So after, when he whispers, "You love me. Real or not real?"
I tell him, "Real."
He's thinking. I can tell he's content with my answer by the way his arms tighten around me, but his brow is furrowed in thought.
I slide closer to him and lift my head up to face him. Our eyes meet and mine silently ask him, "What's wrong?" He breaks our gaze and sighs in frustration. My eyes ask again. This time he meets my eyes with a look of pure pain, and I can see tears forming in the corners. I know immediately what is happening.
I sigh and lay my head on his chest. His hands squeeze instinctively around my arm and hand, only, the flashbacks make it different. Normally, he holds me warmly as we fall asleep- until my nightmares wake us. But when the flashbacks come, he holds onto me until his knuckles turn white. As if he's afraid he's losing me.
But that will never happen.
I have grown used to this ritual though. Just as my nightmares have become a nightly occurrence, Peeta's flashbacks are a daily one. Yet, I know I can't complain. I've caused him so much grief that I am fine with a little squeezing. Still, I know my being near him isn't helping his cause.
"Should I leave, Peeta?"
By now, his eyes are closed and he's breathing heavily, so he just subtly shakes his head, "No." I sigh and slowly pry his fingers off of me. I lay his hands down by his side and stroke his left arm gently. He starts to shake as I sit up. All I can do is watch him progress through the stages.
The first is the initial reaction from the flashback. This is where the squeezing and heavy breathing come in. Sometimes the flashbacks are weak and Peeta breaks them before they get any farther. Other times Peeta can't block them out and they get to stage two. This is the stage where he starts shaking. He can't talk, move, or even open his eyes. This is his current stage. But occasionally, his flashbacks get ever farther than this, to the third stage. I've only ever seen this happen a few times since we've first been able to distinguish the stages and control the flashbacks. This stage is when the residual venom takes over and starts to control Peeta again. I only know of two things to stop it and they are to either do what I did when we were running from the muttations and peacekeepers during the rebellion. I have to bring back a memory I know he can't forget. And, I have to kiss him.
But kissing him causes more pain for him than he has during the flashback itself. So I only do it if I absolutely have to. And at this point, I do. He's slipping. I know there's nothing else I can do but I still feel terrible that he has to go through it all.
The only other thing I can do is leave and let it run it's course.
Peeta's been strong through this one but his shaking is getting more intense so I know he's fighting the worst of it. I take his hand in mine very gently.
"I should go," I whisper to him.
His face begins to turn pink to red and his hand tightens around mine. Then, through nearly closed lips, and with undying love and complete desperation, I can barely hear him muster the words, "Stay with me."
I know he's starting to come back to me. He hasn't been dragged into stage three. But even still, I can't risk it. I may not have much time to act if the hijack is still in effect. He could still be taken under. So I lift his hand to my lips, kiss it lightly, and say the only word I know will pull him back from the false reality.
"Always." And then I kiss him.
He pauses momentarily to return the pressure of my kiss and slowly loosens the grip he still holds on my hand. Then he begins to violently shake and he throws my hand to the side. He grips the sheets on the bed and clenches his teeth. This is the most terrifying part. He always seems so hostile and unpredictable when he's in this state. But I know even if he was capable of any other movement besides shaking, he would be of no danger to me. Not like when I first got him back, in thirteen. He's come so far with the control that I trust him with my life, even during the flashbacks.
Finally his shaking begins to slow down to a dull shudder. I stoke his hair out of his face, the sweat from his brow, and wait for his eyes to open. I whisper sweet nothings to coax him out of the last shreds of the hijack. Then, finally, I see his eyes start to flutter. I sigh in relief and meet his gaze as his eyes fully open. He blinks a few times before meeting my expectant eyes. The beautiful, healthy blue is restored and he smiles as soon as our eyes meet. He sighs in relief and brings his hand up to the back if my head. He gently runs his fingers through my hair - which is not in my familiar braid at this point - as we gaze into each other's eyes, smiling. I lean down and rest my forehead against his when he pulls me towards him. I don't resist when he kisses me, or when his hands find the sensitive spot just above the small in my back, or even when I feel that same hunger I felt during the first of our games in the cave, or on the beach in our second. I never feel fully satisfied when I get this hunger. It feels as if no matter how long we kiss, or how intimate we really get, it will just never be enough. So they don't stop.
Until Peeta pulls away. Since we've grown back together, he's been so careful with me, always handling me like I'll break in half the minute we get too close. I know why he does it. In reality, any minute he could slip. But sometimes, most of the time, I wish he would let us go farther. I've gotten to the point where a few kisses aren't enough for me anymore. I will sometimes try to push for more, but I never get anything from it. In fact, I'll be starved for attention for the next few days until he can't take it anymore and finally gives in. Then the whole cycle starts over again. I'm growing tired of the routine.
The only time I can ever get closer to him is when he calms me from my nightmares. Even though as I wake, through my thrashing and screaming, he takes a beating, he never strays away or retreats. He holds me as tightly as possible, whispering into my ear as I slowly come out of it. Then, as we wait for my heart rate and breathing to slow, he sings to me. Something I never knew he could do until one night, what seems like a lifetime ago, when my nightmares had gotten so bad no amount of cradling or soothing could help me.
That was the first time I heard him sing.
I was being thrown to the ground repeatedly, each time, a splatter of blood leaked onto the grass below me. This is it. I'm done for. I knew I couldn't trust them. I should have killed them while I still had the chance. And now it's too late. I'm hopeless. I was being swarmed by my allies from the Quarter Quell. Finnick was the main attacker, his merciless eyes stared into my helpless ones as he continued to beat my head against the ground. Johanna, who was perched slightly behind him, was shouting various profanities and battle cries. Wiress was tick-tocking incessantly into my now bleeding ear and Beetee was holding some metal and wire contraption above my head with a sickening grin and the eyes of a killer. There was no sign of life anywhere around me, that I could tell. My eyes were blurred with blood, sweat, and tears, and between Johanna's cries and Wiress's ticking I couldn't hear much else. I have to fight. I can't just lay here and let them have their way. Peeta would have wanted... Peeta. Where was he? Couldn't he hear or see what was going on? He could stop them! "Peeta!" somehow managed to escape my blood-caked lips. Even if he was right next to me I doubt he could hear me. Peeta, I thought. Peeta. I love you. Just then, my eyes cleared and there he was. Kneeling above me with that smile I have seen so many times over the years. He reached down to hold me and I began to wrap my arms around his neck. But all I felt was warm air. Very, very warm air. It was burning me. I tried to rest my arm on his shoulder but my hand went straight through. The more I moved, the more air-like he became. And the more I became burned. His smile faded and his eyes grew worrisome. "Peeta," I asked. "What's happening?" Then, a flash. Bright white light blinded me as I tried to feel my way into a sitting position.
That's when I heard the singing.
Beautiful melodic tones drifted into my head from an unknown source. I couldn't tell exactly what words the notes were carrying, but I felt them wrap around me and begin to lift me into the air, gently carrying me away from the destruction down below.
I am completely at peace when I awake. My eyes are closed and I am smiling. I still hear the singing but now I know where it's coming from. It's my savior next to me in my bed. The love of my life who would give up everything just so I could take one more breath. It's the one and only person who could ever make me feel whole again, after all that I've lost.
I now understand what the words to the song are and they immediately bring back the memories I had forgotten in the moments before.
Here your dreams are sweet, and tomorrow brings them true.
Here is the place where I love you.
My smile fades as I open my eyes but immediately it slides back into place when my eyes rest upon the face of the voice that sang me out of my nightmare.
The face of Peeta.
He is smiling back at me. He stops singing but the words are still hanging in my ears. I don't hesitate to curl into him and press my lips against his. They would have found each other eventually, but Peeta always tries to put it off for as long as possible. This bothers me though. So I usually make the first move.
My arms find their way around his neck and his find that spot on my back that always pushes me closer into him. I can feel him try to pull away, but I don't give him the opportunity. My arms tighten around his neck as I pull myself closer to him. I feel him start to give in just as we hear a knock on the door.
I realize it was more of an afterthought for the intruder to knock once our condition was noticed. Yet, there he is, looking as sloppy and drunk as usual, standing in the doorway of my bedroom, wide, confused eyes looking us up and down, trying to get a grasp on what was being witnessed.
"Haymitch!" I bark. "Why on earth are you in my house?"
Haymitch, still trying to process images, only stares for a minute. Finally he remembers his business for being here. "I was taking a walk when passed by your place and I heard you screaming," he says, slurring nearly every word together. "I was just checking on you, sweetheart."
"Well, Peeta's here, Haymitch. I'm okay now," I reply, probably a little too sharply.
"I can see that. You two are just fine," he says, far too pointedly for my taste.
"Do you need some help home, Haymitch?" Peeta asks as he gets up, taking any opportunity to get some distance between us. Still, as much as we've been through, Peeta has been nothing but kind and helpful towards Haymitch. Even during the bad times.
Haymitch waves him off. "Nah. I'm fine. I can do it." He turns and starts to go. "Besides," he pauses in the doorway and looks over his shoulder at us. "You have some other business to take care of." And he's gone. But not before I can throw my pillow in his direction.
Peeta laughs. "Haymitch." He shakes his head as he settles back in beside me.
Then, from the hallway, I hear, "Don't waste your energy on me, sweetheart!"
I'm on my feet before he can say, "sweetheart."
I'm at the door when I hear Peeta hit the floor. I stop, dead in my tracks, and whip around as I see him sprawled out on the floor with his artificial leg curved behind him at a very unnatural angle. His face is in agony as I rush to his side.
"Peeta!" My hands immediately find his leg and attempt to find a way to turn it into it's correct position. "I'm so sorry!" His hands grab hold of mine and push them off. He manages to swing his leg around on his own but he can't get up. I frantically stand and try to pull him up, but unlike our first games when all he could do was not resist, all he is doing now is resisting. My eyes find his and he sputters, "Haymitch." He lifts his shaking arm out and points to the person standing back in the doorway.
"Well, well, sweetheart. I didn't expect you to get going at it so fast," he chuckles as he leans against the doorframe.
"Not now, Haymitch!" I snap. "Just help him!"
"You have to be careful when you do these things."
I'm about to spring when I hear Peeta from behind me. "Katniss," he squeaks.
My eyes dart over to him to see him struggling to stand on his own. I fly to his side and my arms slide around his waist to pull him up. He pushes himself up onto his now slightly more willing, but still shaking, legs, leaning on my shoulder and the bed he fell off of to get to me. Haymitch saunters over to help but I push him away. I won't let him touch Peeta. Not after that last comment.
I somehow manage to get Peeta up on his feet and back into bed without the help of Haymitch, which I am quite proud of. I tuck Peeta into bed and make sure everything is right with him. He gives me a smile of reassurance. I kiss him on the forehead before I turn to face the man I've scratched and scarred before on an occasion like this. I consider this option again until I feel Peeta's hand on my arm. His hand feels cool against the raging blood under my skin. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly I can be calmed by him. He is the dandelion to my fire, though. Always waiting, patiently, to tame the blaze.
"Everything's fine, Katniss," Peeta soothes. He addresses Haymitch. "Thank you for coming back but we've got it from here. We'll call you if we need you." Haymitch gives Peeta a smile and nod while I get a smug grin as he turns and goes. I watch him as he rounds the hallway and goes down the short flight of steps. I count each step to be sure he's still leaving. One, two, three, four. Good. I listen until I hear the front door close. And then I hear it lock. From the outside. So that's how he got in I think to myself. Once I am sure he's gone from the property, I turn to face the person who is still holding my arm and trying to smile through the pain.
I move to his side. "Do you need anything for the pain?" I ask. My mother always sends us supplies from her new hospital in four, so we always have supplies on hand. "I'll have to read the directions my mother sent, but I can probably get an IV into you."
He raises his hand to my cheek and gently strokes it. "All I need is for you to calm down and come to bed." I can't help but oblige.
I move to my side of the bed and slide in beside him. He warmly wraps his arms around me and pulls me in close. I lay my head on his chest and I can feel his warm breath on my neck. I know he wants to mention what Haymitch said but he knows that would not be wise now. Not when I'm just wearing down. After a few moments of sustained silence, I decide to break it.
"You know," I begin. "I may not be the one we have to worry about breaking."
"Oh no," he gently replies. "We definitely still have to worry about that." He lifts my chin so out eyes meet. "I just didn't want you to do something you'll regret later." I pull my chin down out of his hand and into his chest. Peeta chuckles. "I'm sure he was only joking."
"Well it was hilarious," I say as sarcastically as possible through gritted teeth.
"Oh Katniss. Give him a break. You know he likes to mess with you."
"Well I like to claw his eyes out but you don't see me going that, now do you?"
"You would if you could, right?" Silence from my side of the conversation. "Plus, he only does it because he gets a reaction from you."
"Oh I'll give him a reaction." I'm getting worked up again. I can feel my blood pressure rising.
I'm expecting some long speech from Peeta about how Haymitch has done nothing but good things for us and how without him we wouldn't be alive. But instead, all I get is, "Don't give him the satisfaction." I ponder this a minute but ultimately I decide I need to sleep.
I look up to meet his sleepy eyes. "Goodnight," I whisper. Then I kiss him and I settle in for the night.
"Goodnight," Peeta says before he kisses the top of my head. I'm about to slip into a doze when I hear him very faintly say, "Katniss?"
My eyes flicker open, quizzically, but I don't sit up. "Yes, Peeta?"
"I need to tell you something but I'm not sure I can."
Now I'm really curious. "You can tell me anything, Peeta," I reassure him.
He struggles to get out each word. "I... I love you... Katniss."
It's the first time since he's been hijacked that he had openly said he loves me. It has always been a very painful experience for him to openly admit it, what with all the venom coursing through his veins. It usually leads to a flashback. Yet, I have never questioned his love for me as he has my love for him. But after we worked through the hijack that first time it was clear my love for him was real. I had never said it to him and he never could say it to me but we understood how we felt. It didn't need to be spoken. But when I heard those words leave his tortured lips, I knew where we were. There's no denying it or pretending anymore. These weren't the games. There are no more cameras following our every move.
This is our life. Our life that we get to spend with each other forever. I have no inkling of doubt in my mind how I feel about him just as I know exactly how he feels about me. And I know both feelings are one in the same. There's only one thing left to do. I straighten up and lean on my arm against his chest. My gray eyes find his blue ones and they lock.
Then, in the most sincere voice I am capable of producing, in the utmost unconditionally devoted way I know how, I return his phrase.
"I love you, too, Peeta."