She's just exhausted enough in the morning from her nightmares to not send him exasperated little looks during Effie's speech about presentation. Instead she just nods.
"And, of course, there's the dinner at the mayor's house. It's very important, but you did spectacularly at the party at the president's mansion. I'm absolutely positive that you're going to be just fine."
"And then we're finished?" Katniss asks, and Effie takes how quiet her voice is as reluctance.
"Oh, no, darling," Effie says. "There's still your Victory Tour to look forward to. And then after that you've got your mentoring."
Katniss sort of stiffens and Peeta finds her hand under the table. When Effie gets up to finish getting ready, he doesn't waste any time in leaning over to reassure her. "After the dinners, we're finished," he murmurs. "We'll deal with all of that when it comes. Okay?"
She lets out a shaky breath and nods. "Okay."
He's astonished when Katniss' mother turns to him the second that she's – finally – finished embracing her daughter and pulls him into her arms. It takes a moment for him to adjust to it, the way that she's holding onto him. He can't remember the last time that his mother has held onto him like this, if she ever has at all.
"Thank you, Peeta," she says gently. "Thank you for bringing her home."
He smiles. "That was all Katniss."
Her mother holds him out at arm's length as if to examine him. "Then thank you for everything else."
He's more than a little bit surprised when she turns to him after she reluctantly lets go of Prim, hair loose and blowing back in the breeze.
"You're coming with us, right?"
"What?" he asks.
"To the house."
"Well, I mean, I don't have to. If you want to –"
"Come with us," she says, not bothering to ask this time.
Even though her mother and sister are a few feet ahead of them, talking about plans to decorate the house, Katniss keeps on looking over at him. He offers her a smile and she returns it with a tight one. She's been so quiet today. He remembers the how she must be feeling all too well. How much more real the last few weeks had seemed as his train neared District Twelve, less like an awful nightmare that he was waiting to wake from and more like an awful reality.
"We're going to go look at my room again," Katniss announces suddenly, and her mother and sister both turn to look at her, surprised. "I'm . . . I want to paint it. Peeta is going to help. He did his."
He has to bite his lips together to try to suppress his grin as she leads him up the stairs. She doesn't waste any time in closing the door behind them, leaning back against it as if it's a relief just to be in here, away from everything.
"I don't get how they can . . . it's just like this is normal," she says, her voice quiet and sort of broken. "How can they go from crying over how much they've missed me to rambling about curtains and color schemes?"
He leans back against the door beside her, examining her. "Decorating, cooking, things like that are good for a distraction."
"A distraction?" she asks, turning to look at him. "Why do they need a distraction?"
"I don't know. To keep from dwelling about how long it's going to be until they get you to themselves again."
"You said it was almost over."
"It is, I promise. But after these this is dinner is finished, well . . . personally, I'm not planning on going until you say the word."
"I'm not planning on saying the word," Katniss admits shyly, and he moves a little bit closer to her. "I do think that they're going to get suspicious if we stay in here, though."
He rests his forehead against hers, his right shoulder still against the door. "Suspicious? I don't know, Katniss. I have this feeling that they already know."
This draws something strangely like a giggle out of her, a sound so rare and satisfying and adorable that he can't help but to close the distance between their lips and kiss her. She laughs against his lips but doesn't stop him. In fact, she winds her arms around his neck, the same way she had that first time.
She sighs when she pulls away from him, keeping her arms in place. "I don't know how I'm supposed to sleep alone in here tonight."
"Well, Prim is right down the hall."
She shakes her head. "That's not what I meant. I don't know how I'm supposed to stay in here without you tonight."
He doesn't even try to keep himself from smiling. "Well, I'm down the street. And you can call me, if you want. I'll be up."
Her face falls. He hurries to kiss her, but it doesn't seem to help too much.
"Hey," he says quietly. "What's wrong?"
"They don't go away, then?" she asks. "The nightmares?"
He remembers how she had sat up screaming last night from a dream. He wishes desperately that he hadn't said anything about being awake. "It gets easier to tell that they're nightmares."
She lets out a shaky breath and nods, taking a step back and pulling her arms away from him. He resists the urge to pull her back to him.
"We don't know yet, Katniss. It could be different for you."
She doesn't buy it. That much is clear. He's not entirely sure that he thought that she would, considering the fact that it's been twenty five years for Haymitch and he still sleeps with a knife in his hand. "Yeah," she says dejectedly. "Maybe."
"Hey," he says quietly, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. "Do you want to go hug your sister again?"
She does, but not before kissing him again.
There's something about the way that she holds his hand on the way to the mayor's house that seems almost desperate. He recognizes it quickly as the same grip she had used during the mayor's house and laces his fingers through hers, trying to remind her that he's here.
When it doesn't seem to work, he leans over to press a kiss into the side of her head. She smiles at him – but only a little – and sort of ducks out of the way, shooting him a look. One thing is for sure, with the way that Katniss Everdeen kisses, it's not too surprising how hesitant she is to do so in front of her little sister. It doesn't make it any easier, though. He pretends to pout and she looks over at Prim and then stands up on her toes to kiss him on the cheek.
She stays close to him once they're inside, refusing to let go of him just like she had during the party at the president's mansion, not even while they eat.
He doesn't expect for his phone to ring that night. He really doesn't, but he brings the spare up to his bedroom anyway, just in case.
He's there to answer it on the first ring.
"This isn't working," Katniss says, her voice quiet. "Prim tried to come in but I woke her up and she has school in the morning and . . . I don't know what I'm supposed to do."
"Try bringing the phone upstairs. Not the one in the wall, the one in the kitchen."
"Give me a second," she says, and the line clicks off. She calls back a few minutes later. "Fine. I'm in bed. Now what?"
"I don't know," he admits. "Let's just . . . talk."
"Talk?" she asks, obviously skeptical. "About what?"
"I don't know," he says. "I just think, after everything that we've been through, it's sort of funny that I don't know your favorite color."
"Green," she answers after a moment of thought. "Yours?"
"Orange," he says.
"Like Effie's wig?"
"A bit more muted," he says, glancing around at the walls that he just couldn't seem to get right before he realized they were as good as they were going to get. "More like sunset."
She hums, and he's just trying to think of his next question when she clears her throat. "We're having dinner tomorrow – tonight, I guess,"
"I bet they're excited to have you to themselves."
"You are invited, you know," she says, so casually that he thinks that he was supposed to guess as much. He's almost grateful that he's alone, because he grins like an idiot.
"What should I bring?"
"You don't have to bring anything," she assures him.
"I could bring some bread."
"Nope!" she says cheerfully. "That's already on the list."
"The list?" he asks. "I could make it. It's easy."
"Even easier to buy it from the bakery," she tells him. "All you need to worry about is how much you're going to eat. Because I saw that list and it's ridiculous. I mean, Prim is making a pie. I told her it was silly, you know, making pie for a baker, but she didn't care."
"I'm sure it's going to be great," he says, crossing pie off of the mental list of things that he could make.
She yawns. "Peeta?"
"Yeah?" he asks.
"My hands aren't calloused. It's weird."
He smiles. "They'll get back to normal. I'm missing more than a few burns on my hands from when I was a kid, but baking tired has given me a few of them back."
It's quiet for a long moment. He hears rustling and then Katniss sighing, like maybe she can't get comfortable.
"Do you remember when you woke me up from that nightmare?" he asks.
"Mm," she says, obviously tired.
He lowers his voice even more. "I don't even remember which one that was. I just know that I had been so mad at myself for falling asleep at all and then . . . I don't know. There was something about the way that you touched my hair. It was nice. And then you made me get a pillow and I realized that maybe you didn't hate me over what had happened. Which I still don't understand, for the record."
He waits a long time for her response, but it doesn't come. Only even breathing.
"Goodnight, Katniss," he whispers, and he contemplates hanging up the phone but doesn't, resting it on the pillow beside him instead.
Not that he would be willing to admit this or anything, but he sneaks downstairs the second that it's clear that sleep isn't coming and starts to pull things out. It takes him a little while to settle on chocolate, but after he does it's easy to decide on vanilla frosting.
Honestly, he's insanely happy to have been invited, and if there's one thing that Effie Trinket has – successfully – drilled into him, it's that you never come to a party empty-handed.
It really didn't do much as far as winning him points with his mother the last time he was invited to dinner at the bakery. She had been trying to be polite at first, he thinks, but she had refused to eat the bread that he brought and when she stormed upstairs, he swears that he heard her telling his father that he was rubbing it in their faces. He hasn't been invited to any family dinner since, with or without his family. Until now.
She's still sleeping when he goes back to bed, if her breathing is any indication. It doesn't take too long for him to fall asleep after all of the work.
She comes to get him at about three, for the first time since before the reaping, she looks like Katniss Everdeen. Her hair is in a braid down her back and she's wearing an old loose button-down shirt that he's almost certain used to belong to her father.
"You wouldn't believe how much food is in the house," she says, and she tries hard to sound annoyed, but she's smiling too widely. "Are you ready?"
"Just about," he says, heading into the kitchen to grab the cake box.
She scowls at him. "Peeta, I told you that –"
"I owed you a cake," he interrupts, remembering how she is about debts. She sighs.
"You didn't have to make anything," she insists.
"I can leave it at home," he says lightly and she shakes her head quickly. "Do you at least want to see it?"
"Yeah," she says, and he motions for her to follow him before he sets the box down on the table, lifting the top.
She actually gasps a little bit at the sight of the primroses on top of the basket weave. "It's beautiful, Peeta."
He smiles. "I tried to do a katniss flower but I need more practice because –"
He's cut off by her lips pressing against his. "Stop it. Do you even know how happy this is going to make her?"
"I might have an idea," he says, though honestly it's worth it just to see how happy it made Katniss.
"She always used to want to go look at the cakes in the window on the way to school."
"I remember that," he says, and she looks almost embarrassed, as if there's not something inherently adorable about her and her sister stopping by to look at the cakes in the windows every day.
"Did you make those, too?"
"I think I started helping with them when we were in about the fifth grade. They were all mine by high school."
"Well, they were beautiful. You're good at this."
He grins. "I'm allowed to bring it over, then?"
She gives him an exasperated look. "Yes. You're allowed to bring it over."
"Good," he says.
Prim hugs him as soon as she sees them coming in.
"Katniss!" she scolds when she sees the box in his hands. "I hope she didn't tell you to bring that. We have more than enough food already."
She opens and closes her mouth, obviously frustrated, and he fights the urge to tease her. "She most definitely didn't. "
Prim takes the bag from his hand then, grinning. "Thank you, Peeta. We got a turkey!"
He glances over at Katniss, who is smiling again– she looks almost proud, watching her sister – and can't help but to smile himself.
"I told you," she murmurs as they follow Prim into the kitchen. "They overdid it."
"They're glad to have you back," he whispers back. It's petty. Stupid, really, but he can't help but to think of the difference between this and the dinner that his family had invited him to a few days after the one at the mayor's party.
"They must have told me a thousand times last night how excited they are to get to know you," she says, effectively pulling him out of his pity party.
Her mother offers him a smile when she sees him. "There are still hours left on the bird. She was just eager to get you over here."
He smiles and Katniss blushes.
"What did you bring?" Prim asks.
"Oh, wait until you see this," Katniss says, taking the box from his hands and bringing it over to the table to show her sister. Her mother stays back with him for a moment.
"I've never seen her like this, you know."
He turns to look at her, terrified. "It's just for a little while, while everything is so new. She'll be back to normal soon. I'll make sure."
She smiles, but there's something almost sad about it as she watches her daughters. "No, it's not that. It's the way she is with you. Even with everything that's happened. It's amazing."
This pulls him up short. He remembers seeing her and Gale Hawthorne talking and laughing in town but then, unbidden, another memory surfaces of how protective she was when Gale had said the wrong thing. He's trying to come up with a response when Mrs. Everdeen crosses the room to look at the cake, which very nearly has Prim in tears.
She rests her head on his chest when he comes to stand behind her and he wraps his arms around her.
"I'm really glad you're here," she says gently.
He kisses the top of her head. "Yeah," he murmurs. "So am I."
So, that's the last chapter! There's going to be an epilogue, but it may take a while for me to finish it.
I just want to thank everyone again for all of the reviews and recommendations and kudos. It really really means a lot to me.
Also a special shoutout to Swishywillow who inspired me to finish this chapter from where it's been sitting in my document file when I made an angsty text post on Tumblr about how it can wait.