkness, with hands and lips to explore his own wounded landscape, so tenderly – and a womb to seed. I'm not the girl he loves but I can still give him daughters with black hair and blue eyes, as well as everything that goes into creating them, and maybe after a few lonely years he'll crave the simple comfort of it: of bare skin and breasts and babes rounding a dove-brown belly. This sweet, wealthy boy is aching for what waits beneath the soot-stained coverlets of even the poorest miners, and it's unthinkable that he might die without ever experiencing the quiet pleasures any Seam husband can take for granted, especially as he's sharing his home with a Seam girl who loves him with every fiber of her being. I'll love him forever regardless, but how much better to put that love to use in a manner my boy might desperately need someday?

"You won't," I promise him cryptically. "You won't go without ever again, Peeta, let alone without something so precious. I'll make sure of that."

He kisses the top of my head with an uneven chuckle. "I'm worried and hopeful all at once," he tells me. "Did you just promise me my sweetheart?"

I consider my answer carefully. Can I bear my sweetheart making love with another Seam girl beneath this roof we share or watching his face as her belly swells like a round golden moon? I know more of lovemaking than I did this morning; can I bear the thought of this sweet, soft mouth engulfing another girl's dark-budded breast or this beloved face sinking between her dusky legs with a moan?

These images turn my stomach but I love this gentle boy far too much not to give him what he wants, or try for it with all my might, even if it breaks my heart, and so I tell him, "Yes. If it's within my power to bring your sweetheart to your arms…a-and your bed, I'll do it – and gladly."

And if not, I swear silently, I'll give you another Seam girl, something like the one you love, who carries more love for you than your sweetheart ever could. I'll kiss the grief from every inch of your body and lie beneath you as you pour your loneliness into me, and I'll carry your children like a treasure.

"Oh Katniss," he whispers. "You can't begin to imagine what that means to me."

He tips me back against one arm to bring us face-to-face, and the sight of his swollen pupils sparks an echoing curl in my belly that tingles all the way down to my damp secret place. I could hike my skirt to my waist and be atop his groin in two heartbeats, or bring his free hand up to enclose one little breast, or tug this silly chick-down sweater – and the even sillier undershirt besides – up over his golden head and feast on the expanse of warm skin that lies beneath – which leaves me no choice but to scramble out of his lap like the spooked wild thing he described me as just minutes ago.

I don't go far, though – I think I'd burst if I did – and settle so close beside him that our hips brush, to his evident delight. "What's this?" he wonders with a smile that could outshine the sun. "A tiny brave kit has deigned to sit beside me."

"Because said kit wants a gosling for dessert," I answer smartly, only half-teasing. "Roast chicken washes down best with a mouthful of yellow feathers," I explain, and take a mock nip at the firm cap of his shoulder to punctuate it.

"I knew there would be gobbling-up!" he says gleefully. "Finish your dinner, greedy thing, before you run out of room for dessert."

"I'll always have room for dessert," I assure him, "provided said dessert has yellow feathers and a beak that never shuts," and I tilt my head to peck his mouth. "Now let's get you some supper," I tell him, picking up the second plate and laying the full slab of venison ribs across it. "You're looking a little lean, gander mine."

Peeta laughs so hard his shoulders shake and holds up his hands before I can fit the plate edges into them. "Where, exactly, voracious thing," he wonders, "have I lost this much weight?"

I tip my head in contemplation. Peeta is gloriously solid – broad and firm, not fleshy in the least – both to the eye and to the touch, and I'm sorely tempted to snake a hand under the front of his sweater to see whether his belly is soft or taut with muscle.

My eyes trail down his legs which, if memory serves, are solid as young oaks beneath their corduroy confines, except for – "Aha!" I crow, pointing at his right shin. "That decoy leg of yours! You're missing a good three pounds of protein there, and you need to add it back somewhere. You can't shortchange a hungry vixen on her winter feast and not expect her to notice," I inform him, and deposit the plate of ribs squarely over his lap.

I worry for a half-second that I've taken my teasing too far but Peeta is grinning from ear to ear, though he somehow manages to impose mock-shamed eyes over the expression. "That was my grand escape plan," he says ruefully. "I thought I could give you my prosthesis to nibble on every day, like Hansel in the candy-witch's cage, and when you finally had to take it out to the workshop to 'carve' it – because I know you'd never give up on a log of metal and plastic if you thought there was a hearty meal locked away inside –" he winks at that – "I'd make a break for it in the woods."

I clutch a hand to my heart in mock-theatrics. "You wound me, deceitful bird," I chide. "And here I thought you were looking forward to a winter in the pantry with daily vixen-nips and stolen pinches of down."

"I'm particularly looking forward to the vixen-nips," he replies merrily. "I plotted my escape before I knew just how pleasant those nips could be."

"There will be no more nips for you, wicked bird," I declare, as sternly as I can muster. "You're all pretend-down and hollow legs, not worth the space in my storeroom –"

"Oh, get over here," he says with exasperated affection, and I'm not sure where the ribs disappear to but suddenly I'm back in Peeta's lap, where he takes both my hands by the wrists and presses the palms to his chest. "This down, admittedly, is counterfeit, as I've yet to sprout my own breastful," he explains. "But this –" he brings my hands to his head and curls them into deep fistfuls of hair – "is rooted and entirely real, and if you nose around a bit you'll find more beneath my shirt and trousers – where, I need hardly add, you will also find only one half of one limb to be artificial."

I imagine rooting inside Peeta's clothes for more golden hairs sprouting from firm, warm flesh and I smile, slow and wolfishly. "Very well," I reply, "I shall suspend my misgivings, but only until such time as a thorough inventory of your parts can be conducted and catalogued. And if I find you to be featherless and skinny as a rail," I warn, "I'm going to put you in the empty stall beside Rye and feed you nothing but chocolate, roast chicken, and cream till you plump into a worthy winter meal."

"As lovely as that sounds," he says huskily, leaning in to brush noses with me, "I'm far too stocky to merit a winter of fattening up – but you're welcome to inventory me at your leisure just the same."

I tug his head down to nip at one blond eyebrow. "One," I count aloud happily. "I'm pleased to note that you have another of these, gander mine, and a more than acceptable complement of lash-down."

That blond brow, and its fellow, raise in something halfway between surprise and amusement. "Vixen mine," Peeta wonders, "are you admiring my eyelashes?"

The blush ensues before I can even think about fighting it and I'm in Peeta's lap to boot, so there's no way to evade his gaze. "Well, they're endless!" I grumble in my defense. "I watch you blink sometimes, just to see if they get tangled up."

"Spoken like a true huntress," he teases, but he looks fit to burst with pleasure. "And I suppose when my lashes tangled together I would promptly lose my footing and topple over – straight into the barrow you had lying in wait, and off you'd wheel me to your pantry, blind and bewildered and entirely at the mercy of your greedy little mouth?"

"Something like that," I admit, and Peeta seizes my face and kisses me, quick and hard and square on the lips.

"Oh, little Katniss," he sighs. "I adore you beyond measure."

He draws back with a sudden start, his eyes wide and worried, but I pull him back in and press my forehead against his before he can speak. "Don't you dare," I growl, but softly; a cougar admonishing her cub or her mate. "I like gander-nips every bit as much as I enjoy nipping ganders – maybe even more."

He rolls his brow against me in reply and I feel him smile. "I'm glad," he murmurs, a little hoarsely. "Because this beak is surpassing fond of fresh vixen and I can't begin to guess when it'll snake out for another bite."

I ache exquisitely at his words, my belly, breasts, and the secret place between my legs all warm and heavy and crying out for the corresponding part of Peeta to touch or cradle or fill their emptiness with honey and gold. Why does the mere anticipation of his mouth, all teasing nibbles and fleeting, friendly kisses, affect me like this? Is it simply because I've witnessed some very intimate applications of a lover's mouth and can't seem to stop envisioning myself on the receiving end of such acts?

But kissing Peeta is safer, somehow – a wild thing's gesture, not a woman's in love – and so I turn my head, rubbing my cheek against his, to catch his earlobe between my lips. He gasps but I barely hear it, enthralled by I am by this curious new object to explore and devour in turns, and I trace the curve with the tip of my tongue, making him tremble.

I've buried my face in his neck a hundred times; why did I never once raise my face a matter of inches to this delightful fleshy spiral? There's nothing intimate about ears, after all, and I love the feel of Peeta's beneath my mouth, supple and tender and a little downy at the top. I worry the lobe between my lips and give it a tug, as I've seen kits and cubs do to their siblings and mothers at playtime, and tuck it back into place with a wet kiss, then I methodically kiss my way over temples, eyes, and that delicious sweet spot of nose bridge to reach his other ear. "Oh, sweet boy," I sigh, teasing the lobe with my nose before claiming it with my mouth, to an exhilarating groan from Peeta's throat. "Can't I have you instead of supper?"

He shudders deeply, taking several moments and ragged shallow breaths to reply. "I should say not," he answers hoarsely, as though he's trying to tease but can't quite manage it. "After all my hard work, and those lemons weren't cheap – but I really can't deny you anything," he finishes in a heavy rush of breath and sags a little against me, bringing his ear flush against my mouth. "I-I'll wrap all this up and we can –"

"No!" I protest, with surprising force for having just been given exactly what I want, and push back to meet his eyes, which are half-closed and almost drowsy, as though he's imbibed half a gallon of spiced wine all on his own, and his cheeks are flushed to boot. "I-I mean: I need sustenance after a long day's work," I explain, "and after two bites of yellow bird, I'm liable to gobble up the whole thing when it – you – really need to last me the whole winter…"

He exhales, slow and shakily, and gives me a look that feels at once miserable and grateful. "Your restraint is much appreciated, greedy vixen," he replies. "What can I tide you over with in the meantime? More chicken in place of your goose?" he suggests. "Or would you prefer something heartier, like ribs?"

I finally spy the ribs then, a long arm's reach from his right hip, and narrow my eyes thoughtfully. I hadn't processed it earlier but there's only one place he could have found fresh venison ribs without leaving the house – the parcel I made for his sweetheart, which mysteriously found its way back here – and I can't not address that, especially since I very nearly ruined everything, trying to accelerate his slow and careful courtship.

"About those ribs," I begin weakly, fixing my eyes on the plate, and Peeta snags my attention with a quick, tiny kiss to my cheekbone.

"Pollux delivered them, you know," he says lightly, "right where you told him. Why would you send the choicest portions of the first deer you brought down all by yourself to a girl I strongly suspect you can't stand?"

My cheeks burn. "Because you love her," I whisper, "and if you'd carved the deer, you would have given her the very best portions."

He shakes his head slowly, but not in disagreement. "Oh Katniss," he murmurs. "You never cease to amaze me."

Since it's become painfully apparent that any attempt to separate our bodies will only result in them snapping back together and entangling even tighter than before, we resort to heaping two plates full and finishing the meal with me snugged in the burrow of Peeta's legs, cycling in the full plate when the first is empty and alternately snatching covert bites and feeding them to each other. It feels so unbelievably good to share a meal in this fashion that I refuse to think about ever eating in a chair at the table again. The lump at Peeta's groin is hard as a rock against my backside when I first wriggle into place and he winces audibly as I scoot as close as his body will allow, but he neither protests nor relocates me, and as the meal progresses the lump softens; not entirely, but back to the comfortable firmness I've grown accustomed to, and it doesn't seem to pain him as much to have me pressed against it.

I don't understand it at all, but as I no longer feel quite so desperate to straddle his groin and rub my secret place against it, I really can't complain.

I even manage to steal tastes of Peeta's fingers, periodically closing my mouth around more than the bite of bread or chicken or tart that he's offering – both of us having long abandoned forks and spoons except for loose or liquid dishes – and tugging his fingertip into my mouth with a quick, daring suck that sends a tingling surge down between my breasts to pool warmly at my groin and evokes an echoing twitch from his own; a nudge of the lump between his legs and something halfway between a gasp and a grunt from his throat.

A sound, I realize, that I enjoy more than I would have thought possible.

It feels decadent and almost wicked, like drinking a bottle of cream when milk is available, and after a few covert suckles Peeta finally protests. "I thought you were going to save me for later, greedy gosling," he chides breathlessly. "I need these fingers for your after-supper surprise."

"There's an after-supper surprise?" I chirp, tipping my head back to gaze up at him. "In addition to the cuddle-nest or in place of?"

He laughs heartily. "In addition, greedy thing, but you have to give me a story or a song to get the cuddle-nest. The surprise comes free of charge."

I squeal with delight and dive back into our plate with gusto. "What if I give you both?" I ask through a mouthful of lemon cake and tangy wild rice. "A story and a song – can I have an extra treat?"

He dips his face into the curve of my neck, leaving a damp and sticky kiss behind. "You can have whatever you want," he replies, quite seriously. "Money, jewels, an extra dessert prepared on command, half my kingdom and a throne to rule it from…"

I grin, never mind he can't see it, and think of songs and stories and wishes. Granny Ashpet's father left us one additional song; another silly children's piece, sung to his daughter from birth, the lyrics to which are particularly appropriate today, but to win a wish, the story needs to be exceptional, especially in light of the breathtaking hours-long tale Peeta spun for me last night, and I don't dare attempt to return to this morning's spur-of-the-moment "folktale" of the gander and vixen.

But I can't quite resist a different tale that relates delicately to both of us and gives us a glorious ending together where, of course, none will ever be. "I have both," I inform him triumphantly. "Let me know when you'd like me to remit each one and I'll start working on my wish."

He chuckles softly. "Well, eager thing, if you sing to me now we could move directly to the cuddle-nest as soon as supper is cleaned up and I lay out the coverlets," he replies, and I drum my spoon against the plate edge for attention.

"I like this idea immensely," I tell him, and set aside our nearly empty plate to take his hands in mine. This is, after all, a children's song, which is best accompanied by merry clapping, and I tap out a soft steady rhythm with his big hands as I sing:

All my little ducklings
Swimming on the lake,
Swimming on the lake
Little heads a-fishing
Tiny tails aloft.

All my little doves are
Cooing on the roof,
Cooing on the roof,
One takes to the air and
All the rest go too.

All my little chickens,
Scratching in the straw,
Scratching in the straw,
Find a little kernel,
Oh, how glad they are!

All my little goslings
Waddle through the yard,
Waddle through the yard,
Searching in the pond, they
Paddle in a round.

It is, quite possibly, the silliest song I know and thus a giggle or two escapes me in the playful recounting, but before Peeta can utter a word of complaint I hasten to remind him, "You didn't say it had to be a serious song!"

As a result, I'm entirely unprepared when he shifts me sideways and tips me back against his arm, his sweet face positively aglow, to nuzzle me thoroughly from neck to ears. "I loved it," he murmurs, tracing my nose with the tip of his, once, twice, and concluding with a pip to the tip of mine. "I love how silly it is and how happy you were when you sang it. I want to hear you sing it to your children."

"I'll never have children," I whisper sadly, "but I'll sing it to yours, if you want."

"I look forward to that," he whispers back and hugs me to him, for much longer than he would need to, and it feels so good that I reach my free hand to his nape to hold him close in return.

I love you, I croon wordlessly against his throat. Surely it will be enough simply to love you.

"I want to hear all your songs, Katniss," he murmurs against my crown, rocking me a little. "I want to learn them, every last word. I want to hear where they came from, how you learned them and what they mean to you."

I sigh and let my hand inch up to bury itself in the roots of his curls. "Even the silly children's songs?" I wonder, curling and uncurling my fingers against his scalp.

He moans softly. "Especially the silly children's songs," he affirms. "There's been so little of happiness or humor in your life, sweetling, and these songs are like treasures, carefully stored away and preserved in the midst of hopeless days."

"Sometimes that's all you have," I muse, but neither angrily nor with any real grief. "Pebble broth and a song about ducklings."

He gently releases me from our embrace and I sink back into the cradle of his arm, my hand slipping from his hair to catch at his nape once more. "I would take all that away in a heartbeat if it were possible, sweetheart," he murmurs, stroking my cheek with his free hand. "But I can't help thinking that your childhood was far richer than mine, with your priceless heritage of stories and songs."

"You had stories too," I remind him. "You had the Snow Maiden and bridal braids," but we both know what he means. Not only was I surrounded day and night by my eloquent father's songs and tales, but my father himself might have stepped out of a folktale, like his huntress mother and her own father, the green-eyed elf king, about whom Peeta knows nothing yet. Peeta may have grown up over a snug bakery with a vivacious storytelling grandmother and an affectionate father, but he was working in the bakery long before my own days were half so regimented, and beneath the critical eye of his bitter mother, whose own heritage is best left unmentioned.

"Then let me share it with you," I urge. "You can feed away my memories of pebble broth and I'll give you a proper childhood, filled with songs and tales and…and the few fairy words that I know."

"Fairy words?" he echoes curiously, pale brows aloft. "I knew you were hiding your magic somewhere –"

"Not magic," I assure him quickly, smiling all the same. "Just…magic-seeming, like you'd expect the language of elves or fairies to sound."

"I'm doubly intrigued," he says, and there's no light of teasing in his beautiful eyes. "Please give me a fairy word, my little wild queen."

It comes to my mind at once: a word I wasn't even sure I knew and now resolve to use on a regular basis, and my smile spreads to my eyes. "Gänschen," I say, and kiss the tip of his nose.

He blinks fiercely, as though I cast a spell in his face, and it only increases my merriment. "What does it mean?" he breathes, and I giggle. "'Gosling,'" I reply with a grin and kiss him again, this time quick and light on his awestruck mouth.

Gänschen, Gänschen, Gänschen

Strictly speaking, I'm the gosling, I suppose, since I wore the nickname first, but Peeta is firmly established as a gander now, and since the only other goose-related word I know is Gänsebraten – which not only means the roasted sort but is far too brash and clunky to roll off the tongue as an endearment – Gänschen he must be.

"I suppose," he croaks. "I suppose it's too much to hope that you might know the fairy word for 'vixen'?"

"I shall tell you," I answer grandly. "But only if you swear never to speak it imprudently, for it carries far too powerful a magic for a mortal baker's son to wield unawares," I tease. "And to be entirely accurate, the word I know means 'little vixen,' not simply 'vixen.'"

"All the better," he says, a smile curling his beautiful mouth. "And I duly promise never to utter it without your leave, my queen."

"Füchslein," I tell him, and reward his promise with another kiss, this one a foxy snout poke pressed squarely between his brows.

"Please, can I tell you about your surprise now?" he pleads, hefting me upright and catching my face in his hands. "Before putting away the food and making your nest, I mean. The timing is so perfect I think I might burst."

He's almost beside himself with nerves and eagerness and even a little impatience – if he were ten years younger he'd be squirming in his chair – and I can't help feeling likewise, as I try to guess what he could possibly mean to show me that would make him feel this way. "That seems fair enough, my little Gänschen," I reply, and he promptly unwraps himself from about me, clambers to his feet, dashes to reach behind the sofa and is sitting beside me, his New Year's paintbox from Pollux in hand, before my body has even acknowledged the absence of his.

"This is it, Katniss," he says, breathless and bright-eyed as he raises the lid. "How you can share your stories with me and I can help preserve them till they're all you remember of the hollow days."

He takes out a stack of pages and sets the box aside and I realize they're all sketches. Surely more sketches than he could create in a week, let alone in the brief interval of day before Lavinia brought his lemons.

"I probably went a little overboard," he admits, flushing at the height of the stack, "but once it hit me I was scrambling like a madman to get as many ideas and details down as possible."

He hands me the pages and my mouth drops open in a combination of delight, disbelief, and sheer horror.

Oh no, I think. Not this. Anything but this.

The top image depicts a fox – a small gray fox, with its characteristic dainty triangular face and shorter snout, only its fur has been colored in a deep black – and a goose, with pale yellow feathers that tuft up like curly hair. The goose – gander, of course – is perched atop a flour barrel with his neck stretched out as he clatters his beak at the vixen, who is licking her lips as she slinks along the floor toward him.

At the top of the page Peeta has written his ideas for a title:

Fox & Goose: A Winter Tale (A love story? A winter courtship?)
Gander & Vixen
What Became of the Vixen's Feast: A Folktale
What's Good for the Gander?

How did I not see this coming? Peeta said this morning that he wanted to make a storybook of my nonexistent folktale – promised to do so, really – and he's talked about nothing but foxes and geese all day. He even sent a picture of a goslit and kitling with my lunch hamper, complete with a note explaining that it was an initial sketch for our storybook.

I turn to the next page in a dream. This one holds a sketch of a curly yellow gosling hidden among blooming katniss stalks, watching a tiny black fox kit and her father traipsing proudly along the lakeshore with a brace of field mice held between them. The gosling watched from his hiding place, fearful yet fascinated, Peeta has written above the image. Surely such a small, lovely creature could mean him no harm.

"I wasn't sure how it started," he explains, "so I drew a couple of my ideas." He moves the page a little to one side so I can see the next at the same time, which features the same black fox kit, skinny as a rail, watching from the shadows beneath an apple tree as three plump yellow goslings, all feathered with the same curly blond down, gobble up breadcrumbs scattered by an unseen hand. "I do not eat bread," thought the kit, reads Peeta's writing at the top of the page, but oh, how hungry she was! Just one fat gosling might feed her for a month of Sundays. "Someday I shall have a goose in my pantry," she resolved, "the finest and fattest, for my very own, and I shall bundle myself in its feathers and feast upon its flesh all winter long."

"Is…is it okay that I did this?" Peeta wonders worriedly. "You're not saying anything and…you seem upset. It's just a few sketches; I'm happy to put them away and forget –"

"It's wonderful," I breathe, gazing up at him. "I've never had anything – or even held anything – like this in my life. It's just – I barely know this story," I tell him, which is more truth than lie. "I'm not sure how it starts or how the vixen catches the gander or…or any of it, really, and it wouldn't be right for me to give you the wrong version of a tale to record and pass along –"

"I didn't think there was any such thing," he interrupts, so gently. "Different interpretations simply enrich the story's heritage – and inform any future retellings. For example," he says, "my father told me about a little prince who tamed a fox but loved a rose, and someday I hope to tell my children about the vixen who tamed and loved that little prince. And maybe this time, he won't leave her," he murmurs, "but instead they'll make a home in the apple tree, or beneath it, and live quite happily for the rest of their days on stolen wheat from the fields and chickens from the farms.

"It's not the original version of the story, maybe," he says softly, "but does that make it wrong, or any less lovely – or unworthy of being told to a new generation?"

I shake my head helplessly. "What if it was supposed to be a cautionary tale?" I protest. "To teach geese – you know, foolish children – not to trust the foxes of this world. Or what if it makes a wild thing think she can love a tame one, and the first time she tries to be affectionate she – she bites her poor sweetheart's head off?"

Peeta laughs harder at this than I suspect he's laughed at anything before in his life, squeezing his eyes shut as his powerful shoulders shake with merriment. "Oh Katniss," he sighs, "I doubt even the eagerest vixen could miss that badly. And the gander fell in love with her in the full knowledge that she wanted to eat him," he reminds me, "so he'd be more than prepared for a few love bites, accidental or otherwise.

"It could work, Katniss," he concludes, the same words he said this morning when he explained, so sweetly, the precious offspring that such a union would produce, and spoken as somberly. "And I want so badly to give you goslits and kitlings," he adds in a whisper.

I think of downy paws batting their way out of a moon-patterned eggshell and two pairs of tiny webbed feet paddling sleepily in the snug dark pool of my womb. "This is what you meant, isn't it – about granting my wish for goslits and kitlings tonight?" I say, nodding at the sketches in my lap, and wonder why the realization leaves me a little sad. "This is how you were going to give me the babies."

His face falls, echoing my sadness. "I know it's not the magic you hoped for," he says ruefully. "And I didn't mean to deceive you or give you false hope. I'd do anything to give you real goslits and kitlings, sweetheart," he whispers, reaching out to cup my cheek. "I'm sorry that the best I can do is draw them."

"But don't you see: that's more than enough," I assure him, nuzzling my cheek deeper into his palm. "Until you made the first sketch, goslits and kitlings didn't exist at all, outside of my imagination."

"And mine," he points out quietly. "I wanted them too, Katniss – so badly."

"And now we'll both have them for the rest of our lives," I explain. "Any given night we can sip our cream-coffee and snuggle up by the fireside and look at our impossible babies, so beautifully depicted that you'd think you could stroke the page and feel fur – or feathers – beneath your fingertips."

"We could skip the first part of the story, if you'd rather," he says huskily. "If you're worried about getting that part wrong, we could just jump ahead to the babies and figure out the folktale part later. We could ask your mother if she remembers it, or another Seam –"

"No," I tell him, "I want the whole story: the brave gander and the hungry vixen who somehow, impossibly, fell in love and made a home together and filled a pine-bough nest with their babies."

He smiles softly and caresses my cheek. "I want that too," he murmurs. "So much, Katniss."

I turn back to the sketches with neither hesitation nor misgivings. Peeta's left most of the folktale for me to flesh out, creating sketches and snatches of narrative for particular scenes inspired by our activities this morning, like the gander obliviously curling up in the vixen's nest of furs while she's away on a hunt and the vixen stealing a determined mouthful of yellow feathers from her sweetheart's tail.

"She won't find any down there," I tease, and Peeta concurs with a chuckle. "That's why I drew her so disgruntled," he replies. "She was hoping she could start on the end furthest from the beak, but to no avail."

He's also sketched out an imaginary, humorous sequence of the wily vixen taking daily nips till all that's left of the gander is his beak, trawling crossly after small black paws, which reduces me to a fit of giggles. "This is so good, Peeta," I sigh. "The gander and vixen are so lifelike and yet you've used them to tell a very believable funny story."

"I'm so glad you like it," he says, pressing a quick kiss to my temple and blushing faintly with pleasure.

I turn to the next sketch and Peeta almost leaps out of his skin. "That one's not quite ready!" he blurts, making a valiant yank at the page, but I shake my head, my fingers curling around both sides of the page and my eyes fixed on its image.

The vixen lies on her side in the pine-bough nest, her keen eyes drowsy and drifting shut and her body curled about the three downy golden kitlings nursing at her belly, all tiny peaked ears and dancing twig-tails. One bright-eyed black goslit is perched on the edge of the nest, watching the vixen's own tail for movement with all the patient intent of a hunter, and a second is nestled in the lush fur of her throat, its head buried beneath its wing.

There's nothing incomplete about this picture whatsoever. Unlike the others, this sketch has been painted in lush and loving detail, from the glint in the pouncing goslit's eye to the utter contentment in its mother's.

It might be the most beautiful picture I've ever seen in my life.

It's also plain as day that Peeta lavished more time and energy on this picture than most of the others combined – in which case, I can't begin to guess why he wouldn't want me to see it.

"Five babies," I say at last, lightly. "That gander is one optimistic father."

"Seven," he corrects softly, releasing his hold on the page. "There's one more of each, but the gander is hopelessly trying to teach the other goslit how to forage while the other kitling is trying to decide whether or not Dad is food."

I peek behind the painting to find a simple charcoal sketch of the gander outside a farmhouse, flapping his wings and stretching as tall as he can in a futile attempt to reach the pie cooling on the windowsill while his unimpressed goslit looks on and his kitling gnaws curiously at his leg.

"It's perfect," I whisper. "All of it – every last detail. Why on earth wouldn't you want me to see this?"

"I-I thought you might not like seeing the vixen, um…feeding the babies," he says, staring down at his knees. "I haven't ever seen new baby kits so I didn't know if I'd drawn things right, and…maybe it's something you wouldn't want to see," he concludes with a feeble gesture at the page. "I thought it was a really sweet moment, but you might find it awkward or embarrassing –"

"To see a mother feeding her babies?" I challenge, only to realize that, before this moment, he would have been exactly right. I can't look away fast enough from the Seam women breastfeeding out on their stoops and even blush at a stray glimpse of Lady suckling her kids. But since coming to live with Peeta, the idea of motherhood – of pregnancy and nursing and everything in between – has grown strangely and overwhelmingly appealing, to the extent that I'm prepared to offer myself to carry Peeta's children if his sweetheart won't have him. So this painting of a black fox nursing downy yellow kitlings is something of a fairy tale in itself; an illustration of the possibility that Peeta and I could ever be together, even if only to create his children.

"Not this one," I murmur, stroking each tiny golden head with a fingertip.

"It's not…gross or weird?" Peeta wonders quietly, still looking at his knees.

I lean over and kiss his cheek with a sound smack, startling him and riveting his attention back on me. "Not when it's my babies," I reply with a smile, only to frantically rephrase at his resulting wide eyes: "I-I mean – the babies from my imagination – our imagination! Not my babies, of course."

He gazes at me for a long, silent moment. "You know, Katniss," he says softly, "if you were ever to change your mind and decide you wanted to have children – or kits or fawns – it would be entirely okay. I-I would welcome it, actually," he adds haltingly, a strange choice of words, and I tip my head at him in confusion.

"If…if you were to get pregnant," he explains, blushing brightly and furiously evading my eyes, "it would be a beautiful completion of healing: the tiny, starving girl, grown healthy and strong and bringing her own child into the world. And I confess, I'm curious to see what you'd have," he teases, glancing back at me. "Lovely wild thing that you are, this house would be overrun with kits and chicks and fawns – and who knows what else!"

I carefully set aside the precious sketches and pounce on him, knocking him flat on his back, his curls just inches from the fire. "Kits and chicks and fawns?" I echo imperiously, though my heart is positively dancing.

"Well, they'd probably come out as ordinary little black-haired girls and boys," he gasps, but merrily. "But at the stroke of twelve, or the rise of the full moon, or maybe just moonrise in general, they'd turn into keen furred hunters or tiny winged things with sharp ears and silver voices."

I ache deep in my belly and wonder briefly, madly, if it would really be so hard. Maybe this sweet, merry boy could come inside me tonight – a quick, tender coupling in our cuddle-nest, punctuated by gentle laughter and soft, wet kisses – and we could spend the rest of the winter curled together with his big warm hands spanning my belly, watching his babe grow. Foxes mate in winter, after all, and even Peeta sees that I'm more fox than girl.

That winter was for wooing, Granny Ashpet murmurs in my mind, for wild courtship gifts and shy careful preens and nesting, and the spring that followed was for kits and chicks.

It would be so easy – except for two equally shattering impossibilities: Peeta is madly in love with his sweetheart and would be horrified at the thought of having sex with me for any reason, and at this particular moment, I can't have children. I haven't had my menses in almost three months, and without that fertile flow of blood, I won't be able to conceive.

I scramble off him, hot and shamed, and crawl back to the abandoned pile of sketches, but he's behind me in moment, fingertips carefully brushing my back – which is bold for this boy who lets me run from him without protest, and therefore more welcome than he could ever dream. "I'm sorry, Katniss," he soothes. "I should never have made fun of your babies – or you – like that. I know it's hard for you to even consider the possibility of a future with children and –"

"And you're right," I tell him, looking up with a wide, contrived smile. "My babies – if I ever had any – would be little wild things, all black fur and sharp teeth. I'm not angry, Peeta," I assure him. "Just…feeling a little silly, I guess."

"Do you want to save rest of the sketches for another night?" he offers, splaying his hand on my back. "I shouldn't have foisted a whole storybook on you before you'd even told me the original tale."

I shake my head. "I love your storybook, every last detail," I insist. "Please, can I see the rest? I promise to behave myself from here on out."

He chuckles. "As far as I'm concerned, you've been 'behaving yourself' perfectly all this while," he teases. "But I'd love for you to see the rest of my ideas, and maybe tomorrow you can tell me what to add and which to leave out."

I squeeze the stack of pages in both hands and wave it emphatically at him. "All of this stays in," I order, "and you only have to add something if there's a gaping hole in the story."

"Well, there's a massive one already," he confesses shyly. "I don't know how they got together – I mean!" he adds quickly, cheeks pinking, "I don't know quite when they decided to make a go at falling in love. When the gander decided not to cower and hiss and the vixen decided she'd rather cuddle her captive than nip him to nothing, one bite at a time."

I think back to Granny Ashpet and my father spinning the tale in my head this morning as I lay with my boy in the snow, and of my own interjections. "I, um… Dad and Granny Ashpet couldn't quite agree on how it went," I answer carefully. "Do – do you have a pencil and a spare page? I'll write down the bits I recall."

Peeta may be seated on the floor but he still falls over himself to get me the requested materials and offers me his paintbox as a writing surface, which I accept. I scribble quick and furiously, jotting down as much as I can remember of the conflicting accounts, then hand the page to him for consideration.

He grins. "The gander is crafty," he reads aloud. "'The down must mature a good six months or it will shrivel when plucked' – I love it!"He continues on silently, now and again shaping a word with his lips or murmuring a phrase, then suddenly he gazes up at me. "You're sure this is how it went?" he asks. "The gander and the vixen love each other and always have, ever since he was a round downy gosling and she a shy and scrawny kit, peering out from the shadows beneath her father's foreleg. She didn't hunt him as a meal but as a mate and he willingly gave himself up to his carnivorous sweetheart, content to be eaten if that was all she could offer him."

I shrug, blushing without reason. "That's how Granny Ashpet told it," I reply honestly. "She believed the vixen had always loved the gander, ever since they were little, while Dad thought the she came to love him that winter in spite of herself, and her instincts."

"That winter was for wooing," he reads aloud in a hushed voice,"for wild courtship gifts and shy careful preens and nesting, and the spring that followed was for kits and chicks.

"And which do you think is true?" he wonders.

"Both," I reply without hesitation, smiling ever so slightly. "Tales work that way, you know: it's all about the teller's perspective. Granny Ashpet was a fierce huntress who fell in love with a weak and scrawny boy – someone she might have eaten for breakfast as easily as a fox might eat a goose – and my father was a storyteller through and through, who loved the humor and unexpected twists of a tale, especially such an ironic one as this."

Of course, I leave out the fact that the vixen is and always has been me, not to mention that both accounts were formed in my head and based on my own feelings and experiences. I fell in love with Peeta this winter, unwittingly and against every fiber of my being, but acknowledging that doomed love also made me realize that I've cared for him much longer than I ever could have imagined. That indeed, there might never have been a time when I didn't love him.

Peeta smiles. "I can't wait to draw these things," he says, "if you'll allow it, of course."

I think of the bedside drawer full of beautiful dreams of the sun and moon, of bears and birds and snow-maidens brought to life by a sweetheart's kiss, and wonder how terrible I would be to ask this boy to make storybooks of them as well – pretending all the while, of course, that they're folktales, not the desperate longings of my foolish heart.

I lean up to press a lingering kiss to the tip of his nose. "I'll allow it," I answer dutifully, and scoot in to recline against his warm bulk as I look through the rest of the sketches. Unsurprisingly, he kisses the top of my head in reply and curls an arm around me, wriggling a little to give me hollows to sink into, and I smile to myself.

After the pictures of the vixen nursing her babies and her mate hopelessly trying to steal a pie for the other two are half a dozen simple sketches of the gander lavishing his bride with affection and gifts, here preening her coat with deep strokes of his beak, there gifting her with a beakful of blossoming katniss or a ripe apple, rolled all the way from the tree to her nest, or – best of all – a dense brown square of what is unmistakably ginger cake. "He may be no good at fishing and foraging but he certainly knows his way around a bakery," Peeta chuckles. "And I have a sneaking suspicion that even his lethal little carnivore would enjoy a good ginger cake."

"Foxes aren't strictly carnivores, you know," I inform him, tipping my head back with a grin. "They prefer rabbits and mice – and the odd fat goose, of course," I tease, "but they'll eat berries, acorns, mushrooms, grain – even rose hips, Dad said, in a cold winter."

Peeta gives a gasp that's only half-exaggerated. "Why on earth didn't you say so in the first place?" he sputters. "I've been trying to figure out what on earth these two could share for a meal, let alone cook up for the children on holidays! I figured they'd end up with separate feasts in separate corners of the woods, unless by some helpful twist, geese should happen to eat fish–?"

"Not as a rule," I reply, "but it happens from time to time," but by this point I'm giggling so hard I almost can't breathe and Peeta thunders on, "Aye, well, you may laugh, little miss, but I'm the one who spent a frantic morning trying to think of tender mealtime scenes that didn't involve the vixen offering dead mice to her horrified goslits!"

"Oh, sweet boy," I sigh, taking his hands and kissing each one. "I think this vixen would eat whatever her gander brought home, and I daresay she loves him and the babies too much to offer their delicate little palates anything of the sort.

"And furthermore," I decide, "I think the vixen laid the kitling-eggs some weeks before she birthed the goslits – gestation being a bit longer for mammals – at which point the gander became altogether broody and took up residence on the nest while she went hunting for her meals and foraging for his. That way –"

"He could help the kitlings hatch," Peeta says eagerly, picking up the thread. "They don't have an egg tooth, so it would be difficult for them to break out of their shells, but the gander could crack them just a little with his beak – so they'd still have to get themselves out but they'd have a little help at the start. And then they'd see him right away when they hatched – and imprint on him!" he concludes triumphantly. "That's how they wouldn't think to eat him!"

I adore every bit of this but can't help chiming in with, "Kits are born with their eyes closed, so wouldn't the kitlings hatch that way? That's how you drew the one in the sketch you gave me."

Peeta frowns in frustration – at himself for forgetting such a crucial detail, not at me – but after several long, contemplative moments continues, "You're exactly right. But since goslings hatch with their eyes open – and promptly imprint on the parent – the poor broody gander would instinctively expect the same to happen with his four beautiful eggs," he says excitedly. "But instead he'd have to help them hatch – and then suddenly find himself surrounded by blind, whimpering kitlings that won't be happy with anything but their mother's milk!"

"And the vixen would be so perplexed," I join in, caught up in his enthusiasm. "Because she would instinctively expect to give birth to live kits, so when her labor started she would bed down in her den – and instead of a litter of babies she'd birth a clutch of big old goose eggs! Which would be confusing and upsetting all at once, because foxes eat eggs, so what was supposed to be her eagerly awaited babies looks like food – and then she'd realize that her kits must be inside those eggs and panic about them not being able to breathe or the fact that she can't feed them. So she'd be frantically nosing the eggs around the nest and whining –"

"When the gander came in!" Peeta takes over. "He understands eggs perfectly – or so he thinks! – and he'd shoo her away and take over the nest, sitting on the eggs while his bewildered mate paced about and finally went hunting to banish her anxiety."

"But what about her milk?" I wonder. "Once the kitlings hatched –"

"The two halves of the litter would coincide, almost perfectly," he resolves. "Out of nowhere the vixen would realize she was about to 'give birth' again – or lay eggs, she assumed – so she would squeeze into the nest beside her mate, with every expectation that she would just be adding more eggs to the clutch, but instead out would come these furry little goslings for her to lick clean, and maybe that process would give off a hormone or something that would signal to the kitlings that it was time to hatch –"

"Yes!" I squeak, loving this theory. "Maybe they could smell her milk through their shells – brought on by the birth of the goslits, or maybe something she consumes while she's licking them triggers her milk to let down – so the kitlings started rolling around in their eggs, determined to get out, and –"

"And that's when the valiant gander helps them break out!" Peeta exclaims. "He's so ready for this moment and so excited. He already has three sweet furry goslits that are snuggled and sleeping against their mama, exhausted from their birthing, and he can't wait to add four more babies to the batch. Only out hatch four downy kitlings, all blind and mewling –"

"That crawl straight over to their mama's belly, to their papa's devastation," I laugh, both at the story and Peeta's exaggerated chagrin. "He was so ready for his goslings to pop out and imprint on him – he was constantly telling the eggs stories and singing them little songs while Mama was gone a-hunting – and instead when they finally hatched, they were all snouts and paws and tails and wanted nothing but milk –"

"To the distress of their siblings as well," he points out. "They were happily snuggled against Mama's belly, all sleepy post-natal bliss, when along came these blind nosy things, rooting about with their pointy little snouts and latching onto their mother – because as far as the newborn goslits can tell, these fluffy yellow things are no kin of theirs – which I daresay would go over none too well."

"And that's when Papa Gander's moment finally arrives," I tell him happily. "He'll have duly plucked out a ridiculous amount of belly down to create his brood patch – an area of skin with good blood flow for incubating the eggs," I explain. "Which perplexed but delighted his mate at the time, since he used that down to cushion and insulate their nest, and now he can guide those disgruntled newborn goslits under said brood patch – which their instincts are probably guiding them to anyway – for warmth and comfort."

"I love it!" Peeta cries and seizes me in a deep, lingering hug. "Oh Katniss, it's perfect."

I laugh in reply, partly because of how beautifully this bizarre tale came together and partly because at this moment, everything feels so wonderful: golden, incandescent, resonant with hope and contentment and joy. "Is there something wrong with us?" I murmur against his throat, not particularly concerned if the answer should be yes. "I guarantee no folktale ever went into that degree of detail."

"No," Peeta croons, hugging me tighter still. "We just both really want those babies."

My belly kindles at his words but there's nothing unsettling about it this time. Everything around us is joyous and golden and radiant, so why not my womb as well, which was already aglow with longing for Peeta's babes? It would be so gloriously easy to simply mesh together: here, on the sofa, upstairs in his bed of soft sunset or my own, all sweet pine pillows and plush furs. I don't precisely know how it works but our bodies have proven so adept at finding each other's rises and hollows, and surely instinct would play a role as well. Peeta's child could be growing inside me by morning –

"No," I choke out and struggle free of those strong, sweet arms, but I catch his face in my hands and kiss the worry and confusion from his eyes. "Not 'no' to the babies, or the book, or any of that," I soothe. "My mind jumped to something…distressing. That's what I was saying no to."

He strokes my arms with gentle fingers. "It's okay," he murmurs, soothing me in his turn without trying to pull me close again. "Whatever you're afraid of, little sweetheart, I'll protect you with everything I have."

I laugh brokenly because he can't protect me from my primal, hopeless hunger – no one can – but nonetheless I tell him, "Thank you, sweet boy," and nuzzle my forehead against his.

"Tell you what," he says lightly, "why don't you take a little break to wash and change for bed? I'll write down all those things we just sorted out and clean up the picnic, and we can reconvene in the cuddle-nest for your story."

"A break?" I puzzle, leaning back. "From what, cuddling?"

"That's what I needed," he replies earnestly, "early this afternoon, when I left the hamper instead of joining you for lunch. Touch is a need, just like warmth and food, but when you haven't had much of it to begin with, a large portion all at once is overwhelming."

I consider this and realize he's exactly right. Where I've been perfectly content to glut myself on nips and nuzzles, Peeta – who is so determined to save my kisses for the hard or lonely days ahead – is rationing like a dirt-poor miser. "Am I – did I – um…hurt you?" I wonder, frowning at the thought, and Peeta chuckles gently.

"You did anything but," he assures me, brushing my cheek with his fingertips. "On the contrary, I feel so wonderful, I've been floating in a happy fog all day. That's why I didn't get more done."

I raise my brows at him and glance demonstratively between the picnic spread and his stack of sketches. "Indeed," I say dryly. "Your productivity has hit rock bottom, you lazy thing."

He laughs uncertainly, as though there might be a nugget of truth in my teasing criticism. "Well, I didn't get everything done that I wanted to," he admits. "There's something I really want to give you but I just couldn't get back to it today, and I feel so bad about it, especially after everything we've been talking about tonight."

I regard him for a long curious moment and realize he must be talking about one of my impossible wishes. He must be making something for me – a painting or another storybook, maybe – that has to do with one of them. "Babies?" I wonder softly and watch something crumble behind his eyes, like hunger and heartache all at once.

"In a manner of speaking," he says hoarsely. "And yes: I want to give you babies so badly, Katniss."

I curl a hand in his sweater and lean in to nestle my face in the curve of his neck, rooting about till I find the pulse at the base and tucking my cheekbone gently against it. I want to give you babies too, sweet boy, I croon silently. I would lie down here and now and open myself to you if you wanted. I can't conceive tonight, but maybe turning the soil would awaken my dormant womb and ready it for seed.

My secret place is warm and wet and for some reason that makes the emptiness even more acute.

"Keep us out a plate of food?" I say, and Peeta nods against me.

"And something to drink," he promises.

My body is leaden when I stand and even worse as I climb the stairs, not because I'm tired or hurting but because it truly can't bear to be pulled away from Peeta, however briefly, and I realize this proposed break might be very well-timed indeed. Another five minutes and I'd probably be unable to move away from him, not to mention the fact that my body and mind have been wandering quite willfully in troubling directions. Another ten minutes and I'd be tugging at Peeta's clothes or peeling out of my own, all the while murmuring beautiful nonsense about plowing the lifeless earth and seeding it with fertile stars.

I want Peeta's children, so much that it almost overwhelms me, and I want him to fit inside me like a mate or a lover and fill the keening emptiness between my legs. But as both of these are things that I can never, ever have – merely wanting them makes me reprehensible – I resolve to take this break to clear my head and banish these terrible longings.

Lavinia appears to have stayed out in the stable with her husband for the evening, or maybe they're both up in her room already; either way, I'm grateful for her absence. I dip into the bathroom and lock both doors, then sit on the ledge of the tub to hike my skirt and wriggle my underwear down to my knees. The crotch has been wet through where it pressed against my secret place – the same colorless dampness as before only much more of it, with a strange tangy odor that shakes me to my bones – and the hair deep between my legs glistens with something that's slippery to the touch.

I stumble over to the sink, scrambling out of my underwear as I go, and cover them with a basinful of hot soapy water. I want to rinse away the bizarre awful wetness from my body too but it would be foolish to run the tub just for that, and I certainly don't need a shower from the decadent waterfalls just to clean one lowly part of me – not to mention, the last thing I want to have to do is explain to Peeta why I took a quick bath when I only went upstairs to change for bed.

As my underwear soak in the sink, I gingerly wipe at the slipperiness between my legs with a warm washcloth. I never touch these mysterious parts of myself, let alone in such a focused fashion, and the hidden folds are hyper-sensitive and a little swollen. I part them hesitantly with two fingers to find the same glistening fluid coating the furrow between and the strange little nubbin concealed within and whimper with dismay as I wipe frantically at this even more tender flesh, finally hurling the washcloth into the sink and running back to the tub.

I plug the drain, pour out few drops of a purple gel that smells of lavender and sage, and turn on both taps, just enough to make a shallow, soapy pool at the bottom of the tub, then I discard my dress, bra, and dainty red shoes and climb in, curling around myself as I let warm fragrant water wash away what my terrified hands couldn't.

I'm frightened by this crude new response from my body and I no longer care if it signals the return of my menses, and the hope that would bring. I want it to go away; to go back to feeling content and cared-for in Peeta's presence, not growing warm and slippery in this most intimate place and wanting nothing more than for its pulsing emptiness to be filled. I know next to nothing about sex but filling a woman's hollow place is an obvious and substantial part of the process, and it makes me nauseous that my body has decided to want this in Peeta's presence, to the extent that –

"Oh no," I groan, burying my face in my hands at the realization. The heat, the swelling, that awful slippery fluid…my body doesn't simply want Peeta inside; it's preparing for him: warming and softening and even lubricating itself to ease his entry.

I sob angrily into my palms. Peeta can never, ever find out about this. I'll burn these underwear if I have to, and a handful of menstrual rags will absorb any future wetness that I absolutely can't prevent. I didn't think to bring any of those from home, but Lavinia must have something similar I can borrow. I'll duck up to her bedroom before going back downstairs and fortify my underthings thoroughly with whatever I can find.

Unfortunately, thoughts of Lavinia in this context abruptly remind me of Pollux burying his face between her legs and I raise my head with a strangled cry. Why would he even want to be so close to such an awful place, and what could he possibly mean to do there, let alone with his mouth? At best, I know this is the place where bodies join to share pleasure and create life, so what purpose would it serve to – kiss? Nuzzle? Nibble?

The area in question tingles at the thought and I realize, with a flush that scalds from my hairline all the way down to my breasts, that feeling a man's lips on that tender, hidden landscape – soft and hesitant and gentle, the way Peeta does everything – might actually feel incredible. It's a little repulsive to consider, but maybe a boy who dreams of loving every inch of her precious body with every inch of his own truly means every inch: even the strange, shadowy ones, concealed between limbs and veiled with coarse hair.

I think again of Peeta's sweet face dipping between my legs, this time intent on that hidden, glistening hollow, and keen softly in my throat.

Not for me, not for me, not for me…

Wanting things you can never have is a hopeless waste of time and energy, and this one is certainly no exception. If Peeta and I should ever end up coupling, whether for children or simple comfort, there's no doubt in my mind that it will be a brief, careful process; little more than mating, if a good bit less crude and more gentle. He'll have neither the time nor interest in loving every inch of my body with every inch of his own, and he certainly won't be kissing me between my legs.

I give a few cursory splashes toward my groin and wriggle my backside against the stones, determine to remove every last remnant of the strange slick fluid without having to touch myself there again, then I hop up to fetch a towel, trailing water and suds, and dry myself in a brisk and nonspecific fashion. I wring out my underwear, which seem to have retained no sign or scent of the colorless stain, but I can't begin to think where to leave them to dry. Anywhere in here will make them visible and therefore of interest to Peeta and if I hang them over the warming rack in my room they might be seen by Lavinia or Peeta or even – somehow, the worst of the possibilities – my night companion. I finally fold them inside my damp towel and hang that over the warming rack, reasoning that the only person who could potentially find them there would be Lavinia, and she would probably assume I'd been caught off-guard by my cycle and simply washed out the stain.

Returning to my room, I tug on a clean pair of underwear in a safe shade of midnight-sky blue – least likely to show any stains – and move on to the much more difficult task of choosing nightclothes for the cuddle-nest. A shirt rather than a nightgown would give warm questing fingers easy access to the skin of my back, and pajama trousers – or better still, leggings – would allow me to wrap my legs around Peeta's hips and nestle myself snugly over the rise of his groin, filling the hollow between my thighs with the exquisite firmness between his and maybe even rocking my hips a little to increase and deepen the contact – but of course, these are the last things I should be hoping, let alone trying, for right now. If I had any sense I'd wear the ankle-length nightgown of gray wool that Lavinia laid out the night I intended to offer myself to Peeta; the one I stubbornly refused in favor of a dainty summer nightdress. It would certainly be warm – and to be fair, maybe too warm for a nest of furs by the fire.

But then, a nightgown comes with its own set of complications, namely bare legs and an almost ridiculous ease of being hiked to the waist, and I don't even want to imagine how wonderful it would feel to move against Peeta's groin with only a thin strip of cotton covering my secret place.

I finally settle on a pair of red-and-green plaid bottoms and a soft thermal shirt the color of sweetheart ribbons. Peeta said he enjoys seeing me in bright colors and he seems to especially like me in red, which even I have to admit does something downright magical to my face, so this ensemble is an ideal combination of cozy and pretty – not to mention, optimal for any intimate cuddling that might arise. I promise myself I won't push for any such – and absolutely no more kissing either! I scold my blushing reflection – but if Peeta pulls me close and my legs have to fall open to accommodate his hips, or if embracing hands should drift beneath the hem of a shirt, surely there's no harm in that.

I braid my hair loosely for sleep, weaving today's jaunty offering through the plait, and have a quick wash at the sink then, wrapping the fox fur coverlet around me like the cloak of some mysterious wild enchantress, I dart upstairs, intent on creeping into Lavinia's bathroom for a handful of menstrual rags, just in case Peeta's proximity makes my body act out again.

Of course, as today's luck would have it, I practically crash into Lavinia herself at the landing and recoil so fast I almost topple down the stairs. "I'm so sorry!" I blurt, reeling around to run to safety, but she only laughs and tugs me into her room, switching the light back on. She's fully dressed and – blessedly – alone, though she's carrying an armful of blankets, an extra cardigan, and a pair of thick socks, which leads me to believe that she's on her way back to the stable for the night. A curious plan, considering how cold the weather has been, but she probably prefers the seclusion of Pollux's bedroom, especially after today.

She sets down the pile and takes out her slate. Should have checked in, she writes. So sorry. How can I help?

I shake my head, already blushing furiously. "It-It's nothing, really," I demur. "I was, um…just coming to see if you had any menstrual rags I could borrow?"

Her eyes go wide but there's something other than surprise behind the expression, something happy and even hopeful. Cycle started? she writes quickly – almost eagerly – and I shake my head.

"Not for a few months now," I tell her. "I, um…I need them for something else."

I'm mentally kicking myself as soon as the words are out. I could have just as easily told her that I felt my menses coming on and wanted the rags just in case.

I blush even deeper. "I, um…" I begin, but there's no way on earth I can say any of this out loud, so I come alongside her and take the slate from her hands. I get wet there sometimes around Peeta, I write in mortification and turn away so I don't have to see her face when she reads it.

I expect laughter in reply; a giggle or chuckle at the very least, but the only response is her typical comforting silence and a brush of fingertips across my wrist to gently elicit my attention. I turn in dread to meet a sympathetic smile that reaches her beautiful eyes and a short explanation on her slate. Not bad and not surprising, she's written. It means your body's caught up to your heart.

My blush burns hotter still, creeping down my neck in a prickly rush. "It's very bad," I correct her firmly. "I don't want to ruin any clothes, and what if Peeta found out somehow–?"

She covers my mouth with a hand, reminding me that there are Capitol ears everywhere in this house, but her eyes are strangely mirthful. Won't stain, she assures me, so no need for rags. And I can't imagine how he'd find out, but if he did, I doubt he'd mind.

I shoot her an incredulous look and tug the slate over to me, having no desire to say any of this to a Capitol audience. He'd think I was on my cycle or that I'd wet myself! I write, and this time she does laugh, shaking her head merrily.

If he ever has cause to feel it, she writes, it'll feel even better to him than it does to you.

I gape at her in a combination of horror and disbelief that makes her take my face in her hands and plant a sound kiss between my brows. Not the plan, I know, she reassures me. But that doesn't mean it can't ever happen.

She erases the words with the heel of her hand and adds, And at the risk of sounding crude, wet is a very good thing for lovers.

I take the slate from her to reply, miserably, We're not lovers and never will be.

She smiles gently, tracing my cheek with a fingertip. Your body thinks otherwise, she writes. So for now, please accept it. It's a good and healthy thing, really.

I perk up a little at the word healthy, thinking of how a steady menstrual cycle signifies a certain wholeness of body and how Peeta described the prospect of me being pregnant as a beautiful completion of healing: the tiny, starving girl, grown healthy and strong and bringing her own child into the world.

"Will…will it help my cycle come back?" I whisper, my voice small and vulnerable as a child's, and Lavinia gathers me to her in a lingering hug, making soothing little noises in her throat.

Would be astonished if it wasn't back this month, she writes. Food and safety help so much, and a boy doesn't hurt either.

I shoot her a look and she laughs. Now go curl up with him so I can go curl up with mine, she teases, and demonstratively picks up her bundle again.

I shake my head but can't hold back a smile. I suspect Pollux is lovely to cuddle with, all strong arms and broad chest and whiskers, and a woman planning on a more intimate interlude probably wouldn't be bringing extra warm clothes.

"Should I wait till closer to lunchtime to come to the shop?" I ask carefully. "Or would it be better if I came over early and wrapped up around lunch?"

She makes an exasperated, if amused, sound in her throat and hefts the blankets into my arms for one final reply. Come and go as you please, she writes. Husband has been advised to keep things quiet and out of sight.

"That's not fair, though," I tell her, not because I have any desire to repeat this afternoon's experience but because it seems so awful and even Capitol-like to tell a besotted pair of Avoxes that they can't even be affectionate in the sight of others. "Maybe –" I lean in to whisper in her ear: "For pity's sake, you can kiss and things around me if you want, and I'll do my best to stay out of your rooms."

She raises one dark brow, playfully indicating where we are, as she takes back the pile, and I scowl in reply. "I had a good reason this time," I remind her, "or at least, an understandable one."

I follow her down to the second floor and am halfway to the end of the hall when I recall, with a sudden, audible pang of guilt, my night companion, who I've managed to forget almost entirely this evening. "I forgot something," I tell Lavinia needlessly, "don't wait for me," and bolt back to my room, dropping the fox fur to the floor in my panic. I haven't done anything at all to prepare for him tonight, my silent sweetheart who covers me with furs and leaves me precious wild gifts while expecting nothing of me in return.

The warming pan is propped against the stone mantle, cold and empty, so I reluctantly scratch warming his covers from my nightly routine, opting instead to build the fire a little higher and lay an extra fur over his side of the bed. I can't exactly fetch him a bedtime snack from the kitchen so I go to my drawer of precious things, intent on a handful of holiday chestnuts or ribbon candy to fill our bird's nest, and spot it with relief and delight: the impossible orange that he tied with a sweetheart ribbon and tucked into my palm, which I'd resolved to split it with him tonight, peel and all. I slice it carefully with the knife I keep in my hobby room and nestle it into the perfect bowl of twigs like one radiant golden egg, then I set the filled nest on his rabbit-skin pillow.

But of course, that's only half the task.

I tote the stool from my dressing table around to his side of the bed and perch there companionably to peel and eat my half of the precious orange; the closest we can come to sharing the experience. After Peeta's lemon feast, the flesh is explosively sweet and so full of juice that it floods my mouth, like a passionate kiss from the setting sun, and I lick my fingers clean of every golden drop.

To my surprise, there are three hard white seeds in my half, which after careful thought I decide to leave for my companion, soaking in my water glass from the bathroom, and the small heap of pith and peel as well. Perhaps he would like to plant them, or try at least, seeing the possibility of his very own orange tree in three stubborn little seeds, and the peels, flavorful as they are, might serve as a fine fertilizer in this forbidding season.

My one feeble gift might prove to be many, I think happily, and bend to press a kiss to his pillow. There's a faint, pleasant odor amid the lingering musk of rabbit, something soft and spicy and almost familiar that makes my belly clench, not unlike the way it does around Peeta, and I straighten with a start.

Am I attracted to my night companion?

You don't even know if he's human! clamors a frantic voice in my head – but of course, I do. I've felt his hands and lips, even his tears as he kissed the crown of my head on New Year's night. I've heard him sigh and chuckle and weep.

No bird, however mighty, could lift a fur from a wooden chest to drape over a shivering girl. And no bear, however dexterous, could tie a ribbon around an orange.

Maybe this explains my dreams. In my most unguarded moments, I'm shielded from loneliness, cold, and nightmares by this invisible masculine presence, all soft breath and gentle silence, and during my waking hours I'm engulfed by the nourishment and nurture that is solid, vibrant, beautiful Peeta Mellark.

My awakening body never stood a chance.

But is it more than that? More than the rousing of a dormant female body in response to a fertile male presence, and an invisible one at that?

Can I possibly love my night companion?

It's unthinkable, surely, and yet falling for him is far less reprehensible than loving and longing after unavailable Peeta, and more hopeful too. After all, my companion and I share a bed every night – or at least a portion thereof – and have already exchanged sweetheart gifts and ribbons.

I touch the rabbit-skin pillow with trembling fingers and realize, with a troubled little shiver, that my night companion unmistakably loves me. I think I knew it on New Year's night when he wept over the gift of the pillow and its – unintentional? – sweetheart ribbon and answered it with tear-dampened kisses, but it was undeniable the following morning when I woke with his ribbon-wrapped orange tucked into my hand.

He accepts my gifts, however crude or secondhand, and responds with fairy tokens from the woods and always, always, he tends to my comfort.

He loves me.

I recoil from the pillow, flushed and suddenly breathless, and carry the stool back to the safety of my side of the room.

I'm sharing a bed with a man who loves me. A man too shy or patient to act on that love; to press me for any sort of gift or gesture in return, but who undeniably loves – even adores – me all the same.

I can't encourage this. I shouldn't encourage this.

But I love him too.

It dawns in me like a quiet sunrise. I don't know what, if anything, can ever come of this love, and strangely, I don't care if it's never more than this: shared bedcovers and wild gifts left on each other's pillow; maybe an annual sweetheart ribbon on New Year's night. This is enough – more than enough. For as long as it lasts, I'm spending more and more of my night hours with Peeta, and when I'm finally compelled to part from him my companion steps in to lie beside me; to warm me with his presence and his silent, unpresuming love.

It's better than enough. It's as close to perfection as could be imagined in my hopeless situation.

I creep back to my companion's side of the room, wary as a wild thing, and for the first time, I sit on the edge of the bed; so cautiously, as though it might leap out from under me or crumble to dust beneath my weight. "I love you too," I whisper, tracing the mouth of the bird's nest with its sweet, sunny gift. "I don't know what more I can give you or if you even want more than that – or if you even want that – but…you have my love, for whatever it's worth."

I bend and kiss the pillow once more but this time I linger to rest my cheek against the fur, steadying the nest with a hand. "Oh, how I love you," I sigh, and slowly get to my feet.

I rewrap myself in my fox coverlet, subdued but not sad, and make my way downstairs. I've been away so long that all the food and dishes have been cleaned up and spirited away, save for a small plate of tarts, sweet buns, and cheese – an after-dinner addition from the icebox – and two steaming mugs; hot chocolate, by all appearances. Our picnic has been transformed into a nest of wool and furs, with Peeta's bearskin laid over the top to be burrowed beneath, and Peeta himself is dressed in pajamas and perched a little restlessly on the edge of the sofa, waiting for me.

"Hey," he says, coming over to me as soon as I appear, his face almost slack with relief. "I thought maybe you'd changed your mind – which is entirely okay, you know. I heard the tub," he explains. "Would you rather take a bath and just go to bed? I can run you a proper one; it won't take long –"

I shake my head and melt against him almost before he's opened his arms. "I just wanted to wash up a little," I tell him. "I want to be with you."

"Hey," he says again, even softer, and gently eases my face back from his throat, angling my chin so he can meet my eyes. "Are you okay, little sweetheart?"

"Of course I'm okay," I assure him, and he blinks in surprise.

"Oranges," he says curiously. "Were my lemons so underwhelming you had to cleanse your palate with a nice sweet orange?"

It never occurred to me that he might smell the fruit on my breath and I'm mortified by the implication. It looks very much as though I forsook his costly lemon feast to hide away in my bedroom and stuff myself with oranges – and worse than that, I can't tell him where it came from or why I had to eat it when I did.

So I opt for Pollux's explanation. "Fairies," I reply gravely. "Fairies, erm…left me a special magic orange and wouldn't let me go downstairs until I'd eaten it."

"Aren't you supposed to avoid fairy food as a rule?" Peeta wonders, his eyes mirthful, and I butt my head against his chest in playful exasperation.

"Yes, but this one was supposed to make me a very fine storyteller," I explain. "And since I owe you a very good story tonight –"

"Every story you tell me is sheer magic," he murmurs, nosing at my head till I look up at him again, then he pecks a determined little kiss between my eyebrows. "I'm inclined to believe you're a fairy yourself – their very queen, no less – and the orange was brought to you as tribute."

"Don't tease me," I warn.

"I would never," he says huskily, leaning in to brush my nose with his. "You're a lethal wild thing and I adore you. What part of that would ever entice me to tease you?"

I nip his nose in reply with the very edges of my teeth, like any good besotted vixen. "See that you don't forget it," I reply. "I may be small but I'm perfectly capable of devouring you whole, gander mine."

"Of that I have no doubt, and to it I have no objection," he answers softly, and I sink against him with a wordless croon, parting the fox fur that surrounds me so I can wrap it around us both.

Peeta's chin comes to rest atop my head with a long, shuddering sigh. "Is this too much, Katniss?" he murmurs.

"Too much of what?" I answer, burrowing greedily into his warmth, half-drunk on his nearness with every intention of drinking deeply of it for the next hour or more.

"Too much…well, me," he says, to my surprise. "I know you're solitary – I love that about you – and I'd hate if I was making you uncomfortable with all this…this closeness and touching."

I give a sad chuckle against his chest. If you only knew, I think. How much more of you I want. How much closer I want you. I want you so deep inside me that the line between our bodies – our beings – is not merely blurred but forgotten.

Aloud I say only, "Never. Being close to you is like nourishment, and I've been hungry so long."

He makes a soft sound, almost a sob, and hugs me tightly to him. "Oh Katniss," he whispers. "Oh, Katniss, Katniss, Katniss: it's the same for me too."

I don't know why I didn't realize it sooner. My sweet boy, so eager to kiss and cuddle and hold, is starving for touch just as, not so long ago, I was starving for food. Unless I miss my guess, he's never been touched by his elusive sweetheart, save for that swift peck on the cheek before his Games, and of course, he's known everything but affection from his own mother. I can scarcely bear to think of the ordeal of his amputation – the agony, the grief, the brisk efficiency of cold doctors' hands – of how desperately he must be aching to be comforted of that terrible wound, and yet he still offers touch at every juncture, freely giving away what he needs so desperately to survive. No wonder he's accepted so many of my kisses, nips, and nuzzles – and begged me to save the rest for special occasions. My starving boy is gobbling up all the touch I'm willing to give him and periodically forcing himself to save some for later, despite how badly he wants – no, needs – it, in case the pantry should run dry.

I don't know where I find the nerve, let alone the strength. I curl a leg around his hip and heft myself with a little hop, enough to hook the other leg around him – effectively climbing his torso with my thighs – and bring myself flush against his belly, twining my legs behind him. His arms slip down to cradle my backside, almost instinctively, and I let my fur fall away as I take his sweet, stunned face in my hands.

"Maybe," I whisper. "Maybe we can touch each other well and whole again."

I want to kiss his mouth so badly that I almost can't breathe but this time, somehow, I know I need his permission. I'm offering…I don't know precisely what I'm offering. All the touch he could ever dream of, I suppose; a veritable feast of physical comfort, including and extended to lovemaking, if that's what he wants – which I know he doesn't and I could never in a thousand years articulate in an offer – but there's every possibility that he'll refuse, or ration me, and I understand both responses all too well. Even the poorest bristle at accepting charity and they never, ever consume everything on their table, even if they have every expectation of more coming tomorrow. Not even the night before – or the morning of – Parcel Day.

"Oh Katniss," he rasps, and there's unmistakable pain in his eyes. "That…that would be so wonderful, but…"

"But?" I prompt miserably, my heart already in my stomach, and I'd pull my legs free of his hips if he wasn't still cradling my backside so securely, keeping me snug against him.

"But…slowly?" he croaks. "I-I mean – a little at a time, or –"

"I'm hurting you," I whisper, and struggle against his embrace, but this time he doesn't let go.

"No," he says, but so tenderly. "Never, Katniss."

He carries me to the cuddle-nest, turns back the bearskin with his foot, and lays me in the warm hollow beneath, then he retrieves my fallen fox fur to drape over the bearskin and crawls beneath both to wrap himself around me, curling his own strong legs about my hips and enfolding me in his arms. "Katniss, you are every good and lovely thing that's ever happened to me," he croons against my brow, his fingers trailing the length of my back in a manner so exquisite it almost brings me to tears. "You are compassion and wildness all at once; furs and fairy tales and moonlight. If it was in my power, I would never refuse anything you offered me."

I catch it in his voice then: warning and a shadow of fear, and find confirmation in his eyes.

The Capitol is involved in this in some way.

For reasons I can't begin to guess, something about my intimacy with Peeta is of interest to them, and if we do too much – whatever that means – something terrible will befall one or, more likely, both of us.

Is their cruelty so absolute that they won't even allow a first-year Victor to find a little comfort in the arms of a friend?

Now I think of it, no one ever really talks about a Victor's family and friends, especially once their Victory Tour is over. Dashing Victors like Finnick Odair are periodically seen to cavort with wealthy, glittering lovers in the Capitol, but no one's ever mentioned a wife or children or even a sweetheart back home; the very things you'd expect of a handsome Victor in the prime of his life.

Does some unspoken rule forbid a Victor to find love at home, or is it simply that any object of their affections becomes subject to the same Capitol scrutiny and therefore additional dangers? In which case the only way for a Victor to protect their loved ones would be to keep apart from them.

For the first time I wonder whether Haymitch Abernathy once had a girl he adored as entirely as Peeta loves his own sweetheart and the crass, filthy creature he has become is the result of 24 years of being kept apart from her by rules or threats – while, of course, conveying a new pair of children to their brutal, televised deaths every summer.

"Oh, Peeta," I whisper. "I won't let that happen to you."

He presses two fingers against my lips, so gently – the first time he's ever physically curbed my speech – and brushes a kiss between my eyes. "Nothing's going to happen to me," he assures me, and it's so convincing I almost believe him. "Unless, of course, I expire of too much comfort and affection at your hands," he adds teasingly, and genuinely so, and I nip his fingertips before he can snatch them away.

"What's 'too much'?" I ask, licking my lips in fox-fashion; greedy for another bite of lemon-soaked gander.

He contemplates the question, and me, for longer than I expect. "Can I tell you when it happens?" he says at last, very softly. "Or if it happens, for that matter?"

"And in the meantime, I can nibble at you as much as I like?" I reply. "It's going to be a long cold winter, by all accounts, and a hunting vixen needs good, solid nourishment."

"Stocky nourishment?" he wonders, his eyes merry. "Fat, foolish, golden nourishment, by chance?"

He's traded his downy yellow sweater for a thermal shirt in a warm mustard-gold, the significance of which just now dawns on me, and I trace the collar with a grin. "That would be a very fine place to start," I reply, and dip my head for an inquisitive lick at the base of his throat, making him gasp.

"Too much, vixen mine!" he yelps; playfully, but the undercurrent of panic is clear. "Anyway, if you get too greedy in that area you might nip an artery and end up with a gander that's fit for nothing but the oven, and then who would you torment the whole winter through?"

I sit up beneath the weight of bearskin and fox fur to contemplate his strong, beautiful body, still curled toward me like a golden half-moon. "Where would you prefer I start, doomed thing?" I inquire, not particularly upset by the relocation, and his eyes darken and soften all at once.

"Anywhere," he says huskily. "Anywhere you like. I'm your captive, after all."

I allow myself ten seconds to devour him with my eyes, especially those places I can never touch in a million years, and then I scoot back beneath the furs to pursue the part of him I've been aching for almost from the first: his precious wounded leg.

He jolts up in realization before my hand reaches the hem of his trousers. "No, Katniss," he urges. "You don't want to –"

"Didn't you promise me your prosthesis?" I remind him softly, circling his knee with my fingertips. "I can't very well take it out to carve if you're still wearing it."

"Please, Katniss," he whispers, curling his hand around mine to stop the caress but keeping it there, pressed against him, not pushing me away. "You don't want to see this."

"You're right, I don't," I reply. "I want to touch and hold and kiss it – unless that will hurt you in some way?"

He closes his eyes with a long, shuddering moan and draws several shallow breaths, finally shaking his head. "It-It's ugly," he warns, releasing my hand to reach for the hem with both hands and looking up at me, giving me one last chance to change my mind.

"No part of you could ever be ugly," I counter, almost a growl, and kiss his knee for encouragement. "Please let me, Peeta."

He draws a shaky breath and carefully hikes the trouser leg to bare a calf and shin of pale flesh-colored plastic ending in a stockinged foot, and I realize all at once that I've never seen him without socks. I don't know if he keeps a sock on his prosthetic foot for traction or to conceal its artificial nature or if his real foot simply gets cold and it's more practical to wear both socks, but I resolve here and now that in these private moments we share, there will hereafter be no socks. I'll divest him of the left one in a bit but at the moment I'm riveted on his strong, skillful hands cuffing his trousers just above the knee with the ease of much practice. He dips a finger into the ankle of the sock, causing a soft click and a muffled popping sound in reply, and the prosthesis eases free of his leg.

"You're sure?" he croaks, holding the false limb in place, giving me one last chance to change my mind.

I respond by cupping the cold, lifeless limb in both hands and guiding it off what remains of his own lower leg: a blunt pink stump of smooth skin and bone, about as long as his hand is wide.

"Oh…" I breathe.

Last night I held this in my hand; fell asleep with it cradled like a treasure in my palm, and now I can barely stop myself descending on it in caresses, kisses, and tears.

It's beautiful. Heartbreaking, to think of the powerfully muscled calf and strong, steady foot that was there before, and yet so incredibly beautiful.

I set the prosthesis absently to one side and cradle the stump in both hands, sinking down to stroke its impossibly soft skin with my cheek. Peeta whimpers sharply, his leg jerking in my grasp, but he doesn't struggle to free himself or push me away, which is very well indeed, because now that I've got hold of this precious thing, I don't think I'll ever be able to let go. I nuzzle it with my nose, cheekbones, even my eye sockets, curious and affectionate all at once, and then my mouth takes over. The limb smells of antiseptic, sweat, and stale plastic but underneath is cream and cloves and honeyed boy-musk, and I drink it all in with kisses both hungry and tender; here parting my lips for a damp offering, there closing them for a gentler one.

I love you, my mind intones with every press of my lips. Oh, how I love you.

Peeta slumps back against the pillows with a moan and I take the slackening of his leg as a delicious cue to cradle the whole limb in my arms, lifting beneath his thigh to bring his knee near my face. It's broad and rosy and dusted with hairs the color of chick's down, and I kiss every muscle and tendon and bone; above, below, even dipping my face into the sensitive valley behind. He was so strong, my sweet boy, his body fighting furiously to keep this knee, and the powerful thigh muscles that attach there.

I kiss and kiss and kiss what remains of his lower leg in an almost fevered fashion, consuming pain and grief and neglect and pouring out tenderness, compassion, and love. If I stop, even to draw breath, he might finally pull away or chide me in a gentle manner that would hurt even more than a physical withdrawal, and so I steal quick gasps against his skin, flooding my lungs with warm boy and Capitol hospital all at once; the real and not-real scents of this precious, perfect limb.

I'll bathe you, I promise him silently, every day and night – and noon, if necessary. We'll take off this dreadful thing with its Capitol stench and I'll wash them away from your precious leg. They have no place in our life and even less on your body. Let me take you back from them, sweet boy. Let me soothe your hurts and make you smell like home, like bread and honey and woodsmoke and wine.

A wet, ragged sound – or rather, a series of them – shakes me out of my reverie of adoration; a sound unmistakable and yet nigglingly reminiscent of something very particular that I can't quite place.

My boy is sobbing. Rough, ugly, wracking sobs, muffled by an arm thrown across his face but still fighting their way from his chest.

It's not uncommon for Peeta to cry but I haven't seen him sob since the arena, and it cuts my heart in two.

I ease his leg down onto the coverlet heaped beneath us and crawl out of my fur-burrow, desperate to apologize and yet reluctant to interrupt him in this moment of raw sorrow.

But I love him and he's hurting, so there's really no decision to make at all.

I lie alongside him and wrap my arms around his middle, providing comfort that is undeniable yet unobtrusive, and his own arms swoop down to engulf me like the wings of the sun.

"Why?" he whispers, burying his damp face in my crown.

"You know why," I whisper back, because if I have to try and rephrase it one more time the truth will finally spill out, and these words make him sob harder still.

"Shh, sweet boy," I croon, and inch up his body to tuck his face into the curve of my neck. "Don't you know how precious you are?"

"Not to you," he rasps without hesitation. "Every time you give me a gift, or show me a new kind of affection, it's even harder to believe than before."

"I brought you a basket of pretty pinecones," I recall suddenly. "I forgot to give them to you before supper. Would you rather have them than…this?" I wonder softly, combing my fingertips gently against his scalp. "Because that would be okay –"

"Oh Katniss, when will you understand how very precious you are?" he groans, lifting his face to meet my eyes; his own wide and hot and red with tears. "I found your pinecones while I was cleaning up and it was every bit as thrilling as catching you at the chopping block on New Year's Eve, or finding the shoe and stocking full of treats outside my bedroom door on New Year's morn. I even told myself those presents weren't for me so I wouldn't get my hopes up.

"A basket of pretty pinecones would have been so much more than enough," he goes on, "and then you shower me with songs and tales and kissesso many kisses," he says hoarsely. "You overwhelm me with gifts and affection, both precious beyond measure, and I weep because it's wonderful and impossible, because I love it and…and I don't want to lose it," he concludes, his voice so small and vulnerable that it spurs a prickle of tears in my own eyes. "You make me – make everything – feel so incredibly good, and I cry because I never thought I would have that, or…or even feel that."

I take his face in my hands and cover every last inch of it with lingering, deliberate kisses. "I hate your sweetheart," I whisper, kissing the salty corners of his eyes, "if loving her has brought you to this."

He laughs brokenly in reply. "Oh Katniss, she's done anything but hurt me," he says. "She's a fierce thorned bud that I water with gifts and nourish with the light of my love, and every now and again I get a breath of her petals and am overcome, both by the bliss of the moment and the hope of what more might one day be."

Still the prince loves his proud rose, I think sadly. But she never knew the pleasure of being tamed, no matter what the fox said, nor would the prince ever truly enjoy the reward of his patience. Not like lush warm fur beneath his hands or a damp snout nosing his ear or a velvet tongue-stroke on his nose.

"You'll get your rose-bride, little prince," I promise him, even though it breaks my heart. "But in the meantime, could you be content to play with a tamed fox?"

"I could be content for the rest of my days with a tamed fox," he whispers, and I cover his mouth with mine before he can add anything to detract from or contradict this golden sliver of hope.

I will make the rest of your days so wonderful, little prince, my still lips promise as they melt against his. I will bring you jewel-bright apples from our tree for your breakfast, ripe wheat from the fields for your luncheoning-bread, and stolen chickens from the farms for the fine fireside supper we shall share. We shall romp and laugh in snowdrifts and cattails and wildflowers alike and I shall perch on your heart and lick your face with joy whenever I triumph over you at our games. We shall be playfellows until you grow lonesome for younglings and then I shall shed my foxskin and become your mate, filling your cold bed with my warmth and love and your house with our merry golden kits.

"Oh, vixen mine," he sighs against my mouth. "Surely you would rather have a boy-fox to hunt and chase and gambol with you in the woods."

"On the contrary," I reply, leaning back to give his nose a tender chiding nip. "I want a goose-boy: a foolish, lonely gander who will tend our nest while I hunt and serve me cozy baked sweets upon my return and wrap me in his golden wings."

"I can do that," he promises softly, "all of that," and curls me snugly to him as proof, tugging us both deeper into the downy hollow of our nest.

"And what shall you ask in return for your warm wings?" I tease. "They are, after all, no mean prize, least of all to a scrawny-limbed vixen with only her skin to keep out the cold."

"The honor of holding that vixen is payment enough," he whuffles against my hair. "When will you understand that, sweetling? I want absolutely nothing in payment from you."

"Oho! Not true!" I crow and roll up to press him onto his back, my arms folded across his chest. "You asked me for a story and a song in exchange for building this fine nest–"

"Strictly speaking, a story or a song," he corrects breathlessly. "And it was still far too high a price. I'll be nest-building for you till June at the least, repaying that balance."

"You like my silly songs," I needle him playfully, grinning. "Maybe I'll sing you another one and get an extra dessert for the next three months–"

"If you sing for me again today, I strongly suspect my heart will burst," he protests, but his eyes are wistful. "Tell me the story you promised and I'll give you your three months of extra desserts – or anything else you want."

"Half your kingdom and a throne to rule it from?" I recall.

"That and more," he agrees without hesitation. "Anything you want. Everything you want."

I unfold my arms to lay my palm on his chest, edging around with my fingertips till I find his heartbeat. "Your down, your flesh, and your still-beating heart?" I ask quietly, and receive a long shaky sigh in reply.

"You know, for a tough trader, you really haven't grasped how to bargain with someone who adores you," he says huskily. "You're supposed to ask for difficult tasks and rare, costly presents–"

"I don't care about difficult tasks or costly presents," I reply, dismissing these meaningless treasures without a second thought. "All I want is you."

"Well," he says softly, tracing my cheek with a fingertip, "here I am."

I lower my face to his chest and nuzzle insistently at his racing heart, as though it's a ground squirrel frantically evading my snout beneath a thick groundcover of fallen leaves and if I pounce in just the right spot I'll come up with a wriggling prize to take home for my supper – or a warm little companion to curl myself around all winter long.

"Mine," I inform him with a deliberate glance and settle on the second course of action, inching down to lay over him, my cheek pillowed on his chest – not covering his heart, just near enough for me to kiss it whenever I like – and my own heart resting on the soft hollow of belly between the branches of his ribcage.

"Yours," he agrees, resting a trembling hand on my head. "Always and entirely yours."

His legs – one long and ending in a strong stockinged foot, the other ending just below the knee and even more beautiful – curl around mine, and I trace his right thigh till I reach the stump, hovering uncertainly over the back of my leg, as though he's reluctant to rest it on me. "Does it hurt?" I wonder. "I mean: to touch things with it?"

He moans quietly; at the contact or the question, I can't be sure. "Before last night, with very minimal exceptions, the only things that touched my leg were bathwater and bedsheets," he says hoarsely. "And until then, I thought they felt pretty good."

I lift my head to meet his eyes, which are dark and wide and almost desperately hungry. "Peeta," I whisper, "if I touch your leg again, will it make you cry?"

"Probably," he whispers brokenly. "But I wish so badly that you would, just the same."

I kiss his eyes closed, so gently, and descend once more into the plush depths of our fur-burrow, following the contour of his right leg till I reach the stump. "So beautiful," I murmur, cradling it in my small hands and pressing a wet kiss to its blunt end.

Peeta's thigh contracts sharply in response but he shakes his head at my questioning look. "Please don't stop," he says raggedly. "Feels so good. Everything you do feels so good."

I consider this for a moment then wriggle down under the furs to pop up on the other side of the nest, directly across from Peeta, so I can take both of his lower legs into my lap. Then I peel the sock down his broad left foot and toss it somewhere in the direction of the sofa. "No socks in the nest," I inform him, at once teasing and tender, and I scoot back a little further to lift my newest prize for its own cascade of kisses.

His foot – large, rosy-pale, and sprinkled across its toe-tops with curly blond hairs – is so strong and beautiful that I ache to think of the month we've wasted with it hidden away beneath stout shoes and thick woolen socks. "Also mine," I inform him without looking up, preoccupied as I am tugging at each toe in turn with nibbling minnow-kisses, and he answers with a shaky laugh.

"Entirely yours," he assures me breathily. "I shudder to think who would dare to stand between a greedy vixen and her gander-toes."

Of course, we both know perfectly well who stands between us, but I dismiss her from my mind for the moment. Whoever Peeta's sweetheart is, there's no doubt in my mind that she'll consider herself above kissing his one remaining foot, let alone nipping at these five precious toes like choice delicacies.

I carefully angle his foot outward to present the heel and tender inner ankle for kisses and can't resist edging his trouser leg a little higher with my nose, kissing my way into warm musky shadows where his leg hair grows thick and soft.

"I'm hard-pressed to decide which leg I like best," I murmur as though in a dream, stroking his foot with greedy fingers, again and again and again, as I lay it back in my lap then turn eagerly back to the stump. "Both of them – all of you – is so beautiful."

Peeta inhales raggedly and I look up across the expanse of furs to find fresh tear tracks on his cheeks, glistening gold by firelight. "Oh, sweet boy!" I gasp, my bliss at being given the freedom to explore his beautiful body vanishing in the face of the grief my touch has caused, and I'm over the furs and alongside him in two heartbeats.

"You should have told me it was too much," I soothe, kissing his hot eyes, and he turns back the furs to pull me under beside him.

"Apparently I'm even more starved than I realized," he sniffles. "I-I don't want you to stop."

"And I don't want you to cry," I answer softly, bringing his face to my chest like a child's. "I feel like I'm hurting you."

"Never," he assures me, rubbing his cheek against me as he roots out the most comfortable spot. "But all the same, I think you're right to go slow."

"A boy learns patience where a bird learns trust," I remind him, kissing the top of his head. "Surely he would be overwhelmed by too much affection too soon."

"Depends on how long he's waited," he replies strangely. "Anyway, you did all right with your dove."

I laugh lightly and kiss him again. "That's because she tamed me, sweet boy," I explain. "For all I know, she's back in her nest having nervous convulsions after an afternoon of kisses and cuddles and pets from a wild huntress."

"An understandable response," he says, and it doesn't quite sound like he's teasing.

"I can tell you about her instead of the story I'd planned, if you like," I offer, but he shakes his head against me.

"Breakfast will be soon enough," he decides. "Tonight I want to hear the story you wanted to tell so badly that you were willing to eat a fairy orange to make it even more delightful. I have a feeling there might be birds in that one too," he teases, "or with any luck, a fox."

I chuckle. "No fox, alas, but it's actually about a bird – two birds, really. Have you ever heard of an oriole, Peeta?"

He lifts his head to meet my eyes, his own narrowed in something halfway between curiosity and suspicion. "I fed them this past summer when they weren't feeling aloof," he replies slowly. "I'd never seen an orange bird before, and their breast feathers are my favorite color in all the world: sort of a soft sunset-orange."

"Is that so?" I say, unsurprised by my boy's favorite color – especially in light of his bedroom – but thrilled to finally know it beyond a shadow of a doubt. I plan to make use of this knowledge as often as possible, not least in scheming up gifts for his birthday.

"I wanted them to come to the garden so badly," he goes on. "I wanted to see and hear and paint them, so I put out all kinds of different foods to try and entice them closer, but it turns out there's only one thing they really like."

He's looking at me as though he expects me to know this answer already. "Um…berries?" I guess. "I've never seen an oriole eating, but the colorful summering birds tend to like fruit."

He frowns in puzzlement. "You really don't know?" he wonders. "I thought that was why you chose an oriole story."

I shake my head, even more confused than he is. "What was why?"

"They eat berries," he agrees, "the darker and juicier the better, but they love oranges." He grins at the revelation. "It's the only thing that will bring them past the raspberry patch, and they peck them clean to the peel. One time I took in their empty orange before I'd halved the fresh one and an impatient oriole flew to the kitchen window and rapped on the glass to hurry me – 'I want my orange!'" He laughs at the memory. "I was half-afraid he'd dive-bomb my head when I finally brought it out.

"He didn't," he assures me, "but that was the first and last time I took down an empty orange without a full one in my hand."

"Orioles eat oranges," I muse and try to think if my father ever mentioned this. Considering how costly oranges are, I'm almost certain he never had the opportunity to find out.

"You didn't know," he realizes, coming to the conclusion the same time that I do. "I'm so sorry, Katniss. I thought you chose an oriole story because of all the oranges you've had lately."

I shake my head thoughtfully, appreciating the coincidence nonetheless. "No, but I love the connection and I can't wait to see your orioles when the weather gets warm," I reply. "I chose the story because –" I hesitate a moment to choose my words carefully – "it's about the sun and two ordinary blackbirds who go after something impossible and end up with far more than they bargained for."

Peeta's lips tighten in uncertainty. "This sounds like a cautionary tale," he says. "Does it have a sad ending?"

"Oh no," I reply with a smile, guiding his head down onto my chest once more and pinning it there with a deliberate kiss to the crown. "It's a love story."

Long ago, when the earth was little older than a babe in her cradle, there lived two blackbirds; a brother and sister. The boy was bold and the girl was brave, with very little of each other's quality about them; therefore, the brother, so brash in his speech, was cowardly in the face of even modest danger and his sister, though a match for a cougar in courage, was shy and reserved in her manner.

These birds, so scrawny, poor, and plain, were ridiculed by their plump colorful neighbors and made to live in little woven stocking-nests that hung below the branches where prouder birds made their homes. And one day the bold brother, full to his crop with their mocking, conceived a notion to fly to the sun and steal a billful of gold, so he might gild their nest and perch on the branch above, as proudly as any pretty songbird.

His sister thought this a foolhardy plan but she did not balk at it, for as I have said, she was as brave as any hunting beast – indeed, braver still, as you shall soon see. She felt the scorn of their neighbors as keenly as her brother and for her own part wondered if, perhaps, a lady-bird from a gilded nest might hope to be courted one day. Of a certain, there were no suitors for a small, plain blackbird in a poor stocking-nest, and she longed for a mate and chicks of her own.

"I think I know this bird," rumbles Peeta's voice against my chest, deeply amused, and he nuzzles me meaningfully for good measure.

"This happened long ago when the earth was little older than a babe in her cradle," I answer smartly, ignoring the stumble of my heart and the hot surge in my belly at feeling his face between my breasts and relieved beyond measure that he can't see my blush. "You don't know this bird."

"We shall see," he says merrily, pecking my breastbone with a kiss. "Go on."

They made predictable preparation for their dangerous journey: namely, the bold brother blackbird strutted past his elegant neighbors, boasting as proudly as you please of what he would soon accomplish while his brave sister alternately slept as much as she could and practiced longer and higher flights, all the while stuffing herself with whatever she could forage to build energy reserves.

"Oh, for pity's sake, you don't know this bird!" I burst in exasperation before Peeta, whose chuckles have escalated through the last passage, can interject his thoughts. "I know she sounds a bit like an intrepid Seam girl –"

"Not just any Seam girl," he breaks in. "A very small, clever, and brave one with feathers so silken-black they glint blue in the sunlight."

"I shall bite you in a minute," I warn, my face on fire, and he raises his head to grin shamelessly at me.

"You know, for such a lethal little thing, you really haven't grasped how to threaten someone who adores you," he teases. "I thought we'd firmly established how much I enjoy your nips."

I consider this, narrowing my eyes and trying desperately not to think about all the tender rosy places on this boy that I could nip. "Then I shall never nip you again," I decide. "And for good measure, I shan't finish the story either."

Unfortunately, this threat is far more effective than I anticipated. Peeta's grin switches off like an electric light and he scrambles off me, crawling some distance away to curl on his side, facing the fireplace. "I'm sorry," he says meekly. "I-I won't interrupt anymore."

Naturally, I spoon my small body around him and nuzzle consolingly at his neck, bringing a hand to the stump of his leg for additional comfort. "You poor thing," I soothe, and only faintly in jest. "Are my stories and nips so very important to you – or do you just really love to talk?"

To my immense relief, this wins a quiet laugh, albeit a slightly pathetic one. "All of the above," he replies sheepishly. "Maybe, um…do you suppose we might name the birds?" he suggests. "That might cut back on the, erm, interruptions."

I consider this. It's a reasonable enough concession that my father often made when telling stories to or around Prim, who thought that giving the characters names, especially everyday ones, made fairy tales a little more real, whereas I preferred the players to be nameless: the prince, the fox, or the huntress-moon. Somehow that extra sliver of mystery made the stories even more magical, and judging by the tales Peeta has shared with me thus far, he feels the same.

"Fair enough," I tell him, "but considering how long it took to name my bird this afternoon, you should probably take charge of naming these two."

"Katniss and Gale," he declares without hesitation and a grin so wide I can hear it in his voice.

I ignore the first, half-expected, to cut down the second. "Gale is not some...some bold peacock!" I sputter.

Peeta chuckles deeply, as though at a secret joke. "You've clearly never paid attention to him outside the mayor's mansion," he replies.

I shake my head a little, utterly perplexed. Is he implying that Gale showed off somehow when we went to the mayor's back door to trade? He's never dealt or even interacted directly with the mayor himself as far as I know, just Madge, and he's more bristly and curt with her than he is toward anyone else; even vile old Cray. Could that be what Peeta's referring to: Gale's exaggerated show of hostility around Madge?

I scowl, misliking that Peeta seems to have noticed something in Gale that I've missed. "And he's certainly not cowardly in the face of danger," I remind him needlessly, but he has an immediate counter to this as well.

"Did he ever ask you to walk out with him?" he wonders. "Not in the woods: in town, like a courting couple."

I screw up my face at the very thought. "Of course not!" I retort.

"Coward!" he says triumphantly, as though the answer to that one question explains everything. "Or if that isn't sufficient proof, we can talk about the mayor's mansion some more."

I rest my chin on his shoulder, confused and a little unsettled by these implications. I haven't thought about Gale – really thought about him – in an eternity and it's troubling to think I might have been so blind. I know folk from both sides of town speculated that Gale and I would end up together but we never spoke of it, not even to make fun of their theories, and I never once considered that my gruff, taciturn hunting partner might have wanted any of that – courting, a toasting, perhaps even children – with me.

There would have been a practicality to such a marriage, I suppose, with us already hunting together and helping to sustain each other's families, but that wouldn't have mattered two pins in making the prospect more appealing. The idea of nestling with Gale in a heap of furs, of sucking on fingertips with coal dust embedded beneath the nails and softening a hard scowling mouth with teasing kisses, is enough to turn my stomach.

And the idea of Madge ever doing any such thing, let alone Gale longing for her to do so, is so absurd as to be laughable. No, if Gale was afraid of me, it was my bowshots or temper he dreaded, not a romantic rejection, and as far as Madge is concerned, he probably thinks she's likeliest to report his illicit trades, especially with her father's strong Capitol connections.

"Well," I attempt one last argument, "he would never embark on something – like, oh, a flight to the sun! – without making preparations."

But I know the answer before Peeta says it: "He absolutely would – if he thought he didn't need them. And he certainly wouldn't let on if he wasn't prepared in some way – not even to you, I'd wager," he remarks.

Gale is surprisingly proud, like most Seam folk, and he has an immodest, if not wholly unjustified, confidence in his abilities. If he was going to attempt something extra daring or dangerous, especially if word had got round about it, the last thing he would do is let on that he wasn't fully prepared in advance, even if that meant going into the challenge unprepared.

I give a disgruntled huff against Peeta's shoulder and tuck my face into the crook of his neck. "I'll give you some of that," I allow, "but I can't use those names for the blackbirds."

His hand covers mine on his leg, toying idly with the fingers. "Fair enough," he concedes, to my surprise. "How about Hawthorne and Greenbrier?"

I snort. "Not Hawthorne and Everdeen?" I wonder dryly.

"Don't be childish, Katniss," he chides. "I'm trying to name a pair of fairytale birds. Hawthorns and greenbriers are both berry-bearing bushes, right? And I know orioles like berries…"

I shake off his hand and bring my own up to his face, which is, as I suspected, creased in a massive grin. "You don't deserve a bedtime story!" I inform him furiously.

"Hey, I'm helping to prepare you for Mellark babies," he counters, with no little amusement. "They're cumbersome and they wheedle – oh, how they wheedle! –and they're so much cleverer than they look –"

"Presumably there will be some good Seam blood in your kids to thin that out," I interject.

"Don't get your hopes up," he warns merrily. "The unexpected cleverness came from Mom's side, actually, which probably made us twice as much trouble as biddable Dad and Uncle Marek."

"In which case you'd better marry someone docile and slightly stupid," I advise him wryly.

"I have every intention of doing nothing of the kind," he declares. "I'm going to marry someone a hundred times cleverer – and slyer – than I am and have twenty babies, each slyer and cleverer than the last. And you will rue the day you agreed to stay here as long as I would have you!" he concludes, practically crowing the words with delight.

"Right, that's it," I tell him. "I'm going upstairs – "

Before I have a chance to even pretend to attempt this, Peeta turns in my arms with a playful roar, pins me flat on my back beneath the full weight of his powerful body, and proceeds to pepper my neck with wet whuffling kisses that make me squeal and flail beneath him.

"You'll do no such thing," he informs me with a grin so wide it crinkles his eyes to slits. "You're going to stay right here and tell me what happened to Hawthorne and Greenbrier."

"They're birds flying up to steal a piece of the sun, Peeta," I pant. "Exactly how do you think it ended? With two roast blackbirds, fit for a pie!"

"Oho! Not true!" he crows in a perfect imitation of me not ten minutes ago. "Katniss, you're telling a story from when the world was new about how two ordinary blackbirds became colorful and remained so to this day. Even if they did catch on fire, I'm pretty sure that's not the end of the story," he observes. "Not to mention, you already promised me this tale was neither cautionary nor sad – and that it was a love story to boot, which almost certainly means a grand romance and orange-bellied chicks are still to come."

I glower up at him, but with so much affection my heart aches. "I dislike you intensely," I grumble.

His face falls. "Would you rather just go to bed?" he offers, suddenly so shy and gentle that my brain twinges trying to process it. Surely he knows we've been playing all this time; that while my exasperation with his silliness and wheedling is genuine, my frustration is not. I fell in love with patient, gentle, soft-spoken Peeta but this feisty, playful variation is adorable beyond measure. I love his impulsiveness; his strong body immobilizing me with its warm weight as his greedy wet mouth devours my neck or my toes, and I can't bear to think of that going away, let alone because of me.

"Of course not," I tell him, as plainly as I can. "I want to stay down here and tell you the rest of the story while we curl together like mousekins in a nest."

His smile returns, cautious and hopeful as just such a mousekin spying a forgotten handful of grain in an empty larder. "And just how do these mousekins curl together?" he wonders, ever so slightly impish.

I swallow the urge to reply that, in order to be proper mousekins – the newborn sort – we have to discard all clothes and nestle skin-to-skin. "They're generally all blind snouts and tiny paws, heaped together in a warm knot," I explain. "So, really, this – " I indicate our position with a nod, as my head is really the only thing I can move at the moment – "isn't too far off."

His smile unfurls like a new shoot in the spring, stretching fragile tendrils toward the sun. "That sounds very fine indeed," he says, "but I'm a little afraid I'll squish my mousekin. And anyway, we have a decided lack of tiny paws here."

He rolls down onto his side, keeping me snug against him, then he reaches between us to find my little hands and bring them to his chest. "Two tiny paws," he counts happily and wraps his arms around me once more. "And two snouts –" he pips my nose with his – "that will grow increasingly blind as we doze off. Will this knot suffice, mousekin mine?"

His arms are curled snugly across my back but our legs are simply pressed together, thigh to thigh, and I want a deeper contact, so I wind my top leg over his and nudge his bottom leg with my knee. "Hitch up a little," I tell him, fully aware that attempting to shift him myself would be like levering a boulder with a twig, and with a grunt he maneuvers himself back over me, just enough that I can wrap my legs around his waist without the bottom one being squashed beneath his weight.

It should be a suffocating position but instead it feels heavenly, not least because it tucks the firm lump between his legs into the empty valley between mine in that exquisite sort of completion. I give a slow, experimental rock of my pelvis, just to see if the contact still feels as incredible as I remember, but stop immediately at Peeta's gasp. I know painfully well what this intimacy does to my body – while, doubtless, making him uncomfortable beyond measure – and it would be horrifying if he felt that longing dampness, especially on his private parts.

"H-How's that?" he wonders hoarsely, and I pip his nose with a kiss.

"Almost perfect," I chirp, and reach back to tug up the hem of my shirt, just a little, so his arms slip down onto the bare skin of my waist. His whole body stiffens in a caught breath but I want my own nimble mousekin paws in this nestling knot we've formed, and I fish blindly beneath my back till I find one big warm hand and press it to my skin, winning soft cries from both of us.

Shivers of bliss cascade the length of my spine at the feel of Peeta's palm against my skin and redouble when his other hand timorously joins it; neither of them moving except to splay the fingers, as though he's cautiously trying to touch as much of me as he can. "Now it's perfect," I sigh, tangling my fingers in the front of his shirt.

"Beyond perfect," he whispers, almost a whimper. "Beyond imagining."

I think of my boy's hunger for touch and wonder if it's different or even better to be offered the opportunity to touch – to have someone, even a friend or an animal, who wants to be touched by him in whatever way he wishes. "Y-You can touch me, if you want," I whisper back. "I-I mean…if you wanted, like earlier, when I touched your back…that would be okay."

He draws a slow, shaky breath. "I-I don't want to distract you from your story," he says, but his fingers are already moving against my skin in tiny, eager flickers that make me tremble with anticipation. "I've done plenty of that already."

"I want you to snuggle with me while I tell a bedtime story," I answer lightly, muffling the longing as best I can. "There's a fair amount of movement in snuggling, you know."

"So there is," he replies softly, and combs the fingers of one hand along my spine, making me coo like a lovesick dove at her lover's first preen.

"You can do that all night if you want to," I sigh, and lean up to kiss his forehead. "I'll even call the blackbirds Katniss and Gale."

He chuckles, raggedly but triumphant. "I'll save that victory to cash in on something that really matters," he murmurs, and eases both hands deeper under my shirt, caressing my back with slow swirls of his strong fingers. "Hawthorne and Greenbrier will more than suffice."

"Yes, about that," I croak, not sure how I'm going to resume this tale, let alone complete it, in this state of overwhelming bliss. "You remember my great-granny's last name."

"I remember everything about you, Katniss," he says quietly, stilling his fingers against me. "Haven't you figured that out by now?"

I haven't, obvious though it has rapidly become, and it's still almost impossible to believe, let alone comprehend. I bite back a why because I don't really want to know the answer and settle instead for reassurance. "I like you immensely, Peeta Mellark," I say, kissing his curly head like a child's. "Please keep me forever. I'm a cross little creature with sharp tiny teeth, but at the end of the day I'm surely no more fearsome or obtrusive than a mousekin."

He smiles. "Well, I am surpassing fond of mice," he remarks. "And a storytelling mousekin is the sort of thing a king in an ancient tale would sell all he owned to possess."

"Or that would aid the youngest of three princes in three impossible tasks," I reply, recalling a similar, breathtaking fairy tale from my childhood, only featuring a white cat in the role. "The last being to return home with the loveliest bride in all the world, which would prove to be the mouse herself – who, freed from her animal enchantment, is more beautiful than the Evening Star."

"I want that story tomorrow," he breathes, his eyes soft and very wide.

"Tomorrow is your turn," I remind him playfully. "The king who sold everything for a storytelling mousekin. And the next night, if you're not full to your crop with mice, I'll tell you about the prince who was prepared to marry one."

"I'll never get tired of mice," he assures me, almost ardently. "Especially clever, storytelling ones that are willing to marry the meager third son."

"The third son is always the kind one who shares his black bread and cheese," I point out. "There's nothing meager about such a prospect. The Evening Star should be so lucky."

"I hope she is," he says strangely, "or at least, that she sees it that way," and he settles down to lie half over me, his cheek nestled against mine and his broad hands cupping the tiny wings of my naked shoulder blades. "Tell me about the flight to the sun, little Greenbrier," he murmurs, and I resume the tale in hushed breathlessness.

The day of the journey dawned bright and clear; a good omen, Hawthorne declared to all and sundry, as though the sun himself had blessed their mission, never mind it was to steal a billful of his gold. Meanwhile, prudent Greenbrier consumed the last of her provisions and together they took wing from the highest branch on their tree.

The sun proved more distant than even Greenbrier had estimated. It seemed they would never reach it, even if they flew for a year without stopping, and the higher they flew the hotter and thicker the air grew about them, till it seemed they flapped their wings in a sea of simmering honey. Hawthorne flagged quickly, unprepared as he was for a flight of such challenge and magnitude, but his pride would not allow him even the thought of giving up. Greenbrier fared somewhat better, thanks to her practice flights and carefully built energy stores, but her small form, however swift, lacked the strength of her brother's superior size. She wearied as well, but she could not give up while her beloved brother risked all, never mind the danger.

Hotter the air grew and thicker still, till at last the sun roared before them, like a radiant globe of flame, perhaps a hundred wingbeats away. Proud Hawthorne, so bold now that his goal lay in reach, redoubled his efforts and left his sister behind, slogging ahead through the honey-air, but he had not flown twenty wingbeats when a tongue of flame lashed out from the sun and struck him full in the breast, scorching him from throat to underbelly with the heat of a hundred earthly fires.

Hawthorne cried out as he fell back to Earth, mortally wounded and empty-billed, and little Greenbrier watched in horror, for she wanted to go after her brother, to check his fall and tend his burns as best she could, but she could not let him return to their stocking-hovel beneath the branch, wounded and shamed for life by his failure. So she ducked her tiny head and carried on alone, flapping her wings against the thick hot air again and again and again. The nearer she drew to the sun the hotter the air became, till she was certain her feathers had been singed clean away, but still she flew, wings weak and surely burned bare, till with an exhausted chirp and one last great flap, she flung herself into the blazing heart of the sun.

Here I shall die, she thought, weary but triumphant. But perhaps my singed feathers will fall to earth, here and there edged with the sun's own gold, and these my proud brother may use to line his nest.

But to her astonishment, the heart of the sun was not a roaring furnace but a gentle hearth, its heat no fiercer than a cheery cook-fire on Midwinter's Night, and equally welcome to a weary traveler, and the little blackbird was engulfed not in fiery death but love; sweet golden love, hidden like a jewel at the very heart of the blazing orb. She felt her spent form renewed, as though the mere presence of such love was rest and nourishment abundant, and a voice, from everywhere and nowhere at once, whispered tenderly, "Welcome, brave darling one."

It was the sun himself who addressed her, distant and disembodied and yet as near as a breath on her cheek, and her tiny heart tremored in her breast. "For the honor of your foolish brother, you risked agonizing death," he said. "I shall give Hawthorne what he desires and more besides, not for his sake but for your own. Henceforth he will be the most striking and admired of forest birds, with a breast and belly as bright as the flame which cut him down in his pride. He will follow me southward in the cold months and feast upon the fruits of a warmer clime all winter long, and he will father many fine strong chicks, the sons like him in their raiment of black and orange and the daughters lovelier still, as you have now become."

Greenbrier gazed down at herself, as she had thus far been reluctant to do, expecting singe and smoke and the deadened flesh of the cruelest burns, but every last feather on her form was still whole and hale, from her soft underbelly to the very tips of her wings, and more than this – oh, more than even the wildest dreamer could have imagined! – her humble black feathers had turned pure gold: not the fiery gold of the sun's outward face but the warm, quiet gold of his heart.

"And you, if you wish, shall become my bride," murmured the sun. "For this hour you flew into my heart, but you have reigned here as queen from the moment you bravely cast off your shell and drew a lungful of Earth's cold air. I have loved you from the moment of your birth, valiant Greenbrier, and I humored your brother's foolish quest when I saw that it would bring you to me; indeed, the flare that struck him down was my own hand, reaching forth to hasten your brave progress. I regret that I wounded him in my impatience, but he was healed in the very instant he turned toward home, and he and his sons will bear forever the kiss of the sun on their breasts, a crown far superior to a billful of gilding about his nest."

"But how shall I wed you?" wondered Greenbrier, her tiny heart blazing with a love to rival the sun's own flames. "For I would, and gladly, but you are no bird, with whom I might build a nest, and preen, and beget many chicks."

"That much is simply answered," replied the sun, "for every eve I grow small and bed down in some quiet shadowed place till the night has passed, and it would be my pleasure to take a bird's form and join my mate in a woven stocking-nest for long drowsy hours of preens and coos."

"But what of the day?" challenged Greenbrier, for there was a little boldness in her after all. "For these evening hours sound fair wondrous, but I should hate to pass the day apart from you."

The sun shimmered and laughed with delight. "As would I, dearest one," he replied. "When I rise to begin my day's work, if you wish, I shall bear you across the heavens in my heart, safe from the heat of my flames and nearer than the most intimate embrace. We may even mate in this fashion," he remarked, almost shyly, "if such does not repulse you."

"How should I be repulsed," his beloved answered, "by any union with my mate? Though you will forgive me if I do not understand how it might be accomplished."

"Then trust me, my brave bride," the sun bid her, "for my love is a gentle thing, and neither pain nor grief shall befall you in our joining."

With these words the sun overwhelmed her – so tenderly; so careful of her fragile form, even in his ardor – filling her with his light till it shimmered to the very tips of her feathers. Greenbrier gave a cry of wonder and pleasure at once, to feel the full glory of the sun blazing with adoration inside her tiny bird's body, and the sun wept with joy, scattering the meadows below with drops of golden bliss, even as he spilled forth his essence in his wife's belly. Elated and spent by their union, the sun set immediately thereafter, bearing Greenbrier to Earth within his heart, and there took the form of a golden bird; a mirror of his mate, if a trifle more luminous in hue, so they might find a makeshift nest and lie together as an ordinary pair, drowsing and preening and cooing till dawn, when they mated again, albeit in a more conventional fashion, before he brought her once more into his heart and ascended for a new day's labor.

They mated often and in both manners, for the sun is not an animal, to mate only in the season when young are desired, but joined with his beloved anytime they longed for that profound bliss which can only be found in that most intimate union of husband and wife. And from these radiant unions came sunbirds: tiny, brilliantly colored birds that dwell year-round in the hottest of climes, nearest their father, and feast upon nectar, as thick and sweet as the air that surrounds him.

In time Hawthorne's kin came to be called orioles, for their feathers that so resembled the golden sphere of the sun, though few folk now recall that it was the sun's own fingers that painted the first oriole's breast, nor that every female oriole to this day bears the badge of the sun's love for Greenbrier in the soft muted gold of their own feathers. Orioles follow the sun to warmer climes in winter, where they may now and again catch a glimpse of their swift, jewel-bright cousins, and have a particular fondness for oranges left out for them by hopeful humans, eager for a closer look at sunny feathers. Some suppose the birds are drawn to these miniature suns out of deference to brave Greenbrier, who still passes her days in the very heart of the sun, made immortal by his love, or in memory of the sun's generosity toward foolish Hawthorne.

But perhaps they hope that, like Hawthorne, they might find an unexpected blessing in the presence of this curious small sun with its nectar-filled flesh, and this is why they pick the fruit clean to the peel: in case just such a rare celestial gift may lie deep within. Or perhaps they wonder if, like Greenbrier, they might through their bravery – in coming so near this golden offering from a human hand – find a glorious, gentle mate, who will set the sun early and delay its rising simply to steal another hour or more in their embrace.

"I'm sorry the ending was a little weak," I murmur, my hands long since buried beneath Peeta's shirt and tracing drowsy trails up and down his broad back. "I wanted to tie in your oranges somehow and I figured the orioles would be drawn by their similarity to the sun, for one reason or another."

"There was nothing weak about it," he replies huskily. "In fact, it might be the perfect fairy tale, where everyone got exactly what they wanted and more besides; even foolish Hawthorne. And Greenbrier didn't have to share in her brother's reward but won a far greater prize, the likes of which no bird could have imagined."

"A crown of golden feathers and the sun himself for a mate," I recount softly. "At once the grand sovereign of the heavens and a gentle bird to warm her nest and give her chicks."

"And the sun loved her first," he whispers. "Can you imagine how hopelessly he must have longed, Katniss: a great globe of fire in the sky, loving one tiny blackbird from the moment she hatched? A vast golden being with the very hours and seasons at his command, but he could not even speak his love to a humble bird till she bravely –" His voice breaks. "Flung herself into his heart," he says hoarsely.

I kiss the crown of his head and curl my arms against his back, hugging him to me. "Poor Greenbrier," I say. "She must have believed she was flying to her death or grievous injury at the very least, but she did so willingly for the sake of her family. And instead she was given the very sun for her mate and…and was made radiant by his love," I whisper, thinking at once of a golden-feathered blackbird and the moon in ivory doeskins; one adored by the sun and the other painfully aware that she never will be.

"He loved her – made love to her – with his light," Peeta whispers. "Do you suppose it's like that with the sun and moon? When they join in eclipse, the sun pours his love-light – empties his very self – into her –"

"Till she glows with it like a toasting fire," I whisper in reply and bite my lip against a small, hopeless sob. "Surely the moon would burst to contain the sun."

"No, Katniss," he soothes, raising his head to kiss my eyes closed. "You said it yourself, sweetling: the sun is gentle and patient, so careful with his beloved's precious body. If he can fill a tiny blackbird with his love and bring her only wonder and bliss, surely there are no words sufficient to describe how it would feel when he coupled with the huntress-moon herself."

The sob escapes me; faintly, like the whimper of some distant wounded thing, but Peeta and I are so entwined that he must feel it as though it came from his own breast. "What's wrong, sweetheart?" he asks, so gently, easing a hand out from beneath my shirt to cradle my cheek. "Are you – you're crying," he breathes, and rolls off me at once to gather my small body in his arms like a heartbroken child's. "Little Katniss, what's hurting you?" he croons, dusting my face with tiny featherlight kisses. "Please tell me, sweetling; let me help."

"I love these stories so much," I whisper, blinking fiercely against the stubborn tears. "They're so beautiful it takes my breath away simply to recount them, but they make me cry too because…because it's never like that in real life," I choke out, the closest I can come to telling him the truth.

"Oh, sweetheart," he sighs, and for a moment he sounds as despondent as I feel. "It's exactly like that in real life. The trick is discovering which story – or stories – you're in and then waiting for the other players to appear.

"You are the heroine in all these tales, Katniss," he whispers in awe. "You are Greenbrier; the golden blackbird, and the silver huntress-moon, and the sun himself would fall prostrate to win your love. You are Ashpet the cinder-lass and Ashpet the huntress; wild, proud, and so very beautiful. You are the storytelling mousekin that a king would sell everything to possess and the clever mousekin who completes two impossible tasks and is herself the solution to the third: beneath her humble furs, a maiden more beautiful than the Evening Star.

"I wish you could see yourself through my eyes," he says sadly. "But if you ever so much as glimpsed the stunning huntress-queen that you are, you would run barefoot out to the stable, leap astride Rye and gallop back to the heavens where you belong, hunting the bear and deer and rabbits made of stars."

"That sounds like a lonely life," I whisper, overcome by the tender poetry cascading from his sweet mouth, seemingly without thought.

"But it won't be – it can never be," Peeta insists, "because every heroine is beloved. Often without her knowledge, but lover there is, every time, to whom she is both moon and sun and stars to boot. He may be a gentle toymaker or the third son of a king or the sun himself – or…or maybe there's a boy who's all three at once," he adds tremulously. "But lover there is, Katniss, every time, and this boy – this sun, this prince, this helpless fool – dreams of being eclipsed in your arms."

I take his face in my small hands and press a kiss between his eyes. "I like this story best of all," I murmur. "It's unfinished, of course, but the ending is so hopeful."

"It's my favorite too," he confides softly. "I've never lived a fairy tale before and yet here I am, on the fringe of every wonderful tale lived out at once, baking bread and cakes for the moon and sharing her supper of star-game. It's more than hopeful," he says, nuzzling my nose with his, "and I'm on tenterhooks to see how it ends."

"With babies, I hope," I whisper, speaking the wish aloud for the first time, and Peeta melts against me with a low moan.

"And such babies," he murmurs. "Fawns and stars and kits and chicks – and mousekins too. I'll be washing diapers and baking sweet buns for the rest of my days."

For the first time I envision Peeta with my children: spooning bread pudding into a tiny rosebud mouth, nibbling on dove-brown nubbin-toes as the toddler attached to them wriggles and squeals with delight, or cradling a drowsy dark head beside this very fire as he recounts a tale from his own childhood, and a bubble of joy shakes my shoulders. "That sounds very fine indeed," I sigh, and burrow my face into the curve of his neck. "Tell me more," I whuffle. "Tell me about these babies and where they would come from."

His throat rumbles faintly in a chuckle. "You're determined to get your own bedtime story, aren't you?" he chides, but with so much affection that my heart glows. "One you can fall asleep to instead of staying awake to tell."

"The Baker's Son and the Fox Kits," I instruct him sleepily. "Sort of like 'The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids' only no one gets eaten, just a great deal of dough and cake batter. And the mother isn't a goat but a huntress with a long black braid –"

"Two long black braids," Peeta corrects. "If you're making me come up with this story on the spot, I should at least get free rein with the details."

"Fair enough," I concede with a grand yawn. "I'll even start you off: Once upon a time a huntress set out for the woods and left her six kits in a bakery."

"Four kits," he amends lightly. "And three goslings. You said 'seven kids,' after all."

I bury my smile in his neck, envisioning our litter of furry black goslits and honey-feathered kitlings. "I'll agree to that," I reply, and go on: "She did this a-purpose, for her younglings were grown enough to be bothersome, and she held the baker's third and finest son in high esteem."

"Fattening me up for the kill, I see," he teases. "How long do you intend to be in the woods, huntress mine, so I know how long I have to keep paws and beaks out of the batter?"

"Two weeks," I decide, and giggle at his appalled squawk. "I'm a huntress-queen, you know, and we're traveling to my grand summer palace for feasts and parties and a ball or two, in and amongst the hunting forays, of course."

"And you'll be fine without your children for two weeks?" he demands in mock-horror.

"Of course not," I reply. "I have every expectation that the baker's son will put my seven babies in a knapsack after about fifteen minutes and set off on foot to bring them back to me. I'll be lonesome for them by nightfall," I assure him, "and anyway, I'm a solitary creature: I need a sweet, steady boy to sit and talk and dance with me at all those feasts and balls and parties."

"I knew dancing would come into it somewhere," he grumbles, but so happily that the lament is entirely unconvincing. "Are you wearing your little red slippers, vixen mine?"

"And sitting astride a fat brown pony," I reply, drifting firmly into a dream. "Come and find me, little prince."

I'm dressed in a deerskin, wrapped around me from breasts to knees like a primitive sort of robe, and playing with my white bear on a hearthrug. He rolls me onto my back to nose my ears wetly and lick my neck, making me squeal with laughter, and I merrily retaliate, climbing astride his broad back to cover his head with kisses and nibbling greedily at his tender little ears. He whuffles in reply, giving a great shake of his shoulders, and I throw my arms around his neck, burying my face in his plush coat.

I love the feel of him against my skin, all fur and musk and sinew.

I love him.

I love his lush fur, the heat of his powerful body, his wet kisses; even his breath, moist and sweet with honeycomb in my face. I love him, need him, cherish him like I've never done with another human being.

I grasp deep fistfuls of his coat and tug; a playful gesture, meant to incite more rolling and licking and wet whuffles against my neck, but the skin slips off him entirely in one seamless piece, like a garment, and I fall to the floor with his fur in my hands.

Winded and stricken, I clamber up to see if my poor skinned bear is all right and gasp to find someone else entirely crouched beside me: a human boy with rosy fair skin, a crown of pale curls, and not a stitch of clothing to cover his stocky young body. He wraps his arms around himself with an involuntary shiver and gazes at me, his blue eyes wide and hopeful.

I squeeze my eyes shut and shake my head, as though that simple gesture will banish this unwelcome stranger and return my beloved friend and playmate, but when I open my eyes the boy is still there, gazing at me as though I am both moon and sun and stars to boot.

"Where is my bear?" I cry.

The boy brings a hand to his chest. "Right here," he whispers, tapping his heart with his fingertips.

"No," I whimper, covering my sob with a hand as my eyes bead with angry tears.

I can't breathe. I don't want a boy, all pink and naked; all bare skin and blue eyes and curly yellow hair. I want my friend – my bear. My sweet, silly, playful companion.

I glare at the boy but he's not looking at me anymore. He's sunk down to sit on the hearthrug, his face buried in his hands and his powerful shoulders slumped in defeat. He looks heartbroken.

His legs are loosely folded in front of him and I notice that the right one ends below the knee in a blunt pink stump.

My bear's right hind leg is shortened too. He keeps himself upright and steady without too much trouble, but he's missing a paw there from a wolverine attack.

And there's a scrap of cloth – red plaid cotton, stained and threadbare – tied around the boy's left wrist, exactly like the one my bear wears always, tied around his left foreleg like a lover's token. I stretch out brave fingers to touch it where it lies against his skin.

"It is you," I breathe.

"It's always been me, Katniss," he says softly, raising his head to meet my eyes. "I wore the skin because of you. You feared me less – liked me more – when I wasn't a boy.

"You hid yourself from me too," he murmurs, stretching out his own fingers to brush the deerskin over my ribs. "In feathers and fur and skins and snow. Did you think I wouldn't want you if I thought we were different species? That I wouldn't love you with all my heart if you were a bird or a doe or the moon herself? Or," he wonders, quieter still, "was it so I wouldn't realize that you loved me in return?"

He chuckles sadly. "I hid myself to win your love and you hid yourself so you wouldn't reveal it."

I draw near him like an animal, touching and sniffing him cautiously. He smells of my bear, warm and musky and male, with moist, honeyed breath. His hands are large and powerful but smell of bread and lemons.

I would let them roll me to my back.

His skin is downy with a dusting of fine pale yellow hairs and I stroke his lightly furred forearms in wonder.

"Are you my sweetheart?" I whisper.

"Only you can answer that," he says.

I lean in to brush his mouth with my own, brave and curious all at once, and gasp at how wonderful it feels – not merely his mouth, so soft and sweet, but the act of pressing our mouths together.

He touches the place where the end of the deerskin is secured; the valley between my little breasts. "May I?" he whispers.

It seems only natural that I should be naked like him, and that he should remove my disguise as I did his.

At my nod, the deerskin falls away beneath his careful hands and he moans with longing at the sight of my naked body. "Beloved," he breathes. "You are more radiant than the sun."

He makes a bed of our shed skins then lays me gently on my back and moves over me; his mouth descends, soft and exquisitely wet, but it's not the same at all. He begins at my throat and ears, covering both with damp, breathless kisses, then he lifts his golden head and lowers it to my breast, kissing the brown peak again and again with increasing desperation and finally parting his lips and engulfing the whole breast in his mouth.

I sob and arch my back, as though I can press my tiny breast deeper into this hot, wet cavern of bliss and he sucks; shyly at first, a quiet grunt and a soft tug of that sweet, wide mouth, but he quickly grows bolder in answer to my little pants and gasps, suckling hungrily at each breast in turn, though I have no milk to feed him, and giving throaty, muffled moans against my mourning-dove skin.

I marvel that mating has found a use for these proud, empty peaks, and a mutually pleasurable one at that. I wonder if it's the husband's mouth that rouses the breasts, awakening them to plump and flow with milk for the smaller, greedier mouths to come.

He lifts his head with a gasp and kisses my mouth, an act I'd half-forgotten in the face of headier pleasures, and somehow it's different this time: deeper, wetter, hungrier. I grasp fistfuls of his downy curls and wrap my legs around his waist – but here too something is different. Something juts from his groin like a fleshy root, something firm and startling that feels indescribably good butting against the hidden cleft between my own legs, which has grown warm and slippery in invitation.

"Come inside me," I beg him, but he shakes his head and gently eases my thighs open, away from his hips, before shifting back on his knees. We are strikingly different and yet perfectly matched in these secret places that want so desperately to merge. His belly is taut and fair-skinned with a thick mat of pale curls at the root of that hard rosy protrusion, and my belly is soft and brown as a dove's with a bush of black curls veiling the hollow, deep below, that was surely shaped for him.

"Let me love you first," he pleads.

"But you love me already," I puzzle breathlessly. "Whole and entire."

"Beak to tail feathers," he affirms with a gentle chuckle, "and all four of your earthy little paws; I love you all, and all of you. But I wish to love you, sweetling," he explains. "To love every inch of your body with every inch of my own, and this secret, sacred place is worthier of love than any other. I would not enter this garden till first I had hallowed it with tenderness."

I glance at the place of which he speaks and think it a garden indeed, with its topsoil of coarse black curls and furrow of warm moist earth below, where only an assiduous gardener with a long plow might reach deep enough to seed.

"My garden is yours, to tend as you will," I tell him softly. "Though I cannot think what labor you should find there, aside from plowing and planting."

"Oh, my stubborn love," he sighs. "There is pleasure to be found in a garden as well as industry: the sight and scent of its blossoms, for one, and beads of nectar upon the tongue."

I clap my thighs together and sit up, gaping at him with mingled horror and longing. I had imagined he meant to caress my hidden place with his fingers, not bring his sweet shy face to its portal, to gaze and smell and taste

"Open the door to me, Katniss," he entreats in a whisper. "My love is a gentle thing, and neither pain nor grief shall befall you."

I lie back on our shed skins once more and open my thighs; a hesitant, narrow parting, but my boy's hand brushes my belly in greeting and my knees fall wide in welcome.

He lies on his belly between my legs and brushes the curly mound of my groin with his lips, over and over again, making me shiver with anticipation, then his thumbs find the slit and carefully, so carefully, ease the slippery folds open, as though he parts the petals of a fragile, stubborn bud.

I won't look at what he sees – I can't – but his face is radiant with awe, as though that crude, glistening place conceals a jewel.

"Oh Katniss," he moans. "You bear the moon between your thighs."

His mouth descends – so patient, even at the end – and I feel his tongue, not rough and vigorous as when it laved my nipples but soft; softer than fur or down or cloud as it glides along my slippery secret place, and some floodgate deep in my pelvis gives way. I buckle against that gentle golden tongue with a sob as warm fluid trickles from my hollow and my boy, always so sweet, obligingly cleans me; here with slow silky strokes, there with swift tiny laps, like a hummingbird's tongue, darting and precise to capture every drop of nectar, and my thighs sprawl bonelessly to avail him of his strange feast.

I'm limp, dazed and drowsy when he finally kisses the mound of my groin one last time and climbs up beside me to gather me in his arms, but instead of fitting himself inside me as I half-expect, he merely nestles his rosy, rootlike organ between my thighs. It's softer now; still firm and warm but no longer jutting, and it feels both deeply satisfying and wholly inadequate to have him in that place; right where I like him but nowhere near where I want him.

"So beautiful, beloved," he moans, and there is a new, wild tang to his breath; the sharp scent of my secret place mingled with the honey of his mouth. "You are even more beautiful in surrender than you are in victory."

"I am yours," I reply, bending to kiss his heart, and sink to rest my head there, made heavy with bliss. "My door is always open to you, beloved," I sigh. "You are welcome in my garden, to kiss its petals and lap its nectar – or if you wish, to delve and seed its hidden plot."

"I would I could bury myself deep in your sweet damp soil," he whispers. "That I could seed your dark, warm earth and winter the full season in that glistening cavern, tending our precious shoots."

"You are a diligent gardener, beloved," I moan. "But my soil is barren, not rich as you believe."

"No longer," he counters, so gently. "You guarded it so well through years of want and despair, when the world around you was too cold and your body too fragile to kindle and sustain a new life, but when you came to me – when food and warmth and care became plentiful – that guard, so fierce, slowly began to ease, even as your body softened and ripened with health."

He shyly cups one breast, little larger than a plum in his broad, strong hand, and circles the dark bud with his thumb. "You are a bramble-thicket, beloved," he whispers, "all strong woody vines and exquisite thorny places, but the berries that grow here are plump and sweet. I could feast on you in full contentment for the rest of our days," he sighs.

"It was not mere food that quickened me," I whisper, pressing my tiny breast deeper into his warmth. "It was you: at my table, at my side, and in my bed, so tender and careful and patient, that made my cold womb stir cautiously to life."

"I did not intend to rouse you," he says, almost ruefully. "Though I thought often and longed for it – for you to be whole and hale and perhaps, some years hence, to carry and birth our young."

"I did not intend to desire you," I reply, "even when I embraced my love for you, so long burning in my heart, but my body knew you for its mate from your first touch and duly began preparation for our joining. I simply did not know how to recognize it.

"It is ready for you, and longing," I tell him softly. "Though the soil has not yet turned."

"Virgin ground must be tilled before seed will take root," he answers, softer still, and his organ gently presses the mouth of my hollow, firm and pulsing and so gloriously warm. "Would you have me tend you thus, beloved?" he whispers.

"I would have you winter inside me," I whisper. "Your breadth filling my emptiness the whole season through, stirring and seeding me again and again, till my belly swells with your twins."

He closes his eyes in a quiet sob and turns me once more onto my back on the skins, but this time his body follows mine and that warm pulsing part of him slips into me, into the hollow that was shaped for and contours perfectly to him. He fits deeper than I ever dreamed and we cry out as one at the union.

"Oh, sweet boy," I whimper, spreading my thighs as wide as I can and cupping his backside to pull him deeper still.

"Katniss," he moans, pressing and pressing and pressing toward my womb in breathtakingly deep, firm pulses, as though he would bury himself there in truth. "Beloved, I am yours."

He spills inside me, hot and sweet as a healing fire, and my body tremors and buckles beneath him as white-gold light – surely, the very essence of the sun – blazes behind my eyes. "I am eclipsed in you," he whispers, kissing the tears from my cheeks in reverent adoration, "and made complete."

"I am made whole," I whisper back and wonder how I lived – nay, survived – so long without this vital piece of my very being burrowed snugly into my empty place. My skin is dewy and luminous from our joining, or its aftermath, and I marvel, "And I am made radiant by your love."

He gathers me to him, wrapping our spent, trembling bodies in the comfort of our shed skins, but he remains inside me, warm and wet and deep. "You were radiant the first moment I laid eyes on you," he murmurs. "My love is but a gilding upon your innate incandescence, but you wear it like a crown.

"Will you winter with me, my queen?" he implores huskily. "May I adore you in every moment and every fashion, and tend your garden with gentle diligence?"

"Our garden," I correct him, "for I am yours, and you have tilled and seeded what before was mine alone, and what may take root there will be the product of us both."

"What will take root," he corrects me in turn, so tenderly. "Your soil is richer than you realize, eager to kindle and carry and bring forth new life."

" 'That winter was for wooing, for wild courtship gifts and shy careful preens and nesting,' " I recall softly, as something heard once in a dream. " 'And the spring that followed was for kits and chicks.' I will give you the first, beloved," I offer, "if you will endeavor to give me the second."

"In every moment and every fashion," he promises ardently. "May I endeavor once more, sweetling, ere we retire for the night?"

"You may endeavor all the night through," I assure him, winding my legs about his waist to keep him buried inside me, "for I see no reason for us to part," and I laugh with joy as he rolls me to my back and pumps eagerly toward my womb once more.

Author's Note:

A thousand thanks to ghtlovesthg for prereading/soft-betaing this chapter, and on Christmas Eve to boot!

Katniss sings two German children's songs in this chapter, "Fuchs, du hast die Gans gestohlen" (Fox, you've stolen the goose) and "Alle meine Entchen" (All my [little] ducklings), both of which I compiled from various translations with a bit of personal poetic license, particularly in the former. I wanted the English version of the fox-and-goose song to rhyme as well as reflect life in District Twelve, hence changing the hunter's gun and shot to a bow and arrows, and I also wanted to make a point of the fact that Fuchs (fox) becomes Füchslein (little vixen) in the final verse. Granny Ashpet's father had a German heritage of some degree, which is why he called his daughter "Aschenputtel" (the German Cinderella) rather than "Ashpet" (the Appalachian Cinderella) and also why he seems like an "elfin king," speaking "poetry" and "fairy-words," in Katniss's mind. (There's much more to his story, if that's not already apparent, which Katniss will ultimately discover, and it'll explain why Ashpet had eyes unlike anyone else in Twelve.) It's my belief that he and Elspeth agreed on their child's name in advance, sharing a love of old tales as they did, and while he accordingly named the baby Ashpet after Elspeth died, "Aschenputtel" would come more easily to his tongue, especially as an endearment.

"Give Me the Moon," the song Katniss sings in the morning cuddle-nest, was written by Jessica Radcliffe and appears on her glorious album, Beautiful Darkness: Celebrating the Winter Solstice.

The Little Prince quotes are taken from the Katherine Woods translation (i.e., the only one that sounds "right," especially in the fox chapter). I'm taking it as (head)canon that the most beautiful portions of this story survived the Dark Days verbatim, especially this beloved passage, and that while Katniss and Peeta heard different POVs of this scene while growing up, the fox's monologue was a constant and therefore, Peeta would instantly recognize the quote and be deeply moved by Katniss reciting it to him.

The oriole folktale/myth is my own invention, to the best of my knowledge, as is Peeta's storytelling mousekin. The fairy tale Katniss recalls from her childhood is "The White Cat," one of the flowery and highly romantic French fairy tales of Madame D'Aulnoy, which I first discovered as a very young child in the brief but remarkable Errol le Cain picture book retelling, and Katniss's response to the tale reflects my own. Animal bride/groom tales are particularly magical to a child, I think, because you don't expect the helpful talking creature to turn into a beautiful human being, and the revelation is a truly breathtaking thing. "The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids" is a lesser-known Grimm tale that I enjoyed as a child and would carry over quite well to Appalachia/District Twelve, in my humble opinion.

While I haven't explicitly stated that Katniss told Peeta her great-grandmother's surname, I'm assuming that it came up on one of their story nights, especially as Granny Ashpet grew up with her late mother's name, not her mysterious father's. I debated heavily between "Greenbriar" and "Greenbrier" and just recently discovered that greenbrier (both spellings) is an edible wild plant – with potato-like starchy tubers to boot! – as well as (in the "brier" spelling) a county and river in West Virginia, which clinched the matter once and for all. Even more perfect: a certain species of greenbrier is called "catbrier"!

Peeta's request for two birthday kisses is very slightly inspired by a heartbreaking moment in Susan Kay's Phantom (a sumptuous retelling of Phantom of the Opera).

The dream sequence at the end of this chapter was originally slated to appear much later in the story but it fit too perfectly here, especially as the culmination of Katniss's sexual awakening. Before anyone gets too excited, none of this is being acted out by Katniss as she sleeps; however, I've long believed that Peeta shares at least a portion of her glorious dreams so it's entirely possible (perhaps even likely) that he experienced that scene, in full or in part, in his own mind.

I was recently struck by the potential Christian themes in "East of the Sun and West of the Moon" (the fairy tale on which WtM is based, for anyone coming in late), particularly as I've yet to come across a discussion of this elsewhere, and I put together a Tumblr post briefly detailing the ones that stood out to me. (I'm porchwood on Tumblr and the post is "Potential Christian Parallels in 'East of the Sun and West of the Moon.'") If this is an area that interests you, I invite you to check it out and share your thoughts - but only if you're already familiar with the fairy tale or don't mind potential spoilers.

Finally, if anyone is interested, I've written a companion oneshot about Madge and Gale in the WtMiverse called Six Months to Strawberry Time, which I will be cross-posting here shortly. It is, of course, Gadge-centric, but if you're curious what's been happening in the Seam since Katniss left with Peeta, do check it out!