Chapter 1: The Embers
The fading sunlight glistens off the twisted fragments of metal; the debris littering the yard. Smoke drifts lazily towards the darkening sky, its slow pace in perfect juxtaposition to the chaos below.
I whirl around- left, right and back again- eyes constantly searching, frantically seeking out that yellow coat, those golden braids. All around me I see nothing but pain. Hands groping. Eyes pleading. Fires burning. I hear nothing but a faint, faraway whistle as the silent mouths cry out at me for something, for anything, to reassure them.
In the distance, about fifty feet away, a patch of yellow grabs my attention. I spring forward, my feet flying across the wreckage and all I can see is her, Prim, the only person that I have always been certain that I love. My heart leaps to my throat as I gulp down mouthfuls of ash, seeking oxygen, but more desperately seeking any sign of movement or life from her tiny frame.
It's too late. I'm too late.
I cling to her lifeless form and silently rock her back and forth, back and forth. There are no tears, only wild and tiny wails escaping my mouth without permission from my brain. As I stare at her blackened skin, at her singed braids, at the dark and bloody pool on her stomach, a familiar scent drifts towards my nostrils.
And I hear his voice, his serpent tongue, as he whispers in my ear, "You. You did this. You, Katniss..."
I wake abruptly, gasping for air, his serpent tongue still hissing in my ears. My arms are pinned to my sides, frozen in fear and in pain and in grief. I try to focus on breathing, as I count, slowly, backwards from ten, as Dr. Aurelius suggested. With each ingoing breath I can smell it, the roses mingling with blood and ash, but with each outgoing breath I release the scent and escape its clutches. As I count it weakens until I reach zero and finally, blissfully, I taste the still night air once more.
As I slowly open my eyes I gaze around the room for something, anything, to focus on and banish the image of her singed and smoking braid. Through the filtered sunlight my eyes rest on a ceramic vase that has been left abandoned on the mantle. Its lines are simple, its design classic, but dust has settled unhappily on its base. It stands tall but empty; it is a mere vessel, waiting to be able to fulfil its purpose.
For now, though, it has drawn me back from my nightmares with its simplicity and strength. After all, it has survived, when so many other things have not.
I turn and place my feet on the floor, wincing at the cool wooden boards beneath my feet, and slowly make my way down the hall.
The kitchen table has been cleared and wiped down, and sitting atop it is a bowl filled with grain and dried fruit. Usually I hear her, quietly tidying and cooking, while I lie in bed blankly, staring at the ceiling. Today, I heard nothing.
I pick at the dried fruit in the bowl, and can hear her voice in my mind, lecturing me about not eating enough. But I can't stomach any more than this.
I sit. The fire crackles and pops as I stare into its depths before in fades to glowing embers and then, finally, to shades of grey with streaks of black. I make no move to stoke it. As all fires do, it burns itself out and together we are left as mere memories of warmth and light. We are still one, myself and the fire, but now we lie quietly, waiting for the light to return.
Days, weeks, months pass, and nothing changes. I wonder why I am left here alone, why I am still alive when I can't be expected to live without them. There is no hope, no light, just darkness.
I stare at the fire, day after day, barely eating and barely moving. The burning amber, with flicks of blue, leaps and dances in front of my eyes but I don't see it. I see smoke and ash. I see the fading sunlight glinting off the debris. I see flashes of yellow. I see silent faces screaming at me.
At night, the images blend and flow and dance fluidly around in the forefront of my mind. Each night it is different, but it is still the same. The faces of those I have lost, those I have killed, come to me and bury me deep in the ashes of my grief. I see Prim and Finnick and Boggs and Rue and Clove and Thresh. I see them all and I feel their blame weighing heavily on everything that I am.
One morning I wake with a start, but the nightmare doesn't end. I can still hear the sounds of death, the scraping at the raw earth as all those I have killed hurl ashes onto my writhing body as they punish me.
The sound leads me outside, around the side of my house, where I come to a sudden halt. All I can do is stare. His cheeks are pink from the effort of scraping, digging and pulling at the earth, and the sunlight in his hair shares his warmth with all that is around him. He places his foot atop the blunted blade as he leans on the shovel and looks up at me.
"You're back." It is all that I can think to say. It doesn't feel like enough, but even this meagre offering is hoarse and wavering.
"Dr. Aurelius wouldn't let me leave the Capitol until yesterday," Peeta says calmly. "By the way, he said to tell you he can't keep pretending he's treating you forever. You have to pick up the phone."
I say nothing. I stare at him, searching him, to see who he is now, who it is that has returned to me. He looks well. He is thin and his burn scars match mine, but it is his eyes that draw my attention. They have lost that clouded, tortured look that possessed them when I last saw him. The sight of those familiar eyes is the best thing my eyes have feasted on in months, maybe more.
My hand reaches up instinctively to smooth my dirty, matted hair as I notice his scrutiny. His forehead knots into a slight frown as he takes in all that I have become, and his foot shifts slightly, reverting my attention back to his task. "What are you doing?"
"I went to the woods this morning and dug these up," he says, gesturing towards the five scraggly bushes in the wheelbarrow alongside him. "For her. I thought we could plant them along the side of the house."
My mind whirls as I register the roses and I fight back the urge to retch at thought of the smell that has been haunting my dreams. And then I realise that these blooms aren't a product manufactured by the Capitol, but rather a picture of beauty and innocence. The evening primrose. The flower my sister was named for. My heart stills as I remember her soft skin, her creamy complexion, her delicate beauty, all replicated so perfectly in a single bloom.
As I stand, my gaze flowing over the plants, and I realise that he is still watching me; awaiting my response. I can't. I don't know what I can say that will stop the pain in my heart that is threatening to overflow. So I simply give him a nod of assent and run towards the house.
Once inside I am overcome with an urge to be free, to rid myself of Snow's clutches. Trembling with weakness and anxiety, I run up the stairs. My foot catches on the last step and I crash onto the floor before forcing myself to rise and enter my room. Its there. Sitting in a crystal vase, surrounded my dried flowers, sits Snow's cultivated rose, shrivelled and fragile. I grab the vase and stumble to the kitchen, throwing its contents into the embers. As the flowers flare up, a burst of blue flame envelops the rose and devours it. Fire beats roses again.
Making my way around the house I throw open every window, releasing the scent and allowing the breeze, with the hint of spring grass and dandelions, to join the pale morning sun inside. For the first time in months there is light, real light, inside these walls and I feel a flicker of something inside me. It is only small, but it is a flicker of hope, of life, of survival.
Upstairs, I stand under the streams of water as I scrub the roses, the ash, the months of despair from my hair, my body and my mouth. Bright pink and tingling, I find something clean to wear, and feed the clothes I had shed to the fire. I watch silently as they are engulfed in the flames.
The coming days bring a wealth of experiences that are old and welcoming, but feel so new after months in isolation. I slowly begin to eat small meals, and when Greasy Sae brings a treat, fresh eggs, I work up the courage to ask about Gale.
"District Two. Got some fancy job there. I see him now and again on the television," she says.
I dig around inside myself, trying to register anger, hatred, longing. I find only relief. I will not be forced to see him, or to speak to him. There is time.
I arm myself with a bow and arrow and resolve to hunt, making my way through the ruins of District 12 to the Meadow, stopping only at the mayor's house. I see Thom, Gale's old crew mate, who tells me of the family's death. I swallow hard, thinking of Madge's kindness and bravery. She gave me the pin that gave me a name, and I couldn't give her anything in return. Hers will join the faces that will dance in my mind tonight, of that I have no doubt.
It is an unlikely source, the old orange cat whom I always detested, that brings my tears to fruition. The tiny and wild wails turn into wracking sobs for my sister as I see the embodiment of her compassion in Buttercup. He circles me, just out of reach, as wave after wave of sobs wrack my body, giving voice to my despair. And then, on the damp floor of the woods, I sleep.
Chapter 2: First Steps
Over time, life continues. Katniss has a moment of weakness that leads her to long for the strength and comfort of Peeta's arms.
Over time, life continues. I speak to my mother. I visit Haymitch. Greasy Sae cooks while Peeta keeps me in fresh bread. I return to the woods and find therapy in its stillness and life. My days slowly fill with images and sounds, replacing the faces that swum in the embers of the fireplace before he returned.
We work together, Peeta and I, on the book. I got the idea from our family's plant book. We dutifully record all of the things that we cannot trust to memory. Words, quotes, descriptions and snippets of conversation all carefully annotated by me, and then illustrated by Peeta's hands. We don't speak much, we don't need to; instead we focus our energies and attention on this important task.
He looks up at me one evening, his blue eyes made darker by the firelight, and asks a simple question. "This. We have done this before. Real or not real?"
"Real," I say, peeking up at him. "We did this for the plant book, before the Quarter Quell."
"I thought so," he replies. "I remember painting flowers and berries and seeds. But most of all I remember you watching me while I worked. It's a nice thing to remember."
I feel a light blush rise slowly to my cheeks as I look away. He is so close to me now, my boy with the bread.
The fading sunlight glistens off the twisted fragments of metal; the debris littering the yard. Smoke drifts lazily towards the darkening sky, as I whirl around, searching for her.
I spring forward, my feet flying across the wreckage and all I can see is her. My heart leaps to my throat as I gulp down mouthfuls of ash, seeking oxygen, but more desperately seeking any sign of movement or life from her tiny frame. Maybe this time, it will be different.
It's too late. I'm too late. Again.
I cling to her lifeless form and silently rock her back and forth, back and forth. As I stare at her blackened skin, at her singed braids, at the dark and bloody pool on her stomach, a familiar scent drifts towards my nostrils.
And I hear his voice, his serpent tongue, as he whispers in my ear, "You. You did this. You, Katniss..."
"No!" I cry. "No! I didn't mean to! All I wanted was to protect you, Prim. Prim!" I cried her name over and over, willing the colour to return to her cheeks, willing her smooth skin to move beneath my fingertips. "Come back to me Prim. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry!"
I wake with a gasp as my body hits the floor with a dull thud. The sheets cling to my body, trapping me in my own personal hell as I struggle to escape from their clutches. Once I am finally free of them I lean back against the frame of the bed, and the feel of the cold metal frame against my shoulders helps to pull me back to reality. The clock chimes 2 o'clock and I shiver, glad to be awake, but filled with fear for what images will fill my mind when I drift back again. My days are better, but when darkness descends their faces always return do weave their dances in my mind. The nightmares aren't always the same, but the faces never change.
Fear clutches at my stomach and my heart races as I imagine what I will see when I close my eyes again. I count and breathe, slowly, but this time the fear doesn't pass. The cold floorboards press against me and all I want to do is to fall into warmth and comfort, a place where my nightmares don't exist. My eyes slowly make their way to the window, as memories of that place float to the forefront of my mind.
The train. The bed. The warmth and safety Peeta's arms.
It feels like a lifetime ago, the feeling of security that those arms granted me. His strength pulsated through me and brought me peace when the nightmares attacked. I long for that strength, for now I am broken, I am weak.
It is the strength of these memories that sees me rising to my feet, the floorboards creaking gently underfoot, and padding quietly down the hall and out the front door. The blades of grass tickle the soles of my feet but I barely notice, and soon my hand grasps the door handle and turns it, silently.
His house carries the faint aroma of this morning's bread, mingling with garlic and rosemary from the stew we shared hours earlier.
My feet carry me forward, propelled by the memories of the nights on the train, of his safe cocoon enveloping me and lulling me to sleep. When I reach his doorway, I stop.
White curtains billow gently in the breeze from his open windows, and the moonlight glistens on his golden locks. His blonde lashes flutter slightly. If his muscles weren't so tense, I might see his resting form and think that he is dreaming peacefully, but I know better. I slowly release the breath that I didn't know I was holding, as I realise that nightmares hold him hostage too. Selfishly, I feel relieved. I am not alone in my pain and anxiety. But my inability to witness his distress takes over and I silently make my way to his side. Wordlessly I lift the covers and slide in beside him.
His body tenses. For a moment a slight fear grips me as I remember the feeling of his hands on my throat, even though his flashbacks are rare now. But instead of pulling away I simply I gaze at him in the moonlight, my hand snaking out to stroke his cheek, as his eyes slowly open.
He blinks twice, a slight frown of confusion creasing on his forehead, before reaching out for me. I feel the muscles in his arms pulling me towards him before he relaxes and sighs into my hair. No words are needed tonight
I nestle into his chest, feeling the warmth pervade my body, as I let his steady heartbeat lull me into a dreamless sleep.
Chapter 3: Ill at Ease
An awkward interaction the morning after Katniss and Peeta share a bed for the first time. True to form, she panics.
I can hear his shallow breathing and feel the steady rise and fall of his chest beneath my palm as I swim back into consciousness. My body tenses as I realise where I am, and feel the conflict within me as I wrestle with the familiarity of his presence and the foreign sensation after sleeping alone, being alone, for so long. I keep my eyes squeezed shut as I try to fall back to sleep; try to delay the inevitably awkward moment of waking together.
It is no use. There's no going back to sleep now.
As I lay there, my arm draped across his chest and my ankle curled up around his, I can't help but feel the overwhelming peace of being there, and the calm of finally having a solid block of sleep. I didn't dream at all last night or, if I did, I don't remember. That alone is a minor miracle, and the proper rest leaves me energised and wanting food for the first time in months.
I slowly open my eyes and gaze into his face, studying each line and crevice. I watch the breath fall softly from his lips as the morning sunlight pierces his golden lashes. He looks so peaceful lying there, and so young.
He stirs. Slowly, bit by bit, he joins me, and his eyes open to meet mine. Quickly, my hand flies from his chest and wraps tightly across my stomach, as my ankle retreats back to my side of the bed.
"Hey," he says softly, a hint of a smile dancing in the corners of his lips.
"Hey," I respond, unsure of what to say next. "I, uh, hope you don't mind," I stammer. "Me being here that is."
That small, barely noticeable frown flashes across his forehead for the briefest of seconds before he sighs, "No, Katniss, I don't mind." He lifts both bronze arms above his head and stretches out, long and lithe, like a cat alongside me. At the sight of his muscles rippling under the sleeves of his t-shirt my eyes dart away quickly, while my heart gives an uncomfortable thump. Once he settles back in his eyes find mine again. "Okay?" he asks.
"Um, yeah," I stammer. "But I should go. Thanks for letting me stay." Suddenly I can't be there a moment longer. Even though things are improving this moment is too intimate, too comfortable, for the broken remnants of our lives now. I don't know what to say, or how to be with him like this.
My feet quickly find the floorboards. The bed gives a faint squeak as I rise, but not loud enough to silence his faint sigh, and I feel his eyes follow me as I flee the room, the hall, the house and finally reach the safety of outside.
The world looks a little brighter this morning. Despite that incredibly awkward interaction with Peeta, his arms and steady heartbeat brought me a comfort that I had almost forgotten. And now I feel awake, refreshed even, and ready to move.
I walk into my house and find Greasy Sae at the kitchen table, whisking in a bowl. She looks up when she hears me enter, and her look asks me a thousand questions.
"Morning. I've just been for a walk," I say clumsily, which technically isn't a lie; I walked from Peeta's bed to my kitchen. She takes in my appearance with scepticism, and then opens her mouth to speak before shutting it and nodding. She stands and makes her way to the stove where she pours the bowl of beaten eggs into the skillet, but not before I see the ghost of a smirk on her features. She senses that I don't want to talk about it though, so promptly changes the subject.
"Nice day today," she says, as the egg and milk mixture sizzles and pops on the stove. "It'd be lovely out in the woods." She picks up the bowl of cheese and sprinkles it onto the eggs, watching as it swirls and fades into the mixture.
I busy myself, finding plates and forks, and filling glasses with water, before taking the bait. "Yes, I am thinking of heading out. Thought we could use some fresh game."
We sit and eat together, the cheesy eggs refreshing me and filling my stomach. My awkward encounter with Peeta never leaves my mind, though, and I can't help my gaze from wandering out my window and over to his. I wonder what he is eating, his hearty raison loaf perhaps, but I mostly wonder about the thoughts wracking his mind after our first night together again.
The air in the woods is crisp, but the sky is clear and the sun shines. It is the old Katniss' favourite kind of day, and I am pleased to be out in it. I make my way silently downhill, leaping over logs with my bow and sheaf in hand, and I quickly take down a squirrel and a rabbit with no concern. As I am still weak from months of minimal food and little movement, I stop to rest about halfway between the fence line and Gale and I's old meeting place. I won't make it that far today. I can't, physically or emotionally.
My feet trace patterns in the grass as I rest on a fallen tree and my previous feeling of peace slowly fades. The dappled sunshine beaming through the leaves brings to mind Peeta's golden lashes glistening in the morning light, and my stomach churns at the memory of our awkward interaction. I stumbled over my words, I wouldn't meet his eyes, and I fled as soon as he moved. What must he be thinking of me right now? Not only did I seem vulnerable when I invited myself into his home and his bed, but I left with barely a word between us.
I can see the flash of his frown creasing his forehead and hear his sigh as his eyes undoubtedly followed my fleeing form. How will he react to me next time I see him? I have ruined the tentative peace between us. The last few weeks have been so good, with us eating dinner together and then working on the book in the evenings. Our days are spent apart, so today is no different, but we always come together in the evenings even if we don't say much. We don't need to, really. Occasionally Peeta will turn to me to confirm a memory, but we spend most of the hours in companionable silence.
But now I have ruined it. I have shattered the peace between us and now I don't know how to have it again. I wish that I could rewind time to yesterday afternoon and do it all again. Although if I was able to rewind time then there are probably more important things to do-over, to see again. No. This is no time to think like that. No point dwelling on what could be, as Dr Aurelius would say, I need to focus on what will happen from here. If only I could know.
I lie back in the mottled light, feeling it warm my face and arms. Although the trunk's smooth bark is unforgiving against my back, I allow myself to remember the comfort and warmth he afforded me in his bed. I remember the soft mattress, the thick blanket, the steady rise and fall of his chest as he slept. Last night, nothing could have touched me. Not nightmares, not ghosts, not faces of those I killed. I slept soundly for the first time in months.
But now I have ruined it. I don't want to return to the house and to his scrutiny and anger. I want to stay safely here, away from his judgement and his questions. He'll want to know why I came to him, why I sought solace in his arms again, and I don't have any answers for him. I was selfish. I wanted his warmth and his strength and I took it, but gave him nothing in return. Again.
The sun is fading when I return to the Victor's Village. My gaze flicks to Peeta's open window, then moves quickly away in case he is nearby. I climb the stairs and approach my door, feeling my game bag flap against my side. I won't be going over there tonight; I can't face the judgement in his eyes. I don't want to imagine what he will say and I'm certain that he will be mad with me for fleeing with no explanation or show of emotion towards him. I simply don't have the words to express how I feel and his talent in this area will just make us both feel worse.
I'm not only certain that I can't face him, but I know that he won't want me there. He will feel used, like I gained strength from him but allowed him nothing. I don't blame him for his anger. I deserve it. I needed him and I took strength and comfort from him. His resentment is completely justified; I just don't want to deal with it just yet.
I fling my game bag beside the back door to deal with after dark before making my way to the kitchen to quench my thirst.
I stop short, staring at the table. There, sitting on a clean, white plate, sits two cheese buns with a folded note. I open it, my fingers trembling slightly, as I read his rough handwriting.
Dinner's at six – P
Three little words.
Two cheese buns.
One gesture of understanding.
Chapter 4: Another Morning
"This is what we do. We have brief, fleeting moments of affection before falling back into ourselves, unsure of where to go or what to do... I'm not sure how he feels, but I am even less sure of how I do."
I will never again underestimate the power of waking up peacefully. On mornings like this when I ease out of sleep to the sound of blissful silence, occasionally pierced by a bird's morning song, calm washes over me like a sprinkling of warm summer rain.
I gently lift my ankle from his and roll over, my eyes opening. I smile faintly. He still sleeps peacefully beside me, his body relaxed, and I steal this rare opportunity to watch him without inciting questions.
My eyes flow over the golden waves of his hair, some of which have fallen messily onto the smooth skin of his forehead. My fingers twitch and I ache to brush those locks back, but I don't. I won't ruin this moment by waking him. I see the straight line of his nose and his soft cheeks, and then my eyes rest on his rosy lips. They are slightly opened in sleep, allowing the slightest glimpse of the white teeth hidden inside. I can't help but stare. His lips aren't plump like the ones manufactured in the Capitol, his top lip is even quite thin, but they are their own kind of perfect. My heart thumps at the distant memory of their smooth texture; soft yet firm against my own.
Forcing myself to look away, my eyes travel up his strong jawline to his earlobe, and down along the strong plane of his neck to the collar of his simple t-shirt. My gaze lingers on his scars. They are slowly fading, but to me they only enhance his beauty. They are a symbol of his strength and his courage, and each one led him back here.
A small noise escapes his throat and I know that momentarily he will wake. He always makes this noise before waking. I drag my eyes from his neck and move up to his eyelids, now blinking open. A ghost of a smile washes his lips.
"Hi," he says in almost a whisper.
"Hi," I respond, taking the opportunity to stretch the sleep from my muscles.
"No. Not this time." I smile. It isn't always like this. Even with Peeta here I generally wake at least once a night, and need the press of his body against mine to lull me back to sleep.
"Me neither." This is a rarity for us. Usually at least one of us is haunted by the darkness, by faces swimming and dancing in our minds or images of evil ripping those we love from our grasp. This night of peace is a luxury that we appreciate greatly, and will not take for granted.
He smiles at me and brushes a stray strand of hair behind my ear, before rolling onto his back. My stomach tingles at the touch of his skin but I roll away too, allowing myself to sit and bring my feet to the floor. This is what we do. We have brief, fleeting moments of affection before falling back into ourselves, unsure of where to go or what to do. For months we have shared a bed each night, usually mine but sometimes his, but once the dawn sunlight hits the window panes we are merely friends and physical contact is limited.
I'm not sure how he feels, but I am even less sure of how I do. I can recognise his beauty, his gentleness and his strength, but I have no idea about what it means. I don't know if I will ever make sense of it. My mind is a constant whirl of thoughts; of confusion and chaos and fear and grief and love and uncertainty. The more I think about Peeta and what he means to me, the more bewildered I feel. The emotions are just too complex, the thoughts too mixed up, so I usually just shut down that part of my brain and walk.
Right now though, I need food. Like every peaceful morning, my stomach roars and rumbles as I make my way to the kitchen. That feeling of hunger is a familiar link to my past, to a life that I left behind at the reaping.
I head to the cupboard, still wearing my singlet and little sleep shorts because this morning I physically can't wait to change before eating. I gobble down the first thing I see -a handful of nuts and dried fruit- and down a glass of water. That will hold me while I make something substantial.
Greasy Sae doesn't cook for us so much anymore. Occasionally she will drop in with a stew or some fresh eggs, but Peeta and I usually cook together and sometimes Haymitch will join us for a meal. Sae has her own life to lead, and I am glad that she doesn't need to babysit me anymore. I will forever be grateful to her, and I know Peeta and Haymitch will too, for keeping me alive for those months even though I didn't want to be. I show my appreciation in the only way I know how; by bringing her fresh meat every few days. I've never explicitly thanked her, but she knows that words are not my strength and I am sure she knows the meaning behind the gifts, and the squeeze of her shoulder that I give on my way out. At least, I hope she knows. I don't know how else to tell her, or to repay her. I know, deep down, that I never will.
This morning she has dropped by, as there are four eggs sitting on the windowsill. I wordlessly crack two of them into a bowl and begin to whisk as I hear Peeta shuffle clumsily into the room behind me. He walks straight to the gas stove top, one of the many luxuries we have here in the Victor's Village, and places a pan atop the lit flame before adding butter. He then crosses to the bread box, wields a knife and deftly slices it into even pieces as I flip and scramble the eggs into the melted butter.
Once the food is prepared we return to our companionable silence at the table and eat. As I glance at him through mouthfuls I think back to that first morning we woke together, when I fled from his bed to the safety of the woods. I felt so guilty that day, so angry at myself for letting my guard down and using him for his warmth. Later, I thought I could feel his anger resonating through the trees to find me sitting on the log, but after I made the trek back to the house and found his peace offering, his invitation and his gesture of friendship, I realised that I had just turned my own emotion into his. I thought it was his anger I felt, but it was only my own guilt churning, rebounding and reflecting back onto me.
I should have known better, really. He has always seen the best in me. Even though we never spoke of it, I know that he understood. He didn't think I was using him, he just thought that I was finally allowing him to help me. What he doesn't realise, though, is that he started helping me from the moment he returned to 12. From the moment I looked into the pools of his eyes as he rested his foot on dirty shovel I began to heal; I began to feel alive again.
That is a big part of my confusion I think. I need him, just like I always have. But how do I feel about him? How do I separate my gratitude from my feelings? It doesn't help that I don't know how he feels either. We are doing now what we always do; we are nursing each other back to health. We are trying to put the pieces of our broken lives back together. He calms my nightmares, he bakes me bread, and he wipes away my tears. But I bring him meat, share my knowledge of plants and berries, and I talk him down from his flashbacks. We have each other's backs. We support each other. We protect each other; it's what we do.
But it isn't really any different to the situation in the Games. I was told to love him, and because of that I didn't know how I truly felt. Which emotions were real? Was it the hope of survival or the hint of real love that I was feeling? Or was it both? Is it even possible that it was both? It is hard to separate feelings when they are dictated for you- when choices are taken away from you- and now it feels slightly similar. Is the warmth in my feelings for him real, or is it all just a glossy coating on the gratitude that he is here with me at all?
I just don't know.
And he still isn't entirely himself. There are still clouds that appear in his eyes, and mutts obscuring his vision in flashbacks. Dr Aurelius says that they will go, that after each episode he is getting better and that one day he should be free of them. Usually I can talk him away from the images in his mind; I can speak to him softly and calm what he sees until his vision is no longer shiny and false. Sometimes he can even bring himself back before they truly engulf him, but he still isn't himself. He is strong for me, but he is much quieter than the Peeta I know, the one who could express himself so eloquently and couldn't help but be honest about his feelings. So how can I ever know how he feels now? Do I even want to know?
I realise that I have stopped eating, and instead I absentmindedly whirl my eggs around on my plate. Peeta is looking at me curiously, careful not to interrupt my thoughts. I meet his eyes.
"Okay?" He asks his usual question.
"Yep, just thinking," I say vaguely, careful not to give anything away. That confused ghost of a frown flashes across his forehead once more, but then he nods and stands. I shovel my last two mouthfuls, cold now, into my mouth and pass my empty plate to his outstretched hand. I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand as I push my chair hastily out, nearly tipping it over, as he fills the sink.
"Up to much today?"
"I promised Sae some bread," he answers, swishing water over the dishes, "and I thought I would take some extra loaves over to the workers."
I nod. Over in the centre of town, men are working tirelessly to rebuild our town and their lives. We do what we can to assist them, often providing them with loaves of bread, pots of stew or soup, and sometimes even physical labour. We are still weak though; I am only now regaining some of the muscles that wasted away in the months after I returned, and Peeta struggles with walking substantial distances while lifting heavy weights. His prosthesis bothers him then, so lifting sheets of metal and planks of wood can cause him problems. Because of this we usually provide food for them, to help in the best way we know how.
"I'm going to head to the woods," I say. "I promised Rory I would practice with him again. He took down a rabbit last week, but he's eager to get his hands on a squirrel." I smile, remembering the boy's enthusiasm as he excitedly carried the animal inside to his mother.
Peeta lets the remaining water out of the sink and stacks the last of our few dishes before turning around to face me, grinning as he sees my face smiling at the memory. I can't help but look up at him standing in my kitchen; his form illuminated by the morning sunlight streaming in the window. Unlike me, he took the time to dress, and as I see his muscles flex beneath the short, white sleeves of his t-shirt my heart gives another of its peculiar thumps. His blue eyes darken as they roam over the bare skin of my shoulders before raising to meet my eyes, and he leans forward, ever so slightly, as if he will step towards me.
Suddenly uncomfortable and wary of my state of undress, my tiny shorts and singlet that cause me the least amount of distress when I get tangled in the bed sheets during a nightmare, I step closer to the doorway. He stills, knowing.
"I'd better get going," I say, and I fly out of the room and upstairs, to prepare for another day of hunting. Another day in woods; trying to sort out my thoughts from my feelings and wondering if I will ever make sense of it all.
Chapter 5: Sneaking Glances
Katniss discovers that the worst kinds of nightmares aren't nightmares at all; it is the ones where you get all that you wish for that cause the most pain.
In the wake of this, her awareness of Peeta continues to grow.
A door slams, and the noise startles me out of my lazy afternoon slumber. The sun falls in a golden stream across the bed and I quickly sit up as I hear footsteps rapidly approaching. The door flies open and hits the wall with a bang.
"Katniss!" she squeals, steadying herself against the door frame before entering.
I stare, mouth open, unable to believe that it is her. But it is. My baby sister bounds across the room and then launches herself onto the bed beside me.
Feeling the weight of her lying next to me, I shake my head to clear the horrible dream from my mind: the games, the girl on fire, the mockingjay, the rebellion. It was so realistic, and unbelievably detailed. But I force the image of her burning body away because she is here. She is alive.
I breathe a sigh heavy sigh of relief, and release myself from the horror of the dream. It was just a dream. Thank goodness. She is safe.
She sits up and throws her arms around my neck, willing me to properly wake up from my nap so that she can tell me her stories. My heart pounds and my stomach leaps as I breathe in the scent that is unmistakeably Prim; a mixture of flowers, soap and youthful exuberance. Mere minutes ago I thought I would never smell that scent again, yet here she is; her small body warm in my arms. Thank goodness. My heartbeat gradually slows, and I turn my attention to her story.
"I had the greatest day!" she squeals, bouncing on the mattress in excitement. "Finnick came and spoke to our class about fishing, and then I got a merit ribbon at lunch!"
"Wow," I say slowly, unable to tear my eyes from her animated face, even while thoughts of Finnick whirl in my head. It was all just a terrible dream. They are all alive. Waves of relief and joy wash over me, forcing the horrible, singed memories of the dream out of my mind as I drag myself into this moment. "What wonderful thing did you do to get the merit?"
"Mrs Gilleckson said that she had never seen anyone give such good first aid!" The words pour in a rush from her mouth in a burst of enthusiasm, "Mita cut her arm. I used my jacket to stop the bleeding and then took her to the office building to bandage it up."
"Well done little duck," I say, tucking away a strand of hair that has escaped from one of her braids. "You'll be a Healer in no time."
She grins up at me, her blue eyes sparkling in the afternoon sun. I can't help myself; I bend over and squeeze her tightly, perhaps a little too tightly as I incite a small squeak from her lips. "What was that for?" she asks innocently.
Tear prick the corners of my eyes. "I've just missed you, little duck, that's all. I love you so much."
"What do you mean, you've missed me? It's just been one school day!" she giggles. "But I love you too. And I'm not going anywhere."
My eyes suddenly fly open, peering through the dim light of dawn. The gentle click of a door softly shutting has startled me out of my peaceful slumber. My arms are cold and empty; I search the room wildly for those blonde braids, for the excited form bouncing on my mattress.
The room tilts and swirls around me and my eyes grope the walls desperately. Again they fall on that empty ceramic vase. Someone has dusted it in recent weeks, but it didn't do much as it desperately needs to be polished. And it still stands alone on the mantle. Once again, though, it provides a point of stability as the room whirls around me. I breathe slowly and count backwards from ten as I will the room to be still.
Tears fill my eyes as reality hits me. I am here. She is dead. They are all dead. It was all a dream. Just a horrible, cruel dream, taunting me with its picture of perfection and happiness. A sob escapes my throat before I can stop it, and all of the horrible, black images that I have escaped in sleep suddenly storm onto me, filling every crevice of my mind. The sheets twist around me, trapping me tightly in their talons.
I need to get out.
I stumble from the bed, flinging sheets to the ground as I go, before my stomach lurches dangerously. I barely make it to the bathroom in time, before retching and vomiting out my pain. Once I have purged it from me, I lay my head against the ceramic tiles, feeling the cool on my skin. Then I stumble back to the bedroom in a fog.
Somewhere in the distance I hear footsteps, and the door opening once more. All of a sudden he is with me, sweeping me into his arms and wiping the sweat from my face and neck. He brushes my brow with feather-light kisses and holds me firmly, willing his strength into my weak and shivering form. I am aware that he is speaking to me, offering words of comfort and love, but I don't hear them. All I hear is the sound of my sobs, and her screams resounding in my mind.
When the darkness descends on me again, I let it.
This time when I wake, I am not alone. My head is nestled on his shoulder and my leg wraps tightly around his. He is quietly reading, holding the book uncomfortably in one hand, when I stir.
Quickly, he places the book on the side table and wraps his arm more tightly around my shoulder. He brushes the stray hairs from my cheeks and looks into my eyes.
"Okay?" he asks softly, almost in a whisper.
Forcing the fog of sleep from my mind I nod, and rub my swollen eyes. I squint at the book and then up at him, a number of questions on my lips.
"You had another nightmare," he tells me. "Your worst one for awhile I think. I wasn't here. I'm so sorry Katniss. I thought you were sleeping peacefully- you were almost smiling- so I didn't want to wake you when I went to start on the bread." He strokes my arm firmly, his fingertips caressing an apology onto my skin. "I am so sorry that I left you alone in this one."
His eyes are bottomless pools of guilt; he thinks he has failed me. But he is here now, and that is what matters.
The images from earlier that morning slowly come back as he speaks and I know that, this time, I must explain. I hate to speak about my nightmares, he knows that, but this one was different. His guilt is unfounded. He did leave me sleeping peacefully, he read me perfectly once again.
"I...I didn't have a nightmare," I whisper, looking down at where my hands lie on his chest. "Worse. I dreamt that she was here. She came in to wake me up and she was alive. They were all alive." I look up. The pain in his eyes is evident, and I feel tears slip from mine once more. "It was wonderful. I could feel her in my arms and smell her and hear her excited voice...but then I woke up and she was gone. She is gone. They're all gone."
My final words spill out in a wail and he pulls me even closer to him, radiating warmth and comfort and love. I weep silently for a few minutes before feeling his tears on my head. I look up at him through glistening eyes and see my pain reflected. He understands. He knows the pain that the truth brings.
Before the war, and even for a while after, I thought that nightmares were the worst things that night-time could bring. I was wrong. It is worse, so much worse, to see everything that you long for in sleep. To see the faces and hear the voices of those that you have lost. To share their smiles and stories, to feel their embraces, to smell their distinctive scents. They are so clear and tangible and oh-so close, yet they are snatched away when dawn appears, leaving reality feeling even worse than before.
"This one was so real. She felt so real." I feel myself shiver involuntarily, but my breathing is easing now. I am gathering strength from him.
"I'm sorry I left you," he states simply.
"It's okay. You didn't know. You're here now." I reach my arms around him and squeeze him, holding him in a tight embrace for longer than necessary. Then, taking a deep breath, I pull away. "I should get up. Walk. Do something. Think of something else."
He nods, stands and stretches, and then offers me his hand. I take it gratefully, steady myself and then make my way to the bathroom to wash the morning's horrors from my skin.
We say very little for what is left of the morning. When I join him in the kitchen, Peeta squeezes my shoulder and asks, "Okay?" before acknowledging my nod. He forces me to eat a piece of bread, and we gather all of our things together to take into town.
Yesterday, after a particularly successful hunting trip, we made a big pot of soup. Peeta baked a huge batch of rolls to go with it, and we planned to surprise the workers who were rebuilding the town. Today they are working on the frame for the new mayor's office and I feel a pang for Madge and her family but don't allow myself to dwell on it. Not today. I have felt enough pain today.
We have made so much food that we can't physically carry it, so I line the wheelbarrow with an old sheet before piling in the two enormous pots of soup, and a huge stack of plastic bowls and spoons. We heap the rolls into one of my mother's old wicker baskets, and head down the street and out of the Victor's Village.
We don't say much, but we walk in companionable silence for most of the journey. Peeta points out some new constructions and I smile at a bed of wildflowers growing on the side of the road. We bask in the sunlight and let it rejuvenate us; the morning's rainclouds clearing from our heads.
The soup is a huge success. We get pats on the back and ruffles of our hair from the workers, whose brown arms are lined with dirt and streaks of concrete. The best compliment we get, though, comes in the form of barely audible slurps as they all gulp their soup down wordlessly.
Once the last roll is eaten, and the last spoonful is ladled out, we turn to go.
"Hey, before you go, can one of you give me a quick hand with this?" We both turn to see Thom, Gale's old crewmate from the mines, struggling with a steel beam. I place the empty basket on the ground and rush to his aid, making sure to get there before Peeta. This is exactly the kind of thing he struggles with, although he loathes to admit it. He flashes me a dirty look as he stills the wheelbarrow, understanding exactly what I am doing, but knowing that he is powerless to stop it.
Together, Thom and I carry the beam over to the far edge of the site. We need to place it alongside a newly dug trench, making sure to line it up perfectly. It is heavy, and awkward to manoeuvre, and it takes a lot of concentration to place it in the right spot. I am focussing all of my energy on the beam weighing heavily in my arms, and navigating my feet around the trench, so when Peeta's voice cries out my name I ignore it, I barely hear it. I only realise why when I take a step quickly to the side, distracted by the exertion of lifting the weight, and my temple connects harshly with a piece of heavy copper piping suspended in the air.
Then, for the third time today, I descend into darkness.
Through the shadows, images swim into my mind. These aren't the peaceful visions of Prim that I saw this morning; they are the sinister images that two years of angst and evil have left imprinted in my mind.
I choke and retch as the ashes they fling on me lodge in my throat and nostrils. One by one they file past me, and there are hundreds of them.
There are faces that I barely recognise, like merchants from 12 and people I saw in other Districts during the Victory Tour, and there are faces that are alarmingly familiar, like classmates that I never spoke to or families from the Seam. They are all faces of people I have killed. Not explicitly, of course, but through pulling out the berries that sparked the war that killed them. Their blame mirrors my own.
Each face is attached to a body that flings a shovel full of ashes onto my writhing body, but I am pinned at the wrists and ankles, unable to escape. They have covered my body and neck and are working their way up my face, carefully keeping my eyes clear so that I can see every last one of them as they give me what I deserve.
Then there are the faces that I will never forget, faces whose every feature I have committed to memory: Boggs, Cato, Madge, Peeta's father, Thresh, Rue, Finnick...Prim. They have full wheelbarrows that they slowly tip as they watch the ashes fill every crevice of my body. They glare at me, hatred filling their eyes and fuelling their actions, and their lips twist into a grin as they stamp out the flames of the girl on fire. They watch the ashes torture me, slowly choking the life out of me. They watch my life ebb away just as I allowed theirs to. They mutter my name in low, menacing rumbles, "Katniss. Katniss. Katniss..."
"Katniss...Katniss can you hear me?" That's Peeta's voice. My body jolts; suddenly I can move again.
My eyes slowly open, adjusting to the harsh sunlight. I cough and gasp, trying to dislodge the ashes that I soon realise are no longer there. It was another dream. I lift my hand to my throbbing head and take a deep breath, trying to make sense of what has happened. A shadow falls across my face.
"Oh, thank goodness you're alright," Peeta breathes in relief as he leans in close. "You hit your head. Try not to move too much."
"It's okay, I'm fine," I insist, pushing him and my dream aside as I struggle to sit up. As soon as my torso is vertical the world starts to swim again, and Peeta lays me back down, my head now resting in his lap. He places his forearm firmly across my chest to stop me from sitting up again. I scowl.
"It's okay folks, she's fine," he assures the crowd of men who are gathered around me in concern. "She's got a nasty bump on her head, but we all know she's seen worse." He smiles. "You can get back to work." His voice is so calm and reassuring that even I am convinced. But the pressure of his arm tells me that he is concerned, and with the scowl still in place I stay put until the men retreat.
The shadow falls across my face again as he bends over me, and he has the gall to let out a soft laugh when he sees my expression. "Calm down! You need to rest for a second and take it easy before you get up."
Despite my slight dizziness and the throbbing near my temple, my heart gives an obvious thump as I see the corners of his lips turn up in a smile. Sure, he is laughing at me, but he is still laughing, and that alone brings me joy. His eyes wander up to the bump on my head and his fingers lightly brush it, checking for damage.
Despite the pain, I can't seem to look away from his lips. I watch them on the rare mornings that I wake before he does, but seldom do I see them awake, and alive with emotion. As his fingers travel my scalp, I watch his lips purse together before a small puff of air escapes them, and then they relax once more. Then his tongue peeks out briefly and licks them, before he chews gently on his lower lip. I am mesmerised by these little crimson lips, and it takes all my self control not to lean forward and brush them with my own. I feel slightly dizzy as my heart thumps uncomfortably once more, but I don't think it is due to my injury. This is an entirely different thump, but something that is not uncommon of late.
All of a sudden I want to reach my hands up and link them behind his head, feeling the silky strands of his hair as I lean him forward to meet me. I want to feel his lips on mine; I want to taste his breath and feel his hands on my skin. I want him to sigh softly as he opens his eyes to greet me, and I want to see the love and longing that I saw all those years ago.
And I want to feel it.
Now, in this moment of weakness, this moment of longing, I feel more alive than I have it months. Despite my injury. It's unsettling.
What is this?
I feel his eyes on mine so I drag them up to meet him.
"Okay?" he asks. "Think you can sit up?" With a blush rising to my cheeks I nod, and accept his help in sitting. This time I don't feel so dizzy, although my head still throbs. I push all thoughts from my mind and focus on sitting upright on my own.
Slowly we stand together before making our way out of the site. I insist that we gather our things and take them with us. I am injured not an invalid; I can carry a basket and walk home.
All the way, though, I think about those lips, and the thump of my heart. I think about how his hair must feel and how I can't make sense of it all. My mind is a whirl of thoughts. I think of his gentle fingers assessing my injury, and his panicked voice calling to me through the darkness and the piles of ash. I think of the change in his tone to a soft, breathy whisper of relief once he realised I was okay.
I wonder what he is thinking. I wonder if he noticed how I was looking at him while I lay in his lap, if he could feel the hunger and longing radiating out of my eyes. I wonder if he saw the blush of my cheeks, or felt my heart beating wildly in my chest. I wonder if his gentle touch as he assessed my injury was simply that of a concerned friend, or if it was something more?
I glance at him out of the corner of my eye. He is looking at the road ahead, on keeping the wheelbarrow balanced and on the right path. He doesn't speak much, he is just focussing on getting us all home safely.
That's what I need to do; focus on our safety. We are doing so well. I don't need to be distracted by silly thoughts of lips and silken strands of hair. I need him and he needs me. We need to stay on the right path and get better. I would be stupid to mess with that now. I can't afford to ruin what we have now.
But once we get home, and he sees me settled on the couch in front of the fire, I can't help but wonder what could be. When he gets me some dried fruit to snack on, some pain relieving tablets to ease my headache, and a cup of the hot chocolate that we save for special occasions, I can't suppress my gratitude. And as he threads his fingers through his golden hair and flops down to join me, I can't help but sneak glances at him. And when he pulls out the parchment and adds finishing touches to our latest entries in the book, I offer suggestions and steal more glances at him. And I keep sneaking glances, one after another, all evening until I fall asleep in his arms.
I would love any feedback that you guys have for me about this story! Thanks :)
Chapter 6: Worst Yet
Katniss feels like things are getting better, but sometimes the horrors of their past catch them unaware.
Tonight we walk. We aren't forced to this time, but instead we make a conscious decision to step out into the night air together. The darkness falls early in winter, so when we head out after dinner we have the light of the moon to guide us.
It has been nine days since the last time we were forced to go outside and walk under the stars. We've learnt that walking is the best way to calm me when I wake during the night and refuse to close my eyes again. Nine days and counting; the longest period since we returned. It's also taking him less time to calm me down in the mornings. We both still have the nightmares frequently, but these baby steps make me believe that maybe we really are getting better.
I know that he is. His flashbacks are becoming rarer and milder. He finds it easier to distinguish between real memories and shiny ones, and his pupils rarely dilate in anger at what he thinks he sees. It is like we are finally becoming human again, joining the real world once more.
Tonight, it is nice to be out walking for us, instead of simply to dispel horrors. But despite the terror behind our usual walks, I always enjoy them in some way. The two of us pace back and forth along the streets, barely speaking, but feeling the cold air bite at our skin and nip at our eyes. It makes me feel alive again, and the beauty found in the endless stretch of stars above us reminds me of why I need to keep on living.
He is the other reason I enjoy our walks. He still speaks few words, but he is with me. And here, outside, it feels like we are in my domain. For once we aren't wrapped up indoors; in the warmth of the living room or the bedroom or the kitchen, where he takes control. For once it is me who is entirely comfortable, and I love sharing that with him.
Sometimes I share with him the constellations that my father taught me before he died, and point out flowers and minerals that I know by name.
He tells me that his favourite constellation is Orion, the hunter, which makes me smile.
The last time we walked together he reached his hand out and laced his fingers through mine. This wasn't a gesture of comfort- he usually wraps his arms tightly around my shoulders to keep me warm and to keep me grounded- but a gesture of kindness, of togetherness. A gesture of contented companionship. His touch forced my heart to thump once more, as my mouth became dry, but I swallowed and reminded myself that we are just friends and neighbours, and we can't be any more than that. There is too much to lose.
But I still wonder. And I try not to hope that tonight he will do it again.
Before I know it, we have finished out usual route and are crossing the yard. He holds the door open for me, and we step into the glowing warmth of home.
He hasn't held my hand tonight, and I tell myself it is for the best. Yes. We don't need any awkwardness, not when we are doing so well.
While the fire flickers and pops nearby, my gaze is caught by something more beautiful. Him. I always try to fight this feeling but right now it is impossible as I watch his hands fly over the thick paper, his blackened fingertips gripping the charcoal that brings the image to life. As he leans further over the paper on the table a lock of his blonde hair falls forward once more, and but this is of no importance to him now. He is so focused when he draws. I struggle to swallow a giggle as I see the tip of his tongue peek out of the side of his mouth.
Darn. He must have heard me. He glances at me and the tongue retreats quickly as he raises his eyebrows at my close scrutiny.
"'Okay?" he asks.
"Just watching you," I answer with a little grin. "You just look so serious, so full of concentration."
He leans back and stretches his arms before wringing his head from side to side to relieve the tension in his neck. He glances up at the clock on the mantle. "Wow, it's after 11 o'clock," he says. "We've been working for hours." He stretches out again, seemingly unable to remove the crinks of his night's work. "This is gunna hurt in the morning," he grins wanly.
The kitchen is warm, but that doesn't account for the blush on my cheeks, and the warm spark in the pit of my stomach. It has been there all along, I know that now, but the internal flame is being fanned tonight by the beauty of his drawing, his hands, his face. Him, really. And despite his smile, his voice is laced with the discomfort of his tense muscles.
Before I know it the firelight, the drawing, and the softness of the moment see me rising to my feet and moving slowly towards him.
I push away my doubts and fears as I reach him. I place my hands on his on either side of his neck and gently pull him towards me, until his lower back leans against the hardwood of the chair, before setting to work on his shoulders.
I have never done this before, but I used to watch my mother help my father forget his pain after a long day in the mines. I can picture the scene vividly; his feet propped up by the fire, his eyes closed as her hands massaged the aches from his back and the anxiety from his brow.
I rub my hands in circles, gently at first. Then, as he moans softly, my confidence grows and I add more pressure. His muscles are hard beneath his smooth skin and I work to knead out the knots from his shoulders. I feel the muscles shift and soften as I go, the tension leaving them with my every movement. I push with my fingers and press with the pads of my thumbs, feeling him melt beneath my palms. Time seems to slow down. I may have been doing this for mere minutes or for hours, I am no longer sure.
Peeta moans again, and his head falls softly forwards as I move my fingers further up. They dance softly along his neck before pressing and sliding and circling on his flesh. His neck is so smooth, despite the number of shallow crevices on his skin that are a daily reminder of his time in the Capitol. Unexpectedly, the fire in my belly urges me to lean forward and kiss these scars, but I stamp down the flicker of the flame before it sets alight. This is just to ease his pain. Nothing more.
His blonde hair curls over my fingertips as I work my way up his neck to the base of his skull. He is a liquid mess beneath me, slowly melting now that his muscles have relaxed and my fingers swim and slide effortlessly through his silky strands. He has soft curls, baby fine, but he has so many of them that his hair appears thick. I never realised that it wasn't until now, but as my fingers work across his scalp it is like each golden strand is massaging my fingers, giving back what they are gaining. I thread his strands through the webs of my fingers and tug softly on the roots.
Suddenly, his shoulder twitches, and I see the muscles in his back tense, one by one, working their way up his spine. His fists clench on the table in front of me, and I know. I am frozen, watching him fight; watching him battling the images that are taking over his mind.
Instinctively I step back, creating space between us just in time as he leaps up, consumed by the rage that is locked away in the box of black memories that the Capitol planted in him. He spins around to face me and I let out a squeak. There is no colour in his eyes now, the ebony pupils have reigned supreme over the calm blue that is him.
This person...I don't know who this is. I don't recognise him.
I haven't seen him like this since that day in the Capitol, almost a year ago now. He has had flashbacks in the months since he returned to 12, but he has never looked like this. In those times his pupils have dilated and shrunk, bouncing back and forth as he battled with the foreign demon within. His vision was always obscured, the images shrouded in a mist of black and gold, but he always fought to clear it and won.
This time, it caught him by surprise and dominated him. He was relaxed and happy and the demon pounced. And now it is up to me to get him back.
He leaps towards me, clawing at me as he roars. Luckily the space I put between us is just enough, and my feet are fast enough to carry me forward, away from him. Anguished, I cry out as I hear crashes close behind me. Too close. Then I feel a rough hand on my shoulder, pulling me into the doorframe. He shoves me into the wood, his black eyes flashing with rage as he glares into my face.
"I know what you were trying to do," he sneers. Even his voice is foreign as he flings accusations at me in a rasp. "I felt your hands on my head. You were trying to snap my neck, just like you did to that boy from 3. Just like you did to my father before you left him to burn."
"What?" I question frantically, trying to buy time with my words. "The boy from 3? No, that was Cato. It wasn't me. And I would never hurt your father. Never."
"It wasn't me," he mimics, shoving me harder into the door frame, forcing the wood to crush painfully into my spine. "You expect me to believe you? After all you have done? After all that I have seen you do? I know what you have done to me, to my family, and to all of Panem. Now you will get what you deserve."
I stare into the depths of the darkness that pervades his eyes, and plead with him, "Peeta, please. It is not real. Come back to me Peeta. Don't let them take you too." I weep his name. "Please Peeta."
At the sound of his name, this third time, his pupils contract suddenly, his hand releasing me and his eyes turning back to their usual blue. But this blue is laced with pain and anguish. "Katniss...go. GO!"
And then it is back. The flash of the blue is gone in an instant as the black returns, but it is enough. It gets me away from him in time and as I watch he smashes his fist into the wood, and then again into the brick of the wall.
"Peeta!" I cry again, before I can stop myself.
Blood pours from the splits on his knuckles and even from across the room I can see his pupils contracting, the battle raging violently inside him. His fists remain clenched and he thrashes wildly against the demon within as he slides down the wall to the floor.
His fight spurs me into action. Maybe I should be running out the door, but instead I fling myself across the room and sit atop his convulsing form, pinning his arms to his side. Black, blue, black. His eyes flash violently beneath mine as I summon my strength to give him what he needs.
"Peeta. Come back to me." I speak calmly, my voice only slightly wavering. "Peeta, what you see is not real. I am here with you. We are friends. We walk together. We work together on the book each night. This is real. What you see now is not real."
His blue eyes bore into mine for a few long seconds, but his body is still tense, and I sense that the demon won't have given in yet. This flashback is his worst yet, and I can't be sure that it has released him.
I'm right. The darkness returns and he thrashes beneath me, writhing in a mix of agony and anger. It takes all of my strength to restrain him. I push my weight down onto his lap and into his hands, and I push my forehead into his as I press him up against the wall. I stare deeply into his eyes as I calmly repeat the same words, over and over. "Peeta, don't leave me. Peeta, it's not real. Peeta, come back to me. Peeta... Peeta... Peeta."
As his pupils continue to dilate rapidly, I don't know what else to do. He must hear me calling out to him, for him to be fighting so hard. For the blue to keep returning.
So, in a moment of sheer hopelessness, I close my eyes and I kiss him. With all the pain and the anguish and the fear that I have for him in this moment, I kiss him. With all the longing and confusion and pure want that I have felt in the last few months, I kiss him. I don't know what else to do. It is raw and it is desperate, but slowly I feel his body fall still beneath me as he returns. After a minute I open my eyes, desperate to see the beautiful blue that shows me he is back, but I don't. His eyes are squeezed shut, willing the pain to go.
I pull away, but his eyes remain closed. He sucks hasty, ragged gulps of air into his lungs, and he flexes his fingers. I sense the danger has gone, so I loosen my grip on his wrists but remain firmly and securely in his lap. His breathing deepens and his muscles gradually relax.
He slowly opens his eyes, the brilliant blue now glistening with tears. They tumble and slide down his cheeks as I press my face against him, my own tears mingling with his. I bend forward and bury my face in the crook of his neck, crying in silent relief as sobs wrack his body. Thank goodness he is back. Thank goodness. I can't lose him. Not now.
As sobs continue to wrack his solid form I slowly skate my fingertips along his arms, and then onto his chest. I pull away from him slightly, before leaning in to rest my forehead on his once more.
"Ssshhh," I whisper. "It's okay. We're okay. You're back now."
"B-but," he stammers, looking from his bloodied hands to the smudges of coal on my shoulders as he struggles to form words, "I must have hurt you."
"No," I say softly but firmly. "You only hurt yourself. You hit the wall, not me. I'm fine."
"No, Katniss. No." His voice gains strength. "We can't continue like this. I know it's been better lately but we have to stop. I will hurt you, I know I will." He struggles against my body. "I need to go."
I push down onto him, "No Peeta. You didn't hurt me. You won't hurt me. It wasn't you and I know that." I stare into his eyes as my tears erupt once more; the thought of him leaving is more than I can bear.
"But you're crying. I scared you. I'll hurt you... I can't stay." He pushes against me, trying to remove me from his lap. Luckily, enough of my strength has returned so I can continue to restrain him. I force all of my weight onto him so that he knows I am here. Every part of me is here, and every part of me wants and needs him here too.
The words fly from my lips. "I'm not scared of you, I am scared for you. I am scared that you will act all proud and macho and leave me because of this. You can't help this Peeta! It's not who you are. It's what they did to you." I practically spit the last words at him before softening. "We can't let them win."
There is no way to stop the flow of tears now, as everything that I fear the most tumbles from my mouth. "Please don't leave me. Please. I need you." My voice lowers to a whisper, "I can't do this without you."
He raises his hand to softly stroke my jaw before wiping away the tears from my cheeks. He looks into my eyes, his gaze filled with anguish and fear and longing. Then, gently, he leans forward and brushes a kiss onto my lips.
This kiss is unlike any other I have experienced. It is soft and gentle; it is asking and it is giving and it is filled with need. My mind retreats to that time in the cave, that spark that was lit in the first kiss that saw me wanting more. The warmth of that kiss flared again on the beach in the second arena, but now it is a raging inferno. It has always been there, a glowing ember buried deep in the pit of my stomach, but now I feel the lick of every flame; the burn of desire and longing that reaches out and grabs every fibre of my being.
I feel his tongue brush gently against my bottom lip and I allow him access. My thoughts no longer matter; all I can do is feel. Then the kiss deepens and the fire in my belly roars, fuelled by all of the emotions of the night. Our mouths move together as one; at first nibbling and playful before becoming more desperate and raw. My hands move up to his hair before travelling the plane of his neck and across his broad shoulders, and finally coming to rest on the solid muscles of his chest. The occasional thump in my chest that I have felt recently pales in comparison to the speed at which my heart is pounding now. Every part of me is burning with the fire of longing and I can feel every inch of him beneath me.
After what seems like hours, we reluctantly separate, our eyes closed and our foreheads pressed closely together. We gasp for air, trying to gain oxygen to calm the fire between us, to regain some sense of normalcy.
What was that? It is like the earth has been tipped on its axis and everything looks different. Never in my life have I felt such a flood of emotion, and I'm not sure how to cope. Then my brain ticks on again.
Together, our eyes slowly open. As I look into the calm blue ocean of his eyes, the steadfast and unwavering gaze of the one solid, positive influence of my life, I can't help but wonder one thing: What have I done?
I pull myself from his lap and scale the stairs two at a time. I fling myself on my bed and pound the pillow with my fist. It was one thing to kiss Peeta to bring him back to me, but I should not have responded once he returned.
I don't even understand my response. Questions run circles in my mind, faster than ever before. I don't know how I feel, do I? And how does he feel? What does that kiss even mean? Why did he do it? He has not shown any romantic interest in me at all since he returned. We hardly touch, except for in comfort; we barely even speak half the time. That isn't normal is it? What is this: passion, love, friendship, gratitude? That fire didn't feel like friendship did it? It certainly didn't feel like gratitude. It felt like fire.
But if I allow myself to be consumed then I can never return. If the flame dies out I will not survive. And I can't afford to think that way.
It is late and my body gives in to the exhaustion of the night's emotions. As my heart rate slows and my eyes close, I can't help but wonder about the boy sitting downstairs, tending to his wounds. Alone.
What have I done?
Chapter 7: Whirlwind
Upstairs, in the wake of the kiss, Katniss' mind is filled with a whirlwind of thoughts.
"I never knew that emotions could be physicalised like this, that I could feel so strongly just from thinking about a kiss. But it's true. Just replaying it in my mind transports me back downstairs and the thriving fire in my belly reaches out to warm every fibre of my being.
The problem with fire, though, is that it burns. It roars and consumes and explodes, killing everything good in its path."
The room is filled with darkness, in so many ways, but what I notice the most is the cold. Even with the blanket wrapped firmly around my shoulders, I feel the air's chill. The vacant space in the bed beside me whispers and hisses empty threats in my direction; the icy breeze of its breath taunting me as it swirls over my skin.
I have no idea how long I have been up here. I know that I have dozed off to sleep a number of times, but only because I have been haunted by their faces again, and because the smell of burning flesh lingers painfully in my nostrils. I mustn't have slept for long. My body is fraught with exhaustion and emotion, but my mind won't let me succumb to it. It keeps whirling in circles, wondering how anything will be resolved between us. Now that we have crossed that line, it will be nearly impossible to go back.
Do I even want to go back?
I think of his hands on my skin, of his lips pressing firmly on mine, and the mere thought of it reignites the fire deep in my stomach. I never thought I could feel desire like this. And as soon as his lips reached up to mine I realised that I have been carrying this longing right from the start, right from those nights in the cave. At the time I hid it away, behind the confusion of the pretense that I thought was two sided. Then it was masked by confusion and fear for everything and everyone I knew. And later I buried it so far beneath the ashes that I could pretend it wasn't there.
Tonight's kiss though, that one perfect moment where I let my heart guide me instead of my head, has brought forward every feeling that I have suppressed since the cave.
It has been three years of gazes and grazes and empty kisses. Well, maybe not empty, but certainly not full. The problem wasn't even that they were being televised for the country to see, it was really that they weren't for us. Almost every kiss that we shared was for someone or something else: for the sponsors, for the audience, for President Snow, for the safety of our family and friends. Even when I kissed him to bring him down from his flashbacks, both here and in the Capitol, it was for a specific purpose; it was to drag him back from the clutches of evil. But tonight's kiss...it was magic. It was burning hot and filled with need, but most of all it was just him and me. Just the two of us wanting one another.
As I remember every movement of his lips against mine I subconsciously lift my hand to touch them, feeling my heart flip and leap in my chest. I never knew that emotions could be physicalised like this, that I could feel so strongly just from thinking about a kiss. But it's true. Just replaying it in my mind transports me back downstairs and the thriving fire in my belly reaches out to warm every fibre of my being.
The problem with fire, though, is that it burns. It roars and consumes and explodes, killing everything good in its path.
I know that all too well. It devoured my father. It inadvertently took my mother. It stole my sister in a burst of hatred and greed.
I can't let it consume me too.
Another problem is that I can't just think about me, I have Peeta to think of as well. No matter how much I long for him, acting on this could damage us- scar us- more than we already are. I'm not sure if I can handle more pain and anguish. Thinking back to the crevices burned into his skin, I don't know if he can either.
Thank goodness the blue returned to his eyes tonight. The thought of losing him again was almost too much to bear. All I can do is hope that Dr Aurelius is right, that with each episode he is getting better, that he is regaining memories and gaining his strength. Right now, it's hard to imagine. But thank goodness the blue won out in the end tonight. Even if the burning flame of desire overtook them in the moments that followed.
His eyes are so steady, so calm and deep. I don't want to set fire to them and then snuff out the flames to leave nothing but ashes in its wake. I can't allow that to happen to me, and I definitely can't do that to him.
My head and my heart are all over the place and I don't even know what I want for the future. But I know that I can't hurt him again when I have done so much to him already. My actions have already caused him so much pain; they have ripped his family from him, tainted his memories and then left him alone in the world, and I can't bear the thought of doing him any more damage.
People here think that he is doing so much better. Only I know the truth. Well, maybe Haymitch too. While so much of him has improved- he has regained his strength, his beauty and his unbelievable talent- his gift for words remains gone. He had a voice that had more strength than all of my actions combined. While I was rushed and impulsive, he was calm and deliberate. With a few simple combinations he could persuade people to follow him and to believe him. He convinced people to find something of value in a sullen, surly, twirling girl. With his words he could lead people to safety, and he could lead them to battle. There was always something so genuine, so believable, about the way that he spoke. His words were silky smooth; they could coax an answer from a stone, and lure a smile from the toughest of critics.
I remember his banter with Caeser Flickerman, how the two would play off each other so effortlessly. Both were made for the stage, made for the cameras. This immediately aroused my suspicion of his motives and I didn't know what to believe. But I also remember his words in the cave. Millions were watching, but they were meant just for me, I realise that now. He was planting that warm ember inside me that night, an ember which flared again on the beach during the Quarter Quell. His kisses were setting me alight, but he was healing my wounds with his words.
What I didn't know then was that there were worse wounds to come.
When Peeta was retrieved from the Capitol he was no longer himself. There was nothing about him that resembled the boy with the bread. I truly believed that he was gone forever, and I tried to let him go. Then, slowly, as his eyes grew bluer and brighter, he returned to me. His actions spoke to me, they shared his affection and friendship... but that power and talent for words never followed.
He is just so quiet now. He is always watching, always waiting for something, but never questioning. His fingers will brush mine but he will never comment. He will point out things to make me laugh, we will talk quietly together while we work on the book, he will question his memories just to be sure...but it's not the same. He is not the same. Not quite.
Maybe that is part of my problem. Maybe it isn't just the harshness of the fire that causes me to doubt the future, because flames can also bring warmth and comfort and light. Unfortunately though, without the cool blue water to balance it, fire will scorch. Peeta...well he brings the world to life with a small sprinkling of words, like a cool shower refreshing the parched earth at the end of a long summer's day.
His actions are still powerful. He cooks, he paints, he bakes, he walks, he delivers food... he wraps me in his arms to ward off the evil images that swim through the darkness towards me. But without his words I cannot see the gateway to his soul. It's like his actions aren't enough. Not for him.
Until tonight he had made no move to show me that he still had those feelings for me at all, that he wanted more than friendship. Even the thumps of my heart felt out of place because they were all on my side, and they made me so vulnerable. I have been so unsure of my own feelings but even less sure of his. In fact, until tonight I was convinced that he had all but forgotten everything he had said to me before. I thought that maybe, when the Capitol created his shiny memories, they replaced the real ones. So because of this, our relationship has been based solely on friendship; on comfort and healing.
Now, after a burst of passion in a moment of weakness and pain, everything may have changed. But without his words, I simply don't know. I don't know where we stand, and I certainly don't know how he feels. The warmth and comfort and strength of his feelings were so unwavering before that I always knew. Even if the rest of my world was in chaos, and even though it made me feel conflicted and even a bit uncomfortable, I was always certain of the strength of his emotions. He would convince me with his words... and then his smiles, his looks and his caresses were simply confirmation. Now? Now I have absolutely no idea. And the uncertainty of his silence scares me almost as much as the roaring fire within me.
I sigh, rolling restlessly from my side to my back, and stare at the ceiling. I wish, for the millionth time, that I could turn my brain off, that I could stop the whirlwind of thoughts that fly in circle after circle, never coming to any conclusions. I just don't know anything anymore.
I pull the blanket tighter around my shoulders and run my hand down my left arm, feeling the jagged ridge leftover from where Johanna ripped the Capitol's tracker from my flesh. I drift my fingers along my skin, feeling the crevices of shrapnel wounds, and the seams of the patchwork quilt of the grafts on my forearm, but they come to a stop just inside the joint of my elbow. There lies a familiar bump of scar tissue, but this one is different. This is the callous formed by months of shooting arrows aimlessly in the woods.
I remember back to that first time, when I was ten years old and out hunting with my father. I had just mastered the art of shooting an arrow 20 feet, and wanted to try it on the run. I was so certain that I could do it, and I wanted to surprise him with how clever I was and how well he had taught me. I leapt over a boulder and took aim at a nearby tree, but truthfully I had no idea what I was doing. The string on the bow flung wildly and painfully against the inside of my arm- where the skin was already red and tender from previous wayward shots- causing me to welt up immediately. That is where the scar began, and months of learning and trying led to a callous that would never truly fade.
The memory is so clear that I can still smell the rain and feel softness of the moss on which I fell. I steadfastly refused to cry, and I willed the tears to stop pooling in my eyes, but then my father rushed over and gathered me in his arms, asking where it hurt. I hid my arm from him, telling myself firmly that he wouldn't want to see me cry, but he assuaged my fears immediately.
"You can cry babybird, it's okay," he said gently. "It hurts, you can cry." I shook my head at him, but the tears mocked me and slid down my cheeks anyway. He wiped them away and placed his forefinger softly on my arm. "This welt doesn't make you weak, Katniss. It shows that you are getting stronger. You are learning something new and one day your hunting won't leave any scars at all. But now, you will always have a mark to remind you that you need to put in hard work if you want something to work out properly."
Feeling the hardened bead of tissue beneath the surface of my skin brings his voice so clearly to my ears. I rub my fingers across it, something I have done many times since his death, and wonder what advice he would give me now. Could he have ever predicted any of this? Surely not. Would he be proud of me? I don't even know. I have made a difference, yes, but largely due to circumstances outside of my control. But I have also brought about more destruction than I thought possible, and have caused so much pain; to myself, to our family, to our country.
He will be hating himself right now; hating what the Capitol has done to him, and what he thinks he is capable of doing to me. But it is my father's words- ones that I have heard a thousand times in my mind- that confirm what I need to do. "You need to put in hard work if you want something to work out properly," he said. Even though I don't know what my relationship with Peeta should properly be, I know that I want it to work out. I know that, no matter what happens, I need him in my life. And, as I remember that kiss and the breadth of the feelings that followed, I realise that it is more than that. I don't only need him, I want him in my life.
I swing my feet to the floor; I know what I must do.
As I make my way silently down the hall I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. The hair that he eased from its braid with his careful fingers hours earlier falls in tangled clumps down my back. Wild eyes search the reflection for answers that do not lie there, but on their hunt they see smudges of black. My collarbone and shoulders are streaked with the same charcoal dust that coated Peeta's fingertips all those hours ago as he drew.
I hurry to the bathroom where I wash the blemishes of his flashback from my skin. A few quick swipes and all evidence is gone, but I know that the emotional stains will be much more lasting, especially for him.
I slip silently down the stairs, guided by the flickering orange light from the living room. I don't even know where he will be. He could be anywhere in the District, really, after all these hours. Somehow I don't imagine that he is in his own bed, because I know that his mind will be working as quickly as mine. Maybe even faster.
I silently run over the options. He will probably be at the site where the bakery is being built. Or near the new fountain in the town centre, he likes it there. Or maybe even just out near the big tree where the lights of town don't dampen the beauty of the stars. I will try all of these places, and more, until I find him. I don't know what I will say, but I know without a shadow of a doubt that I must find him, so that I can apologise for running away and so that we can work it out. We must work it out.
As I walk towards the front door I catch sight of something out of the corner of my eye.
There he is. He sits on the floor, leaning back against the base of the sofa. His knees are bent and his arms wrap firmly around them as he stares into the fire.
He is still here. He never left. Of course he didn't.
The fire is low now, and the deep orange flames hover lazily above the thick logs that are ensconced in heat. I lean softly against the door frame, conflicted. He looks quite peaceful sitting there, and I don't want to interrupt. Especially because I still have no idea what to say; I didn't even have the long walk to think of something.
At the slight sound of my movement he turns his head towards me, his eyes meeting mine briefly before flitting back to the fire. At the flash of blue my heart thumps in a brief snippet of hope and longing, before sinking deep into the pit of my stomach.
What have I done?
This time, I don't even know what this thought refers to. There are so many things that I question and turn over in my mind: the kiss, the possible ruin of our friendship... and the fact that I left him here to cope with this alone. It is a mixture really, but with a thud I realise that it is mostly the latter. I have left him alone, abandoned him again when he needed me. Once more I acted selfishly and fled from him when he needed my reassurance. I will truly never stop owing him.
I make my way over to him, before softly sitting alongside him. I draw my own knees to my chest, my feet crossed at the ankles, but I do not wrap them in my arms to mirror his action. I still don't know what to say, so I say nothing. Instead, I take a deep breath and reach my hand out to cover his. His right hand is bandaged, his bloody knuckles hidden from view, but his left hand remains unblemished from tonight's events. I rub my thumb gently on his, and his fingers shift, ever so slightly, to allow me in. I thread my fingers between his and squeeze gently, letting him know I am here for him in the only way I know how.
We don't speak at all. We just sit together, our fingers wound together on his knee, until exhaustion wins. Later, just when the sun starts to peek out over the horizon, my head falls to lie softly on his shoulder. When his rests atop mine soon after, we sleep.
I can see the sandy stretch of beach ahead but there is no way I can reach it. The air is thick with moisture, smothering me, and the unfamiliar trees and ferns around me provide no comfort or stability. I can do nothing but wait out the agony of the cries.
"Not real. Not real," I repeat to myself over and over, willing them to leave me in peace. "It's a trick. It's just another trick."
Suddenly, Peeta appears before me. His eyes are filled with anguish as he watches me writhe in agony at the sounds. He places his palm against the force field and I try desperately to reach it, to cling to his strength. But I can't. I am trapped with the sounds that stab my heart and tear strips from my soul. I fall back to the rainforest floor as a wail resounds in Prim's voice. Gale's deep moan brings the searing marks that lashed his back screaming into the forefront of my mind. I hear the hollow call of my father, so far in the distance that there is no chance of reaching him, of saving him.
Then Peeta's sudden scream of fear and distress pierces the air.
This last one forces me to look up, to find some peace in his face among the trees.
But he is gone. And that scream was real.
I search wildly for his blonde curls but see nothing. Suddenly, a splash in the distance causes panic to grip my heart. Brutus stands above him, tall and unforgiving, and hauls him in and out of the water. I scream, pounding at the force field with all that I am, trying to claw my way through to him. But I am powerless. I watch as those strong hands lift him from the water once more. He gasps and splutters, but nothing can help him now. I can't help him. Brutus lifts a heavy rock from the shallows and brings it down to meet his head. Scarlet blood oozes from the wound on his temple and he drops into the water with a final splash.
I cry out, flinging myself at the force field, and find that it has vanished. I scramble to my feet and fly to the water's edge, searching desperately for him. Suddenly, the ocean floor drops off in a steep cliff and I see the top of his blonde head drifting down in the water, a steady stream of blood trailing above him. I take a deep breath and dive down, arms groping wildly through the water to find him. His face is closed and pale; he is just out of reach and he as he drifts further down I force myself to follow. My lungs burn but I must reach him. I stretch out my fingers to grip the fabric of his shirt but he slips through my fingers and sinks lower. I watch in agony, my lungs bursting and burning as misery grips my heart, as he sinks lower and lower, and out of my grasp forever ...
I wake up with a gasp, my heart pounding in my chest. Not real. Not real. Not real. My eyes search the ceiling and the walls for the strength of the vase but each corner and crevice of the room is unfamiliar. I try to count and breathe, as I always do, but without something to anchor me I go in circles, never reaching zero. I squeeze my eyes shut instead, trying to force the image of Peeta's bloody face drifting further out of my grasp from my mind, but I feel myself thrashing wildly and I am powerless to stop it.
Suddenly I feel strong, warm hands gripping mine. "Katniss, it's not real. This is just a dream. Open your eyes Katniss. Please Katniss, open your eyes for me. I'm here. What you're seeing isn't real."
Hearing his voice brings me back, and as I open my eyes to see his brilliant blue orbs I am grounded. Staring into them I count slowly and silently, backwards from ten, as I breathe.
The room stops spinning. My heart slowly stops racing. I am here. He is safe.
He is safe. Thank goodness.
I sit up and shut my eyes again, wrapping my arms around my body to make myself as small as possible. I rock back and forth. I can't keep the image of his drowning form from my mind.
"Hey," he says gently, taking my face gently in his hands. I open my eyes once more. "I heard you crying my name. It's okay. I'm here. We're safe. No one can hurt us now." He leans forward to gently kiss my forehead -my favourite of his gestures of comfort- before pulling me to him and wrapping his arms tightly around me. I let out the breath I didn't know I was holding. He is right. We are here. We are safe.
Despite the events of the night before, he comforts me. After I approached him, played with the golden strands of his hair and allowed a demon to attack him, he consoles me. Even after I gave in to me desire and longing for him and kissed him, before leaving him alone and confused...he soothes me and gives me strength. I will never deserve him.
But we still say nothing. Instead we sit there, wrapped in each other's arms for what seems like hours, while I let the steady sound of his heartbeat lull me back from the brink.
The fire has completely died out and the sun is high in the sky when we get up and make our way to the kitchen. We don't speak. We don't touch. We just force ourselves to eat. The events of the last 12 hours have taken us back to survival mode. We do what he have to do, but no more.
He grabs a mixing bowl and flour.
I pick up my boots and tell him that I am going to the woods.
We cope in the best ways we know how; by falling back into what comes naturally.
Chapter 8: Suddenly
A few weeks have passed since their kiss in front of the fire. Feelings and frustrations are reaching boiling point.
It rejuvenates me, being out here; seeing the sun wink through the young leaves and feeling the soil and leaves shift beneath my moving feet. Today the air is crisp and cold, nipping at my cheeks, but it almost sharpens the beauty of the green that is reappearing on the trees. I inhale deeply, feeling the heady mix of pine and sunshine refresh my soul. Despite everything that has happened in the last year, I can truly say that I love it here.
Ahead of me, Rory's dark head bobs up and down as he leaps over logs and sticks, and he is almost as quiet as his brother once was. Almost. I've been working with him for a few months now, and he is improving every time we come out. At first I almost found it disconcerting, sharing Gale and my spot with his baby brother, but I'm growing more used to it. It's not the same, it cannot and should not ever be, but it is nice nonetheless.
I really enjoy teaching Rory; he is a fast and eager learner. And the feeling of watching him progress, seeing him go from a young boy who could barely hit a tree with the arrow, to one taking down the squirrels that leap and bound through the bushes, is one that is hard to top. Plus, it is nice to have a hunting partner. It eases the load and takes the pressure off, and I know that Rory likes providing for his family and filling some of the void that Gale's absence left. And, given that he isn't here because of me, teaching Rory is the least that I can do for his family. Being out here with him, the closest thing to a younger brother I have ever had, I feel almost peaceful. Almost.
We've been out here for a few hours and have managed a decent haul: a handful of squirrels and a rabbit. I don't need that much meat but there are others in the District who do. Maybe Peeta and I can make a big squirrel stew and take it to the workers tomorrow. We haven't been in for a little while.
Spotting a flock of ducks in a clearing up ahead, I move quickly and silently to his side. He flicks his young eyes in their direction and I smile, glad that his hunter's instincts are improving. My head dips ever-so-slightly to nod in silent encouragement. He lifts his handmade bow, crafted years ago by my father's careful fingers, to his side as his eyes focus on his prey. He shifts slightly, planting his feet into the soil, and I hear him exhale gently before the careful twang of his bowstring softly pierces the air.
Success. His face lights up as he looks back at me, and I grin, his enthusiasm catching.
As the rest of the flock fly upwards, away from the threat, we go to grab the bird. It is a decent size, and Rory can't wipe the smile from his face as he shoves it into his game bag.
"What now?" he asks, not wanting to seem childish in his excitement. I swallow my grin of amusement and look up to the sky to see that the afternoon is quickly fading.
"Let's move," I respond. "We have enough for the day anyway. Your mom will be able to whip up something great with that duck. Maybe I'll invite myself over for dinner this week."
"You like duck don't you?" He grins in response. "Gale said thatyou-"
"Gale said?" I whirl around to face him and the words fly from my mouth. "What do you mean? When did you talk to Gale? Did you see him? Is he here?"
"He called yesterday," he responds flippantly, without a care in the world. He shrugs his shoulders in confusion, "It's not the first time, Katniss. He is our brother."
For some reason this catches me off guard. I don't know why. Gale hasn't made any attempt to contact me in the last year, but of course he has called home; his family always had been his number one priority. Just like mine always had. I just forget sometimes that for him, family still exists. Whereas I have no one.
No. Not no-one. I have Peeta, and I have Haymitch. I even have the unlikely bond that I forged with Johanna in 13 and that has continued through a sporadic exchange of letters. But my father, my mother and Prim – my beautiful Prim– and even Gale have gone. My idea of family has definitely changed, to put it mildly.
With a quick shake of my head I push these thoughts out of my mind and come back to the present. Rory. Gale.
"Oh..." I mutter, unsure of what to say or even how I feel about Gale's sudden reappearance in conversation, "how is he?"
"Yeah, pretty good I think," Rory responds, oblivious to any unpleasantness or discomfort that this might cause me. "He gets along pretty well with President Paylor; him and Beetee are in contact with
her a lot. They're in charge of weapon design, but apparently what they do is for what will be called our Defence Force. They make weapons to help keep us all safe."
I swallow tightly, thinking of other weapons that they have designed, but immediately push that thought aside. All of a sudden, after months of trying not to even think of Gale, I am desperate to know how he is. I need to know whether my old friend is coping with his life now that everything has changed. His line of work isn't of interest to me.
"Okay...but how is he going? Does he like it there?"
"Yeah, I think so," Rory's face is wistful while he talks about his big brother- his hero- who is so far away. "He says that he misses all of us. And he misses it out here too, he says. There is no need for hunting in 2, and he misses being out in the woods. But he seems pretty happy I guess. He is busy with work and parties and he has some new friends. So that's good."
Rory keeps talking, his voice rising with pride as he recounts the military events that his brother told him about the night before, but I slowly drift away...
I'm standing here, talking openly about Gale and, surprisingly, I feel nothing but relief.
This isn't the first time that I have felt this way. I remember back, all those months ago, to the days after Peeta's return. I asked Greasy Sae about Gale, and learned of his work in District 2. I can so clearly remember searching around inside me for some sort of emotional reaction and finding only relief.
This now, though, this is different. This time I don't feel relieved that I don't have to see him. I don't feel relieved that I will not be forced to choose, to make a decision in the immediate future. Now I feel relieved that there is no decision. Suddenly I realise that there is no choice; it is as clear as day to me.
I miss him, certainly; I miss our friendly, relaxed banter. I miss having a hunting partner who can read my thoughts; who knows where to stand and how to move without me needing to say or do anything. I miss having my best friend, the only person who knew my secrets and the only one whose opinions I couldn't ignore. In a lot of ways, I guess, I long for him.
The longing that I feel though isn't raw and desperate, like what I feel for Peeta. I don't long for his hands and his lips on my skin, I don't long for a future that we may not ever have. With Gale, it is a mourning really, for a friend who isn't here, and who will never be here in the same way ever again. I simply long for a friend who is gone, and even that is far outweighed by relief.
Wave after wave of relief rushes over me, and not in the way that I would have expected. It is because thinking of Gale, talking about him, doesn't leave me feeling conflicted. For the first time, my feelings can be completely my own. Nobody is dictating what I can and can't do, nobody is confusing me with thoughts of an uncertain future.
Through everything that has happened, I feel like Gale has finally set me free. What we had together, or, if I am honest, what we might have had, doesn't exist. I'm not even sure that it ever did. My kisses with Gale always left me confused, and filled with anguish. Sure, they made me feel warm, loved even...but underneath it I felt torn and conflicted and so incredibly guilty. Now? Now I feel liberated.
I will always miss him and the friendship that he offered me so selflessly. But underneath his support and loyalty he was fuelled by anger. His role now, working in weaponry in District 2...that is where he should be. He always had that flame, that fight, that need for social justice, even before I was reaped into the Games. He wanted change, he made no secret of that, so now that the rebels have won he can channel his energy into something more productive.
Back in 13, Soldier Hawthorne was in his element, especially once he started to work with Beetee. He was truly a rebel. He was a revolutionary. I was just the face of the fire, whereas Gale was at the centre of it; his heart was all for it. It longed for change, whereas mine simply longed for the chance to be left alone to live my life peacefully with the people I cared about. With my mother. With Prim. A bolt of sadness stabs me at the thought.
I can't forget his involvement, or his possible involvement, in the bombing of the Capitol. I can't forgive it either. But in this place, in this moment filled with memories, I think that I can let it go. I can let him go. I don't know if he will ever come back here, but suddenly I realise I don't need him to. Knowing that my old friend is safe – the one person who kept me alive and laughing in the years after my father's death – is enough.
I hope that one day I will be strong enough to see him again, because now I know that I won't feel torn. I know what I need and, most importantly, I know what I want. For the first time, I don't feel like I have to choose.
If I'm honest, it isn't really a choice at all.
The truth hits me like a tonne of bricks. It is Peeta. It was always Peeta. How did I not see it before? How has it taken the briefest conversation, with Gale's brother of all people, for me to realise this? To see what has been in front of my eyes for all this time? For so long I was so confused by the overwhelming feelings of gratitude, but now it just seems so clear and I can't understand why I felt so conflicted at all.
It was always him and, more importantly, it will always be him. Suddenly, all my fear for our future is gone and my heart feels light inside my chest as I smile.
My mind reaches back through the weeks to that kiss, that hungry, desperate, perfect kiss that we shared in the wake of Peeta's terrible flashback. Even after all this time, the flame in my belly sparks and flares once more at the memory. I vividly remember every sliding movement of his hands; I can feel his lips moving in perfect unison with my own. My heart pounds at the memory and every emotion of the moment floods through me once more.
Suddenly, every brief glance, every slight touch, every uncustomary thump of my heart over the last year becomes so much clearer. And that thought scares me.
This isn't who I am!
Well...this isn't who I was, anyway. Even a few short months ago, when we would wake together and have fleeting moments of affection that we would push aside in order to tackle the day, I would feel more confused and uncertain than anything. But now, with the memory of that passionate kiss and all the feelings it evoked fresh in my mind, I know. All of a sudden I have become that girl. The girl who stands in the woods, smiling stupidly, and feeling nothing but longing for the boy back at home. Suddenly I am certain, I know.
He still isn't completely himself but even with the knowledge of all that the Capitol has stolen from him, I know. All I can do is hope that one day he will be whole again. That the faint frown that so often forms on his face when he looks at me will be wiped away for good. I must simply hope that he will regain his words, and with it will come the love that he once had for me.
A new memory flashes into my mind, one from a different lifetime. We were in 13, and I had just seen my first glimpse of the real Peeta in Finnick and Annie's cake. I can hear his words, see his clouded eyes and his stony expression, so clearly, even now. "I must have loved you a lot," he said simply.
I remember the flash of pain, the brief, searing stab into my heart that I hastily pushed aside. Those words told me that he was so far gone, too far gone, to ever again resemble the boy with the bread. I told myself that everything I felt for him, every thought and feeling that I couldn't make sense of, was over. It was gone, another thing senselessly ripped from me by the Capitol. Despite the evidence so beautifully painted in frosting, I was certain that he could never truly return to me so I tried my hardest to push all memories of him from my mind. I told myself that I didn't care about this boy, because he was no longer the boy I knew, and he never would be again. I tried to forget. But in the months that followed I kept remembering his words, feeling the sting of them over and over; the silent burn of past tense flowing from his lips. And it never stopped hurting.
It is that sting, that burn, that empty feeling of helplessness that makes it so hard to move forward. Right now, despite my realisation and my sudden flood of emotion, I still don't know how he feels. To be honest, I doubt that even he knows how he feels. And no matter what I am feeling, no matter how much I long for him... until I know where he is at, I can't risk being burned again. We have been through too much and there is simply too much at stake. That is one thing that I definitely learned from my mother, even if nothing else. I can't go through that. Not now.
"...so he's pretty important, really."
Uh oh, Rory's still talking and I've barely heard a word. Luckily we are still walking through the forest, him ahead of me on the well-beaten track, so he hasn't noticed. But now there is a long pause. He is waiting for me to respond.
"Uh, yeah," I stammer, trying to sound convincing, "it sounds like it."
Rory sneaks a glance back at me. "He asks about you, you know," he says gently. "Asks how you are. I said that you're doing okay. He said that he is glad that you are teaching me to hunt. Mom says that he's glad that you are out hunting at all."
I smile softly at the thought of my old friend's concern, but I don't want to go into it. So as the sun sinks lower on the horizon our conversation stills and we hastily speed up to make it home before dark.
As we hurry through the town, it isn't the image of the tall, dark, grey-eyed boy that fills my mind. Instead, I try not to focus my every though on the golden-haired boy that awaits me, and the way that the feelings that have been hidden for so long and are now racing through my veins.
I bang open the side door and enter the kitchen in a hurry. Leaving my boots in an untidy pile in the corner I pad softly into the room. Even though winter is coming to a close and the sunshine hints of the tantalizing spring to come, it still sets early and I have just made it in before dark. My cheeks are pink from the cold evening air, and I let out a puff as the warmth from the fire reaches me and tickles my skin.
Peeta smiles in greeting. "Okay?" he asks his usual question, looking over at me from where he deftly slices a potato. His arms are streaked with orange and blue, a telltale sign of his afternoon's activities.
"Uh, yep," I stammer as I throw my game bag down on the bench. "It's cold out there tonight."
Now that the strength of my feelings is out in the open, to myself at least, I suddenly don't know how to be with him. I feel awkward, and a heat rushes to my cheeks as I look at the table, the floor, my socks...anywhere but him.
"Rory did well today." I quickly try to fill the quiet space between us with meaningless chatter. "He took down two squirrels on his own. You should've seen how excited he was each time. It bubbles out of him and then we have to wait forever for the woods to still again and for something else to come by." I walk over to the sink beside him, and start to scrub the dirt from my hands with fervour. "He got a good break in the end though, scored a nice, fat duck. Haven't seen one of them in ages. Hazelle will be pretty happy with that I think."
As I talk on I can feel his gaze on me. I know why; I probably haven't spoken this much since he came back. I can feel his eyes bore into me, trying to figure out why I am rambling.
Unable to avoid it any longer I glance up quickly, spotting that slight crease on his forehead as he tries to figure me out. But I can't stop the words that flow from my lips. "We did really well in general. He took two rabbits and the duck home, and I added three squirrels of my own. I thought we could make up a big stew tomorrow, to take into the town."
I watch him place the knife down on the board in front of him. The crease on his forehead is gone, but instead I see a ghost of a smile wash his lips. He seems almost amused as he steps closer to me. My cheeks flush even more, but I can't seem to get my mouth to stop. "Or tonight, even. I'm probably too tired for a walk tonight but I thought we could work on the book. But if you'd rather cook we can do that. It's up to you, truly. What do you think? I don't mi-"
"Katniss," he cuts me off, his hands reaching out to still mine. They have been gesticulating wildly to accompany haphazard pattern of my speech. He raises one eyebrow at me while the corners of his lips lift further. "What's going on?"
His soft fingers - steadying my wrists firmly - are having the opposite effect on my heart which is ready to burst out of my chest at any minute. My mouth goes dry and I look wildly around the room.
"What do you mean? Nothing is going on! As I said, we caught squirrels that we can cook up but if you would rather work on the book..." My voice sounds almost foreign now, fast in pace and higher than its usual pitch.
He moves in front of me, forcing me to look at his face. "Katniss," he starts, "you know that isn't what I mean. What's going on? You can tell me." His smile fades slightly in concern. "Did something happen in the woods?"
"Something happen?" I question in my still-unfamiliar tone, looking away from him as my cheeks burn brightly. I don't know what is happening to me right now, but I know I don't like it. "What on earth would happen? I don't know what you are talking about."
He forces me to look at him again, invading my sight and my space until I am almost struggling to breathe. I force myself to inhale deeply before continuing, hoping fiercely that my tone is back to its usual pitch. "Seriously Peeta, nothing is going on." Thank goodness. I sound almost normal. "I just had a busy day and I am tired. Rory was great but really excited, and now I am exhausted."
He sighs sharply, dropping my wrists. "Fine," he says, his voice clipped but weary. "Whatever you say."
And there it is. That frown is back. It creases deeply in his forehead, and something simmers darkly in his blue eyes. I only catch a slight glimpse of it as he turns his back on me, but it is enough.
Something inside me snaps. No matter how much I wanted him today – and how embarrassed and out of control I felt from just looking at him only moments ago – the sight of his frown fills me with rage. I am so sick of this frown. I see it all the time and it magnifies every horrible thought I have about myself. It is filled with disapproval, anger, hurt, confusion, disappointment. Disappointment in me.
I know that I have been talking crazy tonight but that is surely no reason to look at me like this. Is it? I have seen this faint frown so many times since he returned to 12.
Suddenly the shame and regret that I feel each time is replaced by red hot anger.
"What?" I burst out, swinging his shoulder around with my palm. "What's your problem? Why do you look at me like that?"
"Look at you like what Katniss?" he asks wearily, his momentary shock at being shoved around to face me being quickly replaced by exasperation.
"Like...like that!" I point at his forehead, jabbing at the crease with my forefinger. "Your head gets this wrinkle and your eyes," I glare into them, practically hissing the words at him, "they hate me." I can feel my blood boiling inside, it is like my anger is compounded by the humiliated nerves I felt earlier. It is like all of the feelings that have rushed through me today have combined to create this one, intensely strong, reaction.
I know that it is unjustified. An expression should not evoke such a response in me, but I am just so sick of that frown. I am sick of what it means. I am sick of how it makes me feel.
"Katniss, can you hear yourself?" he asks, unknowingly fuelling my anger. "My eyes don't hate you. Nothing in me hates you. You know that."
His tone is still so calm and flat, but that just makes me feel worse. Why can't he see what I mean? His voice sounds so empty, almost defeated.
I want a response. I want a physical, and an emotional, response from this boy who is now so quiet. I want him to fight back, to defend his frown and his disapproval of me. I want him to explain, and I need the opportunity to retaliate.
My fists clench as I draw myself up as close to his height as I can.
"Why do you do that?" My voice is getting louder by the second. "Why are you so calm all the time? It is like you feel nothing at the moment. I have no idea what you think, or how you feel. It makes me think that I don't even know who you are anymore." He flinches at this, but I'm not done. I beat my fists against his chest. "The only time you break down your wall is to flash that STUPID FROWN AT ME!" I'm yelling now, anger radiating out of me.
"Do you feel nothing anymore? Is that it? Or do you just feel angry and hurt and disappointed by me, and that's it? I just don't know anymore, Peeta. I keep trying to pretend that it is okay, trying to be supportive because I know that you need time to work through everything but..." my voice trails off briefly, before returning in near hysteria, "I can't do it anymore. I can't keep seeing that frown. It is like everything I hate about myself is reflected in your eyes and I can't escape it." I can feel tears tumbling down my cheeks, but I am powerless to stop them. I look to the floor as my tone drops. "It's like you think that I don't know that this is all my fault. But I do. I know. And you know too and that kills me!"
I glare fiercely at him. There is a long silence and I step back, creating a space between us before I turn away from him, unable to look at his face while the anger still burns so strongly in my tense muscles. I know that it's not just him and his frown that I am angry at. I am angry at everything. I hate President Snow and the Capitol for the starvation and oppression that they forced on all of us. I am angry at the rebels, for making me their mockingjay. I am filled with rage at this whole, horrible situation. I hate that it was me who pulled out the berries that sparked an uprising; that I was forced to fight and watch the war tear everything important out of my life. I hate that even without all that, I hurt this boy, the one person I knew who was filled with warmth. I detest that I still find ways to hurt him now. I hate that the light has been ripped from him, the sunshine behind his eyes now gone, and replaced by long looks and flashes of frowns. Right now, I just hate all of it.
The silence is overwhelming.
"You have no idea what it was like for me, what it is still like for me," his hurt tone finally cuts through to me.
This isn't what I expect him to say, nor is it what I want to hear. I don't want to feel bad for him, not in this moment. I want him to tell me, to talk to me, to explain why he looks at me like that. I want him to feel something, to show me something that tells me that he is still him. And what he is saying isn't even fair. I know that he went through hell because of me. If there is one thing that I am certain of, it is that. He was tortured at the hands of the Capitol, and largely so that they could get to me. But doesn't he know how much that hurt me too?
"I know I can't understand, Peeta! I'm sorry, okay? I'm so sorry! Is that what you want to hear? If I could turn back the clock and make sure that District 13 took you from the Arena instead of me, I would. Don't you see? I wish it was me and not you! I'm sorry!" I slump over the kitchen bench, my head falling into my hands.
"You just don't get it, do you?" he interrupts softly from behind me, almost to himself.
"But you don't know what it was like for me, either," I continue, paying no attention to his words as I talk into my hands. "The wounds, the war, the injuries...they were nothing compared to watching you deteriorate in front of my eyes onscreen. To see you like that... it was the worst thing I have been through." My shoulders slump further at the memory. "You have no idea either."
"Katniss-" he starts, moving closer, but I'm not finished.
"When I first saw you up there on the television I couldn't help but reach up and try to touch you, to make sure that your strong form was real. But it wasn't. And then, not only was it an image on the screen, it was an untrue one. You weren't safe and strong and well fed. You weren't taken care of! And it was my fault. My fault!"
My mouth is running on overdrive again, but it isn't rambling now. I know exactly what I am saying, and almost a year of pain and longing and wondering forces the words out in a blur. "And now, even after all we've been through since then, I still don't know how you feel! I still don't know what is real with us! We talk, we walk, we work together and cook together... but the most emotion I get out of you is that horrible frown!"
At the thought of the frown anger rushes back and I glare up into his face, watching as it transforms in front of my eyes. My words have made an impact on him; I can see it in all of his features. His disappointed frown is gone, but new creases wrack his forehead and his eyes harden as he glowers down at me.
"Are you kidding me, Katniss? After all that we've been through, even with everything you know about me, you can still say that?"
"Well what do you want me to think Peeta? I have no idea what you're thinking anymore."
"Really? Is that your main argument?" He laughs bitterly at his own question, which confuses me. "You don't know what I am thinking? Okay then Katniss, answer me this: why were you babbling on before? What happened in the woods to make you act so strangely towards me?"
My mouth goes dry and I cling desperately to the anger that is rapidly dissipating. "Nothing! Nothing happened Peeta," I say, as convincingly as I can. There is no way that I am admitting my feelings now; even if I wasn't so worked up I wouldn't.
"Okay then, let's try another one. Why did you race upstairs after you kissed me the other week? Or, while we're at it, why did you kiss me like that at all?"
My eyes fly from his, leaping wildly around the room once more, but I stay silent. He continues, his voice softening slightly for the next blow.
"Answer me this, then. Why did you call out my name while you were asleep?" I can't get away with my stubborn silence this time. He invades my space again, and steps even closer to me. His voice still sounds angry, but it is gentler now, and much quieter. He lifts my chin and forces me to look at him. "You know what I'm talking about; the next morning, in front of the fire. Why Katniss? Why did you run and then call out my name?"
I can't do this. I quickly turn to walk away but he is too fast, too strong for me. He steps in front of me to block my path and grabs my arms, gently but with some force. He will not let me escape this time. I shrug my shoulders, trying to formulate words that will do the least damage.
"I...I...I don't know."
He drops his arms, storming to the doorway before spinning around and raising his voice once more. "You don't know Katniss? Yes you do. You know. You just won't admit it.
"You stand here and tell me that I am being unfair to you, that I am not sharing enough of myself with you. You say that I don't understand, I just frown at you don't show you how I feel. But don't you get it? I have never known how you feel. I have never known where I stand with you." I listen to him wordlessly, a knot forming in my stomach while the words tumble and flow from his mouth.
"You approach me, and you sleep in my bed. Then you run. You flee at the slightest form of affection. You look at me with longing gazes, you stare at me while I paint...but then you withdraw again and we have to start from scratch. And I never begrudge you any of that because I know that this is hard and that you're confused. I know what we've been through and that we need time to heal. So I just keep going and keep on waiting."
He isn't yelling anymore, but the emotion underpinning his voice is even more powerful. "But then we shared that kiss, that amazing, earth shattering kiss, and you run away from me again. That moment was perfect and you ran! You literally ran away from me Katniss."
My breath catches in my throat at his description. Amazing. Earth shattering. Perfect. All of my anger melts away at this, and my heart warms as I listen to the words flowing effortlessly from his lips, but his pain continues to pour out as tears gather in the corners of his eyes.
"It has always been like this Katniss. You are torn, you're confused; you don't know what you want. But you can't keep running away and then expect things to be the same. Hell, neither of us are the same so how can this be? I'm trying so hard but I don't know what you want. I don't know what you feel. That morning in front of the fire I woke an hour before you but I stayed there because I knew that you were exhausted and needed your sleep. And then when you called my name my heart leapt and I thought to myself, 'Maybe this is it, maybe now she will show me and I will know'... but then you denied it. You denied it Katniss, just like you always do."
His voice sounds empty, hollow now. "What do you want from me?" He steps towards me, his eyes questioning me even more than his lips.
His voice drops to a whisper and his eyes find the floor. "All I ever did was love you."
Without warning, I fling myself across the room and into his arms. He stumbles backwards, not expecting my weight, but then settles and steadies me. I bury my face in the crook his neck, clinging on tight and feeling his strength as wave after wave of relief and joy wash through me at his words.
"You're back," I whisper into his chest, my eyes filling. "Thank goodness." I lift my head to see him, his beautiful face blurring through my tears. "You're back," I repeat, louder this time. "Oh Peeta, I've missed you."
And I lean softly towards him, allowing my lips find his. Finally, he is back.
Chapter 9: Certainty
Peeta and Katniss share moments of joy now that they are finally together. They can finally act like teenagers and laugh together, despite what they have been through, and Peeta shows her what he has planned for their future.
After the rollercoaster of heightened emotion of the last few hours, everything in the world slows and stills as our lips meet. His lips aren't stiff with shock when mine hit them, they are soft and they welcome me willingly into his embrace. The embers in my stomach flare and flames burst out to the tip of every finger and every toe. He sets me alight. We bring all of our emotions to one another, our anger, our grief, our longing, and then every one of them ebbs away until there is nothing but him and I, joining together as one entity.
His arms wrap protectively around me, drawing me closer as his strong hands settle on my back. I rise up onto my toes to get closer still and wrap my arms around the back of his neck, while my heart pounds steadily in my chest. There is nothing but him, nothing but us.
I reluctantly pull my lips away and rest my forehead gently against his. Gazing into his eyes, questioning him, urging him, I bring my hands forward to gently wipe the tears that still lie on his cheeks. He isn't crying now. His bright blue eyes are clear; they glow with joy and a hint of childlike excitement. My heart leaps at the sight of them but then my own eyelids shut as I exhale. This is amazing. I have waited so long for this moment.
I slide my hands around to the back of his head and lean in to meet him once more...
This next kiss is like none that we have ever shared. Like our last, and the passionate plea in the firelight all those weeks ago, it is just for us - not for anyone else - but this one asks no questions. It isn't searching for answers. It is filled with certainty.
This kiss is so gentle, so perfect, that it almost pains me to pull away. I finally do, though, my feet flattening on the floor and my hands coming forward to rest on the sides of his neck, running over the planes of his strong, smooth jaw. For so many months I have longed to do this; longed for his permission and even for my own. Now that I know, now that I'm here with him, touching him, the lightness of my heart spreads out and I feel it cross my face in a grin as I look up at into his eyes. I don't want to say anything. I don't want the perfection of this moment to end.
I watch the corner of his mouth lift in the crooked smile that he has always reserved for me and I reach down to thread my fingers through his. He breaks the silence, keeping his eyes on me and his hand steadily in mine. "We should cook," he says simply. His gaze drops down to where are fingers are entwined. "Together?" He lifts our hands slightly, asking a million questions with that one simple word.
I nod. "Together," I agree softly, before bringing my lips down to brush a kiss gently on his scarred knuckles. The softness of the moment warms me as we both reach for the food that he was preparing before I came in, before everything changed forever.
Hours later, under the downy warmth of the quilt, I open my eyes, expecting to see bright sunlight. Instead, silver glow of the moon streams in through the open window. I have been in a blissful, dreamless sleep but something has startled me awake. I glance around the room, my eyes adjusting to the light, but see nothing out of place that could have woken me. I let out the breath that I didn't realise I was holding. Everything is right.
Turning my head slightly so that I can see Peeta in the moonlight, it is hard to stop myself from reaching out and touching his sleeping form. Instead, I smile and snuggle deeper into the covers, feeling contentment wash warmly over my skin as I remember the night's events.
Surprisingly there was very little awkwardness after the magic that we shared. I'll be honest, I was a little bit uncomfortable about what I had done, about how I launched myself into his arms after all of those words came bursting from my mouth. But Peeta was...well...Peeta. He smoothed over any discomfort with a few well-chosen phrases, and we went about cooking a simple supper. After we ate I went outside to deal with the squirrels that Rory and I caught only hours before, while he got started on the vegetables for the stew and the bread to accompany it. Somehow, in the wake of the waterfall of words that fell earlier that night, we silently decided what we were going to do, and then worked in comfortable, companionable quiet.
It still amazes me how well we work in the kitchen. He will know the exact right time to light the stove and warm the pan in preparation for the meat that I am dicing. I will step to the side a mere moment before he needs to reach into a cupboard for a chopping block. Even when we were still so broken we were synchronised in this way and tonight it seemed to accentuate the beauty of our new-found closeness.
We didn't talk about the kiss or what it meant. We didn't talk about the future or even where we have been before. We simply danced in sync around the kitchen, creating a wholesome and hearty meal to feed the people rebuilding our District. And whenever our hips or hands brushed together we glanced at one another and smiled, the heat between us simmering gently. Once, in front of the stove, he reached his arm around my waist and squeezed me close, pressing a soft kiss to my temple before moving on to the refrigerator. We talked quietly together about my day hunting, and he was pleased to hear about Rory's success, but I didn't mention the conversation about Gale. Tonight was just about us; about Peeta and me. There will be plenty of time for that later.
While the stew was simmering on the stove we retired to the lounge, still saying very little. After stoking the fire he sat on the couch and opened his arms to me, a beacon of warmth which I willingly entered. Then we sat there, my head leaning back on his chest, my fingers tracing the streaks of paint on his forearms, and his lips frequently reaching forward to kiss my hair as if they couldn't quite believe they had permission to do so.
We simply sat and stared into the fire for hours, watching the flicks of blue amid the waves of orange. We were quiet. We were peaceful. After years of tumultuous emotions we finally had the chance to be together and to be still. For the first time, our moment of peace wasn't tinged with fear.
And then, once the stew was cooked, we climbed the stairs, pulled back the covers and fell asleep tangled in each other's arms.
Looking at him now, in the soft glow of the moonlight, my affection for this boy is overwhelming. His golden eyelashes flicker gently as if he is dreaming, and his muscles remain relaxed so I'm not concerned. His dreams look peaceful tonight, and he deserves no less.
I really need to go back to sleep so I shift my weight to my side as I roll over, my back now to him. The mattress shifting beneath me causes him to stir slightly, and his usual waking sound escapes from deep in his throat. I hold my breath, hoping that he will fall back into sleep.
Suddenly I feel his fingers on my skin. His hand has snaked out to find my waist, and now he pulls me closer to him, enfolding me in his embrace. My body fits perfectly into his, his legs bent behind mine and his chest pressing closely against my back. His hand is splayed across my hip, wide and warm, and his head moves slightly to accommodate mine.
I wait, eyes wide, until his breathing evens out once more. He is still asleep.
I let out a breath, and my heart pounds at the feeling of him so closely pressed against me. But it is not really excitement I feel this time. I have never felt quite like this before, this feeling of certainty, of true peace and stillness with another person.
I've only seen this once before, firsthand. I know now that what my mother and father had was like this, but I was too young when my father died to properly grasp what was between them. No. The certainty and strength of feelings that I can still so clearly picture was much more recent, and now my mind leaps back to a moment in time that is so foreign to this one; a day that was ripe with uncertainty, commotion and fear.
It was the day that Peeta, Annie and Johanna were extracted from the Capitol. As I raced desperately through the hallways to see Peeta I found myself remembering our kisses on the beach; kisses filled with passion and fire. Kisses that I hadn't allowed myself to think of until then. In that moment, for the first time in months, I felt a flicker of hope for the future.
My mind was a whirlwind of emotions, each one pounding through my veins as I sought him out so desperately. I was so relieved that he was alive; I couldn't bear the thought of losing him and I was growing increasingly aware that I would not cope if he died. I had come to realize that I that would be irreparably damaged if he was killed.
And then, finally, he was close. So tantalizingly close. As I followed Haymitch through the halls I was so focussed, so intent on finding Peeta that I barely took in anything else. I vaguely remember passing Johanna's emaciated form, but then I simply pushed the image from my mind as I concentrated on reaching him as quickly as possible.
One image that I couldn't ignore, however, was the reunion of Finnick and Annie. Even now, more than a year later, I can still hear their voices echoing in the hallway as they cried out to one another. It was as if their lives had light again, had purpose again. They were each complete again.
Now, my heart thuds at the memory, and at the grief that I still feel for Finnick. But I can still so clearly see their bodies crushing together, their lips entwining effortlessly.
I vividly remember the envy that I felt in that moment. It was not because they were together, I certainly wasn't interested in Finnick in that way, but just because they were so sure of their feelings. They were so in love, and they were so safe and certain inside of that. They had each other and that was all that they needed. Me? I was lost beneath a curtain of fear and confusion and pain. Yet even in the midst of war they were firmly ensconsed in one another, and in their complete faith and certainty of their relationship.
Lying here in the semidarkness my heart aches for Finnick and the man that he was. For all that he did for us. For the times he kept Peeta alive. For the times he kept me alive, without even realising it. And at the memory so clearly recreated in my mind, my heart breaks for Annie and everything that she has lost.
But through the dark mist of grief, I can't help but feel a certain sense of peace settle over me. For here, in this place, with this boy... I feel truly safe for the first time since my father's death. I feel certain that I am in the right place, and with the right person. I never allowed myself to even dream that this feeling would be possible for me, even before the Games. I told myself that I didn't want it, that I didn't need it. And yet here I am, filled with this feeling that is so foreign but so wonderful. And I know, no matter what happens from here, I will always cherish this moment.
I will always cherish the hard press of muscle against my back, and the wide hand splayed possessively across my hip. And I will always remember the warm lightness in my heart as I drift back to a steady, certain sleep.
The feeling of the mattress moving and shifting beneath me eases me into consciousness a few hours later. I blink, my eyes slowly adjusting to the morning light and I see Peeta's strong, warm hand reach across to tuck a stray hair behind my ear. His thumb rests gently on my cheek for a moment, and he softly strokes it. As I blink the sleep away my eyes focus on the finer details: his blonde lashes, his bright blue eyes, his crimson lips.
"Hi," he says softly, those lips curving up into a smile.
"Hi," I respond almost shyly, as all the memories of the night before come rushing back. He pulls his hand back and shifts his weight until he is lying on his side, facing me. I'm not sure how to act this morning, when things have changed so completely since this time yesterday. I must focus on what I know. Behind him on the side table sits a plate holding two cheese buns, and two steaming mugs. "You've been up already?"
"Yeah. I thought I should get the bread going if we want to get that stew into town today." He reaches out again, this time to stroke my arm, clearly having no trouble transitioning to our new relationship. "But I wanted to get back up here as quickly as possible. You sleep okay?"
"Yeah, no nightmares at all," I respond, taking his lead and allowing myself to smile back at him. Trying to wake up, I lift my arms above my head to stretch the sleep from my limbs. His eyes darken as they slowly roam down my stretching form, taking in every inch. Suddenly I feel exposed in my singlet and little sleep shorts, and I drop my arms to pull the blanket up around my shoulders.
He raises one eyebrow, the fire in his eyes still evident, and he quickly closes the space between us. It is like he is unable to wait a moment longer, and as his lips claim mine a wave of need momentarily knocks the wind out of me. I run my hands up his sides and I still can't believe that we can do this, that I am allowed to touch him like this. These thoughts hastily flee from my mind as I succumb to his heady kisses.
His arms wrap around me as he pulls me closer, his lips parting mine to deepen the kiss. The flame licks through my body – a familiar sensation now – and I can feel the muscles on his shoulders through his t-shirt. It isn't enough. I reach down his back, lifting the edge of his shirt up and snaking my fingers up to touch his skin. He lets out a low moan into my mouth as my fingers find his silken waist, and I can't get enough of it. I smooth my palms across the plane of his back, feeling the sinews of every muscle and loving every inch of it.
His mouth never leaving mine, he uses his strength to gently turn us so that my back is flat against the mattress as he leans up above me. My hands leave his back and move up to his hair, feeling those silky strands massage my fingers once more. Every piece of me seems to fit so perfectly with him. We don't need to gasp for air because what we are doing is so natural and comfortable; we fit together so perfectly. After all these months of long looks and accidental touches this is like a feast for my senses, as I breathe in his scent and feel every inch of him pressed atop me. I can't help but wonder, Is it like this for everyone? It just feels so good, so incredibly good, that surely we are creating something new and special in this moment.
He reluctantly releases my lips from his and I let out a whimper of protest as I look up at him. He smiles down at me, his blue eyes drawing me into his spell even further, and once again he gently brushes the loose strands of hair behind my ear. But what he does next surprises me.
He bends towards me again, but this time he places his soft lips on my neck, just below my earlobe. I gasp in pleasure, stunned that such a simple action could feel so, amazingly, good. He pulls away to look at me, questions in his eyes, but in answer I just pull him back to me, urging his lips to resume their work. He gently kisses down my neck to my collarbone, flitting and nibbling their way. The fire is roaring through me now, consuming every part of my body. I can't keep still. It isn't enough but I don't know how to satiate this need that fills me.
I gently lift his head and bring his lips back to mine, knowing no other way to properly show him the depth of how he is making me feel. I brush my tongue softly against his and nibble gently on his lower lip, causing him to moan again. My heart leaps in my chest. I love knowing what this does to him.
Softly and slowly though, I feel his hands lift to my face. He slows the kiss, gently stroking my cheeks and cupping my jaw before pulling his lips sweetly away from mine. He is still above me, his weight suspended mostly on his elbows. We stare into each other's eyes, breathing heavily, our legs still entangled with each other.
"Wow," he breathes into me, his hands lifting slightly to stroke my hair, "that was..."
"Unexpected?" I ask, a mischievous smile sneaking onto my lips.
"Amazing," he supplies. And he's right. It was amazing. Beautifully, fantastically, unexpectedly amazing. The perfect way to start the day.
But, as wonderful as it was, I'm glad he's dragged himself back from me. This is all so new for us, and I felt myself being pulled too quickly into the spell we were weaving together. Again, he knew what was best for me, and for us. We can't afford to go too far, too soon. There is too much at stake.
He shifts his weight to be lying beside me again, and then pulls me back towards him. I rest my head firmly on his chest, hearing the steady pounding of his heart, the few soft curls he has tickling my cheek. He leans forward and presses his lips firmly against my forehead.
I love when he does this. He has always done it: in the cave, in the train, on the rooftop in the Capitol...even once we were back here in 12 he would press his lips just above my brow to calm me, to let me know he was there when I awoke screaming. Before, I saw it as simply a gesture of comfort and gesture of friendship, but now I know that he is telling me how he feels. He always was. Even before, when he wasn't using words, he used his lips to tell me. I just wasn't listening.
He loosens his grip and gently moves me off him before rolling onto his back. I am distracted just by looking at him. His arms look amazing, his muscles flexing with each movement underneath the short sleeve of his t-shirt. Suddenly I am struck by the fact that I only had my realization only yesterday. I can't believe that for months I managed to push every moment like this as far out of my mind as I could. A few short days ago I would have pushed aside the thud of my heart and told myself that I was simply grateful for him being here; I would have convinced myself it meant nothing. Now, it seems to mean everything, he suddenly means everything. Huh. What a difference a day makes.
Oblivious to my staring, he pulls himself up, shifting his pillows before reaching over to grab one of the mugs. "Tea, Miss Everdeen?"
I drag my eyes from his biceps and laugh at his mocking tone before lifting myself up and leaning back against the pillows to accept the mug gratefully. "Why thank you, Mr Mellark," I respond in kind, happy to play along and grateful for the slight reprieve from the overwhelming emotions. "You are quite the gentleman."
He lips widen in that beautiful grin, distracting me again, before grabbing his own mug and bringing his lips to the rim. Then he lifts the plate and places it between us.
And as we sit in the early sunshine sipping tea, nibbling on the fresh rolls, planning for the day ahead, the sense of peace that we felt last night settles once more.
It really is the perfect morning.
Despite the warm sunshine, the outside air is cool and crisp. It nips and my cheeks and bites at my fingertips as I stand on the porch, gazing out at the yard. Peeta is taking his time inside, as usual, so I take a few deep breaths and watch the steam escape from my mouth. Yesterday's warmer air feels like a distant memory, although the sunshine still smiles a hint of spring in my direction.
Setting the basket of bread on the floorboards by my feet, I try in vain to rub some warmth back into the tips of my icy fingers and grin as I puff white clouds out into the frosty air. Suddenly I am transported, remembering Prim's laughter when we would do this together while walking to school on mornings just like this. My smile quickly fades as I realise that I won't ever hear that laugh again.
No. As quickly as the thought occurs to me I push it from my mind. Prim loved mornings like this, where everything seemed clearer and brighter in the sharp sunlight, and she would want me to enjoy this one. I won't allow myself to dwell on sadness today. Not today.
I hear Peeta's heavy footsteps treading down the hallway behind me, made slightly uneven by his prosthesis, and the smile works its way back to my lips. As the sound nears me I wait to hear the door click shut so that we can be on our way. Instead, I feel strong, muscular arms wrap around my waist, cocooning me, and suddenly my feet fly as I am swung up in the air.
"Peeta!" I cry out in surprise as we spin around, our bodies pressed together. "Stop it! Put me down!" But I'm laughing; the grin on my face is enormous as I hit his arms and insist on being returned to the ground.
He lowers me, allowing my feet to rest on the floorboards once more, but keeps his arms wrapped firmly around me. He turns his head and presses his lips firmly against my temple while we stand there for a moment, as close as we can be, and just look out into the day ahead. He finally pulls away. "I'd better grab the stew. Hang on a sec, I'll be back."
"Are you kidding me? What have you been doing in there all this time?" I call after his retreating form with a laugh. Ever since we came back to 12 it has amazed me how long it takes him to get ready in the morning. We rarely left together but sometimes he would go into town or to see Haymitch, and I would frown at his slow movements. Everything needs to be just right before he will leave.
It isn't too bad this time. Obviously the stew was all ready to go because he is back quickly. He raises his eyebrows and smirks at me, knowing that my complaining is all for nothing. I can't help but grin back.
We walk down the few steps to the wagon that Thom made us a couple of months ago. I think he felt bad for us, trying to pile everything into the old wheelbarrow to push into town, so he built us a simple wooden wagon with four wheels. Peeta's eyes lit up when he saw it. It is a simple little thing, but he was like a boy with a new toy, examining the wheels and the joints in the wood. And we both appreciate the gesture. It is like the workers are thanking us for bringing them the food. But they don't seem to realize that we are actually thanking them by bringing it for them. Thanking them for rebuilding our District, for helping the town move past the horrors that we started.
Once all of the food and utensils are placed securely in the wagon's tray, I bend to pick up its handle and start across the lawn to the street. Peeta gives me a pointed look before reaching over and trying to take the handle from my hand. He's ever the gentleman, but I am quite capable of pulling it myself. And I don't give up so easily.
I walk faster now, tightening my grip around the small wooden handle. Grinning, he speeds up to match my pace before gently bumping my hip with his, throwing me off balance just enough for him to gain control of the little cart. My fingers fall free and an exasperated frown crosses my face as I hear him laugh softly.
Right. So he thinks he has won does he? Katniss Everdeen does not give up so easily. I know what to do.
Creeping up behind him I catch sight of the warm skin of the back of his neck. Only a small slice is exposed above his collar, as his hair is getting overgrown, but it is enough me. I reach up silently, and hastily press my icy fingertips to the small patch of warmth. He lets out a yelp of indignation and leaps to the side, momentarily forgetting the cart's handle as it falls on the grass. I smirk a winner's smirk.
He swivels to face me, his sparkling, laughing eyes betraying the scowl he fights hard to keep on his lips. "That was awfully sneaky, Miss Everdeen," he tries to grumble, but I simply smile up at him.
"I don't know what you are talking about," I reply smoothly, a picture of innocence in the sunlight. Keeping my eyes trained on his, and the gloating grin firmly on my lips, I bend over to claim the handle that is rightfully mine.
Wrong. Just as I start to bend at the waist I am stopped by a large, strong hand. He pulls me forward, closing all of the space between us, and brings his lips down on mine without warning.
I want to fight him, really I do, but the soft, supple skin of his lips, the sweet, intoxicating scent of him...it overpowers me, and I can't help but succumb. As his lips glide effortlessly over mine, not meeting even the slightest hint of resistance, the embers inside me glow and I am filled with warmth once more. Leaning into him I instinctively lift my arms and wrap them around his neck, all thoughts of our little battle forgotten. His other arm is around me now, pulling me closer, and I feel dizzy, breathless. Out in the bright, exposing, light of day this kiss feels like a renewal, like a statement. But not a forceful, commanding statement, simply one of togetherness and joy. One of new beginnings.
He releases me and we pull away, gentle laughter bubbling from both of us. I roll my eyes at him, laughter still bouncing off my lips. "And you think I'm sneaky? Ha!"
But as he bends to pick up the handle once more I give in. And when he takes his free arm and wraps it firmly around my waist I simply lean into him and we fall easily into stride together, grinning like school children as we make our way into town together.
Taking in the buildings around me I realise that it has been a few weeks since I have been to this part of the town, but obviously Peeta has spent a lot of time here. We drop the food in to the workers who are rebuilding the school's main building, and promise to return to help once they've all eaten. Then Peeta grabs my hand and leads me excitedly outside, back in the direction from where we came. As I fall into step behind him I can't help but notice the sly smirks between the workers, the nudges of elbows into sides. Clearly the change in our relationship hasn't gone unnoticed by them. I know that they will talk about us the second we leave. It feels odd. I can't decide whether I mind or not.
As we stand together a few streets over, and Peeta wraps his arms around my waist from behind once more, my heart is filled with light. Of course I don't mind. We're not doing anything wrong. For once, our happiness will affect only us, it cannot harm anyone. I refuse to let the whispers of others bother me.
He's talking. I really should listen, as difficult as it is to focus when I am wrapped so comfortably in him, inhaling the scent that is completely, intoxicatingly, him. But then his arms grip me tighter, like he needs an anchor, which forces me to listen and take in his words.
"...I know it's in a different place, in a completely different part of town, even, but I think I'm okay with it," he's saying gently. "It's like this time it will be mine, to run how I please."
Feeling a stab of guilt for not listening I realise the importance of the concrete slab that lies in front of us and what it means. I turn quickly around to face him. "You didn't like how the old bakery was run?" I ask gently, lifting my hand to his smooth cheek.
"It's not that, not really," he replies. His blue eyes are radiating with hurt now, his voice thick with pain and loss. "I didn't like the way that my mother did some things, sure, but it is more that this place will be new. Completely new, and completely mine. It isn't built in the remains of something else. It's not a replacement." His eyes drop from mine. "The old bakery was where I grew up; it wasn't perfect but nothing is. It was where I learnt everything I know. It was where I first interacted with you. It was where my brothers and I would play cards with our father while we waited for the bread to finish. It is where we would argue and laugh and wrestle.
"But it is where they all died. The memories, the laughter...the people. My family all died there. I don't think that I could go there every day and be reminded of them, and be plagued by the thoughts of how they couldn't get out in time." His voice is so deep now, it is dripping with sadness and grief. He doesn't cry, but his eyes won't leave the ground.
"Hey," I say gently, reaching up and tilting his chin, angling his face towards mine. "I understand completely." I reach forward and brush my lips gently on his, all thoughts and worries of what other people think completely banished from my mind. He is in pain, and that alone hurts me. Some thoughts are so consuming that they threaten to drown us and we need help to make our way back to the surface. I reach out to him. "Show me. Show me your new bakery."
He looks up at me, eyes still glistening slightly, but he takes my lead gratefully. We need to remember, we always will, but sometimes it is just a little too hard. He grabs on to my offer and allows the ghost of a smile to wash his lips. "Well, for starters, it will be a lot bigger than the old one, as you can see." He gestures broadly at the slab before taking my hand again, and leading me to it.
As we step up onto the concrete, I watch a transformation take place before my eyes. Gone is the grieving brother and son of a few moments ago. Gone is the young boy, inconceivably wounded by experiences none should ever encounter...in his place is a young man with purpose. As he leads me around the site, showing me where the store front will be, and where the huge industrial ovens will stand, his eyes glow with life. He must have been planning and working on this for months. He knows every detail. And now he is so excited to finally share it with me, to show off what will be a big part of his healing and of our future.
His enthusiasm is contagious, and I feel myself being swept up in his excitement. His arms and hands shape out everything he describes and he paints a picture so clearly with his words. I can vividly imagine the glass fronted display cases, the benches lining the windows with cushy stools beneath them. I can see the beautiful cakes, frosted with his careful artist's hands, and almost smell the cinnamon and raisin loaf baking in the ovens.
Watching him speak with such passion, I feel joy ripple through me. He is truly back now. He is filled so full with hope for the future that we will share together that it spills over and into me. Finally, our future seems certain, and for the first time I allow myself to believe in it.
Just yesterday, I was so afraid that he would never break his silence. I thought it was something else that the Capitol had senselessly ripped from him - from us - but now...here he is. He stands before me; his cheeks pink, his golden hair glistening in the sunlight and his eyes bright with excitement as he fills the air with his words. As he fills our future with his joy.
He has never looked so beautiful.
Thanks so much for the kudos and bookmarks! Much appreciated! I'd really love to hear your thoughts and feedback! Thanks xo
Chapter 10: Simmering Heat
Back from the bakery site, Katniss and Peeta are comfortable and relaxed together as they get on with their day. Haymitch joins them for dinner - offering his words of wisdom - and then in a moment of peace Katniss finally realises the extent of her feelings.
In an odd fit of enthusiasm I have dragged him outside to work in the garden this afternoon. I like it out here. There is no structure or symmetry to the garden, apart from Peeta's perfect row of primroses down the side of the house, but I like how it is wild and how it even feels unbalanced sometimes, depending on the season.
It has been a great day. Going into town and seeing the workers enjoy our food so much always gives me a lift. Today, being with Peeta in this new way, made it even better. And watching him describe the bakery was breathtaking; his face alight with excitement.
The sun warms my back as I dig deeper into the earth, hauling another weed out by its roots. Earlier I ventured into Haymitch's old shed and pulled out everything we needed. Surprisingly the shed is in perfect condition; I figure he must have had a gardener at some stage for it to look that neat. Lucky for us though, as now we have been able to spend the afternoon in the sunshine. I have been pulling out piles of weeds, while Peeta hacks branches and trims back the larger bushes. It feels good to be outside, to be doing something productive with the afternoon.
It isn't the work that I enjoy most though, it is the company. Whenever we get particularly close together I find myself staring at his golden eyelashes in the sunlight. Even when we drift further apart, to opposite sides of the yard, his muscles ripple under his shirt and make my mouth dry. It's unsettling, and something I'm not used to. I've never been so aware of anyone. Not like this.
One thing is becoming more certain to me as the afternoon wears on; I was not imagining things this morning or last night. He truly is back. For the last hour he has been regaling me with stories from his childhood. He goes into particular detail about weekends spent in his grandfather's garden, where they would hide and play together for hours.
"Once my father took over the bakery Grandad moved over to the south side of town, so he had this tiny little shack of a house with an enormous backyard," he tells me as I throw another pile of clippings in the wheelbarrow and come to a stop beside him. "There were bushes to hide in and stumps of enormous trees that he carved until they looked like chairs. And there was this patch of mushrooms in the corner, near the stream, and he would tell me that pixies lived there but that we would only find them if we were very quiet. We would creep around for hours, searching for the pixies but, funnily enough, we never found them." He chuckles softly at the memory and I join him, enchanted by the image of a little boy with a mop of blonde curls, only 4 or 5 years old, poking around in a garden with an elderly man with sparkling, laughing eyes. Peeta has never spoken of his grandfather before, but it is clear that they had a special bond.
His laughter fades and as he turns to face me his features soften slightly. "After he died, I would sneak onto the property at sunset. I would sit in that patch of mushrooms and talk to him; make up stories about the pixies. I was only 6, but I was certain that I could feel him there."
I smile and nod at him before reaching over to give his hand a squeeze. "He sounds great," I say gently. "We should put him in the book, sitting in the patch of mushrooms."
"Yeah," he agrees, that grin forming again, "that's a good idea."
He looks around the yard at the work we've done before glancing at the sky, brushing his hands on his pants as he looks. "It's going to be dark soon; we should finish up out here and get dinner started." I nod in agreement and the decision is made. We throw the tools on top of the clippings in the wheelbarrow – they can wait until tomorrow no doubt – before stowing it all in the corner and heading inside.
I get the fire started while Peeta quickly showers, and when he walks into the lounge room tousling his damp blonde curls my heart flips in my chest. I can feel a smile linger on my lips as I watch him muss with the tresses, trying to get them to dry faster and scowling slightly at their length. He glances up and catches me staring, before stepping closer.
"You've got a smudge on your nose," he laughs, reaching out to wipe it away. My skin warms at his touch and as we lean together our lips meet. It is soft and gentle, and the warm sensation spreads down into my chest before travelling all the way out to my fingers and toes. I can't believe how much he affects me.
I pull away, swatting at his arms, "Stop it! You'll get all dirty again."
"Is that a problem?" he flirts, raising an eyebrow at me. I laugh.
"Well yeah, you just got clean. You smelt pretty terrible before!" I laugh and dance away from his playful hit. His laughter keeps me warm all the way up the stairs, to where I close the bathroom door with a smile.
I strip hastily, dropping my clothes in a messy pile in the corner and avoiding looking anywhere near the mirror. I take a moment to fiddle with the taps of the shower. Once I have it just right I stretch my ankle under the torrent of water, followed quickly by the rest of my body, and I pull the glass door shut behind me. As the steady stream of hot water drums on my shoulders I close my eyes and shift my face to be directly in its path. Hot showers are the best luxury that living in the Victor's Village has to offer. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the stove and refrigerator, but after a lifetime of bathing in a tub of water, hot showers are heavenly.
A few months ago – soon after Peeta came back – I found myself spending more and more time in this very spot. I would stand here for hours, feeling nothing but the water massaging my back, hair and shoulders, feeding my scarred body with warmth. Lately, though, I have found myself losing patience with it. My showers have become shorter and shorter, my time spent simply standing beneath the stream of water drastically decreasing. Tonight, I just want to get on with it.
I grab the bar of soap; flipping it over and over between my fingers and palms to work up a lather. I quickly work my palms over my skin, and then squeeze shampoo onto my hands. After swiftly massaging it over my scalp I step back under the stream and within minutes I am done. How did I spend so long in here before? The water feels nice and all, there's a certain comfort that comes with it, but I lose patience in here now. I feel like there are so many better ways to spend my time.
Oh yeah, that's right. There wasn't before.
Pushing thoughts of those months from my mind I turn off the taps and step out, wrapping myself in one of the thick, plush towels from the well stocked linen closet. Another luxury that took a while to get used to when I first moved here. In fact, I resisted them, stubbornly using our old threadbare cloths that we brought from our old house at the Seam. But then, after the Quarter Quell was announced, I gave in. Thought I might as well enjoy a bit of pampering before facing my certain death.
Only it wasn't certain, was it? Here I am. And as I fling my towel alongside Peeta's on the rail I can't help but feel a twinge of gratitude.
As I walk down the stairs towards the golden light of the kitchen, a chorus of sounds hits my ears. The clinking of dishes; the pull, push and thud of the oven door; the rumblings of two very male voices, deep in conversation.
Haymitch is here. I suspected that he might join us for dinner. Lucky we left behind three servings of the stew this morning.
Peeta is fussing around the kitchen, stirring a pot of grain and then slicing the bread, while the stew that has just been removed from the oven still bubbles in its dish on the stove top. Haymitch leans against the counter, glass in hand, his voice animated as he talks about his geese.
I walk in quickly, aware that my contribution to the meal preparation has been minimal, and head straight to the drawers to grab knives and forks. Haymitch nods in greeting, but doesn't break the pattern of his speech.
"You wouldn't believe it; the a bunch of the dratted things had escaped! Somehow, a blasted hole has appeared in the fence!" he raves on, his voice fast and loud as I continue to gather things for the table. "They say that these birds are stupid, but they're not! And then I had to spend half of my afternoon traipsing around the village after em! They're lucky I don't just shoot the lot of em."
Peeta has appeared beside me at the table now, bringing over the dishes of food to place in the centre. He raises his eyebrow with a smirk, eliciting a little smile from me. I'm glad that he finds Haymitch's ranting as amusing as I do. We both know that he actually loves those geese, as much as he pretends otherwise. I am setting out water glasses when he leans across in front of me, to place down the plate of bread.
Suddenly I am completely aware of him, and nothing else. I'm aware of the strong, smooth arm stretched across the table. Aware of his elbow brushing slightly against mine. Aware of the minty fragrance of his shampoo mingling with the rich aroma of the stew. I breathe him in deeply and Peeta smiles a small smile in my direction before gently squeezing my hand.
Uh oh. The room is quiet. Uncomfortably so. Haymitch has stopped his rant and put down his glass; now his arms are crossed, and a knowing smile lies on his face.
"Well well well," he drawls, "I see you two have finally gotten your act together." A blush rises to my cheeks and I look away, hurrying to grab the stew from the stove top, but not before noticing the pointed look that Peeta sends in his direction.
"Okay okay," he says, "I won't say any more." I sigh in relief. "But I will say this, though. It's about bloody time".
I say nothing. Peeta just laughs and waves him over. "Sit down, I'm starving. Let's eat." And with that simple command, he smooths his magic over the room, and we eat.
After dinner, Haymitch makes a hasty retreat, saying something about needing to get up early to fix the fence. Knowing him, though, early means 11am.
"Thanks for the food. You two have a good night now," he says, as he throws a sly wink in Peeta's direction. I just roll my eyes, veering him down the hallway as Peeta fills up the sink.
Once outside on the porch the air is sharp and cold, but Haymitch doesn't appear ready to leave. He leans heavily on the railing, looking out into the yard and then up at the night sky. I hesitate but then join him, leaning one elbow on the banister as I face him.
"So, when'd he start talkin again?" His voice is quiet; he doesn't want us to be overheard.
"Of course I damn well noticed; I wasn't born yesterday. He talked about that bakery for well over half an hour. Hell, he's mentioned it before – even showed me the blueprints for the place – but he never talked half that much." He almost snarls the words, as if he preferred the silence. But I know it's just a cover. He is just as relieved as I am.
I can't help but laugh. It's true. Peeta did talk a lot tonight, and I liked it. After months of short, quiet conversation and companionable silence, his words filled the house tonight. And I am glad that Haymitch has said something; noticed it as well. Even though we had never explicitly spoken about it I knew that he would have realised that, for Peeta, being quiet was a problem.
"So...you gunna tell me what happened, sweetheart, or am I just going to have to guess?"
"It was yesterday. Well, last night, really," I respond. He just looks at me, urging me to continue. I can see I'm not going to get out of this one easily, so I look out at the yard, unable to face him while I talk. There's no point in being anything but honest with him. "I'd been out in the woods with Rory and when I came back he gave me that frown that he does. He has this frown that is filled with disappointment and anger, and all directed at me. So I lost it. I got really mad at him, saying how sick I am of that frown, sick of his disappointment, sick of not knowing how he really feels."
Haymitch just raises his eyebrows, knowing, but waiting for me to go on.
"I know, I know. I was being a hypocrite. But I was so sick of seeing him frown at me like I was the worst person in the world, so sick of him not talking to me about anything real... that I just lost it!" I shift my gaze upwards, staring at the millions of stars above us as I rub my upper arms to keep warm.
"And then it was like something in him snapped. He told me everything that he has been feeling since he got here: confusion, anger, frustration. It was like a dam had burst and all the words of the last year came tumbling out...
"So then, all of a sudden...he was back. It was like he was him again, you know?" I look back at Haymitch and he nods, a little smile twitching on his lips.
"Well, I'm glad," he says simply. "So the two of you are..."
"I dunno. I don't want to talk about it." I can feel a slight blush rise to my cheeks.
"Seriously," I cut him off. "I don't want to talk about it yet. It's so new and confusing and I don't know what will happen yet."
"Okay okay," he puts his hands up in surrender and straightens up, moving forward. "I will say no more." He reaches the top of the steps and turns slightly, placing a hand softly on my shoulder. "But I will say this. Just be careful. He's still pretty fragile. You both are." Then he quickly moves away, not wanting to get caught in a moment.
I roll my eyes but know he's trying to help. "We will," I murmur with a smile.
And as I watch him cross the yard and hear him muttering under his breath, "About bloody time those two opened their eyes," I can't help but laugh again.
After everything is sorted in the kitchen- Peeta likes everything to be clean and put away straight after we eat, I guess it is a throwback from growing up in a bakery where good hygiene was crucial – we head into the lounge as we do every night. We decide to do something different tonight, though. Peeta found a couple of packs of cards buried in a drawer the other day, so we decide to play. I have never played cards before, I was too busy hunting and trading when I lived in the Seam, and if I wanted to have fun I was always outside, but he spent many hours of his childhood playing with his father and brothers as they waited for bread and cakes to bake. He teaches me.
"So a jack is worth 11, so if you have that and a 10, that makes 21...see?" He lays the cards out patiently, explaining the games in great detail. "But that's obviously the ideal situation; it's harder with smaller numbers."
"Yep, got it," I respond, impatient to get on with it. "Now deal the cards."
Turns out, I am pretty competitive. I like to win. He teaches me a game called Blackjack, and one called Canasta, and then we play a few fierce rounds of Poker. But it doesn't seem to matter what I do, he is much better than me.
"Stupid game," I mutter, throwing the cards down in front of me in frustration. Peeta struggles to stifle a grin, which just irritates me further. "What? You've had more practice than me! Of course you are beating me! What do you expect?"
But under my breath I murmur, "So I can survive two Arenas but this stupid game will beat me?"
He must have heard, as he actually has the gall to laugh at me, his shoulders shaking now as small chuckles escape his lips. I just scowl.
As a peace offering, he grabs my hand and lifts it to his smiling lips, pressing a kiss on my knuckles before grabbing the cards that I flung aside. But watching him flip the cards together expertly, the white of his teeth glowing in a grin that stretches across his face, I can't stay upset. He just looks so happy.
My eyes focus on his fingers as he shuffles the deck, and I can't help but notice the scars on his knuckles that are remnants from that terrible flashback a few weeks ago. I remember the charcoal black of his eyes, the horrible fear that it would win, that it would take him away from me forever. This handful of fading scars is a constant reminder of Haymitch's words: that Peeta is still so fragile; that we both are. That these particular scars aren't the product of months of torture in the Capitol – not directly, anyway – they aren't scars from cuts that burned months ago, years ago even. These are from fresh wounds, when old sores reopened, reappeared and then attacked us once more. We can't move too quickly, because we don't want the pain of them to devour us again. We have to continue to heal these wounds, or risk adding far worse pain.
But here, with the warm fire spitting and popping alongside us, with his smile plastered across his face, and a warm ember glowing in the pit of my stomach, it is hard to see anything but this moment.
"Okay?" He interrupts my thought process with his usual question, and I realise that I have been staring at his hands for a good few minutes, lost in my own world.
I laugh, "Yeah, I'm fine. Just thinking."
He places the cards down on the mat. "About what?"
"You. Me. How good you are at shuffling those blasted cards."
He laughs again at this, picking up the deck once more. "You sound like Haymitch when you talk like that," he says, eliciting another scowl from me as he easily slides the cards together. "Want me to teach you?"
I nod, certain that this, at least, is a skill that I can master. He moves himself across until he is right alongside me, his hip pressed into mine. Immediately, I feel warmth radiating outwards from that spot where our bodies meet, but I ignore it. "Right, so where do we start?"
He reaches over to grab the second deck of cards and hands it to me. "It's easier to learn with newer cards," he explains. "The corners are smoother. And while these ones aren't technically new, I think you'll be better with them."
I nod again, extracting them from the box, feeling their cool, smooth weight in my hands.
"Okay, so separate it into two equal piles." I do, lifting each pile up to my eye level to make sure they're even. He chuckles at this, "It doesn't have to be perfect, Katniss, just a rough estimate will do."
"Okay, okay...what next?"
"Pick up each pile like this." He picks up the cards, one pile in each hand, with his palms down and the cards facing the floor. I study how his hands look: his thumbs on one of the short ends of the cards, his middle and ring finger on the other end. I mimic him, my fingers moving awkwardly along the rims of the cards. It doesn't feel natural to be holding them like this.
"Good," he reassures me, "now bend them like this." He uses his fingers to bend the cards, his index fingers pressing the middle of each pile inwards, while his thumb brings the inner edges up. "Now you move your hands closer together so that the corners will cross over each other when you bring them down... and then use your thumbs to release each pile carefully, so that both piles mix up evenly." He does this slowly, and I stare intently. "See?"
"Yep. Got it." It seems simple enough.
"Then you do the second part – mixing the two piles together properly – but you've got to get the first part right first. And then you just keep practicing until you are shuffling as quickly as this," he says, grinning and gathering the cards swiftly before speeding through the steps fluidly.
"Yeah, yeah. Let me get this bit first." I slowly bend the cards over and over, trying to master this part before I move on. Then I move my wrists closer, still being as careful as I can, and painfully begin to release the cards with my thumb.
Damn. My fingers lose their grip and the cards fly towards one another, completely out of my control.
"Drats," I mumble, crossing my arms.
"It's okay, it happens," he soothes, gathering the cards that scattered across the floor with force. He hands them to me. "It took me days of practice to get it!"
"Give me another go. I'll get it." I separate the cards again, and hold them properly just above the rug on the floor. Every muscle in my body is concentrating on getting this right. I release them again.
Same result. Damnit. I try again.
Bit better this time. They sit in big clumps, not evenly mixed like when Peeta does it, but a vast improvement.
"Again," I say firmly, as I loosen my vice-like grip on them and allow them to fall together. As I go to separate them into the two piles, I glance up at him for encouragement.
Suddenly, as I look at him in the firelight, all thoughts of mastering this new skill flee from my mind. He is looking at me with such softness, such tenderness, that all of the tension drains from my body. I'm lost in his gaze. I had forgotten when it felt like to be looked at like this; so safe, so loved.
He reaches towards me and places one hand softly over both of mine, stilling them where they are, and the other gently on my cheek. Leaning forward, he brushes his lips so gently across mine before pulling away, grazing his thumb across my cheek bone. A small smile washes his lips, and his eyes are filled with love.
His clear blue eyes are so full of emotion that they spark a memory from another lifetime. There, though, the eyes I looked into were a grey so similar to my own, and instead of love they were lined with pain and grief. The boy who I had never seen cry had eyes filled with tears. And then, after having pressed my lips against his, he told me that my kisses were for the wrong reasons. I can still hear the words fall from Gale's lips, "I'm in pain. That's the only way I get your attention." At the time I couldn't make sense of his words, I couldn't see what he was saying. But now, thinking back to the hours after his whipping, and to Peeta's wounds in the cave, I can't help but think that maybe he was right. He could see something that I couldn't. He knew how I worked better than I did. Because back then... maybe I did do that. I hated seeing the people I cared about in pain. Maybe I just wanted to stop them from hurting in the only way that I knew I could.
But now, as I see the fire reflected in these sparkling blue eyes – with no hint of pain– it hits me just how strongly my fire for him burns. All of my confusion is truly gone. I'm not here to help Peeta, to help anyone at all. I'm not trying to stop him hurting...I am here because I want him. I'm here because I realise, for the first time, I love him.
I've never allowed myself to even think those words, but now they spread through me. I love him. I've always loved him; I have never been so certain of anything in my life. And nothing has ever felt so amazing.
I drop the cards into a pile on the ground as he gathers me into his arms, pulling me across his lap. His legs are stretched out towards the fire and I sit across him now, facing him. I reach behind around his head and pull him in before pressing a long, lingering kiss onto his lips. The heat simmers between us, the kiss sweet and soft, and I pull away, looking into his face.
His eyes are shut now, and he is breathing slowly – it feels almost like he is committing this moment to memory, unwilling to forget a single detail. I sit back, my fingertips softly smoothing along his temples before moving down the sides of his face. I softly trace the contour of his jawline with my fingertips, and I am overcome with an urge to kiss him there, to feel him beneath my lips.
I press my lips against his before pulling back slightly, and then resuming across the hard line of his jaw. Air rushes out of his mouth in a sigh, and as I settle in the soft patch of skin below his left earlobe he lets out a low moan before dragging me back up to meet him.
Our lips dance together in the firelight, the heat between us growing stronger and stronger. Our hands are everywhere, unable to get close enough as our tongues brush together and send sparks out to our fingertips and toes. There is nothing in the world that could feel better than this moment, better than being here with him.
I love him.
Chapter 11: Flames can Scorch
Despite the warmth and comfort of their relationship, Katniss and Peeta are far from healed.
My feet crunch on the gravel as I walk towards the Victors' Village. Thankfully a small cloud drifts lazily in front of the sun, giving a brief respite from the afternoon heat. The days are growing longer now that spring is coming to an end and the District is in full bloom. The town is slowly coming back to life as more and more people return, or relocate here, after the war. But they haven't forgotten. We haven't forgotten.
The nightmares are back. After those first few blissful nights of falling asleep with Peeta, not just beside him but with him - limbs hopelessly entangled together - I had foolishly hoped that the images that danced in my mind were gone for good.
I should have known better. The people we loved, they have gone for good. The images of evil that took them will never leave us.
Last night an old, familiar scene played out in my mind: the Capitol; the smoke; the yellow coat. My beautiful baby sister, her skin blackened and burned...and me too late to save her. Again.
Waking up is better now, though. Peeta is there, cocooning me in his arms while he presses his lips against my forehead. Even with this, though, I still need to focus on the empty ceramic vase, counting backwards from ten, and breathing deeply until the room stops spinning. But now I do so from the warmth and safety of his embrace. And it is better.
In the last few weeks things have...shifted, a little bit, between us. His kisses set me alight, that warm ember that he planted while we were in the cave years ago flaring at the slightest of touches, but my fire for him is deepening, burning stronger. My heart pounds and flames of desire lick every inch of my skin. So far it has been contained; we are both too cautious to plunge into anything too physical, too afraid of how it might change us. But we're slowly learning about each other's bodies, and it is the best kind of lesson.
Unfortunately, though, even the most passionate of kisses can't keep the nightmares away once we close our eyes.
He still has them too. Some nights his sleeping form is so stiff beside me that it forces me into consciousness. He is silent but his tense muscles scream in terror until I wake him, unable to bear seeing his agony physicalised in such a way. He still has flashbacks too, his pupils battling the demon within. He finds that gripping things helps; the backs of chairs, the bench, even the railing outside. Anything that he can lock his fingers tightly around. Holding physical objects firmly in his grasp grounds him, and brings him back home, just like the little vase does for me.
This morning was one of the good ones. We both slept peacefully for most of the night; my nightmare woke us both but it was just the once. Then we woke up together, his hand reaching out to stroke my thigh as the first shafts of sunlight beamed through the open window. We lay quietly for a little while: our bodies pressed together; our fingers lightly running over arms, legs, hips; our lips gently finding the backs of hands and, of course, each other.
I still haven't told him. I have known for almost two months, since that cool night by the fire when the cards lay forgotten on the rug, but I can't seem to be able to formulate the words. I know that he loves me too. He always has. It is almost like that knowledge, the understanding that we both know he feels – how he has always felt – makes the words catch in my throat. I think it so many times a day, there are so many times when I want to tell him. I almost need to tell him…but then I can't. I don't know why.
I try to show him however I can. Most of it is physical; through kisses, caresses, embraces. Through bringing him strawberries, or placing an orange flower next to his pillow. And through my hunting and my work at the bakery site. I show him so many times a day, and I am almost certain that he can see it in my eyes every time he looks at me. Surely he must see it. I feel like it is bursting from me every time I catch sight of those beautiful blue eyes or those strong tanned arms; every time his lips seek me out. I just can't find the three little words that he so longs to hear.
The bakery is almost completely finished, so Peeta has been spending a lot of time working out final details with the last of the crew. I have gone along to help with construction a few afternoons a week, after I finish hunting. It keeps my days full and I enjoy it. Oh I like feeling useful, sure, but mostly I love watching Peeta in his element, taking control of the site that is his; the dream that ultimately belongs to him.
Thinking of how he was this afternoon before he left - so strong and assured when overseeing the workers install the ovens - I am impatient to get home to him. It is so close to being finished, his bakery. I can't wait to see it all come together, and I can't wait to see him in there, his apron tied around his waist once more, flour dusting the face that will surely be content to be back where it belongs.
I speed up as I turn into our street, wanting to get home quickly to talk to him about his afternoon. Usually we leave the site together but today Rory was meeting him at home, to talk about working in the bakery once it opens. Peeta wanted privacy while they talked, because he needs to know that he can trust all of the staff that he will have. He didn't want the watchful eyes and the listening ears of the ones finishing up the construction. It's important to him that he gets the staffing just right.
I walk up the garden path, admiring the rainbow of flowers on display, and kick off my boots as I reach the front door. I place my hand on the door knob and turn it, a grin spreading across my face as I know I will see him in a matter of seconds. I still struggle to recognize this person; this girl who gets dizzy with excitement at the prospect of seeing a boy. It is so far removed from the Katniss I used to be.
As I step into the hallway I suddenly stop short. Something's wrong. I'm not sure why but my hunter's instincts are screaming at me, and I gaze wildly around the hall, trying to find a reason.
There. The picture on the wall.
Months ago we found a framed picture of the Capitol, one that Greasy Sae had taken down before I returned. We removed the photograph, taking satisfaction in tearing it up into tiny pieces, and replaced it with one of Peeta's charcoal drawings; one of Lady. We placed it carefully on the wall by the door. It reminds me of Prim but it is an image that would bring her joy, so it does not hurt so much to see every day.
Today, though, the frame hangs crooked on the wall, the glass smashed and littered across the floorboards. My eyes widen at the sight of it.
I hurry down the hallway, trying in vain to locate him in the house. I can feel my heart pounding wildly in my chest as I scour the rooms, hoping that this one hasn't been too bad; that I will find him in time. He hasn't had one like this - where he is overtaken to the point of destruction - in so long. But every single time a flashback appears, even the recent battles that are getting shorter and less intense, I am gripped with the heart-wrenching fear that this will be it. That this time I will lose him to it. Ice runs through my veins at the thought that this time he might not return to me.
My heart leaps to my throat as I finally catch sight of him outside, crouched between two primrose bushes. His legs are bent and pulled up against his chest, his arms wrapped firmly around them. He must only just be coming down as his eyes are still squeezed tightly shut and his knuckles are flowing with blood.
I run to him immediately, crouch down directly in front of him and wrap my arms around him. "Peeta, it's not real. You're back now, Peeta." I gently stroke his cheek. He flinches at the touch and my heart drops, but then he shakes his head slightly and relaxes. His eyes remain closed. "Come on, Peeta, open your eyes for me. I'm not going to hurt you." I continually stroke his face, whispering reassurances and brushing his hair back from his eyes, until he finally peeps his eyes open, and I get a tiny glimpse of that beautiful blue that I love so much.
Inside, after filling a bowl with warm water and grabbing some tweezers and a few clean rags, I sit beside him at the table. I gently clean his hands, wiping the blood from his split and bruising knuckles while he stares down at the table. I carefully pick bloody shards of glass from the wound. He lets me do it without complaint – only the occasional wince in pain – but his vacant stare worries me. After a few minutes, once I have finished wrapping the bandages around his knuckles, I break the silence.
"Peeta," I begin, reaching across to stroke my thumb along his cheek and lifting his face to look at me, "what happened? Do you want to talk about it?"
He shakes his head. "Not really," he mumbles.
"Are you sure? Because sometimes it helps."
He shakes his head again, and his eyes find the table once more. "Is Rory okay?"
"Rory?" I question, my heart rate picking up slightly. "What does Rory have to do with anything?"
Peeta refuses to look up at me. He picks at a nearby placemat with his nail, but his voice raises slightly in concern. "I thought you must have seen him. I thought that was how you knew to look for me."
"No, I saw the broken frame," I answer wildly. "Was Rory here when this happened?"
"You have to tell me Peeta! If Rory might be hurt you have to tell me! What happened?"
He nods, staring down at the table and twisting the corner of the placemat over and over. "He…he was here." He falls silent again. I refuse to wait.
"What happened Peeta? What triggered it? What aren't you telling me?" I put my hand over his, stilling his fingers as they twist and twist the placemat. He lifts his eyes.
"Everything was going well," he says, knowing he has to give in, "and I hired him here on the spot. He was so relieved that he put his arms down on the table and rested his head on top of it, like this." Peeta rests his forearms forward, the sleeves of his t-shirt lifting to reveal his biceps, and the muscles in his shoulders shifting beneath the fabric. When he lays his head atop it, and his blonde curls flop onto the hard wooden surface, I realize that the image is familiar. The hair and the skin are so different, but the image of the male form leaning on the table is close enough. Although last time the figure lay fully across it, wounded. All of a sudden I know what he saw.
"Gale," I whisper. "They look so similar."
"Yep," he says, his voice muffled as he talks into his arms, "it was almost exactly the same. And I felt the flashback coming on so I yelled at him to go." He lifts his head, but he still isn't looking at me. "He looked startled, but he wouldn't leave at first. And then it was like Rory became him, you know? He wasn't Rory anymore." His voice is laced with pain.
I shift closer to him. As worried as I am about Rory, it is Peeta who is hurting now. And I need to know more before I can know what to do next. I stroke his arm, encouraging him, as he continues.
"I can't really remember too much after that. He ran out quickly, but I don't know if I hurt him before he left. The images in my mind certainly didn't leave." His voice is flat as he recalls what he saw. He stares blankly at the table. "I remember yelling at him, roaring at him for kissing you. And then I couldn't stop the flood of memories, of images. I watched you lean over him and kiss him, and the drugs that you gave him helped so the lashes on his back weren't sore anymore. And then you climbed up onto the table with him and you stroked his arms just like you're doing to me now. And you kissed his neck…and you kissed…and you let him..." His voice cracks and he trails off, unable to continue.
He doesn't need to. In my mind I can practically hear him yelling at Rory, spitting out words of jealousy and anger, raging over events that he can see so clearly but that never really happened. I can so vividly imagine his jet black eyes, his body stiff with tension as the demon that has been lying dormant for weeks, that he has been able to beat down at every recent flashback, takes over. He can be terrifying when he is like that, especially to someone who isn't expecting it.
I kiss his bandaged knuckles but then leap to my feet. "I have to find Rory," I say. He nods, a single tear dripping onto the table. "Hey," I lift his face with my hands, forcing his eyes to meet mine. "Whatever happens, it wasn't your fault. It wasn't you."
I hastily press a kiss to his forehead, and then force myself to walk away.
It doesn't take long to find Rory. He is over on Haymitch's porch, a safe enough distance away, keeping watch on the house. He says that he didn't want to leave Peeta alone, that he was afraid for him. That he was afraid for me. Typical Hawthorne; even after being threatened by a boy twice his strength, he still looks out for us. It reminds me of his brother volunteering to go to the Capitol to rescue Peeta; risking his life to save the only one who he saw as a threat. Risking his life because he knew that it was what I needed.
We talk for a few minutes, and I reassure him that these flashbacks are rare. I explain what happened to Peeta in the Capital, sparing him some of the details, but making sure he knows that the flashback isn't his fault. It's no-one's fault but Snow's.
Rory tells me his version of what happened. He says that he was out of the house within a minute; Peeta didn't hurt him, he didn't even try to. He stood, yelling at the table as his eyes flashed blue and black. He calmed down as he gripped the back of the chair, but that is when Rory left. As he fled through the front door he heard a yell and a crash – the picture, I assume – but he didn't think he could return to help. He didn't want to make it worse.
Rory understands. He survived the war too, and it has given him wisdom beyond his years.
"I'd still like to work at the bakery," he says quietly, "if he'll still have me."
"I'll talk to him, Rory," I respond. "If he decides not to it won't be because he doesn't want you working there, it will be because he is worried he will hurt you." I sigh. "That's what he does. He worries about everyone. But his flashbacks are becoming less frequent, and he will be more prepared now when he's around you, so who knows?"
"Thanks, Katniss," he says. Then he surprises me by reaching over and giving me a hug. Maybe he can tell I need it. "Let me know, okay? I'd better get home."
I walk with Rory to the edge of the yard, and as I squeeze his arm in farewell I am filled with a rush of warmth for him. I've watched him grow from a small child into this strong, confident boy. He has changed before my eyes and now here he is, taking over his brother's role, and looking out for me and my family. Because Peeta is my family.
A small smile touches my lips as I turn and walk home.
The next morning, after a terrible night plagued with death, ash and tears, we fight as we wash our breakfast dishes. It's not a new argument, but now he thinks he has fresh ammunition. I disagree.
Peeta gets these ideas in his head that he is dangerous. So dangerous that he will cause damage. He's not worried about hurting himself, but he is worried about hurting me. And now Rory. And anyone else that we care about.
He thinks that he should leave.
But there is no way I am letting him go. No way.
We have never really fought like this before, not since we came back here. I yell. I don't mean to but he just makes me so mad. And I hate being like this, which makes me even angrier. He tries not to raise his voice, staying as composed as he can, which only serves to infuriate me more. He is just so frustrating. I want to get it out, get it all over with, but he doesn't. He is calm and controlled, taking long pauses to think everything through before he speaks.
"I'm dangerous Katniss, don't you see? It's not normal for someone to be like this.'
"NORMAL, Peeta? What is normal? We have never known normal! Even when we were kids, when our world was as normal as it has ever been, children were sent off to slaughter each year...and that was entertainment! Tell me," I pause, "...what is normal?"
He sighs sadly. "Normal is being together and not being afraid of hurting you. Normal is not having nightmares. Normal is being able to be with my girlfriend without having to worry that I might turn and kill her at any moment!"
Despite his tone my heart skips a beat, unexpectedly, at his choice of word to describe me. Girlfriend. It sounds weird, unfamiliar. I've never been anyone's girlfriend. And boyfriend seems like too casual a word for what Peeta means to me.
I don't allow it another thought, though. I don't want any distractions, not now. "No Peeta! This, how things are now, is the closest to normal that we have ever had. And we are healing. We are getting better. Your flashbacks are so rare now, and your real memories are so much clearer after each one…"
His voice raises now. It doesn't come close to matching my volume, but his anger is slowly surfacing. "I don't care, Katniss. I could have one at any second! I could snap…and I could kill you! I could've killed you already! And I could've killed Rory yesterday!"
"NO!" I cut him off. "He told me. You didn't even try to hurt him! You were focused on the table, focused on the things that you were seeing! And gripping the chair…it helped. It grounded you and brought you back. You brought yourself back!" My voice lowers a bit, and softens lightly. "Don't you see? You are getting better."
"No." His voice is low and flat. "It isn't enough." I reach out to touch him but he flinches away as if I am burning him. "I don't want to leave you but I don't know what else I can do. All I know is that I can't stay here. Your safety is too important." He turns to the window, a clear signal that the conversation is over.
"FINE!" I yell, my frustration at his stubborn attitude winning out. "If that is what you want! I may as well make it easier for you and go now." I stalk out of the room, slamming the door behind me. I reach the end of the hallway and slam the front door too, kicking it once for good measure.
I stomp down the road, my face fixed in a permanent scowl. This anger, this fear of losing him...this is why I didn't want to fall in love, ever. I didn't want to feel the way it can scorch. I didn't want to feel so vulnerable because of one person.
I kick at stones on the path as I storm along, my body tense and anxious, and only once I slip under the fence in my usual spot do I feel my shoulders start to relax.
I don't hunt much that morning. I run through the woods, feeling adrenaline surge through my limbs. I check the snares that I set yesterday – a rabbit and two squirrels – and I meticulously clean all of my weapons. I sharpen the arrows and scrub dirt from the bows. I even polish my knife. I feel restless, but too energized to hunt successfully. I'm so tense and my body is buzzing with nervous energy. I don't like it.
Finally, after a couple of hours, once the woods has worked its magic and allowed me to feel more like myself, I make my way back.
I stop short. There, snoring softly in the midday sun, back propped up against the broken fence, sits Haymitch. I roll my eyes. It is rare for him to leave the Village. It is unheard of for him to be out this far. He must be waiting for me.
I stoop down and shake his shoulder. "Haymitch," I say firmly. Nothing. "Haymitch!" I repeat, louder this time. Still nothing. I kick his leg. "HAYMITCH!" I yell.
He jumps, startled. "Well gee, sweetheart, you don't need to yell." He rubs his hands over his face before lifting his arm up towards me, assuming he will find assistance to stand.
I just scowl. "What are you doing here Haymitch? Did Peeta send you?"
"Send me? Heck no. The boy doesn't even know I'm here. But I heard you two have your lover's tiff before, and thought you could do with some advice."
Oh great, I think to myself, advice from Haymitch. That's just what I need. I reach down to grab his hand and haul him to his feet. He stumbles a bit before regaining balance.
"So...did you see him?" I ask. I am almost fearful of his answer. I'm not mad at Peeta anymore, my anger always leaves relatively quickly after I lose my temper, but now I'm worried. Worried that while I've been out here, he might have left. I don't even know what he meant when he said that he would leave: just move back to his house for a while, or leave forever? I hate both of those thoughts, but the second is unthinkable. I shiver at the thought.
"Yeah, I saw him," he replies. "He's still sittin' at your place, licking his wounds."
I look up at him, hopeful. "So he didn't leave? Do you think that he will?"
"Narh," he shakes his head emphatically. "The boy never could stay away from you. Why do you think he came back here in the first place? There ain't nothin' here for him but you."
I cock my head to the side as we walk together, considering this. I have never given too much thought to Peeta's return; not in relation to me anyway. After he came back I slowly realised that it was him I was waiting for before I could step forward, move on in my life. I never stopped to think that maybe he needed me too. I just assumed that he had nowhere else to go...and then over time he grew to love me again.
But maybe he needs me to survive just as much as I need him.
The thought makes my heart leap with hope.
"The thing is, sweetheart," Haymitch interrupts my thoughts, "you two are just doing what you've always done. What was it you said to Flickerman after your first Games? 'We saved each other'? That's what you're still doing now. You just won't admit it. That boy ain't goin' anywhere."
I nod silently, hopefully, kicking at a rock on the ground. He's right. I can't fault Peeta for wanting to protect me. That's what we do, we protect each other. I just can't bear the thought of him wanting to protect me from himself. The last thing I want is to be away from him.
"So...what do I do now?"
"Well, that I don't know, sweetheart, but you'll figure it out. You usually do." He sounds almost fond of me in that moment, and as I look up to his weary face I catch him shifting his features back to his usual scowl. But not quickly enough. I saw the tenderness in his eyes as he spoke. He cares about us, about me and Peeta, even if he doesn't want anyone to know it.
"I don't know what to do. If he leaves...well there's not much I can do about it can I? But I don't want him to move out. I don't even know exactly when he moved in. So what do I do now? If he starts the argument again we won't get anywhere. He just makes me so mad." I can feel my voice rising as the frustration begins to fill me again. "He's not right about this, Haymitch, I just don't know how to make him see that!"
"Okay, stop right there," he grumbles, lifting his hands in protest. "I'm gunna talk for a second so don't interrupt me. And listen up 'cos I won't say it again."
I nod, wordlessly, knowing that this is a rare moment. We continue to walk along together, and we focus our eyes on anything but each other. It's just...easier that way.
"The way that I see it, you have two choices. One: You can keep on fighting, keep on yelling and pushing the boy away by telling him that he's wrong. But that isn't gunna do good for anybody because, really, he isn't wrong. Or...or you can swallow your pride and you can apologise."
I open my mouth in indignation, eager to interrupt him and shoot him down. I hate apologising. But I quickly bite my lip, knowing that he will stop if I cut in. He sees me.
"Apologising isn't a sign of weakness, sweetheart, it is a sign of strength. My mother used to tell me that. She'd say, 'It shows that you value your friendship more than you value your pride.'"
Unexpectedly, I feel tiny tears pricking the backs of my eyes. Haymitch has never spoken of his mother, and now it is like somehow my own father is with me, giving me advice so similar to what he said once before. My hand reaches up to touch the scar on the inside of my arm and I can hear his voice again, 'This welt doesn't make you weak, Katniss. It shows that you are getting stronger.' Now here, in this place, all these years later, his voice and his message are reflected in Haymitch's words.
I hang my head, knowing what I have to do. I know that Haymitch and my father are both correct. As stubborn as I am, as much as I hate to apologise, I value Peeta more than I value being right. I shouldn't have yelled at him. He was just trying to help me. He is always trying to help me. I don't want him to leave but he needs to get better; we need to get better. And I need to have more faith in us. What we have won't disappear, no matter what happens. After everything that we've been through, I know that for certain.
I reach out and squeeze Haymitch's arm, throwing him a quick, watery smile.
He grunts. "Happy to help, sweetheart. Now hurry up. I need a drink."
I enter the house quietly and find him in the kitchen. Flour litters the benchtop and Peeta is pulling a tray of cheese buns out of the oven. The savoury aroma fills the room as he places the tray on a mat on the table, but he doesn't look at me. I walk up behind him and wrap my arms tightly around his waist. The muscles in his back relax at my touch and he leans backwards into my embrace, turning his face so towards mine.
"I'm sorry," I whisper, my eyes squeezed shut.
"Me too," he replies. He wraps his arms around mine and kisses my cheek before spinning around and wrapping me tightly in a hug. I am filled with warmth, gathering strength from his arms.
We stand there quietly for a few minutes, relieved to be together again.
I break the silence, wanting him to know. "I really am sorry. I shouldn't have gotten so mad. I shouldn't have yelled at you and stormed out. It's just that the thought of you leaving me is the worst possible option for me, you know?" I keep my face pressed firmly against his chest, glad that I don't have to look at him, and make sure that my voice is calm. "We can work something out, I know we can. I don't want you to go for a while but, if you think you have to, then, well... we will just have to work something out. Otherwise...we can search for answers here. We can talk to Dr Aurelius. We can write down all your triggers. We can work out a plan for next time you have one, for every time you have one. I just want to be with you. We can do whatever it takes..." I trail off, burying my face into his chest.
He gently pulls away, tucking a stray strand of hair behind my ear as he gazes at me with eyes filled with love. "Oh Katniss," he exhales, "I –"
I cut off his words, leaning in towards him and kissing him gently. I don't want to hear about his love, I want to feel it. My eyes close as the kiss softens and sweetens before deepening. And I want him to feel mine.
I pull my face back and lean my forehead against his. "I don't care what we have to do," I whisper, "just stay with me."
He answers with my favourite word; "Always," he breathes. And then, gently, he leans in and claims my lips once more.
Chapter 12: And After...
Despite a series of difficult conversations, Katniss finally finds a way to show Peeta how she really feels.
We spend the afternoon together, at first just pottering around the house but then I get antsy, knowing that our upcoming conversation will be difficult. Our tentative peace could be broken at any moment.
In the end, we decide to walk. We have no destination in mind but somehow it is easier to discuss our future, to make decisions, when we have nothing but the sky above us and we aren't forced to look at one another. The words just seem to flow more easily when we walk, especially for me.
Today, even though our words are sometimes painful to say and to hear and our eyes rarely find each other's, we are always touching. Our fingers are linked loosely together, or his arm wraps firmly around my waist. We are facing this as one, which is more than I dared hope for when I stormed out of the house this morning.
We talk through every option, and make our first decision. He'll stay here with me for now, but our first point of action is to talk to Dr Aurelius. To see if there is anything else that we can do regarding his flashbacks, any action we can take to prevent them, or to make them less intense when he has them. Peeta is adamant that he must take action if there is even the slightest chance of hurting me, or our friends.
I still don't think that we really need to do anything. Maybe I am just too cynical, but I feel like any person could hurt another at any time, so why worry about this? I keep thinking that, unfortunately, history has shown us that members of the human race don't need torturous flashbacks to hurt one another. But I know that it is mostly because he feels wildly out of control, like he is still under Snow's power. That is the real problem. I know that he would not knowingly threaten me or cause me pain, and that is enough for me. But it isn't enough for him.
Peeta can only see signs of danger and the possibility of pain for me. However, I can see how much he is improving; how the flashbacks are weakening and becoming rarer. But he insists on taking action, so I agree. If it will keep him here, then I will agree to anything. And working out a plan seems like a small concession to make if it means that I will still get to spend every night in his arms.
In the late afternoon we walk out to the Seam to see Rory, taking the squirrels I snared yesterday as a peace offering.
As expected, he agrees to work at the bakery, even before we explain our plan. At first, Peeta struggles to look at him, turning red with embarrassment as he mumbles. But then, when he looks up into Rory's face, his confidence grows and his apology is filled with sincerity. This is what Peeta does, he wins people over with his words.
But Rory surprises him; he is so relaxed that he simply throws a joking punch onto Peeta's arm. He brushes his words aside, throwing an arm companionably around his shoulder before leading him into the house.
Even Hazelle doesn't seem to mind that her son will be working with a man who threatened him only hours before. But she is no stranger to pain. Long years of it have toughened her skin, and she knows what Peeta went through at the hands of the Capitol. She knows what we all went through because of Snow.
But most of all, she knows us. I think that is what makes a difference here. She pulls us into the kitchen and fusses over us both, knowing that we need some motherly love more than anything. Then she takes the meat from me gratefully, holding my hands together for a fraction longer than she needs to, and sends us on our way.
We make our way home in companionable silence, each lost in our own thoughts. For the first time, I actually feel something resembling pride. Looking at the town around us, as it is slowly being rebuilt, I can acknowledge this feeling.
Sure, things aren't perfect; some days they are downright horrible. My family is gone. The life I knew is gone. The person I was is gone. But now, all things considered... my life is better than I could have ever expected it to be. I am proud of what we are accomplishing here. And as I sneak glances up at him – his strong jaw, his golden lashes –I know with certainty that it is because of him.
Haymitch joins us for dinner, smirking in response to the grateful smile I send his way. We don't speak of our earlier conversation, but at a few points throughout the meal I notice him watching Peeta and I, observing how we have just slipped back into being us. And I don't miss the small smile that flickers on his lips, even if he promptly replaces it with his usual scowl.
Later, after Haymitch has returned to his own house for a nightcap, we decide to pull the cards out again. It is almost too warm for a fire, but there is something about the flickering flames, the soft smell of the wood smoke, that brings us both comfort so we light it anyway. Tonight, however, we place our cushions a little further back on the rug, away from its persistent heat, with two of Peeta's fresh cheese buns on a plate between us.
As he predicted, I mastered the fast shuffle after a few days of practice, and now I flip and sort the cards with ease. It is oddly satisfying, but I am still terrible at the games. I don't know what I am doing wrong, but whenever we play he beats me on almost every hand.
As the night wears on, and his roll sits untouched on the plate amongst the scant scattering of crumbs I left behind, I can see that something is on his mind. We play a couple of games of poker but after I win three rounds in a row, I put the cards down on the rug.
"Okay. What's up?" I ask.
"Nothing," he responds automatically, picking up the cards and shuffling them over and over.
"What would be wrong?" He notices the pointed look I send in his direction. "No seriously, it's nothing really..."
I just watch him, waiting patiently. I know that he will share soon. He always does.
"Okay, okay... I keep thinking about this morning."
"Really Peeta? I thought that we discussed this, and that we had made this decision. Do we need to bring it back up?" My heart speeds up ever-so-slightly at the thought.
"No, it's not that. I mean later, after you came back. After you listed everything that you thought you could do to help." He watches me look down at the rug, knowing what is coming next. "Why did you cut me off? It's no secret how I feel. Why didn't you want me to tell you?"
My breathing stills and I look away, concentrating fiercely on the rug beneath me. "I don't know. I just... I can't... I don't know."
He is silent for a few minutes, and I can feel his eyes on my face. I know that he's upset. He doesn't want to pressure me and I know that he wants me to tell him how I feel, so that he can be sure. But for some reason I just can't seem to do it. It's like my mouth doesn't remember how to shape those three little words. In the last eight years I don't remember saying them to anyone but Prim. It is just too hard; there is too much at stake.
The longer that he stays silent, the longer that he searches face for answers, the more I long to tell him what he wants to hear. I take a deep breath, willing myself to swallow my pride and just do it, just tell him, when I hear a small voice escape from him.
"Is it Gale?" I am taken aback as those three little words, laced with Peeta's pain, cut right through me. "What I saw yesterday, it was real wasn't it? Back then...you kissed him at the table, didn't you?"
"Why..?" I let the question trail off as I realise. His memories are confusing and this is something that he needs to be certain about. And something he needs to hear from me. No matter how he tries to reassure himself, he won't believe it until he hears it from me. I just don't know how to tell him.
With slow deliberation I nod in response. "He was in pain. I was in pain. So yes, after he was whipped I kissed him at the table."
But he needs to know the truth, all of it, so I take a deep breath and continue. "He kissed me before that too, out in the woods. And then once we found him and after we brought him here and treated him…I kissed him. You were upstairs."
He nods in recollection, "Only I wasn't upstairs. I was there, watching you," he points towards the kitchen doorway before picking up the pile of cards, busying his hands with nervous shuffling. "I guess I just hoped that I was imagining things. I thought that the memory was real, but I just hoped…" His voice trails off and he pauses, taking a deep breath before continuing. "And what about everything else? The other...things... that I saw you do with him. Real or not real?"
"Not real, Peeta. Definitely not real," I state emphatically. "I kissed him. I comforted him. That's all. Anything else is not real. I have never even thought about going further with anyone but you." I reach my hand towards him, wanting him to understand, but he simply sighs.
I know what I need to do. Just telling him this much isn't enough. I need to tell him everything.
The problem is that I don't even know how to do this. Words have never been my strength. Especially here, sitting inside cooped up in front of the fire. But I have to try; for him.
"It's not like that," I say gently. "Not at all." He looks at me, his blue eyes filled with scepticism. I can't blame him. Gale and I were inseparable for years, and I was so confused about my feelings for so long. But he needs to understand how we were. Or weren't, in this case.
"No, truly; it was never like that with him. I mean it!" I take a deep breath, preparing myself. "Do you remember that day a few months ago when I took Rory into the woods for a lesson? And I came back rambling like an idiot and then we had that huge fight?"
He nods, the ghost of a smile briefly washing his lips at the memory of what came next, but still he focuses on moving the cards.
"So, when I was out with Rory, he told me that he spoke to Gale a couple of nights before. Apparently they talk a lot." His hands still, shuffling forgotten, and he looks up at me.
A pause. "What does he say?"
"Not a lot really. Just how he's going."
"Okay..." I can almost hear his brain working over this new information. He forces out his next words, "So, how is he going?"
He surprises me here. It is nice of him to ask, I suppose, but I know that how Gale is going isn't Peeta's main priority. What he really wants to know is how I dealt with this sudden reappearance of him into conversation. And what effect it had on me that day. And why I didn't tell him about it back then.
And how it may affect us in the future.
So, even though that isn't his real question, I answer him because I want him to know it all. "Um, pretty good I think. He likes it in 2. Works a lot apparently. He was happy that I'm teaching Rory to hunt."
"And what about you?" He can't wait any longer, his eyes searching mine for answers that he can't find. "How were you, talking about him after so long? Did it upset you?"
I know what he's really asking: Is that why you were acting so crazy when you came in that day?
Suddenly I can't stand the distance between us. I push my weight onto my arms and move myself over to sit right beside him. My hip presses against his, all thoughts of the cards and the uneaten cheese bun forgotten. I take the cards from him, placing them beside us on the rug, and turn his hands in mine, running my fingertips lightly across his palms.
He might even be wondering if I am trying to replace Gale with him. Wondering if I am only with him because Gale isn't here. In this moment he is so transparent, a rarity for him, and it makes him more vulnerable than I have ever seen him. A rush of love surges through me.
"I admit, I was surprised that Rory brought him up. But I am glad that he's doing well. I miss him, in a lot of ways." Peeta's hands and gaze drop from mine, his eyes quickly finding the floor.
"Not like that," I hastily continue. "I miss his friendship. He meant so much to me for so long, you know? We were a pair. A team. We could rely on each other. And now he is completely gone. I mean, in a lot of ways I am glad, because of everything in the Capitol...but I have to be honest with you, Peeta. I do miss him."
The silence beside me is stony, and I try to break through it with humour. "Besides, I didn't even know Hazelle had a phone."
"I guess Sergeant Hawthorne gets a few perks," I hear him mutter under his breath, the tiny trace of bitterness in his words surprising me.
"Hey," I say gently, reaching a hand up to his cheek as I try to think of the best way to say this. Nothing feels right. "Don't be like that. There's more. Mostly what I felt while Rory and I were talking was relief. I miss Gale, sure, but I'm relieved that he isn't here. Relieved that I don't have to be confused anymore."
More silence. Apparently that is not the right thing to say.
He shifts away from me slightly, and I feel the cool air where his warm body had been. I let out a huff of frustration. I am making a huge mess of this, as always.
"So, if he was here, you would still be confused? Still be torn between us?" He finally breaks the silence; his voice flat. I shake my head fiercely but he doesn't see because he still refuses to look at me as he continues. "I thought...I thought things were different now. But this, what we have now... is it just that you don't want to be alone?" My heart breaks a little at his tone. "I guess it was stupid to hope that it had nothing to do with him anymore. I thought that it was me you wanted now."
"I do, Peeta. So much. You know I do."
"But if you're still confused about your feelings-"
"No, I'm not." I cut him off as he twists one of the rug's loose threads over and over, the pressure of it making the tip of his finger completely white. I'm hurting him again, without meaning to. "I'm not confused about that. I just realised what was always there."
I sigh. I'm no good at this stuff, I never have been. But tonight it is so important to get through to him.
"What was always there?" He asks, his face filled with confusion; his forehead lined with creases that I wish I could smooth away.
"You! You were always there!"
This gets a response from him. "Was I, Katniss? In the first Games I believed you, I fell for every kiss you gave me, but afterwards you basically said that none of it was true and then you kissed him. And ever since then we have had moments where I have felt glimpses of hope, hints that you might love me as much as I love you... but your confusion always won.
"These last few months I have been the happiest guy on earth because I thought that you wanted me, and only me. You won't tell me that you do, but I read your actions and your body language and it's okay because I believe it. It's hard, but it's okay. But now, after everything we talked about this morning, instead of telling me you love me you're telling me that you're confused again?" He shakes his head, blinking, and tries to make sense of it all.
"And then, after that, you say it was 'always' me? You're not making sense, Katniss! How can it possibly be true, with everything that has happened?" His voice drops and flattens, like he is on the brink of giving up. "I just don't understand what you're saying, Katniss."
I leap in, unable to bear seeing him like this. "You know what I'm like, Peeta. I'm stubborn! I don't like to do what anyone tells me to! So when the Capitol basically decided on my future, one that was so far from what I had ever wanted or envisioned-" I stop, cut short by his hurt expression. "Not you. Anybody.
"Love, marriage... they weren't things I had ever considered that I wanted. Oh sure, somewhere in the back of my mind I guess I assumed that I would end up with Gale - that's what everyone in the Seam wanted for us - but I never really thought about it seriously."
As I look at his slumped, dejected form my mind spins in a whirlwind of mixed-up thoughts. Without thinking I pick up the lone cheese bun, carefully crafted by Peeta's strong hands, and my fingers nervously tear off small, uneven chunks. I hate doing his, talking about how I am feeling, but I know that he needs it hear it in order to understand. I need him to understand.
My eyes search the fire for assistance and its misshapen mix of chaos and unity comforts me. As hard as it is to be honest, the familiar flames give me strength to keep talking.
I force the words from my mouth, until they tumble out in a rush. "Don't you see? I wasn't like you, as a kid. I never wanted to love someone because I saw what it did to my mother; saw how it ripped our family apart and took her away from us. And I certainly never wanted to bring children into a world like this. I didn't think I was even capable of feeling like that; I had been in survival mode for so long.
"But then you... you snuck up on me. Despite everything... those nights in the cave, they changed me. They did something to me. You worked your way into my heart and I didn't know how to stop it."
I feel him still beside me, my words finally breaking through to him. His fingers drop the loose thread and I feel his eyes searching my face, but I still can't look at him. I just keep staring into the flames, my fingers still breaking the bread into pieces that get smaller and smaller.
"I kept convincing myself that I didn't need you, that I didn't want you. I was confused by my feelings for you, and what I might have felt for Gale and what everyone was telling me I should or shouldn't do. I didn't want to buy into something that I thought the Capitol wanted. And my mind was in such a whirl, I couldn't make sense of what was real and what wasn't . I thought that I had to make a decision between the two of you, and I just didn't know how to choose. I couldn't physically choose between the two of you because you were both so important to me."
He reaches over and grips my hand, forcing the final piece of bread to drop on top of the rest.
"But somewhere, inside me, I had decided. It is like it wasn't even a choice, it just...was. I realised that it was always your arms that I longed for. It was kissing you that I always thought of. And then, when you were taken away, it was like a big part of me was taken away too. I couldn't even function." My voice is wobbling now, and the tears filling my eyes cause the flames to melt into a liquid orange pool.
"So when I said I was relieved when I was talking to Rory, it is relief because I'm not confused. I know, with total certainty, that even if Gale was here, nothing would be different. Somehow, without me realising, it was you." The tears tumble from my eyes. "It was always you."
I can't see anything through the tears and I feel so incredibly vulnerable in this moment. I hate it.
My voice drops to a whisper. "It will always be you."
Silence. After so many words and emotions filled the room, it is almost overwhelming. We are left with nothing but the crackle of the logs on the fire, and two hands, squeezed tightly together.
Then, finally, he reaches for me and wipes the tears from my cheeks. I lean in close and breathe him in deeply, the mint of his shampoo and the rich, wheaty aroma of the abandoned bread mingling into a powerful scent that is completely, intoxicatingly, Peeta. I am powerless as he brings his lips towards mine before gathering me gently in his arms and carrying me upstairs.
For what feels like hours we simply lie there atop the sheets: our limbs woven together; our eyes never leaving each other's; our lips parting only to whisper softly to one another. I am almost exhausted with relief. It feels so good to have been honest with him, to have him know how I felt on that day in the woods. How I have felt about him ever since.
The air is slightly cooler up here, but the heat between us grows steadily as the night wears on. And as the heat grows, my exhaustion fades. My body wakes up slowly, until every inch of me is alive with longing.
In this moment, with the one boy who can fill my heart and bring me to life, I am hit with a feeling of complete certainty that regardless of everything else, this would have happened anyway.
The flames of desire for him have been burning in me for so long. He planted the ember deep inside my heart when we lay in the cave, fearing for our lives, years ago. It flickered and warmed me again on the train on the Victory tour, and again in the Capitol before the Quarter Quell, when we were both certain that the few hours we had left together would surely be our last.
And then it flared, out of control, that night on the beach when I stopped thinking. When I gave in and simply allowed myself to feel.
Tonight...tonight I do the same. As his hands work their way over my skin I can feel flames slowly spreading throughout my body. My longing for him grows in intensity, as his tongue strokes mine and our lips part in soft moans, until that insatiable need reappears once more.
But this time, when the hunger takes over, I give in...
And after, as I lie beside him in the darkness, exhausted, I relish the feeling of his skin, warm and smooth against my own, and savour the sensation of his fingertips running lightly up my arms.
Then his weight shifts slightly, before his lips find the sensitive spot beneath my earlobe and his breath lightly tickles my skin. My heart fills with tenderness, with affection for this boy, and I can feel it tingle right down to the tips of my toes.
So when he whispers, "You love me. Real or not real?"
I tell him, "Real."
And he says nothing, he simply exhales slowly. But I can feel the grin cross his face as he pulls me in tighter, moulding my body even closer with his, and gently presses a kiss on my shoulder.
I let out a soft sigh of contentment as a wave of pure happiness – the first that I have felt in years – washes over me and I drift into sleep.
A few hours later I wake with a start, heart pounding. It is still a few hours before dawn, judging by the moonlight streaming in through the open window, but suddenly I am wide awake.
The smooth cotton sheet is cool against my skin, all of my skin, and the bare thigh flung carelessly across my own weighs heavily on me as my mind reaches back through the darkness and I remember.
I remember our conversation by the fire, how I finally let my guard down and told him the truth. I remember the flames reflected in his eyes as he looked down at me before gathering me up and deftly carrying me here. I remember his smooth touches, my murmurs of assent and his whispers of love. I remember the pain, the stretch and finally the feeling of completeness of having him with me. Of finally showing him how much I love him.
But now, mere hours later, I feel exposed. I feel like I have opened myself up in a way that cannot be shied away from. Things will never be the same now. There is no way that I can ever undo what we have done. I don't even know if I want to; I am so certain of my love for him. But right now, lying awake in the mottled grey light and listening to the steady rise and fall of his breathing, I certainly don't feel like myself. I allowed my feelings to override all reason and now I am not sure if I was ready for this step. I am not sure if we, as a couple, were ready.
All of a sudden I am overwhelmed with the emotions that I felt in that moment, and the ones that bustle around in my mind now. Carefully, I shift my leg from beneath the weight of his and edge away from his sleeping form. I feel different, vulnerable; like I have given him a part of me that I can never get back. And that scares me more than anything. It means that I am no longer in control.
I need to walk.
I grab the edge of the sheet, preparing to pull it back and make a hasty exit, when I feel his strong arms wrap firmly around me.
"No," he whispers into my hair. My heart stills momentarily at the sound. I was so certain that he was asleep.
"What?" I question, trying to think of an excuse to escape. "I'm just going to the bathroom."
"No you're not," I can feel his wry smile as he murmurs against the bare skin of my shoulder. His voice is soft and gentle; a little husky from sleep but not angry. "You're running away again. You don't need to run from me, Katniss. I love you."
A small sound of indignation escapes my lips as I go to pull away, but what he does next surprises me. He doesn't tighten his grip, forcing me against his body, trying to keep me in his arms. He does the opposite. He loosens his hold and simply lifts his hand to gently move the hair from my neck. When I feel his lips softly press against the newly exposed skin I instantly and instinctively melt back into him, a thrill running through me at his touch.
I let out the breath I didn't know I was holding. "I was just going to walk. You know, to clear my head." The sensations running through me at every feather-light touch of his lips prove that I don't really want to leave him, but I still feel restless, still feel eager to get up and move.
"Okay then," he murmurs between kisses. "Do you still want to?" He pulls his lips from my skin and leans up on his elbow to smile down at me. There is a slight pause. "I can join you if you want?"
And as I look into his eyes I fully give in to the feelings that he is filling me with. All of the anxiety that I felt mere moments ago simply ebbs away, being swiftly replaced with comfort and contented joy. I do want him to come; I want him with me, always.
Using my arms to shift my weight, I turn to face him. I run my fingertips along the line of his jaw and cup his cheeks in my palms. "Of course," I whisper.
I press a lingering kiss against his lips and grab the blanket from the bed, wrapping it firmly around my body to obscure his view. Peering over my shoulder at his pouting face, I chuckle softly to myself and quickly dash to the bathroom to dress.
It is a beautiful night and we let the moon guide us. We don't need to talk. Gone are the days where we would walk quickly and nervously to stave off nightmares, hesitant to speak in fear of making things worse. Gone are the small conversations about constellations and plant life. But most importantly, gone is the distance between us. Tonight his arm stretches across my shoulders and mine both wrap tightly around his waist.
Without even mentioning it, we head towards the outskirts of town. Once we reach the big tree we sink to sit beneath it on a bed of bright green grass and fallen blossoms. Peeta lies down, arms spread wide, looking up at the millions of stars that peep through the branches. He wordlessly pulls me down to lay beside him. As I rest my head in the crook of his neck, listening to the steady beat of his heart, he turns his head and presses his lips gently against my forehead.
My heart gives a thump at the feeling of his kiss, an action which has brought me so much comfort in the last year. I squeeze my arm across his chest a bit tighter – needing to be that little bit closer – and can't believe that I am so lucky. That Peeta, my Peeta, the boy who tossed me the bread that brought me back to life all those years ago, is here with me. And he always will be. I can finally allow myself to believe it.
Suddenly, as we lie entangled together under a blanket of stars, the words that have eluded me for so long seem so important to express that they literally form an ache in my chest. They fill me entirely, allowing me to think of nothing else, until they bubble over in a rush.
"I love you," I blurt out, a little louder and a little faster than I would have hoped. I quickly bury my face in the safety of his neck, my cheeks burning.
But he doesn't laugh at the awkwardness of my outburst. He doesn't raise his eyebrows or smirk in satisfaction as some might; he simply lifts his arms until they come around me, enveloping me in his embrace. Then he uses his strength to gently lift me until I lie directly atop him. I can feel the steady pounding in his chest as I look down into his bright blue eyes, alight with love.
"And I love you," he murmurs softly, his crimson lips curving into a wide smile. "Always."
My heart leaps at his words, and at the sight of his joy. And as he lifts his head and brings his lips up to meet mine once more, I can't believe that I can feel this happiness, this feeling of completeness. I truly never thought that I would.
But then, as the kiss deepens, and my fingers slide through the golden strands of his hair, all musings vanish from my mind and all I can do is feel.
Chapter 13: Colours and Aromas
Dr Aurelius has given them life changing some advice, and on the eve of the bakery opening Peeta wants Katniss to get the first glimpse of it in completion.
I hear the front door shut and the sound of Peeta's heavy, uneven stride approaches me from down the hallway. I wasn't expecting him so soon but I smile softly at the sound, amused yet again at his loud and distinctive footfall. If anyone ever tried to break into our house I would know straight away by their tread.
I quickly fasten the rubber band around the end of my damp braid, pleased to have finished the arduous task of washing my long hair before he got home.
His face looks weary and he could use a good clean, but when he grins from the doorway his eyes light up. I've hardly seen him this week, he's been so busy, and the sight of his smile makes my heart leap in my chest. He flings a paper bag of bread rolls onto the counter as he strides across the room towards me.
"You're here early," I say by way of greeting, breaking into a grin as he sweeps me up into his arms and breathes in deeply, his face in my neck. Then he sets me softly back down and leans in to kiss me, before resting his forehead against mine and sighing gently.
He opens his eyes. "Hi," he says softly. "You smell amazing."
"Hi yourself," I respond with a laugh, ignoring that last part. "What's going on? I didn't expect you here for another few hours."
"Nah, it's all under control over there," he says, releasing me and gesturing back out the way he came. "We are pretty much ready for tomorrow I think. I just need to get up early to get the fresh loaves on before we open." His voice is alive with enthusiasm, his eyes bright, and his arms are dusted lightly with flour.
Tomorrow Peeta's bakery will finally open, and he is almost childlike in his excitement. The last month has been frantically busy with the hiring of staff; the delayed arrival of furniture, equipment and ingredients on the train; and finalising all of the last minute things. It seemed like there was so much to do that I didn't expect to see him home until well after dark. Yet here he is.
"I could've stuck around and finished some little things off but I wanted to get home and have dinner with you. Thought maybe we could go back later? Together? I'd like to show you how it all looks before anyone else sees." His face is glowing, and there is no way I could resist him, even if I wanted to.
"Sounds good," I laugh. "I was hoping you'd say that. I'm just reheating some soup left over from last night. Those guys," I point to the rolls now lying strewn across the counter, "will go perfectly. You go wash up and we'll eat soon, okay?"
"Great," he grins, planting a kiss on my cheek and flicking the end of my braid. "I was hoping you might join me, but I see you've already showered." The smirk he throws at me is filled with mischief.
"Ha ha," I say sardonically, "Well that's just your bad luck isn't it?" But I can't help but laugh at his pouting expression. "Maybe next time."
"Are you sure?" He asks, puppy dog eyes wearing me down as he steps closer and his arms wrap tightly around my waist.
"I'm sure," I breathe, but my resolve weakens as I lean into his embrace and our lips meet. His kiss is soft and gentle to begin with, but our separation this week has lead to a desperation that is new to me as the kiss deepens. Suddenly he lifts me up until I sit on the counter and he moves himself even closer to me. I can feel all of his muscles pressed hard against my body and the fire inside me leaps out again. My heart pounds in my chest as my fingers reach up to lace through his hair. I still can't get enough of him.
But this isn't the time. This is a big night for him, for both of us really. I drag myself away from him, ignoring the little voice inside that so longs to keep going, and take a few deep, steadying breaths as I punch at his chest playfully. He makes a low growl of protest.
"Hey, that was a sneaky move," I proclaim. "As much as I want you right now... this is the only chance I have to see this bakery of yours before everyone else and in order to do that we need to get moving. We'll have plenty of time for that later."
"Okay, okay, you win." He rolls his eyes good-naturedly, stepping back from me a bit. "I want to show you too, so I'll be back in a bit. But you should know that this 'later' you speak of...I'll hold you to that!" He presses another kiss firmly on my lips, lingering just long enough for the flame to ignite in my belly once more, before backing away and chuckling as he heads up the stairs.
"Oh, I forgot to tell you...I found a house for us today," Peeta says suddenly, before gulping down his final mouthful of soup.
I almost choke on my last bite of bread. "What?" I splutter.
"I found us a house," he repeats calmly, handing me my glass of water before grabbing our bowls and taking them to the sink. "It's on the same street as the bakery, but it is on the way out this side of town. You know how when we walk in we go past those new constructions? It's one of them." He turns away to fill up the sink.
His composure astounds me in this moment. When on earth did he have time to look at houses? I have been looking around a bit in the month since Dr Aurelius made the suggestion, talking to people about it when I have the chance, but I haven't shown him any because he has simply been too busy to look with me. And, if I'm honest, none of them felt quite right for us.
He waits for the sink to fill before continuing. "I had heard about this place, and thought it sounded pretty good. So one of the guys took me in to have a look on my way home. It isn't huge, but it has a bit of a yard and it is so close to the bakery. It seems pretty perfect."
I nod slowly, digesting this new information, before walking over to him and placing our glasses in the soapy water. I stare out blankly out the window, thinking about what he has said.
I know the houses he is talking about; four new houses built at roughly the same time but they are all different. I think that there are people living in two of them already. I had assumed they were all built for specific people. They're in a good spot, too; close to here so we can still see Haymitch easily, and being close to the bakery means that Peeta wouldn't need to travel so far after standing up for hours. Or leave so early in the morning. Plus, being on the way out of town should mean having a bit more space.
After Peeta's last episode, Dr Aurelius' strongest suggestion was that we should leave the Victor's Village and all that it represents for us. He thinks that this will lessen the severity of Peeta's flashbacks, and even our nightmares. After all, they are the houses that the Capitol bequeathed to us, and they are filled with dark memories and black spaces.
At first I was hesitant; move into town? Become a merchant and live above the bakery? It sounded so stifling and oppressive. And totally against who I am.
But Peeta surprised me. He didn't want to build an extension onto the bakery building and live there. Not only would that take months to build, and probably further set back the opening date of the businesss, he said that he had enough of that growing up. That working and living in the same building means never being free of work. And he knew that I wouldn't be happy being cooped up inside all the time in a small apartment.
The main thing is that after all that we have seen and experienced, we know that we want to actually live now that District 12 is rumbling with life again. As hard as it is some days, as impossible as it feels sometimes, we know that we owe it to everyone we've lost to live as fully as we can. Even though my heart still aches at the thought.
So we decided that a place on the edge of town might suit us, so that we are close enough for Peeta, but not too far for me. A place where we can both escape together. Like what we have now, but without the darkness.
That's the plan anyway, and the more that I think about it, the more enthusiastic I am about the idea. On one hand, I don't want to be further from the woods, and as much as I hate to admit it I don't want to leave Haymitch either. And also, this is where we really started being 'us'.
But at the same time... this house is the place where I stopped living. This house is a product of the Capitol that I despise and is where I truly gave up. I don't think either of us will ever escape the shadows that lurk here.
No matter what I do, I can't forget that this is a place where Snow himself has been.
As much as these things are important, the main reason for my change of heart is Peeta. He needs this change; I can already see the difference it will make for him, especially after the memory that triggered his last flashback. He has done so much for me for so many years; I can never even get close to repaying that debt. But I can do this for him. I can make a change that will have a positive effect on him. And that is something that I really want to do for him.
"So, do you want to go see it?" My eyes come back into focus as Peeta elbows me softly and interrupts my thoughts. Looking down, I notice that the dishes lie waiting patiently in the drainer.
I nod, picking up the tea towel and drying off one of the bowls. "Definitely. Maybe next week once everything dies down? Which one is it, anyway?"
He grins and empties the water from the sink before wiping down the counter. "You'll see when we get there. They said we can have a look tonight – they've left it open for us to drop in on our way back from the bakery. We have to swing by the Hawthorne's to pick up my apron on the way there so we won't be walking past."
"Tonight?" I screech. "Wow, um okay." This is all happening so quickly.
"Okay, great. If you can finish that off I'll grab a couple of things that I need to take back, and then we'll get going."
"No worries," I reply, "I won't be long." And, despite a slight feeling of bewilderment, as I place the last few dishes in the cupboard I can't help but feel a leap of excitement in my chest at what the night will bring.
After leaving the Hawthorne's we walk hand in hand down the street and the summer sky is filled with a soft, gleaming orange; Peeta's orange. He has everything that he needs secured firmly in his backpack, including the newly embroidered apron we just picked up, and he whistles contentedly as we make our way towards town. He grins at me and lifts our joined hands, encouraging me to spin beneath them, and I comply. His enthusiasm is catching.
As we draw closer to the bakery I can't help but take in the sights of the area. We don't enter the town from the Seam that often anymore and now the destruction of the past few years is barely evident, with new structures and renovated buildings giving the town new life. There is always electricity now, and a constant supply of clean water. The District still isn't rich, I doubt it ever will be, but everyone seems happy enough. Everyone has food to eat. And new people are moving here – lured in by the beauty of the mountains and the forests nearby - and new stores are opening, and these bring a comfort and stability for everyone. As these things never existed before, they are invaluable to those of us who remember how it used to be.
I pick up the pace as we draw closer. I haven't been in here all week; Peeta wouldn't let me. He wanted the finished bakery to be a surprise, and I couldn't deny him that. But now that we are here I am eager, impatient to see how it all looks.
We step up onto the curb and approach the glass storefront, my heart swelling with pride as I take in the sign: 'Mellark's Bakery'. It is the same name, but a new logo; a new design for a new Mellark baker.
Peeta's eyes light up as he watches my reaction, the bright blue orbs leaving my face only for the seconds it takes for him to unlock the door.
As it slowly opens a wonderfully rich aroma greets us. It is raisons and cinnamon, melted cheese and herbs, all mixed together into an intoxicating scent. We stand silently in the doorway, peering into the darkness, when he turns to face me. "Ready?" he asks, his voice filled with pride.
Before we go any further I reach up onto my toes and put my arms around his neck, pressing my lips softly but firmly against his before squeezing him tight. "I'm so proud of you," I whisper in his ear.
"I love you," he whispers in response, tightening his grip on my waist.
"And I love you," I respond, still relishing in saying it, in feeling it. I can scarcely believe that I used to feel uncomfortable whenever he spoke of his feelings. I am still not as forthcoming with the words as he is, but he knows. And I make sure that he when I tell him, he is certain that I mean it. I lean forward to kiss him once more before sinking my feet back to the floor. "Now, show me what you've been up to all week."
He releases my waist but grips firmly onto one hand while he leans out to flip the switch that fills the room with light.
My mouth falls open as I look around at Peeta's dream turned to reality. It is exactly how he described it to me all those months ago, but far better than I could have imagined.
Directly alongside me is a rich mahogany bench top - shiny polished wood with the knots and natural grain still evident - and it runs all the way along the storefront to the side wall. Beneath it sits eight metal stools, all upholstered with cushions in coordinating fabrics.
He leads me further inside, and I can't help but shake my head in wonder as I take in all that he has achieved. Ahead of us stands a long counter with glass cases below it displaying a vast array of cookies, cakes, muffins and pies. My mouth waters immediately at the sight. Silver stands adorn the counter, holding cupcakes frosted in the creamiest pink, the brightest blue and sunshine yellow. A large vase of wildflowers sits on the end next to the cash register, bringing life to the space.
Behind the counter there is a stainless steel machine that I don't recognise, but the sign above it advertises coffee, tea and hot chocolate – a previously rare delicacy – so I assume it is used to make these. There is every type of bread I could imagine; soft white rolls; thick, grainy loaves; buns covered in cheese; some iced and covered in cinnamon. Some lie in baskets, other stand tall and proud in metal buckets. There is even a small selection of bread from each District; I recognise them all from the Training Centre before our first Games. Peeta has truly thought of everything.
I tear my eyes away from the delicious delicacies and take in the rest of the room. It is so welcoming; this is a place for people to relax, to enjoy themselves. There is a huge fireplace on one wall, surrounded by mismatched armchairs and couches in various neutral shades. None of them look new, but they all look clean and, most importantly, comfortable. As we sink to sit in one, I am proven right as we are enveloped in softness.
All of the seats are adorned with brightly coloured cushions which tie in perfectly with the artwork on the walls. The fabrics are breathtaking – few are the same but they are all perfectly coordinated – and I can't help but reach out and stroke one.
"Octavtia sent me the fabric," Peeta says gently, wrapping his arm protectively around my shoulders. "It is all from Cinna and Portia's studio." His voice is gentle, and tinged with sadness, as he presses a kiss to my forehead. "I wanted this place to be a new start, but I wanted a little piece of their beauty here with us too."
I smile, tears pricking the back of my eyes. "I understand; I want that too." I swallow the lump in my throat.
Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I see a flash of colour and I turn my head towards it. How I missed this before is beyond me. There are a number of pictures on the walls but this one is different; it stands out but not simply because of its size or its beauty. Every dab and stroke of the paintbrush on the canvas is an outpouring of emotion. And it is very obvious, to me, whose they are. I pull myself up and out of Peeta's arms and walk towards it, drawn into the blend of colours.
It is our tree. Standing strong in a meadow surrounded by flowers, while the sun sets above it.
And as I look more closely I can see all the love that he has poured into this painting; all of the heartache of the last few years painted out in colour onto one canvas. The orange flames that we once wore are reflected in the sunset sky, effortlessly mingling with the bright blue of the ocean we swum in in District Four. The tree's trunk is a rich blend of the creamy coffee of Rue's skin and the dark chocolate of Gale's hair. In the blades of grass I see the emerald of Finnick's eyes and the silken green of Annie's wedding dress, dotted with a vast array of colours: the pink of Effie's wig on our first Reaping day; the crimson of Prim's lips; the gold of Cinna's eyeliner. My eyes find the shining cream of Peeta's pearl. The cool grey of my eyes.
It's all there, captured perfectly in even the smallest of details. Unrecognisable to anyone but us, but far too distinctive to be a coincidence. These are the exact shades that we cannot allow ourselves to forget.
He has moved wordlessly to stand behind me and I turn to him, my eyes swimming. "They're all in there."
He says nothing. He simply nods and pulls me into his arms, holding me tight. He rubs his hands up and down my back while the tears silently fall.
I don't know how long we stand there for, but after the tears have receded he places his lips gently against mine. His kiss is soft and warm, and filled with tenderness. And I feel thankful, so incredibly thankful, that he is here. That we have each other.
"Do you mind?" he whispers. "This isn't meant to remind us of what we've lost or to make us sad; it is just that when I went to paint something for this wall... I felt like they should all be in here with us. And this is what came out. It is our place, it is us...but they are all part of us. Does that make sense?"
I nod, because it does. They are all part of us. "It's perfect, Peeta, truly. You should be so proud what you have done. I know they all would be. It is beautiful."
I nod decisively, determined not to be sad but to focus on the good in it. And there is so much good here. Suddenly I notice how the artwork complements the space perfectly, brightening it as the cushions pick up all of the colours. I swallow hard before speaking, "It all looks amazing, it really brings the room together. I have one question though: if the fabric is from Octavia... who made the cushions?"
"Hazelle," he responds, grateful, I think, for my understanding. "Turns out she is great with a needle and thread. She made all the cushions, the throw rugs...she even upholstered the stools. She really put her heart into making this place feel like a home."
Hazelle. Another person we love is in here. "Well it worked perfectly," I say. "I'm glad she did. It feels like we are in someone's living room, not in a shop."
"And did you see them?" Peeta asks, his voice brightening as he gestures at a packet of playing cards lying on the low coffee table in front of us. "Now I can beat you here as well as at home!"
I roll my eyes in response, throwing the cushion at him, and the air feels lighter around us as all of the heavy emotions in the room lift.
"Oh wow, look at them all!" I cry out, pointing past the table to the low shelves lining the wall. They are littered with old games and novels, and I can't help but move to get a closer look.
Peeta just laughs, and comes over to join me. "They're pretty great aren't they? They've come from all over the place, but mostly from the old library. A lot of the things inside could be salvaged, but they didn't have anywhere for them, so I volunteered. And a bunch of people donated stuff too. People can sit here and play a game or read a book. Or they can take them to borrow."
"You've thought of everything haven't you?" I ask, smiling at him proudly.
"Well, I tried," he shrugs modestly, a shy little grin washing his face. He grabs my hand again and gestures to the rear of the room. "Now come see the kitchen. There is a bathroom way out back but we won't worry about that tonight."
Peeta picks up his backpack and grabs my hand again, leading me around behind the counter. The enticing aroma of cinnamon and frosting is even stronger here, and I inhale deeply. It is heavenly. He leads me past the baskets of bread and out the back to a large room filled with stainless steel benches, pantries, and ovens. There are huge sinks, signs on the walls and even tea towels hanging on the rail, donning the bakery's new logo. He reaches into the bag and pulls out his new apron, placing it carefully on the hook on the back of the door.
This kitchen is in pristine condition; everything labelled and organised, and impeccably clean.
"How long do you reckon it will stay like this?" I ask, jokingly.
"Oh it will stay like this," he responds, his voice deep and suddenly serious. "The boys out here know that. It is incredibly important to keep everything clean in order to maintain the appropriate standard of hygiene required for a business."
"Yes Mr Mellark," I say crisply, raising my hand in a mock salute.
His posture softens at my joke and he laughs. "You know what I mean! It is important when we're preparing food and the guys all know that. See? That is why you don't do the baking." He flicks the end of my braid over my shoulder with a grin and leads me back out the front.
Soon we are standing by the doorway once more, looking back over the whole store. The rows of cookies remind me of another bakery; of Peeta's father's parting gift to me in the Justice Building. A wave of sadness washes over me at the thought. His kindness – the same kindness I see daily in his son – would always shine through his actions, from his willingness to trade fairly with Gale and me, to his heartfelt promise to make sure Prim would eat after I left.
Prim. As I gaze at the rainbow of cupcakes, frosted artfully with careful fingers, I can't help but think of walking through the town with her a lifetime ago, and her admiring cakes that are so similar to those in front of me. I feel an uncomfortable squeeze in my heart at the memory, and I can still hear her squeal my name as she dragged me across the square to look at them, her joy palpable and clear for all to see. She took so much delight in these cakes which, unbeknownst to us, were frosted by the hand of the boy I would come to love.
And I remember another cake, a much larger one, decorated so carefully with images of the ocean. The cake that gave me the first clue that perhaps Peeta could get better. And I can't help but remember the love that it symbolised; something that I couldn't truly appreciate at the time, but that I understand fully now. A love that is not only passion and fire, but also comfort and certainty. And completeness.
I am suddenly and unexpectedly filled with this strange feeling of hope. In the last few weeks, since I've been talking to Dr Aurelius more regularly, I have been a bit out of sorts if I'm honest. I am no longer the mockingjay, but I am no longer the strong hunter fighting to survive either. I am no longer a big sister and I'm barely a daughter. Before everything, so much of my identity was wrapped up in these things, and I didn't really know where exactly I fit in this new version of our District.
But I fit here. With him. It may feel slightly strange and unfamiliar but really, I am still all of those things, along with being someone else entirely. And all the rest will sort itself out, no matter what I decide to do to fill my days.
He grabs onto my hand and turns to look deep into my eyes, his hand coming up to smooth a stray hair behind my ear.
"So, what do you think? Honestly."
"Honestly? I think it's perfect. I love it. And so will the rest of the District."
He presses his lips against my forehead again before flipping the light switch and we step out into the night air the door closing firmly behind us.
"So, shall we go and check out the house then?" he asks with a smile.
"Definitely," I nod, and our hands find each other as we make our way out into the darkness.
Chapter 14: Always
"The small patch of browning lawn at the front is dotted with the ghosts of dandelions, and it stretches lazily down each side of the house. I suddenly feel nervous, knowing that we can't turn back now that it belongs to us, but the feeling of Peeta's hand in mine comforts me. It gives me that steadiness that he has always brought to everything."
The fading sunlight glistens off the twisted fragments of metal as smoke drifts lazily towards the darkening sky.
I whirl around, my eyes constantly searching, frantically seeking out that yellow coat, those golden braids. Instead I see nothing but pain as eyes plead and hands grope at me from the blood-littered snow. When my eyes land on the yellow of her coat I spring forward, feet flying across the wreckage. My heart leaps to my throat and I desperately seek any sign of life from Prim's tiny frame.
It's too late. I'm too late.
I cling to her lifeless form and silently rock her back and forth. I cry in wet, noisy sobs, unable to quell the flow of tears as I take in her blackened skin, her singed braids and the dark pool of blood on her stomach. The ashes stick to my throat with every ragged gulp of air, when a sickly sweet odor reaches my nose.
I gasp, awake the second the scent hits my nose. My heart is racing as my eyes frantically seek out the empty vase on the mantle before staring at it, taking deep breaths, counting backwards from ten.
Suddenly I feel Peeta's strong arms wrap tightly around me, pulling me closer. My heart rate slows immediately at his touch, and despite the thick summer air I nestle more closely into him, relishing in the strength that I gain from him. I continue counting, but that is really just to finish the routine.
Because, more than anything, it is his arms that bring me back.
It's going to be hot today. Really hot.
Even this early, deep in the woods where it is always a little cooler, the heat radiates from the ground where each beam of sunlight hits it. The sun is quickly climbing the sky and with each minute that passes the number of animals scurrying about dwindles. Even they prefer to rest in the coolest shady spots on days like this.
I take a deep breath and lie back on the grass that remains somewhat green due to its shady position. Despite the heat I need this today; to have a moment to just be still. I need to be out here, connected with the earth.
Last night was exhausting, emotionally and physically. I'm not surprised that the old nightmare resurfaced, even though I hadn't been trapped in that particular scene in over a month.
Because last night I finally took the plunge and started to pack up Prim's old room.
It had been so long since I'd been in there. Just stepping inside the room and seeing her neatly made bed, the wardrobe door lying slightly ajar to reveal her dresses and coats, felt like someone had hit me in the chest. The pain was so real that it forced me to take a step back. But I willed myself forward.
Peeta offered to do it for me – to shelter me from the pain I suppose – but I couldn't bear the thought of someone else packing her life up into boxes. I'm glad I did it, but I'm glad he was there too. He generally knows when I want to be left alone but, more importantly, he also knows when I need him.
We aren't taking much with us to the new house, not really. Some everyday things we need to take, like armchairs and bedding and cookware, but most of the possessions that came with the houses are staying with them.
And of course some things are too precious not to bring with us. Our two books, obviously, and Peeta's paintings and sketches. My father's hunting gear. My mother's wedding dress. Prim's favourite story books and ribbons. The small box of Peeta's family's possessions that were salvaged from the rubble. The locket that he gave me on the beach. The rug, the cushions and the playing cards from the lounge room.
Some memories are too special to leave behind.
I get to my feet, and move off to the side to gather some roots to add to our dinner. I shot a few squirrels earlier, just as the sun was rising, and that will have to do for this morning. I can feel the beads of sweat gathering on my chest now, so I really should get back to the town before the day's heat really sets in.
As I pass the flat plane of rock that was our meeting place for so many years I stop to unscrew the lid of my drink bottle. I can't help but think of him when I am out here; Gale, who is only really alive when he is surrounded by fresh air and sunlight and clean, flowing water. I don't know how he stands being cooped up in District 2.
The thought that he stays away because of me still causes my heart to squeeze sharply in my chest. But I still can't forget.
And I can't imagine him happy in District 2. To me he will always be here, in the woods, where he is truly alive and laughing.
The water is now a little warm but it revives me somewhat as I move off and make my way back to the now dilapidated fence line. I slip under it in my same old spot, out of habit more than anything, and head back towards the Victor's Village. I can’t help but feel strange to know that this will probably be the last time I will walk this path.
The sun still holds its heat that evening as we make our way down the street to see the house that is now ours. The keys were delivered to me this afternoon, and our enthusiasm got the better of us so we decided to see it quickly before dinner. We haven't actually been there since that first night – we have been so incredibly busy with the opening of the bakery – and a little flutter of excitement brews in my stomach as we get closer.
"Hey, is it okay if we do a quick detour and stop at the bakery on the way home?" Peeta questions, his voice interrupting the steady beat of our footsteps.
I nod, "Sure, no problem. How come?"
"I promised Haymitch that I'd bring him over a few loaves before we leave, but then I was in such a rush to get out of the shop that I left them on the counter."
It's not like Peeta to leave the building without everything in order, so I sneak a concerned glance at him out of the corner of my eye.
I can't help but smile at what I see. I shouldn't have worried. He wears a huge grin and he is practically skipping in his excitement to get to the new house.
"I actually can't believe that we're moving in tomorrow," he exclaims. "It feels like just yesterday that we came and saw it for the first time."
"That's just because so much has happened in the last few weeks," I respond, wiping the sweat from my brow, "but I know what you mean. It's strange to think that this time tomorrow we won't live in the Victor's Village anymore."
Peeta's blue eyes are bright and animated, and I allow myself a moment of satisfaction, of victory. During our time in 13 and the Capitol, and even in the long months after we returned here, I never dreamed that he could possibly look this happy again.
I can't help but think of everything that this boy has endured. No one deserves that but especially not Peeta; he has always had so much goodness, so much compassion in him. He still does now, even after he has lost so much.
My face hardens at the thought. Snow has stolen so much from both of us; our family and friends, our childhood... years of our lives. But we will not allow him to take our future. We will endure this, what he has done. We are no longer pieces of his games; we are victors, just not his victors. We have victory over him. Fire beats roses again.
I give a wry smile and squeeze Peeta's hand tightly, relishing the feeling of his rough skin beneath mine. We have survived. Together.
I shake these thoughts from my mind as we slow to a stop and I take in our surroundings like I am seeing the house for the first time. I almost am, in a way; this is the first time I have studied it closely in full daylight. I have glanced into the yard every day since that first night, obviously, but I have not had the time to study the details. Now I devour everything in sight with fresh eyes.
The small patch of browning lawn at the front is dotted with the ghosts of dandelions, and it stretches lazily down each side of the house. I suddenly feel nervous, knowing that we can't turn back now that it belongs to us, but the feeling of Peeta's hand in mine comforts me. It gives me that steadiness that he has always brought to everything.
"See there?" he points to the fence on the right, "I thought we could replant the primrose bushes there. Or maybe out the back."
I smile gratefully at the suggestion and squeeze his hand, moving forward. "Shall we go see our new home?" I ask playfully, and he grins as we make our way onto the lawn and towards the steps.
It is a modest house, made of simple cream bricks. It isn't huge or gaudy, like our house in the Victor's Village, but it is still a far cry from my family's humble, worn-down home back in the Seam. Peeta turns the key and pushes open the door, allowing a shaft of golden sunlight to spill through onto the hardwood floorboards. He steps to the side to let me take the first step in, and I breathe in a lungful of refreshingly cool air as I enter.
We stand there for a moment; his arm wrapped securely around my waist and my head resting lightly on his shoulder. We take in the scene that now belongs to us.
The hallway isn't long but it is welcoming; an exposed brick wall lining one side and contrasting nicely with the off-white paint of those surrounding it. Directly in front of us the stairs lead up to the bedrooms, and the front room holds nothing but a fireplace and a huge, cushy couch. Peeta leads me in there first, giving me a meaningful look as he gestures towards the fireplace. "We'll have to bring in the rug and cushions from our place to go in front of that. And a couple of the arm chairs," he says simply.
"I've already arranged for all that," I respond, rolling my eyes a little. "But before we worry about all that... let's try out this couch."
I sink into it and feel Peeta flop down heavily beside me, sighing in contentment as the couch moulds around his exhausted form.
We're lucky, really, that President Paylor is letting us do this: selling our houses in the Victor's Village to pay for this one, and to buy the bakery outright. She could have been difficult about it, given that the houses were technically a 'gift'. But Paylor is fair. She saw the horrors of the war first-hand so she knows the shadows that lurk for us. And she knows that with every rich family that moves into the Victor's Village comes more sets of eyes to watch our every move.
She understands our need to escape.
Plus, she has poured a lot of government funds into the rebuilding of the Districts – money that Snow was stockpiling in the Capitol – so I assume that any self-funded ventures are welcome at this stage. And besides, some families from District Two have bought the houses; people coming to work in the medicine factory that is under construction at the edge of the District. Apparently they are quite important to the project.
I don't really care who they are, to be honest, as long as they don't bother us. Or Haymitch. And, given his usual inebriation, they'll barely see him at all. Because when he's sober enough he's normally with us.
I lightly stroke the couch cushion. "It's pretty comfortable," I state firmly before leaping to my feet and looking down at Peeta. "Let's check out the rest."
He laughs at my impatience but instead of joining me he stretches his arms out behind his head, his eyes closing as he lets out a yawn.
I roll my eyes again and walk over to the open kitchen and dining space. The layout of the kitchen is the same as the one we have now, which brings a sense of familiarity and comfort. I'm no great cook but I can recognise a nice kitchen, with shining new appliances calling out to be used.
The dining table in the centre of the room is large – a heavy wood, maybe oak – but not huge or dominating like our one back at the Village. I run my fingertips along the top and gaze out the window over the kitchen sink before moving to sit down on one of the wooden chairs. It is easy to imagine living here. Even the side entrance to the house is in the same place as in our current kitchen, something I didn't actually notice last time I was here. I lean back, my hands linked behind my head, and stretch out my legs, taking in everything around me. Yes. We will be happy here, I think.
Despite its simple furnishings, the house is comfortable and cosy. A good size; not too big. And lots of windows.
Peeta thumps in and laughs at my position before taking one of my hands and hauling me to my feet. "I thought you wanted to 'check out the rest,'" he quotes, grinning as I reward him with a scowl. "No sitting down on the job!"
He leads me behind the stairs, past the small bathroom, to a room that is rimmed with floor to ceiling windows and a sliding glass door. This is my favourite part; the section of the house that we have talked about a lot. The space that convinced us to buy it.
"I can't wait to get set up in here," he says to the empty room. "Lucky there are plenty of shelves for me to store everything."
"And you were right," I reply, squeezing his hand with affection, "there is so much light in here in the afternoon. You'll be able to paint after you finish work."
"Yep. I'm right once again. You would think that you'd be used to it by now," he jokes with a grin, earning himself a swat on the arm.
I walk over and slide open the heavy glass door, gazing down at the back of the property. Now this is my place. There is a wooden deck, similar to the porch at the front, with steps leading down to a small yard. It is made up of some garden beds, a small patch of grass and a huge old tree in the back corner. One of my favourite things is that it almost feels like the house was positioned here so the tree wouldn't be disturbed. I like that.
"The yard really is pretty big for a house in town," Peeta interrupts my thoughts, repeating words that we've spoken together a number of times over the last few weeks. "It's probably the biggest I've seen. And I don't think it matters that the house isn't huge."
I nod, turning on my heel to look up at him. "I think it's perfect," I reply simply, a small smile washing my lips. "We don't need more space than this."
He gives a crooked smile and grabs my hand before heading back through the house with me in tow. He leads me up the wooden stairwell, before we come to a stop in front of the three doors. He steps towards one and flips on the light switch.
The room's walls are a simple cream and it is empty, the light fitting lonely in the centre of the room. A large window fills most of one wall, and the soft chocolate curtains shift slightly as the door opens. I turn to Peeta, questions filling my eyes.
"Why are we in here?" I ask. We haven't even mentioned this room since we were here last. "Do you have something that you want to use it for?"
"Oh, I don't know," he replies in a knowing tone. "For now it could be a spare room in case Johanna or Annie come to visit. Or your mom." He pauses momentarily. "And then, maybe one day we could redecorate and it could be..."
His voice trails off, his eyes hopeful, as I fiercely shake my head. "No," I state emphatically. "I'm happy for it to be a bedroom, but I don't even want to think about kids."
"Okay, okay," he laughs, his hands going up in mock surrender. "I know that's how you feel right now. But maybe one day?" He looks at me hopefully.
At the sight of his blue eyes pleading with me and his gentle smile, I feel myself soften slightly. "Okay. Maybe one day, I might, maybe...consider the idea. Maybe." I let out a huff. "But don't hold your breath."
He simply laughs, and pulls me in for a hug. "It's okay Katniss, I'm just winding you up. You know I want kids one day, but way in the future. I'll wait as long as you need."
"Well, you'll be waiting a long time," I murmur softly into his chest, my heartbeat picking up speed at the thought of having children. "No child deserves to come into this world."
I don't expect him to hear me, but when he pulls back and looks into my eyes I know that he did. "Don't forget though, Katniss, the District 12 that we grew up in doesn't exist anymore. It died with Snow. This world...it's better. We'll all be safe." His eyes are so certain, his voice so calm, that I want nothing more than to believe him. But it is so typical of Peeta to believe the best, to believe that this peace we have will last. Right now, I can't afford to think that way. There's too much to lose to get complacent.
He can sense my discomfort, the fear starting to rise inside me, so he pulls me in close, rubbing his hands up and down my back. "Okay?" he whispers after a moment, before pressing his lips against my forehead. The ghost of a smile tugs the corner of my lips at the familiar gesture and I pull away slightly and look up into the face of the boy who has done so much for me. I don't tell him any of the fearful thoughts that are running through my mind. I don't tell him that even the thought of bringing children into this place makes my heart race and my blood run icy cold. That is an argument for another day. We don't need that this evening. So I simply shrug my shoulders before pressing a soft kiss to his crimson lips.
As we part, he smiles down at me and takes my hand. "Let's go see the last couple of rooms. We're almost at the best part!" He throws an exaggerated wink at me, flinging away the light blanket of melancholy that had settled upon us, and I can't help but laugh as he drags me out of the room to stand in front of what will be our bedroom.
He pushes open the mahogany door with a smile and steps aside so that I can see what he has done.
The furniture in here is sparse – a large wooden bed and two simple side tables – but there is a small fire crackling in the fireplace on the far wall. The door to the adjoining bathroom, a full walk-through complete with a bathtub, lies slightly ajar and I glimpse the white tiles sparkling in the evening sunlight.
I can't help but smile at the fireplace, the feature that initially convinced Peeta that I would love the house. I turn to him, eyes questioning the need for fire on such a warm evening, but he simply shrugs and throws a boyish grin at me. “I just had to,” he laughs, gesturing across the room.
My eye follows his movement, to the open door that leads out onto a small balcony overlooking the yard. There, away from the flames and where a cooler breeze dances lazily into the room, he has laid out a small blanket and topped it with two cushions, a wicker basket and a single wildflower.
I can feel my eyes widen. "How..?" I let the question trail from my lips.
"They let me in during my lunch break to set up," he grins. "So I just had to grab the basket and run upstairs to light the fire while you were in the kitchen." His face glows, gleeful that he has managed to pull this off and successfully surprise me. He takes my hand and leads me over to the blanket, making sure that I am comfortable before settling himself down across from me.
"I just wanted to do something special for our first meal here."
"Meal?" I ask, still shocked that he has organised all of this for us.
"It's not much," he apologizes, "but it will do."
He reaches into the basket and, unsurprisingly, pulls out two cheese buns. He hands them to me and I can't help but tear off a chunk greedily. I sigh in contentment; I can never be sick of these.
As I chew on it I place the plate down beside me, wondering what else he has hiding in that basket. I watch curiously as he pulls out two long stemmed glasses and fills them with a rich, golden liquid that is bubbling and fizzing. I have never seen this before, but it looks suspiciously like Capitol wine to me.
Peeta watches my face intently. "It's okay Katniss, there's no alcohol in there," he says, laughing at my expression. "It's a new type of apple juice. It's like the stuff from District 11, but they added bubbles to it. Don't worry, I'm not trying to get you drunk!"
I reach for a glass and take a sip, allowing just a bit of the fizzy, sweet liquid past my lips. It's nice. The bubbles are strange, hard to get used to I imagine, but the flavour is crisp and refreshing. Perfect for this warm evening. "It's good," I grudgingly admit.
"Well, here's to our new house," he says, eyes sparkling as he lifts his glass in the air, "and may our days here be filled with laughter and light." He clinks the rim of his glass gently against mine. "And love," he finishes. His eyes darken as he leans forward to claim my lips in an excruciatingly soft kiss, as the fire softly crackles on the other side of the room.
Peeta sighs contentedly as he pulls away from me, his golden eyelashes slowly fluttering open.
I speak first, smiling. "Finally we have somewhere that is just ours. It doesn't belong to anyone else."
He looks at me in confusion, "What about the bakery?"
"Well, that's yours really, not mine," I respond simply.
A slight frown creases his forehead, the same one that I saw so often in our first months back here in 12. I know now that I misunderstood it; it is really his face betraying his emotions as inner questions sneak their way to the surface.
"You don't think of it as ours?" he questions.
"Well baking has always been your thing, Peeta. You know I'm not great in the kitchen. You say so yourself!"
"I guess so," he says, his eyes focusing on the bubbles now slowly rising to the top of his glass. "I guess I just think of it as our place, you know? I guess I think of everything as ours now."
I shrug, unwilling to back down when I know I'm right. "I know what you mean, I guess. But this...this is your thing! It's Mellark's bakery, for heaven's sake!"
"Listen," he starts, putting his glass down and stretching his arms out behind him until he leans his weight on his palms, "do you remember what I said to you about the bakery, on that first day when I showed you the construction site?"
I nod, not really understanding where this is going. "You said that you needed it to be in a different place from the old one because you wanted it to be yours, not what your family had before because it is too hard to remember," I retort somewhat smugly, emphasizing the word 'yours' and sensing impending victory in this little debate.
"Exactly. But things have changed a lot since then. Back then, I had no idea how you felt. I didn't even really understand how I felt. All I knew was that you scared the life out of me when you hit your head on that pipe. And every day after that my feelings grew stronger until I was certain that I loved you."
I can feel a faint blush rise in my cheeks at his words.
"Back then, the bakery was mine," he continues frankly, "but now? Now it is ours. And in some ways we are just like it. This, what we are now, is new. It isn't forced; it isn't built in the fiery remnants of our past. Just like how we have a completely new bakery."
"I suppose so," I say slowly, my eyes on the floor. I don't even know how he can think of these things to say.
He pauses just long enough for me too glance up into his eyes before clarifying. "I just feel like we have spent these last few months creating something completely new. We aren't simply the baker and the hunter anymore. We aren't Tributes, the 'star crossed lovers of District 12.'" His voice presents its best Capitol accent, before it drops and flattens. He always sounds like this when he talks about things that are painful to remember. "We aren't feigning an engagement to save our families. And we aren't being tortured by the Capitol in order to hurt the other."
I reach out and touch his cheek gently, and he sits forward and grabs hold of my hand.
"We aren't any of those things. We are simply us. Peeta and Katniss. We shared some really terrible things, yeah. We can't deny that. We have memories that we don't want to talk about, and even some that we can't bear to forget. But now, in this new District, we are simply us. It's not that I remember that I used to love you so I am just continuing with that… it's like loving you now is completely new because we are new."
I nod, before ducking my head, embarrassed that a tear is actually pricking the back of my eyes. It's true, what he says. I can't say these things that he says, but I feel them.
"And the new us... we are the Mellarks now, and it is our bakery, just as this is our home."
At the word 'Mellarks', my head snaps up and suddenly I can hear nothing else. My heart pounds in my chest as my eyes roam wildly over the carefully prepared scene: the blanket, the crystal glasses, the fire. I can see that the wicker basket is still partially covered, so who knows what else might be in there, what else he might have planned for tonight.
A fear similar to the one that clutched at my heart in the other bedroom starts to creep up on me again and my mind whirls. He can't be about to ask that. Can he? No! He knows I'm not ready for that. A toasting doesn't need to be public, no, but I can't do this! It's too soon. It's too much.
Oh, but I love him so much. It's what he wants. I should…
But my mother, she couldn't... she lost… and what if?
At even the thought of losing this, of losing everything that I have at this moment, my heartbeat picks up rapidly. I try to fight it, not wanting to ruin our first time in our new house, but panic sets in.
Unfortunately this sudden grip of fear is not new to me. I squeeze my eyes shut and simply concentrate on breathing. I beg my heartbeat to slow down and focus my attention on the strong grip of the arms that are now wrapped around me. His muscles are strong and hard beneath his silky skin, and his heartbeat is steady under my ear. But I still can't slow my heart or steady my breathing. The fear is still winning.
I can feel Peeta's hands gently rubbing up and down my arms as he presses his lips against my forehead, but I can't make out his words through the haze.
I summon all of my energy to focus on Peeta, on all of the good things that I have seen him do. His face leaning over me in concern, blocking out the sunlight as I struggled to sit up, slightly concussed. Him walking with me, night after night, to keep the images of hell away. His strong hand stirring a pot of soup on the stove to take to the workers. His arms, covered in flour but so strong and sure for such a young boy, breaking the burnt loaves of bread before throwing them through the rain to land at my feet.
As each image of good flashes in my mind my heart rate begins to slow. My breathing eases. My shoulders relax.
It's fine. I'm okay. He's here with me.
I jump as the fire pops unexpectedly. My eyes are immediately drawn to the other side of the room, to a small ceramic vase that has been placed on the mantle. I didn't even notice it there before. It is no longer dusty. It is no longer hollow. And somehow, Peeta knew to bring it. He has cleaned it out and polished its surface before filling it with a handful of freshly picked daisies. Their bright yellow faces smile at me, bringing forth the memory of the dandelion from another lifetime, and as I stare at them his voice slowly swims back into focus.
"I'm sorry, Katniss. It's okay, that's not what I meant. I love you so much, and I know that you feel the same way. And that's enough. I promise, it's enough for me. I know it's too soon."
He pulls himself back and looks into my eyes, drawing my attention to nothing but him. "You know me, Katniss. One day, yes, I want to marry you. I want to go to the Justice Building and make it official that I am yours forever. I want us to do a toasting and to dance together and to celebrate what we have.
"But I will wait. You know I'll wait. Because this time when we take that step we will be ready and it will be real.
"So right now? No. This is what I want. You and me. I just want you, our home, our life together. At this moment, I can't think of anything I could want more than that."
I search deep inside me for words, for anything. "But…what if?" I stammer, unable to articulate my concern. "And I'm so…" My words trail off as I simply gesture towards myself, to the fear I still can't manage to keep under control.
He grips onto my shoulders, his deep blue eyes staring even more deeply into my eyes. "This… you… it is all I've ever wanted. It is all I will ever want. And I am never going to let you go. I can't."
As his eyes hold my gaze and he utters these familiar words another scene swims into my mind and I can't help but reach up and run my fingertips over the back of his hand. The spot is still slightly raised; scarred forever from where my teeth broke his skin. Even then, in the middle of our worst nightmare, he wouldn't let me go.
He pulls me back into his arms, pressing his usual kiss against my forehead on the way, and my eyes drift across the room once more.
And as I stare at the vase that he has given a new life, as the scent of the fire and the bread in front of us mixes and weaves effortlessly in the air...I believe him.
He's not going anywhere. I'm not going to lose him.
So I lean slightly away from him, still keeping myself firmly ensconced in his arms, and press a watery kiss against his lips. They are soft but firm and filled with need, and his body is hard and steady beneath me. And as I give in to the sensation and sink into him I know that I'm home.
Peeta locks the door firmly behind us and I walk across the balcony, leaning against the railing as I look out over the grass. The sun has almost set now, flames burning brightly across the horizon, and a summer breeze trickles over my skin. The crickets chirp merrily in the garden bed, and a deliciously savory smell dances across from a neighboring house. I shut my eyes and smile as Peeta's arms wrap around me until his hands clutch mine, and he pulls me close. Inhaling him deeply, I smile in contentment, all worries of the night fleeing from this one delectable moment.
"Okay?" his usual question meets my ear.
"Yeah," I reply, and I feel him smile against my hair. "All is good."
"Okay," he repeats, more firmly this time, before his tone lifts. "Now, let's go get that bread before Haymitch sends his geese after us!" And he swirls me around, spinning me under his arm once before wrapping it tightly around my shoulders.
And as we begin the short walk towards the bakery I can't help but think about his words, about what he said. About what he wants.
But what do I want? I want to be with him, always. There is no doubt about that. I can't survive without him, and I know now what that means. It isn't weakness. It is acceptance and contentment and passion and forever. And it is real.
So here, walking the road between our new home and our bakery, I wonder about the real possibility of marriage. I don't really understand why he needs it to be official; that won't change what we have. And the thought of it all makes my heart pound harder even now. The fear is definitely there.
But the steady weight of his arm resting across my shoulders reminds me that it is him that is real. That this is real.
That maybe, one day, we could bring home a loaf of bread of our own to toast together. And then that could be real too. And as my mind wanders, I can't help but think that maybe it wouldn't be so bad.
I don't want it right away. Too much has happened, and there's so much to deal with in our lives right now; we simply aren't ready for that. Not yet. But for the first time I allow myself to really think about being the baker's wife. Being Peeta's wife. And I feel a little ghost of a smile wash my lips.
It's funny, when I think about it, because so many momentous occasions in my life have involved bread.
Of course, it began when he threw me the burnt loaves in the rain the first time that he saved me. And then Gale and I shared a bread roll, possibly made by Peeta's own hands, on the day that our fates were sealed.
Later, in a whole new life, bread rolls contained the clues in the second arena, giving warning of the time and day of our rescue. Of course I didn't know at the time, but it was there. It saved me again.
Then, after he returned to me and wrapped his arms around me to ward off my nightmares, I fled under a shadow of fear and uncertainty. But when I returned I found two cheese buns waiting for me; a gesture of friendship. And it saw us move forward.
And now, as we walk towards the new bakery that is ours, that isn't tarnished with the past but is filled with warmth and love… now it is a symbol of our future. It means that maybe, after everything that we've seen and everything that we've survived, we can make it. That we will win.
I reach up and take his hand, holding on tightly, relieved that I will never have to let go.
And as his fingers lightly squeeze mine my heart gives a little leap, overjoyed with the knowledge that he is mine, and I am his.
Thank you so much to everyone who has left comments and kudos. I am so appreciative. I'm excited to be finishing this story with such lovely people reading it. And I would LOVE to know your final thoughts, so please PLEASE comment and let me know what you think!
I haven't started yet but I will be writing a series of oneshots through to the epilogue so keep an eye out for those!
Huge thanks go to curious12 from ff. She has given me many words of wisdom, ideas and inspiration. xx
Final disclaimer: All characters belong to Suzanne Collins. And it must be noted that this chapter makes specific references to scenes and lines from The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. Thanks for reading! :)