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fear is here to stay, love is here for a visit

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ONE

either you can leave the past behind
or give me something to disconnect my mind

Yes, Katniss says, stretching her hand out to accept Peeta's ring.

The tilt of the president's head as he embraces her tells her that she's done it. She's held up her end of the bargain.

They are safe, for now.

 

 

 

 

Things can't be like they were before the Victory Tour, if they're to keep this up, and so Peeta begins to spend many of his days at the Everdeen house. He bakes them the breads and cookies they could never afford, sketches, plays card games with Prim.

Katniss is often nearby, working in the kitchen or the living room, as they play gin rummy and go fish. When Peeta glances her way, which is often, she pretends to be wrapped up in the game she's cleaning or the book she's flipping through - but she notices.

He's good with Prim. He makes her laugh, and doesn't tease when she shyly asks him questions about boys. In some ways he seems more cognizant of the fact that Prim is growing up than Katniss can let herself be.

 

 

 

 

School starts up again, but as victors, Katniss and Peeta are no longer expected to attend. Katniss is mostly relieved; the knowledge she needs to survive is found in the hush of the forest, not the scrape of chalk on the blackboard.

To fill the long hours they work on her family’s plant book together: Katniss writes and Peeta draws, hands just barely brushing as they pass the pages back and forth between them.

One day as she is skinning a squirrel, Peeta turns from the kitchen table, where he is shading in the leaves of a fern, and catches her eye. Smiles. Katniss feels such a sudden rush of affection towards him that it spreads through her whole body, making her feel flushed and warm. It's terrifying.

"I forgot something," she announces abruptly and heads for the woods, where she climbs a tree and sits, waiting, until her heartbeat calms and the sun begins to set. She wonders if this is what it's like to slip slowly into love. She wonders if she's even capable of doing so.

 

 

 

 

"I don't think we can do this anymore," Katniss says quietly as Gale unlaces his game bag. It is a Sunday, three weeks before the wedding. They are in the woods, side by side on the familiar rock where they gather at the end of the hunt to assess their haul for the day. His hands still, and not for the first time she notices how different they look now, paler and yet rougher after all these months spent in the mines.

Gale shakes his head. "There's still time," he insists, meeting her eyes. Katniss hates this conversation; they've had it again and again, and it never changes. "We can make it out of here. We can bring whoever you want."

She grabs his hand and he squeezes back desperately. "This is the only way to keep everyone safe. Prim, my mother. You," she whispers. She's spent endless hours working through the different scenarios in her head, what ifs and maybe thens, and it always comes back to the same answer. In the end, giving in is her gift.

He pulls his hand away and stands, his movements jerky, like he wants to lash out or run but isn't sure what he can get away with. When Gale is angry, Katniss feels like she truly understands what he is: a thing of the wilds, brought up in confines he can't escape, even when he's outside their boundaries. Always clawing at freedom, but still unsure how deep he's willing to cut.

"Don't pretend like this has anything to do with me. I don't need your protection," he spits. "What does it matter what we do, if you're just playing house for the cameras?"

"You don't understand," she mutters, looking away.

Gale won't ever know what it's like to be hunted down, locked up, let out on a leash for millions of strangers to gape and gawk at. What it's like to sit inches from President Snow's snake eyes and blood breath and know that he will rip your loved ones apart, piece by ragged piece, if you don't fall in line. He wasn't on the tour of the districts, didn't feel the aggression roiling in the air as they proclaimed their victory over the other fallen children. He didn't see a man shot to death for the crime of whistling.

She doesn't want him to understand; that is the point.

Then Gale kisses her.

Their first kiss was so long ago that she'd started to wonder if it had been a dream, something she'd made up in her head to explain the odd tension she's felt with him since her return from the arena. Lips all feel the same to Katniss – Gale’s might as well be Peeta’s – but the way he moves them is different. There is more intent, like he's seeking something just out of reach.

She clutches the bottom of his shirt in her hand and leans into the kiss, knowing it's the last. "I love you," he breathes into her mouth, and she swallows the words, holding them deep in her lungs.

 

 

 

 

Effie shows up four days before the wedding to escort them back to the Capitol. "I never dreamed that I'd be escorting two victors, much less for such a happy occasion - oh, goodness, excuse me!" she chokes out, dashing away before the tears brimming in her eyes can run down her cheeks and reveal that there is human skin under the pale powder after all.

Katniss' mother kisses her cheeks and Prim holds her tightly, pressing her face into her sister's worn button-down shirt. "I'll see you in just a few days," Katniss tells her, stroking her soft blonde hair.

"I know," Prim says. "But it'll be different."

Peeta carries Katniss' small bag to the station for her - there's hardly anything in it, no need for clothes or toiletries when it's all being taken care of in the Capitol - and reaches down to help her up the steps after him. She hesitates. "I'm just going to get some air while I still can," she tells him, turning away. After a long pause she hears him sigh and climb into the car of the train.

Katniss waits, the afternoon wind slowly loosing her hair from its long braid.

 

 

 

 

Eventually she hears footsteps behind her again. "Katniss." It's Effie, and her makeup is flawless. "We're leaving."

She doesn't answer, just squints off into the distance before she finally turns and joins Effie on the train. She doesn't look back.

 

 

 


TWO

tighter and tighter I hold you tightly
you know I love you more than slightly

You may now kiss the bride, Caesar Flickerman proclaims, his eyes misty with tears, because who else would officiate the hottest wedding to hit Panem in twenty-odd years than the man who started it all with one simple question?

Peeta locks eyes with Katniss and in the fleeting moment before he closes them to kiss her, he tries to convey what he hopes she already knows: she is doing this with someone who would always, always choose her, if he had the choice.

 

 

 

 

There is no toasting ceremony. When Peeta mentioned it to Domitia, their wedding planner, she had laughed.

"You're beginning a new life together! Why would you want to start it off with some old District thing like that?"

Katniss tells him later that it's okay; a toasting would have felt too real. But this is real, he wants to scream. This is as real as it gets.

 

 

 

 

Katniss dances with Haymitch as the guests dab the tears from their eyes. It's so touching, that she's found a father figure in him, that he's found a second chance in her.

Peeta knows that it's bullshit - Domitia had insisted on a father-daughter dance, and her only living male "relatives" happened to be Gale and his younger brothers - but he can tell that Haymitch is joking with her as they glide beneath the spotlight, because her smile is at least a little bit genuine.

Peeta's own family is here, standing uncomfortably among the crowd. They seem out of place in their dark blue suits and ties that looked so nice back in District 12. Here their outfits are so comparatively subdued that they look strange and thoughtless, as if the whole family had shown up wearing pajamas.

When Haymitch and Katniss are done, Peeta dances uncomfortably with his mother. He knows that she views his marriage through the prism of his father's first (only?) love. She was angry when he proposed; he was the second boy she'd lost to these women who didn't even want him, who wanted only coal miners.

But she doesn't care anymore, he can see in the way that her eyes wander the room, looking at anything but her youngest son. Now he's just one less mouth to feed.

 

 

 

 

The cake gives him hope for one brief, shining moment. They cut it together, and when Katniss turns to feed him a piece she presses it against his nose instead, her fingers smearing frosting over his lips. She laughs and he kisses her, and she kisses back, licking the sugar off his bottom lip.

It's a lovely moment, one that will surely see a lot of replay in the days to come as their wedding special is broadcast again and again throughout Panem. But he reminds himself quickly that Katniss isn't really this playful – she would never waste perfectly good food – and so he pushes away the warm little glow that had settled in his stomach.

"That was good, what you did with the frosting before," he whispers later as they dance in slow circles around the floor. The lights are dim and the guests are finally tiring. Soon they'll be alone, up in their room, and - well. "It was convincing.

She looks at him strangely and he wraps his arms around her tighter, resting his cheek on her soft, dark hair.

 

 

 

 

Prim is the last to leave, lingering in the ballroom even after Peeta's eldest brother Ned has scooped up Mrs. Everdeen, fast asleep in her chair, and carried her to the car waiting outside for both families. She joins Peeta by one of the bars, now empty, where he sips a glass of water, waiting for Katniss to emerge from the bathroom.

"Shouldn't you be in bed by now?" he asks, with exaggerated concern.

Prim laughs. "You're really my brother now," she says, smiling up at him.

Peeta smiles back. "I guess I am."

They stand together in companionable silence, until Prim's face grows serious. "Katniss thinks she doesn't need anyone to take care of her," she says. "Mostly she's right. But you will, won't you?"

"I will," Peeta answers, resting his hand briefly on her thin, little shoulder. "I promise."

"Prim!" Katniss' bare feet squeak on the marble floor as she hurries towards them, her dainty, high-heeled shoes discarded hours ago, despite Effie's disapproving clucks. "It's past midnight. You should be asleep right now, not waiting around for us."

Peeta and Prim exchange a look, and Prim giggles. "I know. I just wanted to say goodnight." She hugs Katniss, and Peeta is struck by how tall the younger girl has already grown in the months since he first met her, right after their return from the arena. In her modest Mary Janes she's only an inch or two shorter than Katniss. "I love you."

The sisters break apart, and Prim skips towards the doors. "Bye, Peeta!" she calls over her shoulder.

"Bye, sis," he replies, and from the corner of his eye he catches the smile that flits across Katniss’ face.

 

 

 

 

The moment they enter their room Katniss slips out of her dress, letting the heavy silk and pearls pool around her feet like a shedded snake skin. "I can't wear that anymore," she says, breathing deeply, as if a rubber band's been removed from her chest.

Peeta wants to stare at her, to drink in the miles of skin between her underwear and bra, but he turns away to focus on the bed while she pulls on a nightgown. The bed is huge, round and shiny and red and ridiculous. They will climb under its slippery sheets, he thinks, and he'll hold her until it's warm enough to sleep.

He doesn't hear her approach until she's already slipped her hand into his. "I'm not sleeping in that thing," she says flatly.

"They probably thought we wouldn’t be doing much sleeping tonight,” he jokes, half-hearted, and he can't believe it when she looks up and kisses him, running her soft hands up his chest.

 

 

 

 

Katniss cries a little when he pushes into her, says it just hurts, that's all. He knows better. But when he falls into her and she comes apart beneath him it's still almost the happiest he's ever been in his life.

 

 

 




THREE

home isn’t where it used to be
home is anywhere you hang your head

You're going to live here now, Haymitch tells them, taking a long swig from the bottle in his hand so he doesn't have to look them in the eye.

It's unusual, but not unheard of, for a victor to live out their remaining days in the Capitol. Most victors are broken, battered people after the Games, no matter how many times they're soaked and scrubbed and shined, and no one in the Capitol wants to see the cracked shell of a person shuffling past them on the street. But a few survive, adapt, thrive.

Katniss knows why they are kept there: so the government's cameras and microphones and spies can trace their every move, stamp out the slighest trace of rebellion before it even begins. Unnecessary, she thinks; after everything, all she wants for the rest of her life is to lie in a meadow and sleep.

Just a day after the wedding they're taken to a little house on the outskirts of town, in an aging neighborhood that's already well past its days of glory, which ended years ago when it was no longer fashionable to live outside of the city center. The homes around them seem mostly empty.

They're practically paupers by Capitol standards, but to Katniss, it's decadence.

The house is only half the size of those in the Victors’ Village, but still much larger than the homes either of them had grown up in. They have to ask Effie what the third bedroom is for. (They both know what the second bedroom is for, with its pale yellow walls and lace curtains, but neither is willing to acknowledge it yet.)

"That's your guest bedroom," she says, looking between them as if it's the most obvious thing in the world. Sometimes she forgets that they were not always the Capitol's lovestruck darlings, that once they were just anonymous children in a place where there are no visitors, and there is no extra to go around.

The only part of the house that Katniss really likes is the deck off the back, built over a sloping green hill. It's big enough for a picnic table and chairs, and it overlooks the forest that skirts around the edges of the city. At night she leans over the railing and closes her eyes, breathes in the smell of the trees, and can almost believe that she's back at home, leaning over the fence between District 12 and the wilderness beyond.

 

 

 

 

They have sex for the second time in their own bed with soft cotton sheets, and then the third and fourth and fifth, and Katniss is surprised to find herself enjoying it – craving it. On many days there is no reason to get out of bed, no one to see and nothing to do, and so they don’t.

She loves the way his tongue feels on her breasts, the pleasure that spirals through her belly when he first slides into her, the boneless feeling in her arms and legs after she’s come. The way Peeta’s eyes light up and then darken when she touches his thigh or presses her hip against his, letting him know that she wants him again. The words he moans when she’s on top, rocking over him – words she never thought she’d hear from sweet, polite Peeta – and the fact that he never even blushes when he says them.

Most of all, she loves that this is a way for her to show the things that she thinks she feels but still can’t say. Her leg hitched around his hip: I need you. Her hand pulling his to the warm, wet place between her legs: I want you.

“I love you,” he tells her one night, when they’ve both finished but he’s still inside her, nestled between her legs, his head on the pillow next to hers. She’s been bracing for this, but in the moment all of the words she’d planned slip away into silence.

Katniss presses a kiss to his shoulder, and hopes he understands.

 

 

 

 

There's a cordless telephone in the apartment, and every Thursday afternoon she calls Prim from the balcony. She'd thought that Prim and her mother would be banished from the Village once she left, but the house is hers as long as she's alive, and they're permitted to stay.

Prim asks her when she's coming home to visit, and Katniss goes silent for a long moment. There's only one way they'll ever let her set foot on District 12 soil again, and it's for the Reaping. "When are you coming to visit me, little duck?" she teases instead. "We have a whole bedroom here with your name on it."

Prim laughs. "No you don't."

"I do. I even wrote your name on the door."

Sometimes Prim passes the phone to their mother when they are done, but the conversations are short, perfunctory. Yes, they are eating well. Prim's doing well in school. It's all well, well, well. That's good. Goodbye.

 

 

 

 

Three weeks after they move in they are sitting on the deck at dusk, Katniss watching Peeta sketch a little red bird that's building a nest in the corner where the railing meets the wall. He stops suddenly and looks at her.

"I talked to Haymitch yesterday.”

“Let me guess. He ran out of all the liquor we sent home with him after the wedding, and he wants more.”

Peeta laughs. “No.” His pencil tap-tap-taps against the table. “Actually, he asked me if we'd christened the house yet.”

Katniss leans back in her chair, stretching out her legs. "I don't know what that means."

Peeta sets down the pencil. It rolls off the table, but he doesn’t move to pick it up. "It means having sex in every room."

She wrinkles her nose. "Haymitch asked that? Ew - oh." Suddenly he’s kissing her, lifting her out of her seat, setting her down on the tabletop. "Out here?" she gasps against his mouth, fumbling at the zipper of his pants even as she says it.

"Out here," he confirms, his stubble rough against her neck, his hands spanning her back. "There’s no one here, Katniss.” He pulls off her shirt, and goosebumps prickle her skin in the cool evening air. “There’s only us.”

Three days later they’ve christened every room except the yellow one, whose door is always closed.

 

 

 




FOUR

welcome to the working week
I know it don’t thrill you, I hope it don’t kill you

You're going to be on television, they tell him, their teeth glinting impossibly white under the fluorescent lights.

Panem Pastry with Peeta Mellark premieres to remarkable ratings for a city where almost no one cooks their own meals, much less bakes their own cakes and pies. But thousands sit rapt by their screens that night as Peeta shows them how to sculpt a perfect frosted flower out of nothing but butter and sugar. His smile is relaxed and easy, and the camera closes in on his steady, unblemished hands.

There's a premiere party that night for the Capitol's best and brightest. Everyone wants a moment with Peeta. They tell him how fascinating his work is, how beautiful, and how delicious the brightly colored cakes at the party taste. He accepts their compliments graciously, but in truth, he didn't bake a single one of them.

Finnick Odair is there, making the rounds, and at one point Katniss leans up to whisper I think he's watching us. He thinks she's right, but he still feels silly when he grabs her hand as Finnick finally approaches them. What's Finnick going to do? Seduce them to death?

"Hello," Finnick greets them, licking blue frosting off of his long ring finger. "Nice party. I'm Finnick."

"I know," Peeta says stiffly, and immediately feels rude. "Hi. Thanks," he adds.

"Enjoying the Capitol life?" Finnick addresses Katniss this time. She stares back at him impassively. "Let me guess. They've got you set up on the edge of civilization, the few neighbors you have are geriatric, and when they're not trotting you out in front of the cameras you're so bored you'd rather be working the mines in 12."

Their silence all but confirms it, and Finnick smiles a little, but suddenly he looks softer, sad. "It can get better," he says, and Peeta can hear a hint of his District 4 accent coming through for the first time. "And it could be worse. You're lucky you came out without that leg." He gestures to Peeta. "No one's willing to pay much for damaged goods."

Finnick walks away, and Katniss releases Peeta's hand. "What is he talking about?" she frowns. Peeta only has time to shrug before another well-wisher is upon him, shaking his hand.

It's not until later, when Peeta sees Finnick leaving hand-in-hand with a heavyset, blue-skinned man in pinstripes and green hair, that he understands. They meet eyes across the room, and Finnick winks. Peeta feels lightheaded.

Katniss reaches up to touch his shoulder. "You okay?"

"I'm okay," he says, reaching up to cover her hand with his own. Maybe he is lucky, after all.

 

 

 

 

Three days a week, Katniss visits Cinna in his studio to work on her “talent.” Panem Pastry only tapes on Wednesdays, so Peeta finds himself alone in the house for long stretches of time. He bakes and paints, and dreads the moments where it feels as though nothing has changed since the days when he lived alone in the Victors’ Village.

When he receives the call from his brother Brody he’s unsure how to react. “Where are you calling from? Did Dad install a phone in the bakery?” He can’t imagine why; it’s not as if any of their customers in District 12 have one to call in orders.

Brody pauses. “Well, that’s why I’m calling – to let you know we moved into the house. That you won.” He sounds uncomfortable, and Peeta wonders how he was chosen as the unlucky messenger to the boy they’re all trying to forget.

Peeta remembers the day he’d returned to District 12 from the arena, how he’d been so eager to move his family into this new home where they’d finally have enough: enough space, enough bedrooms, enough food that they could eat the fresh bread instead of the hard, dry leftovers.

And he remembers his mother’s look as she’d told him it didn’t make sense for them to all live there, not with the bakery a half hour walk away. His father, who wouldn’t meet his eyes. His brothers, always silent in the moments when it mattered the most.

“We just thought – you know, it shouldn’t go to waste, with you in the Capitol now,” Brody continues. “We watched your show. Dad was really proud. A couple people came in asking for cakes with flowers like the one you made, after that.”

“Great. I’m glad you’re all doing so well without me.”

“Peeta –“

“Enjoy the house. Enjoy the…just enjoy it.”

When Katniss comes home that evening, she asks him how his day went. Uneventful, he says; he wants to hear how her day went, and she tells him about the awful red fish eggs on crackers that Cinna made her try for lunch, and the pomegranates they ate for dessert, which were wonderful.

If she can tell that he’s upset, she doesn’t let on, and he’s grateful. Katniss was the reason her family survived; she wouldn’t really understand what it was like to be the reason your family never had quite enough.

 

 

 

 

That night he fucks her hard: bedsprings screaming, headboard thudding against the wall. He wants to lose a piece of himself inside of her, a part of him that will be a part of her forever. He wants to claim her body, possess her; but more importantly, he wants to surrender his own.

And maybe he succeeds, because the Katniss in this bed isn’t one he’s seen before: she is wild, ecstatic. “Fuck,” she gasps, digging her nails into his shoulders, making him even harder, and he can’t understand how this happened – how he’s buried so deep inside Katniss Everdeen, how she’s writhing and moaning and begging beneath him. “Fuck...Peeta –“

She comes loudly, and he spills into her, collapsing on top of her. In the moment he’s overwhelmed – with love, with fear, with a loneliness that’s been burrowing deeper and deeper into his heart each day – and he chokes the words into her neck before he can stop himself: You're mine?

Her heart races under his chest as long seconds stretch on in silence, and his own beats back a plea in staccato rhythm: say yes, please say yes.

“We’re each other’s,” she whispers.

 

 

 




FIVE

you think you’re alone until you realize you’re in it
now fear is here to stay, love is here for a visit

No, Katniss gasps, hand at her mouth.

“For the Seventy-fifth Hunger Games – our third Quarter Quell – only one tribute will be reaped from each district.”

The president pauses onscreen, his puffy lips just barely parted.

“That tribute must select another competitor of the opposite sex to enter the arena as their district partner.”

 

 

 

 

The train arrives in District 12 right on schedule. Prim and Mrs. Everdeen wait patiently on the only wooden bench by the station. “I told my family they didn’t need to come,” Peeta mumbles as they disembark. “Busy day for the bakery, with tomorrow and all.”

The difference between home and their quiet, empty house in the Capitol is stark. Here there is a steady stream of people seeking her mother’s poultices and herbs, and Prim is an endless reservoir of questions: How big is their house? Who are their neighbors? Are they thinking about getting a pet, maybe a cat who could be friends with Buttercup when they visit?

“Gale asked when you were getting home,” Prim says offhandedly as they eat dinner around the kitchen table. “I thought he would come by. I guess he’s been working all day, though.”

Katniss tries not to react; she glances at Peeta, who is steadily focused on his rabbit stew. “Oh,” is all she can manage.

It’s a relief when the sun finally sets and the house turns quiet. Katniss takes Peeta’s hand and leads him up to her bedroom, ignoring the thin line of her mother’s pursed lips.

“Is it alright that I’m here?” he asks quietly, undressing by the bedside table. “Maybe I should have stayed with my family.”

Katniss shrugs. “You’re my husband,” she says. “She forfeited her right to an opinion a long time ago.”

 

 

 

 

They make love slowly and quietly late in the night, the only sound their hushed breaths and the soft rustle of sheets.

After, Katniss curls against him, already wary of the nightmares she knows will come. “I’m not ready for this,” she whispers. “I can’t believe it’s already been a year.”

“Me neither,” Peeta sighs. He strokes her hair, tangling his fingers in the long, black locks. He starts to speak, and then stops, his hands stilling at the back of her neck.

"What?"

"Nothing." She turns her head to eye him questioningly. "I -" Peeta falters, rubbing a hand over his face. "It's insane. Who would you choose?" 

Katniss knows he doesn't mean for her to answer, but the sick feeling settles in her gut anyway. Who would she have chosen? She could choose an ally, someone strong like Peeta or Gale who would stick by her side until the end, and then wait for the chips to fall where they may.

Or she could choose someone weak. Someone she could beat.

Katniss knows which one she'd have chosen.

She's a survivor, that one.

 

 

 

 

Gale is in the kitchen waiting for her when Katniss stumbles downstairs, but it's Peeta, right behind her in his t-shirt and boxers and mussed hair, that his eyes keep flicking to as he speaks.

"I thought you'd want to come to the woods this morning." 

She'd almost forgotten. This was what they did, every year, the morning of the Reaping. They rose early, shot game, ate wild berries and savored their almost-freedom because in a few short hours they might lose it forever.

This morning, though, Gale is too old and Katniss is a victor and there is no question about their freedom: they never really had it to begin with. They know that now.

She glances up at Peeta, who shrugs. "I don't mind," he says, but stands close, his hand resting on the small of her back. 

"Let me go change," she whispers, and runs back up the stairs.

 

 

 

 

The supple wood of her bow is familiar in her hand. The forest around them is quiet and unchanged, as if it had frozen in time without her, waiting for Katniss to come back and breathe it to life.

Gale doesn't speak as he cuts his prey loose from his snares, and the silence isn't comfortable like it once was: it's heavy, aggressive.

“How’s the high life in the Capitol?” he finally asks. He's turned away, wrapping a dead rabbit in a piece of burlap torn from a sack of grain.

“Horrible,” Katniss answers. “I hate it.” 

"You hate it," he repeats quietly. "And him?"

"What?"

"Your husband." Gale turns and looks at her, eyes unreadable. She stares back.

"Do I hate my husband?"

"No," he sighs, throwing the rabbit in his bag. "Does he hate it, too."

"Oh. Of course he does." And she realizes that although she's always assumed, she doesn't know, not really.

Katniss expects another question - one about regrets, maybe - but Gale doesn't comment, just settles on the grass beside her and pulls out of a loaf of bread. It's dark and flat, made of tesserae grain. He tears it in two, offering her the bigger half, and they chew their bread in silence as the air grows warmer around them.

 

 

 

 

"I remember last year I was so sure I would be chosen," he tells her as they draw closer to the fence. "But even though you had so many tesserae I never thought it would be you. I knew that something bad was going to happen. I just never thought it would be you." 

"Well, it wasn't me," Katniss murmurs. She stops a foot from the fence and leans in close to listen for the telltale buzzing. "It was Prim." The fence is dead, as usual. She bends to slip beneath the wire, but Gale's voice stops her.

"When we did this last year, I wanted to kiss you then." She's frozen, head down, hands and knees on the dirt. "I thought it might be my last chance. I guess it sort of was." He pauses. "I guess it wouldn't have changed anything."

But Katniss feels her stomach clench, and she wonders if it could have: if a kiss could have rippled through the air like a butterfly's wings, and shifted the slips of paper in their round glass bowls.

 

 

 

 

Effie is waiting for her in the living room when she returns. "Where have you been? You are due onstage in an hour - is that dirt I see under your fingernails -?"

Katniss finds Peeta finishing up a bath upstairs. She strips off her sweat-soaked clothes and climbs into the tub with him, the water rising and splashing over the sides before he can say a word. Their hands meet somewhere in the middle, grasping for each other clumsily.

"I need you to know -" She swallows, shivering slightly in the lukewarm water. "You need to know that there are so many things I'd change, but I wouldn't change you." His fingers tighten painfully around her own just beneath the surface. "I swear, Peeta. I wouldn't."

His hands are warm around hers as he pulls them up to rest beneath his chin. He holds them there, his thumb tracing back and forth on her wrist, and smiles slightly. “I know. I wouldn’t either.”

 

 

 

 

A thirteen-year-old boy is reaped, and he chooses his classmate, a girl with long brown hair in a braided ponytail. Katniss can tell from the shock on his own face that he hadn’t chosen, he’d just reacted – just said the first name that came into his head.

While the tributes say their goodbyes, Peacekeepers herd Katniss and Peeta and Haymitch onto the train. Her head feels fuzzy and light, and Peeta frowns when she accepts a glass of something dark and pungent from Haymitch in the bar car. Finally they hear Effie’s trill through the walls, and the engine rumbles to life beneath their feet.

Peeta stands and reaches out a hand for Katniss. She clutches her drink tightly.

“Just…give me a minute.”

“Katniss.” She looks anywhere but his face. “You know how it felt. We can’t leave them in there.”

“A minute, Peeta.” He sighs and turns to leave. She watches him disappear down the hall.

Haymitch’s laugh startles her; she’d almost forgotten he was there. He leans over and tops off her drink, his hand trembling just the slightest bit.

His sigh, though, is weary, as are his words: “Welcome to the real world, sweetheart.”