Katniss wakes to the gentle breeze through the window. It's Spring, but the morning still carries a brisk chill that makes her shiver, especially when the sun has yet to rise. She draws the blanket to her chin to capture the warmth that radiates from the other side of the bed.
Something's not right though, because suddenly the heat is stifling, and when she reaches blindly across the too wide mattress, she finds burning, clammy skin.
Her eyes struggle to adjust to the darkness, and through the vague twilight she can only make out a few of his features. "Peeta?" she says, nudging his shoulder slightly to rouse him.
He thrashes violently and murmurs in incoherent gibberish. His brow is glistening from a thin sheen of sweat, and although his eyes are still closed, his face is pinched tightly, as if trapped in a painful thought.
"Peeta!" she says again, this time more urgently.
He wakes with a start, his breath ragged and his eyes flickering rapidly as he becomes reacquainted with consciousness. He looks at her momentarily like she's a stranger, then his face softens with recognition.
She places her hand over his to act as an anchor to reality. "Are you okay?" she says. His skin still feels fevered, but she doesn't think he's sick. In fact, this scenario is all too familiar. "Does it happen often?"
"Huh?" he says, more lucid now.
"It was nothing," he says, scrubbing a tired hand over his face. He untangles himself from the blankets and moves to the cracked window to open it wider. "It's just hot, is all." He braces both hands against the sill and stands there with his back to her.
He's only a couple of yards away, but it may as well be a hundred miles. Neither one of them are in this room anymore, both caught in some horrid memory.
"I always feel like I'm drowning," she admits, then covers her mouth before she can say too much. She hugs her legs to her chest and rests her chin on her knees. She feels small and vulnerable in this position, like she did the day her father died. "It's like I'm trapped underwater but it's too dark to see, and the earth is so heavy I can't move."
She closes her eyes when she can feel the weight of her tears along the brim. Images of cramped elevators, crumbling rocks, and mens' desperate struggle flash in a cruel show she's seen a thousand times before. Her throat burns from the memory of helplessly screaming "Run!" for only ghosts to hear.
She shakes away the thoughts, and focuses on Peeta again. Her dreams are only figments of her imagination. Silly, selfish things. She never felt the weight of the mine collapsing like her father. Never saw the inside of the arena like Peeta did.
"You dream about the Games, don't you?"
When she was young, she used to be so afraid of being reaped that she wouldn't sleep for weeks before the names were drawn. As she grew older all she could think about was what she would do if Prim were picked, and whether she'd be brave enough to raise her hand and volunteer. Now her biggest fear is that she can't.
He looks at her from over his shoulder and then turns back to the window. "Sometimes," he says.
"I can't imagine how terrifying it must have been."
His chest rises and falls with one heavy breath.
"The Games were the easy part," he says with an edge of unexpected humor. She doesn't know how killing someone could ever be considered easy, but she's never had to face that sort of survival.
"What are your nightmares about then?" she asks carefully.
He bows his head, his grip tightening around the frame of the window until his knuckles turn white. She regrets asking because now she knows his mind is trapped in that place again.
"My nightmares are about losing what's important to me," he says.
She can't explain what compels her, but suddenly she's standing beside him, her hands settling tentatively on his back. He clutches her hand from over his shoulder, holding on firmly like she's his sole tether.
There's a promise behind his embrace. That he won't lose her. And against her better judgment, she knows that she won't leave him. The pull he has on her is too strong to ignore. This is getting dangerous.
She lets out a weak laugh in hopes of diffusing the growing tension. "I know how you feel," she says nervously.
He turns to face her. "Yeah?"
The look in his eye catches her off guard and she begins to panic even more. "My sister, Prim," she elaborates.
"Of course," he says with a smile that seems to strain against every muscle.
Katniss moves to sit on the edge of the bed and he follows. "It's her last year in the Reaping," she says.
"Her name's only in there what? Seven times? The odds are still in her favor."
That's what Katniss always tells herself. Her name was in the bowl 28 times her last year of eligibility, and Gale's 42. Prim's got the odds of a merchant kid and they never get chosen. Except for Peeta. He had five entries among thousands, a fact that she tries her best to ignore, but it still lingers, uninvited.
"I hope so," she says. "I'm sorry. I was the one who was supposed to be making you feel better."
"Now you're just being nice to me," she says. He cracks his usual Peeta smile, and although it sets her at ease, she can't help but notice how vacant it always is. "We should talk about something else. Something less depressing."
"Less depressing? You've met me, right? This is about as sunshine and rainbows as it gets."
"That's not true," she says. She knew Peeta before the Games, not as well as others, but she knew him. He was carefree and charismatic and she still sees hints of that boy when he accidentally lets his guard down. She only sees it because around him, the walls she's so carefully crafted her entire life begin to crumble too. "Tell me something about yourself. A good thing. What's your favorite song?"
He gazes at her for a long beat, the corner of his mouth twitching with the hitch of laughter in his breath. "The Valley Song," he says.
"The Valley Song? Why's that?'"
"Because it's the first song I ever heard you sing."
She eyes him skeptically. Since her father died, she rarely sings - unless it's to comfort Prim, which she hasn't had to do in years. She can't recall a single instance where she's sang around Peeta.
"I don't sing," she says.
"You do, I remember," he says, leaning back to rest on his elbows. "It was the first day of school when we were five years old. The teacher asked us who knew the Valley Song and your hand shot straight up."
She lays down, stretching across the mattress until she's reached the pillows. "You're making that up."
"I'm not," he says with a slightly exasperated chuckle. His fingers brush her thighs, right below where her sleep shirt rides up. "You were wearing a red plaid dress and your hair was in two braids instead of one. I remember my father pointing you out while we were lining up and he told me that when your father sang, the birds stopped to listen. I didn't believe him, so when you volunteered, I paid extra close attention."
Her chest tightens and she feels like she's drowning, but she refuses to come up for air. She can recall enough details to know that the story is true. The dress. Music assembly. And it was true about her father too, nothing was more soothing than the nights when he'd sing her folk songs until she'd fallen asleep.
"And did the birds stop singing?"
"I haven't heard one since," he says, replacing his fingers with his mouth to kiss the inside of her thigh.
She shudders, the quake vibrating to the tips of her fingers which curl to anchor in his hair. "You remember that?" she says breathlessly.
"I remember everything about you."
Her body unravels when the heat of his mouth cups her through her underwear, the cotton dampening between his tongue and her want for him.
I love you, she wants to shouts, but instead she swallows her words and chews her bottom lip between her teeth until it bleeds. This isn't supposed to happen. She isn't supposed to feel this way.
"Don't say things like that," she says.
He sits up and sighs. "I know, I'm sorry," he says. He lies down beside her and brushes her hair off her shoulder. "It's just getting hard - to pretend I don't need you."
She kisses him then, because if they keep on talking, they'll both say something stupid. Because in the morning he'll be on a train to the Capitol to entertain the highest bidder however they see fit. And it hurts more and more, so selfishly, every time he leaves, knowing that she has to share him. How his smile seems to fade little by little when he returns, and all she wants to do is protect him, and to love him until that boy she once knew returns.
In the morning, her stomach fills with dread as she watches him pack his overnight bag. "You don't have to go, you know," she says.
When he looks at her, he looks so tired, and she feels too guilty to push it further. So she sits there with her knees hugged against her chest and watches silently until it's time for him to leave
"You can stay here if you want, while I'm gone," he tells her as he steps towards the door.
She scoffs at the idea, it's his house, not her's - she only sleeps here. But then she notices it. Her heavy jacket draped across a chair from before the seasons changed. Her shoes mixed with his on the rack by the door. That's not all though, upstairs there's a drawer in his dresser that now holds only her things, and the kitchen is full of sweets from the Capitol that Peeta never touches, but always brings a box back because he knows how much she loves them. She's even started stashing her favorite utility knife here, since none of Peeta's fancy knives can skin a rabbit the same way.
She wraps her arms around him, enveloping herself in his scent, hoping it will linger until he returns. "I should go home," she says, but a minute passes before she let's go.
It's still dusk when she leaves, the sun still hanging low on the horizon as it pushes through the haze of clouds which always seem to settle in the valley this time of morning. The town is asleep, and she feels as alone as being three miles past the fence in the thick of the woods.
There are signs of life in the Seam, and she feels a tug at her lips when she spots Gale making his way up the hill towards her. It's Sunday. Hunting day. At least it used to be, she can hardly remember the last time they went - back when they were kids, maybe, when their names were in the reaping bowl a couple dozen times a piece.
"Fence is the other way," she calls out, caught in the wave of nostalgia.
He flashes a smile that doesn't reach his eyes. "Not today, Catnip."
"You're missing out, the pickings are good these days."
"I bet," he says with that gruff sort of chuckle of his that says about a thousand other things
She tries to shake his tone, but it's impossible, an icy chill has settled permanently between them. "You headed to the Hob?"
"They extended my hours in the mines again," he says, slipping his black stained hands into the pockets of his worn slacks.
"Third time this month," he says. "And in the summer no less, it's not like they have to heat their homes."
"Strange," she says cautiously.
"Yeah, it's like they're trying to work us to death. Tire us out. But I'm sure your boyfriend knows all about that."
She narrows her eyes. "Why would he?"
He gives her a pointed look, and all civility is officially lost. She's done trying to appease his sour mood.
"You don't know what you're talking about," she snaps.
He frowns, jaw clenching. "Right," he says. His eyes flick towards her game bag hanging heavily on her shoulder. "Good trade today? What's the going rate for cinnamon raisin these days?"
She looks away shamefully.
"Getting into bed with him is the same as getting into bed with the Capitol. You see that, right?"
"Are you being serious?" she bites back, the anger blooming in her chest pure fire now. "You think he hates Panem any less? He was in the arena!" He's practically a slave, she wants to add, but the words die on her tongue. She breathes deeply to settle her nerves. "We're all getting by the best we can, Gale."
He nods wordlessly. It's as much of an apology one can expect from him.
"Why don't you go? Live past the fence like you always wanted," she says quietly.
Pregnant. Katniss had forgotten they were even married. She feels her hands turn ice cold at the news.
This could have been her life. When she was 16, it was sort of expected that she and Gale would end up together, but at eighteen, she refused his proposal. A year later he was breaking bread over a flame with Aidy Thomas.
She touches her stomach, feeling sick. She should be happy for him. She never wanted children, but Gale did. What if your baby is reaped? is all she can think though.
His two brothers are still of reaping age, and his youngest sister Posy just turned eleven. Gale will spend most of his life worrying about somebody's name in the reaping bowl.
But what's the alternative? Is Katniss's life really much better?
"I'll take that as a congratulations," he says wryly.
She blinks a few times to shake herself from the trance. "Of course."
She doesn't remember the rest of the walk home. She's walked the trails of the Seam thousands of times - knows them like the back of her hand, but today she's lost. An outsider in her own home.
Katniss is relieved when she finally pushes her way through her front door and drops her canvas game bag on the table. She loosens the drawstring, pulling the opening wide to unload the tray of cinnamon rolls, she watched Peeta prepare the night before. Warm out of the oven, they were the sweetest thing she'd ever tasted.
Prim enters the kitchen, her cheeks still flushed from a scrub in the wash basin. She fastens the last few buttons of the blue dress that Katniss used to wear to the Reaping. The color has faded nearly to gray, and the fabric is paper thin, but it's still the nicest dress they have in their home.
"Katniss," Prim says, sounding surprised. "I didn't think you'd be here."
"I brought you breakfast," Katniss says, sliding the tray towards her sister.
Prim eyes them warily, then hitches the strap to her bag higher on her shoulder, ignoring the proffered treat. "I ate at the Jepsen's this morning while we were treating their uncle."
Katniss doesn't know why this stings, but she doesn't let the feeling linger, and pushes the thoughts away with a too bright smile. "Where are you off to?"
"Cooper's," Prim says, looking away somewhat guiltily. Cooper, the shoemaker's boy. Katniss has seen Prim hanging around the shop while she was making trades, but she never thought much of it.
"Yeah? He seems nice."
"We're getting married, Katniss," she says abruptly. "After the Reaping and the Games end this year."
"Oh," is all Katniss can muster.
"I didn't know how to tell you. I know how you feel about these things."
"I'm happy for you, of course I am."
"I'm happy for you too," Prim says, her gaze sliding to the tray of sweets. "You and Peeta."
"We're just friends," Katniss says out of habit.
"Still. I'm happy you found someone. I worry about you sometimes. That you'll end up like Mom."
Katniss looks hollowly at the wall that separates the kitchen from their shared bedroom. She takes a deep breath and finds enough strength to smile. "Here, take these to the Cooper's," she say, pushing the tray of cinnamon rolls into Prim's hands. "I'm sure they already love you, but it never hurts to butter them up."
"Thanks," Prim says, and then she's out the door.
The house is silent. Through the window over the sink, Katniss watches as children chase each other up the ash covered path, but the sound of their laughter never reaches her.
She turns to the stove and puts a kettle on the burner, filling a mug with tea leaves when it begins to boil.
The mug of tea perched on her mother's bedside table is cold when Katniss replaces it. Her mother stirs and stretches groggily. "I must have dozed off," she says, pulling herself up to lean against her pillow. "It was an early morning call."
"Prim told me," Katniss says, handing her mother the steaming cup. "Are you getting up?"
Her mother sighs and sets the mug aside. "Maybe in a little while," she says. "I think I'll sleep a bit more. I always feel so exhausted."
"Right," Katniss says. "I'm going into town."
"Will you be home later?"
She looks around the cramped and cluttered room. Her mother's hastily packed medical bag spilling across the dresser. Prim's work clothes draped over the edge of the wash basin still in need of a good scrub.
"I don't know," she says.
Her chin rises and falls along with his chest as he takes another breath. The angle constantly changing while she studies his face. It's late afternoon, her favorite time of day, when the sun has crested and the warm light is rich with shadows.
She admires the way the sunshine bathes over him. The breeze picking up just enough to lift his hair from his forehead, threads of gold dancing in the wind before drifting slowly back to earth.
The corner of his mouth twitches as he falls deeper into sleep, his cheek pinching into a dimple that quickly vanishes when his frown returns, the stitch moving to the worried ridge between his eyebrows. His head rolls to the side, his neck stretching long.
That's when she sees it. A mark behind his ear that hadn't been there before. It's only a faint discoloration. A small pink bruise in the shape of a strawberry just beneath his earlobe. He flinches when she touches it, and that's when she realizes what it is, and where it came from.
She pulls away roughly, crawling back on her hands to add a few feet of grass between them.
She hadn't meant to wake him, but he stirs at her absence and his eyes are already opening.
"Go back to sleep," she says.
"Why try to dream of your face when I can just look at it?" he says with a lazy grin.
Katniss rolls her eyes and busies herself by fidgeting with the empty basket from their earlier picnic.
"Come on, that was smooth," he says with a chuckle.
"Oh yeah, definitely," she says flatly, but her words are more biting than she intended.
She looks at where his hand is smoothing over his neck. Her thoughts flash with images of the Capitol. Of beautiful naked women writhing beneath him. What it felt like for him when they left that stain on his flesh. Her ears burn with anger.
"Hey, what is it?" he prods again.
"Why do you do it?" she snaps. She's answered only with confusion so she asks it again. "Why do you do it? These trips to the Capitol. You've never told me. You always say that you're dangerous but you've never said why."
His face hardens, his easy smile a distant memory. "It's not safe to tell you."
"It's not safe to be out here either," she argues, nodding towards the empty valley beyond the fence where they've escaped for the afternoon. "At least nobody's listening out here."
"You are," he says.
"Of course I am, I'm the one who asked."
He sits up on his elbows. It's obvious that he's stalling when he begins to fuss over the hard ground beneath him.
"Is it because of the Games?" she prods. "Because you're a mentor - is that how you get sponsors?"
"No, no," he says dismissively, but his eyes darken. "Nobody wastes their money on my tributes."
"If it's not for the money and it's not for the Games, then why?" she asks, her tone growing desperate. She takes a deep breath. Reminds herself that she shouldn't care. This isn't a relationship. He doesn't owe her anything.
She begins to tug at the flowers around her knees, plucking them from their roots one after the other.
It's quiet for what feels like forever. "Does it bother you?" he finally says.
She swallows her pride. "I try not to let it," she says quietly. "Sometimes," she admits. Her fingers fidget with the stems gathered in her lap. She chains them together stem to bud, stem to bud. "I know it makes you miserable though."
"It's not that - " he says. "It's just sex. It doesn't mean anything to me. Katniss, what kills me? It's not being able to have this." He gestures between them until she understands. "You're very important to me Katniss, and if something ever happened to you? I'd never forgive myself."
"What would happen to me?"
"I don't know," he says cryptically. His face turns somber as he combs his finger through the grass. "You'd be arrested for poaching and turned into an avox, probably. A few years ago they would have had you reaped, but you're too old for that now. They know everything about us, and they'll do whatever it takes to keep their Victor's in line."
Katniss thinks about the Games. Not of the violent weapons or the brutal ways each tribute meets their end, but of the meticulous way each move of the Game is crafted. From the layout of the arena, to timing and location of the feast, to the mutts engineered specifically to compliment the remaining players greatest fears.
"It was easier before -" he continues. "I mean I hated it, I've always hated it, but it was easier when nobody knew."
He shakes his head. "I was sixteen the first time I got an invitation - after one of those fancy banquets, and I thought Haymitch was joking when he said they'd have the bakery burned down if I didn't go. He, uh, he had a girl, if you can believe it." He clears his throat. "I was so disgusted with myself after. It's funny - well it isn't, but you'd think having to kill a bunch of kids would be the lowest point in your life. And it is. I just didn't think I could hate myself anymore than I already did. So the next day, I was back in Twelve for the Fall Festival, and I just sat there glowering through the entire thing, and I overhear my mother muttering to my father, 'Is he going to be this moody all the time?'" He shakes his head again and let's out a humorless chuckle. "When they look at me, all they see is some rich, tortured killer... that's all anyone has seen since I came back. And I've let them, because it was easier that way. And then you came along."
Her fingers still around the flower stems.
"I sold my soul to get out of the arena, and I sold my body to survive after. They have everything. And being around you, it makes me want to take it back. But the more I want that, the more they own me."
He looks down at his shoes and toes off some dirt from the bottom of his sole. "I wouldn't blame you if you left," he says.
"I know," she says. She finishes her string of flowers, looping off the ends to form a ring, and then places it on his head like a crown. "When we were kids, you always reminded me of a dandelion. Every year when I saw the first one of the season, I knew Spring was here and and that better days were coming."
He picks at one of the yellow flowers, coating the tips of his fingers with the sweet scent of pollen. "Is that what a dandelion means?"
"Faithfulness, actually," she says and the words hang between them, heavy and ominous. She tries to smile to lighten the mood. "Happiness too, so I guess it's kind of fitting - better days." She snatches the crown off his head. "I only pick them because they're good for eating though."
"Ew," he laughs. "You can't eat that! It was in my hair."
"And I picked it up right off the ground too!" she says.
He reaches for the crown and when she holds it out further from his grasp, he takes the opportunity to roll on top of her, pinning her body to the ground with his. "That was mine," he says.
She writhes beneath him, gasping around laughter as she tries to regain the upper hand. It's impossible though. He's twice her size and he barely has to make any effort to hold her. All he does is stare down at her, his eyes glinting with reverie.
"Why me?" he says softly. "You'd be so much better off without me."
Her eyes dart away, but quickly return to his. "But then you'd be alone."
He smiles sadly. "I'd be okay."
"I'd be alone too," she admits.
"That's not true."
Her hands find the buttons on his shirt, unfastening them then fastening them again. "My sister's eighteen now, she's got her own life. My mother too. Even my trades in town are worthless these days. No one needs me. No one but you."
"Katniss," he warns.
She brings his face to hers, kissing him deeply. When he pulls away she's tangled the dandelion crown back into his hair. "You're mine," she says fiercely.
Her eyes return to the mark on his neck and her brazenness grows.
Peeta's eyes widen in recognition when her thumb brushes over the offending mark. "I'm sorry…" he begins.
"Don't," she says. She brings her lips to his ear and nips the skin between her teeth until only her mark is left behind. But the burn of his hiss lingers in her eardrum, and she wonders if he made that same sound of pleasure the first time. It fuels her, and she bites him again on a clean patch of skin. She wants to own every sound, every touch. To tattoo her memory everywhere so he'll be haunted forever.
She remembers their first night together and his gentle plea with every touch and every kiss. He needs her.
"Peeta," she murmurs in his ear.
His entire body shudders above her as his hands grow more insistent beneath her blouse.
"What do you want, Peeta?" she says, her fingers working at the button of his slacks.
He groans when she reaches beneath his underclothes to stroke his length. "You, Katniss," he says shakily. "Please, I want you."
She pushes his pants down his thighs and goes to work on her own. "You can have me," she says, guiding him toward her entrance.
"Fuck, I want you so bad," he grunts, their pelvis's slapping together as he moves eagerly inside of her. "I've always wanted you, I always want you, it drives me crazy but I never want to stop."
He's never been inside her without a condom and there's something exciting about that. That there isn't a single thing that could stand between them. She feels empowered for not being so cautious for once. By giving herself to him completely, in spite of the danger that could come along with it. The Capitol has owned her too, in a way, but not in this moment. She's giving herself a choice. She's his. She needs him too.
And so she clings to him desperately, matching every fervent thrust until she feels his release, sending her over the edge along with him.
His weight shifts from his elbows to lay solely on her chest and she struggles to keep up with her labored breaths. He's still inside her, his cock pulsing between her fluttering walls as her orgasm ebbs.
His face is buried in the crook of her neck and he turns his head enough to meet her eye. There's an odd calm between them as they float back to reality, but then the shock quickly settles in.
Peeta blinks rapidly as he pulls out of her and she can feel the slick remnants of semen on the inside of her thigh.
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have done that," he says. "I don't know what I was thinking." He pauses and scrubs a hand over his face. "There's a pill in the Capitol, I can get you one — to be sure."
She feels tears burning at the corners of her eyes. There are a handful of herbal concoctions she knows that prevent pregnancy, and that's what she should be thinking about right now. But instead, for the briefest of moments, she revels in the excitement of carrying Peeta's child. Of starting a family like Prim plans to do, or like Gale already has.
But that future can never exist for her, not in Panem. And for the first time, she hates it.
"You're building a reputation you know?" Dracaena says, lifting her thumb from the pipe and inhaling deeply. She's propped up on some pillows leaning against the headboard and she toes his listless body at the foot of the bed to make sure he's still paying attention. A curl of smoke escapes her black painted lips, swirling around her face like a mask concealing her features.
"I thought we've already established my reputation," he says, waving off the pipe when she offers it to him.
She takes another hit and puffs a cloud of smoke in his face. "We had," she says, slinking back to rest against the pillows. "But now it seems your customers are having such a ravenous time throwing back cocktails and sampling pharmaceuticals with you they can't even stay awake for the grand finale."
"If they're not awake there is no grand finale," he says pointedly.
"Really?" she says dryly. "Imagine that."
"They pay for my company, they get my company."
"They get your company and you don't have to get your dick wet."
She looks at him dangerously, the pipe balanced delicately between her lips as she takes a flame to the bowl. When she blows the smoke through her nose and mouth it looks like she's breathing fire. She crawls down the length of the bed, pausing to kneel beside him and cage his body with her arms. "Are we going to fuck?" she says simply.
He sets his jaw and forces himself to hold her gaze. "If you want to."
She hovers over him for a long moment. Her lips dipping mere inches from his. Enough for him to taste the smoke on his tongue. Her smile is sly. Challenging. Waiting for him to call his own bluff.
"I don't feel like it," she finally says, retreating to her nest at the headboard.
"You're the boss," he says, shrugging a shoulder and turning his gaze up to the bellowing canopy overhead.
"Am I?" she says, but by her tone he knows this game isn't over. "This is a cute little power play. Did you take it straight out of the President's handbook? Granted, your poison is a lot more fun and a lot less lethal." She finds her pipe again and flicks her lighter with a few sparks.
Peeta's eyes snap to her curiously and he sits up to pluck the pipe from her hand. "Pardon?"
She pouts at him and folds her arms over her chest. "Do you victors even talk? This has been prime gossip for years! No wonder this little rebellion of yours never gets off the ground."
Now it's Peeta's turn to play coy. He takes a hit from her pipe and places it on the vanity out of her reach then rejoins her on the bed.
He lies beside her and folds his hands behind his head. "I don't know what you're talking about," he says coolly.
"This quiet little rebellion of yours isn't so subtle," she says. "And the sympathizers you have here are growing impatient."
She rolls her eyes. "Of course."
"And what would these sympathizers suggest?"
"I think you already know," she says, and Peeta nods for her to elaborate. "Let's see. You take your enemy into an intimate setting. One where they're vulnerable, where they can feel safe."
"Like a cushy hotel suite?"
Her glazed eyes brighten. "Like a cushy hotel suite," she affirms. "Then you offer refreshments, something to help them relax, and there's no reason to doubt you because you take the first sip."
"But it's poison."
"Not to you. You know the dosage. You have the antidote. You've built a tolerance. Now they're drugged and you have the power."
"What's the point of poison? Why get tricky? He'll be dead no matter what."
"Plausible deniability." She stands and crosses the room to where a crystal set of carafes and glasses sit. She uncorks a bottle with amber liquid and divides it into two tumblers. She hands one to him and holds onto the other. "Change the setting. Some place high profile. Witnesses are the key. You share a drink - a toast." She clinks their glasses and takes a large sip from her cup, Peeta looks at her hesitantly and then follows suit. "You're dead," she says with a content grin. "But everyone else is mysteriously alive."
"If it's so easy, then why haven't you done it already?"
"Because he's been building a tolerance to the stuff for years. Pouring poison from the Capitol into his cup is as good as handing him a glass of water."
"How do you know all of this? Maybe he's not drinking the poison at all, maybe he's leaving it out of his."
"Trust me, I'm the one who pours the drinks, and if I had it my way, the bastard would have been long dead. But that's all a part of the game for him, giving me a weapon when he knows there's nothing I can do with it."
Peeta drains the rest of his glass, letting the last of the liquid burn his throat. "What does this have to do with me? I can't help you."
"I watched your Games, Peeta. You're smart. One of the smartest tributes the Games has ever seen. Most people remember you for being handsome, but you're more than that. Fringe districts don't get invited into the career pack, but you did. You didn't waste your time rallying the little guys to unite and fight. You entered the belly of the beast and you stabbed it in the heart. You broke up the career pack and convinced them to kill each other without lifting a weapon. Well the game isn't over yet and I'm offering you access back into the Arena. What are you going to do about it?"
Peeta feels his pulse spike. Feels every nerve ending come to life. His mouth feels like sandpaper and he struggles to swallow. "You want me to kill him?"
He can hear the clock counting down, feel that platform beneath his feet. A young girl let's out a shriek signifying the start of the bloodbath. He has to get out of here. He has to run.
"No. I want to kill him, and I want you to tell me how to do it."
Peeta stares at the chess pieces sprawled across the board before him, his finger ghosting the length of the marble bishop.
Katniss chews on the back of her fingernail as her eyes scan for possible moves. She brightens and smiles slyly before capturing his Queen with her rook. "Easy," she says, an unmistakable pride beaming in her tone. "What do you have to say to that, master strategist?"
He hesitates. He already knows which move to play, it's the one he lured her into a moment before. He glances at the discarded pieces lined up beside the board. Wonders how many moves he could have shaved from the game. He hasn't even moved his King.
End it, just end it,
he tells himself. His hand is shaking and he steadies it on the bishop before sliding it forward. "Checkmate," he mumbles.
Her smile falters. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah," he says, nodding to convince himself. "You're terrible at this," he teases.
"That's not true," she says. "You're just impossible to read."
"Oh is that it?"
"Yes! You kept tapping on that piece! I thought you were trying to trick me."
"No, I just have an awfully easy tell."
Katniss scowls at him. "I want to play again," she says, setting all of the pieces back in their place as he does the same.
Peeta nods at her, encouraging her to make the first move.
She picks up a pawn, her mouth twisted in defiant determination, and instead of setting it one or two spaces ahead, she pushes it across the board and plows through his own row of pawns to capture the King.
"Checkmate," she says, sounding rather pleased with herself.
"What was that?"
He chuckles and shakes his head. "That's cheating," he says. "You can't do that."
She sits back in her chair and folds her arms across her chest, her eyebrow lifted in challenge. "The pawns are revolting. They're tired of tending the kingdom's crops and know where the queen keeps her dagger."
"Actually," he says, snatching the piece away before she can take it. "If your pawns are plotting an uprising, it's your kingdom that's going to fall," he says holding out his hand for her king.
She narrows her eyes. "It was a diversion," she decides. "Your king thinks his enemy is tied up in civil war so he moves his forces to protect from larger threats in the South," she continues, swapping his pieces so the pawns line his closest rank.
He begins to weigh the possible moves, and the way he can out maneuver her defensive line, but it doesn't take him long to realize the results. "They're all still going to die," he says.
He starts pushing his pieces off the board until only his king remains.
"Peeta what are you talking about?"
"It's getting late," he says, rising from his chair. "I should get to sleep."
Katniss nods somberly and follows him up the steps.
In his dreams he's back in the Game, in an arena that's a sprawling chess board. Peeta's platform is near the middle, in a pawn's space, and when he turns around, he sees that he's standing before President Snow. His throat within Peeta's grasp.
He lunges for him, but another piece slides between them. Peeta stumbles back towards the edge of his platform when he recognizes the person standing on it. Marcus Cato, the male District 2 tribute from his Games. Peeta's last kill.
He looks for another way out, but he's surrounded by other tributes. Claudius Templesmith counts down to zero and the tributes run toward the cornucopia behind him. Peeta stays focused on President Snow's piece though. He hurdles toward it, a space away when another platform separates him.
This time he's in a field of victor's, too busy trading secrets to pay attention to the enemy before him. He spots Dracaena at Snow's side. She nods at him, just enough for Peeta to take the last dive. He's so close. So close. But a final hurdle sprouts between them, and Snow has Katniss now, with a knife to her throat.
He's shaking. Someone's shaking him. His eyes open to Katniss's worried face.
"Wake up, please. It's just a dream," she pleads.
He struggles to catch his breath. There's light streaming through the window, and he cringes, knowing that it's morning. He's due back in the Capitol today.
"I've got to go," he says, but Katniss grips his arm to still him.
"You should stay," she says.
He heaves a heavy sigh. She knows that he can't. How much he hates to refuse her.
The train departs in a few hours, but it's not like anyone will personally be waiting for him to climb aboard. They stopped sending an escort for him a long time ago. Good behavior, he supposes. So what if he doesn't go? Will anyone miss him? Could he stay out of this whole mess for just one day?
He doesn't want to fight. He never asked for any of this. All he's ever wanted was her. And she's here, asking for him to stay.
He sinks back onto the mattress and rests his head on the pillow beside hers. "Okay," he says.
"Do you ever wonder what life would be like. If there were no Games?" he says in a brief moment of insanity. Dracaena has been whispering too much nonsense in his ear for his own good.
"No," Katniss says before he's even gotten all the words out.
His smile crumbles and he feels like he's been punched in the gut. He wonders what he was expecting her to say. The reaction he was fishing for. He presses his lips together and nods.
"I can't afford to think like that," she says to appease him.
"But what if it could change?" he says a bit too hastily.
She looks at him, her eyes critical as they study his face. "Peeta, what are you talking about?"
I'm going to assassinate the president. He clenches his jaw. That's insane. "Nothing," he says.
She nods, but it's obvious that she doesn't believe him. They don't talk about it again.
The bed is cold when his eyes open again. He looks out the window to find the sun high in the sky. It must be afternoon by now.
Downstairs, Katniss is sorting items from her hunting bag along the counter, humming a smooth melody while she works. He's caught off guard by how normal it all feels. How it looks like she belongs here in this house that's always felt foreign to him. For a moment he allows himself to pretend that it can stay this way. That he can balance this one with the life he keeps in the Capitol.
He knows that if he follows the path that Dracaena has set for him, he won't be coming back.
Katniss smiles warmly at him when she notices him watching. She smiles warmly when she notices him watching. "You're awake," she says.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to sleep so long," he says sheepishly. "What's all this?"
"I did some trading yesterday, but haven't had a chance to go through it. Found some funny things."
"Yeah? Like what?"
"Well Sae had this stew yesterday with these salty greens. They looked like they might have been pickled, but don't taste it," she says, revealing a dark tangled bundle. "I thought you might want to try baking with it."
Peeta can smell the ocean at the sight of it. Feel the sand sink around his feet as the foamy waves of District Four crash across the shore, leaving tangles of seaweed in its wake.
"And there was lots of fabrics too," she says, ruffling through a pile of folded linens. "I thought Prim might want to make a wedding dress with it."
"You found all of this in town?" he asks a bit too eagerly.
She looks at him, worry creasing into a frown. "Yes, there was some wheat too, but I traded it with your father. I hope you don't mind."
"Not at all," he says, his eyes flitting towards his neighbor's house. He squelches the quiet glimmer of hope before it can betray him. "I'm going to check in on Haymitch."
He marches briskly across the lawn in long strides, and only knocks once before bursting through the door. He cringes at the musky smell, but it doesn't slow his pace towards the kitchen. "Haymitch, wake up," he orders. "We need to air you out."
His mentor mutters a few obscenities as Peeta drags him to his feet and ushers him towards the front door.
"Why do I have a bunch of smuggled district goods on my dining room table?"
"Wouldn't the smuggler you share a bed with be the better person to be asking right now?" he replies gruffly.
"Haymitch, we've got trade between districts?"
"Well, since rations go through the Capitol, and we're trying to cut the Capitol out of the equation..." he says evasively.
"And what about when the Games start next week. What happens then?"
Haymitch lets out a heavy sigh. "Nothing," he says. "Kid, we're still in the early stages. A few rebels in every district maybe, but we don't have an army. These things take time."
"Time? How many more children have to be reaped for us to do something?" He looks around, lowers his voice to a hasty whisper even though no one else can hear. "I've got a contact in the Capitol. I can get in and end this real quick."
Haymitch doesn't say anything for a while. "Weren't you supposed to be on a train this morning?" He says. Now it's Peeta's turn to hold his tongue. Haymitch's eyes flit towards Peeta's house, where they both know Katniss is hidden inside. "You know what you're doing?"
Peeta sets his jaw and stands tall. "I do," he says.
When they part, Peeta doesn't go home. Instead he finds himself heading towards the gap in the fence and sneaking beneath it. Finds himself hurdling through the trees and over the soft forest floor until he reaches the plateau over the valley, and the patch of dark lumpy berries.
The vial of berry juice is heavy in his breast pocket as Peeta steps onto the Reaping stage and takes the seat beside Haymitch. He wonders if the juice loses potency over time. He should have taken the whole plant. Or asked Katniss about it, at least. He's put enough burden on her as it is. No need to have her worrying after him as he goes on a suicide mission to the Capitol.
He's so caught up in thoughts of poison that he doesn't even hear Effie Trinket recite the Treaty of Treason that everyone knows by heart. No, it's when he hears the name Primrose Everdeen that the world around him stops.
His eyes find Katniss's in the crowd as she struggles helplessly against the railing that separates the audience form eligible children. He did this. It's all Peeta's fault. And now the one good thing he had in his life sees him for the monster that he is.
He never should have opened his door to her that cold winter's night.
He wonders what this is punishment for. He doubts it has anything to do with Katniss's poaching. Is it because he missed his train? Or does Snow know about the bottle of poison in his coat? Will that be the price for Prim's life?
He needs sponsors. Lots of them. All of them if he has to. He begins tallying debts and building up a list of contacts. He can do this if he pushes aside all his silly distractions.
He rushes to find Katniss in the courthouse after the ceremony has ended.
"Katniss, wait," he shouts before she can reach the office that holds Prim.
"Don't," she says, backing away, alarm in her eye like an animal that's been cornered.
"No, get away. I can't be near you right now. I can't even look at you," she says.
Peeta takes a deep breath and waits for the numbness to fill him. "Katniss, I'm sorry."
"It's my fault. It's all my fault. You warned me this would happen, but I wouldn't listen. Because I was desperate and lonely and selfish." She clutches her chest and struggles for breaths between shuddering sobs. "I was supposed to protect her," she says.
"Your sister will come home. I promise. I won't come back without her." He touches her arm, but pulls away painfully when she flinches. He deserves this, he reminds himself when he has the audacity to feel hurt.
"I don't know what's going to happen," he says. "But I need you to be ready to run. Gather as many people as you can and run for the woods, I'll send a signal if I can. Trust me, please."
She holds his gaze, her chin trembling beneath the weight of her grief. The way she's looking at him feels worse than an enemy. She looks at him like he's nothing. He's nothing to her. "I should stay with her until it's time to leave," she says, and walks numbly towards the holding room.
Prim stirs her soup, but never brings the spoon to her lips. She pauses after a moment and looks at him. It's the moment that Peeta dreads every year. The moment when his doomed tribute debates whether they want to put any faith in him bringing them home.
The china rattles on thick, linen tablecloth. It's the only sound in the train car.
He holds his breath, jaw clenching.
"You and my sister," is all Prim says.
He looks away.
"Do you love her?"
He begins to shake his head but stops himself. There's no reason to hide it anymore. He's been exposed. He's run out of options. It's all over anyway. "Yes," he admits.
She nods a few times and resumes swirling her spoon. "Good," she says softly. "That's good." She takes a deep breath to calm the quivering in her voice. "You'll look after her then. She's always so busy looking after others that she never takes care of herself. I'm - I'm glad she has you."
Peeta feels like he's going to vomit. He braces his hands on the edge of the table, gripping until his knuckles turn white. The only reason Prim is here, preparing for her death, is because of him.
The train begins to slow. They won't reach the Capitol until the morning, so this must be the stop to refuel.
"I'm sorry," Peeta says to excuse himself.
Haymitch is waiting for him outside the dining car and nods for him to follow.
The refueling depot is somewhere outside of District 10, where the land is incredibly flat, and the abandoned fields snap loudly against the breeze. They don't have to move far from the train before they know they can't be heard.
"So you had a plan?" Haymitch says.
Peeta laughs humorlessly. "You know I really don't have time for this," he snaps.
"You had a plan," Haymitch repeats.
Peeta drops his chin to his chest and scuffs the dirt with his shoe. "A stupid one."
Haymitch looks across the plain, smoothing down his wild hair as it picks up with the wind. "We have a few hovercraft, and a couple of land vehicles. We were planning to use them to mobilize against District 2 if they sided with the Capitol, but they've agreed to remain neutral - or at least loyal to anyone who holds the City."
"You're going to take the Capitol?" Peeta concludes. "When?"
"You had a plan," Haymitch says pointedly.
Peeta looks back at the train, pats the vial hidden in his pocket. "Yes," he says.
"How does the crop look this year?" Dracaena says, sliding up beside him. She lifts the glass that's hooked around her pinkie finger to take a demur sip of neon liquid. "Anyone promising?"
Peeta takes a stiff breath. "What? You looking to invest?"
"I always like to keep my options open." She pauses to size him up. "Sweet little thing from your district this year. Don't often see pretty blondes come from those parts."
"I wouldn't get too excited," Peeta says, keeping his face impassive. "She'll be lucky to make the top twelve."
Prim scored a 7 thanks to her skills as a healer, but nobody would be foolish enough to bet on a girl whose best asset is keeping others alive. Peeta almost wishes that it could have been Katniss's name called, with her temper and fire, he wouldn't have worried about her coming out the other side.
"The boy, maybe," Peeta adds. "He's been working in the mines since he was a child, so he's good with a pickax. I think the audience will like that."
She nods a few times, her eyes scanning the room full of investors as they sip on cocktails and talk strategy with the mentors in attendance.
"I heard there may not even be a Games," she says. "Not in the arena, at least."
His mouth quirks. "Does word travel that fast?"
"It does when the President's closest advisers are colluding with rebel spies."
"They are?" Peeta says, feigning shock.
"At least that's the word around their mistresses. Pillow talk and politics are always such a dangerous thing." She drains her drink and smiles at him slyly. "Do you have any proof?"
"Do I really need any? With the growing shortages on goods, the old man must be paranoid by now."
She considers it. "Snow will have their heads for this. He'll want to make a very public example of them."
"A toast, perhaps?" he says, slipping the capsule of black liquid from his pocket.
Dracaena's eyes go wide, and her fingers tremble as she takes it from him. She holds the tiny bottle against her heart letting it linger there for only a second before she tucks it beneath her breast.
"They're sending forces to the President's Mansion when the Games launch tomorrow, while the city is caught up in celebrations and too distracted for an assault. Make sure he knows that."
Her eyes narrow. "Why?"
"Just make sure he knows," he repeats.
She places a hand on his cheek and kisses the corner of his mouth. When she pulls away she touches three fingers against his lips.
"We can be happy, right?" she says. "We won't always be these pathetic broken things."
When he closes his eyes he sees Katniss's face, but quickly blinks her image away.
"You'll be all right," he says.
"There's only one way to find out." She nods at an adviser as he passes. "You'll be there tomorrow, right? You know how the purse strings are always looser at these types of events."
He glances over his shoulder and then back at her. "No. I'll be in the control room this year."
"Isn't that what Haymitch is usually for?"
"We're trying a new strategy this year."
She eyes him skeptically. "Well good luck, Peeta Mellark. I'm betting on you."
"And I you."
The location of the arena is always kept under wraps with only the head Game Maker and his team of builders aware of the true location. Of course, the builders are transported there, so they hardly know where they're actually going, only the pilot does, and he isn't talking.
There are other options, of course. Peeta could stow away on Prim's hovercraft, for example, but riding along with her isn't going to do him much good in trying to rescue her unless he can overtake the entire crew and pilot them to safety, and he doubts his ability to accomplish even one of these things let alone all of them.
But if he had a tracker, then he could have the hovercraft followed. There's the risk, though, of a tracker being discovered, or simply falling off. But if he can make Prim into his tracker...
He turns her arm over, hesitating as he tries to remember which arm to use. He rolls up his sleeve and locates the small ridge on his inner arm where his own is still placed. He reaches for her opposite arm and injects the serum carrying the tiny homing beacon.
"What's that?" Prim says, flinching when he pushes down on the plunger.
"A nutrient booster," he lies coolly. "It may be a while until you find food and water." She nods bravely. "And this is your token," he says, pulling a golden dandelion broach from his pocket. He's worked on it tirelessly with Cinna ever since they hatched this plan.
"I know you're stylist is supposed to give it to you, but I wasn't able to get it to Cinna in time. Sorry it isn't edible." She almost cracks a smile. "Remember to get away from the fight. Find someplace safe and stay there."
"Katniss says I should stay in a tree."
"Yes, do that if they have them. And get everything you need done during the day. Fire attracts predators. You know what's safe to eat, you'll get by." She nods again. "It won't be long, I promise. Just stay hidden for as long as you can."
When her hovercraft pulls away, he activates the tracking receiver, breathing out a sigh of relief when a signal begins to flash on his holomap.
Peeta hurries back to his quarters and rifles through the closet until he finds the disguise that Cinna has hidden inside. Part of the intrigue that comes with the Games is how quaint and plain the tributes look. The more extravagant one looks in the city, the more invisible they become.
He tangles himself in drapes of fabric and piles on pounds of jewelry before painting his face until he's nearly unrecognizable. Then he heads to the station at the center of the Capitol and boards a train for District Three.
It's the closest allied district to the Capitol and where they have two hovercrafts fueled and ready to locate the arena. Peeta checks the holomap again to make sure the tracking signal is still flashing brightly.
Finnick is waiting for him when he arrives. "About time you showed up," he says wryly. "Any idea where we're heading?"
Peeta inspects the layout of the map. The arenas are always placed in the No Man's Land between districts, so there are few landmarks to use for positioning. Prim's tracking dot is on a charted part of the map though, the ruins of District 13.
"How poetic," Finnick says. "Come on boys, ready to end the dark days in the place they began?"
District Thirteen is on the other side of Panem and even with a hovercraft, it will take hours to reach. One of the guys is watching pregame footage hosted by Caesar Flickerman on a handheld holo, in the corner a clock count downs to the start of the Games. They're running out of time.
He watches impatiently as Haymitch fumbles through the interview that Peeta usually gives from the President's Banquet. In the background he can make out bottles of champagne being poured onto trays. He wonders which one will hold the lethal dose.
There are less than ten minutes until the start of the Games when the dome of the arena comes into view. Most of the crew members are former victors and a hush settles over the entire cabin at the sight.
"We'll have to deactivate the force field from the ground," Beetee Latier, a victor from District Three says. He looks at Peeta, "Give me your holomap." Peeta complies and Beetee begins punching in different settings. Tracking lights appear and disappear as he adjusts the scan.
"What's that?" Peeta asks curiously when Beetee seems to have finished his adjustments.
"The base station," Beetee says. "It's the satellite comm link between the Game Makers in the Capitol so they can control the arena. Once we break the connection, we'll have 90 seconds before the system goes into lock down."
"90 seconds? That's not a lot of time," Peeta says. "What happens in lock down?"
"I don't know," Beetee says. "My guess would be self detonation..."
"The entire arena will blow?"
"Most likely," he says. His eyes narrow and then his eyebrow quirks. "Unless..." he shakes his head and is silent for another excruciating moment. "If I can extract the status messages, we can spoof the host using a low power transmission from the hovercraft. The severed cable from the satellite should have enough sensitivity to receive it."
"How long will that take?"
"Assuming there's no encryption? A few minutes to distinguish the protocol and implement a loop before we cut the data link."
"And if there's encryption?"
"We'll cross that hurdle when we get to it."
"There's still five minutes until the launch," Peeta says, glancing back at the holo playing footage from the Capitol. "We might be able to get to them before the pods deploy.
As they make their approach to the landing pad, the rescue team changes into Peacekeeper uniforms smuggled from District Eight. Peeta remembers during his Games that the perimeter of the arena was practically swarming with guards, but this year there are only two posted at each entrance. The president must have kept most of his forces in the Capitol to defend the mansion, he thinks, feeling pleased with himself.
Beetee and a few of the District Three volunteers head toward the base station under the guise of site maintenance, another team sabotages the Capitol held hovercraft, while the remaining members act as security to aide in launch supervision, and are eagerly welcomed by the already dwindled forces.
The winding corridors are lined with monitors displaying control room footage, and Peeta watches as the stylists put on the final touches before guiding the tributes to their launch tube. Peeta engages the silencer on his rifle, and carefully lines up his shot of the guard posted outside one of the caverns so that he will fall outside of the security frame.
When the monitors cycle through to the Capitol feed, there's no service. Beetee has overridden the system. Peeta rushes down the corridor, stopping short when he stumbles across Prim's chamber. He bangs on the door but the locks are all jammed. Prim is on her platform and it's beginning to lift.
"Stay on the platform!" Peeta shouts against the glass. "Don't leave your platform!"
"Peeta?" Prim makes out before she's pushed above the Earth.
Peeta continues to punch the scanner outside her door, fighting to get it open while Cinna does the same on the other side. The countdown clock starts from 60 and works it's way down, second by second.
Suddenly the door slides open, and Prim's platform returns with her still clinging desperately to the surface.
District Twelve is the closest district and Peeta is more than relieved when it's selected as the rendezvous point to regroup. As they make their approach, Peeta notices plumes of smoke bellowing above the treeline. The old warehouse that once held the Hob is on fire. There are riots in the town square that Peacekeepers are struggling to contain. It looks like pure chaos on the ground below.
Peeta directs the pilot to land in the valley just beyond the fence where he and Katniss used to escape. As the hovercraft touches down and the doors open, he can see faces staring back at him within the trees. Hundreds of people begin to step forward, close to a thousand.
"Prim? Prim!" he hears Katniss shout as she breaks through the crowd and embraces her sister.
His heartbeat quickens when her eyes immediately search for his.
"The president's dead," she says.
He nods. "You ran," he says.
"I saw the flower."
He wakes with a start. The sheets around him are cold and damp from the perspiration that still clings to his temples. He feels a warm hand smooth over his back.
"Shh," she says soothingly. "It's just a nightmare."
His eyes close and he hopes he can hold onto this dream a little longer. "Katniss?" he says.
His eyelids tighten then release, he roles over and it takes a moment for his eyes to adjust to dim light. "I still can't believe you're here."
She smiles at him as she flattens his mused hair behind his ear. "You're okay," she says. "We're okay."
He still doesn't believe that it happened. That the remaining rebel forces were able to move in on the president's mansion after the assassination of Snow and his top advisers, and without clear leadership to direct defenses, the Capitol was easily taken by District Representatives.
Peeta had declined the role for District 12 when he was selected for the position. He'd never step foot in the Capitol again if he had his way. Gale Hawthorne sits there now instead.
"I can't believe my sister is getting married today," Katniss says, drawing the sheets tightly around her neck. "Could you make her a cake? Like the ones you used to put in the bakery window. She always liked those."
"Of course," he says. "Although those took hours to decorate. I'm not sure how spectacular I can make it before this afternoon."
She bites her lip. "I didn't think of that. It's fine, really, you've already done enough."
He smiles lazily at her. "I haven't done anything," he says dryly.
"You brought her home," she replies. She rolls onto her back. "It's weird. I've always been so detached from the future. Why look forward to tomorrow when there will only be another reaping or another mine could collapse. And, yeah, something terrible may still happen tomorrow, but maybe today, it's still worth the risk."
"I suppose so."
"And I know I've told you that I never wanted anything serious, and I'm still not entirely sure if I do. I just know that I would miss you if you weren't here. With me."
"Yeah, me too."
"You know what I mean though, right? We're free."
He takes her hand and presses her fingers against his lips. "I'm yours," he says.
"And I'm yours."