A/N: First time writing HG fanfic. Bear with me lol.
The scent of blood is in the air, blood of the innocent, blood of the damned, and blood of the dead. I feel responsible, and the ache in my chest does nothing to soothe my guilt.
"Katniss?" he asks, stroking the hair from my forehead. "You're all right. I'm here. You're not alone."
I close my eyes and imagine home, but the images of Prim and the forest and the Hob soon fade into darkness, and all that's left is that same ache in my chest. It burns through my conviction and surfaces around my eyes, cascading down my cheeks in the form of tears. I try, I try so hard to hold back and fall asleep, but my efforts are useless in the face of peril. I am not in the arena, and I have no berries.
"You're all right," Peeta repeats, continuing to stroke my hair. It is comforting in its own way, being around someone I can trust.
It is the third night we have shared a bed. I know there is talk on the train, but the whispers and gossip don't faze me. Peeta and I, we share something very few people will ever have the misfortune of understanding. There is a bond, whether we like it or not, and his presence calms me in ways I refuse to comprehend.
"These nightmares will be the end of me," I tell him, wiping my eyes clean.
Peeta's muscles turn rigid, and I know the reason. The mere mention of my demise, however figurative, is his worst nightmare. It is flattering in its own twisted way, and a curse in most others.
"Katniss," he starts. "I will never let anything happen to you."
"I know," I breathe, resting my head against his chest. It is both reassuring and worrisome, because I know he means every word of it, in every scenario imaginable.
It's no secret that I am capable with a bow and most other weapons. I survived many dangers before having stepped foot into the arena, but the one aspect in mine and Peeta's existence in which I am absolutely clueless, happens to be the one aspect in which he excels. I'm bad at love. I've always been bad at love. The only person I love with certainty is Prim, but even that stands as a bond forged without my choosing. She is my younger sister. I am meant to love and protect her from the world's dangers. I am doing this for her, and I am prepared to do it again and again and again.
There is a draft coming from the air vents. I feel a shiver crawl the length of my spine. Peeta, on pure instinct, holds me closer. The warmth in his embrace, both literal and figurative, is prominent in the way he wraps his arms around me. It's a subtle sort of protection, allowing me to shift away if I so choose, but I don't. I feel the familiar air of uncertainty course through my veins, mingled with an unusual ache in my chest. It takes me by surprise, and as much as I want to sleep and put an end to this night, I can't help but glance up and meet eyes with him.
His eyelashes are long and curved, offsetting the angular look about his facial features in the most peculiar fashion. In his own way, he is handsome. I realize half the girls in Panem would sell their souls to President Snow for even the slightest chance with Peeta, and part me of me doesn't understand it, but there is another part of me, deeper down, that inches closer to him whenever these thoughts cross my mind.
Peeta closes his eyes. He must be tired. I watch them flicker shut and I think to follow suit, but the gradual brush of his fingers, from my hair to the small of my back, keeps me awake. The ache in my chest deepens. I worry about what this could possibly mean, but in the same vein, I already know. It isn't what the world thinks it to be, or what he wants it to be, but it's still strong, unrelenting and all consuming.
I roll to the other side, away from him, and use the bed sheet as a shield from the world. Not too long ago, it seemed I had barely known his name, and he was now in my thoughts, fears, dreams and nightmares. In the arena, I had utilized my hunting skills as the foundation upon which I had built my stance against President Snow, but even those skills proved to be nothing without the support and conviction of the young man resting not one feet from me.
He believes in me, in ways I can't describe, and knowing that is almost as terrifying as having my life thrown around like a beach ball in the Hunger Games.
"Katniss," Peeta whispers, keeping a low voice. "Can I ask you something?"
I pause, for a long while, wondering if perhaps I should pretend I'm asleep, but the concern in his voice keeps me from doing that. "Sure."
"Do you ever wonder what it would be like if we were never in the Hunger Games?" he asks.
"There's no point," I answer pointedly, almost discourteous in the speed of my response. There is a sound behind me, as though Peeta swallowed down every last trace of confidence he had mustered to even bring up the topic. The onslaught of guilt surprises me, and I turn around. "All the time," I tell him, facing the ceiling, but allowing my eyes to drift into that one place in my peripheral vision, where I know he is lying beside me. "But if I hadn't volunteered, it would have been Prim in my place, and I would never allow that."
"You're lucky," he voices. "Before the Hunger Games, I never had anyone in my life I was willing to protect so readily."
"What changed?" I find myself asking.
Peeta doesn't say anything, for so long I wonder if he even heard my question. The silence is deafening, but I then hear him draw a careful, calculated breath. "I met you."
I close my eyes and I'm overcome with culpability, regarding the steady, unrequited undertones of our forced partnership. "You don't have to say things like that."
"I'm sorry," he apologizes. "I just get so lost in the scenes of our scripted, on-camera romance, that I sometimes lose grip of reality and wonder if any of it is real – even the slightest glance."
The defeat in his voice tears at my heartstrings, but the doubt in my subconscious keeps me listening. I think about it. I think about it for a long time, before I draw so much as a single breath. "Is this your way of asking me?"
Peeta sighs, with a note of shame. "I know this is neither the time nor the place to bring it up, and I know what you're going to say but –"
The words pour out of me without permission. "I don't know what I feel. I don't know what to call it or if there is even a word to describe it, but I do know it's there and that it's the sole reason I need you here every night."
His gaze shifts in my direction. "I'm not asking you to find out what it is."
"What are you asking?"
The apprehension in his approach is evident, but he slowly builds up the courage to finish what he started. "I'm asking for the chance to help you." There is obvious subtext in his words.
I turn my head to the side, against the pillow, and I look at him. I can see my own trepidation reflected in his eyes. There are no cameras. There are no interviewers. There are no speech cards. It's just us – just Peeta and Katniss. The heat around my face and neck begins to build. I feel nervous and curious and even dishonorable, for the way my senses betray all logic.
"I'm going to wait ten seconds," Peeta tells me. "I'm going to wait ten seconds, and then I'm going to lean over and I'm going to kiss you, Katniss."
The heat branches out, and I know my cheeks are a violent shade of red. I close my eyes, as though the action of doing so will remove me from the moment, but my eyes open again when I feel Peeta brush the hair from my face. His hands drift to the sides of my waist in quick succession and he draws me close. His lips part, millimeters away from mine. "Ten," he counts.
There is a hitch in my chest. I inhale, tasting notes of white chocolate in his breath from dessert, and with absolutely no fight in my mind, body, soul, hopes, dreams, desires or nightmares, he smoothes his lips over mine, and kisses me.