In the fading light, leaves covered the ground, a patchwork of orange, yellow, brown, and the occasional green of grass peeking through the uneven map they made across the terrain. They shifted and crunched under her feet, but she didn't care if she made a noise. She wasn't here to hunt, wasn't here for food.
She was here for Peeta.
She moved around a final line of willows and caught sight of him, his hand braced against the base of a tree at the top of a small incline. The glow of the moon outlined him, made him a silhouette against the evening light. The image made her heart ache at how alone he looked, but knew she couldn't go to him, not yet. If he was still under, she didn't want to startle him, didn't want to confuse him any more than he already was. She needed to wait for him.
Lowering herself to the ground, she rested back against a large rock, watching, and waiting. Twisting and knotting the thin strand of string that was permanently around her wrist. Each time it was getting harder, not knowing how long it would take for him to come back to her. The kids were still too young to really understand, although she knew Holly was beginning to realise not everything was ok with her mommy and daddy. They weren't like the other parents of her school friends - mommy didn't shop in the town square, and daddy ran away for hours some days, or locked himself in his art room. So when times like this arose, when she had to drag them across to Haymitch's, Asher kicking and screaming and Holly pouting because she wasn't finished with her picture yet and it wasn't fair, Katniss would vaguely wonder if they'd made the right choice, made the right decision. Would their children understand one day? Would they realise why their parents were the way they were? Would they accept why they were the way they were?
Then she'd remember the look on Peeta's face when each of them had been born, and her wondering would cease. Her answer always came back to him.
Even from this far away, she could see the tension in his shoulders, the set of his jaw, the way his whole body was braced ready for a fight. She knew if she was standing right beside him, she'd be able to see the ropey muscles of his arm straining, almost trying to break out of his skin, the cords of his neck standing out in stark relief against the flesh. She'd also hear the muttered words she knew he'd be unable to stop from rolling off his tongue, words that, without a doubt, instilled a little bit more hate inside her towards Snow.
She'd realised a long time ago that no matter how much she thought she hated the dead, sadistic bastard, she would always be able to despise him just that little bit more.
The moon rose higher in the sky, its light filtering through the branches of trees, creating little ribbons of white across the darkened ground. The woods at night didn't bother her – they weren't really that far away from the old fence, and she could find her way around here blindfolded – but once Peeta came back, he'd be anxious, nervous, lost. That's why she was here.
She still didn't understand why he came to the woods during these times, and he could never explain it. She liked to think it was because it was where he felt close to her, her home away from home. That even when the voices were dragging him under, the anxiousness was threatening to overtake him and the anger boiled his blood until he no longer knew what was right or wrong, he still needed to be near her.
Just not physically.
She watched and waited, until minutes or hours had passed - she couldn't be sure. But she knew the minute his shoulders dropped, his entire body relaxing in relief, that it was over. He'd fought through whatever he needed to get through. She pulled herself to her feet, rolling the stiffness out of her shoulders, and made her way towards him. She made sure he could hear her approaching, avoided surprising him as he pulled himself back to the present. He didn't turn to her though, simply kept staring at the moon. When she was close enough, she laid a hand gently on his shoulder, keeping her grip loose, her fingers softly brushing against a wayward curl at the base of his neck.
"Hi," she whispered. He was silent for a moment before he croaked out his response, his voice low and throaty. She looked up into his face, highlighted by the moon, and saw the tearstained cheeks, the swollen eyes. She hated seeing him like this. It was always worse when he cried. "Do you want to talk about it?" she asked.
He turned to her then, studying her, his eyes travelling over the length of her body. She was used to it. He needed to make sure she wasn't shiny, that she was real.
"It was so stupid," Peeta finally whispered, rubbing a hand across his eyes, looking back toward the moon again. "She's done it a thousand times, and she'll do it a thousand more. Shit, Katniss, she's 6 years old."
Katniss sighed, tracking her hand down his arm until she could entwine her fingers with his. "What did Holly do?"
"That's just it, she didn't do anything," he groaned, frustration lacing his tone. "They were just playing. Asher pulled her hair. He's 2 – he doesn't know what he's doing. But she….she screamed like….like…." he trailed off, and she knew what he was going to say without even saying it.
She screamed like Annie.
She squeezed his hand, encouraging him to continue. She knew it helped him to talk it out, to purge whatever hatred might still be lurking in his bones.
"It was all I could hear. It just echoed, and echoed and echoed, until my head was filled with nothing but her. And then all I could think about was him. Then you." He glanced back down at her. "Mutt you. Shiny you. Capitol you. And I knew I was losing it. I had to get out of there." He fell silent, and scuffed at the dirt with his feet, a nervous habit he'd picked up that only manifested itself post-episode.
"You know I'm real, right?" She asked quietly. He nodded.
"I know. I'm sorry if I scared the kids."
"They were fine. Sometimes I wonder if they don't prefer being with Haymitch anyway."
"Because he'd never tell them to clean up after themselves." He chuckled softly, moving so that he could wrap an arm around her shoulders. "I'm sorry. I hate doing this to you."
She shook her head, resting her free hand against his cheek. "Don't ever apologise, Peeta. It's not your fault. I just need to know you'll come back to me."
He leaned into her hand, took a deep breath and sighed. "You know I will Katniss. Always."
"Good." She smiled, knowing that, for now, he was going to be fine. "You ok to go?"
He nodded, his fingers jerking and trembling a little against her shoulders. "Yeah. I'll be good by the time we get back."
She tucked her hand into his, lacing their fingers together and squeezing tightly, knowing it wouldn't be the last time this happened, but willing to face it all the same. "Then let's go home, Peeta."