A/N: And here we are yet again! This time around I'm not in a rush, and so I can babble nonsense all I want! Woo!

First bit of babble will consist of praising your awesomeness. Hello! We've almost got 1000 reviews. Already. In case you guys don't realize this, this means that you are awesome. So if you didn't know that epic fact about yourself, well, now you do.

That being said, thank you thank you for all of your reviews. I read and cherish every single one. You guys make my day. Make. My. Day.

Second bit of babble congratulates a certain nameless person who came up with the summary for the last chapter! I do hate that I didn't have time to come up with one! But, never fear, a certain guest (I'd love to have your name so I could thank you) came up with one for me! I would like to post it with his or her permission. So, please tell me if I can. It was epic.

Third bit of babble will talk about this chapter. It's one of my favs, and I'm pretty sure you guys will see why. Coin will get owned. And it shall be epic. :)

Random Disclaimer: I do not own The Hunger Games Series. As the past two stories show, my version of events would have been quite different.

Me: Woo! This chapter is fun!

Coin: Finally. I'm in the story again.

Me: (glares) What are you doing in my disclaimer? Away with you! Shoo!

Peeta: Seriously. I'll kill you.

Katniss: He's not kidding.

Haymitch: Who knows? We might be plotting your death.

Rye: At this very moment.

Coin: (scoffs) Yeah, right.

Me: (chuckles evilly)


Chapter 18: Back in Black

So look at me now, I'm just making my play

Don't try to push your luck, just get out of my way

'Cause I'm back, yes I'm back


I know it's not yet dawn when I open my eyes. Slowly, I blink against the darkness of the room. Reflexively, I stretch my arm in order to turn on the lamp resting on the bedside table, but moments before I click the button, I suddenly become very aware that I'm not alone.

My body stiffens in surprise as I realize that there's a warm body not only lying next to me, but trapping me against him. A large, familiar hand rests on my swollen stomach, and with a soft gasp I remember that I no longer have to sleep alone.

Slowly, I lower my arm and bury it beneath the warm covers. I relax my body, knowing that the slightest change in environment will wake Peeta. He was a light sleeper before, but after his experience in the Capitol he will wake at the slightest sound. Even Maya's soft paws gliding over the floor will wake him. Speaking of my wolfy friend, I let lift my head just slightly and look down toward the foot of the bed. Just as I expected, Maya rests comfortably at our feet, her head on her paws.

For a moment, I can almost trick myself into thinking that I'm lying with Peeta in our bed at home. The pale light of the moon would be shining on my face, giving the room a ghostly glow that I always found comforting. Peeta would be like he is now, securing me snugly to his body, and in a teasing gesture I would wiggle in just the right way to give him a surprise wakeup call that would lead to playful lovemaking.

Regrettably, I don't see this vision playing out anytime soon.

I sigh quietly and stare into the blackness of the room, though I'm still extremely aware of Peeta next to me. After his brief show of vulnerability, I had hopefully thought that maybe he would open up to me. In the next five minutes, Peeta proved me wrong. Suddenly, he'd shot to his feet, muttered something about a shower, and disappeared into the bathroom for nearly half an hour.

That had left me sitting on a too big bed, trying to fight off a suffocating feeling of loneliness. I know that I have no right to wish Peeta would be the man I remember. I know that I have no right to ask so much of him. But damn it, it would certainly make things easier. I love him. I really do, but he makes it so hard. He will want me in one second and practically shun me in the next. Our conversations always seem slightly forced. We simply don't click anymore.

And yet, despite all of that, I know that he loves me more than anything. That's what makes everything worse. We love each other so much . . . and we still can't connect like we used to.

I remind myself that we just need time, that Peeta needs time to sort things out in his head. He needs time to come to grips with what happened. He needs time to heal. He simply needs time.

Of course, as our luck would have it, time is something that we can't afford. I have no doubt that Gale reported his observations about Peeta to Coin, and a sinking feeling in my stomach tells me that Peeta and I will have to face Command very soon. Frankly, I'm still amazed that Haymitch and I have managed to hold them off for this long.

Anxiety slithers through my veins, leaving a cold trail in their wake. Instinctively, I shiver, and in response Peeta's arm tightens around me. I lay my hand over his where it rests on my stomach, biting my lip as I worry about what Coin may have in store. She'll want a propo at the very least, an actual appearance by Peeta in the districts at the worst. I'm not allowed to fly at this state in my pregnancy, so I'm permanently grounded in 13, much to Coin's frustration. If she wants a Mockingjay, all she has left is Peeta.

I close my eyes at the thought of Peeta in a warzone. There's no telling how it would affect his psyche, but I know for a fact his flashbacks would return in full force. Peeta can't afford to falter this far in his recovery. Not now.

Suddenly, Peeta shifts behind me and I tense. For a second, I think he's about to wake up, but after a full minute of lying completely still, Peeta doesn't show any sign of consciousness. I feel guilty due to the relief that causes my tense muscles to uncoil. It's not like I'm scared of Peeta. It's just . . . I can't stand the awkwardness between us.

Before we got into bed, the tension in the air was ridiculous. I actually went into the bathroom to change into my nightclothes. It's not like there's anything Peeta hasn't seen before, but damn it I was still nervous. Peeta was exactly the same way. Finally, after standing around the room awkwardly, I gave in and slid under the covers, turning onto my side away from him. It took five minutes before I felt the bed dip as Peeta joined me.

At first, we stayed on our respective sides of the bed. But then, after about ten minutes, Peeta cautiously wrapped an arm around me. I took his hand in mine, reassuring him that I was okay, and together we both fell asleep, like we'd done hundreds of times before. Except, for the entire time as I drifted into unconsciousness, all I could think about was how I'd never felt closer to him and yet so far away.

"I can hear you thinking," Peeta mutters into my neck, surprising me so much that if I didn't have my stomach weighing me down, I probably would have fallen off the bed. "Easy," he chuckles at my reaction. "It's just me."

Just him.

"Don't scare me like that," I chastise, though I give his hand a squeeze to make sure he knows that I'm only joking. "You'll send me into premature labor."

"Could that really happen?" Peeta asks, sounding slightly terrified at the thought.

I laugh. "Of course," I tell him with a smile in my voice. "After all, in a couple months, it could happen anytime."

"So soon?"

"Well, once I get into my ninth month, I'll have an appointment every week." I shrug slightly. "So yeah . . . it'll happen pretty soon."

"Wow."

"Uh huh."

We're both quiet before Peeta asks hesitantly. "Scared?"

I snort. "Terrified," I say honestly, though I'm smiling. "What about you?"

Peeta doesn't immediately answer, and when he does, it doesn't even pertain to the question. "You should go back to sleep."

And just like that, the brief period of closeness ends.

The next time I wake, the bed is empty and Maya is in Peeta's place. My heartbeat immediately quickens, and I sit up as fast as I can. Where is he?

As my panic recedes, I hear the water going in the shower and relax. Despite the fact that running water still makes him uneasy, Peeta's need for cleanliness overpowers his fear—I can understand why. I doubt his cell in the Capitol was the epitome of clean.

While Peeta is in the shower, I dress quickly, pulling on my version of District 13's uniform—stretchy, soft black pants (thank you, Cinna) and one of Peeta's t-shirts. I discovered Cinna's final gift to me last week when Venia had eaten breakfast with me. She had found some extra things that Cinna had slipped into 13, right under Coin's nose. These clothes included incredibly comfortable materials that were perfect for my expanding body. And, in the lining of a jacket, Venia had found some baby clothes.

Cinna was still finding ways to help me.

"You know, 13 isn't going to like you using so much water," I say without turning around when I hear the bathroom door open.

"Like I care."

I glance over my shoulder and try not to frown when I see that Peeta is already dressed. The days when he always seemed to be in some state of undress are a distant memory. Of course, I know why Peeta doesn't want me to see him in that state.

Scars.

He hates them so much. They are stark reminders of what happened, which is extremely counterproductive to Peeta's current habit of simply trying to forget. The scars make it impossible. I want to tell him that I don't see them as disfiguring or nasty, but I'm too afraid to broach the sensitive subject. I can't have him retreat even further into himself than he already has.

"You know, I've never brought it up until now," Peeta begins as he sits beside me on the bed. "But you've been stealing my shirts again."

"Borrow," I correct him with a smile, repeating the same excuse I always use. "Borrow without permission."

"That's called stealing."

"Borrowing." I give him the most mischievous look I can muster and add, "Besides, you'll never stop me."

Peeta raises his eyebrows. "And how do you know?"

"Because," I say with a smile. "You like it when I wear your clothes."

"You look ridiculous."

"You think it's cute." My lips quirk, forming the smallest of smirks. "I know you too well, Peeta."

"Do you?" Peeta retorts, killing the playful atmosphere in one fell swoop. "Do you really?"

"Yes," I answer softly. "I do."

Before Peeta can try to argue, someone knocks on the door. Immediately, Peeta tenses and his eyes narrow in suspicion. "Are you two decent?" Haymitch asks through the door.

I roll my eyes. "Yes."

"Thank god," Haymitch says as he opens the door and steps into the room. "I'll never be able to burn that image from my mind," he adds with a shudder.

Despite the fact that the incident he's referring to happened nearly a year ago, I still find myself blushing at the reminder. However, it's Peeta's reaction to Haymitch's words that is the most intriguing. He looks sad, and it makes me wonder if he's thinking about last night. How nothing happened.

"What are you doing here?" Peeta asks curiously, though his eyes remain guarded.

"We've been summoned," Haymitch answers dryly. "Command wants to have a chat."

I sigh heavily. "Figured they would," I reply as I glance at Peeta. "Both of us?"

"Of course."

"Damn."

Peeta's eyes narrow. "What?" he asks defensively. "Why don't you want me to go?"

"Because they're just going to try to use you," I tell him honestly. "And that's not going to happen."

"I can take care of myself," Peeta retorts coldly. "Trust me. Coin isn't going to throw anything at me that I haven't already heard before."

I debate arguing with him, but decide that riling him up even more isn't worth it. He needs to be as calm as possible during the meeting with Command. An all too familiar selfish anger flickers to life within me. I miss the days when I didn't have to worry about Peeta. I miss the days when I could count on him to keep a level head. I miss the days when he was who he used to be.

"Okay," I concede. "Then let's go."

The trek to Command is made in complete silence. Haymitch and I walk on either side of Peeta in a gesture that obviously annoys him by the look on his face. Neither Haymitch nor I let it stop us though. Both of us realize just how easily the coming stress could make Peeta snap. Surrounded by military men who think their station gives them the right to dictate other's lives might remind Peeta far too much of Peacekeepers. Then there are the Capitol citizens, like Plutarch and Fulvia or Cressida and her film crew, who might bring back memories, too. And of course, I couldn't forget the final person on my list: Alma Coin.

She is so much like President Snow . . . there's no telling how Peeta will react. How will he respond to her manipulation that she's sure to employ? How will he respond to her orders? I have no doubt that she will have demands and a fair share of anger. After all, we have been thwarting her attempts of control for a little more than a month.

And to someone who craves control . . . that is not an insult that she will let slide.

Rye joins us in the elevator, wearing a cheerful smile. "So," he nudges Peeta with his shoulder just slightly. I'm surprised when Peeta doesn't show any discomfort with the contact, so he must have seen it coming. Rye is not that hard to predict. "Ready to face Command?"

"Doesn't really matter. It's happening anyway."

"Just don't kill anyone, okay?" Rye jokes. "That's not a very good way to ease the tension."

"I can't imagine why," Peeta returns sarcastically. "And I'm not going to kill anyone. Why do you always assume I'm going to kill someone?"

"You've got murder in your eye, little brother," Rye replies, his smile belying his seriousness. "A little too much of a vengeful twinkle."

"If you're not careful, my first victim might be you."

"And then who would make you laugh? Certainly not Katniss. Everyone knows she has no sense of humor."

"Hey!"

"Well you three shut up?" Haymitch snaps irritated. "You're giving me a headache."

"Oh come on, Haymitch!" Rye cajoles as he slaps our mentor on the shoulder. "Lighten up! This meeting is only going to decide our fate for the rest of the time we're here," he says before turning to Peeta and adding, "So it's all on you. No pressure."

"Thanks."

We all fall silent when the elevator doors open. Not even Rye tries to break the automatic tension that settles over us. I try to calm the worries that are flying through my mind. How will Peeta react? What will Coin try to do? Will she demand appearances in the districts? Propos? Deployment to a warzone? I bite my lip. That can't happen. None of it can.

And how will she treat Peeta? Will she try to manipulate him into doing her bidding? Will she try to provoke him? Too many unknowns for my conscience.

"Katniss." Peeta's soft voice penetrates my swirling thoughts. I meet his eyes, and for the first time see a modicum of his old self. Gentle, reassuring, calming. "Trust me."

I nod and give him a shaky smile, and then watch as Peeta shoves his previous emotions to the back of his mind, a mask of indifference taking their place.

I try not to sigh in disappointment.

The moment we enter Command, everyone automatically falls silent. Every pair of eyes settle on me or Peeta. Haymitch and Rye might as well be invisible. I meet their gazes steadily, daring them to say anything. Cressida and her team are eyeing Peeta with interest, and when I catch her gaze, she offers me a smile. At least she's happy for me. Boggs is looking at Peeta in an appraising way, like he would a soldier. When I meet Gale's gaze, I try not to flinch. His eyes are hard as stone, his face an impassive mask, but I still see the hurt. When his eyes land on Peeta, a fiery anger shines in his eyes.

If Peeta notices, he doesn't react.

Plutarch and Fulvia are looking at Peeta in a way that's almost predatory, and I don't relish the comparison at all. I can practically see the ideas for propos and other propaganda running wild in their minds. They probably haven't given a thought to Peeta's trauma, aside from thinking of it as "unfortunate" or something similar. When they catch my eyes, Fulvia blatantly glares at me. Plutarch is able to control his expression better, but it's obvious he's still upset with me for the "you can't see Peeta" incident.

After sizing up the room, I let the majority of my attention rest on Peeta. So far, he's showing no outward sign of being bothered by the specific people in the room. More than anything, he just seems uncomfortable with the crowded atmosphere of the room, although nothing of his countenance conveys discomfort. His back and shoulders are tense, but his posture is impeccable and commanding, completely obscuring his unease. His face portrays an expression of calm confidence as he casually slips his hands into his pockets, leaning against the back wall of the room—directly in front of President Coin.

Immediately, they lock eyes and within the next second an anxious air settles over the room. Everyone feels the tension, all of us waiting for something to happen, but for the longest time the entire room remains in complete silence as Peeta and Coin stare each other down. I watch as Coin's calculative, cold grey eyes narrow ever so slightly as she observes Peeta, looking for anything she can exploit. Peeta returns her gaze evenly, obviously unaffected by her analysis.

Something tells me that this situation is not completely foreign to Peeta.

Finally, after nearly five full minutes of silence, Coin's lips quirk in a small, deceptive smile. Peeta merely raises his eyebrows in response. I can't tell if he's amused or being slightly condescending. Either way, Coin doesn't seem too thrilled, but nonetheless she forces a small smile and says, "Mr. Mellark. I'm glad to see that you're doing well. It's been difficult to get an update on your progress."

Not that you haven't tried, I think snidely. Bitch.

Peeta shrugs. "Not much to tell," he replies coolly. "Just a few broken bones. Some internal trauma. A few torn ligaments and tendons here and there. Nothing big." Peeta suddenly gives her a slight smile, "But it's great to know that you were genuinely concerned."

Coin's mouth twists in a barely visible grimace. It's obvious that she's realizing Peeta is going to be much more difficult to handle than she thought. I'm just able to control my grin. Peeta hasn't lost a step when it comes to confrontations.

"Of course," Coin says with a slight nod. "After all, you are the face of the rebellion. The rebel's spirits were lifted due to your rescue. We now have control over every District with the exception of 2. However, now that we have both our Mockingjays, I'm sure that our forces will overcome 2 soon."

Peeta's face suddenly twists in distaste, before adopting an apologetic look. "Yeah, about the whole 'Mockingjay' thing," he shakes his head. "That just doesn't sound too appealing."

Coin's eyes narrow dangerously. "Part of our agreement with your wife in return for asylum is showing public support for the rebellion," she says. "The people love you. I realize you have suffered a traumatic experience, but as a symbol of the new nation that we're trying to build, you cannot ignore your duty to our cause."

Peeta remains silent for a moment, gathering his thoughts. Finally, he pins Coin with a stare that is blatantly disrespectful. "So, let me get this straight," he says slowly. "You're saying—quite subtly, I might add—that if I don't do what you say, you would deem it within your power to kick me and Katniss out of 13, and thus, basically throw us to the wolves. Which, might I add, due to past experience with wolves—I really don't relish that analogy."

Coin opens her mouth to retort, but Peeta speaks before she can utter a word. "Now, let's think about the wisdom of this threat," he continues. "One, you obviously haven't thought this through very well. I mean, how would it look to the rebels—who you supposedly lead—if they learned that you basically left us for dead? Because, let's face facts, Snow and I didn't really part on good terms. There's a little resentment there. And then he has this whole vendetta against Katniss because she made him look like an idiot. So, if you kick us out, we're dead. And you know it. And the people know it." Peeta almost looks pityingly at Coin. "And you think this is the right thing to do? I mean, if you still want the people to actually like you."

Throughout Peeta's entire speech, Coin's face has slowly been turning a deeper and deeper shade of red, while the rest of the officials mouths have continued to drop in shock at Peeta's obvious disrespect. I can't decide whether I should feel nervous or incredibly proud.

"Now, I don't think you're an idiot," Peeta says with a shrug. "It's fairly obvious that you're quite intelligent. And as an intelligent person, I think you've realized by now that I'm not about to bend over backwards for you. I've been a pawn for long enough." His eyes narrow. "And frankly, you have no leverage. You need us. Not the other way around."

Coin's eyes narrow dangerously. "I won't need you forever, Mr. Mellark," she threatens coldly before adding, "Are you sure you want to play this game?"

"I'm afraid you would lose."

There's a tense moment before Rye suddenly speaks. "Well, this has been lovely. Very insightful. I do believe this is the time when we make our dramatic exit. One of us might even slam the door."

Haymitch looks at the two guards on either side of the door with narrowed eyes. Then, he looks back at Coin. "Anything else you wish to discuss, President?"

"That will be all." Coin says icily. "For now."

One by one, the four of us file out the door, and I feel every set of eyes boring into the back of my skull. We're completely silent as we walk through the hallway, and the silence continues as we wait for the elevator. However, the moment we step into the car and the doors close, Rye breaks the silence with a round of applause.

"Dude," he looks at Peeta in admiration. "That was the coolest thing you have ever done."

Peeta just sighs, looking drained, and doesn't respond.

Haymitch is frowning. "Kid, that was a ballsy move. Contrary to what Coin said, this isn't a game anymore."

"You think I don't know that?" Peeta asks as he runs a hand over his face. "None of this was ever a game."

"You just told her right to her face, in front of her entire inner circle, that you don't give a damn about a thing she says. You blatantly told her that she had no control whatsoever, and then you went and challenged her." Haymitch shakes his head. "I don't know whether to be impressed, proud, or pissed."

"One thing's for certain," I say, speaking for the first time. "We're going to have to watch our backs."

"Yeah, she's totally going to try to kill us," Rye agrees before adding dully, "Yay."

"We've still got a little over a month before we have to start worrying about that," Haymitch says, shooting a pointed look at me.

Right. Once I have the baby, once the war is won, I'm expendable.

"But what about Peeta?" I question worriedly. My eyes meet his. "Sorry, but it's not like you're the one having the baby. Technically, you're already expendable. She might decide you're more trouble than you're worth."

Peeta suddenly smiles, though it holds no humor. "Nah, she'll keep me around, at least for awhile."

"What makes you so sure?" Rye questions.

"Because, she's just like every other dictator," Peeta replies coolly. "They're all like cats. They like to play with their food before they eat it."

My mind conjures an image of Buttercup, Prim's mangy yellow cat that I absolutely loathed. "I hate cats," I mutter.

"So what's the plan?" Rye asks as we step off the elevator. "Come on, babe, you always have a plan."

Peeta shrugs. "We kill her before she kills us."

"I like that plan," Rye replies, nodding in satisfaction. "Simple. Easy to remember."

I shake my head. This is what my life has come to—casual, yet serious conversations about murder. I don't know what's worse, the fact that I consider these conversations normal or that I'm actually not opposed to the idea. One hand finds my stomach as the other twines with Peeta's. He squeezes my hand reassuringly.

I suppose it really doesn't matter which. I'll do anything to protect my family.


And there we go! Wasn't Peeta just awesome? I do love that moment. I got to incorporate Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows with the "are you sure you want to play this game?" moment. I was so excited when that worked out. Mainly because it gave me the chance to imagine Robert Downey Jr. and all his sexiness when he replies, "I'm afraid you would lose." One of my favorite scenes in the entire movie.

But that's just a little off topic.

So, Peeta seems to be getting better doesn't he? But, if you haven't noticed . . . he hasn't had his big breakdown moment yet. And for those of you who remember, I said before that Chapter 19 is that particular chapter. And this is Chapter 18. Which means 19 is next. Hey, look at that! I can count.

Next chapter is my absolute favorite. Just so you know. Oh, and if you're a crier . . . read the next chapter with a box of tissues. Just a warning. :)

Summary time: Peeta is slightly less awkward and had a Robert Downey Jr. moment of awesomeness, Gale has an uncomfortable wedgie, Coin ate some really hot jalapenos and didn't have a glass of water on hand, Katniss is contemplating murder and its justifiableness, Buttercup's ghost subsequently comes back to haunt her, Rye is Capt. Jack Sparrow, and Haymitch is the reason the rum is always gone.

Quote from the next chapter comes from . . . Peeta!

"I killed them! I snapped both their necks!"

Lots of love,

AC