Katniss undresses in front of the mirror that night, her fingers splayed over her stomach.
Four. She can count four ribs, four peaks and valleys running beneath her skin. It's not so bad. If she can see six, then she'll be in trouble. But she won't let it get that far.
Her fingers fall south, dipping beneath the edge of her underwear, and she feels the unfamiliar heat at the juncture of her thighs. She had wanted Peeta tonight, she admits to herself, honest before her own bare reflection.
But it had been a mistake, bringing him here. It had all been a mistake - accepting his gift of bread, walking with him in the mornings, letting him kiss her. Kissing him back.
She shivers and slides open the top drawer of the worn wooden dresser, pulling out her father's old flannel shirt, the one she saves for the coldest nights in winter. Tonight she won't have Prim's body heat to keep her warm, and thinking of Peeta will only make the chill deeper.
The house is still empty and silent when Katniss wakes the next morning. Prim and her mother must have spent the night at the neighbor's house. Katniss stumbles into the kitchen, stifling a yawn with her hand, and stops short when she sees Peeta's cookies still carefully arranged on a plate on the dinner table.
Her stomach growls in protest as she sweeps them into a wastebasket. She'd been so stupid, to think that she and Peeta could have been – well, anything; to think that his gifts had been anything but an attempt to impress her. To think that he could understand Katniss' life, or Katniss herself.
Prim and their mother arrive home just before lunch, weary but flushed with the pride of stewarding a new life into the world. Prim is coy, all knowing smiles and barely-contained curiosity, in the way that only someone genuinely innocent can be. That night as they're drifting off to sleep, her voice breaks open the silence. "Peeta Mellark is so handsome."
Katniss' stomach pools with shame. She doesn't answer, just tries to keep her breathing soft and even in an imitation of sleep.
"Is he your boyfriend?" Prim hesitates. "Katniss?"
Katniss rolls to face her sister. In the dark she can't find Prim's bright blue eyes, only the dim outline of her head on the pillow beside her. "No," she says shortly. "And you can't ever ask me that again. Do you understand?"
"Do you understand?" she repeats.
Prim turns away, pulling the comforter up higher beneath her chin. "Yeah," she says quietly. "I understand."
Katniss heads for the woods a day early that week, on Saturday, to start her new routine: Hunt. Carry the game to the Hawthornes' house. Turn down Hazelle's offer of extra grain or potatoes.
Take the rest home. Feel guilt at Mother's look of dismay when she sees the meager offerings. Explain that she already ate her share, at the Hawthornes'. Pray that Prim won't notice how her clothes hang on her body when she undresses for bed that night, how the bones of her hips and her spine grow more prominent each week.
Remember that these lean times won't last forever, because spring is coming, and she'll make it 'til then. She has to.
Wake up early the next morning, Sunday, long before the sun is set to rise. Know that there is a boy sitting on a doorstep not five minutes away, patient, waiting. Know that eventually, he'll give up.
He has to.
"A boy came looking for you today," her mother tells her a week later, as Katniss is scraping the frosty mud from her hunting boots with a stick by the front door.
Katniss falters for a moment, but if her mother notices, she doesn't acknowledge it. "What? Who?" She plays dumb, scraping harder with her stick.
"Peeta Mellark," her mother says, though she doesn't need to. "The baker's son."
"That's strange," Katniss says, and they don't speak of it again.
On an afternoon in March, as she's preparing to leave school, Katniss finds a folded note tucked between the textbooks piled in her cubby. I'm sorry, it says. I'm worried about you. There is no signature, just a sketch of a bird, its wings outstretched in flight.
She crumples the note into her pocket, face flushed, and looks around - but he's already gone.
It feels wrong, being in the woods every Saturday, instead of Sunday. Their day – the day she shared with her best friend. It feels wrong to be alone.
One morning she's deep in the forest, further than she typically ventures, and finds an empty, forgotten snare at the base of a tree. It's one of his, wound by his sure, steady hands, far more complicated than her own stiff fingers could manage.
She feels suddenly dizzy and stumbles, sliding down the tree trunk to rest on the cold earth. For the first time since he left – since he was taken – she allows herself to cry.
The Peacekeeper isn't one she knows, and she stands in silence outside the door, waiting. Finally his family files out, his mother glassy-eyed, his brothers stiff like zombies. Posy clings to her mother's leg, sobbing. At five years old, she already knows what this means.
"Three minutes," the Peacekeeper tells her gruffly, and she slips through the doorway. Gale is across the room, staring out a window, and she thinks she sees him brush a tear from his cheek.
"Catnip," he says, and before she can blink she's in his arms, and she wonders for one wild moment if this is where she was meant to be all along - but no, no, she can't think like that, not now, not like this -
"You'll be okay," she hears herself say, and it's like she's listening to another person speak, calm and detached. "You can hunt, and you're so - so smart, Gale. You'll -"
His arms tighten around her. "Please don't," he says, voice muffled against her hair. "I just - I just want to be with you. Just for a minute."
"Okay," she whispers, and lets him hold her in silence, the only sound the ceiling fan whirring above their heads.
Eventually he pulls back, his eyes red but dry. "I'll take care of them," she says. "I'll make sure they eat, until you come back -"
"I love you, you know," he interrupts her, and she goes still, her heart pounding painfully in her chest. "Ever since - I think always, but I didn't realize it. But I love you."
Her mind is blank with panic. He grabs her hand in his, fingers tight around her own. She can't tell who's shaking harder. "Do you love me?" he asks desperately, eyes searching her for something, anything.
And she knows then, in that moment, that she has to give him this. Because maybe she could one day, given time, given space. Because there is a part of her that already does, that has for a long time, in some way, though maybe not in the way he wants. Because whether it's days from now or decades from now, when Gale dies, he deserves to know that someone loved him back. That she loved him back.
"Yes," she says quietly. "Yes, I do. I do, Gale. I -"
He kisses her then, her first kiss, his mouth foreign and wet against her own. She tries to kiss him back, but she doesn't know how, and does she love him? Does it matter? His fingers run up her neck and clutch at her hair, his other hand cupping her cheek; it's like his entire body is saying goodbye.
The door opens and a voice says loudly, "Time's up." Gale doesn't let go, just keeps kissing her, until there's a hand gripping her arm, pulling her away. She stumbles backward, lips parted in silence, and the last time she touches Gale Hawthorne is the brush of their fingertips, as light and fleeting as a breath of wind.
"I'll come back for you," he calls after her, and the door slams shut.
She finds another note in her cubby a week later: I miss you.
She shoves it into her pocket, just like the last.
And when she gets home that afternoon, she slips it carefully into the corner of her top dresser drawer, hidden beneath a pair of woolen socks, just like the last.
She misses him, too.
She misses his hands, his mouth; the sandpaper stubble that lingered on her skin long after they parted. But mostly him: his stories, his laugh, even his questions.
Sometimes she thinks that she dreamed him up, a body to fill the empty space she carries beside her. That the baker's son slept peacefully those Sunday mornings, tucked cozy in a warm bed, unknowing, while she sleepwalked the streets with a corpse in her bag and a ghost at her heel.
It would've been a good dream, though, and Katniss doesn't have those. Not anymore.
Eventually winter thaws, as it always does, and the forest returns to life. On a damp morning in early April she kills six, seven, eight squirrels in three hours' time, and nearly weeps with relief. It's enough for Gale's family, for her family, for herself. Her heart pounds painfully with excitement.
Hazelle watches with a patient smile as Katniss skins the squirrels in the tiny kitchen, but when she moves to leave, the older woman catches her hand.
"We'll be fine, you know," she says carefully, squeezing Katniss' hand. "I appreciate all that you've done. But you've got your own family to take care of." Her eyes are soft, understanding; but she doesn't understand, not really.
"I know," Katniss says, a false lightness buoying the words. "I like to help out. He... would've done the same."
"He would've," Hazelle agrees, and Katniss feels suddenly uncomfortable under her gaze.
"I'll be back next Sunday," she says, grabbing her game bag off of the counter. As she reaches the door she realizes her mistake. "Saturday," she corrects herself. "I meant Saturday."
Hazelle's shoulders lift in a shrug. "You could come on Sunday," she says. A knife glints in her hands, and she begins to cut the muscle away from the bone. "It's still bread day."
I just want a chance to talk to you, the final note reads. I'll be there this Sunday. If you don't come, I won't bother you again.
Hazelle's words echo in her head all week. It's still bread day.
But she'd thought – after all these weeks…
She'll never understand Peeta Mellark.
His eyes don't light up when he sees her, the way she'd expected. He doesn't rush towards her, arms outstretched for an embrace, lips already parted for a kiss.
Peeta just watches her, his gaze steady as she walks down the gravel road slowly, her father's hunting jacket hanging loose on her shoulders.
Katniss stops by the edge of the house. "Why are you still bringing bread?" she demands, wrapping her arms tightly around her middle, the worn leather of the jacket bunching between her fingers.
"I didn't think you'd come," he says, evading the question. Maybe he doesn't have an answer, she realizes. But she says nothing, just stands in place, her eyes roaming over everything but him.
He says, "I've missed you."
Me too, she almost answers; but she catches the words just before they escape, crushing them to dust at the tip of her throat.
"I can't stop thinking about you," he says, and when her eyes finally flick to his she regrets it: they're wide and sad, yearning, begging her to respond. "I can't stop thinking that if I didn't leave, or if – I've been so worried, Katniss."
"I don't need your pity," she snaps suddenly, crossing her arms over her chest.
"I don't pity you," he says. "I care about you."
The words wrap around her heart like a snake, trying to burrow its way in. She won't let it. She can't let it.
"Say something," he says. "Can't you just talk to me?"
Silence. She can hardly breathe.
"You can't keep doing this," Peeta continues, pleading. "You're just giving and giving, and –"
"I made a promise," she chokes out, and he stops. Katniss is shaking. "I made a promise," she repeats, "to someone who loved me."
Peeta swallows. "And this is what he wanted?" he asks, raising his arm to gesture at her body, so small in her father's big, battered coat. "For you to starve yourself for them?"
"You don't even know what starving means," she spits back.
"What if I loved you?" he demands, taking a sudden step towards her. "Would it matter then? What I wanted?"
"You don't," she says, numb. It's not possible. For love to take root in cold early mornings and hands bumping together and kisses in secret by the back door – it's too much. It couldn't happen.
She blinks, and then he's in front of her, and he kisses her. His mouth is sure against hers, his hands steady on her face. He knows what he's saying with this kiss. She knows.
Despite that, Katniss melts against him.
When they pull apart to gasp for air she drops her face to the crook of his neck, and his arms wrap around her tightly, his breath hot against the crown of her head. "Please don't run away," Peeta murmurs into her hair.
She pinches her eyes shut, and she feels his shoulder twitch when one of her tears drips onto his skin. "Okay," she whispers. "Okay."
She walks him into town, and they say goodbye at the back door of the bakery. His lips are just like they were the first time they did this: a little chapped, but warm and firm. In some ways, it's as though nothing has changed.
But now she's got Peeta's heart in her palms, and she knows it's a matter of when, not if, it will slip from her fingers.
On Tuesdays Peeta doesn't have to work in the bakery after school, so Katniss brings him to the meadow, and they hide in the long grass.
Some days they talk, and some days they kiss, and some days they do more. She knows that one day – soon – it will have to stop, but for now she craves his lips and teeth and tongue, the jolt that runs through her when her leg slips between his and she can feel him hard against her thigh.
But the first time his fingers drift up under her shirt, skimming along the soft skin of her belly, she freezes and pulls away.
Peeta covers her hand with his, pressing her palm against the damp earth. "That night, I didn't mean…"
They don't talk about that night. Ever. He says, "I think you're beautiful."
"I don't care about that," she tells him.
He rubs his hand over his face in frustration. "I was – I thought you were dying, Katniss." She pulls her hand away. "What do you want me to say?"
Katniss thinks about for a moment, and tells him the truth. "Nothing."
Peeta laughs, pressing his nose against her shoulder. "That's too easy."
She doesn't know how to argue with him, and she suspects she never will. So she pulls her shirt over her head and grabs his hand, pressing it to her breast. His fingers tighten reflexively.
They're done with talking after that.
She dreams about Gale that night. It's raining. Is it real? he asks her. His eyes are bloodshot, and his mouth never moves. Sometimes he looks like Peeta, but always he's Gale.
She doesn't understand. Is what real?
I don't – is what real?
When she wakes her pillow is wet, and Prim is at her shoulder, lips pressed together with worry. "You were crying," Prim whispers.
Katniss wipes at her cheeks uselessly. "I had a dream about Dad," she lies.
Prim hugs her with her skinny, little-girl arms, and falls asleep that way minutes later. Katniss lays in bed, stroking her sister's downy hair, waiting for the sun to rise.
As the weather grows warmer, Katniss grows bolder.
It's muggy and hot one afternoon, the threat of rain hanging in the clouds, when she slips her hands into Peeta's pants for the first time. He chokes in surprise, resting his hand lightly on her wrist. "You don't have to."
"I want to," she says simply, and she helps him push down his pants. His skin is surprisingly soft but he is hard beneath it, and when she tightens her fingers around him he falls back onto the grass, resting on his elbows, groaning.
She moves her hand experimentally for a while, up and down, running her fingertips over his tip and down his shaft. He asks her to lick her hand and she understands as soon as her wet hand wraps back around him, her palm sliding easily over his cock. Peeta comes with a loud grunt, spilling onto her hand and his stomach. She wipes her hand discreetly on the grass as he cleans himself up.
He rolls up against her when she lays down beside him, resting an arm over her middle, nuzzling at her neck. "Katniss," he says quietly.
It's more than just her name. She can hear it so clearly in his tone: it's a preamble, the first step to a confession.
"Shh," she interrupts, laying her hand over his where it rests on her hipbone. "I'm tired, let's nap. That was…hard work," she jokes nervously.
Peeta pauses, then laughs, squeezing her against him briefly. "Yeah, okay," he agrees. He kisses her slow and deep.
Peeta always kisses her like he's got all the time in the world; that's what frightens her the most.
Hazelle doesn't say anything when Katniss starts coming on Sundays again. Katniss doesn't offer an explanation.
She's skinning a rabbit in the Hawthornes' kitchen one afternoon when Rory appears at her side, silent and watching. Finally he says, "Can you teach me to do that?"
She looks at him. He's thirteen now, a year younger than Gale was when she met him – but older than she was when she started hunting alone in the woods. Gale at fourteen was already tall and strapping, practically a man; Rory at thirteen is almost as tall but gawky yet, still growing into himself.
Even so. Rory is smart, and quiet. There's no reason he couldn't learn to hunt with Gale's old bow and arrows. She feels stupid for not realizing it earlier.
Katniss nods. "Sure you're not too squeamish?"
He smirks in that way that only a thirteen-year-old boy can; it screams can you believe this girl thinks I can't handle a little blood and guts? "Nah, I'm not too squeamish."
Rory finishes the rabbit, and the next Sunday morning he's waiting for her by the fence before the sun has even risen.
For a while, life is okay. Better, even. But in mid-June, construction for the Reaping stage starts at the Justice Building, and Katniss feels herself slipping away.
It's not intentional, at least not at first. She should be home before dark. She should spend more time with Rory in the woods, making sure he catches enough to feed his family. She should help Prim with her homework after school, especially on Tuesdays.
Peeta feels it, too, she can tell. She's surprised when he doesn't cling tighter – instead he says Okay and presses a kiss to her cheek. He lets her drift. And it doesn't feel freeing the way she told herself it would; she feels a tight, panicky pressure in her breastbone in the moments when she sees him disappear around a corner, when their fingers unclasp, when his lips break away from her skin.
But when she finally forces herself to tell him it's over, he takes her hand between both of his own and presses it against his chest. She can feel his heart thrumming wildly, like it's trying to break through his skin to reach her.
"I know that you think…that if you don't have me, you can't lose me," he says. "But if it happens, it's going to feel the same way no matter what. It's going to hurt, Katniss."
She doesn't answer. She knows that he's right.
"I love you," he blurts out. His voice holds steady but his eyes are wide, scared. "I don't care what happens today, or tomorrow. That won't change."
Katniss pulls her hand from his grasp silently and slides her arms around his waist. She can't say it back. It might not be today, or tomorrow, or even the next day, but all things come to an end. And love – it's nothing, not without a body to contain it.
A boy and a girl are Reaped, two names Katniss has only heard in passing, and the relief is almost crippling. Peeta finds her in the swirl of bodies when it's over, wrapping his arms around her so tightly that she gasps for breath.
"I thought –" But she hadn't thought, she'd known. Known that Peeta would be chosen because his odds were linked up with hers now, and she was always the losing bet.
"It's okay," he whispers against her neck. "We're okay."
For the first time, she believes him.
Peeta undresses her in the meadow that evening, slowly, reverently, pressing warm, wet kisses to each new patch of skin that he uncovers. He lays her down in the long grass and as his tongue moves from her collarbone down to her bare breasts, she shifts, feeling the blades of grass poke against her skin like pinpricks. I'm alive, she thinks.
He's brought a condom with him, something he admits with a blush, but she only pulls him closer, folding her legs around him. She's not surprised. There was a shift between them at the Reaping today, though she's not sure what. It could have been the way her knees turned to jelly when she realized it's not him it's not it's not him; or the desperate dig of his fingers into her skin when they'd embraced in the crowd; or something else altogether. All she knows is that she wants him inside of her, to be a part of her, because that way maybe she can protect him forever.
As he rolls the condom over his cock she wonders briefly if this could have happened with Gale. If she would have bared herself to him one day, let him touch her, fuck her. The thought unsettles her.
She hadn't known when he left that he wasn't a virgin – when she thought of Gale she'd thought of arrows and traps and food and warmth, and not much else – but after what he'd said in his tribute interview, that he loved her, there were a few girls at school who couldn't resist. They were jealous. They said things like You know he was thinking about me and He told me I was the best, the best one, even better than you.
And she knew it was lies – he hadn't said that because he couldn't have, he'd never touched Katniss beyond an awkward hug or clasp of hands. But it struck her somewhere deep inside that she hadn't really known him, not all of him, when it came down to it.
Peeta pushes into her then, all the way inside – deep – and Katniss whimpers with pain and pleasure, clutching at his back. It burns in a way she didn't expect, fresh each time he thrusts back into her, but he's gentle, littering soft kisses and even softer words across her skin. "I love you," she hears him whisper, and that thing coils deep within her: that Peeta thing, that thing only he can draw out of her.
What happened before – it doesn't matter. Nothing – no one – matters in this moment but Peeta, right here, right now. She lets the feeling drag her under.
It's over before too long, and she's almost relieved when he slips out of her and makes her come with his fingers instead. Peeta wraps himself around her when they're finished, pulling her back up against his naked chest, his breath hot on her neck.
"Did you like it?" he whispers, his fingers tracing lazy, looping patterns around her nipple.
Her lips twitch. I did, I do. "Yes."
His muscles tighten against her almost imperceptibly, and she feels him swallow hard. "Do you regret it?"
Katniss cranes her neck around to look at him. His face is raw, and open, and not for the first time she can see how fragile this boy is, who tosses sacks of flour over his shoulder like they're nothing. "I don't know yet," she tells him honestly.
His next breath is deep and shaky. "Do you still love him?"
It's not what she expected. "Peeta, I never –" She squirms in his arms and turns to face him, resting her palm on his cheek. His eyes close at her touch. "Yes, but – it wasn't like this. There's…you're…different."
Her cheeks burn; she doesn't know how to explain it without crossing a line she swore she'd never even toe.
But here she is, lying flush and naked against him, a pleasing ache between her legs from where he'd filled her. She crossed that line a long time ago, she realizes. Maybe even that morning when she'd traded him a rabbit for bread that wasn't even hers.
"It's only you," she whispers.
Peeta kisses her in answer, moving over her again, entwining their fingers together as he moves her arms up over her head. The only sound is the soft, wet smack of their lips, and the crickets in the field around them.
He pulls away for a moment and just looks at her. She looks back. "What do you want from me, Peeta?" she whispers.
She tenses in preparation for the answer. She thinks he'll say, Everything. Sunday mornings, Monday mornings, every morning. Smiles, frowns, laughs, shouts. Bread and fire and babies. All of it, all of you, just you.
Instead, his lips turn up a little. He presses a kiss to the corner of her mouth. He says, "Whatever you're willing to give me."
I hope this was a satisfying ending after such a long wait. Kind of desperate to know what people think, so if you're so inclined, I would love to hear your thoughts!
Also forgot to mention in the first part - the title is from The Crane Wife 3 by the Decemberists.
ALSO: So many thanks to nmoreblack, who helped me out with this second part and assured me it was a good switch to Katniss' POV. :)