Hello, my lovelies!

Sorry for the confusion that resulted from the teaser. :P There were some quirks I wasn't counting on.

Anywho, here's the full chapter (I know, I know - took me long enough).

Enjoy!


I shouldn't be surprised. The temperatures have been below zero for some time, now. It makes sense that the hot water pipes would fail. Still, the shock of icy water sends me skittering out of the shower with a shriek, shaking drops off my arms and cursing the plumbing with every one of Haymitch's worst swears. My hand gropes for the knob, slamming the water off with a screech and a gurgle from the pipes.

Two knocks on the door. "Katniss? Are you all right?"

"'m okay!" I holler, ripping a towel from the bar to wrap around myself. Tangling my fingers in the absorbent fabric to keep it looped around my body, I open the door.

Peeta raises his eyebrows at the sight of me, wearing nothing but a towel, hair damp and skin pricked with goose bumps.

"Hot water's out," I explain shortly.

"Ah."

Grumbling, I retreat into the bathroom again, sending a harsh glare towards the shower so it knows what it's done. I dress as quickly as is humanly possible. When I emerge, Peeta is waiting beside the window, looking a bit lost with his pajamas still slung over one arm. He would have taken his own shower after me, if the pattern had not been disrupted. "What now?" he asks.

"We heat water on the stove."

I'm already hobbling down the stairs, heel throbbing sharply, and Peeta hurries to catch up with me. His uneven footsteps follow me into the kitchen. "On the stove? Will that be enough?"

I shrug. "It's how we took baths in the Seam."

In the Merchant part of District Twelve, people had real bathtubs, sometimes even showers, albeit less clean and efficient than the ones in the Victors' Village. They washed with delicately scented squares of soap from the apothecary and indulged in warm, clear water to rinse off. In the Seam, you were lucky if you had so much as a makeshift tub to bathe in, let alone clean water. Ours was about three feet in circumference and made from dull, dented tin, handles on each side. It was the same wash bin we scrubbed our clothes in. Dad barely fit in it. His knees stuck out way over the rim and he had to contort his back to squeeze himself into the egg-shaped space. We always took baths in twos – one person to bathe, and one to pour water over them from an old pitcher. Mom and Dad helped each other, and Prim and I took our turn after them. We all used the same water, warmed for each person with a fresh kettle of boiling water.

Grimacing as pain radiates from my bandaged heel, I open my mouth to call for Prim. She can start the water while I find the tub. Maybe she can mix up something to help the cut so I can stop limping. Maybe –

The words stop before they even make it to my lips. They stick in my throat, swelling until they choke me from the inside. Prim isn't here. Prim will never be here again. I stupidly squeeze my eyes shut, forcing the sudden moisture in them to make paths down my cheeks in the form of tears.

But I'm not crying. I'm not.

"Katniss?"

I realize I've stopped dead in the middle of the kitchen, and my feet jerk me forward, towards the pantry. The wash bin should still be hanging by a nail at the back wall. It was what Mom used to transport our possessions to the Victors' Village after the first games, being the largest container we owned at the time. There must be an open jar of pepper nearby, or maybe a cut onion, because the moisture in my eyes refuses to leave. I lift the bin down, stumbling a bit under the unwieldy object, and inch my way backwards out of the pantry. Peeta is hovering beside the table, watching me quietly.

"Katniss?" he says again.

The wash tub hits the floor with a metallic thud and I push it into a corner with my toes, holding a sleeve to my nose. I'm not crying.

Think about something else.

The cold water still works, at least. I fill all the kettles we own and set them on the stove to heat. Peeta wordlessly comes to build up the fire in the middle oven. For the hundredth time, I give a silent prayer of thanks that he refused the Capitol's offer to install electrical ovens. At least if the electricity fails, too, we won't be wanting for light or warmth.

One of the kitchen walls is dominated by no less than three large, pot-bellied, wood-burning stoves. The stovepipes converge beside the fireplace, where they shoot into the bricks and vanish into the structure of the chimney. It's a mirror image of what's in Peeta's own Victors' residence, constructed within a week of his request. Four days after he made the call, a small crew arrived by train to deliver and assemble the two extra stoves. I vanished into the woods the moment they came into view, but Peeta stayed to supervise their work and joke good-naturedly about the abundance of baked goods he would create. He told me afterwards that it was the same crew that came to install the ovens in his own house just after our first Games. After I essentially stabbed him in the heart just beyond the train tracks.

The last kettle clangs onto the stovetop and I push the heels of my hands into my eyes. It seems as if every train of thought leads me to something bad – Prim, Mom, Dad, the Games…

A pair of hands light on my hips. "Maybe you should go rest," Peeta suggests gently. "I think I can finish this. I'll call you down when it's ready."

I wriggle away petulantly, snapping, "I'm fine." And then, because even I can hear the thickness in my voice, "I'm not crying."

"I didn't say you were," he says, but I know he doesn't believe me.

"I'm not. It's the onions in the pantry. They're m-making my eyes water." I drag the back of my hand across my face in an angry swipe. My sleeve comes to rest at my nose again and I sniff. Twice. "A-and this st-tupid weather is giving me a c-cold."

I shuffle to the cupboard, intending to brew some tea, only to remember that I used all the kettles to heat bath water. Frustrated now, I kick open a cupboard under the counter and haul out a small pot, filling it with water and fitting it on the last corner of the active stove. My fist closes over a packet of Earl Gray and I fling it into the pot with a small plop. The sound of the tea sinking into the water, hissing as little pockets of air escape, is the only noise in the room except for my occasional sniff.

I limp to a chair and lower myself into it, using my hands to lift my heel onto the one opposite me. Peeta pulls up a seat and becomes absorbed in the grain of the wood table.

I sniff, switching sleeves. The tears won't stop, no matter how hard I try, and Peeta still doesn't say a thing. This is what he does. Sometimes, he tries to coax it out of me, using his silver tongue and kind voice to loosen my words. And sometimes he just sits, waiting patiently, knowing I need him near but not pushing anything. He's becoming good at that – reading me. I guess I am, too. I can tell when an episode is bad enough that I need to leave, and when it can be chased away with a few kisses and caresses. Sometimes I sing. We protect each other, just like always.

"Prim," I blurt. "It's Prim. We used to t-take baths together. She should-" A hiccup interrupts my sentence. "B-be here!"

My words end in a wail and Peeta enfolds me in his arms, drawing me from my chair to his, allowing me to cry into his shirt.

Her cornsilk hair. Her giggle. Her small, pale hands, so agile and so skillful at everything she tried. Her smile.

I sob harder.

On the stove, the first kettle begins to scream.


I don't calm down until the bath is ready. Peeta wraps a quilt around my shoulders and pours me a mug of strong Earl Gray before carefully extracting himself to begin filling the tub. He pours in a bucket of cold water followed by every one of the boiling kettles, then fills them again to start the process over. The cycle repeats itself twice more – bucket, kettles, fill, heat, bucket, kettles, fill, heat – before the small tub is nearly full. By now, my sobs are reduced to hiccups, and I rise shakily. While Peeta tacks up blankets over the kitchen doorways, effectively trapping the steam rising from the tub, I hop to the pantry and pull down a heaping handful of dried herbs. Lavender, chamomile, basil, anything I can think of. Peppermint leaves and calendula join the pile. Mom used to put oatmeal in baths, after we moved to the Village. I add that too. Peeta raises his eyebrows but doesn't question me as I sprinkle the mishmash of fragrant herbs into the bathwater, not bothering to tie them into a sachet. They bob happily on the surface for some moments, then grow heavy with water and sink to the bottom. The steam turns sweet with the essence of earthy plants.

Last, I fetch a pitcher, several towels and a plain cake of soap, setting them beside the tub. We stand awkwardly for a while, unsure what happens next, until Peeta points out that I've forgotten shampoo and slips out of the kitchen.

As soon as he leaves, I lean back against the counter, letting out a breath. When I began heating water for a bath, I never considered how we would handle the actual bathing. Really, you need two people for one person to take a bath in a wash tub. It's possible to wash yourself, but very difficult. The cramped space offers little opportunity for back scrubbing, and pouring water over yourself from a pitcher is hit-or-miss – mostly miss. That's why my family always bathed in pairs. Even after we moved into the Victors' Village, Prim and I occasionally bathed together, out of habit. I remember her blowing bubbles off her palm in the ridiculously large, porcelain tub upstairs.

Sniffling, I shake my head. No use thinking about that now.

I'm busy rewrapping my heel in waterproof bandages when Peeta returns with the shampoo. Along with the bottle, he's brought my nightgown, and he sets both of these on the table.

"I'll just," he says, and gestures vaguely over his shoulder. "I mean, let me know when you're done." He turns, pauses, turns back and says, "Should I start some more kettles?"

I nod. The water will cool between now and the time when his turn comes.

Peeta busies himself with the stove and I push the quilt off my shoulders. It lands on my chair in a crumpled heap. My shirt follows it, and then my pants. The air in the kitchen is warm and damp and smelling of herbs, and it seems to swirl against the skin of my torso and legs. The wood floor, in contrast, is cold, and I suppress a shiver as I approach the tub.

A small sound of surprise emanates from the other side of the room and I know Peeta has turned around. I'm still wearing under things, but I gulp anyway. I can feel his gaze tracing up my legs and back to my braid, which I quickly pull around my shoulder and begin to undo.

Peeta's voice is strange as he says, "I'll be in the living room."

He's just about to pull aside the blanket over the doorway when I turn. "Peeta?"

"Hmm?"

I become fascinated with the ground at my feet. "Will you help me?" I clear my throat and speak again, since the first attempt barely made it past my lips. "Later? Will you help me wash my hair?" I gesture to the wash bin. "It's… difficult, when you're alone."

His eyes soften. "Of course, Katniss. Just let me know when."

I nod and he ducks out of the kitchen.

I wait until the blanket stops swaying before I twist my arms behind me and undo the clasp of my bra. I tuck it, and my panties, between my shirt and pants, then hurriedly cross to the tub and step in. The water laps at my skin as I lower myself in, steam blooming around me in a perfumed cloud. Lavender, mint and chamomile surround me in a comforting veil, soothing my still-itching eyes. I fold myself completely into the tub, thankful for my petite stature, and lean back as best I can against the tin lip.

I know I need to wash quickly and call for Peeta to help with my hair, or else the water will grow cold, but I can't make myself move just yet. I sit with my legs crossed, knees propped up on the edges of the tub, arms trailing in the water. The herbs mix with the lingering scents of Peeta's daily culinary creations, resulting in a heavy, distinctive aroma that threatens to put me to sleep. I tip my head back, letting the ends of my hair fall into the water behind me, and my mind drifts.

Maybe as a sort of defense mechanism, my mind veers away from the dark thoughts that have hung about me since I descended the stairs, instead seeking out something comforting. Something happy. Something pleasurable. Of course, it returns to Peeta, in my bed just yesterday morning. I squirm, glancing towards the covered doorway as if he could sense my thoughts from the living room. But however much my cheeks heat, I can't stop my mind from replaying those moments on a loop. The delicious tug of his lips at my breast. His breath on my neck. His hand… I blush three shades past scarlet. His hand between my legs.

I remember how he pressed me down into the mattress, how his finger dipped a little ways inside of me, drawing sounds from me I never knew I could make. I remember the little epicenter of pleasure he found between my folds, and how he devoted himself to it, circling and rubbing until –

I'm shocked to find my own hand travelling to the apex of my thighs. Angrily, I jerk it away, sloshing the water in the tub and cursing the weakness of my body. And yet… And yet.

I bite my lip hard and stare at the doorway. The blanket is completely still, not stirred by any current of air. Peeta is in the living room, probably reading or drawing. Every so often, I hear him sigh or clear his throat.

Slowly, so slowly, I allow my hand to drift between my legs. My fingers find my slit, and, heart pounding in fear of being caught, I push through. My own wetness, separate from the bathwater, began to build the moment I thought of what happened in my bed. It takes very little to collect a bit of the slippery juices and bring them to that place Peeta discovered yesterday.

I'm almost disappointed. Almost. My slender fingers don't feel half as good as Peeta's did, though I can't imagine why. But it's hard to be disappointed when I'm enjoying these sensations.

I try to mimic Peeta's motions, pressing at the bundle of nerves with the pad of one finger. Gradually, ticklish waves of pleasure begin to flutter in my belly, occasionally extending through my hips if I hit a particularly wonderful angle. My muscles twitch as the sweet ache feeds on itself, and I'm stuck between wanting to spread my legs wider and wanting to snap them shut. With a sigh that's dangerously close to becoming a moan, I close my eyes. If this is what Peeta meant by touching myself, I understand why he was surprised when I said I didn't. The pressure builds and I find that my left hand has moved itself to my breasts, pinching at the erect nipples. I can feel my pulse in my temples and fingertips, adrenaline mixing with desire. Experimentally, I begin to move faster, and my hips momentarily rock upward. Water washes over the edge of the tub and I freeze, eyes flashing open and fixing on the doorway. The blanket stays in place, and Peeta makes no indication that he heard the splash. But it's enough to snap me out of my haze.

I should not be doing this. Not here, not now, not ever.

Ashamedly, I remove my fingers from my nether regions, sitting up straight to reach for the soap. I work up a thick lather, scrubbing both of my hands raw, and then give the rest of my body a quick once-over with the suds.

My mind won't shut down, though. Without my consent, it lingers over details of the day. Peeta's scent. His shoulders, his shy smile. Then I think of the moment when I felt his hardness at my thigh, insistent. He told me I didn't need to pay him back, but – well. Old habits die hard. I can't let a debt go unpaid. I will pay him back, and soon.

Only once I've changed positions, bringing my knees together to kneel in the tub rather than sit, do I clear my throat and call, "Peeta?"

"Yeah?"

"Will you help me with my hair?"

There's the sound of paper rustling, and then his footsteps as he approaches the blanket. I take the remaining three seconds before he arrives to turn myself away from the door, presenting him with my shoulders and upper back. Maybe then he won't see the red tint to my face. I feel like he would see it in my eyes, if I looked at him. He would know what I've been up to, and he would be… what, disgusted? Maybe. Probably.

The blanket moves aside with the low sound of fabric against fabric and a slight breath of air, cool in comparison to the steamy kitchen, whispers past me. I don't – can't – turn around.

Peeta's footsteps move to the table, then stop just behind me. The pitcher appears at my side, dipping into the warm water, and bits of herbs swirl in the current it creates. "Close your eyes," Peeta instructs, and I do. Underwater, my hands are shaking. Does he know? Can he tell?

The pitcher lifts, disappearing behind me, and a moment later Peeta's hand is under my chin, tilting my head back as the water pours over my hair. Once more, the pitcher dips underwater, just at my side, then empties itself over me, and Peeta holds out the bottle of shampoo. It almost slips out of my hand when I grab it.

As I squeeze a blob of shampoo into my palm and start to massage it into my hair, my heart rate begins to slow. A chair is dragged across the wood floor with a squeak and Peeta sits down behind me. As I scrub at my head, he dips his hands into the water and begins to pour handfuls over my shoulders, rinsing soap and shampoo from my skin. Even though I'm naked, I'm not as nervous as I could be. From the position we're in, all Peeta is likely to see is my back, and he hasn't made any mention of the dark ring of water around the tub from my unplanned splash. Maybe he can't tell, after all. Maybe I'm making this more complicated than it needs to be.

I finish washing my hair and begin to pull my fingers through the largest of the knots. Peeta takes this as his cue to refill the pitcher. He pours it over my head slowly, giving me time to work the soap out. When the last of the slick shampoo is gone, Peeta offers me a hand. I hesitate, nervous all over again, but then sternly tell myself to get a grip. He's already seen me naked, anyway, I reason, placing my hand in his. He pulls me to my feet, sending streams of water running down my body. Peeta's eyes stay dutifully locked on mine. Herbs stick to my skin, and I have no doubt they're in my hair. I'm brushing at them impatiently when Peeta catches my wrist, stilling my hand.

"Let me."

One last time, the pitcher descends into the cloudy water. It's lukewarm now, and wraps around my limbs like a fluid embrace as Peeta carefully pours. He targets the clumps of herbs and crumbled flower petals until they run down my legs and into the bath. Remnants of soap join them, the suds clinging to my calves at the waterline. I notice he pays special attention to my chest, though barely any bubbles have gathered there.

At last, the final drops fall from the pitcher's rim and Peeta sets it back on the table. I step out onto the towel he lays down and go about drying myself. I'm in such a hurry that patches of my skin are still damp when I yank my nightgown over my head. I coil my dripping hair into a haphazard bun at the crown of my head, securing it with two pencils I find on the table. Then, for the first time since he entered the kitchen, Peeta and I face each other.

I glance regretfully at the tepid, soapy water. "I can pour it out and heat up another tub," I offer weakly, knowing it will take longer than either one of us is likely to wait.

Peeta shakes his head. "No. I can deal with a little soap." He flashes me that crooked grin of his and I offer a small smile in return.

While Peeta undresses, I warm the bath – his bath now, I realize – with the kettles that have been sitting at the back of the stove since I climbed into my own. In an effort to freshen the water, even by a little bit, I scoop out several large pitchers and toss them down the sink before adding the new batch of hot water. At least it's not so cloudy now. As an afterthought, I go to the pantry and retrieve another, smaller handful of mint and lavender. This time I make the effort to find a small bag of cheesecloth to put them in. It hits the water with a happy splash and sinks almost immediately to the bottom.

What next? Tea. Peeta gave me tea before my bath. I should give him some before his. The Earl Gray is cold now, and bitter-strong besides, so I restart the pot with what I remember to be Peeta's favorite: chamomile, splashed with cream but untouched by sugar. I frown down at the brewing pot. If there's tea, there should rightfully be something to go with it. I dig in the pantry for a bit before producing a small box of plain lemon shortbread, imported from the Capitol. They're dry, and not nearly as good as Peeta's baking, but it's the best I can do on short notice. To make up for my incompetence, I arrange four of the cookies on a small plate and set them on the table, within arm's reach of the tub. The pot is steaming, now, and I deftly put together a passable cup of chamomile tea to set beside the cookies. There.

I turn to find Peeta, sitting at the edge of a chair, halfway through extracting his prosthetic from his pant leg. He's looking at me with something I can only describe as awe. It's an expression that I've seen more often on pre-Games Peeta than post-Games Peeta, and I wonder what brought it on. Did one of the scents or sounds in the room trigger a random memory?

He won't stop gaping at me, and I'm beginning to think I've done something wrong.

"What?" I say, a defensive edge making the word more forceful than I intended.

His answer is quiet, and yet his voice strains as if he's yelling. "You didn't have to do that, you know."

"What? Warm your bath?"

He opens and closes his mouth several times, then shakes his head. "You don't know, do you?"

"What?" I ask again, and this time I'm definitely irked. What am I not seeing? What is he suggesting? That I'm an idiot for missing something that's completely obvious? I can almost feel myself puff up, like a scrawny alley cat defending its territory against a bear. The image is pathetic. Laughable. "If there's something you'd like to say, spit it out."

He tries to stand, only to get caught on the pant leg that still clings to one calf. I go to him and deftly pull it away, draping the trousers on the back of his chair. Before I can move away again, he traps my hands in his and begins peppering them with kisses. His lips grace my palms, fingers, wrists. I flush to think of what those hands were doing just minutes ago. If Peeta knew, would he still kiss them?

"What?" I say for a third time.

"You," he replies hoarsely. "You made me tea. And cookies. And warmed my bath."

My answer is halting. "Of – course." Is that all? These simple acts, which pale in comparison to what Peeta has done for me?

He gives a small sniffle and tries to disguise it as a cough, but I know better. It's been an emotional evening for both of us. First me, with Prim, and now Peeta. Maybe he was looking through our memory book in the living room, and that's why he's suddenly so sensitive to my pitiful offerings. Yes, that's probably it. I can relate. There have been days where I read our book and come away bawling over something as simple as a flower or a mitten.

I gently draw one hand from his grip and begin to rub his back. He already removed his shirt, so my palm slides over bare skin. He tugs me forward so he can rest his forehead just below my collar bone, riding out the rest of his sniffles by holding onto me. Outside, the wind gusts against the house, sending loose shingles rattling. Snow hisses against the window. The fire snaps.

Peeta calms after some minutes, and I tell him he should get in the bath before it gets cold.

He nods. I step away and am about to leave the room when he calls me back.

"Will you…?" He gestures towards the shiny metal and plastic of his prosthetic. He gives a tense smile. "I'm not supposed to wear it while bathing, and… It's difficult when you're alone."

So our places are well and truly reversed now.

I nod and return to kneel between his feet. His eyes go wide, and I halt. "What's wrong?"

He shakes his head, swallows with a dry sound and waves me on.

Puzzled, I reach for the clasps that secure the fake limb to flesh. It connects just below his knee. I've never taken it off for him before, but I've watched him undo the clasps plenty of times before he closes the bathroom door to take a shower. Sometimes, on days where it aches especially badly, he takes it off to sleep. I don't often see him without it. I ease the fake limb off, setting it aside, and then reach for the sock. It's supposed to act as a barrier between the prosthetic and the sensitive skin where his leg ends, to minimize rubbing. But I can see that it's been bothering him lately. He needs to get it refitted. The skin is red and swollen from the constant irritation. I give a small, unhappy sound as I roll off the sock and place a feather-light kiss at his knee.

"You shouldn't stand so much," I say sternly. "Give it a rest sometime. You're not doing yourself any favors by pacing constantly."

Peeta mock-salutes. "Yes, Ma'am."

"Oh, get in your bath," I say, flicking a hand at him dismissively.

He grins and lifts his hips, hooking his thumbs over the waistband of his boxers. I realize just in time and spin away, face flaming.

"I still don't see how you can be bothered by this after everything," he chuckles.

I grunt and pointedly look elsewhere while I offer him an arm. He leans on me to for the three feet to the tub, then braces his arms on the table to quickly hop into the water. I hold onto his forearms for leverage as he lowers himself into the tub.

"This is why I usually take showers," he explains apologetically. "Hard to get into baths. Hard to get out."

"I'll help," I say as I move towards the door. "Just call me."

Before the blanket swings back over the doorway, I hear him say, "I know."


"I love your hair, Katniss."

I shiver.

Peeta's words are whispers against my neck, his lips moving at my earlobe. His real leg curls around one of mine, while the prosthetic stretches out in front of us, stiff toes pointed towards the fireplace. I hook my fingers around my ankles to keep myself sitting up. I realize that this position – criss-cross-applesauce, I once heard Annie call it – leaves me with my thighs parted wide, knees pointed in opposite directions, even while my feet press together at the soles. Perhaps Peeta intended this. My legs form a cradle, swathed in the welcome weight of a bulky quilt, my lower half kept warm by fire-warmed wool. My upper half is kept warm by Peeta. His right forearm presses firmly just under my ribs, keeping me in place while his left hand goes to work.

Even through the thick flannel of my nightgown, cold rivulets of water drip from the ends of my hair and onto my skin. I'm sure my back is puckered in gooseflesh under the damp fabric. The hair on my arms stands up, although it's not from the water. It's from the comb. Peeta drags it through sections of my dripping hair, brushing out snarls with his unfailing patience. The sharp pulls and muttered sorry's gradually abate as he works through the knots, and after many minutes, the comb slides down my neck and back with little resistance. Peeta's actions slow, and I'm disappointed; I don't want this unexpected luxury to end. The feel of the comb's teeth against my scalp sends tingling shivers spreading down my spine and through my skull. It's a calming, almost pleasurable sensation. I want it to last.

"I've always loved your hair," Peeta continues in an undertone. "Ever since you wore it in two braids and tied it with red ribbons."

The slight vibration of his voice touches the skin behind my ear and I sigh contentedly.

"I love it in one braid, too. Like a rope of silk."

He's rambling now, almost nonsensically, like he does when he's trying to calm me down after a relapse. Not talking about anything important, really, just… talking. I do it, too, sometimes. Ramble. I'll look up and realize that I've been speaking to an empty room, narrating my own actions or telling the furniture about my day. It's the flip-side of the weeks when I don't speak a word to anyone or anything. Doctor Aurelius assures me it's perfectly normal, but it annoys me. I used to be able to keep my thoughts inside my head so easily. Now, I find myself blurting secrets to the ottoman. It's infuriating.

Peeta, on the other hand, seems to enjoy it. I'll walk in on him gently instructing the walls about the technicalities of mixing oil paints, smiling all the while. Or, sometimes he'll talk to me, out of habit, speaking without actually saying anything. Like, it seems, now.

"I love the color." The comb drags across my hairline, just enough to make my skin prickle pleasantly. "I love everything about it."

A small sound of resignation escapes me as the comb disappears. It's over, then. I move to sit up, but Peeta surprises me by tightening the muscled band of his right arm, anchoring me to him. "But I especially love this."

And then his hands are in my hair, fingers tangling themselves in the damp locks, tugging with just the right intensity to send shocks of those tingling shivers cascading though my upper body. I shudder involuntarily as his fingers rub strands of my hair together, combing through them, arranging them this way and that. His fingernails just barely scratch my scalp, and that's all it takes to pull a small moan from me.

His lips are at my earlobe again. A knowing whisper, barely more than a breath, but not concealing his almost-smirk.

"I know. I like it, too."

His right hand begins to inch under the hem of my nightgown.

But I remember my decision in the bath, and the word bursts from my mouth.

"Wait!" I twist onto my knees, spinning to face him so that I'm kneeling in the gap between his bent legs. His face shows a flash of hurt, and I stumble over my words to reassure him. "I want – I mean – I want to do something for you. Too." I recall his words from a day ago. "I want to make you feel good."

Peeta's jaw falls slack, then tightens with an indecipherable expression. His lips say the same thing they did last time: "You don't need to." But his eyes give him away. Dark and hungry, they stare into mine, conveying a longing that burns my skin wherever it touches. I suddenly understand why Peeta was so eager to give me pleasure and deny his own – the silent yearning in his gaze urges me on, makes me push aside my own needs. My fingers twitch, palms itching for motion, but what motion? I do want to make him feel good. I just don't know how.

Instead of using the words I know I'll trip on, I lean forward, using the height of my kneeling position to hover my face over his. He tips his head back to meet my lips, and I sigh. This, at least, is something I can do. We kiss, and though my lips move fluently with his, I'm on autopilot. How am I going to accomplish this? I'm no seductress, that's for damn sure. I don't know how to please a man. I've never even thought of it, before now. But I do know Peeta. I know how he reacts to certain things. How he sighs when I push my fingers through the curls at the nape of his neck. How he likes to hold my hips or cradle me on his lap.

So I use what I know.

My fingers tremble as I reach for the hem of Peeta's shirt. I pull it up just an inch, then lean back to gauge his reaction. His pink tongue darts out to wet his lips. Those pleading eyes, the deep cobalt blue of late evening, stare into mine. My hands move and the shirt rolls up his back and over his head.

Peeta opens his mouth to say something, but I won't let him. I close in again, drawing his lower lip between mine, worrying it with my teeth. Under my palms, I feel the tension drain out of the muscles in his back. His sigh passes through his mouth and into mine. A touch at my spine, and then at my neck, and then Peeta has his fingers in my hair again. The pleasurable shivers drizzle down my body and my back arches in response, unintentionally pressing my breasts against his bare chest. He groans.

I squirm backwards, trying to kick away the quilt that's tangled around my legs. Peeta follows me, searching for my lips, and without either of us quite meaning to we end up lying down, hips-to-hips and chest-to-chest, Peeta's weight keeping me pinned against the dusty living room carpet. I can't say I don't enjoy this new development, but it won't do. How am I supposed to… attend to him like this?

"Sit up," I order, my voice a thin gasp.

Almost reluctantly, Peeta does as I say, and I push myself up on my elbows to look at him. His hair is mussed up, his ribs rise and fall with deep, rapid breaths and his lips are flushed and shiny with a sheen of saliva. But his gaze is tense and his hands fist in the fabric of the discarded quilt. He's just as nervous as I am.

I bow my lips into my mouth to wet them. My swallow is dry. "Is this okay?"

His chin dips, and I guess it's a nod.

Before I can talk myself out of it, I reach for the waistband of his pajama pants. Obligingly, he lifts his hips, and I'm reminded of when he stripped down in the kitchen. Now, just like then, I look away, choosing a spot over his shoulder to focus on while he helps me tug the pants down over his thighs, knees, feet. I fold the pants, smoothing them unnecessarily to give my hands something to do.

"You can look, you know," Peeta says quietly. "I don't mind."

I do, I think, but then I inwardly scowl at myself. I started this whole venture so I could bring Peeta the same kind of pleasure he brought me. If I'm going to do that, I'm going to have to look eventually. But I can't make myself do it. Coward, a voice whispers in my head.

It's that voice that ends up pushing me to look. I take one glance and look away just as quickly, blushing all the way down my neck and into my chest. All I can think is, How is he supposed to… fit?

I can't look down, and I can't look in his eyes, so I look at my own hands, now resting on Peeta's shoulders. "I don't know how to do this," I admit.

One of his hands comes up to stroke my cheek. Comforting me, even now, when I can see the effect this is having on him in my peripheral vision. "You don't – " he begins, but I cut him off.

"You did it for me."

"Don't do this to pay a debt."

I startle at his sharp tone of voice, my eyes darting to his.

"Don't," he says again, more gently this time. "You don't owe me anything. Anything at all. I like touching you. It's not like it's a chore."

For the second time, I shiver. I remember what he's referring to all too well. That space between my thighs pulses hopefully and I sternly remind myself that tonight is about Peeta. Not me.

"I want to," I maintain. I can see Peeta's thoughts forming behind his eyes, rolling around in his mind, and I know that if I allow him to keep talking, he'll convince me to give up my cause. Sweet, altruistic Peeta. But then a thought hits me that has me withdrawing, flinching as if I've been stung. "Unless you don't want me to," I whisper.

It's so obvious, suddenly. Peeta's gentle insistence, his methods of distraction, his tense smiles. Of course he doesn't want me. Why would he? I myself admitted that I don't know what I'm doing, and besides, I'm far from desirable. Peeta and his golden heart will touch me, for my own benefit, but he cannot want me. The realization leaves a bitter taste in my throat.

"Katniss, what are you talking about?"

I shake my head. I won't cry, I won't cry, I won't cry. Not again. Not over this.

"Katniss, please look at me."

Peeta is trying to drag my face up, but I won't meet his eyes. I feel his long sigh against my cheek, and then his lips land at the corner of my mouth. He speaks against my skin in an almost-kiss. "You don't know how much I want you to," he breathes. "God, I want you to. I want you. But I don't…" He takes a shuddering breath. "I don't want you to feel obligated."

Abruptly, fire fills me. I can't tell if it's stubbornness, desire, frustration or some other emotion that guides me. All I know is that suddenly my hand is moving, and then there's hot, smooth skin against my palm and Peeta's noise of surprise is in my ear. His nose slides along my cheekbone and his head comes to rest beside mine, his body shaking. I go by feel, loosely wrapping my fingers around the shaft. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't this. I can feel blood pulse in a vein. The skin is delicate, so delicate I'm afraid of hurting him, but the flesh beneath is firm and hot as flames.

"Help me," I plead, and not a moment later, Peeta's large hand lands atop my small one. He tightens our grip, and I'm surprised at the amount of pressure we exert. Shouldn't this hurt? Apparently not. Judging by the soft bursts of breath at my ear, it's just the opposite. He begins to drag our hands upwards, towards the tip, and then back down. My knuckles bump against the skin of his stomach before our hands begin their journey up again. Steadily, under his guidance, we increase the speed, and Peeta's free hand digs into my waist. The pants at my ear are thickened with short groans, and just as I think I've got the hang of it, Peeta's guiding hand disappears. I glance at him uncertainly. He nods encouragement and I carefully take up the rhythm by myself.

At the first pump of my small fist, I feel a shudder rise through Peeta's body. The grip he has on my waist is almost painful, but I find I don't care. His small cries of pleasure seem to shoot straight to my core, kindling a wet heat there. I feel powerful – beautiful. With a simple touch, I have control over him, and he doesn't fight. He hands himself over willingly, shaking and releasing my name in short syllables.

And then, accidentally, my hand rises too far and my thumb bumps over the weeping mushroom-cap head. Peeta's pants elongate into a low moan, and his hips rise and fall in a jerky motion. Cautiously, I repeat the action.

"Katniss," Peeta huffs, and the motion of his hips falls into a steady pulse. Up, down, up. It takes me a few tries, but at last I'm able to match my motions to it. My own hips are moving, too, circling in search of relief. I drop my head and begin planting small, sucking kisses up and down his throat, my tongue flicking out to taste him. Salt-sweat and spices and lavender. I imagine I would taste the same. We did, after all, share the same bathwater. For reasons beyond my comprehension, this thought sends a sharp pang through my breasts and between my thighs.

Without warning, Peeta tenses, sobs my name and then goes still. He grows soft under my palm and I quickly release him, cradling the back of his head as he regains composure. He slumps against me, spent, and I remember how exhausted I was after he touched me. If our experiences are the least bit similar, he'll have no trouble sleeping tonight.

The first move Peeta makes is to fish for his shirt, which he uses to sop up a pearly liquid I didn't notice before. It must have come from him, I realize. I flush all over again. He then balls up the shirt and tosses it aside before drawing me close. I rest my forehead on his damp, heaving chest, suddenly shy.

"I hope that was okay," I whisper.

Peeta gives a hoarse bark of laughter. "Okay?" Above me, I feel his head shake.

I burrow into his chest in embarrassment. "I know I'm not good at –"

"It was perfect." He pulls me up to face him. "You don't realize how wonderful you are, do you?"

I have no response for that, so I just gnaw on my lip and shrug.

After a few moments, Peeta finds his pants and pulls them back on, and we make our way bashfully up the stairs. I scrub my teeth and dive into bed in record time. Peeta takes his turn in the bathroom and I pretend to be asleep as he emerges to join me so we don't have to talk about what happened. Before he settles down, Peeta presses a warm kiss to my temple and breathes, "Thank you."

As Peeta's breath evens out beside me, I bite my lower lip and press my thighs together, ignoring the throbbing that refuses to leave. My body cries out for attention, but I can't, I can't touch myself here, with Peeta pressed up against me, his arm looped over my waist. His grunts, groans, whispers of my name loop in my head, and I know I won't be able to sleep any time soon.

Outside, the wind wails shrilly, as if laughing at me. I stuff a pillow over my head to block it out, but I can still hear Peeta's voice echoing in my mind.


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