Author's note: I haven't quite finished this story, but I wanted to start posting anyway because I've already got a lot written (this sequel is way longer than the original story "Keep the Blood in Your Head," which you should read before this one; what I've written so far is longer than the entirety of the first one. Um, oops?). I feel comfortable enough with the first portion of the story to go ahead and post. I hope I don't regret that decision! Ha. Anyway, this story will be darker than the first one, as if kids killing kids isn't dark enough, amirite? And I had to up the rating to M because reasons.

Reviews are most welcome!


i. A white blank page and a swelling rage

Peeta couldn't believe what he was hearing.

"What do you mean, you don't need me anymore?" he asked incredulously as he stood in his parents' bakery one Sunday morning. His father at least had the decency to look contrite, but his mother fixed him with a smoldering look.

"Don't be so melodramatic," she sniffed disdainfully as she counted the money in the register. "You're causing a scene."

Peeta looked around them at the empty bakery. It was midmorning, and there were no customers in the store.

"Son, it's not that we don't need you—" his father started, faltering when his wife huffed behind him. "It's just that with Rye being out of school now and working full-time with Barm, it's kind of crowded now. And as someone of your standing, you don't really need to work here. You should spend your time doing activities more befitting of your station."

His father tried to smile helpfully, but Peeta shook his head. What kind of activities did his father think he should be doing exactly? He was no longer allowed to attend school, so he couldn't really hang out with his friends anymore while they were in class. With all the winnings from the Hunger Games, he didn't need to work—though he wanted to, but now, his parents were refusing him that.

Or rather, his mother was, and his dad was bending to her will, like he always did.

"I want to work here, dad. I want to help out. I like baking. I don't have school; I don't have any other occupation or career skills. What other activities could possibly require all of my time?" he asked his father, but it was his mother who responded.

"Shouldn't you be slumming it up with that Seam slut?" she spat at him, slamming the register closed, and Peeta visibly recoiled; that hurt.

"Narah!" his father exclaimed in horror, his voice tinged with mild anger. He threw his wife an exasperated glance before he looked at Peeta apologetically. "I'm sorry, that was—"

"It's true, Faren!" his wife interrupted. "He let that tramp badmouth our family on TV, and then she flaunts her relationship with that other piece of Seam trash in front of the whole town, making a laughingstock out all of us. Even she didn't want him! He's worthless!"

Peeta shook with barely contained rage. He was afraid he was going to lash out and break something, so he whirled around on his heel and stalked out of the bakery. His father called after him, but whatever he said was cut off by the door slamming shut. The cold air was biting, so he fastened his heavy coat up to his chin and stuffed his hands in his pockets as he trudged through the snow. His hot breath was visible in the early morning light, coming out in short, shallow puffs. His blood was thrumming in his ears, and he halted in the street as he forced himself to take deep, deliberate breaths. Once he felt like he had his temper under control, he began walking again, aimlessly. Other residents meandered past him, some throwing curious glances his way. He kept his head down as he walked, not entirely sure where he was going.

He couldn't believe his parents had barred him from working at the bakery. It was bad enough they refused to live with him at his house in the Victor's Village, leaving him alone in a too-big house with only a hardly-ever-conscious Haymitch as a neighbor. Peeta still remembered returning from the games to find only his stuff packed and ready to be moved to his new house. When he asked why his family wasn't moving, his father offered some half-hearted excuse that it didn't make sense for them to move from the bakery when they needed to be there to open it every day. And now Peeta wasn't even welcome at the bakery. Why were they pushing him out?

Since returning from the games, Peeta had never been lonelier. The day he stepped off that train months ago, he'd had much to occupy his time, with the banquet dinners and district celebrations. For weeks, there was always someone in his company: officials who wanted to congratulate and interview him, friends who wanted to reunite and even strangers who wanted to get to know him. And there were cameras to capture every moment of it.

And even Katniss had been at his side for some of it. Everyone was so interested in the star-crossed lovers of District 12, and that narrative had been so important to his survival in his games, it would have been strange if she hadn't been spotted in his company at least occasionally in those first few weeks. But Peeta could tell how uncomfortable she was, how pained her smiles were whenever she was asked to pose for a photo with him. He felt horrible dragging her through the charade. No matter how much he hoped it was real, he knew it wasn't, not for her. Her strained discomfort in his presence made it obvious she was only acting the part; she had only shown up that day at the train station to uphold the pretense of the romance Haymitch (and he himself, he couldn't overlook his own part in the ploy) had concocted to win him support and sympathy with sponsors and viewers.

And he didn't begrudge her for it. It stung, but he knew coming home her feelings were not mutual. She had saved his life, and he was grateful for it. But it killed him knowing that she was pretending to love him, that she was forced into a fake relationship with him; that was the last thing he had wanted. He was sure she was eager for the day the celebrations ended and she could go back to her regular life.

So when the last of the cameras had left and he had seen Effie, Portia and his style team off at the train station with promises to see each other again on the Victory Tour, he had been surprised to find Katniss sitting on the front steps of his house, waiting for him.

"Hi," he said to her cautiously as he approached, his artificial leg slowing him down. He was still getting used to walking with a prosthetic, so he limped along with his cane.

She smiled at him hesitantly, which was a wonderful change from the usual scowl that adorned her face. His heart dipped to his stomach, just like it always did when he looked at her. "That the last of them?" she asked, and he gathered she meant the Capitol visitors.

"Yeah, everyone finally left. Tomorrow will be the first time I've woken up in a while without Effie screeching in my ear, 'It's going to be a big, big, big day!'" he joked in a poor imitation of his escort's accent. Katniss smiled awkwardly, and Peeta laughed weakly, rubbing the back of his neck. It was twilight, but he could see the way her eyes shifted around nervously, as if she didn't quite know where to look.

"Well—you must be glad," she said, fidgeting on his steps.

He stared at her, trying to memorize the soft lines of her face, the slant of her gray eyes, the wisps of hair that escaped her braid. "Probably not as glad as you," he offered, pursing his lips in a sad smile. Her eyebrows twitched at his words, the bridge of her nose creasing slightly, and then she shrugged.

"I can't say I'm going to miss them, no. It's been pretty...weird having them around all the time. Having to deal with them," she finished vaguely, but he thought he understood what she was saying, and he nodded.

"Sorry about that. For all of this, really," he said softly and kicked a nearby rock, surveying the houses around them, too nervous to look at her. "I appreciate everything you've done to...help me. I know it was hard having to—" he faltered, his face flushing. "Well, I know it was hard for you. But they're gone now, at least, so you don't have to keep up the pretense anymore."

Katniss didn't say anything for a moment, the heavy silence broken only by the faint sounds of Peeta's labored breathing. When he finally forced himself to look at her face, she gazed at him, her brow pinched in confusion. "I'm...not sure I follow."

Peeta shifted his weight off his left leg, the flesh where his prosthetic met his knee starting to ache uncomfortably, and he gripped the cane tightly. "I know things have been—well, crazy, I guess since...the games. The things I said about you..." His voice caught, and he cleared his throat loudly. They had never discussed the things he had said in his interviews and in the games, and he could tell his words made her uncomfortable immediately, as she crossed her arms over her stomach and looked away. "Well, Haymitch got it into his head that doing this whole, you know, unrequited love story would help me in the games. I didn't know—I didn't want him to drag you into it, but he did. So I'm sorry that he did, but we don't have to...pretend anymore."

The silence stretched, and his heart pounded painfully in his chest. He couldn't read the expression on her face, which had suddenly become so closed off to him. "Right," she said hollowly then stood up. She still wouldn't look him in the eye. "Yeah, that's fine. Take care, Peeta."

She brushed past him, and panic squeezed at his heart. "Katniss!" he called, and she reluctantly turned back to him, but she seemed to look right past him. "Please, I just hope you understand how much I really do appreciate what you've done to help me. I really...thank you," he finished lamely. She just nodded, eagerly spinning her on heel and hurrying away from him, back to the Seam. Peeta watched her form fade into the night until he couldn't see it anymore. Then he stared up at the clear summer sky for a while, watching the stars flicker against the inky canvas. When his leg started to ache again, he finally sighed, defeated, and limped into his empty house.

He and Katniss had barely spoken to each other since that night beyond stiff, courtesy greetings when they happened to pass each other. He wasn't exactly sure why she was so cold toward him—or maybe she was just uncomfortable around him now, knowing how he felt about her while she was indifferent to him at best—and he didn't want to force her into a tepid friendship if she wanted to avoid him. He guessed he and Katniss would never be anything more than acquaintances.

It was for the best, though. His time in the games had irrevocably changed him; he was a mess most days, tormented by nightmares every night. He often couldn't sleep, and he suffered from regular panic attacks. When he was younger, when he hadn't quite been desensitized to his mother's abuse yet, he would have panic attacks. Eventually, he had learned to control them, for the most part—involving himself in wrestling and other extracurricular activities had helped get his anxiety under control; but the horror of the games had brought them back again full force.

It was definitely for the best that he didn't drag her into the horrors of his life. He knew she had enough trouble in her own life.

Peeta slowly ambled to a stop in the middle of town, not sure where he was going. Without his regular shift at the bakery, he didn't have anything to occupy his time. He was still on edge, his argument with his parents and his mother's hateful words ringing in his ears. He needed something to calm him down. He had taken up painting in his free time, finally able to purchase the expensive oils and supplies with his winnings. As a victor, he was expected to acquire a talent, and he didn't have to search hard; he had grown up sketching on used parchment paper from the bakery, swirling food coloring into near replicas of customers and the bakery's display cakes. His doodles had earned him his fair share of reprimands and exasperated whacks from his mother, but now he was free to indulge his artistic interests without criticism.

Sometimes, he painted in moments like this to calm his nerves, but he didn't think it was going to help right then; he painted the games because those memories were what usually haunted him, and it helped to put those images down on canvas. But this time it was his mother. Just with the thought of her, he could feel his heart rate picking up, his breath quickening in his chest, and he forced himself into a fast walk. He suddenly knew where he was going.

He had never been to the Hob—he hadn't had much cause to do any trading or bartering before. But he had money in his pocket now, more money than he could ever possibly need, and he was willing to bet there was someone eager to take some of it from him.

Peeta had to duck behind a building to fight through his panic attack. Leaning against the wall, he took deep even breaths until he felt his heart slow, then he was back on the main road a few minutes later, plodding through the coal-stained sludge. When he stepped into the old coal warehouse, he hesitated as he scanned the vendors. Many residents were already making their trades for the day, venturing from booth to booth. He spied the vendor he was looking for: spirits. Licking his lips apprehensively, he stuffed his hands back into his pockets and strolled up to the booth. The woman selling the liquors—Ripper, he thought he remembered his brothers calling her, when they used to sneak into the Hob to buy alcohol from her—gave him a once-over, raising an eyebrow critically. She seemed to recognize him, but she didn't seem to care. He liked that.

He smiled warmly at her. "Good morning," he greeted with a slight nod. "Can I get a bottle of the vodka?"

She made a sound in the back of her throat as she considered him, but she set a bottle of clear liquid down on the table in front of him. He dug a few coins out of his pocket and plopped them down on the table. "Aren't you a little young to be drinking that, boy?" she asked harmlessly with an amused glint in her eyes, and she snatched the coins up.

His smile listed to the side as he scooped up the bottle, eyeing it. "But not too young to be drafted into a televised battle to the death," he said wryly, but once the words were out of his mouth, he flinched. Most people didn't seem to appreciate his dry humor when it concerned the games, but sometimes it was the only way he knew how to deal with it. Ripper just shook her head, clucking her tongue. "Um, thanks."

He turned away but froze when he saw Katniss across the way. With Gale Hawthorne. Their eyes locked, and she seemed equally surprised—maybe more so—to see him. Suddenly conscious of the bottle in his hand, Peeta stuffed it into his coat quickly, but judging by the way her eyes hardened and her lips thinned, she had seen. Groaning inwardly, he headed toward the exit, trying not to stare at her and Gale, and when he passed them, he waved casually. "Hello, Katniss, Gale," he said, sure the quiver in his voice betrayed him.

Katniss eyed him strangely, but Gale nodded curtly. "Mellark." Peeta stifled an urge to roll his eyes. Not that they had ever been on friendly terms, but Gale had been fairly hostile toward him since he turned from the games. Peeta didn't understand why; Gale had gotten the girl, not him. Peeta made to keep walking, but Katniss' voice pulled him up short.

"Is that for Haymitch?" she asked, looking pointedly at the lump in his coat where he had hidden the alcohol.

"Yes," he answered without even thinking about it. He didn't know why he lied, but he didn't think he could stand it if she were to judge him, if anyone were to judge him. They didn't, couldn't understand.

Katniss' eyebrow twitched with disbelief, and she shifted her game bag off her shoulder to rest it on the ground. "Is he too drunk to get his own alcohol or something?"

Unexpectedly, his mouth twisted into a lopsided smile. "You jest, but yes, he is. He's rarely conscious during the day."

"And, what, you pick it up for him now?" she needled, and he bristled. He didn't know why her words bothered him, but they did. The corners of his mouth spasmed, and he ran a hand through his hair.

"Well, everyone needs a friend," he replied quietly. Her face softened abruptly, her mouth parting in a wordless response. Peeta lifted his hand in parting, eager to leave her disconcerting presence and escape into his empty house with his bottle of vodka. "I'll see you two around."

He didn't wait for a response, hurrying out of the Hob to the Victor's Village, Gale's indecipherable whispers following him all the way home. Peeta kicked the snow off his boots before he walked through the door of his house. Silence greeted him, punctuated by the creaking wood under his steps as he stalked to the kitchen, sliding the bottle out of his coat and slamming it down on the kitchen table. Sweat broke out along his hairline, and he swiped his frigid fingers over his forehead then shrugged off his heavy coat. It was winter outside, but his house was toasty, warmed by a central heating system he hadn't quite gotten used to. His old house didn't have this kind of technology—no houses but those in the Victor's Village did—but the bakery didn't need it; their house had always been relatively warm enough, nestled above the warmth of the bakery ovens. Peeta grabbed a glass from the cupboard, then sat down at the table and poured himself some vodka. When the glass was halfway full, he set the bottle down, but he didn't drink yet. Tracing his finger over the rim of the cup, he stared at the clear liquid apprehensively.

He had drunk before but always with Haymitch. On the nights when he couldn't sleep, he wandered over to Haymitch's house for company. The man was never without a bottle or cup of liquor in his possession; he swore it was the only way he could sleep, but Peeta could hear the unspoken subtext: It was the only way he could numb the pain. One night, with the pain of Rue's death fresh in his soul, a scab picked raw by nightmares, Peeta drank the glass of whiskey Haymitch offered him—and he drank a second one, and a third. He woke up on Haymitch's couch the next morning, his head pounding, his stomach roiling, and as he puked up the previous night's poison into the kitchen sink, he swore he'd never drink again.

But the next particularly horrible day he had, when all he could think about was Coralie and the terror she must have felt when Cato loomed in on her, he found himself at Haymitch's again, staring at the bottom of his fourth drink—a Boulevardier, Haymitch had called it; he'd gotten fancy. It was a vicious cycle. Peeta always hated himself the day after a night of drinking, but he didn't know if that hate was any worse than what he felt toward himself on any other day. It was worth it, though, because those nights, when he slipped into an alcohol-induced slumber, he didn't recall dreaming anything at all.

Grasping the glass in his hand, Peeta raised it to his lips; he hesitated briefly, but the thought of his mother tipped his hand up, draining the liquor into his mouth. It burned, and he swallowed the vodka painfully. It needed ice, but he made no move to get any; instead, he downed the rest of the drink.

Then he poured himself another one.


A few days later, Peeta ventured into the Seam, as he did every Thursday. It was late in the morning, but all the kids were in school, their parents working, so he could traverse this side of town without notice or question. Under his arm he had tucked two loaves of bread, wrapped in a linen cloth. He kept his head down just in case, anyway, the collar of his coat turned up to shield himself from both the cold air and any curious eyes.

He stopped a few feet from the Langley house. It was a small shack, really, in utter disrepair, as all the Seam houses were. It was too small for its many occupants, Peeta knew—but with Coralie's death, there was one less person to take up space. His former district partner had shared the cramped living quarters with her parents and three older brothers; the oldest had already married and moved out.

Soundlessly, Peeta set the bread down on their door step and quickly hurried off. He couldn't face them; he had spoken to them once, after he had returned from the games, to offer his condolences on the loss of their daughter, to apologize for not being able to save her. But their eyes had been hollow, and Peeta was overcome with shame for having failed Coralie, for being alive while she wasn't. He knew it wasn't much—it couldn't fill the hole left by their daughter—but he had taken to leaving them bread every week. It was an unsatisfactory consolation, but the bread was always gone when he came around every week, so he hoped the food was of some help, at least.

On his way back to town, Peeta passed by the Everdeen household. Katniss and Prim weren't there, but he tried to keep his eyes trained ahead of him when he walked by, as if he couldn't feel her overwhelming presence radiating from their residence, as if he didn't want to wrap himself up in her pervasive existence. Movement from the corner of his eye caught his attention, however, and he looked up at her house despite himself, spying Prim's goat in the small pin next to their house. The goat had noticed him and had crept up to the gate, poking her nose through the gaps in the wood. Peeta couldn't help but smile. Sometimes, when he passed their house, he'd noticed how thin the goat was looking, and he had taken to bringing grain with him on his trips to Coralie's house to feed the goat when she looked particularly pathetic. It being winter, the Everdeens probably had very little to feed her.

Sidling up to the pin, Peeta whispered a quiet greeting to the goat, pulling some grain from his pocket and holding it under her nose. She bleated as she nudged his hand then buried her muzzle in his palm, chomping at the grains. He pulled out another handful, and once she had finished off the last of that, he gently petted her nose. "Sorry, girl, that's all I got," he whispered, and she bleated again. With a final pat on her head, he carried on his way. Back in the center of town, he passed through the Merchant quarters. Passing by the bakery, he stopped and peered through the windows. He could see Rye in the front, assisting a customer. His mother was at the register. Peeta didn't see his father, but he knew he was in the back, baking with Barm. Gritting his teeth, Peeta forced himself to look away and keep walking.

"Peeta!"

His head swiveled in the direction of his name, and his eyes widened at the person approaching him. "Madge, hi," he said, and she stopped in front of him. "You're not in school?"

She shook her head. Though partially obscured by her fur-lined hood, her eyes looked sad. "My mother is really ill today. Her medicine from the Capitol hasn't come in yet, and my dad is dealing with some official business, so I stayed home to help look after her. I was just at the apothecary to see what I could get to help her."

Peeta knew her mother suffered from migraines, a debilitating illness that left her mostly bedridden. "I'm sorry to hear that."

Madge smiled weakly, shrugging. "Are you not working today?" she asked, motioning to the bakery, and his face hardened.

"No," he said, leaving it at that, and Madge just nodded. Unexpectedly, she looped her arm through his and fell in step beside him.

"Walk with me?" she asked, and he nodded. They headed in the direction of the mayor's house. "So how are you doing, Peeta?"

He shrugged noncommittally. "Okay, I guess."

"And your new house?"

"You'll have to ask it yourself," he replied, and she laughed lightly. He smiled at the sound; it was almost a foreign sound. He used to make people laugh all the time, but lately, since his return from the games, most of them didn't really know how to act around him anymore. He didn't know how to act around them, either, if he was being honest.

He and Madge used to be closer; though their situations were different, they had been linked by a similar sort of pain that only mothers could cause, and they understood that about each other. As they got older, though, he got more popular, and she, more withdrawn. She wasn't shy, necessarily; she just didn't like to talk much, only to a select few people, and their circle of friends didn't really overlap anymore. He wasn't surprised when she started hanging out with Katniss at lunch time; they looked nothing alike, but they shared a quiet, reserved nature.

Peeta was suddenly awashed with guilt at having let his friendship with Madge erode. Unbidden, he thought of how she came to see him after the reaping, of the pin she had given him. "Madge, I—I'm sorry, about your pin. I wish I had it to return to you, but I gave it...I didn't bring it back with me." He thought of Rue, and he wondered if the Capitol had let her family keep the pin he had fastened to her clothes right before the hovercraft lifted her lifeless body from the arena.

Madge gave him a long sideways glance. "Don't apologize, Peeta. I gave the pin to you as a gift. I wanted you to keep it, but I'm glad you gave it to Rue. I thought it was beautiful what you did for her," she said softly, and Peeta swallowed the lump in his throat. They were quiet for a moment until Madge broke the silence. "My father told me it's become quite the fashion statement in the Capitol, the pin. People started wearing replicas of it after the games. I also heard some people in a few districts have even started putting the mockingjay on clothes and other items."

The thought was strange, that he had inadvertently started some kind of fashion trend, and he didn't quite know what to make of it. When they reached Madge's house, she let go of his arm, but she sat down on the steps in front of him, patting the seat next to her, so he sat beside her. It was good to be off his leg; it ached more in the cold weather, and he tired on it more easily during his walks across town.

Madge was giving him an odd look, an amused smile on her face. "It's kind of funny, if you think about it. Capitol citizens adorned in the mockingjay symbol." When he stared at her blankly, she raised an eyebrow. "Do you know what a mockingjay is?"

Peeta tried to think about what he knew of the mockingjay; aside from the fact that they could sing, he guessed he didn't know much about them. It wasn't a subject he recalled learning in school. He shook his head.

"The mockingjay is the offspring of the jabberjay and the mockingbird. It was born of the rebellion," Madge explained, and Peeta's heart stuttered at the word for some reason. "You know what jabberjays are, right? The Capitol tried to get rid of them all, but they didn't anticipate them breeding with other birds. Now mockingjays are practically everywhere."

Peeta nodded, lost in thought. Somehow, this made him uneasy. The mockingjay pin seemed harmless enough, but he knew he was already on President Snow's radar because of the things he had said and done in the games. Peeta had a feeling that having his city overrun with reminders of Peeta's defiance only enraged the president more.

"The pin was my aunt's," Madge continued quietly. "She was in the Hunger Games, too. The Quarter Quell, with Haymitch."

Peeta looked at her in surprise. "I'm so sorry, Madge. I had no idea," he murmured, and she smiled slightly.

"Thank you. It's okay. Her name was Maysilee. She was my mother's twin. I suspect her death is what really ails my mother. She's never really been able to get over it."

Grabbing her gloved hand in his, Peeta squeezed her fingers reassuringly, and Madge leaned her head against his shoulder and sighed. "I'm really glad you came back, Peeta. You're a good person—I've always known that about you. This world needs more people like you," she said firmly, and he was at a loss for words. He thought he should ask her if she needed to get back inside to her mother, but he was enjoying her company. When was the last time he'd had the comfort of a female presence? Delly was his best friend, but she was so sad now whenever she looked at him, like he was broken, like her life was irretrievably changed because he had been ruined by the games. He guessed having her best friend be reaped and survive the Hunger Games was the worst thing that had ever happened to her; he thought she was lucky in that respect.

What he really wanted was Katniss' company, but he knew that was out of the question. She had Gale Hawthorne to keep her company, to entertain her, to hold her hand, to kiss her. It was with this thought that he found himself pressing his lips against Madge's. He wasn't sure who initiated the kiss, but when she slipped her tongue into his mouth, he stopped thinking. The kiss was awkward at first, a flurry of cold lips and teeth—Peeta had done this before, fooled around with a few girls in his class, and more, but the action seemed alien to him now; he hadn't thought about kissing anyone in a while, his mind preoccupied with much more horrible things. And he hadn't kissed anyone since Katniss, just a fleeting touch of lips that burned vividly in his mind now. He tried not thinking about her lips in this moment, how soft they were, how warm and full they felt. Madge, he was kissing Madge, he reminded himself.

She pulled back breathlessly, her cheeks flushed. "Do you want to come inside?" she asked urgently, and he nodded mutely. She led him by his hand through her front door, and it was the warmth of the foyer that brought him back to himself.

"What about your mother?" he asked in a hushed voice, but she was already unbuttoning her jacket.

"I could only find some coriander seed. It won't help her migraines, really; she's used to stronger stuff from the Capitol. I'll fix it for her later," she said quietly, removing her coat and hanging it up. She was already leading him up the stairs when he pulled her to a stop.

"Your—your dad?" he asked nervously, and she shook her head.

"Away on business."

Numbly, he followed her up the stairs and into her bedroom. Madge shut the door behind him and made quick work of his coat. Then her body was pressed against his, her hands gripping his shoulders as she opened her mouth over his. His body reacted almost instantly to the feel of hers, and he groaned around her tongue. He clutched at her waist, holding her close; she guided his hand to her breast, and he squeezed the small mound reflexively. Breaking the kiss, Madge pulled his sweater over his head and then his undershirt, and she began unbuttoning her dress. Peeta watched her dumbly until the dress pooled around her feet, and she stood before him in her bra and wool tights. She was still wearing her wet snow boots, and they looked out of place against the delicate material of her underclothes. He wanted to laugh at the sight; she must have caught the amusement on his face because she blushed, ducking her head shyly. "Don't laugh," she said, slipping her boots off and rolling her tights down.

"I'm not," he whispered, raking his eyes over her nearly naked body. "You're very pretty." She moved toward him again, and his eyes lingered on the curve of her hips, her breasts. But as she kissed him again, he couldn't help but imagine what Katniss looked like underneath her too-big hunter's clothes, if her ribs and hipbones still stuck out painfully from malnutrition or if her body had finally filled out like Madge's had, if her stomach was taut, her hips flared. He wondered if her breasts would fit nicely in his hands, if they would pucker under his fingers like Madge's did now. In school, he had often noticed the swell of Katniss' breasts under her worn shirts; they were a modest size, but in a way, they gave him comfort, seeing them develop gradually and knowing she was eating, that she had enough food to nourish and sustain her body. He could rest a little easier at night, knowing she was no longer starving, no longer dying, but many nights, when he found himself thinking about her breasts, it was more than just comfort he felt, and he touched himself with an urgency, relieving himself to the thought of her naked, lithe, well-nourished body.

It was still Katniss' lips he felt against his, her breasts he imagined under his hands, when Madge shook him from his reverie, sliding his zipper down and pushing his pants past his hips. Peeta blanched and seized her wrists suddenly, pulling back to look at her flushed face. "Madge, I—I'm sorry, I shouldn't. I mean, I want to, it's just...I'm thinking of someone else, and that's not fair to you," he whispered, licking his lips.

She stared at him, wide-eyed, but then she dropped her eyes. "Peeta...I know," she said quietly, and he was surprised, though he shouldn't have been. It wasn't like his feelings for Katniss were a secret anymore. Madge looked up at him. "You don't have to feel bad for my sake. I'm not upset that you want another girl. You're not the only one here who's trying to forget someone."

He blinked, searching her face. He noticed the sadness that haunted her eyes. He wanted to ask her who it was she wanted to forget, but somehow, he knew. He thought he could recall the longing glances she would shoot in Gale's direction whenever he came around to talk to Katniss at school. It was funny, really, how hung up the two of them were on the inseparable hunters from the Seam. Perhaps, at least for a little while, they could help each other forget they weren't with the ones they really wanted.

Pursing his lips together, he leaned down to kiss her again, and she returned it eagerly. Once his pants were off, they tumbled to her bed, Peeta apologizing for his leg and his clumsiness, but Madge shushed him. Soon they were sliding against each other naked, panting into each other's necks. When he pushed into her, at first he imagined it was Katniss trembling under him, but before long it was too hard to focus on anything other than the pleasure coursing through his body. It didn't even sting that it was Gale's name sticking in her throat when she came.

Afterwards, he thought about how nice it was to feel something other than misery and a gaping emptiness.


I tried to give Peeta's parents (and his brothers, aside from Rye, because let's be real, Rye is fancanon by this point) original names. But it's entirely possible someone else has used those names already and they seeped into my brain hole without me realizing. So if I accidentally stole your very original Mellark names, my sincerest apologies!