AN: I'm so sorry for how long this chapter took. Real life just got way out of hand. I hope you'll find this worth the wait though! Also, I know I didn't get to respond to most of the reviews on the last chapter, but you should all know I read each and every one and I appreciate them so much.

Summary: Katniss and Peeta start growing back together. But it takes a tragedy to make them realize just how much they need one another to survive.

February 20, 2014

Peeta pulls into the gravel drive, smiling at the sight of her beat-up car parked crooked in the small space. Her mother used to reprimand her all the time for taking up the entire driveway with the tiny sedan. Usually no one is around to mind anymore, so Katniss doesn't make any effort when she gets home late from Abernathy's Pub.

He makes due now, parking halfway on the brown, frozen grass of the front yard. She's not expecting him tonight. He'd planned on joining his family for dinner, something Katniss politely but adamantly refused to take part in, but his mother unexpectedly cancelled, apparently having caught the flu or some other bug.

As he approaches the house, he can already hear the music blaring loudly from inside. It's the classic radio station, the one that the Everdeen sisters have always insisted on listening to, even after several top 100 stations became available in the tiny town. He doesn't see the point in knocking since he's pretty sure Katniss will never be able to hear him over the poppy beat permeating the air.

The door is unlocked. It almost always is. Once the door is open he can hear her, the sweet notes of her voice bringing a thrill to his spine. He hates that she's so shy about singing and wishes Katniss would sing to him every day. Somehow her voice transforms the music and makes his heart stutter. She's magnificent; there's no other way of describing her.

It's a sacrifice working day to day

For little money just tips for pay

But it's worth it all

Just to hear them say that they care

He finds her in the kitchen, her hips swaying in that overly dramatic way that people do when no one is watching. Damn does he love those yoga pants. His eyes are drawn to the soft curve of her ass, the narrow taper of her waist. Peeta bites his bottom lip to keep from laughing as she swings the washcloth in her hand, sending bubbles flying across the kitchen as the refrain starts up. In his opinion, Katniss doesn't have enough of these types of moments. The greater part of her life has been too serious to allow for such a carefree girl. But that makes Peeta love these rare moments all the more.

She works hard for the money

So hard for it honey

She does a cute little shimmy and her braid swings around her shoulders as she continues belting out the lyrics. Peeta can't bring himself to interrupt her little show, so he leans against the wall, arms crossed over his chest, an amused grin spreading its way across his lips. He can't take his eyes off of her, his heart thudding elatedly against his chest. He's convinced he will never get his fill of her and he doesn't regret it one bit.

She works hard for the money

So you better treat her right

She spins as the song winds up, her yellow polka dot socks allowing her to turn slickly on the tiled floor. It's not until Peeta's applause breaks the silence that Katniss actually notices him standing there. Her eyes widen and her cheeks flush almost instantly.

"Peeta!" Her voice is hardly a squeak as she reaches up to tuck a loose bit of hair behind her ear.

He grins brightly, pushing off the wall and sauntering over to her as another song starts up on the radio, "Don't stop now. I was enjoying the show."

Her cheeks flush even brighter, though it seems impossible, as Peeta steps forward, his hands finding her hips, "I love watching you like this."

"What?" She asks shyly, her hands resting on his biceps as he leads them in a slow dance together, "Dirty? I haven't showered yet today."

"Carefree." He replies simply, lowering his head to nuzzle his nose against her neck, "And in these pants." His hands slide back to cup her ass, eliciting a delighted shiver from her. Katniss tries to hide her smile, but fails quite miserably.

"I love these pants." Peeta murmurs before placing a gentle kiss against her neck.

She snorts softly, the puff of air tickling the downy curls at the back of his neck, and his heart swells against his chest. He's loved her since they were children but having her so close, wrapped in his arms, still never gets old.

"What are you doing here?" She inquires after they've made several circles in the tiny kitchen, "I thought you had a family thing."

Peeta straightens up so his eyes find those beautiful silver rings he's so fond of, "Mom had to cancel. She's not feeling well."

Katniss nods, reaching up to wrap her hands around his neck, burying her fingers in the soft curls of blond hair, "I can't say I feel too badly about that."

"No need to. She'll get over it and reschedule another time." Peeta smiles before pressing his lips lightly to hers, "I thought we could do a date night."

Katniss arches an eyebrow, "I have to shower."

He chuckles, "I thought maybe it could be a date night in. I'll go pick up whatever food sounds good and I can rent a movie on the way-"

A knock sounds at the backdoor quickly followed by the sound of squeaking hinges.

"Catnip," the deep, masculine voice calls as footsteps make their way into the kitchen, "I brought the booze. You'd better have a deck of cards. We're having an impromptu poker night…"

Gale's excitement trails off when he catches sight of the scene in the kitchen. Disappointment washes over him and he scuffs a shoe at the floor. There are still remnants of snow on the treads indicating that he most likely walked through the fields between their houses in order to get here.

"Ah, damn." He mutters, setting two six packs on the table, the bottles clinking softly as he does, "I should have called first."

Peeta loosens his grip around her waist and steps away, her hands falling from his hair with a shy smile, "It's alright." She assures her oldest friend.

Gale shakes his head, "We'll just do it another time-"

"No you won't." Peeta argues. They've maintained a tentative friendship since everything with Prim happened. The way Peeta was there for Katniss and the entire Everdeen family earned a lot of respect in Gale's book. Peeta can tell something's bothering the other man now. Gale needs his best friend tonight and Peeta isn't going to deny him that so he can have a movie night with Katniss. There will be other nights for just the two of them.

"You're going to call up Thom and whoever else and I'll go to the store for more supplies. We'll make a night of it."

Something sparks in Gale's eyes at his offer, a newfound admiration in his gaze.

"You sure?" Gale's gaze flicks between the couple before him.

Katniss nods with a knowing smirk, "Need a night away from the wife?"

Gale laughs, pulling out a beer and popping the top, "I love her, but she's driving me crazy trying to decide between eggshell or butter cream for the baby's room. I told her they looked exactly the same and she told me she would appreciate an empty house for the night."

Katniss shakes her head ruefully and Peeta laughs, clapping the other man on the back as he heads out to the grocery store for junk food and to give Gale time to vent to the other Seam child.

Two hours later, Peeta is a little buzzed and not at all getting the hang of poker. It doesn't help that he has just about the worst poker face known to man. Katniss dropped out of the pool for a round in order to give him some pointers and her chin now rests on his shoulder so she can see his hand, her arms wrapped around his waist.

He ups the ante and Katniss chuckles, her fingers caressing his abdomen, right around his navel, making it extremely difficult to concentrate even if he did know what he was doing. Her lips brush his ear when she whispers, "You'll lose all your money betting like that."

A growl escapes from deep in his throat, "Maybe it's the little devil on my shoulder distracting me."

She presses her lips to the skin just behind his ear, causing his cock to twitch traitorously. Her hands drift lower under the table and she knowingly cups the growing bulge in the front of his jeans. His eyes roll back into his head as her touch sends sparks of pleasure shooting through his groin.

"Hey!" Thom calls from across the table while he takes a swig of beer, "You two stop playing hanky-panky under the table and pay attention. How am I supposed to win all your money if you're too busy getting off?"

Peeta's cheeks flush but Katniss just laughs, straightening up and heading to the kitchen for more Doritos. Peeta worries that one day Gale and Thom might show their protective sides and decide to give him a beating, but tonight doesn't look to be that night as he goes all in and the two other men nod appreciatively.

The sooner he ends this game, the sooner he gets to be alone with Katniss again.

March 13, 2014

"Hey, Katniss, looking good." Andrew calls from the front counter of the bakery as she walks in.

She rolls her eyes, "I feel like an idiot," she replies, spreading a hand over the pale, pink, tea-length dress that Madge bought for her and insisted she wear, claiming that she would live vicariously through Katniss since her belly is now too swollen to even contemplate fitting into a dress like this.

Today is the baby shower and it's being held at this little teahouse a few towns over. Katniss has never attended a tea party before and she's pretty sure she has absolutely no desire to start now, especially if it involves wearing a dress like this.

The dress is pretty enough she supposes, but it just feels strange, like she's trying to impress a bunch of rich, older women, which she supposes she is since most of Madge's family will be there. In all honesty, Katniss figures that's really why she's in a bad mood about all of this. She couldn't be more thrilled for Gale and Madge but she hates trying to socialize with the wealthier residents of Fairbury, especially after the New Year's Eve debacle.

"Well, you look hot," Andrew grins, "Very 'Upper East Side.'"

Katniss gives him a skeptical look as she makes her way around the front counter, "Do you even know what that means?"

Andrew shrugs and laughs but doesn't argue. He knows about as much about fashion as Katniss and they are both well aware of it. She rolls her eyes, pushing through the doorway into the kitchen where Peeta has the radio playing while he ices cupcakes with a gentle bob of his head.

He doesn't hear the door swing shut so she takes advantage, carefully sneaking up behind him, wrapping her arms around the narrow taper of his waist. Jumping slightly, he chuckles before letting out a deep hum of approval from the back of his throat.

Katniss leans up on her toes and manages to perch her chin on his shoulder, "Hi."

"Hey." His greeting is raspy and she can hear the smile in his voice as she presses her lips to the curve of his neck

Her lips brush the shell of his ear when she asks, "If I blow off this baby shower, do you think Gale would hate me forever?"

"Probably not forever," Peeta admits, "But if he's anything like you he can hold a grudge for a long time."

Katniss unwraps her arms from him, giving him a playful shove, "Rude."

Peeta chuckles anyway as he leans over the cupcakes again, deftly placing the finishing touches on the frosting. They are beautiful, all yellows and greens- Madge and Gale decided they wanted the sex to be a surprise just like the baby was.

"But seriously, why don't you want to go?" Peeta questions after a long moment as he reaches to switch out the bag of green frosting for a pale yellow one.

"You mean besides the fact that your mother and all her dearest friends will be there?"

He gives a little snort that makes Katniss smile while he shakes his head, his messy curls falling into his eyes as he continues piping frosting, "Don't they usually do assigned seating or something at these sorts of things? Just don't sit by my mother and you'll be fine."

Katniss rolls her eyes. If only avoiding Evelyn Mellark could be that easy.

"Besides, you're going so you can support Madge, right?" He tilts his head just enough so one blue eye meets hers, finding the deep scowl on her face and smiling in response.

"Yes." She grumbles reluctantly, reaching out and swiping a finger through the frosting on the cupcake nearest to her like a petulant child. Peeta watches her with an amused gaze but he doesn't say anything.

Once her finger is licked clean of the green and yellow confection she arches an eyebrow, "Aren't you going to reprimand me?"

Peeta chuckles with a shake of his head before turning back to the task before him, "You think I didn't make extra just so you could eat some before the party? I've known you forever, Katniss. I know you can't resist food when it's sitting right in front of you."

"Ass." She retorts, but picks up the already ruined cake and peels the wrapper off. Peeta laughs heartily as he tops off the final cupcake and turns to the sink to wash away all the excess sugar that made its way up his arms.

Katniss is still stuffing her mouth full of the delicious, vanilla treat when he pulls his apron over his head, leaving him dressed in his favorite, holey jeans and worn white t-shirt. She eyes him as she chews thoughtfully, admiring the way the soft cotton pulls tightly across the span of his shoulders. She loves that shirt.

And suddenly it's there again, the heat that never really seems to go away, at least not lately. She wants him. More than almost anything, Katniss wants to be with him, but he's not there yet and she doesn't want to push him. She owes him that much at least; to give him time to sort through everything she's put him through.

But the look he gives her now makes her wonder if he isn't done figuring things out. Peeta doesn't speak as he approaches her, rounding the counter where he'd been bent over, frosting cupcakes only moments earlier. His eyes darken as their pupils take over, his breath unsteady in his chest. He wants her closer. They've been too far apart for too long.

Her heart skitters against her chest like an excited child, one who's been told she can have that very thing she's wanted most for ages now. His hands find her waist, bunching the soft, pink fabric beneath his palms as he tugs her body to his. He really doesn't need to pull her closer, truth be told, because their bodies are like magnets, but Katniss doesn't mind the initiative anyway. He guides her wordlessly away from the counter where he'd been working to a clean one along the wall of the room.

She moves smoothly, letting his hands guide her as his lips find her neck, sucking softly in that way that turns her knees to jelly. Her squeak of surprise earns a throaty chuckle from him when he lifts her onto the counter. Her fingers tangle against his curls, forcing his lips away from her skin so she can meet them with her own.

Peeta lets out a deep groan, his fingers digging into her hips as he sucks her bottom lip between his teeth. She whimpers involuntarily, her nails scratching gently against his scalp, her legs wrapping around his hips to pull him closer.

His breath comes in short puffs against her skin as his hands begin to roam over her curves, a thumb brushing her nipple through the soft fabric of her dress, a palm cupping her ass. All the while his lips show her no mercy, not that she's asking for any while his tongue dances against her own, her breath and his becoming one. She's made of molten lava, being molded by a man made of fire himself.

She isn't truly aware of his hands until one is suddenly brushing against the thin, white panties she'd donned this morning. She cries out at his touch but his lips are there, swallowing the sound before it has a chance to make it into the world. In another moment, his fingers push the material aside, slightly cold as they probe against the heat of her folds, already wet from Peeta's earlier attentions.

His thumb finds the bundle of nerves as though there's some internal compass guiding him even though he's blind with her dress still draped over her. She moans when he presses small circles against the throbbing skin. His touch is feverish, hurried, like there might never be enough time in the world for this. Her entire body is charged with electricity at his touch, her fingers tingling with need. Katniss knows she's not far off; with Peeta she never is.

Her hips thrust against him as he presses two fingers inside of her. He growls somewhere deep in his chest as he leans back just far enough so their eyes can meet, thin blue rings against boundless pools of want, "Katniss."

It's one word, low and breathless, but it sends a shiver through her spine as her body works itself against his hand, seeking release under his doting watch. He uses his free hand to slide her hips into a slightly different angle and suddenly she's seeing stars, falling apart around him, holding onto him for dear life in hopes that she won't fly away.

"Peeta." She moans softly against the white cotton shirt she had been admiring only minutes earlier.

He presses his lips to her temple, holding her tightly to his chest as they both regain what composure they can. He lets out a breathy chuckle before admitting, "I've been wanting to do that for weeks."

Katniss smiles against his neck, breathing in the scent of sugar and vanilla that laces his skin along with the musky scent underneath it all that is simply Peeta.

"Why didn't you?" She questions, laughter dancing in her words while she weaves her fingers in his hair.

He shrugs because no other answer would be honest. For weeks now he's been trying to decide how to advance their relationship again. He's been running over every possibility he could think of to take that step forward, but nothing seemed right.

"So you wait to get me off until I have a baby shower to be at in a half hour?" She laughs. Her underwear are ruined of course, but this wouldn't be the first time she's gone commando because of Peeta Mellark. His timing is impeccable it seems.

"I couldn't resist you anymore." He mutters, his words tickling her neck as he turns to kiss the skin again, still buzzing with the afterglow of her climax.

Katniss hums, pressing herself closer to him. Now she really wants to blow off this party but that's going to be difficult seeing as she's the one bringing the cupcakes.

His fingers glide against the smooth skin of her thighs while he peppers her skin with sweet kisses. She doesn't hesitate to wrap her legs around him again, her lips finding his collarbone and nipping the way that always drives him wild.

"Oh for the love of- damn it, Peeta!" Andrew's voice jars the couple apart as it echoes through the kitchen.

Katniss turns to find Andrews cheeks flushed red, his gaze ducked and glaring at Peeta's feet.

"I'm getting pretty sick of walking in on you humping Katniss every five minutes." Andrew fumes, "The least you could do is give me some kind of signal so I know not to come in!"

"It's not every five minutes!" Peeta argues meekly, shuffling his feet uncomfortably, the tips of his ears tinged a bright red.

"It could have been worse." Katniss murmurs with a smirk as she wiggles her way off the counter and gathers up the boxes of cupcakes that Madge will be expecting, "Just be glad you didn't come in a few minutes earlier."

Andrew groans, pressing his palms to his eyes with a grimace, "I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that. I don't think that image can ever be erased from my mind."


"It's so tiny!"

"It's adorable."

Katniss thinks an axe to the head would be preferable to this. Madge has been opening pastel colored gifts for over an hour now and it looks as though the pile hasn't even been touched. Meanwhile Evelyn Mellark has been glaring daggers into her back since she stepped through the door of the quaint little teahouse.

This kind of thing was never for her. Prim would have eaten this shit up, but it all seems excessive to Katniss. Why is it necessary to dress up and moon over a pregnant woman who is most likely miserable with swollen feet? Plus, all they had to eat were these dainty tea sandwiches so now she's fucking starving. Katniss pops another one of the tiny pastel mints from a crystal bowl that decorate each table into her mouth. She's powered through about half of the dish all on her own.

If this weren't for Gale and Madge, Katniss would have booked it out of here in three seconds flat, right after she tossed her gift in the pile and delivered the cupcakes to the kitchen. Madge is – for lack of a better cliché – glowing. She seems truly happy, even when the older women at the party all feel compelled to rub her belly.

Katniss is just dazing off, remembering her not-so-boring visit with Peeta this morning, when she hears her name murmured across the room. The voice is one she'll never forget, followed by a disdainful scoff.

"Peeta would love to have children. He's almost twenty six now, you know." Evelyn's voice carries from across the room despite her lowered tone. Katniss has every suspicion that it's not a coincidence, "She's the problem. He's probably terrified that as soon as she gets knocked up she'll run off again. Peeta's too sensitive to be caught up in some stupid custody battle and he'd give her anything she demanded. She'd suck him dry the second she could claiming everything for child support."

The other women at the table click their tongues and make noises of disapproval. All the while Katniss's cheeks flush red with disgust. How could anyone believe that she'd use Peeta like that?

"Peeta's just so caught up in her he can't even see." Evelyn continues fuming, "She's draining the life right out of him. She's just low-bred trash and he deserves so much more than that."

"How about I open the rest of these after desert?" Madge calls out suddenly in a sweet voice and giggles before adding, "I'm absolutely starving."

The crowd of guests laughs good-naturedly as they turn back into their small circles at their respective tables. Madge waddles over to join Katniss after waving a server over and letting them know to bring out the cupcakes.

"You didn't have to do that." Katniss mumbles, stuffing another handful of mints in her mouth as she eyes the blond woman. They both know that Madge would have been quite content continuing to open gifts. Katniss doubts there was anyone in the room who wasn't listening to Evelyn's conversation.

"She's a horrible woman, Katniss." Madge assures her in hushed tones, "The only reason she's here is because she's part of Mama's Ladies League."

"Do you think she could be right though?" She questions softly, picking at the ruffled doily in the center of the table, "Do you think Peeta's ready to have kids and I'm just holding him back?"

Madge frowns, displeased that Katniss even needs to ask, "No! Are you kidding me? You and Peeta work, okay? Neither one of you is holding the other back. It's like you two are meant to be together."

Katniss rolls her eyes, "I think that's the hormones talking."

"Probably." Madge agrees as the server sets a cupcake down in front of her. She immediately begins to dig in, "But that doesn't mean I'm not right."

April 26, 2014

"Did you bring the Grey Goose with you?" Haymitch questions from behind the bar where he's actually taking inventory of the liquor along the back wall for once. Usually that job falls into Katniss's lap around the time she figures out half of the bottles are practically empty.

She rolls her eyes, setting down several boxes of assorted bottle of beer that she was planning to restock in the refrigerators, "You couldn't have asked me that before I went in back?"

He gives a grunt and a half-hearted shrug before turning back to the array of bottles before him. Katniss shuffles over and pulls the list he's compiled out from under his hand and makes a mental note of which liquors she'll need to grab on the next round.

She might not have noticed anything was amiss if there hadn't been a pause in the overhead music as the next song started up. As it is, during the unexpected silence, she hears the first hints of a siren. The sound brings a frown to her face. Normally Fairbury is a quiet, sleepy town. It barely even has a fire and police station, both of which are housed in the same building.

Haymitch notices her pause and looks up, "What?" He asks, clearly not as concerned about the foreign noise as she is.

"Don't you hear that siren?" She questions, shuffling nervously from one foot to the other. She's been nervous around the sounds ever since she lost her father. It sets her on edge, "What do you think it is?"

He shrugs with apparent disinterest but begins to absently clean a glass that Katniss knows for a fact she cleaned only a few minutes earlier. She turns back to the list again, preparing to go in back and retrieve the necessary bottles.

When several sets of flashing lights zoom past the dusty front window, Katniss immediately gives up any pretense of working, going to the front door and sticking her head out in the chilly spring air to see where the vehicles are going.

"You're letting in the cold air with all your nosing around." Haymitch calls from where he's still planted next to the counter.

"Shut up." Katniss retorts, "I know you want to know what's going on too."

It's the fire department ambulance and the sole, small fire truck that the town possesses, both of which come to a stop a few blocks down the road. It takes her a minute to realize which building they've stopped in front of and another long minute to notice the clouds of black smoke rising up from the building, pouring into the street. The sight sends her heart plummeting to her toes.

"It's the bakery!" She shouts but she's not sure whether Haymitch hears her or not since she's already well out the door and running down the sidewalk.

By the time she makes it to the front of the building, the EMTs are already wheeling a stretcher out of the storefront.

"Peeta?" Katniss shouts frantically, pressing past the crowd passersby who have congregated to investigate the crisis at the bakery. She doesn't hesitate to elbow everyone out of her way, breaking through the bodies just in time to catch a glimpse of Mr. Mellark, an oxygen mask over his face, being loaded into the back of the ambulance.

"Katniss," a voice calls out hoarsely, the word bouncing around inside her head strangely, claiming her attention as she looks up into a set of blue eyes that aren't Peeta's. Andrew makes his way over to her, tears welling in his eyes as he wordlessly takes her hand and pulls her toward his car, "There was an accident- some short in the ovens. Dad- he's- he-" His words crack as his mind searches for the words to explain what has happened, "They say there was a blast. That's how everything went up in flames so fast. Dad's got burns a-and they say he inhaled a lot of smoke."

"Where's Peeta?" She asks frantically, her voice tight as she pulls against Andrew's grip, already turning to head back towards the smoking building, "Is he alright?"

Andrew nods fervently, features blank, eyes wide, clearly still in shock as he looks back at the blue façade of the bakery now marred by soot as the volunteer firefighters make their way through the building, ensuring the entire fire is out, "He wasn't working today. He was meeting with a new supplier a few towns over."

Katniss breathes a sigh of momentary relief before guilt instantly washes over her for feeling this way when Mr. Mellark is clearly injured, "What about you?"

Andrew's blue eyes find hers but he doesn't speak.

"Are you alright?" She asks, reaching a hand out to run over his arm.

He swallows thickly, his throat bobbing as he does before giving a short nod, "Fine. I just stopped in to help Dad close up. I called 911 as soon as I opened the door and there was all the smoke."

He bows his head as he shoves a hand in the pocket of his pants, searching for the set of keys that jangle somewhere. His trembling hands fumble with the keys to the Ford pickup he's driven for years, cursing under his breath when he drops them and they skitter across the pavement. He bends to reach for them but Katniss beats him to it, scooping them up and placing a hand on his shoulder. She's stunned, but as she looks into Andrews's wide eyes, she knows they're better off if she's behind the wheel.

"Let me drive, Andrew." She pleads softly, "You're too shaken up to be safe driving."

He nods mutely, proving her right simply by his easy agreement, walking around to the passenger's side. They settle into the car, both buckling their seatbelts in silence as Katniss turns the key in the ignition. Suddenly, Andrew's eyes fix on her, wide and terrified, as the thought finally occurs to him, "Oh God, Katniss, he needs to know. Peeta needs to know. They all do."

Katniss nods as she pulls onto the road and heads in the direction of the nearest hospital, the same one that she had taken Prim to a hundred times, "You call everyone while I drive. By the time we get there, they'll already be on the way."

Several taps on his phone later, Andrew informs first Peeta, then Jack, and finally his mother of the fire. His voice cracks and trembles but he somehow manages to make sure everyone is informed before hanging up. She's not sure how she remains so calm as she drives the familiar path. Maybe it's because this is so familiar, because she's been through this more than a dozen times before when Prim was still alive.

The ride is silent save for the occasional sniffle from Andrew's side of the car. Katniss doesn't know what to say, what comfort she could provide at a time like this. She settles for silence, remembering how sometimes silence was the only comfort she could find when Prim was especially sick.

Andrew jumps out of the car almost before it pulls to a stop in front of the ER entrance. Katniss promises she'll meet him inside once she finds a place to park but she doubts that matters much to him at this point. He rushes through the sliding doors and disappears around a corner before she pulls out of the circle drive.

When she finally makes her way inside, a nurse at the desk informs her that David Mellark was transferred to the ICU. A confusing twist of directions leads her up to the second floor, outside of a grey room full of beeping, clicking, hissing machinery.

Andrew is settled next to the bed, head resting in his hands, shoulders tense. He glances up, offering a weak attempt at a smile when he hears Katniss walk through the doorway.

"What did they say?" She asks, looking to the man in the bed who up until today was always the rock that held the Mellark family together. Her chest throbs painfully when she thinks about how devastated Peeta must be.

"The burns weren't so bad. It's the carbon monoxide poisoning they're worried about." Andrew replies softly, as though the words might shatter the delicate balance that his father is currently in.

His blue eyes gather tears as he looks at the man who has been his idol for years, "They think the initial blast from the short knocked him out or something. They're not really sure yet."

"Andrew," Katniss reaches for his hand and gives it a squeeze, "it's going to be okay. Your dad is one of the strongest men I know."

"I hope so." His voice cracks and he swallows against the tremors that run through the rest of his body, shaking the hand she's holding, "He has to be okay. He has to."

There isn't much left to say as they wait for the rest of the Mellarks to arrive. Katniss wishes she could do something, anything, to ensure that Mr. Mellark would be okay, but she's experienced the hospital enough to know that that task is better left for the nurses and doctors that filter in and out of the room, checking machines and numbers.

The sun has long set by the time Peeta walks into the room, face blanched of any color it normally holds, hands stuffed deep into the pockets of his black slacks. He's wearing the forest green shirt that is Katniss's favorite with the top button undone and the tie pulled loose.

"Dad." He murmurs reaching out to hold the limp hand wrapped in gauze at his father's side. Katniss stands, moving silently to his side. From this close she can watch as the tears well in his eyes and spill over, they don't stray from his father's form though, not even as he reaches out to her and pulls her to his chest.

His arms grip her tightly to him, so much so that it's nearly painful, but she simply pulls closer, hoping that in being near him she can take away some of the fear and pain she knows he's feeling now.

Jack and Evelyn arrive not long after Peeta and for once Katniss doesn't feel the burn of the older woman's eyes on her back every time she moves. A doctor who looks as though he's older than the hospital itself steps in for a quick minute once he sees the entire family has gathered.

It's a situation far too familiar to Katniss and it makes her stomach churn uncomfortably. She hates being back in this hospital again after so long and she half expects the old man to have the same voice as Dr. Aurelius. Holding her breath, she waits for the news that they discovered David Mellark has cancer and his time is marked.

The doctor doesn't say that though. Of course he doesn't, but that doesn't make the news much better.

"He took in a lot of carbon monoxide while he was still in the building unfortunately. Now the EMTs got the oxygen on him quickly and his levels are going back down, but he still has a lot of it in his system. During that time, his brain was deprived of the oxygen it needs. Right now we just need to wait and see what happens."

"Will he wake up?" Evelyn asks in a voice far more vulnerable than Katniss has ever heard before.

The doctor purses his lips in a tight line, a habit that Katniss quickly learned means they're uncomfortable answering the question.

"I can't say for certain." He answers softly, glancing sympathetically at all the worried faces in the room, "All signs point to yes, but it's hard to say. There's so much about the human brain that can't be predicted. I do think he'll wake up. When that will be and how functional he'll remain, I don't know."

"Functional," Jack repeats it like it's a dirty word, "What do you mean by that? He's going to be a vegetable or something?"

"Again, it's impossible to predict with any certainty. He might have some brain damage from the carbon monoxide poisoning something we call acute hypoxia because he didn't get oxygen like he needed."

The room is spinning. Her heart has suddenly frozen. Her stomach has been forced into a knot and her legs turned to stone. At least, that's what it feels like to her. Katniss supposes Peeta probably feels something similar at the news. His tears have dried, but his face is wiped blank, something Katniss finds far more disturbing than crying. Peeta has never been one to hide his emotions.

Jack, always the planner of the family, begins organizing a schedule between Evelyn and the brothers so that someone will be at the hospital during visiting hours each day. Peeta nods when spoken to but otherwise his dead eyes never leave his father's face.

"Peet, are you good to take tomorrow then?" Jack finally asks once he and Andrew settle on a schedule for the rest of the week.

Peeta's blue eyes snap away from his father to meet with a similar, though not as vivid set, "Yeah. Yeah, that's fine. It's not like I have work."

The room falls silent except for the beeping of the heart monitor and hiss of oxygen. Katniss reaches for his hand and his cold, stiff fingers twine firmly with hers, holding on for dear life.

"We should get going." She murmurs softly, using her free hand to brush at the curled, yellow locks that have fallen into his face, "Visiting hours are almost over and you need some rest before we come back here tomorrow."

"I can't." He whispers, his voice childlike and weak, "I can't just leave him-" His voice cracks and he can't finish.

"Hush, Peeta." She whispers against his ear, fully aware that his family is watching the two of them from only feet away, "It's not going to do your dad any good if you wear yourself ragged. He's not going anywhere tonight. The nurses would say if he was."

Peeta stands slowly and Katniss climbs to her feet as well, allowing him a minute to say goodnight to his father before he bids goodbye to the rest of his family.

"Where are you going to stay?" Evelyn asks coolly from her seat near the corner of the room when he informs them that he's leaving for the night.

It's a point that Katniss hadn't even thought of until now. She'd automatically assumed he would be coming home with her simply because she didn't think he'd want to be alone. It didn't really occur to her that he no longer has a home to return to until the fire department and insurance company give the okay for him to live above the bakery again.

"With me." Katniss answers gently, wrapping an arm around his waist and turning towards the door, "You can call if you need anything." For once in her life, Evelyn Mellark doesn't make a scene and lets the couple leave in silence.

Katniss, never one to dislike silence, is ready to rip her hair out by the time she pulls Peeta's SUV into her driveway a half hour later. He hasn't said a word since they left the hospital and he's still staring out the passenger window at the blanket of darkness over the surrounding countryside.

"Peeta, come on." She says softly, letting herself out of the car and crossing over to his side so she can tug gently at his hand and lead him inside.

Gathering her pajamas, she shuffles into the bathroom to change and wash her face. Suddenly her entire body feels heavy, worn, old, like she's been through this one too many times. When she returns, the room is still dark and Peeta has settled himself on the bed- his side of the bed- but he hasn't bothered to lay down, his hands clasped tightly in his lap as he stares down at the ground.

"Peeta." She whispers, but he doesn't look up. He doesn't move a muscle.

She walks over to him and he gives a heavy sigh. It's the only response she gets showing that he's still alive and he knows she's there. It's no use trying to talk to him when he's like this, lost somewhere inside his mind, so she reaches out, running her fingers through the soft curls of his hair.

Peeta shudders at her touch as she scratches her nails gently against his scalp and he leans forward, letting his forehead come to rest in the shallow valley between her breasts. He pries his fingers from one another and wraps his arms around her thighs, pulling her close to him and holding on like a toddler does when faced with separation from his mother. Katniss never stops running her hands through his hair.

All at once, his body begins to tremble, his breath becoming ragged as he tries desperately to hold back tears. Eventually they both know it's a lost cause and a painful, heart-wrenching sob fills the room as Peeta buries his face against her stomach.

"I can't lose him." He cries, his words muffled in the soft fabric of her sleep shirt but he might as well be shouting them with the way they rip at her heart.

"I know." She whispers, bowing her head to press a kiss against the top of his head, "You won't Peeta. He'll pull through."

His arms tighten momentarily as another sob takes him, "What if he's not the same?"

Katniss shakes her head although she knows he can't see her, "Don't think like that. You can't think like that."

He tilts his head so his chin rests on her chest and his blue eyes, made more vibrant by his tears, gaze up at her for a long minute before he murmurs, "I need you."

She presses a kiss to his lips before leaning back again to meet his gaze with hers, "Okay," she whispers with a simple shake of her head.

His arms unwind themselves from around her body, his hands finding her hips as his fingers dig gently into the soft skin. Katniss finds the edge of her shirt and pulls it over her head in one quick motion. Peeta's eyes rove over her belly, her breasts, her throat, finally reaching up to meet her eyes, filled with concern as her hands knead circles into his tight shoulders.

His eyes don't leave hers as his lips trace the smooth planes of her skin, leaving hot wet trails along her belly. He runs the flat of his tongue along the valley between her breasts before latching onto her nipple and suckling gently. Her hands move to cup the back of his head, holding him against her as she lets her head fall forward, lips resting against the downy curls on the top of his head.

His hands tug at her waist, pulling her onto his lap without his lips breaking contact. Katniss lets out a gentle sigh, clenching her thighs around him as her fingers work slowly at the buttons of his shirt.

Peeta's hand finds her other breast and kneads slowly, creating a slow burn that courses through her, melting away any sorrow she feels before pooling between her legs. When she finally slides her hands beneath his shirt, her palms touching his warm, muscled chest, he lets out a throaty moan against her skin that sends a shiver through her spine.

"Tell me to stop and I will." Peeta mumbles even as his hands find the waistband of her pajama bottoms, "I know we haven't talked about this."

He's right. They haven't spoken about bringing their relationship back to this physical level. Of course they've fooled around since they decided to wait on sex, but this is another world entirely. Tonight he needs her though. She can see it in his eyes and feel it in his touch. Tonight he needs to be with her, to feel her walls around him, to keep him safe. He needs to be sure that she's not going anywhere.

"It's okay." Katniss murmurs against the soft, smooth skin of his neck before her teeth find that sensitive spot and nip. His hips thrust against hers involuntarily and he gives a guttural moan.

His hands begin to tug frantically at what little clothing is left on her body. Katniss smiles against his collarbone as she lifts her hips, allowing him to finish undressing, the clanging of his belt the only noise that fills the small room save for their labored breathing.

Katniss stands once her work is finished and all it takes is a sharp tug to free Peeta of his pants. Once the job is done, his hands are instantly on her waist, pulling her back onto his lap as he leans back on the old mattress. Her hips rest against his as she leans forward, her hands planted on his chest, her hair draping in a curtain of dark waves around them.

She wants him to feel safe tonight. She wants him to know he's loved. She wants him to know she's not going anywhere and she'll be with him through whatever happens with his father. She wants Peeta to know so many things, but she can't find the words to tell him tonight, so instead she tries to pour everything into her touch, her looks, her kisses.

Peeta raises a palm to cup her breast while he weaves the other hand under her body, running his fingers through her heated folds, dipping inside of her just barely, just enough to send her hips bucking back against him with a whimper.

She leans down, kissing an open mouthed trail along his neck, across his chest, eventually pulling away from his grip to make a path down his abdomen, following the trail of fine blonde hairs that continue under the band of his boxer briefs.

He's hard already, his erection easily visible through the taut fabric. Katniss runs a hand over it, reveling in the feel of him against her palm. She's always loved the thickness of him.

Peeta moans, his back arching against the bed. He's so beautiful. In the dim light his skin almost glows. His blond hair glints in the stream of moonlight that reaches them in this small, silent space.

"I love you, Peeta," Katniss whispers as she pulls the last article of clothing from his body, taking him fully in her hand and working his length. He writhes against her grip, a man possessed, his eyes screwed shut in pleasure.

His moans wakes something inside of her that she hadn't realized was asleep and it leaves her dizzy with want, a slickness building between her thighs even as she leans down to place a kiss to the tip of his cock.

"Fuck." Peeta pants as she pops the head of his erection into her mouth and swirls her tongue around it, "Fuck."

It becomes a chant, one word repeated over and over as his hand palms the back of her head, guiding her mouth over him while her hand works at the base, preventing him from pushing too far in his ecstasy.

By the time she pulls away, her body is pulsing for him, ready to sing at his touch. His eyes open again and meet hers, dark with desire as he grabs hold of her hips.

"I want to taste you." He murmurs unabashedly, his voice rough with want as he guides her up his body until her knees are even with his ears.

A blush rises to her cheeks and she wordlessly shakes her head.

"Please, Katniss." He begs, his thumbs caressing circles on the inner aspect of her thighs, "It's okay. Come here."

She shakes her head again, squirming against his tantalizing fingers.

"Why not?" He questions, his eyes already on that very private place between her thighs that he knows all too well.

She shrugs, then sighs heavily, before finally admitting, "I don't want to smother you."

For the first time tonight, Peeta's lips split into a playful grin, "You won't. Trust me. Besides, what better way is there to be smothered?"

Katniss laughs at his impish grin as his hands guide her hips to his face until his mouth can reach the cleft between her thighs. It only takes the first lap of his tongue flat against her folds for Katniss to forget her concerns from a moment earlier. With a breathy moan her hands find the headboard and she rolls her hips mindlessly against him. Peeta lets out a satisfied groan when she does right before he sucks her clit into his mouth sending her mind spinning out of control.

His name falls from her lips like a prayer, soft, barely audible, and yet each syllable is the reason his heart continues to beat. His hands move to her ass, his fingers kneading while his tongue works away at her, working her into a frenzy as she begs for release, fire scorching through her body.

And all at once, the fire explodes engulfing her as she cries out his name, reaching down to cup his head in her hands as the bliss blinds her momentarily. He shifts her hips back and she manages to shimmy back down his torso until her chest is pressed flatly against his. A lazy smile pulls at her lips as she presses sweet kisses against his jaw.

"You're perfect." She whispers once her lips find his ear. Peeta gives a throaty chuckle, gathering her in his arms, nuzzling his nose against her dark hair that's started to fall from her braid.

He reaches up, loosening the bind on what remains of her typically neat braid and runs his fingers through the dark strands. They lay in silence for a minute, letting her find her breath again as he revels in the simple joy of her warm, soft skin pressed against his own.

Eventually, Katniss sits up, causing his hands to slide from the ends of her hair to the small dip in her back. Peeta's lips curl up in a half-smile, which gives way to a moan when she leans back, taking his cock in her hand before hovering her hips over him.

His eyes meet hers in a gaze that causes her heart to stutter before she slowly lowers herself onto him. They each let out a groan in unison at the sensation of finally becoming one again. She sets a slow pace at first, soaking in the fullness of him inside of her again after so long.

Soon it's not enough though. She can tell Peeta needs more by the way his fingers grip at her hips, his thumbs digging firmly against the bones as he rocks her hips against his. Katniss lets his sounds guide her, riding him at a faster and faster pace until his guttural moans become cries and his muscles tighten as he thrusts up into her.

It only takes one, two, three more thrusts before he swells inside of her, shouting out her name as his warmth spills over. He holds her hips against his as he drags several ragged breaths. Katniss leans down, resting against him planting kisses over every inch of skin she can reach.

She's exhausted, her muscles melted, but gloriously satiated as though Peeta has filled her soul with a bit of the sun. His hands roam aimlessly over her body, feather light and loving, taking in every bit of her he can.

"Don't leave me." He murmurs after a long silence once Katniss is already half asleep.

She lifts her head from his chest with a frown, "I won't, Peeta." She assures him, finding no other words that could prove her honesty, "I promise. I'm not going anywhere."

His eyes well up with tears that quickly spill over, glistening against his pale cheeks, "I can't lose you too."

Katniss shakes her head, "You haven't lost anyone, Peeta. And you won't lose me."

Taking his face in her hands, she presses her lips to his, pulling away just far enough to murmur, "I love you."

Her lips find one corner of his mouth, then the other, then his cheeks, his forehead, each kiss punctuated with a whispered, "I love you."

Eventually his tears subside and her kisses become less frequent as sleep tugs heavily at her eyelids. Peeta rolls them onto their sides and pulls the blankets over them, cocooning them in warmth as he tangles his legs with hers and buries his face against her hair.

"I love you." She murmurs softly one last time as her fingers play with the curls at the nape of his neck. It wasn't that long ago she couldn't say those three words at all and now she feels as though she'll never be able to say them enough. She's sure that they'll never fully convince him, they'll never really express how much he means to her, how much she needs him.

"I need you to survive." She whispers sweetly, realizing that this is far more accurate. Peeta has been her rock for years now and she wouldn't know how to manage without him. She hopes that maybe she provides similar support for him, though she doubts he would consider her his rock. She's been far too flighty over the years to be a pillar of strength for him. She's determined to be there for him now though.

"Stay with me, Peeta?" She means for it to be a statement, an order of sorts to let him know she wants him there with her when she wakes up tomorrow morning, that he shouldn't go running off in his grief. But her voice wobbles nervously and it turns her words into a question.

He reaches up, tilting her chin so their gazes meet, "Always," is his simple, firm answer. Katniss can't stop the smile from spreading across her lips, one that soon becomes contagious as Peeta's lips curl sweetly as well.

The two never consciously decide to go to sleep, but exhaustion takes them both at some point during the night and the next thing Katniss knows, she's opening her eyes to the soft grey light of early morning, facing an entirely new, daunting day.

AN: Feel free to let me know what you think of this chapter. I love hearing your thoughts. I'm thinking there will be another two chapters or so in this story before it's finished. Hopefully the wait won't be quite so long for the next one.