Author's Note: Well, this chapter has been a long time coming. And I am so terribly sorry about that. Life kind of took my breath away personally this last month and it's been a lot harder getting back on my feet than I thought it would. But I don't want to bore you with that any longer, so please; I hope you enjoy this chapter and accept it as a peace offering for my long absence. Never fear, this story is still my baby and with two chapters left I am more than excited to close it out for you guys! And always, if you have any questions, please message me over on Tumblr (even if it's anonymous because you don't have an account there). My URL is fourfinick.

Thank you all for your continued support, love, and (most of all) patience! You are too wonderful to me!

Always, thank you to my wonderful beta, Court81981, she is beyond fabulous — as you are all aware. Without her this story would be absolute trash. So thank you so much & wishing you the very, very best my dear!

P.S. - Please read my note at the bottom in case you have some input for a sequel — of sorts.


Summary: There are also three types of people in Dawson, Texas: those who are trying to flee, those who embrace their small town fate, and the Mellarks. Mellark Ranch; largest cattle ranch South of Dallas, employer of ranch hand, Katniss Everdeen, and home of Ohio State Buckeye running back, Peeta Mellark. And Peeta Mellark is coming home today.


Lone Star State of Mine
Chapter Nineteen: Life Ain't Always Beautiful

"Sometimes it's just plain hard."

Grief.

They say it comes in stages. But I don't see how that can be possible, because for it to have set "stages" means there is something that makes sense about grief, that there is an organized way to handle the heartache you are undoubtedly feeling. Stages give the impression that you are making some sort of progress and maybe in the big picture that's true, but for a while — a long while — you are simply stuck in some kind of rut. You have somehow become the hamster spinning on the wheel you used to watch as a child.

Stages also give off the impression that once you're finished with the emotion of the current stage that you'll never return to it again. Why would you? You've moved on from that stage. You are on to the next one. The next one that certainly means you're that much closer to closing this current chapter of your life.

But see, here's something they don't tell you about grief: Grief isn't some stage of your life that you'll slowly pull yourself out of. Not really. Sure, you'll get better. You might even go a full twenty-four hours without thinking about that certain moment your grief took you over. But it doesn't leave you. It hibernates. It even allows you to enjoy life again. Because it knows sooner or later you'll have a weak moment. A moment when you smell your loved one's favorite shampoo. Or a moment when you remember what life was like before the accident. It only takes a second. A split second, and grief will slip back in seamlessly and effortlessly. And you'll let it. Because sometimes giving into the momentary heartache, that grief, it reminds you of them. Reminds you of a better time; even if it's that better time you're grieving for.

Grief is an endless cycle. Denial, anger, sorrow, bargaining, and acceptance play on a constant repeat in your life from that point on. Sometimes the emotions are avoidable. And sometimes they are crippling. But sooner or later you realize they've become just as much of a part of you as your hair color or favorite t-shirt. You can wear grief like a badge of honor. You should. You survived. And that's something to be proud of.

Grief and time can be a pretty freeing combination.

It's waiting for the time to pass that becomes the nightmare. And sometimes the complete loss of a loved one isn't the hardest burden to bear.

Mr. Mellark pulled through the night with minimal complications, and we all had a sigh of relief at sidestepping the worst. But the euphoria of his survival was short-lived once the doctors began to run their tests. The paralysis was, as they had predicted earlier, through loss of his left side, with only partial movement of his arm and facial features. Of course, all of this seemed like a small price to pay to keep the patriarch of the family around. But soon reality and doubts begin to creep in.

Mrs. Mellark was back to her cold, harsh self in record time leaving Reese, Clement, and Peeta to try and understand their futures on their own. Reese paced the hospital halls on the phone, thanking members of our community for their continued support and keeping everyone updated on Mr. Mellark's condition. Clement immediately went into preparation mode, speaking with doctors, nurses, and patient advocates figuring out the best possible outcome for his father. And Peeta shut himself off completely.

After that first treacherous night, Peeta has yet to speak to me. The morning after, only mere hours of the stress starting to lift, he blankly looked at me and said it'd probably be best if I went home to get some rest. I tried to argue, but he simply walked back into his father's room. Confusion, hurt, and anxiety set in instantly. I blinked back the sting of melodramatic tears and quickly left the hospital.

Gale and Johanna met me back at my place and asked question after question. I did my best to answer their inquiries over bland, burnt coffee that I'd been too distracted to fix properly. But my mind was elsewhere. It was back in that hospital room, selfishly on Peeta. The way he'd simply shut himself off to me scared me. The look in his eyes as he'd told me to go home was beyond removed; it was cold. That reality made my stomach go sour and my terrible coffee feel like a rock sitting in it. I listened to Gale and Johanna talk back and forth about everything, only giving the input expected. And not soon enough they were heading back toward my door, Johanna only stopping long enough to give me a quick hug and telling me to get some rest.

Fortunately I was too exhausted from the previous night to avoid sleep for too long, and I drifted off only moments after crawling into bed, not caring that the sun leaked through, telling me it was time for work not sleep. But the faster I slept the faster I could return to Peeta.

But I never did.


Today Mr. Mellark is coming home and I can't help but feel nervous about the homecoming, because for the last two weeks my time on the ranch has been wondering about his youngest son. Peeta never once stopped by or called. Of course, I understand the amount of stress he is undoubtedly under, but I expected him to need me. Or at least I'd hoped he would need me. Like I need him.

Peeta homecoming had been under such terrifying circumstances that we hadn't really spoken about anything. But those brief moments in his arms and night spent holding his hand felt like home to me — a home I had been foolish to walk away from so easily. One I had been all too eager to return to. But time has made me realize just how childlike and selfish I had been to think that that one traumatic night at the hospital had fixed all the damage I had done.

Nothing is fixed. Not even close.

My eyes stare out the bay window of the Mellark kitchen, watching patiently for a sign of life to come down the driveway. I've all but drowned out the sounds of people bustling around behind me. Seeder and Wiress are busy trying to organize all the food that's been dropped off through the weeks. There is enough to feed the entire town of Dawson for the next three Thanksgivings. Beetee is helping Haymitch move furniture, and most importantly, creating a bedroom out of Mr. Mellark's old office on the first floor. And several other ranch hands are putting on the finishing touches to the wheelchair ramp Gale built last week. People from town have started to arrive, a strange kind of makeshift homecoming for their old friend.

The nervous air in the house and along the porch is hums. People speak in low tones about the future of the ranch. Everyone comments on how terrible the whole situation is. That it couldn't have happened to a less deserving person. Like they're all saying something profound; it's not profound, it's small town gossips that like to hear themselves talk. But their concerns are merited, even if they aren't wanted.

Life is certainly about to change on the Mellark Ranch.

"Watching the driveway won't make them appear any faster," Gale says from behind me.

The noise startles me a bit and I turn to look up at him. My shoulder leans against the frame of the window as I cross my arms over my chest at a desperate attempt for a sense of security.

"Sorry." I clear my throat and push myself to stand straight. "What can I help with?"

Gale gives a sad smile, "Nothing. You doing okay?"

I roll my eyes and walk past him toward the mounds of food sitting on the counter. "You can tell Johanna you're keeping a good eye on me. I haven't walked in front of a moving vehicle yet."

"Funny." Gale follows, picking a strawberry off a decedent looking cake. He pops it into his mouth and I can feel him watching me as I busy myself with a stack of napkins. "Have you talked to him?"

I let out a shaky sigh, "Nope."

"Have you tried to call him?"

"And say what? 'Hey Peeta, I know you're dealing with your dad right now, but I really just want to know we're alright after I walked out on you like a selfish bitch?' " I glare at him. "No. I haven't called him."

"You've been hanging around Johanna too much." He smirks, grabbing another strawberry.

My hard expression cracks on its own accord and I laugh slightly. "Shut up."

"They're here."

Our lighthearted moment quickly turns to lead in my veins as I look toward the older woman standing near the entryway. Everyone starts to move toward the porch, waiting for them to arrive. My feet seem locked in place for a moment as I watch the small crowd disappear and I'm left alone in the kitchen. Gale watches me, as he's one of the last to leave the house and I swallow hard. I should follow and try to blend in with everyone. I shouldn't push Peeta into something he's obviously not ready for — or doesn't want at all.

My mind slips back to the day at the hospital. The moment I first saw him and we came together like there was some magnetic pull between us. I'm beginning to believe that magnetic pull isn't just in my mind. I feel drawn to him like the air I breathe. I am stronger with him. I am braver with him. I can face anything with him. Have I completely thrown that away?

My fingernails dig into my palms as I finally move from my place and join the crowd on the porch. The hospital transport is the first vehicle to pull up. Mrs. Mellark climbs out of the passenger seat and goes toward the wheelchair-accessible door to wait for her husband. But she doesn't look how I assume many wives would look: overwhelmed with a mix of joy and concern for her husband. She looks like an impatient mother waiting for their child to finally climb out of the backseat. A nurse removes herself from the back first, helping carry some of Mr. Mellark's things as she smiles up at him.

The van lowers him down slowly and even though his left side is obviously paralyzed, a bright smile can still be seen playing on his features, the right side trying to make up for the left's inabilities at the moment. Everyone all but claps at seeing their dear neighbor and Haymitch steps forward. From my spot toward the back I can hardly see much, but I can just make out the misty look on his face.

"Good to see you, old friend." Haymitch grins, grabbing Mr. Mellark's offered right hand and holding tightly.

The exchange is heartfelt and again I'm reminded of just how much this man means to so many. This town would do anything for Hershel Mellark. And Haymitch would always be the first in line for the task.

And then I notice the pickup coming down the driveway soon after Mr. Mellark has started up the ramp on the porch. Clement, Reese, and Peeta all climb out of the vehicle slowly. They look a little worse for wear. Reese wears sunglasses and a hat to cover his tired expression. Clement's once clean-shaven face now has a distinct five o'clock shadow about it. And Peeta's usual bright demeanor looks just as worn as his clothes. This week has been hard on them all and it's obvious a homecoming party is not something they're looking forward to. I suddenly feel like I'm invading a home that normally wears an open door policy like a welcome mat.

But in true Mellark boy fashion, they put on their best smiles and begin thanking everyone as they make their way into the house. I hang back, hoping Peeta will notice me and at least make some kind of gesture in my direction. My hands sweat as I rub them against my thin cardigan. I stand close to Gale for some form of protection, and I watch as he shakes Reese's hand and I smile at the middle Mellark son. Clement's hand comes to rest on my shoulder briefly before he moves inside.

And then I feel his eyes on me. I would feel that warm sensation coursing through me a hundred years from now. When I look in his direction I'm met with those gorgeous eyes I'd spent so many nights getting lost in. Time seems to stand still as I take in the bags under his eyes and how his forehead creases with concern. Even worn out from emotions he looks absolutely perfect.

I start to step forward and engage him in small talk; my courage has built enough for that. But then his eyes leave mine and he looks at Gale. His hands slide into his pockets and he nods at his old teammate and friend. I'm frozen again and Gale reaches forward and offers his hand to Peeta. Peeta takes it and shakes it firmly.

"Thanks for all your help." Peeta offers a tired smile to both of us and then disappears into the house.

And I'm left to fall apart on the porch. Gale watches me and quickly reads the situation. He wraps his arm around my shoulder and starts to pull me inside. I don't want to go inside. I want to run away and never look back. I feel as though I've been sucker-punched and all the air has escaped from my lungs.

"Come on." Gale coaxes me along into the house. "I'm sure Haymitch has a hidden stash around here somewhere."


My presence on the edge of the party remains pretty constant throughout the rest of the afternoon. I watch as people mingle in groups. The small stockpile of food slowly shrinks. Mr. Mellark sits in the center of the large family room, everyone stopping to spend his or her fair share of time with him. Haymitch is never far from his side, while Mrs. Mellark is never farther. And the hospital employee that helped Mr. Mellark from the van I've learned is his new in-home nurse.

Cressida Sinclair I overhear her introduce herself to several people. Apparently she'll be moving into the Mellark home for several weeks to help rehabilitate Mr. Mellark. From the conversations I witnessed her in, she seems like a rather outspoken woman, which is good. She'll need that personality when it comes to living in close quarters with Mrs. Mellark.

I try not to notice that Peeta has disappeared from the festivities altogether, but as the crowd slowly starts to thin his lack of presence becomes more and more noticeable to me. I busy myself by going around and picking up empty paper plates and cups. I do my best to avoid the Mellark family entirely. The last thing I need is some kind of endearing conversation. I don't deserve their kind words. And I don't desire Mrs. Mellark's cold glares.

Keeping busy with clean up really isn't a disguised attempt of avoidance with the large amounts of food there is leftover. By the time the last of the visitors are wishing the family well, Wiress and I are standing in the kitchen wrapping the leftovers up to place in the refrigerator.

As the last car pulls out of the driveway, I finally spot him.

My hands fall still atop the covered bowl of potato salad as I watch him out the window. He's sitting on the porch swing, gently rocking back and forth. I can only see his profile, but his shoulders are slumped so deeply that I can practically feel the weight on them. His hands rub together slowly as he stares at something on the wooden surface of the porch. His curls move away from his forehead in the quiet breeze, and I can't help but imagine my own hands running through those locks trying to comfort him.

A loud thud happens behind me and I jump slightly, quickly turning to face the sudden racket. My heart beats wildly and I see Wiress bending down to the floor where she's dropped several empty plastic food containers. My heart still beats wildly as she looks up at me with a giggle. I smile and shake my head at her, turning back to the person who previously held my attention. When I do, my eyes meet his and I freeze in place. He must have heard the containers drop through the small opening of the window.

We remain in some sort of trance until we hear the worn screen door crack open and then close again. Soon I see Gale joining Peeta on the porch swing. I am too far away to hear their conversation above anything more than a mumble. I try to turn my attention from them and finish putting away the leftovers, but every once and while my eyes will slip to watch the two of them again. Their conversation isn't very animated and it looks casual enough. Just like old times. The moment warms my heart.

Once I've finished pulling the food away, I quickly grab a broom and start sweeping. At first my intentions are truly to sweep and help Wiress make this place look like something, but then I reach a particularly close spot to the window out of sight. My arms continue to sweep, but in a much slower fashion than earlier.

"There's just a lot to do." I hear Peeta's voice, "A lot to get ready for next season, and buyers to contend with. Mom's not gonna want to do any of that. Clement and Reese both have their own lives going on — I just —"

"We'll figure it out." Gale cuts him off and I'm slightly surprised at how understanding he sounds. "This ain't our first rodeo, Mellark. Have a little faith."

They both laugh at Gale's terminology and I suddenly feel at ease. Hearing the two of them starting to get along again somehow makes all of this just a little bit easier to bear. My hands still on the broom as I lean up against the wall near the window. If Wiress sees me she doesn't make acknowledge that she does and just continues on with her own tidying tasks.

Their silence lasts for awhile and I'm just about to move when I hear what sounds like someone rising from the porch swing. Gale clears his throat and he lets out another laugh.

"Plus, I highly doubt a wheelchair is ever going to stop your dad. Nothing else on this green earth has — a chair on wheels doesn't stand a chance."

I can practically hear Peeta's smile as he speaks, "Yeah. You're probably right."

"But anyway, just tell me what you need from me. I'm here to work."

It doesn't sound like much of a statement, but knowing where they had come from this past summer that comment means everything. That was Gale's way of letting go of everything. Peeta doesn't say anything and I really don't have too much time to process the moment entirely because the screen door opens again as Gale walks through it. He instantly notices me standing near the kitchen window. He just shakes his head and smiles, but before he can say anything I've placed the broom against the wall and thrown my arms around him.

"Thank you." I mumble into his shoulder.


The rest of my day goes by without a hitch, but that's mostly because I spend the rest of it alone on my couch watching terrible reruns of television shows long since cancelled. Gale offers to take me to Greasy Sae's for a cheap drink and burgers, but after the day I've had I want nothing more than to curl up away from everyone. Everyone except Peeta, and since he seems to be avoiding me completely, alone is my only option.

I am just about to drift off to the sound of David Letterman's one-liners when I hear a knock on my door. Immediately I jump up, being just in that state of sleep where everything startles me. I clear my throat and try to get my bearings about me, turning off the television and reaching for the nearest lamp. There is another knock before I reach the door to peek past my curtain and see exactly who wants my attention at this late hour.

Pulling open the door his name quietly slips from my lips, "Peeta."

We just stand there for a moment in yet another trance before I move out of the way and gesture for him to come in. He does and I watch him intently. My heart beats harder with his every step; I'm sure my pulse can be seen pumping through my veins. When I shut the door I take an extra moment to latch it, staring at the worn gold knob that practically glows in the dim lighting from my lamp.

"I can't do this again." Peeta begins, and my breath catches.

I don't want to turn around now. If I turn around he'll have to continue talking, and if he continues his obviously prepared speech I will no longer have any hope to grasp on to. I will no longer be able to pull from those stolen moments when he first arrived home. He'll forever leave no doubt as to where he stands on the issue and there will forever be no doubt that it was I who ruined it in the first place.

Focusing on my breathing and trying to ignore the stinging I feel beneath my eyes, I can't find it in myself to turn around, so instead I stare at the tile beneath my bare feet. My arms wrap around me, a position I've been taking a lot lately. And I realize it's because I no longer have his around me.

"You walked away — you didn't even give me a chance," He continues. "And the one person I needed this week was the one who'd decided this relationship wasn't worth taking a risk. How fucked up is that?"

Very. But not because he needed me, but because all I could think about was how much I needed him. I needed to comfort him. I needed to tell him it was going to be all right.

"I told myself the next time I saw you I'd make sure you were the one who made a move — if it's what you wanted. Because I wasn't putting myself out there like that again." I can hear the distain and frustration in his voice. Both emotions seem laced with exhaustion and my stomach lurches to know that I've only contributed to his turmoil this week. "And then my dad…and you were. I needed you, Katniss. And you were there. I'm thankful for that — but I can't do this again. Not if you're going to walk away again. It seemed like such an easy decision for you, to just leave without another word."

"It wasn't." My voice cracks when I finally speak and turn to face him completely. I spin so quickly, wanting to react before he can continue. I feel a tear slip down my reddened cheek. I quickly wipe it away because I know I don't deserve to cry over this. "I made a mistake, Peeta. And I'm so sorry. I wanted to call you, talk to you —"

"Why didn't you?" His voice is harsh now and I can see the anger etched in his eyes.

"I – I was scared," I mumble, looking back down at my hands that clench tightly to my sweater sleeves.

"And I was hurt," Peeta rebuttals. "You did that to me. And I should really just walk away." My heart sinks lower and my chin quivers with sobs I've been holding back for far too long. He takes a step forward and I instantly look up at him. "Because if I stay, you need to know I plan on sticking around long enough that I'm sure something else will scare you. And how do I know you won't decide to walk away again?"

"Because I'm more scared of life without you." I respond without an ounce of hesitation. It's a bold claim for someone as inexperienced as I am, but these past few months have proven it to be so very true.

His expression is unreadable. His eyes are searching my face so hard that I nearly feel the weight of his gaze on me. He's completely frozen and I'm beginning to think I've said something wrong, that I've overstepped some imaginary boundary we've set for ourselves.

The silence becomes too much for me and I open my mouth to speak, but Peeta reacts first.

I feel his hands come to rest against my neck before I even realize he has moved toward me and I don't have time to truly process another thing before his lips land against mine. I'm still for nothing longer than an instant before I respond in earnest to his kiss.

My fingers grip at the sleeves of his t-shirt as I pull myself closer to him. It feels like home coming up against his solid chest as his arms move to tangle themselves around me. There is absolutely no other place I'd rather be in this moment, and I easily get lost as he moves to deepen the kiss.

The taste of his tongue is one I immediately recognize and it sends a shockwave of heat to my core. I'm practically melting as I reach for the hem of his t-shirt. I don't hesitate to signal what exactly I want to happen to it and Peeta doesn't seem to question. I feel his arms fall away from me long enough to help me remove the thin material. The sight of his bare chest mesmerizes my eyes and I'm drawn back to the morning after our first night together. The butterflies instantly soar to life in me and the courage I felt just a moment ago starts to get replaced by nerves.

But Peeta doesn't let the moment stop and instead pulls me back to him and captures my lips once again. I audibly sigh at the feel of his bare flesh and I let my fingers trail up his arms and take purchase to the strong muscles of his shoulders. He takes that moment to bend just slightly and lift me against him. My legs instinctively wrap around his waist and I grin against his lips.

"Bedroom," I mumble, never letting my lips part far from his.

Peeta has other ideas and walks toward the nearby kitchen table. He unceremoniously sets me atop the old oak surface and before I can say for certain I won't break the small table entirely he has started tugging my sweater over my head. He tosses it to join his t-shirt and I feel his lips nipping at my collarbone.

"Too far away," He finally says rather incoherently against my heated skin.

I laugh as my head falls back, allowing him easier access to the sensitive spot just behind my ear. My legs proceed to pull him tighter as I feel his fingers working toward the waistband of my old track shorts. I need to feel him against me. It's like a hunger I've never known before and when I buck my hips against his I hear him groan low against my ear.

"Careful, or this will end before it's even begun, darling," he says and I can feel the words rumble against my own chest. The vibrations go straight to my already soaked core and I can't help but do it again.

Peeta's hands come down to squeeze my thighs tightly in an attempt to still me. I give him a wicked grin and lean forward to place my own open-mouthed kisses on his shoulder. My fingers run along the defined lines of his torso until I reach the button of his jeans where I make easy work of popping it open. I can already feel his excitement against the rough material of his jeans, and the anticipation nearly makes my mouth water.

The nerves I momentarily felt are long gone and all I can think of is I can't have him soon enough. I've thought about this moment so many times. I was once terrified it would never happen again. I would never feel Peeta's lips against my own. I'd never again have him look at me as though I'm something to be devoured — like the way he's looking at me now. It's a look that only fuels my need and feeds my courage.

I reach the cool tab of his zipper and begin to pull it down slowly. The sound fills the air as Peeta's lips come back to mine hungrily. He's already undone the clasp of my bra by the time the zipper reaches the bottom of its track. My arms drop momentarily to my sides as I let the material fall downward before tossing it off in the distant to be forgotten.

Within an instant his lips encircle the already taut bud of one of my nipples and I can't help but to cry out in ecstasy. My current mission of removing his pants is long forgotten as I revel in the sensations he's causing in me. My back arches against him and my nails dig into the skin of his biceps. I feel one of Peeta's hands on the small of my back as the other makes a slow journey up my thigh.

He bites down gently and I feel more moisture pool between my thighs. My need nearly causes me to crawl out of my own skin with madness and I cannot contain the way my hips wiggle at a helpless attempt for any sort of friction.

"Touch me," I beg breathlessly, leaving marks against his flesh I know I'll be able to see in the morning.

"I am," he says coyly, peppering kisses across my chest.

"More. I need more."

"Is this what you want?" he asks, his fingers drawing small circles against my bare stomach just above my waistline before moving just below the hem of my shorts. "Or is it this?"

My thigh twitches against his ghost-like touches and I nearly whine with built up frustration. He leans in and kisses me and I fight back the urge to bit his lip, which will remove the smug smile on his face.

"I need you to touch me," I say again, this time pulling him tighter to me between my legs. "Or I'll have to do it myself."

"Well that does sound appealing," he muses, but before he even finishes the sentence I feel his fingers sneak beneath my shorts and soaked panties to enter my dripping core smoothly.

I nearly come undone at the instant relief my body feels against his. My mouth falls open in a silent gasp of air and I cling to him tighter than I already was. I feel his eyes watch me and I'm driven even closer to the edge by how dark his eyes have become. I'm driving him just as wild as he's driving me. I will never tire of that feeling.

His two fingers slide against me in lazy strokes and my hips move in unison with them. His lips trail along my jaw line and the friction of his bare chest against my sensitive nipples causes me to cry out in pleasure. I can feel the thin layer of sweat that is covering both our bodies and it only heightens the sensitivity of my skin.

When his thumb joins his other fingers by massaging my clit I see stars. I've been spun so tightly that the explosion nearly causes my entire body to shut down. I freeze against him as I cling tightly to his shoulders and my orgasm takes over suddenly. There wasn't even a build up to the sensational feeling.

And coming down from my high is not a fast process, but as I do, I feel Peeta's hands lazily running down my thighs, moving them up higher against his sides. He leans in and kisses me. The urgency we once had is lost as his tongue meets mine. My hands grasp at the sides of his face, as I get completely lost in him.

"That was fucking gorgeous." he says, pulling away to leave me breathless.

I feel on display as I sit atop my kitchen table, but the way he watches me makes it seem like more of an appeal than I would have ever thought. I feel his hands run down my neck, spending only seconds on my sensitive breasts before moving downward. His calloused hands leave a trail of fire wherever they touch and I'm already squirming with want again.

By the time his fingers hook beneath the waistband of my shorts my need is all but boiling over again. My eyes stay focused on his as he makes slow work of removing the remainder of my clothes, my hips lifting momentarily to help. Once they're off and forgotten, he slowly pushes his own past his hips and steps out of them. My eyes go to the appealing erection that has sprung to life. What I've been all but craving since his lips met mine.

In the dim lighting I can just make out the bead of moisture sitting atop his cock and I can't help but reach out to touch it. My hand grasps around his member gently, my thumb crossing over the dot of pre-cum. I can hear his breath hitch in his throat and I lean in to bite gently on his collarbone as my hand run down his hard-on. His hips buck against my hand and I can only remember what those beautiful hips look like grinding in and out of me.

Peeta doesn't wait long before he gently coaxes my hand away and steps closer to me. My eyes meet his as I feel his erection against my entrance. I feel his hand guide it up and down my sensitive slit before he slowly starts to push inside me. My mouth instantly opens in a pleasurable sigh and my hands come up to grasp around his neck. His hands grip my thighs tightly. When he bites down on his bottom lip, I know he's fighting for control.

It's an instantly full feeling that overcomes me and it's familiar. I feel him stretch me with each inch he moves, and I can't help but moan at the sensation. When he's finally completely sheathed in me all I can do is rest my forehead against his and revel in the amazing feeling. His chest heaves against mine and I'm lost in the closeness of it all.

The emotions are too much and I can't help the silent tear that runs down my cheek at the realization of how close I was to losing all of this. How stupidity and fear of needing someone nearly meant losing the one person who'd never walk away from me. I don't deserve him, not in a hundred lifetimes, but he's chosen me over and over again.

And I will always choose him.

"I love you." I whimper, pulling him into an impassioned kiss.

He can undoubtedly taste the salt of my sudden overload, but he doesn't say anything. He simply kisses me back while slowly starting to thrust in and out of me. And it doesn't take long before we're both panting into each other's lips. Peeta's eyes are so dark in color, and it thrills me. His skin slides against mine so easily.

I feel a drop of sweat run between my breasts as I lean back onto my elbows against the small round surface of the table. Peeta must see the drop because he instantly leans forward to lick at it. My gasp fills the air as I open my legs more offering him deeper access. The position allows him to hit the perfect spot inside me and my cries of pleasure don't hide just how wonderful it feels.

Our moment of reverence is long over as Peeta thrusts hard into me and grips my hips tightly. Soon I'm lying completely back against the table and being driven wild by the image above me. Peeta's lost all control he was once striving to keep and his movements show a man in complete abandon. It's absolutely beautiful. And I know my own cries only mirror what his body is doing because soon I feel the familiar build inside me.

And unlike my first orgasm, this one comes on in waves. I'm calling out Peeta's name when the first wave crashes in and I can feel my walls tighten around him. Peeta's own thrusts are beginning to lose their rhythm, and I know he's not far behind.

I push myself back into a sitting position, craving the closeness we had moments ago as I orgasm. His thrust momentum changes into a shallow rocking of his hips. My climax milks his and his arms tighten around me, holding me close. My lips tangle against his jaw line as I chant his name and taste his sweat. His nails dig into my hips and the bruising pressure feels delicious as I start to come down from my second high of the night.

Peeta's breathing starts to even out along with mine, but neither of us are willing to completely part with one another yet. Even after he pulls out of me, leaving me feeling strangely empty, he remains close. My hips remain tight around his waist as we silently cling to each other.

The moment seems like a deep one until Peeta wraps his arms around me and once again picks me up. I laugh at the suddenness of it. And when I wrap my legs around him, yet again instinctively, I gasp at the feel of his stomach against my overly sensitive core. We must look like fools walking around completely naked and completely attached to one another, but the moment is perfect.

"On to the next surface?" I ask, laughing as I see him lead us down my small hallway.

"On to the next surface," he confirms.

We enter my bedroom and he easily lays me down atop my bed, climbing to rest above me. My eyes meet his in the moonlight-filled room and I smile. I run my fingers along his forehead to push away stray curls.

"I think you'll need to just pack me into your suitcase when you head back to school," I muse, watching his expression closely.

He smiles and looks away from me for a second. "I'm not going back to school."

My stomach drops and I search his expression. Why isn't he going back to school? If he doesn't go back to school he can't play football and I know for a fact that football is a huge part of his life. He has to go back to school.

"Why – why aren't you going back to school?" I ask as he moves to lie next to me. He must sense this is starting a conversation he doesn't want to have because he stares up at the ceiling instead of looking at me.

"The ranch needs me," he says. "Reese and Clement have their own careers to think about. They can't take the time off its going to take to keep this place running. And who knows if my dad will ever be able to —"

"He will," I interrupt, turning on to my side to face him.

"And if he can't?" he asks, looking over at me.

I don't have an answer and the haze of our joyful reunion starts to clear as I realize the reality of everything. How completely uncertain it all is, but still somehow I have a sense of peace. I reach over to rest my hand against his cheek, stroking it softly.

"We'll get through it together."

Peeta's smile is broken, and it causes me more pain than I would have originally expected. He wants that to be enough, I can tell by his tried expression, but the storm that rages behind his eyes says it isn't. Even in the darkness of my bedroom I can see the sadness so constantly etched in his features now. The crease between his eyebrows remains even when he's at rest. And the once ever-present smile has been replaced with a frown.

"My mother is back to her ice queen self," Peeta muses, his hand coming up to run through his hair. "So even the ranch aside, I can't leave her alone with him. I mean — I don't think she'd really do anything. But he doesn't deserve that kind of treatment while he's trying to get better."

I watch his chest rise and fall in a deep sigh, and I let my hand that has been stroking his cheek slide down to rest against it. His skin is warm and in this stillness I can just make out the pounding of his heart. I had assumed by his worn demeanor that he was stressed, but now I have a newfound respect for it.

"You are not alone in this," I speak quietly, my lips coming to place a gentle kiss against his shoulder. "There are so many that love your father and will do anything for this —"

"But they aren't me, Katniss," he interrupts, "They aren't required to do everything in their power to make sure Mellark Ranch continues to be successful. This is my home…"

He trails off and I'm left watching as his features go from cold determination back to the broken man he's become over this past week. He sets his jaw and swallows hard. His eyes gloss over in the dim lighting and he blinks quickly, looking away from me.

"He's my father — my hero," his voice shakes and he looks back over at me, "I can't go back to school with all this uncertainty hanging over everything."

My throat tightens and I feel the burn of a sob building beneath the surface of my chest. I want to tell him it will all be all right, like so many did when my father passed, but I know the feeble meaning it has. And I have never been good with words.

Seeing him so broken causes me a whole new sensation of grief. I long for the easiness Peeta had before this all happened. All within a week, but it seems like a lifetime already. How time truly drags through the rougher spots of life. My fingers draw long lines along his chest in an attempt at some silent comfort and I watch him stare at the ceiling above.

"What can I do?" I ask, trying not to sound completely at a loss. But I'm practically begging for a way to fix this. Unlike my mistakes, a heartfelt apology doesn't change these circumstances. I wish it were that simple.

Peeta finally looks at me. "Just be here with me."

My voice doesn't come as easy as it once did and I simply nod in agreement as I lean over to place a kiss against his lips. I only intended to make it brief, but Peeta's fingers lace around my neck and keep me close. I allow his tongue to slip past my lips and eagerly lean closer into him.

Our kiss is lazy as we enjoy the calm our relationship brings, even after my foolishness. I let my hand rest on his chest as I slowly move myself to straddle his hips. I gasp at the intimate contact I feel when I come to rest atop him. Peeta's hands slide down my bare back, causing goose bumps to rise across my flesh.

"I'm not going anywhere," I speak between our growing passions, pausing to fully look at him. "I don't know what will happen, but I know where my heart lies. And that's with you, Peeta. So I will be here with you as long as you'll have me."

His smile lights up his entire face for the first time in our conversation, and I can't help but notice how my insides burn with excitement by seeing that expression. He pulls me back to him gently, kissing me fully.

"How does forever sound?" he whispers against my lips.

"Perfect."


Author's Note: So I'm contemplating a Peeta version of this story...like a fill in the gaps per-say. I don't want to give the ending away of this story, but if you want to request some scenarios in which you wanted to know Peeta's side of thing feel free to request them here or via message/Tumblr what have you! Obviously it wouldn't be a sequenced as this story and it'll probably have chapters that more stand alone, etc. But if you like the idea I might toss around an outline in my head, just let me know!

See you in the last chapters!