AN: The idea for this AU popped into my head on Christmas night and wouldn't go away, so as I began writing I intended it to be a late Christmas gift to all of you. However, because I am a slow and insecure writer – and also because developing the headcanon is a gradual process – it was only finished just last night. I am exhausted but happy, as I have never written so much in just two weeks. Hope you all enjoy! This will be cross-posted to my tumblr (interruptedcadences) and my ArchiveOfOurOwn account as soon as possible so if it's taken down by the site, it can be found at those other places. Please leave a review if you so wish, and do sign in before doing so – I'd really love to send you a thank-you message for your time. xx
Dedicated to gardengirl21 for her lovely review on Fragility And Mockingjay Wings a few weeks ago that made me realise I wasn't a bad writer. I hope to reply to your review soon!
They met when the leaves above their heads were green.
It was at the old, abandoned cabin he'd found on one of those days when he walked on and on for miles, out of his town for hours. It had started out on a whim, walking, but once he started, he didn't feel like stopping - of turning back, for that matter. Whether it was the same distance or even longer for her, he didn't know. She'd never told him.
The sudden scuffle at the door made him jump, his left hand clenching around the neck of his guitar as if it were a weapon that could save him. What he saw, though, made his heart beat faster - because, looking back, he'd honestly never expected it.
"Sorry," she blurted, and her braid whirled around her shoulder as she turned hurriedly on the heel of her boot to leave.
His throat was dry from surprise that he could barely manage, "Wait!" until she was nearly lost among the trees as though she'd melted back into them. He scrambled to his feet, discarding his guitar, and ran towards the doorway, kicking up clouds of dust.
Her face peered back at him defiantly, as if she were daring him to do something. When he was close enough to touch her, he saw what it was - the mark of tears traced their way faintly down her face, and she glared at him through sharp grey eyes, her pointed chin lifted.
"You want an apology?" she gritted out. "I'm sorry, okay? I had no idea this house belonged to anyone."
"It doesn't," he told her, panting slightly. "I don't own it."
Her eyes widened slowly, and he cleared his throat. "Listen - you're welcome to stay. I promise I won't bother you. I came here to be on my own too."
He could see the suspicion in her gaze as she studied him, then the dirty, empty cabin behind him, nestled by the surrounding trees that cradled it like a precious thing. He wondered what thoughts were moving through her mind, what hesitations were holding her back from just saying yes. He corrected his train of thought, adding the crucial fact that she was vulnerable - he knew she felt vulnerable to be surprised by a stranger with telltale signs of tears on her own face. And he knew and hated how hard it was to accept anything when you were vulnerable.
He watched her lower lip tremble minutely, then she gave him a short nod. It was nearly curt, but he saw her duck her face, and he looked away quickly.
They walked back to the cabin, leaves crunching under his feet but silent under hers. He shot a surreptitious look at her boots, wondering how she could be so noiseless even in them.
She sank into a corner as though she had known it and chose it before, he noticed. With one more lingering glance at her, he took in the sight of her olive, freckle-dusted skin that peeked out from her worn check button down and the thick braid of rich dark brown.
She wasn't particularly pretty, per se.
But he couldn't prevent his artist's eye from noticing the lovely pointed chin, the high cheekbones, and the fullness of the swell of her lips.
Settling back down on the picnic blanket he had brought with him, he crossed his legs and picked up his guitar again, and softly, he began to pluck. The repetitious movements of his fingers lulled his senses into solitude. And slowly, he forgot about the girl behind him, feeling his own thoughts snake around his mind and begin to tighten with increasing force and cruelty. His fingers moved of their own accord in a gentle, melancholy melody. His eyes grew unfocused.
The sound of his soft music made her tense. Summoning the courage, she turned her head to look over her shoulder and saw him with his back to her, hunched over his guitar, his shoulders rising and falling and causing his fitted white t-shirt to stretch with every breath.
Frowning slightly, she considered this golden-haired boy intruder. How had she never seen him before since she had first discovered this God-forsaken cabin two years ago? She remembered how he had so quickly assumed that she had stumbled upon it for the first time and couldn't help curling her hand into a fist at the thought. He was the unwelcome stranger - she had been calling the shack home for much longer.
She'd found it the night her father left. The night she ran away from home. The night she couldn't see.
Then she loosened her fist along with a sigh through her nose. Why did she have to be uptight like this? He wasn't going to talk to her - he'd said so, and kept to it.
And maybe, just maybe... maybe he came here for the same reasons she did. How could she deny him brief respite from his life? The thought of that made her blush furiously for judging him without knowing anything about him at all.
Her voice startled him. "What's your name?" Soft. Hesitant. A little shy.
He turned his head slightly to look at her over his shoulder. The creases of his sleeve shifted over the firmness of his back, and he smiled a small smile. "Peeta."
She smiled back - more of a quick upturn of the lips, really - and watched the way his hair glinted in the sunlight, seemingly set on fire so that every strand glowed.
His feet had ached, the first time he began to take such long walks away from home. But that was years ago, and now, he could walk two hours with his guitar and blanket in a case slung across his back through uninhabited field and forestland to get to the cabin in the woods without too much discomfort. Sometimes, he brought a book and whatever was available at the bakery for his consumption that day. But he always spent a good deal of time staring into the horizon and doing nothing in general, drinking in solitude.
He hadn't seen the girl with the braid since the time they met, in the summer. He reflected idly that that season of their meeting was ironic. She wasn't a creature of summer, even though her skin was warm. Her grey eyes were frost itself. Then he laughed, shaking his head at himself and his fanciful imagination.
But he looked out for her anyway, as the warm breeze began to chill and the world turned from green to a rich, dying orange. She never came.
Snow was falling on the barren land he walked as he decided with a halfhearted shrug that she would never come to the shack again. His breath came out of his nose and mouth in white puffs of air, and he stuffed his hands into his pockets. Just one more year, one more winter. The doctors weren't optimistic about his father. He blinked, squinted through the snow. Paused in his walk to stare at nothing, really.
One more year till he was finished with school and his mother.
The idea of running away was becoming sweeter and sweeter. Honestly, he asked himself, why are you even waiting until school is over? He didn't want to answer himself, because the very truth - that he did care about his education even if it meant staying at home - was shameful enough to admit.
He pushed open the door of the cabin mechanically. Then he stopped in his tracks, eyes wide. There was a fire crackling in the ancient, dust-filled fireplace, and the girl with the braid was huddled by it.
At the sound of his arrival, she looked up in surprise, and in that moment his breath caught. Snowflakes clung to her hair, her cheeks were rosy red, and her grey eyes reminded him of a glazed-lake surface, hard and icy. She wasn't pretty.
She wasn't even beautiful.
She was more radiant than the sun.
Creature of winter, sister winter. He had to shake his head to clear his thoughts, and he swallowed audibly and spoke. "Hi... Wasn't expecting to see you here."
She shrugged, giving him that minuscule smile, so fleeting he wondered if he had really seen it or just imagined it. Her fingers fiddled with the threads of the rug she was sitting on. "It's been awhile," she admitted quietly.
How many words had they ever spoken to each other? After she had asked him for his name that summer day, silence had fallen again, and when the sun was setting behind the tall trees, they had parted without a word. These surprised greetings - well, they were new.
He cleared his throat self-consciously. "Thanks. Uh, you know. For the fire."
Her reply was the same one nod, never more, just the one. It was more like an inclination of her head, now that he thought about it. Her eyes fixed on his, and he felt frozen in place like she was weaving icicles all around him, imprisoning him in cold beauty. "When did you find this cabin?" she asked slowly.
He ran his hand through his hair and looked down, thankful for the excuse to tear his eyes away from her - even his stomach felt coated in ice, although it wasn't uncomfortable. It felt more like hungry anticipation. "About a year ago."
When she didn't respond, he chanced a glance up at her. She was back to staring at the fire, fingertips playing idly with the end of her braid. Then she turned to catch his gaze again and patted the space next to her. "You... you can sit. If you want."
"Thanks," he said softly, overjoyed that she could want his company, and then horrified at the heated blush rushing to his face. He moved over to the spot on the rug by her side and lowered himself gingerly, trying his best to brush the snow of his shoes.
"We're never going to meet anywhere else, are we?" she asked, outright. "Like, I'll only ever see you here."
He shrugged, biting his lip. "I guess so." God, he hoped his nonchalance was passable. "I mean, it depends on where you live. I might live there too, or visit it often."
Her smile stayed for a fraction more than it usually did, and he watched how it did wonders to her eyes, making them sparkle. "I don't think you do."
He blinked. "Is that a good thing?"
"Yes." She looked at her lap, even though her reply was quick and matter-of-fact. "Because I can tell you things, and it won't matter." She looked into his face quickly. "Can I?"
It hurt a little, the initial idea of his not mattering to her. But watching her eyes, he felt he understood. He wanted someone too, someone he could reveal his hurts and problems to specifically because they, as a listener, didn't matter, didn't mean a thing. She probably lived further than he'd ever walked, away from anyone who knew him, and she seemed like the kind of person who could keep secrets.
She was already keeping so many from him, her name included.
But he could understand that too, couldn't he? He was all for anonymity, himself. "You can tell me things, but only if you let me do the same, too," he replied with a hopeful smile.
She rewarded him with a laugh - a surprisingly lovely one, like the sudden trill of a bird in the stillness of a snow-cloaked forest. "Clever at bargaining, aren't you?" she mused quietly, reading his face. He watched her irises move from left to right to left again, sure his own eyes were following her pattern.
She met his gaze and then looked down again. "I'll allow it."
Her sister's name was Prim. His dad's name was Stephen. And they were both dying.
She learned about his father on their second winter day together, as they sat in front of the fire, eating the sandwiches he had brought with him. She was proud that she put up a fight resisting his free food even though the walk to the cabin in the bitter cold had left her slightly faint. Normally she was good at hiding her hunger, her weaknesses. But Peeta's blue eyes seemed to read her better than her mother, and it made her angry and ashamed that she could lay herself so bare before him. Accepting a bit of food to strengthen herself was better than him looking at her like that - so she did.
It was cancer, he told her. His dad had been diagnosed three years ago and was wearing thin. Everyone in his family felt the tidings of death, and it changed things horribly: his eldest brother married and left the house, his other brother marry but moved anyway, his father was confined to his bed and unable to care for the bakery so business was never really the same again, and his mother - well, Mother's nerves were on end everyday.
"It's ironic," she told him after he finished.
He looked at her - warm blue eyes that were like the ocean on a bright spring day. "What do you mean?"
"I have someone that I love too... who's dying." How it made her cringe inside to hear how very dramatic it all sounded when she put it that way. She was never going to be able to talk the way Peeta did about his own troubles - soft, clear, every emotion written perfectly across his face, as though he were reading painful poetry, real-life poetry that hurt but could still be beautiful. Where had those thoughts come from? She didn't think it was likely he thought his troubles beautiful at all.
She was going to stumble her way through her own confession. She just knew it.
"It's my - my sister. She has... tuberculosis," she muttered in reply to his questioning gaze.
He bowed his head, and she watched him chew on his lip. "I'm sorry," he said finally. His tone of voice was what stopped her from bristling, because she hated when people apologised for something they had no part in.
His apology, on the other hand, said so many things: I'm sorry you're losing her, because I'm losing someone too, and it's like a part of my own life is ripping away from where it should be. And I wish I could do something - anything - to help them live, but I can't. I can't. I can't, and that's why I'm sorry.
It was everything she would say herself, everything her own apology would cradle in its two bare, frail words. She never said them to anyone, though, because none of them would understand what she was really trying to say.
Their eyes met. His hair glowed a vivid golden red in the firelight, and he shifted minutely, his blue eyes holding on to her own.
"I'm sorry, too," she whispered back.
"How can you leave your dad for so long?" she asked, tentatively, watching his darkening silhouette in the night sky. They were staying later and later these days, and as much as she felt the gnawing in her stomach that came from leaving Prim for so many hours, the thought of breaking this respite with Peeta made her chest ache.
He chuckled mirthlessly, plucking at his sweater. She remembered how the pattern had looked in the daylight - argyle in wool, the colours deep red and forest green and sunshine yellow, as though he were feeling festive. "All of us take turns watching him, because the last request he made when he was actually lucid was that he didn't want to stay in a hospital, ever. It's not my shift right now, but I hate myself for not being there," he admitted. "The person I care about so much is wasting away, miles from where I am, and I'm sitting here in this abandoned cabin in God knows where doing God knows what like a bloody fool instead of going back to help. Because - because they need my help, I know they do. Like, morale support. I'd have wanted that myself. But I..." his voice cracked and his silhouette followed the turning away of his head. "I can't leave, not yet. It - it feels safe here. I can be myself here. I don't need to - to pretend, here." He exhaled. "I don't want to leave."
"I feel the same way," she mumbled, amazed at how aptly he could sum up the things that churned in her own soul, rankling her conscience like a restless ghost.
"Nice to know I'll never know you in real life." His voice was still cracked.
She propped herself up on one elbow, flushing. "What is that supposed to mean? Isn't this - right here, right now - real life?"
He turned to look at her then, and she was surprised that she could see the glimmer of his eyes faintly. "We would've gotten along well, don't you think? And no, being here with you isn't real life."
He sighed, she waited.
"It's all a dream."
They hadn't spoken for an hour since she arrived and found him already there, playing a tune on his guitar idly, his mind clearly somewhere else. She liked these moments of solitude where she didn't have to worry about saying anything even though he was right there behind her. He clearly appreciated a quiet life as well, whiling his afternoons away with his guitar, or writing things in a notebook, or reading a book.
It was the only way they could handle their grief. The more people surrounded them, the more noise they had to endure, the more acute and excruciating the reminder of their ill loved-ones was.
"What are you playing?" she asked, after a minute or so of listening to his soft strumming and whispered words in accompaniment.
He looked up, focusing his eyes on her. His cheeks began to tinge with pink slightly. "Uh... it's just a song..."
"I want to hear it," she crawled closer. "Please." Anything to take her mind off how milk-white Prim's skin was that morning when she had looked into her room to check on her before leaving for school.
His blue eyes surveyed her quietly for some time, then he nodded and slowly began to strum gently, looking away into the distance. When he opened his mouth to sing, she truly did forget everything but the words he was lowly caressing with his voice.
"Oh my friends I've, begun to worry right," his voice was hushed, matching the somber strumming of his guitar, "Where I should be grateful - I should be satisfied. Oh my heart I, would clap and dance in place, with my friends I have so, much pleasure to embrace..."
His eyes found hers, and the look he gave her made breathing difficult. "But my heart is, returned to sister winter," his voice followed the melody as it rose higher, and she felt goosebumps rising on her face. His strumming turned into sparse picking which seemed to sing in harmony with him. "But my heart is, as cold as ice..."
She turned her face away, embarrassed that he could sing something so personal to her. It was one thing to tell her personal things, quite another to... to... but the thought was a little frightening, and she didn't continue it. She wasn't sure how she knew it was personal, anyway; perhaps the look on his face was easy enough to read.
"Oh my thoughts I, return to summertime. When I kissed your ankle, I kissed you through the night," he sang, the very words a mourning. "All my gifts I, gave everything to you; your strange imagination, you threw it all away. Now my heart is, returned to sister winter; now my heart is, as cold as ice. All my friends, I've, returned to sister winter; all my friends, I, apologise, apologise..."
The rest of the song felt like a blur, like unfocused bright lights. She rubbed her arms down to make the goosebumps go away and was vaguely aware that the song was actually one that ended with a Christmas wish, and when he had finished, she asked him shakily if it was a Christmas song.
"Yes, technically," he placed his guitar down on his lap, feeling the frets. "But it's also a song about a winter day. I guess that's why it was on my mind in the first place." He was avoiding eye-contact, that much was obvious, but she could tell the song held significance to him. In spite of herself, she wished he would tell her.
Casting her mind to the nearly lifeless look on his face as he had sung, as though he really was turning slowly into ice, she thought about his father, the long hours where he lay on his bed, not recognising that it was his son sitting next to him - his son, who wished more than anything that he would come back. Goosebumps began to rise on her arms again at the thought of Prim not knowing her.
It made her shiver once more.
How they began staying whole nights in that cabin, he wasn't entirely sure. Maybe it was when they stayed so long into the evening, lying down side by side, watching the stars twinkle at them like cold deities, inhaling the breath the other had exhaled, that it just started feeling right, and good. The next morning, he had woken with a dry mouth and her head on his shoulder.
He still remembered the way his heart hammered, and that even though he was going to be late for school and in so much trouble with his mother because he hadn't come back at night to help with the bakery like he was supposed to, he didn't seem to have the heart to wake her. So he watched the way her thick dark eyelashes fluttered minutely, how her lips parted slightly so she could breathe through her mouth. His feet felt cold, but he continued to watch her, then, hesitating more than once, he reached his hand forward to smooth her hair away from her forehead. She sighed in her sleep.
His fingers tucked the loose strands of dark brown hair behind the shell of her ear, lingering longer to feel the delicate curve than he should have, and because he couldn't help himself further, he let his fingertip trace her cheekbone, then the freckles across her nose. She twitched, frowning slightly, and he jerked his hand away.
Her blush was a fiery red when she did open her eyes, blooming down her neck. She sat up like a shot, passing her hand hurriedly over her hair to find it was still in a braid, and looked around her, seeing the bare insides of the cabin and how they had fallen asleep on the floor.
"I... Oh my God. I have to go." She looked at him one more in horror. "How long have you been watching me?"
He could be a skilled liar when he wanted to, but this time the talent completely deserted him. "I didn't, I - I swear - I mean..."
"Yeah right," she snapped, pulling on her coat, gathering her bag and leaping to her feet, and he watched her gracefulness in a daze, wishing she wasn't angry with him. "You could've woken me up!"
"I'm - I'm sorry," he swallowed, following after her. And he was, really, he knew that she always looked after Prim for a few hours before the school day began, but he didn't know what had come over him... He caught her arm before she could leave, desperate. "I was only awake for teo minutes, I swear. Will you - will - I mean... You're - you're coming back. Right?"
She only gave him one cold glance before shaking his hand off. In spite of that, he wished for her head on his shoulder every night after that.
She did come back that evening, to his surprise. Also to his surprise, she muttered, "I'm sorry. About this morning." He was never going to be able to get over the way snow clung to her head and her braid, like a white crown. Her cheeks were so wonderfully flushed, and he found himself smiling at the way she was bundled up in her coat.
"It's okay," he returned, unsure of what else to say. "Um. I brought an extra blanket, if you want, and the bed frame is probably more comfortable than the floor... and I promise I'll set an alarm for tomorrow morning on my phone..."
At first she looked appalled, and he was worried he had gone too far. Then her laugh rang out again, that laugh that always took him by surprise because he rarely ever heard it. Her grey eyes softened, making him think of melting snow. "You're so sure I'm staying tonight," she said.
"I - uh," he stumbled over his words again. "No, I just... listen, if you need to be with your sister I get it. I just wanted to let you know - just in case."
She gave him her usual one nod, but this time she was actually smiling a little while she did - and she actually looked at him properly since she first came in. "Thanks for the heads up." Her gaze wandered to his cheek, stopped, and widened in horror. "What happened?"
"To my cheek?" He turned his face away, embarrassed, wishing she wouldn't stare. "It's nothing."
He heard her boots across the slightly creaky floorboards, moving towards the door. In a minute, she had come back with a ball of snow in a clean towel. She held it out, her pointed chin lifted just like the first day he saw her, daring him to accept her care. "Take it."
He accepted the bundle gratefully and pressing it to the aching bruise. "Thank you. It - it feels good."
Could she never smile for more than three seconds? "You're welcome," she whispered, and in a burst of irrationality, he wished he could hold her in his arms.
"I know it was your mother." Her voice broke the silence, startling him.
He was glad he was facing the wall, away from her, scribbling stray thoughts in a notebook. But he was sure she could see the way his back stiffened. "What are you talking about?"
"The bruise on your cheek. I know your mother gave it to you." Her tone was hard, and he sighed and turned around.
"It doesn't matter, does it?" Now, that wasn't fair to cast up her words to her, but he was feeling confused all of a sudden as to what they actually were to each other, and how much they were allowed to care about each other's personal lives, and that if it weren't for the fact that she wasn't supposed "to matter" to him, then maybe, maybe...
She was watching him silently with those grey eyes, and he figured that that was her answer - that there was no answer. He listened to her, she listened to him, she occasionally blurred the lines when it came to information he didn't want to volunteer, and then... who knew. But that was it. Nothing more.
"You never told me she hit you," she said softly.
He shrugged and turned back to the wall again, feeling irked. "Didn't feel like sharing."
"Isn't this something you'd want to talk about?" Her voice rose. "I can't believe you're taking this abuse and not even telling anyone!"
"Yeah, well," he muttered, "why would I tell someone whose name I don't even know?"
There was silence, and then he heard the rustle of sheets behind him as she stood up. She perched herself on the bed next to him, her hand pushing absentmindedly at the mattress. "You don't know my name?"
He stared ahead of him resolutely and shook his head.
Her hand on his shoulder nearly made him jump, but it was her fingers, and it was her small palm, her touch that he somehow felt so familiar with in spite of the fact that he'd never exactly made contact with her hands before. He felt her lean close to him, like she was going to tell him a secret, and he shivered at her cool breath against his ear.
He could hear her swallow, then sigh into the shell of his ear, lick her lips, like she was still hesitant to let the secret go. Then she told him quietly, "It's Katniss."
He turned his face, and his heart nearly froze within him when he realised just how close she was with her chin on his shoulder. Their faces were inches apart, but he couldn't bear to move away, so he let his eyes scan the grey in hers, so much more beautiful, so much icier up close, and whispered hoarsely, "Just Katniss?"
The corner of her lip quirked up for a mere moment. "Tell me yours and I'll tell you mine."
He tried not to shiver at the sudden thought that if he did, maybe he'd start mattering to her. Maybe he wouldn't just be the boy in the forsaken cabin in the woods to her. As stupid as it seemed, letting her know his name would make him a person in her mind, not just an ear when she needed it. He cleared his throat as they continued to hold each other's gazes, but his voice was still soft and hoarse when he said, "Deal. It's Mellark - Peeta Mellark."
Her smile up close was a hundred times sweeter. Goddammit, if he had to kill himself because her chin was resting on his shoulder and stray hairs from her braid were tickling his face, he could at least die a happy man. "Peeta Mellark..." she said wonderingly, and he felt her jaw move with her words. "It suits you."
"Thank you." Damn his stupid cracking puberty voice! But she giggled - actually giggled, a giggle that suited her alone - and then he didn't mind too much, as long as she liked it. "How about you keep up your end of the deal?"
"Everdeen." She paused, looked away for a moment, then looked back at him. "Katniss Everdeen."
"That's a lovely name," he smiled, hoping she couldn't feel how hard and fast his heart was beating. "It's suits you too. It's kind of... woodsy. It belongs to you. You make it beautiful." Then, realising what had slipped from his mouth, he stammered, "uh - I - "
She was looking into his eyes with an expression he had no idea how to read. Then she said, "There you go again."
"With your way with words. Saying these..." she gestured vaguely. "Things that fit and go together." She moved away, and he immediately mourned the loss of her, warm against him. "Unlike me, obviously. I can't even describe how good a linguist you are."
"Naw," he chuckled, rumpling the blanket absentmindedly with his hand. "I think you're good at describing things exactly the way they are. I'm all frills and obscure references."
"I like frills and obscure references, if you're the one behind them." She noticed the notebook at his lap, raised her eyebrows, and lunged in one graceful movement.
"Hey!" he yelped, trying to rescue his jottings, but she was too quick. With a self-satisfied grin at him, she opened it to the first page.
"Katniss," he spluttered. "Give it back. This isn't funny."
She raised her eyebrows again, this time at the drawing - thank God, the first page was just a messy sketch - and looked back up at him. It was of a flower he had found the first time he walked all the way here, to the cabin - pretty enough, but he hadn't given it enough time to make anything wonderful out of his artwork. "This is amazing," she told him.
He blushed, his hand still outstretched for his notebook. "It's nothing. Now give it here!"
She sighed, relenting, and pushed her braid behind her shoulder. "At least let me see one page of what you've written."
"Okay, but I have to choose." Amazing how much time they had spent talking - normally, only a couple of bare sentences were exchanged after the word-vomit that was their confidences. Now they were sitting cross-legged on the bed, talking about his writing like they were two normal friends, not strangers who clung to each other because they needed someone to confide in.
He decided to show her a couple of short poems that he had written while alone in the cabin during autumn, and she read them with a tiny smile on her face. Against his will, he imagined what she would look like if she saw the one he had written about her.
Before they went to sleep, he had told her that he had set the alarm in his phone to wake them up at six, because the walk back was going to be long for both of them and they had to be in school by eight. She agreed, wondering why her heart seemed to be sinking into her stomach at the thought of leaving.
She watched him from across the room, getting ready for bed. The fire was already burning low, and as neither of them felt like waking up to revive it every few hours, they had decided to shut the doors and windows to keep the cold out as much as possible. She had brought two thick blankets as well, and he was trying not to curse from trying to brush his teeth with freezing water from a bottle. There was no way either of them could take a shower, but at least it was cold enough that they barely broke a sweat. Dinner had been, as usual, supplied by the bounty of pastries he always brought with him. She had given up protesting, but promised secretly that she would pay him back.
"Could you pass me my blanket?" he asked, towelling his face. She blinked, tearing her eyes away from the reflection of the dying fire on stubble she could see beginning to form around his mouth and jaw - in that moment, it was as though she was looking into the future, seeing not a boy, but a young man.
She blinked again, cursing herself for getting distracted by the silhouette of his broad shoulders and the way his head was level with the doorframe. How had she never noticed how tall he was? "Sorry," she muttered, and began to gather the blanket he had left on the bed before pausing. "Aren't you sleeping here?"
"I am," he rubbed his face tiredly like his unshaven appearance bothered him. "But I'll be on the floor."
Her reply surprised both of them. "Don't."
The flames of the feeble fire reflected across his face. He knitted his eyebrows together, staring at her. "... What?"
She passed her tongue over her chapped lips. "It's too hard. There's enough room on the bed for both of us."
"I... I don't want to - if you're uncomfortable..."
"I'm not. Come here."
She watched him amble over to the bed, slowly, and she wondered if he was blushing. She recalled the way he looked when he flushed all the way to his neck and smiled a secret smile to herself, feeling her toes curl at the remembrance. The mattress dipped as he climbed on, and she helped him get under the mountain that was four warm blankets.
"Thanks." There was that soft, rusty voice of his again, the way it sounded whenever they were close enough to make her heart speed up.
She turned over on her side, facing him. "I just thought we could share the warmth."
"Good thinking." He smiled at her in the darkness, and she was glad she could see it. "But there's one thing you've missed."
Without saying a word, he opened his arms, and she was surprised, surprised that he was offering, surprised that she was accepting by crawling between them into the warmth that was his chest and the faint scent of cinnamon that always seemed to hang around him. She sighed, nuzzling her cheek against his wool sweater, strangely unsurprised at how his chest was thumping.
Maybe because it matched hers.
She felt him lean his cheek against her hair, and she mumbled, "You can tell me anything, Peeta. Don't ever keep secrets, okay? I'll listen to you."
His arms stiffened around her for a moment then relaxed, making her frown in confusion, but he only said, "Thanks, Katniss."
"I like when you say my name," she admitted in a whisper into his chest, tracing patterns on his arm. "You're the one who makes it beautiful."
She must have imagined the soft kiss pressed into her hair. It felt like a dream, anyway.
The alarm in the morning was a rude awakening which seemed to sweep the quiet happiness away from their minds and replace it with worry for the new day. They packed up their things in silence, and she kicked at the remains of the fire to make sure it was truly out, but he folded the blankets and left them on the bed neatly.
"Aren't you taking them back with you?" she asked.
"No..." he rubbed at his bruise, looking down, and she wondered what pain it was going to cost him for promising he would be back. "I'm staying here tonight."
She chanced a glance at him - his blond hair messy from sleep, his face drawn and weary. She wished there was something she could do to help - then she inhaled deeply, trying not to panic. Because it hadn't been clear for the longest time. That she cared about him. Cared for him.
"I might be later than usual," he continued, unaware of her inner turmoil. "I need to spend some time with my dad."
She nodded once, understanding. It was guilt he felt, for running away everyday and staying here when he could be home, taking care of his father. She felt the exact same way every time Prim's pale, thin face flashed in her mind's eye. Sooner or later, this would have to stop. She couldn't spend so many hours - even nights - in the cabin, not when Prim needed her. Not when her mother needed her.
They were out in the cold dark blue of the winter morning, and she tried not to shiver, even in her coat, because he would see, and that was another weakness she could not bear to show. But of course Peeta noticed - how was he so observant? - and was shrugging off his coat and offering it to her in spite of her angry protests.
"Take it," he insisted, his jaw set, and something in his light blue eyes, astonishing against the snow like a thing of spring that didn't belong in the winter, made her flush and take his coat without another word. He helped her put it on over her own coat, and she hated herself for being so bundled up while he was only in his sweater, pants, scarf, and boots.
Before she could think about it, she held her arms open, and he hesitated before moving into them and wrapping his own around her, bending to bury his face in her hair with a sigh. "Thank you," she murmured, her mouth pressed to his shoulder. His warmth enveloping her, she had never felt safer. She inhaled the scent of cinnamon in his sweater and wished she didn't have to let go. She wished she could deserve him, somehow.
"Don't mention it." His voice was muffled in her braid, but she could feel his breath against her neck and began to find trouble breathing herself, wondering how it would feel if his lips were on her skin. How his kisses would feel on her throat... how it would feel if he opened his mouth and suckled just below her ear.
Her mind in a daze, with no idea what she was doing at all, she turned her head so it met his. Their eyes locked for a second, blue and grey like spring and winter, before they leaned in at the same time for a soft, barely-there kiss that still took her breath away and had her clutching his broad back to steady her trembling knees and her fluttering nerves.
His lips were as gentle as she had thought they would feel, and the way he paid so much loving attention to her bottom lip with them made her sigh into his mouth, dizzy. His hand had moved to cup her cheek, and even though his fingertips were chilled, she relished his touch on her face and leaned into it.
Slowly, he pulled away, his face flushed, his blue eyes sparkling, looking as though he was trying hard not to grin. "I'll see you tonight, Katniss."
"See you," she breathed, feeling her tingling lips with trembling fingers.
The crumpled, bloodstained tissue balled on the dressing table was a normal sight. What wasn't a normal sight, however, was to see the trash can in her sister's room overflowing with them.
"You're coughing up so much blood - and you didn't tell me?" She turned her head to look at her little sister in horror.
"Don't look at me like that," Prim admonished her softly. "You know I can take care of myself, Kat."
She took her little sister's hand in both of her own, trying not to tremble. "I don't know what I'm doing away from home so much. I should be spending as much time I can with you before..." She stopped abruptly, furious with herself for letting it slip to Prim what they all knew - that she only had so long to live. Even though Prim was aware of the fact - she could see it in her passive eyes, they shone with an underlying fear - she herself kept the knowledge within, only telling Peeta, as if not speaking of it with Prim or her mother would somehow prevent it from happening.
"I've accepted it. You know that," Prim pleaded. Then her eyes widened as she began to tremble for air. Her mouth opened, gasping, and just as quickly she doubled over with coughs that spotted the bedspread with blood.
"I haven't!" Katniss had to raise her voice over the coughing, feeling stupid for the indescribable feeling that if she spoke loud enough and protested, Prim would get better. "While there's life there's hope, Little Duck."
Her sister straightened up and eyed her with something nearly like exasperation - that is, if Prim could feel exasperation, she had the patience of a true saint. Changing the subject the way she always did, as though she considered the matter closed with her own private opinion, Prim smoothed the sheets over her lap, took a deep, rattling breath, shifting slightly, and asked, "Won't you tell me where you've been, all these days after school?"
Katniss had been wondering how she would tell Prim when she asked, because it was inevitable, but she was caught off-guard by the question when it finally posed itself before her. Images flashed in her mind of trees covered in snow, the red paint that peeled off the cabin's outer walls, the glowing embers in the fireplace, and Peeta's smile, his broad shoulders, and the scent of cinnamon in his sweater.
"Look at you..." Prim's fingers curled gently around Katniss's hands. "You're happy about something. I can tell."
Katniss could only shake her head, horrified at the twitching of her lips as they fought to smile and the blush that she couldn't conceal rising to her cheeks. Goddammit, how could she feel happy for herself when Prim was lying frail in front of her, dying?
"Who is it?" Prim teased. "Is it someone from school? Is it Gale?"
No, Katniss thought. A tall, blond boy that I met a good four miles away, in an abandoned cabin in the woods. The idea of it seemed so wild to her all of a sudden that she resisted the horrible urge to laugh - it was the exact scenario that horror movies painted. She wondered when Peeta would produce an axe and end the charade, before having to rolling her eyes at her fantastical thoughts.
"At least let me know before I go?" Her sister persisted.
"Prim, you're not going anywhere. And why are you excited for me? I'm giving you full permission to sulk because you're confined to this bed everyday. Stop thinking about me so much for once, okay? Can you please feel sorry for yourself instead?" Katniss sighed and looked down at her lap.
She heard Prim exhale raspily. "Promise me you'll be happy when I've gone, Katniss."
"I can't, Prim. Please - please don't ask this of me. Anything else, not this." In spite of Peeta's patient listening to her fears, Katniss felt them beginning to tower over her once more like a menacing wave that grew in size, ready to crash down and crush her with its impact. A sob was building in her chest, swelling within her until it ached just to keep it in. The thought of Prim - the ray of sunshine in her grey life - leaving Mum and her was frightening, and frighteningly real, like a dreaded impending doom, and she honestly wondered how she would go on without her sweet sister. For Prim to even ask her to be happy was so ludicrous that she would have howled with laughter if she felt just a little more hysterical.
Prim's own face was contorted with the effort to keep her tears from spilling down her cheeks. "Please, Katniss. I already feel so afraid about dying." Her grip became vicelike, and Katniss couldn't find it within herself to reprimand her for saying so. "If I know you're going to be okay - " her little sister choked on her words - "then I really will rest in peace, you know?"
They both giggled feebly at Prim's joke. "I'm serious," Prim protested through her tears.
Katniss nodded once, a tear of her own finally carving a river down her face. "I'll think about it," she whispered.
School was torture to sit through, and he drew her eyes over and over again in his history textbook. The thick eyelashes that framed the outline of her eyes, the lovely grey irises, the fold of her eyelids. She had kissed him, he thought giddily, licking his lips and wishing he could taste her kiss on them. It wasn't just him wanting her - she wanted him too.
He didn't care about how they could make this work; he was sure it would somehow. He wanted her tonight, wanted her lips on his again, wanted his hair tangled around her fingers, wanted her sighs into his mouth. He couldn't stop thinking about her flushed cheeks, the snow in her brown hair, the gracefulness with which she moved. Then he started wishing for more before he could stop himself - he wanted to go on walks with her, his arm around her waist drawing her close to him; he wanted to take her out on a date, see her home when it was over, press her up against the door and have his way with her mouth until they were both panting for air.
He wished with all his heart that he hadn't thought of those things, because they weren't possible.
After finishing a detailed full-body sketch of her curled up in bed, smiling that quick one-second smile at him - he was glad he could freeze that moment in place and make her smile stay instead of always disappearing the way it did - he took a deep breath and started to close his textbook, because Ms. Coin had finally dismissed the class. However, his best friend Finnick was too quick for him.
"Heyyyyyy..." Finnick's hand held the book open so he could lean over and look. Peeta tried his best to shut it anyway, but Finnick had wedged his hand right at the spine so the pages remained visible. "Who's this, Peet? Wow," he whistled, "this girl is smokin'!"
"Shut up," Peeta growled, tugging uselessly at his book while students continued to mill around them on their way to the the next class. "Give it back, Finn, we're going to be late for Lit!"
Finnick snorted, examining Katniss's face closer. "Who cares about Lit when my Peet has been hiding a secret girlfriend from me?" Suddenly, his face darkened. "Wait a second. How come I didn't recognise her before?"
Peeta felt like slivers of ice were passing through his veins. How could Finnick know Katniss? "Yeah, well," he improvised quickly, "I just happened to see a picture of her online... thought she was really pretty." He was pretty sure he was safe, then, because Finnick knew all about his oddities of drawing people he'd never met based on their Facebook profile pictures because he wanted to practise his portraiture.
Finnick shot him a glance that he wasn't sure what to make of as they finally began making their way out of class to get to Lit, but then his best friend changed the subject seamlessly as if he was tucking Katniss away in his mind to think about afterwards. "Are you going for Delly's Christmas party later?"
"What? No." Peeta frowned vaguely. "I've got to take care of my dad, and then there's a whole bunch of homework I need to work on."
"Dude." Finnick planted himself squarely in front of Peeta. "What's getting into you, man? We hardly hang out anymore, I only see you in school, I have no idea where you are in the afternoons because you're not in the bakery or your house." He moved closer, examining Peeta with a frown that was unlike himself. "Who are you, and what have you done with my best friend?"
"Knock it off, Finn," Peeta said shakily, trying to look at his friend's bright, suspicious green eyes without flinching. "Having a dad who's going to die in a month can change you, you know that? Having a dad who's been dying for three years can do that to you!" He had no idea he was yelling until he realised that his voice had echoed off the walls of the deserted school hallway.
Finnick was eying him worriedly. "I just want to know where you've been walking off to," he said evenly.
"Give that up." Peeta pushed past him. "You're never going to find out."
"He doesn't want to see you," his mother spat at him when he met her on the stairs. "Ungrateful, stupid, good-for-nothing..."
He turned his head away, trying not to hear the rest. Finnick's confrontation had shaken him more than he wanted to admit. What was he doing, walking away from home everyday to seek solitude like a coward? How many of his friends had noticed him leaving?
Would Finnick try to follow him? But he shook his head at this idea. Two hours of walking in the snow was enough to put anyone off, and he didn't think even Finnick loved him enough to suffer through the inevitable foot pain. Strange, he mused. The only person who would walk far enough to meet me is Katniss. He frowned, knocking on the door to his parents' room more of habit than really expecting that his dad could answer. But that wasn't true. Katniss came because she needed to escape her own life - meeting him there was just coincidence.
"Come in," a weak voice called from the other side.
His eyes widened - this so rarely happened, and it could only mean one thing. He took a deep breath and pushed open the door. "Hey Dad."
His father was so much like a shadow of his former self that he didn't seem all there, even though the brave smile on his pain-laced face tried to convince him of otherwise. "Peeta."
"I'm sorry I haven't been around much lately," he struggled to say clearly. The sight of his father always affected him. "How are things?"
"Well, you know what the doctors have been saying, son... just two more weeks. Personally, I think I'm going to get past this." His father made a feeble attempt to wink. "I really do."
"You've been saying that ever since you were diagnosed."
His father laughed - and then winced in pain. "The joke's on me then for those three years, but I think I'm feeling much better now. Gonna get better soon... can feel it in my bones."
"If you say so." He turned his face away and tried to rein in the emotions that were showing too clearly for his liking.
"I do." The older man's voice was firm. "Now how's school? And what's this I hear from your mother about you staying out all night?"
"School's normal." Peeta rubbed the back of his neck, wondering how to answer the next part. "I've just been out, I guess."
"You guess? You know, you can be a bit more specific as to your whereabouts. I won't tell your mother - that much I can promise."
Peeta shrugged. "Um... I've been taking walks."
"That last the whole night?" His father raised his eyebrows.
"Dad, just..." He winced. "Please don't ask anymore."
His father nodded, but Peeta couldn't miss the forlorn look in his eyes. He knew why it was there - back when he was younger, he would tell his dad everything, both important and unimportant. In a way, the rest of their family had been selfish by thinking that Stephen Mellark's terminal illness was changing their lives for the worst - the man himself was living out his last days, wishing they could at least be spent normally with his sons laughing with him at his bedside and his wife admonishing them playfully for being the raucous family she was going to deny any connection with.
Peeta exhaled loudly. "I've been taking walks to a cabin in the woods."
"That actually sounds nice," his father mused. Then his eyes clouded over, and he began to say in a frightened voice, "Where am I? Why do I feel so sick?"
Peeta swallowed - his dad was gone. Again. "You're at home, Dad. It's okay, I'm here. And you're sick because..."
But he couldn't bring himself to continue.
He had decided he wasn't going to ask her if she had heard of Finnick Odair. The more real life seemed to intrude on their hideout, the more he needed to keep as much of it as he could out. So when she passed through the doorway, he greeted her with only a shy smile. His problems could stay the hell out of his life for now. While he hadn't been looking, the cabin had somehow become his fortress.
She sat next to him on the bed and reached for the book he was holding in his hands. "What is this?"
"No hello?" he murmured, grinning.
She looked up from the book to catch his eye, and her own moved from side to side as she scanned his face before she allowed herself a bashful smile. "Hey."
"Hey yourself." He didn't care that he was grinning like an idiot because she was smiling at him, really smiling, her eyes warm like a blanket. She leaned over to peck him quickly on his lips, and he swore his heart stuttered in his chest.
"Good enough?" she huffed in mock indignation, turning her focus back to his book. He edged nearer and put his arm around her to pull her close, and she gave him one more smile. "Are you gonna let me read or are you going to distract me?"
"How can you not know the answer?" He feigned disbelief, and she rolled her eyes at him, snuggling closer into his side.
"The last drops of the thunder shower had hardly ceased falling when the Pedestrian stuffed his map into his pocket, settled his pack more comfortably in his tired shoulders, and stepped out from the shelter of a large chestnut-tree in the middle of the road," she read softly, then looked at him with a laugh. "This sounds like you, you know. Am I happening to read your autobiography?"
He shook his head, mesmerised with the way she read the words of one of his favourite books. "It gets better."
She continued, "A violent yellow sunset was pouring through a rift in the clouds to westward, but straight ahead over the hills the sky was the colour of dark slate. Every tree and blade of grass was dripping, and the road shone like a river. The Pedestrian wasted no time on the landscape but set at once with the determined stride of a good walker who has lately realised that he will have to walk farther than he intended." She broke off to snort with laughter. "I can relate to that."
"Exactly," he agreed, "it's the occupational hazard of walking too far from where you live." The thought briefly brought Finnick to mind, but he hurriedly stuffed it back down.
"That, indeed, was his situation," she giggled, squirming away from his tickling fingers. "Stoooop. God, now I've lost my place... why on earth is this whole page one whole paragraph?! His only chance now was Sterk, on the far side of the hills, and a good six miles away." She wrinkled her nose in sympathy. "Six miles... wow. Hey, I missed this entire part about Much Nadderby. Too bad. It's your fault."
He smiled, curling a loose lock of her hair around his finger. "I think this book was what made me start taking really long walks."
"Yeah. I have to admit, it's not anyone's typical pastime... which makes me curious - what about you?"
"How I started walking for miles?" She gave him a wistful smile. "It was when I found this cabin. The night my dad... disappeared."
"Disappeared? You've never told me about him."
"Our family's kind of ripped apart at the seams. But yeah... he told us that he was going on a business trip. And he - " she frowned. "He never came back. My mum wasn't the same after that."
"That's got to be the strangest thing I've heard in awhile."
"Nothing is ever simple, is it?" She gave him a sad smile.
He squeezed her waist, trying to convey how much he understood. "W-we can - can be," he stammered. He looked at her bashfully. "Simple, I mean."
"I'd like that," she whispered longingly, and he could read in her eyes what they both knew - as long as they were in this bizarre arrangement of meeting miles away from home, things could never be simple, really simple. They could pretend it was simple, pretend they were playing house like when they were kids, shut their eyes, but they'd be stupid to.
How she had managed to be in the same room as him for weeks without touching him was suddenly beyond her. The feel of his bare skin under her fingers, the way his unclothed chest moved against her own clothed one... some part of him was always in contact with some part of her. His lips on her throat. Her fingertips tracing the outlines of his modestly-sized but firm muscles. Touching him had become a full-on addiction, and she had to be careful not to go too far. The idea of having him even closer, to answer the pull that both of them felt, was terrifying in its intimacy.
Exploring the new territory that was his body used to be reserved for when they were huddled up in bed together but too distracted by their proximity to sleep. It had begun with a shy, closed-mouth kiss - but for Peeta's kisses, she doubted that they would have gone any further. His lips never demanded anything more than the chance to touch her own, to caress them slowly as if to savour her; his kisses were a language that she didn't have to hear but rather feel. And as actions were always her preferred choice of communication, she was well-versed enough to know what he was saying to her through the steady, earnest way he captured her bottom lip between both of his own, running his tongue gently along the swell.
He was saying that he liked her. A lot. A lot, a lot. The hand that cupped her chin, drawing her even closer to his face so the tip of her nose pushed against his cheek, beside his nose, was moist just at the fingertips. He was nervous. So was she. His pulling away from her lips to place soft kisses, one by one, along her jaw - she could imagine a whispered "I like you" to go with each delicate, warm kiss. She had never been kissed this way before.
He actually liked her. A lot, a lot. And she was sure she liked him more than was technically healthy.
She dipped her head to recapture his lips with her own, hoping he would read her own reply, her own confession. Her fingers slid up his neck slowly, slipping into the curls of hair at the nape of his neck. She hesitantly parted her lips, her tongue reaching out to lick at the seam of his lips.
I like you too. A lot. A lot, a lot, a lot.
He opened his mouth, and his own tongue met hers, welcoming her with soft touches and then, a little more boldly, his lips closing around her tongue to lave it gently over his own, tasting her. The sensation had her lightheaded and trembling, and him panting lightly. It felt too much and too little, too overwhelming and yet so completely, utterly wonderful.
By the third night, his lips had found the place on her neck that made her gasp, and with a small smirk, he did it again. Open-mouthed. She literally couldn't think anything for a few moments, her body arching against his, her mind blank with pleasure at how soft, and slick, and lovely his mouth felt.
They learned she didn't mind his kisses a little sloppy. At all.
They don't wait for night the next day, lips and fingertips restless for each other not long after his arrival at six. Soon her hands were crawling so high up his shirt that he just laughed, disentangled their arms, and sat up to pull it off. Her heart pounded harder with every inch of his skin that was uncovered, and by the time his sweater had settled on the ground and he sat before her shirtless and a pale golden, muscular yet not bulky, she had to pass her tongue over dry lips and admit that although male anatomy hadn't interested her much before, the specimen in front of her was perfect. Not, perhaps, by the standards of the rest of the world - but she loved him the way he was.
She put that thought away - and was helped by his eager lips, moist over her collarbone - and told herself to enjoy this while it lasted. In spite of that, it brought to mind the fact that this - them - was not going to be forever, and how, deep down inside, she was dreading the day when it would be over. But - but maybe they could work out? Maybe being a couple wasn't impossible. They could always attempt a long distance relationship - one where they met in what he aptly phrased as "real life" and didn't keep their interaction confined to this cabin. Then the thought of the cabin reminded her of why a long distance relationship wouldn't work: she had wanted anonymity, and he had agreed.
If only she could take it back. And she wished he would rethink his decision as well.
Why do I care so much? she wondered, flipping them over so she was on top, her hands slowly beginning to roam his broad chest and follow the trail of blond hair down to his navel, making him suck in a breath and laugh. She realised that she already had the answer: he made her feel safe. He listened. He understood her. He was one of the strongest men - yes, men - that she knew, and on top of her undeniable attraction to him, she held a respect for him she rarely ever had for anyone else. His words were golden, but his strength was a quiet, steady one that she found increasingly lovely just to lean on.
As he pulled her down to kiss her thoroughly, she felt his eyelashes brush against her cheek and made a silent wish that things could be different.
They didn't spend all of their time kissing. It was something he was thankful for when they brought each other up to date on how his father and Prim were slowly but surely slipping away, but it was also something he always thought they never did enough of when her lips were on his and his fingers were trying to undo her braid at the same time.
In spite of the obvious pluses of having his tongue in her mouth and her fingertip tracing his navel because she was now so familiar with how he was ticklish there, he knew what was behind their enthusiasm and admittedly active hormones. They were two kids on the brink of adulthood, losing the people they so desperately needed in their life to something they were powerless to fight against. What better distraction than to give in to the fact that they were attracted to each other? And with his father with literally a few days left to live, he really shouldn't be coming so often - even though he now stole Kirsch's car to make the drive instead of consuming precious time walking.
It felt wrong to begin with, even more wrong once he added to the equation that he was pretty much hopelessly in love with her. But on the other hand, it felt like a small consolation for all the hardships in his life - Katniss was the bright spot in this raging storm, like a lighthouse beaming to lost sailors, letting them know that land was near, that hope was nearer than they'd thought or could see in the blackness.
And he couldn't stop himself from kissing her just one more time. It was always just one more time.
Day six, though, she came late - very late - with bags under her eyes and frown lines on her forehead. Greeting him with a short peck on the lips, she told him that she wouldn't be able to stay long because - because Prim was worse.
As it turned out, the tuberculosis had paved the way for pneumonia, and as her little sister hadn't always been particularly strong to begin with, both diseases would be sure to finish her off. And quickly.
"I'm scared," Katniss whispered shakily against his chest as he held her tight. "I know there's something I should be doing, something that will save her. It's just that I have no idea what it is."
"Look," he said quietly, "you already do so much for her. I've never met anyone as dedicated as you are, Katniss. Don't wear yourself out if there's nothing more you can do."
They stayed that way in silence for a few minutes, then she released him with a sigh. "I have to go back."
"Okay," he said softly, pressing a kiss to her forehead. "Hey." He caught her gaze. "Do the best you can, but don't run yourself to the ground, okay? And just know that... that if I could be there with you, doing anything to help, I would." How he wished he could.
"Thanks." She looked down as she made her way slowly to the door. Then she turned, just before the night swallowed her. "I may not be back for a few days."
"It's okay," he lied, his heart sinking down to his feet.
That night, he drove back in the dimly lit darkness to see his dad and to spend the night at his bedside for once. And that was when he realised that maybe the cause for thinking that his father had so many periods of confusion and vagueness was that he wasn't with him enough, sitting by his side. His four hour shift after school was just four hours out of twenty-four, and there were plenty of chances his father would slip back into another precious half-hour of lucidity. Just like right now.
His father took a look at him from beneath tired eyelids and said, "No use pretending, son. I know there's a girl in your life."
"Dad, just rest, please. Let me take care of you."
The older man smiled and said, "I don't exactly have long before I go. You might as well start telling me about her."
Maybe it was the first time he had ever heard him admit that death was coming, coming soon, because suddenly Peeta was a little boy again, and his face was scrunched up with all the emotions that he had been trying to hold back - grief that came with watching someone die and watching another person - the girl he was in love with - watch her sister die. His father patted his back as he cried on his shoulder, just like the time he'd broken his leg, just like the time someone had punched him in the head during a wrestling match, just like the time his mother had whipped him for ruining an expensive cake.
And with his head on his dad's shoulder, he told him all about Katniss. Her grey eyes, her brown hair, how she was a creature of winter - sister winter - and how she had a little sister who was lying in bed just like his father, fighting for their breath and their right to live.
Prim was asleep when Katniss returned, and she breathed a sigh of relief until she saw the short, painful breaths that her little sister was taking and how she frowned in her sleep, her breath hitching more than once.
She rested her hand on Prim's burning forehead and muttered, "If I don't get you out of this, Little Duck, I'm never going to forgive myself."
The next few days were hell, because there was little she could do except watch Prim doze, tossing and turning, her breaths laboured. Her mother watched them sadly and tried to get her to rest, saying she would take care of Prim, but she shook her head wearily, afraid that if something happened, she wouldn't be there for her sister. That would be her worst fears realised.
Homework was trivial compared to the life they were fighting for, but she found that she could think of Peeta without fidgeting in worry. With a deep breath, she closed her eyes and imagined the first thing that came to mind - his soft suckling kisses on her throat. Her eyes opened again in shock and embarrassment, but strangely, the thought released a little of the tension that was clenching at her shoulder blades, even though she wasn't sure this was really the right thing to do. But that small voice of reasoning in her mind was silenced quickly, and soon, as the days passed and Prim showed no signs of recovery, her imagination wandered to the things she and Peeta hadn't done yet and parts of his body she hadn't seen. Her hand ached to hold him, to feel how hard he was. She passed her tongue over her dry lips at the thought of how he would taste.
She wondered how his hands would palm her breasts, small as they were, and how that mouth of his, wet just the way she liked it, would take her nipples within its velvety heat. Her thighs clenched at the thought of his hand snaking down her stomach, past her hips, past her underwear.
Soon, she began locking herself in the bathroom.
After making herself come for the third time, trying to imagine that it was his hands, his fingers stroking her, she put her back against the wall and slid down, boneless, to the floor.
What was she doing?
Winter break had begun, and because he was sure Katniss would be in her own home for at least a week, he didn't attempt to visit the cabin. He had his own dad to think about, and the days he spent watching him and making sure all his needs were provided for made him feel somewhat better. At least he was here. At least he was doing something right.
Still, there were moments - whole hours, even - when all he could think about was Katniss and Prim and the verdict of the younger Everdeen's fate. He usually brooded himself into the most heavy of brown studies while he was watching his father shift in uncomfortable, painful sleep, having given up on ever having another real conversation with the older man. Since that night when he had admitted everything about Katniss, his father had called him Adam, cried like a baby when he needed to use the bathroom but couldn't sit up, dozed fitfully, and started long, rambling narratives about wars and space travel which he kept messing up details of. If Peeta was feeling especially unreasonable during those moments, he would imagine that his confession had completely sandbagged his dad's brain for good.
"You ought to go back," his father told him two days away from Christmas. Peeta had dozed off on the chair, and from the way his father's voice sounded as it penetrated his subconscious, his own foggy, sleepy brain could've been wrapped in several layers of wool.
He blinked the sleep from his eyes and resisted the urge to sigh at the thought of having to entertain his father's dementia. "Go back where?"
Instead of "to the trenches" or "to Mars", which he had been fully expecting, his father shot him a sharp glance. "To the cabin. To see Katniss."
He sat bolt upright. "No! I can't! Dad - I - I'm not leaving you!"
"Me? why are you so worried? I'm not going anywhere," His father snorted. "She might be wondering where you are. She sounds like a keeper, that one - don't you go losing her. What are you waiting for?"
"I can't, Dad!" He threw up his hands in frustration. "I need to be here in case..." He swallowed and sighed, and Rye, who had been leaning against the doorframe, said softly, "Dad's actually a little better today, Peet. You heard the doctor - she did say there's a lesser chance of an emergency. I'll take care of him."
"You're kidding. I can't leave."
"Peeta, I don't think there's anything you can do even if you sat on that chair for the rest of your life. You've been doing nearly all our shifts for us this week, and I know you're worried sick about your girl. Let me take care of Dad."
Peeta bit his lip, trying to keep his hands from shaking. He wanted to go, he wanted it so much it hurt. It was true that Rye was the best person for handling things if Dad was in any danger - but the moment the thought entered into his mind, he shoved it aside as an excuse, not a real, legitimate reason to decision left him resisting the mad urge to tear his hair out in frustration. He shouldn't. But he wanted to. He needed to see her. He needed to know. He needed to be there for her, to comfort her. God, he needed her lips on his. He needed to be away from here, away from the dementia meddling with his father's brain, away from the cloud of grief that hung over every room in the house. He needed to get away so badly, he could've howled at the sky like a wolf gone mad with grief and desire.
But he shouldn't. He couldn't.
"I promise you I won't die," his father said from the bed, as though the whole thing was settled.
"You can't promise me things like that, Dad."
"But I can promise you your Katniss needs you now. At least I have my family around me, but don't you forget about her mum and her situation. Be there for her, son. I'll be fine with Rye."
That sealed it for him - somewhat. The thought of Katniss crying alone while her mother stared blankly at nothing made his chest ache so much he wondered if his heart was actually swelling in pain.
Peeta looked into his father's eyes for a moment, and seeing the sincerity there, nodded slowly and stood up.
"You're a true Mellark, son," his father said, looking at him steadily. "A true man. You think of others first, always. You put them before yourself. I am -" he broke off, looked up at the ceiling for a moment, and when he focused back on his son, his eyes were filled with tears. "I am so proud of you."
It was nearly ten, and pitch-black outside the cabin. There was a chilly wind that blew around the cabin, rattling at the doors and the windowpanes like an enemy trying to make its way inside. And Katniss hadn't come.
He'd tried not to worry the first couple of hours, and Finnick's persistent calling kept him preoccupied with sending busy tones, because he really didn't feel like talking to anyone at the moment except Katniss. Then the sky turned dark, a moon began to rise, he watched as the fire began to dwindle. His watch read 11PM when he gave up waiting and started to prepare for bed. He was just crawling in with a sigh, wondering when he could manage another day to meet her, when he heard the muffled sound of running feet outside.
Then she burst in, but it wasn't Katniss, not really; her hair was in her face, and tears were falling unbidden, and her entire body wrecked with silent, heaving sobs. She must've run the whole way here. As he watched, stunned, her knees gave way.
Leaping out of bed, he ran to her side. "Katniss!"
She was making noises - grief-filled little noises. "Peeta - oh my God..." Her mouth was open in a silent, heaving sob. "You're... you're here... You're here..."
"Katniss!" His hand grasped her shoulder and shook gently while his other hand did its best to smooth the matted hair away from her sticky face. "Shh. Shhhh. Tell me what happened."
Her face was contorted in pain, and she flung her arms around his neck, gripping him close, pushing her face into his shoulder as his hand cradled her head gently to him. "Shhh. It's going to be okay." He immediately cringed at his words - they, of all people, knew that things were rarely ever going to be okay. Slowly, her silent cries became audible, first pain-filled moans, then harsh sobbing.
"Prim died - an - an hour ago," she choked out, and she was so hysterical he thought she might either hurl or faint. "Hey," he lifted her face up desperately so she was looking at him, "I'm here. I'm here, Katniss. I'm always going to be here." Her grey eyes looked ugly bloodshot, like murders committed in the snow. Her breaths came in deep rattles, and he pulled her tired, messy head against his chest.
"You matter to me. It's not just the secrets. I - I need you," she whispered, as though she just realised it, looking up into his face. "I've always needed you."
"You have me," he whispered back. "Always."
She pushed herself up to kiss him, and he couldn't think anymore because her mouth was feverish and ferocious over his, hungry and needy. She pushed him down to the floor, sucking his tongue into her mouth with abandon, and suddenly the air felt wet and hot and full of gasps and sighs as she increased her pressure on his tongue. He knew it wasn't right, knew grief was as bad as drunkenness when it came to doing rash things. But he couldn't say no to her, especially not when her hand fumbled for his, and finding it, brought his hot palm to her breast. He began to massage the mound of flesh slowly, making her whimper around his tongue. He let out a gasp when her hips settled flush over his, and his other hand moved to grip her thigh, groaning when she pressed down onto his already hardening arousal.
His mind was blank with pleasure, and then he realised that this was the best way, the most wonderful way to forget. Because tonight, tonight, he wasn't going to hold back, and he was going to let himself forget. He had a feeling she had the same idea.
"Peeta," she keened as he slid his hand under her coat, under her sweater, to undo her bra. She sat up quickly to pull off her many layers of garments, and he wrestled out of his sweater hurriedly just as her bra straps slipped down her shoulders. There was a beat of hushed silence as he looked at her, then all of a sudden he had her beneath him and his lips were pressing wonder-filled praises into hers. "Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful..."
His mouth left hers gasping as he licked along her jawline, then he mouthed at her throat hungrily, tasting the light sheen of sweat that lay on her skin and feeling himself strain unmercifully against his pants.
This was what he'd wanted, God, this was what he'd always wanted.
Her, her, her.
She was whimpering below him when he finally reached where her nipples were dark, dusky pink, straining for his attention. He took her entire breast in his mouth so she let out a surprised and aroused moan, and he sucked the lovely plumpness, pulling away slowly until only the hardened tip was left in his mouth. "Please," she panted, and he smiled.
He suckled at her nipple, lavishing it with his tongue and the moisture from his mouth, loving the other sweet bud with his fingers for as long as he could until she was writhing.
Her hands began their journey of discovery at the dip of the small of his back, moving up and down the entire length of his torso, and he relished the feeling of her palms skimming over his heated skin. Then she dipped her head and captured his lips in a plaintive kiss, tugging at the waistband of his pants.
He pulled away in surprise, watching her face. Her eyes were hooded, full of desire, soft gasps were coming from her mouth, and then answering his unspoken question, she gave him one eager nod and began to pull off her own pants. Soon, they were both naked, but somehow they didn't - couldn't - feel the cold.
The whole hour was a dream, a hazy dream filled with her laughs and sighs, her moans and whimpers; sometime or other he had carried her to the bed, then she pulled him back on top of her and proceeded to kiss his breath away.
"I want you," she murmured. "I want you."
"You have me," he pressed a kiss to her forehead and slowly, slowly began to push into her. "Always." The feeling of her around him made his head reel - she was so blazingly warm, she was so deliciously wet. She was everything, and he told her so, his face buried in the crook of her neck as she panted, trying to get used to his length and girth within her.
Then, when they began to move together, his thrusts and her lifting of the hips to receive him like a homecoming, as though right now, what they were doing, was what they had been made to do. They were puzzle pieces that would never truly fit to anywhere else except with each other.
It was the only thing that felt right anymore.
She opened her eyes slowly, blinking the sleepiness away. She shifted slightly, immediately sore, and just like that the memory of last night came rushing back into her mind. Today was Saturday, and that meant that she could spend at least the morning with Peeta before going back home.
Her throat tightened at the thought of home and Prim's empty room. The bleak picture banished every other thought of Peeta's lips and hands from her mind and every last feeling of bliss from her body. The grief had been pushed aside the night before, and she would be lying if she said that she was sure it had been a good idea to use him to distract her. Because she had used him, even though she hadn't intended to - the constant, steady care and tenderness he always treated her with had gotten the best of her last night, in the throes of her grief. A cold feeling settled around her heart. They couldn't take back what they'd done - she didn't want to, even now - but it seemed so wrong to have made love to him to forget Prim's lifeless body at home. When was she ever going to do things right?
She wondered, not for the first time, whether her little sister would've lived if she hadn't always been running away to the cabin. Sure, she wasn't much of a healer, but Prim had been so lonely while she was gone. What if she had died of a lack of friends, of company?
She rolled her eyes at the thought of herself being bright and cheerful company to cure Prim from her fear of death and depression.
But what if she could have done more? The thoughts began to flood her mind, and every guilty memory in which she was sure she hadn't done enough for Prim threatened to engulf her. Her stomach sank.
What if she could have rallied Prim's few friends for oftener visits than usual? Why did Prim have so few friends in the first place? That had to be her fault somehow - she was supposed to take care of Prim, but what had she done? After some thought, she remembered - she had been something of a loner at school herself, and that reputation had automatically been passed on to Prim in middle school. Tears were starting to pool in her eyes.
She could've put herself out there a little more.
She should have bitten down her hatred for parties and just gone anyway so she could have stupid friends and have their younger siblings hang out with Prim.
Instead, she had come straight home from school and holed herself up in her attic room, doing homework and brooding over her father's disappearance until she started making more frequent journeys out of town to the cabin to be with Peeta. Other people had whispered things about how she was queer, an antisocial freak, even that she took drugs in secret and that she was a lesbian and ashamed to let anyone know. She hadn't cared, obviously, but they must have given Prim the same treatment just because she was her sister.
Her tears were blinding her eyes, and she couldn't see the ceiling anymore.
Why hadn't she done something? Her thoughts turned to her mother and the way she'd insisted that she could take care of Prim from the house. She had been so sure that sending her to the hospital would mean them pumping her with medicine that was more harmful than good, and Katniss given up arguing with her. Now, grieving silently, she wished she had put up more of a fight. If Prim had gone to the hospital, she would have been saved. How she was so sure of that she had no idea, but her opinion of her mother after her father's disappearance hadn't left her generous enough to hold her mother's professional healer reputation in any high regard.
Goddammit, she should have done something.
But she hadn't, and Prim was gone, gone to where nothing could save her and bring her back. Katniss wiped the tears away from her eyes with the back of her hand, trying not to sniffle and wake Peeta. She exhaled shakily, remembering his mouth on her breasts and how he had gripped her hip as he thrust into her. She remembered the fullness of him inside her and how strangely complete she had felt, having him so deep, so wonderfully, amazingly deep.
With a tiny smile, as though she couldn't help smiling, she turned her head to the side to look at him. His blond hair was tousled as his head lay on his arm, his long golden eyelashes brushed his cheeks, and he was inhaling through his nose and exhaling through his mouth. Then she saw the frown on his forehead and her chest ached with the thought of his experiencing what she had last night, knowing that her little sister was gone. Her poor boy, with his father so near to joining Prim. For the umpteenth time she wondered at how they, two individuals with such similar pains, had met.
Her fingertips reached out to smooth the lines on his forehead away when his phone, which was on silent, vibrated softly on the floor. She scrambled out of bed to pick it up just in case someone was calling, but her heart stuttered when she saw the screen.
19 missed calls and 28 new messages.
In a daze, she opened his inbox folder, scrolling through the message previews without opening anything.
Finnick: I thought we were friends, Peet. I...
Finnick: Fine, don't reply. But are you coming...
Finnick: Annie really wants to know if you're...
Finnick: Okay, I get it. You don't want to talk...
She frowned, but everything still felt like a bad nightmare where she could only move and and think sluggishly slowly. Finnick? Finnick Odair? She shook her head to clear it. Then her eyes widened in fear as she read the next messages, her throat closing up.
Rye: Where are you, Peeta? We're taking Dad...
Kirsch: Peet, Dad's really bad. Where are you...
Mum: If you care anything for your father...
Mum: Come to the hospital right now.
Mum: This is your last chance, young man...
Rye: Mum is going crazy, Peet! Hurry up...
Kirsch: WHERE ARE YOU, MAN? DAD IS...
Mum: Peeta Mellark, you are getting it when...
Kirsch: Dad's gone.
Kirsch: Mum's just disowned you.
Kirsch: Forgot to say - she's dead serious.
Kirsch: Rye says to stay away from home.
Rye: Mum is going to kill you if you come...
She didn't bother to read the rest. Her heart was hammering against her ribs like a bird battling against the walls of a cage. How had they not heard the text alerts? Then, horrified, she remembered his breath hot against his ear as he panted, "I'm turning this stupid thing on silent, okay? Tonight, it's just going to be you and me."
She had done this. She had been luring him to this cabin all winter, making him break his ties with his friends, forcing him to spend less time with his father and get into trouble with his mother everyday for staying with her here in the cabin all night. She knew why he had done this - because she had made him care for her. Because she had said that she needed him. She could see it in his eyes when they had made love last night, his gaze tender and passionate on her own as he had gasped, "Always." He wanted to comfort her because of her bereavement, but he had ended up forgetting his own.
This was her fault. Not only had she caused Prim's death, but she had caused his father's, as well, and had made him lose his family.
She rose, trembling, to her feet.
He was better off without her.
The sheets were cold when he came to, and he reached out for her without thinking. His hand came into contact with more cold sheets, and his eyes flew open. She wasn't on the bed. He sat up quickly and scanned the entire cabin, but there was no trace of her - in fact, everything in the cabin that was her - the blankets she had brought, a spare pair of boots, her chipped brown mug - was gone, as though she had never been here.
He dressed hurriedly, wondering if there had been a snowstorm and she had been lost in it. But he cast a worried look at the bare shelves that used to hold her things - a snowstorm wouldn't explain the absence of her belongings. Then he spotted his phone lying innocently on the floor, and he picked it up mechanically to check the screen. He swore loudly when he saw just how many messages he had received during the night and what they said.
His dad was dead. He had gone at 4:37 in the morning. A thousand different emotions began to whirl furiously in his mind, and they moved down to grip his heart in a vicelike hold, settling at last in his stomach.
He stumbled outside and was violently, horribly sick in the snow, retching for five minutes, tears and mucus mingling with his vomit in such a disgusting way that he threw up more. He crawled back into the cabin, collapsing on the floor, dizzy and trying to blink the vision back into his eyes.
"You told me it was okay," he cried out loud. "You told me you wouldn't go..."
What was he going to do now?
His mother was capable of whipping him into unconsciousness, but it was his own guilt that made him curl into the fetal position and sob, terrified. He was supposed to be responsible - he should have been there. He'd been so stupid to put his phone on silent when he ought to have remembered his dad's condition, but nope, the only thing that had been on his mind was that Finnick was going to try and call again. Forget the part about the phone, even - he shouldn't have started coming here in the first place.
God, he was the worst fucking coward in the world, always taking every chance to run away from things that made him afraid. Maybe he deserved being disowned. He didn't deserve to be a Mellark. More than anything else, he had let down his father. He hadn't been there to at least - to at least...
He yelled in grief, furious with himself. "You didn't even say goodbye..." The last word cracked as the sentence ended in a sob.
He hadn't been there to at least say goodbye.
"Oh my God," Finnick muttered when he opened the door and saw Peeta shivering violently on his doorstep, bundled up in his coat, hair a rat's-nest, face ashen. "You'd better come in."
Silently, he led him up the stairs. The smell of good food - dinner - was wafting in from the kitchen. The Christmas tree was decorated in a thousand sparkling lights, and the sight was magical in the Odairs' dimly lit living room. The thought of his own living room made him swallow painfully - there was no Christmas tree, no twinkling lights.
"Who is it, dear?" Mrs. Odair called from the kitchen.
"No one, Mom," Finnick called back, rolling his eyes at Peeta.
Peeta couldn't smile back.
Finnick let Peeta into his room, gesturing to his bathroom door. "Go clean yourself up, I'm gonna get you some food."
"Finn," Peeta swallowed again, trying to speak clearly. God, he sounded like he was hungover - his voice was rusty from retching and sobbing. "Finn... thank you."
Finnick smiled, hand on the doorknob. "We're friends, Peet."
She lay in the fetal position under the shower for what seemed like hours, letting the hot water pelt at her like a punishment. Her eyes stung from having cried too much - it certainly made up for her lack of tears most of her life - and the water from the shower kept streaming down her forehead and into her eyelids, making them feel red and raw. Now that her rashness had worn off into a grey state of gloominess, she was wishing she hadn't run away from Peeta when, come to think of it, he would have needed her the most. He had been there for her when her loss was fresh and unbearable.
And she had left him to his own loss.
She breathed in and out slowly, her self-hatred settling in her chest with no intention to leave. Her skin felt crinkled. The water kept flowing.
But try as she might to picture going back to beg his forgiveness, she couldn't bear the thought of the look in his blue eyes, the look of someone betrayed in their greatest need. Would he even want her back anymore? Would he regret sleeping with her? She was sure he would, and the thought alone made another tear seep out through her tired eyelids. It was settled, then. He was still better off without her.
As he always had been.
Once he had stripped off his clothes and let himself into the steaming jets of water, he felt oddly rejuvenated. Even though he felt his grief more acutely, at least it was better than stumbling through the day numb with shock - which was what he had done. Instead of taking him an hour and a half to get back, it had taken him the whole afternoon. He breathed out, wide awake for the first time in hours.
He soaped himself down, trying not to lean his head against the wet tiles in hopelessness at the thought of Katniss. He knew she had seen his phone - one of the messages he hadn't read had been opened, he was guessing accidentally - but why had she left? Why?
Maybe... maybe she would be back tomorrow. Tonight. Suddenly, the need to get back to their meeting place was suffocating. What if he missed her? What if she missed him? In spite of himself, he chuckled grimly. How convenient that neither of them knew where the other lived, or how to contact each other. But she had to be back... she couldn't have just left him.
He wouldn't believe that of her. He couldn't. Not after last night.
That night, when Finnick asked him what had happened, he decided to tell him everything - how he found the cabin, how he had met Katniss, everything, even the night before. Then Finnick revealed how he knew Katniss Everdeen: they had once been neighbours before his family decided to move here. "This coincidence is freaking me out," he said with a laugh.
Peeta felt sufficiently freaked out himself. Now he knew where she lived - that was, if she hadn't moved, herself - and it was strange to know something they had chosen to keep a secret from him on purpose.
Finnick asked if he was going to look for her now that he had her location, but he only shrugged and said he would try the cabin one more time. "At least drive there," was all Finnick would give for advice. And in a way, he was thankful, because he knew his friend understood how much advice he had been bombarding himself with - advice he should have taken when there had been time and a chance.
Katniss never showed up the next day, or the day after that, or the day after that day. He didn't know what to think. In that moment, where she was clenched around him, pressing kisses into his neck, he had never felt more in love. Heck, it wasn't so much being in love as it really was love - and his head had completely shut down in its happy deliriousness, leaving his senses to take over. What had he done wrong?
I want you, she had said. I need you. I've always needed you. You matter to me.
The words echoed in his mind until they became taunts that made him want to yell aloud so he couldn't hear them.
She turned her head to see that her mother had sat down on the sofa as well, and she hadn't even noticed. "Yeah?" she asked with a sigh, looking down at her fingers.
"Katniss, love, I'm sorry to have to ask you this so soon after..." Her mother trailed off and took a deep breath that shook slightly. In a way, she was glad her mother couldn't talk about Prim's death - because she couldn't, either. "Anyway, we should discuss what you want to do after school."
She looked into her mother's eyes in surprise, noting the clarity behind their blue irises for the first time. Her mother gave her a smile that wobbled a little, and Katniss understood what she was trying to say, what she couldn't put into words.
That she was sorry for the days when she wasn't all there, after her husband left. That she didn't want to relapse back into that horror after Prim's death - and that Katniss should recognise that she was this close to doing what she herself had hated in her mother.
It wasn't about the dead and the gone - it was about those they left behind. She needed her mother, and her mother needed her. They had to cling to each other because they were all each other had left. She couldn't let another person leave, even if it was her mother. Dad and Prim had gone, and Peeta was no longer in her life, but she still had someone who needed her. And that was enough, for now.
"Music school." She swallowed the lump in her throat and continued, "Voice lessons."
Kirsch had offered that Peeta stay in his apartment until the time would come for his little brother to leave for college in the fall next year, and looking back, Peeta was sorry for the dark cloud he had brought with him into his brother's home that bitter winter. It took all of his self-control to keep from drinking himself to the ground when Kirsch, seeing how distraught he was, brought him back a six pack of beer - since he was technically underage and wouldn't be allowed in bars. As it was, he still woke up with a splitting headache of a hangover the next morning and barely just made it to the bathroom to throw up the majority of the content of his insides into the toilet bowl. Groaning and feverish, he crawled - crawling was something he did a lot of these days - back into bed and passed out again.
She kept appearing in his dreams, under him, smiling that smile of hers that never lasted more than a few moments, her grey eyes looking tenderly into his. He grit his teeth whenever he passed the sharp meat knives in the kitchen, doing his best to resist the urge to slit his wrists with them.
Or his throat.
His fingers plucked lifelessly at his guitar strings, his voice a toneless whisper as he muttered more than sang the words he had sung to her what seemed like a million years ago.
Now my heart is
returned to sister winter
now my heart is
as cold as ice
All my friends I've
returned to sister winter
all my friends I
Thankfully, it had been winter break when he completely broke down, so at least he didn't miss any school. He spent many days in Kirsch's apartment, trying to sleep, forget, sleep, forget, sleep. Rye and Kirsch had really risen to the occasion to keep him hidden from their irate mother - they hadn't answered her when she demanded to know what had happened to "that boy" - and other much, much worse names. It made him want to cry like a little kid, knowing that they actually cared after all the ragging they put him through when they were younger, but he was already crying too much to begin with, and it embarrassed him. His head and heart had ached in unison the day of the funeral, because he hadn't been allowed to attend it. It had made him want to kill himself, staying cooped up in the apartment the whole day knowing he would never lay eyes on his father again.
He hadn't had the chance to see his face one last time, to make peace with the fact that he hadn't been there to say goodbye.
So he paced the floor like a caged animal, not sure which was worse: the thought of his dad, or the thought of Katniss.
His last leg of school began in January - thank God his parents had paid for it beforehand, before... everything - and he felt sorry to shave the beard that was growing so thickly, proof of how much he had sunk into depression. But as he ran his razor across his jaw, he determined that he was cutting away the past. His dad and Katniss belonged to the previous year, and no matter how guilty he felt over his dad or how heartbroken and deadened Katniss had left him, he was going to study like he had never done before, work part time at the restaurant he had found to have good pay, and get himself into college somehow. Rye and Kirsch had agreed to pool some of their resources to help him out, and his earnings from working at the restaurant would be sufficient for his entire course.
The summer found him graduated from school, and he and Finnick began to look up colleges. When Finnick mentioned that there was a pretty good art school in his old town - Katniss's town - Peeta had jumped at the chance. He drove there with Rye to scout out the area and see the college, and the whole four hours that they took to get there, he found his emotions in a strange lackadaisical state - and that was to be expected, really, as he hadn't really thought of how it should feel to drive to her town like he'd wanted to so many times, to head in the direction where he knew she would be. He wasn't sure what to feel right now, now that it was actually a reality and that he'd be able to be so much closer to her.
It was almost like a dream that wasn't supposed to come true.
The art school was a little small, but he guessed he didn't really mind. The less students, the better the teachers could interact with them. The classrooms were neat and tasteful, and the principal, Ms Paylor, looked friendly and steady.
"Majoring in fine art?" she repeated his choice. "And with a minor in literature..." She paused for a moment, then let out a chuckle. "Well, looks like you'll be with Professor Abernathy. Which isn't a bad thing," she clarified, seeing Rye's eyebrow lift. "He's one of our best professors. Knows his art and poetry and loves it. It's amazingly, really." She shook her head and gave them a candid smile. "You'll know what I mean when you see him in the fall."
They found a couple of rooms to let relatively nearby - it would take ten minutes to walk to classes everyday, not that he minded.
"You're probably going to have to take a roommate or two," Rye remarked as they were shown around the place.
"Yeah, I know. Hey, the kitchen looks awesome."
"Are you gonna be making baked beans in there?" his brother teased.
"Nope." He shot him a grin. "But you're gonna wish you were living here too. I didn't work in that restaurant just for money."
The last place they made for - and it had taken a lot of back-and-forth within himself as to whether he should do this with Rye here - was to Katniss's house. Finnick had given him the address just before they left, telling him, "Look, I have no idea if she's still staying there, but don't give up on her."
Don't give up on her. Did Finnick know something about Katniss that Peeta didn't? Did he know why she'd run away and never come back?
They found the house, nestled comfortably in a row of other houses of the same style and structure. But it was dark, boarded-up, and bore a sign that said, "For Sale." He exhaled shakily, surprised that he had really gotten his hopes up.
Rye clutched the steering wheel and said sympathetically, "Sorry, little bro. I know how much it meant to you to find her."
He shook his head and said thickly, "Maybe finding her just isn't meant to be."
"Katniss, Gale's here," her mother appeared around the door to let her know.
She took a deep breath, surveying the impossible neatness - emptiness, even - of her room. It hadn't looked this way all through her time of living here. "Okay. I'm coming."
Before leaving the house, though, she placed her hand on the door of Prim's door and leaned her forehead against it. "I'm not leaving, Primmy, not really," she whispered, her lips brushing against the wood with every word. "I'm not going to forget you either. But I've got to go on, Little Duck, remember?" She sighed. "It's what you asked me to do."
Gale blasted the horn one more time and she cursed, resuming her run down the stairs.
"Don't miss me too much," she said to her mother as a means of farewell, but she gave Prim's door a parting glance that made it clear the goodbye was for her too. "I'll be back before you know it."
And when her mother kissed her forehead, she could feel her lips curl in a smile against her skin as she murmured, "Godspeed, my little bird."
He believed that they were never meant to meet again, just like he'd told Rye, all through fall, all through winter, all through his first semester at his new college. Sometimes, while walking through town, he caught a glimpse of a girl with a braid, or someone with olive skin. But it was never her.
He and Professor Abernathy got along, surprisingly, considering the man probably drank himself silly every night. But Principal Paylor had been right - Professor Abernathy knew his art and his poetry, and he loved it. In spite of the fact that their personalities seemed to be polar opposites, there would be moments in class where everyone had paint all over themselves and the professor would catch his eye through the chaos, grinning. And Peeta would be surprised to find himself grinning back, because he knew that look and understood it - it was the look of a man who knew that this was where he wanted to be.
And he felt the same way. Covered in oil paint and smelling strongly of it, he felt the same way.
He shared his rooms with a tall, quiet boy named Thresh, who was also studying fine art in the same college. It was nicer to live away from home than he had anticipated, and since the both of them weren't exactly much for company, Peeta made dinner in the apartment and they worked on their homework and projects at the dining table, bouncing ideas off each other.
Then he made friends with a petite girl called Rue who was in his literature class. Professor Abernathy had been having a massive hangover that day and was even snarkier than usual, and he swiped her composition notebook off her desk, brought it to the front, and read her homework aloud to the whole class as a joke. Then, when he had finished, he cleared his throat gruffly and said, "Well... I'm damned if I could write as good at your age." Peeta had wholly agreed, for he had been listening to the poem with bated breath and thought it amazing - wispy and abstract, just Rue herself. As she collected her book back from Professor Abernathy with a blush on her dark cheeks, he noted that she had an odd, graceful way of moving - as though she weighed nothing, a bird about to take flight.
He waylaid her outside of class with a shy smile. "Hey - my name is Peeta. I really liked your poem just now."
"Thank you!" She sounded pleasantly surprised and accepted his outstretched hand, shaking it. "Rue Peterson. I'm a huge fan of your own poems, by the way."
"Ah," he chuckled, bashful. "They're nothing."
"Sure," Rue rolled her eyes. "I'm honestly not convinced about that. Your style and imagery - it's amazing. Oh God," she breathed, spotting Thresh moving towards them. "There he is. Quick, show me you're a good new friend and hide me."
"Why?" Peeta laughed, amused in spite of himself. "I can't hide you anywhere - he's my roommate. We're supposed to walk back together."
"Really?" She shot him a smile and raised an eyebrow. "I might have to visit you sometime."
"Always welcome," he chuckled as Thresh slowed in front of them. "Hey, Thresh - this is Rue."
Things escalated pretty quickly after that, but he was happy for his roommate and his new friend, and his only complaint - more to embarrass them than anything - was that he was always catching them making out on the sofa when he came back from the grocery store, laden with stuff to cook for three. Rue had initially been shy about accepting his food for free, but he insisted. Soon, she left Thresh on the sofa and came to help Peeta cook as compromise, and they had the craziest food fights which left her putting a bemused Thresh between them as Peeta, with squash in his hair, tried to get past the tall boy to lob some at her.
He had never felt happier since his father's diagnosis and passing, and Thresh and Rue were like family to him. They spent many nights together - whether it was procrastinating on the living room floor, or Peeta and Thresh practicing acrylic portraiture with Rue as their model, or Peeta and Rue reading their compositions aloud to Thresh, who yawned jokingly and said they were boring him to tears. This made them roll on the floor in agonies of laughter, not because Thresh was particularly funny but because the idea of him crying was.
Summer came, and Peeta arrived back at Kirsch's apartment with an actual smile on his face.
"Glad to see you're doing better," Kirsch remarked with an unwilling smile - which meant that he actually was happy. "Now get in here and make dinner."
Rye hadn't been able to make it that night - his wife, Jess, was in labour. Peeta wondered at the paradox of life - lose one person, gain another. His niece could never take the place of his father, but it was still something new, something wonderful. Just like food fights with Rue or reading Thresh his poetry or watching Professor Abernathy paint, an indescribable, quiet sort of joy bubbled up from a place so deep inside him, he didn't know where it came from.
Needless to say, he was thankful he hadn't slit his throat two winters ago.
A small smile - halfhearted, but still a smile - crept onto his face at the thought of Katniss. Not a day went by when he wasn't reminded of her somehow, but now that the anger and the worry that he had done something to drive her away was more subdued, he could see a little clearer. And one thing was clear - if he could find her, he would. However, that was where the problem lay. Was he never going to meet her again?
Idly, he wondered what she could be doing now.
"You've got to be shitting me, Brainless," Johanna groused, snatching the piece of foolscap paper from Katniss's hand. "What kind of lyrics are those?"
Katniss sighed upward, blowing her bangs out of her face. "Jo, I am hopeless at writing lyrics, okay? Just get someone else to do them and I'll sing whatever they write."
"Good idea," their electric guitarist, Gale Hawthorne, snickered from his perch on his amplifier, fiddling with the knobs and trying out different effects. His girlfriend, Madge Undersee, resident keyboardist, shot him an exasperated look before sitting down next to Johanna. "Here, let me see."
Even though they were having their fifth argument since practice started, Katniss couldn't help but feel proud, looking at her band. She and Gale, her childhood friend, had decided on a music school not too far from town, and it was there that they had met Johanna Mason and recognised Madge Undersee from fifth grade. The first few friendships Katniss had had in years since high school and Prim's death resulted in a budding companionship and the eventual brainwave to start a band, which Gale promptly named District Twelve. Johanna had been strangely attached to "Seven" instead of "Twelve" for some reason but had been out ruled by the rest of them.
Now, the only problem was, apparently, lyrics.
"You're trying not to laugh," Katniss accused as Madge bit her lip, unable to keep a smile from her face.
"Kat, it isn't bad, I swear. But I think we could some better lyrics," Madge admitted hesitantly.
"That's fine with me," Katniss rolled her eyes. "Anything to get Jo off my case."
"I was never on it to begin with," Johanna protested as she cradled her bass guitar in her hands.
"Okay, well," Madge intercepted a potential argument, "I have some friends who are really good at writing poems and lyrics and stuff. They actually go to Aunt Paylor's school in town. Want me to get them to help us out?"
"I don't work well with other people besides you guys," Katniss mumbled.
"Come on, Kat, I won't get the guys because they freak you out for some reason. But at least let me ask one of the girls? Her name is Rue Peterson, and she's really sweet, you'll love her."
Katniss hesitated, but Johanna's and Gale's pleading looks made her surrender with a sigh. "Fine, I'll do it for the band."
"Anyway, you won't be alone with her - we're all going to write together," Madge reassured, shooting looks at the other two band members, who suddenly found their guitars very interesting. Gale muttered something that sounded like "forget it."
True to her word, Madge had gotten the sweetest girl out of the poet group - and Katniss knew immediately she'd like Rue. Soon, working on song lyrics became a summer-long project for the two of them and Madge (Johanna and Gale escaped when they could). Coffee cups would litter the floor and foolscap pages fluttered around the room as Katniss tried to make sense of some vague feeling within her and Rue helped her put it into words.
She was grateful for her lovely little friend - before her, there were so many emotions that she hadn't been able to describe. Gale didn't jokingly call her "girl on fire" for nothing. When she felt things, they were so strong and poignant that they consumed her, but she has no idea how to really make other people understand.
It made her think of Peeta, and she exhaled, lost in thought, unaware that Rue had asked her a question.
"Katniss?" Rue's voice held a hint of laughter.
"Sorry," she blinked, snapping out of it. "What were you saying?" The familiar feeling of guilt whenever she thought of the boy she had left vulnerable in their bed was beginning its usual ascent up her throat, and she tried to shove it back down while listening to Rue.
"I was just wondering what exactly you meant by this part here..."
Watching Rue, she was funnily reminded of Prim even though the two girls looked nothing alike. When their writing session for the day was over, Rue leaped nimbly to her feet, complaining they were stiff from sitting on the floor for so long, and she realised that both the girl in front of her and her sister moved strangely weightlessly, like birds about to take flight.
Well - Prim had flown.
Rue gave her a friendly grin, and she found herself thankful that this little sparrow, on the other hand, was showing no signs or intentions of leaving just yet.
All too soon it seemed, the summer was over. As he prepared to go back to college, Peeta saw a pile of his old school notebooks and textbooks on the floor where he'd left it a year ago, and he sat down slowly, pulling them out one by one, flipping through them. The pages smelled like grief and death and the scent of antiseptic soap that hovered over his home, and he sighed, laying them aside gently. Then, he opened his history textbook with slightly shaking fingers, hunting slowly for his drawings of Katniss. There she was - his first glimpse of her in over a year.
It seemed like so much longer than that. It seemed like another life.
But looking at her, her curl of the lips, an actual sparkle in the grey eyes that had reminded him so much of snow, the scent of her - it was coming back to him... it had smelled like pine and freshly-cut wood - and the signature braid that snaked around her shoulder... it seemed only yesterday. Yesterday and forever ago. He had to laugh at that one, even though the tugging at his heart betrayed how much he missed her. In the end, he placed the book on top of the pile of stuff already in his full backpack, deciding he would bring it along with him and keep it secret.
Too bad it fell out of his bag the moment he opened it when he, Thresh, and Rue were back in the apartment together.
"What's this?" Thresh bent to pick it up before he could. His roommate surveyed the book, eyebrow raised.
"Oh, that's just my history textbook," Peeta mumbled. "Can I have it back?"
"Your history textbook?" Thresh repeated, sounding confused.
Rue came up beside him, curious. "Twelfth grade history," she read the title aloud. "Why are you carrying this around?" Taking it from Thresh, she proceeded to flip through the pages.
"Don't - " he yelped, but it was too late.
Rue's eyes widened as she saw the picture of Katniss, and she frowned as if there was something she didn't understand. "Who - who is this, Peeta?"
He ran a hand through his hair and exhaled loudly through his nose. "Looks like I'm going to have to tell you - one of these days."
And as if she seemed to sense that it wasn't the lightest of topics - to put it very simply - she just nodded and said slowly, "I have a feeling that it's going to be one heck of a story."
He wasn't sure how he would even begin, but a few weeks later, when the wind was already beginning to have a chill, Rue invaded their apartment with three venti to-go cups of Starbucks coffee and sat down, a pleading look in her eyes as she said, "Tell us a story, Pa."
He laughed at her new term of endearment for him - she complained he was always playing chaperone to Thresh and her - and set down his brush, cleaning the watercolour paints off it carefully with a piece of tissue paper. Then he looked at Rue with a small smile and found his beginning. "Once upon a time..."
She rolled her eyes but leaned against Thresh, her eyes attentive.
So he started when he and Katniss had met - two summers ago, where sunlight beamed through every green forest leaf that brushed against the peeling paint of the cabin roof. He talked about how the snow adorned her hair in winter like a soft, clinging crown, and Rue's eyes sparkled the way they did when she was inspired to write something. He told them how exactly his father had passed away, why he hadn't been there. And the story ended with his waking up the next day to find her gone.
"Ouch," Thresh supplied.
"You and your one-word responses," Rue glared, then turned back to Peeta. "Peeta... I never knew. I'm so sorry."
He shrugged and took a few long gulps of coffee, trying not to show that the memories had made him wish, for the thousandth time, that Katniss had never left. "That's the end, I guess. I hope she's living happily ever after wherever she is. I can't exactly say the same for myself, but I'm glad I have you guys."
"Did you know if she liked to sing?" Rue asked with an air of nonchalance that made him wonder briefly what she was thinking.
"No idea... she never sang for me, that's for sure."
"But you've sung for her, haven't you?"
"A couple of times," he scratched the back of his neck. "Why?"
"Just wondering," she mumbled, and Thresh raised an eyebrow at her, saying slowly, "What's up your sleeve?"
Rue just shot him another glare. "Nothing."
"Because you know what they say..." Johanna trailed off and glared at Madge to continue.
Madge rolled her eyes and set her rucksack down on the floor of the apartment, grinning. "'The band that rooms together stays together!'"
"You bet," Gale laughed from his room, his chuckles echoing off the empty walls. "This is awesome. I can't wait to start making music in this place."
"Don't be too loud, you guys," Johanna groused in reference to the fact that both halves of a couple would be living in the same quarters, and Madge blushed will Gale reappeared, glowering. "Was that necessary?"
"You know me. Stuff like this is always necessary."
"It's a little chilly in here, actually," Katniss said to change the awkward subject, tucking her cold hands more comfortably into the pockets of the coat she was glad she had kept on indoors. Although others had commented that it was at least a size too big and long for her, she loved the way she could duck her head down into the snug warmth that the high collar provided, shielding her from the cold air that stung her face and chapped her lips. A long time ago, it had smelled of dill. Because it had been Peeta's, and he had given it to her the morning they kissed.
Even though she was never to see him again, she would not deny herself this one small comfort of having something that used to be a part of him close to her, around her. She missed his arms more than was reasonable or healthy, anyway, so that was one argument for his coat. A much larger argument against it, however, was that she couldn't stop thinking about how it had covered his own body once, hugging and fitting into the places and outlines she missed and longed to see.
What brought her back to earth was Madge's delighted exclamation as she looked up from her phone. "Remember how I said I could get us a show venue in town this winter?"
Gale leaned over her shoulder and examined her phone screen before giving a cheer and scooping her up in his arms to whirl her around. "Madge, you're amazing!" Holding her aloft, he pressed a kiss to her cheek, and Katniss felt her stomach clench slightly at the sight, suddenly envious. Hurriedly, she pushed the feeling away and focused on how lovely a couple her friends were, breathing a sigh of relief as her shoulder blades unlocked and relaxed. On top of that, there was the fact that they had their first show to look forward to, even though it was to be near Christmas during winter break, and autumn had technically just begun.
Johanna made a face at Gale and Madge, who had snuck in the opportunity for an actual kiss as well. "Alright you lovebirds, let's hear the details. What's this place called? I'm really hoping it doesn't have a stupid name."
Gale set Madge back down on the floor, and she grinned at Johanna and Katniss. "In that case, you probably don't want to know."
He wanted to groan. Winter finals and Rue was intent on dragging them out.
"Rue," he sighed and rubbed at his scruffy three-day beard - the result of his neglect for all things but work. "Do you not realise that it's snowing out and we have a ton of stuff to prepare? Dinner out is the last of my priorities."
Rue crossed her arms. "Peeta Mellark, look at this place." He did, and saw it was a mess - things littered the sofa and the floor. "Okay, now look at that beard." He felt it, eyebrows raised. "That should tell you how much you've been staying in and neglecting your social life!"
"Social life shouldn't exist when you've got finals," Thresh mumbled from the floor. Peeta gestured to him gratefully. "My point of view exactly!"
Rue huffed angrily, tugged her boyfriend to his feet in frustration, and hauled him into his room. Peeta stared after them in bemusement, wondering what had gotten into Rue. Normally she was just as studious - maybe this was her new way of relieving stress? But try as he might, he couldn't really believe that of her.
And what made him even surer that she had something weird planned was when Thresh reappeared, clearing his throat and saying, "Uh, Peet. I think we ought to go, man."
Peeta gaped at his turncoat friend. "But - the ten page paper for our assignment - "
"Can wait," Thresh said sternly, drawing himself up to his full height while Rue nodded animatedly behind him.
He gave up with a sigh. "Fine, Mum. But if we have to do an all-nighter the night before deadline, you owe me."
He couldn't have been more surprised that Rue had been so eager to get out of their place into a freezing twenty-minute walk that led to a quieter part of town, ending at last at a relatively small café called The Pink Polar Bear. Just the name alone sounded wrong, and at their first sight of it, he and Thresh fell to the back together, letting Rue take the lead.
"What on earth...?" he heard Thresh mutter, and he heartily agreed.
In spite of its name, The Pink Polar Bear actually looked presentable and cozy, and all three of them drew sighs of relief to see the fireplace and feel the warm, comfortable temperature of the heater as they took off their coats and scarves. There was even a place set up for a live band, and he could see a drum set, a keyboard on its stand, and a couple of guitars leaning against the wood-planked wall.
"Nice," he had to chuckle, looking at the painted pink polar bear that covered the exposed bricks of the entire wall on the opposite side. A large Christmas tree pervaded the entire room from end to end with the sweet smell of pine needles, its deep red baubles reflecting the warm twinkle of the Christmas lights. All in all, the place felt like a design experiment gone right - in an old barn. And in spite of himself, he was beginning to like the feel of it.
They chose a table huddled away in a dimly lit corner because Rue insisted that the privacy was nice, and after dinner had been served - a steaming plate of bolognese, another plate of creamy linguine, and (because the Christmas spirit was finally getting to them) a cut of lamb - he leaned back with a satisfied sigh and said, "Okay, Rue, I'll admit it. I needed this."
Rue smiled but didn't say anything.
Thresh looked at his lap and fiddled with his fingers.
Peeta frowned, looking at both of them. "You know what? I've had a weird feeling that both of you were up to something by coming here tonight, and I'm pretty sure now it's true. Out with it, c'mon."
Rue bit her lip, her smile stretching from ear to ear, raised her hand slowly, and pointed at something behind him.
He turned his head.
"Testing... testing," Madge murmured into the microphone they had set up for her, and at her gesture, Katniss mumbled into her own. She was currently very, very nervous, and trying not to show it. To distract herself, she sat down on her stool and began to tune her classical guitar. Normally she relished the weight of her guitar in her arms, but right now it was just making her shoulders tense.
So she waited for Johanna and Gale to set up their own guitars, plugging them in and checking the sound. Johanna rumbled out a low tune on her bass, the one that Katniss always heard her play before practice, but instead of soothing her, she felt her stomach flip at the thought of what they had been practicing for being played for all of these people. Granted, there weren't more than twenty - this café wouldn't hold more and hadn't been designed for large, noisy crowds - but these were people she'd never seen before, let alone sung for. She had never sung for anyone except Prim and the band.
"You're gonna be okay," Madge patted her shoulder tenderly as she made her way to her keyboard.
Katniss turned to give her a grateful smile, and Madge returned it with a thumbs-up.
"Thanks for standing in for Gale," she mouthed to their other friend, lovingly nicknamed Foxface, who was sitting at the drum set with a grin. The red-haired girl waved a dismissive hand as if to say "Stop it" and caressed her drumsticks gleefully.
"Think we should give her a spot in the band?" Gale murmured from his place next to Katniss. "I can't always be playing drums and guitar at the same time anyway."
"Maybe," Katniss whispered back. "Are you guys ready, though?" A quick glance to them saw that everyone was indeed ready to perform, and Johanna gave her a wink.
She cleared her throat and drew the microphone back towards her, and even though her voice trembled a little, it gained more confidence as she greeted the audience and told them that they would be performing one of their original songs and two covers. They received cheers, Foxface counted the beat, the band started up, and she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
And then she began to sing.
It had to be dream. It was a dream. Any moment now, he was going to wake up and it was going to be finals day and he wouldn't have studied anything because he had been dreaming of seeing Katniss Everdeen in a café after months of going without a glimpse of her.
Her voice was not helping matters as it soared, sighed, and crooned the words of their song, her fingers plucking the guitar she cradled in her arms. He had never heard such a voice - soft and yet strong, brimming over with the most amazing nuances and barely-there quivers. His gaze was drawn to the fireplace, and as he watched the flames crackle merrily in a dance of its own, he knew how to describe her voice. It was fire, always flickering and gleaming, wanting to consume and yet being held back so it shimmered richly instead of blazing beyond control.
It was her.
He never took his eyes off her, spellbound, noticing how her braid hung down her shoulder, now reaching her waist in length. He watched as her legs - still in their classic boots - swung a little in time to the beat. His heart felt as though it was so full it would burst, because it really was her after all this time.
Turning back, he hissed at Rue, "You planned this! What - how - "
"I have my ways. But don't pretend you're mad - I know you're happy," Rue noted, her eyes sparkling.
He looked down and grinned so widely at his lap that he hoped his face wouldn't crack into two. "I am. So, so, so - " he shook his head, laughing, listening to how it blended with her voice - "so happy."
The first song had finished, and the blond girl spoke into her own microphone over the applause, saying, "Now, we're all going to need your help for this next song, because our lead singer's a little shy of singing covers of love songs and demands the audience be allowed to vote."
The crowd laughed, and he watched Katniss look down, tucking her hair behind her ear. He was sure she was blushing, and the thought that he was close enough to see a little of that blush in person if she looked up made him feel giddy.
"So, all in favour?" The blond girl laughed when nearly every hand in the room was raised. "Katniss, you're in for it."
"Whatever, Madge. Thanks a lot, guys," Katniss muttered into the mic, making the audience laugh again. Then she began to softly pick out a melody on her guitar chords while Madge softly coloured in the lines with delicate strings from her keyboard.
Then Katniss leaned into her microphone, parted her lips, and sang softly, "Waiting by the road for you... you never seemed to notice how fast I fell for you." The way she drew back, hiding her face while Madge sang the next two lines made his heart start beating faster in his chest. It was stupid to make presumptions, but - could she - could she possibly be singing about -
"Still I try to keep you by my side, and let things go to make this right," she mourned into the mic, her voice like rich dark blue velvet. His breath caught, because he knew. He had made a stupid guess, but it had been true anyway.
Madge was singing the next line, and her voice was a sweet one, but he couldn't really hear a word of it.
Katniss looked up in her direction but appeared not to notice him, because she finished the first chorus with a simple but heartbreaking, "But still I lose you every time."
No, he thought in a daze. You haven't lost me, Katniss. I'm right here. I've always been right here, missing you. I never went anywhere. He must have slipped into another brown study - one that was filled with emotions that he would never be able to exactly describe after that - when the crowds were applauding again and murmurs of approval about Katniss's and Madge's voices were buzzing softly around his table. Without further ado, the band was beginning their third and last song for the night, and Madge's plodding piano chords made him sit up straight and look to the stage, mouth agape. He knew that song.
"This last cover is to wish you all a very happy Christmas," Katniss smiled a little into the microphone. "Thank you for having us. I want to dedicate this song to..." she paused and sighed, and he was nearly on the edge of his seat wondering what she was going to say. "Someone I think is miles away right now." Katniss looked down at her guitar, then back up again with that brave smile he recognised - the one she always smiled when she wasn't feeling particularly brave, the one that only lasted for a moment then disappeared.
Then he found that Rue had been kicking his feet in excitement under the table because of over the dedication and how it fit him, and he hadn't even realised. All he wanted was to run up there and take her in his arms and never let her go ever again.
"Oh my friends I've, begun to worry right," she sang with a sad smile on her face, and he knew she was appreciating the irony of the situation. Then his brain shut down completely, letting his hearing take over, and he basked in her voice. Bathed his soul in it. "Where I should be grateful - I should be satisfied. Oh my heart I, would clap and dance in place, with my friends I have so, much pleasure to embrace..."
The song built to a crescendo, and Madge joined with Katniss to harmonise over the last part.
And my friends, I've,
Returned to wish you all the best
And my friends, I've,
Returned to wish you all the best
And my friends, I've,
Returned to wish you all the best
And my friends, I've,
Returned to wish you a Happy Christmas.
The song had ended, and soon the band would leave. He couldn't bear the thought of losing her again - he was never going to lose her again. He rose to his feet, oblivious of Rue's and Thresh's looks of surprise, and made his way slowly through the tables in a daze, feeling like he was really in a dream. He was vaguely aware of curious glances - obviously drawn by the fact that he was moving like a sleepwalker - but the only thing he could see was her, with her back to him, drinking from a bottle of water. Then she screwed the cap on, set the bottle on the stool, and picked up her guitar, ready to go.
And from his place right behind her, he licked his suddenly parched lips and clenched his fists, mustering his courage.
She had always been surprised at how many things one could catch in a single, split-second glance, but this time was overwhelming as she took in the familiar broad shoulders, the tall stature, the blond hair that caught the reflection of the low lighting in the café. Her mouth was open, she vaguely realised, but she forgot about wondering if she should close it. That faint smell of dill, now mixed with a new scent of different soap, was so familiar. Every one of her senses told her that Peeta Mellark was really standing in front of her, but she couldn't believe them.
He was taller. More muscular. And God save her fluttering heart, he had a scruffy golden beard.
"Hi," she said faintly. Now that her mind had finally comprehended that he really was Peeta, it was working overtime to remind her of why she had run away in the first place - and stayed away.
Before he could even reply to her greeting, her limbs were no longer numb and slack, and she had only one object in mind - to flee again. He had found her when he shouldn't have, but this time - God, what was it going to take? - this time, she would stay hidden.
She had nearly made it to the door backstage when she felt a firm grip on her arm. "Katniss!" he panted, hurt in his voice. "Where are you going?"
She turned around to face him. "I'm leaving, Peeta," she exclaimed, trembling. "Just like I left you that time, remember?"
He tugged her into backstage, shut the door behind them, and pressed her up against it firmly but gently. "Why?" he croaked, cradling her cold cheek in his hand. "Why did you leave?"
"Because I made you do all of those things," she looked down, her breathing erratic. "It was me. You came to the cabin to see me when you should've been with your dad. It was all my fault, Peeta."
"Katniss..." he let out a disbelieving little laugh. "If I didn't want to come, nothing you would've said would've made me - not when my dad was in such a critical situation. And it wasn't a mistake... my dad told me to meet you. He wanted us to be together, even if it meant he wasn't going to see me anymore. He cared about you and he'd never even met you. What you don't understand is that - is that I loved you -" he squeezed his eyes shut, she inhaled sharply at the intimacy of this confession, and he continued softly, "I love you, and it was my decision to make. You didn't do anything, Katniss."
"I distracted you," she protested weakly, turning her head away, but his fingers under her chin drew her gaze back to his as he said, "So wasn't it my fault that I responded?"
"If we'd never met, you wouldn't have been distracted," she exclaimed, wishing he would understand. Why were her knees trembling so much? Why was he so near and so warm?
"It wasn't your fault that we met," he said, sounding hurt. Oh God, he probably thought she thought she was better off without him.
"Peeta, the time we had together... I'm glad it happened. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me," she stammered, trying to explain. "But I screwed it up, the way I always do."
He got so close to her, his forehead nearly touching hers, that she was convinced her heart was trying to burst out of her chest. "What can I do to let you know that I still want you?" His voice was husky - like all of those other times, when he was so near to her.
"I do know," she whispered.
"Then show me you do," he whispered back, blue eyes searching hers, and she couldn't take it anymore. Because she wanted him, she needed him; she always had needed him. Cupping his face in both her hands, relishing the feel of his warm skin and scruff under her fingers, she pulled him towards her so their lips collided and parted, moving against each other in abandon. She felt his tongue move across her lower lip, pulling it slowly into his mouth with his teeth, and clutched his back tighter so she wouldn't fall. How could she have gone two years without his kisses? This felt so right.
Pulling away, she gasped, "Give me one more chance with you. Please."
He looked at her tenderly, his chest brushing against hers with every hard breath, his fingers tucking stray strands of hair behind her ear. "A thousand chances, Katniss. It doesn't matter. As long as I love you, I'm never going to keep count."
Someone cleared their throat behind them.
"Good show," Gale mumbled to the rest of the band members, all of whom had been sitting in stunned silence while Peeta and Katniss had thrashed things out without realising there was anyone in the room besides them.
Johanna broke the awkward atmosphere by letting out a loud cackle of laughter that soon had everyone else laughing themselves. "Okay, Brainless, now that you've pulled a boyfriend out of thin air, you might as well introduce him."
"Um..." Peeta glanced at her, adorable with a blush on his cheeks, and she giggled in spite of herself. "Guys, this is Peeta Mellark. He's..." Their eyes met, and she found home in the way his blue irises glowed. "He's my best friend."
"Nice to meet you," Madge smiled, and she actually stood from her chair, walked up to them, and gave Peeta a hug. "Take care of her, will you?" she said, hands on his shoulders for a moment before moving away.
"And be good to her," Gale added menacingly, acting the part of older-brother down to a T with his arms folded across his chest.
Before Peeta could answer, Katniss groaned and shot Gale a look. "In all honesty, you should be saying that to me."
A knock sounded on the door, and she heard the person on the other side before she saw her. "Have you guys made up yet?" Rue was practically jumping up and down in excitement, while the tall boy beside her said, "Calm down, Rue."
"You planned this!" Katniss was sure of it, though the number of surprises she was receiving in one evening was beginning to make her head feel a little light.
Peeta chuckled as he came up behind her. "That's exactly what I said. You've got some explaining to do, young miss."
"Psh, I know you're not angry, Poppa. I wrote lyrics for her in the summer, remember?" Rue teased.
"But you never told me..."
"Because that would ruin the surprise!" Rue said as if it were perfectly obvious. Although Katniss was tempted to feel annoyed that Rue hadn't told her much earlier that she knew Peeta, it wouldn't have done much good. She was busy with District Twelve and coursework, and it had to be admitted that she wouldn't have done anything about it - because she had been sure Peeta hadn't wanted her back.
In her own way, Rue had brought them back together. The girl in question was beaming as she provided the final missing link: "Peeta's my boyfriend Thresh's roommate."
Katniss shook her head, feeling bewildered. Everyone turned to her for a response, but the first silly, no, stupid thought that had come to her mind slipped out of her mouth before she could think about it.
"It's a smaller world than I thought."
Her hand was in his - was this a dream? - and they were walking slowly through the deserted night back to his apartment as the snow fell lightly around them. She felt like the world was clicking into place, focusing and rendering images sharp, clear, and correct. District Twelve's first performance had aligned perfectly with the beginning of winter break, and Peeta had there by the weirdest of coincidences. And now, because it was winter break after all, and she had thankfully cleared her workload, she could spend the night with him in his room. Just like old times.
She sighed, burrowing closer into his side."So you're staying here now."
"Yes," he said, his voice radiating with happiness. He pulled her tighter against him. "I'm closer to you, thank God."
She smiled bashfully at their moving feet. The old feeling of mortification for leaving him moved restlessly in her stomach out of habit, but she pushed it away, so happy she wasn't sure why she wasn't running and dancing and laughing through the empty street, feeling the snow whirl around her. He had wanted her all along. He hadn't hated her. It was the loveliest feeling in the world.
"Why are we not taking a taxi?" she asked in confusion when he told her where he lived - it wasn't that far, but far enough to just hail a taxi.
He smiled at her and she felt her insides warm. "I like walking," he grinned with a shrug of his shoulders.
"Yes," she exhaled a chuckle through her nose, leaning her head on his shoulder. "You do."
As they walked, he told her about his art school and in return, she told him about her music and voice education, filling in the blanks of his knowledge just like he was doing for her. It made her stomach sink a little to know that there was apparently so much of his life that she had missed out on - but then again, she had caused him to miss much of her own doings as well.
"Where are Rue and Thresh?" she wondered, noticing for the first time that both their wingmen were missing. He huffed, his cheeks reddening slightly.
"Rue lives with her family nearby, so I think Thresh has gone to camp out at her place tonight with her."
"They're really sweet together," she smiled. Then she laughed suddenly, unable to keep her raucousness down. "Oh God, I just imagined them boning while her parents are sleeping in the room down the hall or something! It shouldn't be funny but it is - I think Johanna is rubbing off on me," she gasped, clapping her hand over her mouth.
He chuckled too, but his blue eyes were a shade darker as he murmured, "I think they cleared off because they expected we'd be... We'd be..." He trailed off, but his gaze was still locked on hers, suddenly very intense.
She shifted minutely, trying to swallow to get rid of the dryness in her throat, wondering if he had implied what she thought he just implied.
They stopped walking.
Then her back was against the pole of a streetlamp while he claimed her lips for his own, his hands slipping under her coat, around her waist to pull her into him. Her hips were flush against his as her hand found the back of his neck and the soft curls that brushed against her fingertips, and she coaxed his eager tongue into her mouth with her own, always evading his caress, teasing him. He huffed, lips still parted, and she giggled into the kiss before his lips finally caught her tongue, gently but securely trapping it between their soft plumpness. He let out a deep, satisfied sigh, beginning his slow enjoyment of tasting her, licking and sucking at every part of her tongue until she was trembling against the streetlamp, wetness pooling between her legs.
One of his hands slowly moved down her waist, down her thigh, lifting her leg up to hook it over his hip and hold her there. She gasped into his mouth, feeling where she was suddenly sensitive and wet make contact with the hardness in his pants, but she couldn't bring herself to be embarrassed when he thrust against her in slow, small movements again and again, creating an amazing friction that burned slowly like the stoking of a fire. Moving against him like this, with his hand grasping her thigh urgently... it was goddamned sensual. Not hot - sensual. It was amazing.
Then he pulled away from her to gasp, "We should leave. The faster we get back - "
" - The sooner this gets taken care of." Her hand slid between them to press against his hardness teasingly, and his breath hitched - she had never touched him with her hand before, and they both groaned at the realisation. "I should do that more often," she murmured into his ear, taking his earlobe between her teeth and teasing it with the tip of her tongue.
"You should," he agreed, his voice husky. "Now come on, let's get going."
She giggled, raising her eyebrows as he tugged on her hand, pulling her into a brisk walk. "You've missed this, haven't you?"
"You," he turned to smile at her, so sweet even after a heated ten minutes pushing her up against a streetlamp in a deserted street. "I've missed you."
She tightened her grip on his hand to show her wordless giddiness, wishing she could offer the ache between her legs some better relief.
The best part about what the night was promising was that she wasn't intoxicated and hindered with grief, because the only time they had done this, her brain had gone completely fuzzy, and everything was only vaguely registered. But tonight, she was alert and had all five of her senses - and she was going to use them.
She had a feeling he might be looking forward to that too.
"I really want to show you around my apartment," he groaned as they stood in front of his door and he fumbled with his keys - her standing on her tiptoes and running kisses along the exposed skin of his neck might have had something to do with his apparent confusion over which key was the right one. "But goddammit, if you don't stop that..."
"Tour later," she gasped as the door opened and he pulled her inside quickly. "I need you."
He practically raced to his room, and she followed close behind, laughing giddily at how excited they were. Twice she stepped on what sounded like paper - it crunched under the soles of her boots - but before she had a chance to apologise, he said, "Stupid assignments... Don't bother."
He closed his room door behind them and began pulling off his boots and layers of clothing, and she did the same, nearly choking herself with her scarf so they both laughed. "We're so impatient," he huffed, pulling his sweater over his head.
"I've missed you," she echoed his words from earlier, kicking her pants off her feet, and he smiled bashfully at her.
Then at last she examined him in the soft lighting of his room and let out a wobbly sigh. He looked even better than she remembered. "Nice wifebeater," she remarked, hoping her tone wasn't too enthusiastic.
"Nice" just wasn't an adequate way to describe how the thin white material stretched across his broad chest and the amazing things it did to the pit of her stomach... and lower.
He grinned cheekily, helping her out of her sweater. "Nice bra."
She looked down at her chest and had to stop herself from cursing - she was wearing the black push-up Johanna had insisted that she buy to help out with her "flat chest problem" as she delicately - or indelicately, rather - put it. "Not funny," she grumbled, crossing her arms over her chest as soon as she got the sleeves of her sweater off her hands.
He grasped her wrists. "Stop." Gently, he pried her arms away from what they had been hiding and then took a deep breath, looking in apparent wonder at the modest cleavage she had managed to attain.
"You're staring," she mumbled, squirming. It felt so uncomfortable, not to mention when he was still holding her wrists to make sure she wouldn't try to cover herself again.
"Because I like it," he shrugged, shooting her a boyish smile. He blushed. "Or them. I like them."
She pulled herself free, flushing furiously. "You're such a pervert," she protested, grabbing a pillow off his bed to cover her chest. He followed her, still in his wifebeater and jeans that hung perfectly on his narrow hips. "Am not. I'm just being accurate."
She snorted, and he leaned her backwards onto his bed, dipping his head down to capture her lips in a quick but still searing kiss. "You can always let me take it off if it's bothering you," he murmured, running a fingertip down her arm so she shivered.
The words were out of her mouth before she could think about it. "But only if you let me do something else, first."
He entwined his fingers with hers and smiled down at her. "Anything."
Well, if he said so... She flipped them over slowly, biting her lip to keep from smiling too widely at the surprised look on his face as she straddled him. Then her fingers found the button on his jeans and undid it, moving away to tug his pants down his hips.
She found it hard not to smirk. "Are you gonna help me get this thing off or what?"
He sat up and pulled his pants down the rest of the way, kicking them off his feet. Then, reading her next silent request correctly, he pulled the thin white fabric of his vest off his torso. Refusing to admire him until she had him completely undressed, she ran a finger across the waistband of his boxers just like he'd did on her arm, grinning as she was rewarded with a shudder. "This too. Please."
"Good manners," he halfheartedly teased, but she could tell he was nervous as he hooked his thumbs in the waistband and pulled his boxers down to his feet, letting them fall to the floor. She smiled then, leaning to kiss his already slightly swollen lips. "Lean back," she whispered.
He did so, breathing hard. She let her lips explore his strong jaw line and move down to his throat and his collarbone, determined to make this pleasurable for him and not just awkward. Burying her face in his neck for a moment, she murmured, "You know, I never got to see it properly that time."
She felt him swallow against her lips. "And - uh - well... what do you think? Now?"
She let the hand that was resting on his chest move down his stomach, following the trail of hair she could feel to where he was already half hard, and grasped him. "Impressive."
His breath hitched and he bucked involuntarily, groaning, and she leaned up to give him one lass kiss before crawling down his body. Her hand was working him gently but firmly, and she had not remind herself not to be engrossed in how his eyes shut tight, how his chest rose and fell, and how his hips moved in time to her caressing. Leaning down, she took a deep breath and kissed the soft skin that her hand was not touching.
He sat up like a shot, eyes wide open. "Katniss - I..." he stammered, but she gave him a smile before taking him slowly into her mouth. He moaned helplessly and fell back onto the bed again. "You - you have got to be..." he gasped as her tongue swirled a circle around his tip. "... trying to kill me."
She chuckled around him, heard him hiss, and figured that he could actually feel the vibrations of her laughter. She wasn't sure if she could take all of him in without gagging, so she alternated between using her hands lower and her mouth towards the tip. Soon she could taste something mixed with her saliva - something slightly salty. He was leaking moisture, and it was because of what she was doing. The thought alone made her very wet between her legs.
He was growing thicker and harder around her hands and in her mouth, but before she could think about increasing her pressure to get him where she wanted, his hand was pushing her shoulder back frantically. She released him from her lips with a surprised pop, wiping the saliva away from her mouth in embarrassment, but he said shakily, "Sorry, I - that just felt so good, but I didn't want to - to come in your mouth."
She crawled slowly back up his body, still feeling a little disappointed. "Why?"
He wrinkled his nose a little and pulled her to him. "I just don't like the idea of shooting it down your throat," he admitted with a sigh. "Sorry?" he offered.
"Apology accepted," she said softly, kissing the tip of his nose. "Will you let me try some other time, though?"
He grinned so widely that she had to join him, realising the significance of "some other time." It made her so happy, knowing there would be other times.
"Yes," he punctuated his affirmation with a wet kiss. "Yes," another kiss that made her toes curl. "And yes," he whispered, sucking her lower lip into his mouth just the way she liked it. His hand crept around her to unclasp her bra. "My turn."
By the time he was done lavishing attention, kisses, and the wet pressure of his mouth on her nipples, she lay back, dazed, breathing erratically, and feeling very uncomfortably damp in her underwear. Her fingers lazily caressed the hair at the back of his neck as she panted, "You make me so..."
"What?" He paused from his place kissing a path through the valley of her breasts to look up at her, his pupils black and glossy. "Tell me. Please, Katniss."
She couldn't take it anymore, and so she decided that she would show him. Taking his hand in hers, she lowered it to her underwear and hooked his thumb in the waistband. His heart was thumping through his chest were it lay against her stomach, but he took her hint and began to slide her underwear past her thighs, her knees, her calves, and finally off her feet. It joined his boxers, her bra, and his jeans in the pile on the floor.
Taking his hand again, she led it to where she was aching and wet for his touch, pressing between her folds and gasping at the feel of the pads of his fingers against the swollen bundle of nerves, better than how she had ever fantasised it would be. He exhaled shakily against her breasts and said huskily, "You're... you're so wet."
"Yes," she keened as his fingers began a tantalising rhythm and her hand dropped to the side.
"We've never done this before," he murmured in wonder, watching his own fingers as he pleasured her.
"Nope," she moaned, her hips following his movements, and he chuckled. "Look at you, reduced to one-word answers," he said throatily.
She recovered her wits enough to say, "I never was much for words," but he was already dipping his head between her legs, spreading her folds with his dripping fingers, and whatever she was going to say was smeared into a moan of intense pleasure when he licked up her length in one smooth motion, the scruff of his beard against her slick and sensitive skin. "Oh," she whined, fisting her hands in her hair when his tongue began to flick and fondle at the needy bundle of nerves - right where she wanted it. "Yes..."
She missed his tongue when it began to thrust wetly into her, but his fingers were quick to keep up what she was asking for through her desperate tugs on his hair. Before long her hips were begging to thrust, to relieve the amazing tension that was winding itself up in the core of her being, but one of his hands held her firmly down while the other gripped her thigh to make sure she didn't clench her legs together. It was torture - amazing, enticing torture, and soon she was gasping for air and panting his name as she felt that delicious warm release flood though her and onto his waiting mouth, and, dazed, she made out that he was licking her clean.
"Come here," she whimpered, tugging at his shoulders, and his head reappeared from between her legs, his red lips in a shy smile. His jaw and beard were dripping, but before she could apologise, before she could even feel embarrassed, he was licking his fingers clean one by one, wiping his mouth against the back of his hand and then licking that too.
"Gross," she said faintly, but he saw right through that.
"You love it," he whispered, and his fingers slipped back between her already slick folds, coaxing a whine from her lips. "I can tell."
But she pulled his hand away and said, as clearly as she could, "Not your fingers. You."
When his eyes widened, she simply nodded at his painful-looking erection. "I - I can tell."
They both laughed and he leaned down to kiss her, resting his elbows on either side of her, making her feel somehow safe. "You're funny," he told her tenderly, holding onto her gaze as he pushed himself in slowly but steadily, but she had to break eye contact when that luscious fullness invaded every sense in such a way that had her pushing her head back into the mattress, neck arching, eyes rolling back into her head.
When their hips were locked together, he took a deep, rattling breath. "I love you."
Her head snapped back to look at him, and she saw the vulnerability in his eyes. They'd never said this to each other in all their time together in the cabin, and certainly not when they had first made love. But she'd known all along that she loved him, hadn't she? Back to when their kisses were innocent and closed-mouthed but in no way less intense... or less revealing. And maybe, maybe she'd been afraid to admit that she hadn't read the message his lips pressed into her skin as I like you, a lot, a lot, a lot, as she had made herself believe. It just hadn't been the right time to think about love - especially when they were trying to feed the lust boiling within them so it would act as fuel to make them forget.
She smiled into his eyes and cupped the back of his neck, pulling him down to brush his lips against hers. Today was the day she would say it, finally. "I - I love you too."
He groaned and began to thrust slowly, his hips against her own as they bucked up to meet him. "Say it again."
She laughed, breathless, running her hands feebly through the curls in his tousled blond hair. "I love... Ah..." A whimper escaped her lips when he hit a spot that felt so good. "I love you, Peeta Mellark."
"You love me," he murmured in wonder, his elbows giving way, and he leaned his weight on her carefully as he buried his face in her neck. "You love me," he whispered against her hot skin. Then he chuckled a little and said in despair, "Distract me. I need to talk to you or I'm going to finish."
She released a single laugh, her hand soothing up and down his back in slow movements, hoping it would calm him as he moved in and out of her steadily. "Ask me anything."
"Okay..." He squeezed his eyes shut tight in concentration while he cradled her head in his hand, his other hand moving gently to caress her breast so a moan worked its way up her throat in spite of herself. "Why did you never tell me you could sing like that?"
She blushed, wrapping her legs around his hips to pull him closer. "It didn't seem relevant."
"Thanks," he groaned. "I feel so loved." His hand slid lower to find the place between them and found where she was aching for his touch once more, gently beginning to fondle and tease, and she managed to gasp, "Are you trying to punish me?"
He grinned before his face spasmed in pleasure. "Why? Does that feel good?" he managed to get out, his voice cracking to betray the intensity of his excitement.
She nodded, her eyes rolling back into her head for the second time that night, vaguely aware that she was beginning to cry out, though the sound was strange and far-off in her ears. Somehow, she was riding every single overwhelming sensation while feeling as though she had also floated out of her body.
His fingers still working her sensitive, swollen bundle of nerves, he leaned down to rasp in her ear, "I heard this would feel even better..." And then he was pulling her leg off his hip and up his chest, straightening her knee so her foot was level with his face. Then he hooked her heel over his shoulder.
She stared at him through foggy eyes. "Peeta... what..." she gasped.
He only licked his lips, panting like he had been running hard, his eyes nearly black, and drove urgently into her from what felt like a completely new angle. It was one that made her feel as though she could scream - now, not only was he thrusting into her with new energy, but his hip also moved up against and hit the bundle of nerves his fingers had been diligently working at.
The force of his lower half was much harder and much more pleasurable than his fingers - not that she had known it could be possible, but now this sensation was right up there with the way it felt when he had licked her with his tongue - and no matter how much she tried to keep her voice down, it began to soar.
"Yes," he groaned into her neck, suckling at the skin there and nipping hungrily at her earlobe. His fingers found her nipple and twisted, making her cry out louder and finally find her release, shaking and pulsing around the fullness that is him within her so he followed soon after with a long cry, spilling warmth into her core.
They lay there trying to find their breath, then he moved off her quickly and pulled her to his side. When he could speak, he said huskily. "We're - we're going to meet as often as possible. Every weekend."
She nodded against his chest, blissfully exhausted, and murmured, "You'll finish your art and poetry education, and I'll complete my music course."
"We're going to find a house and get married," he continued softly, stroking her hair. "I'll paint you. You'll sing for me. We're never leaving each other again."
She released a sigh. For once, the way things were going satisfied her - she had the new life that Prim had always wanted her to, with a band of her own, a song to sing, and a future. The realisation that her sister's death was what saved her from her own decline seemed so morbid when it first occurred to her... but with every year put behind it, she understood that some things were strangely for the better.
And the picture that Peeta was painting in her mind lit a curious, warm, satisfied glow within her, because he was the spring that always came after the dead of winter. She wanted him, wanted a house of their own and his last name for her own. She wanted days upon days just being with him.
She had thought it wasn't earthly possible... but now, now it was.
Pressing a kiss to his warm chest, she slid her hand over to where his heart beat steadily and whispered, "I'll allow it."
"Sister Winter" by Sufjan Stevens
"Still I Try" by The Honey Trees
Book quote from:
Out Of The Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis