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Miles Cross

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They’ll turn me in your arms, ladye,
An aske but and a snake;
But hauld me fast, let me na gae,
To be your warldis make.

‘They’ll turn me in your arms, ladye,
But and a deer so wild ;
But hauld me fast, let me na gae,
The father o’ your child.

They’ll shape me in your arms, ladye,
A hot iron at the fire;
But hauld me fast, let me na go,
To be your heart’s desire.

‘They’ll shape me last in your arms, Janet,
A mother-naked man;
Cast your green mantle over me,
And sae will I be won.

~ Tam Lin, The Oxford Book of Ballads

**

If you truly mean to save him from the darkness, their bleary-eyed mentor had said, sounding like nothing so much as a granny-woman as he scattered the corn to his geese, you must cling to him. Hold fast, no matter what shape he takes.

If there’s one thing Katniss Everdeen knows, it’s how to hold on.

She returns home to find him in the garden, gray with weariness and cross at the weeds, dragging a hand across his damp brow. He limps and grimaces, and she knows his leg will be paining him. Another day, she promises herself, and begins to turn away.

But no, it cannot wait. Another day and the boy in the garden will be a stranger.

She entices him into the cool shadows of the house with a glass of iced mint tea. “I could’ve had that in the garden,” he grumbles, setting the drained glass on the table with an impatient chink. “Why did you make me come inside?”

She takes two steps forward and wraps her arms around his waist.

He’s confused at first, and rightly so. “What are you doing, Katniss?” he asks, his own arms stretched out at his sides, as though he can’t bear her touch. “I don’t want a hug. I want to finish weeding the carrots.”

This is easy, she thinks, and holds on.

"Let go,” he says irritably, pushing at her shoulders. “I want to go back outside.”

Still she holds on.

“Katniss, stop being stupid,” he snaps, his voice tight now with impatience. “Let go of me.”

His muscles flex beneath her arms, but she’s fought powerful game before. She snugs her arms about him in response.

“I don’t want this,” he says, and thrashes in the circle of her arms like a rabbit in a snare. “I don’t want you. I never did.”

She presses her face to his chest to hide the pain. Lies. All lies. She remembers the look in his eyes, though she didn’t understand it until it was too late. Love; pure shimmering love, every time he gazed at her, and later hunger, though not for food.

“I always wanted you,” he whimpers. “But you never wanted me.”

This is nearer the truth, and yet still far from it. She didn’t understand, didn’t know her own body – nor her mind. She splays her palms on his broad back and rubs gentle circles with her fingers, thinking to reassure him, but instead he screams in pain.

“You’re hurting me!” he cries, jerking wildly at her touch, and she can hear tears in his voice. “You’re burning me! Stop it!” he sobs, pushing at her shoulders with strangely feeble hands. “Please. Please don’t hurt me anymore.”

She tightens her hold before he can pull away, her own eyes filling with tears at the thought of causing him such pain, real or otherwise. Her arms are beginning to ache from containing him, and he’s powerful enough to break them – break her – if he wants. But she doesn’t – can’t – let go.

So she holds him even tighter – maybe it’ll be over quicker that way – and suddenly the broken, weeping boy is like cold iron in her arms. “What are you doing, Katniss?” he asks in a bored, almost sensible tone. It’s not his voice: it’s President Snow’s, and the horror of it is almost enough to break her grip. “Can’t you see: Peeta doesn’t want you. A shriveled little brown thing with patchwork skin? He’d as soon make love to a yam in his precious garden.”

And he continues, just as cruelly, but in his own voice, “You’re not pretty, you know, not in the least. Half your hair is stubble and the rest is coarse and ratty. Your skin is like mud and you’ve got no breasts at all.”

She weeps against him now, for this much is very true. She is ugly, the burnt Mockingjay. Only her face escaped the flames, and she knows without being told that it held no beauty worth saving. Beneath her clothes, her skin is a mangle of tender pink tissue and pale puckered burns. Even if he were her Peeta again, she could never offer him that.

“Let me go!” he says again, and this time it is a shout. His powerful hands prise at her arms, gripping to bruise, but she twines her fingers behind his back and holds him tighter still. “You kill everything you touch!” he cries. “Everything you love, and everyone who loves you!

“I don’t want to die,” he whispers, in the voice of a terrified child. “You killed my family, Katniss. My dad and brothers – and your sister too. Your own mother can’t bear to look at you.”

She sobs at this – the worst, truest accusation so far – and the boy in her arms takes advantage of the moment to lash out. He kicks her, hard, with his good leg, making her yelp with pain, but the effort unbalances him and they both crash to the kitchen floor. Her arms are still wrapped around him, and there is nothing to break her fall. Her vision swims as her head strikes the hardwood, but she clings to him all the more. It’s almost easier with them lying down, she thinks through her haze of grief and pain, for now she can wind her legs around him too.

“Don’t touch me!” he snarls, pushing her leg off his hip. “Do you think I want you? I did once, and you went with him, panting and moaning and rutting with him in the woods. You disgust me,” he says, shoving at her with all his strength.

Not real, she reminds herself. Not real not real not real.

Her arms hold fast, even as he flails at her shoulders with furious fists. It’s as though her hands have fused together behind his back, and she couldn’t let go even if she wanted to.

“Katniss,” he says finally, and his voice is very small and broken. “Just let me go. I can start over in a new district; find someone who will love me.”

love you,” she whispers.

It’s the first time she’s spoken the words to anyone outside her family, let alone to him. She doesn’t say it for effect, or to hear it back. The words are at once dragged from her soul and beautifully unbidden. It’s true, she realizes, and maybe always has been.

“But I don’t love you,” he says wearily. “I’m not sure I ever did. Just…let me go, okay?” he asks, and there is a plea in his voice that hurts more than any of his insults or angry words.

“I’ll let you go,” she chokes, rubbing her tears against his chest, “when you’re better, and then you can go wherever you like and love whoever you want. But until then, I’m going to hold you. Whatever shape you take.”

At this he gives a furious roar, like the mutt he once accused her of being, and he kicks and thrashes and rolls them over and over and over. But he can’t shake her off, can’t crush her with his weight. Finally he pins her with his thighs and wraps his powerful hands around her scarred throat. “Please don’t make me do this,” he whispers.

Bruised and battered, yet somehow wholly unafraid, she inches her clasped hands a little higher on his back, her arms screaming at the effort, and lifts up to press her salty lips clumsily against his.

His body slumps, as though every ounce of his power and anger was drained by that simple gesture, and he collapses onto her. Her body gives a weary moan in reply and decides it would be a very good idea to sleep.

**

She wakes at sunset to find herself in bed – her own bed. She lies beneath a thin cool sheet, her body naked and sore, seemingly everywhere.

“I hope this is right,” says a gentle voice, and she feels large strong hands on her back and shoulders, coaxing a soft herbal cream into her skin. She doesn’t know where he found her mother’s medicines, but this one is exactly right for the occasion. Calendula and arnica and comfrey – knit-bone, her father had called it. It feels so good, those big warm hands rubbing the ointment into her aching shoulders.

She feels lips at the nape of her neck, and it’s even better than the touch of those hands. “I’m so sorry, Katniss,” he says, and she recognizes the voice with a start. It’s Peeta.

Peeta is with her. Taking care of her. Healing her.

Startled, she turns over to meet bright blue eyes that are shadowed with worry but clear of confusion, anger, and hatred. “Are you all right?” he whispers. “You hit your head so hard, and I was kicking and hitting you and –”

She nods and immediately regrets it, for the acute dizziness that follows. “I’m okay,” she says weakly.

“You held on to me,” he says in wonder. “Through everything. I did and said the most horrible things.”

“It wasn’t you,” she replies, though her eyes beg him to confirm this. “Not real.”

“Not real,” he says firmly, and presses a light kiss to her forehead. It feels exquisite, the touch of his lips after so very long, and all the pain that has come in the months between.

“And just for the record,” he murmurs, folding the sheet down at her waist. “No part of your body has ever been less than perfect to me.” His face softens with something like awe, and he dips his head to brush his lips across one ruined brown breast.

She catches her breath and traces his sweet mouth with a fingertip. She doesn’t know which of them this is meant to feel good for, but the touch of his lips there triggers a tightness in her chest that has nothing to do with pain. “They’ll never be pretty,” she whispers, thinking of the dresses she once wore, and the small, firm mounds of her dusky breasts above Cinna’s bodices. “Or…normal, ever again. But the doctors said…” She hesitates. “Someday…I could still nurse a baby.”

His eyes fill with tears and something at once soft and radiant. “A baby?” he echoes.

Hope, she realizes. This broken boy, burned and scarred and driven mad with poisons, this boy with no family and half a leg, wants nothing more than to make a home in the ashes of his old life and raise a child.

With her.

“Someday,” she promises, her voice catching on a sob.

He carefully turns back the sheet, all the way to her feet, and she realizes he is naked too. He stretches out beside her on the mattress and tenderly kisses every inch of her body, savoring the dark smudges where he hurt her and the sensitive seams that hold her patchwork skin together.

After a little he moves up to lick her nipple, almost curiously, and stills as she whimpers. “I’m hurting you again,” he says sadly.

She shakes her head, her cheeks flushed. “It feels…nice,” she whispers, almost in disbelief. Hot and breathless, but so nice.

They experiment with this new acquaintance of mouth and breast, being too damaged and uncertain to know quite how to proceed, and find a soft, wet suckle feels best of all, for them both. She likes the sight of his lips closed around her tiny nub of mangled tissue, likes the contented sounds that leave his throat. Loves the persistent, longing tug of his mouth on such an unattractive part of her.

Her belly grows warm and heavy as he sucks, and she guides one of his hands there, to rest in the hollow between her hipbones. But just resting on her isn’t enough to soothe the ache, and she doesn’t resist as his fingers inch toward the coarse curls at the juncture of her thighs. That strange, needless part of her, she thinks, that was somehow, stupidly, spared by the flames.

His fingers dip between the hidden folds of her to find things neither of them quite expect: a pink slippery bud that makes her whole body sigh when he brushes it and a tight hot hollow, further down, that burns at the hesitant probing of his fingertip and yet grows wet and slick as he gently caresses all those secret parts of her, over and over again.

This isn’t how it happens, she thinks, and yet suddenly it does. She presses her sore back against the mattress and spreads her legs as wide as they’ll go, opening herself wholly to him. He meets her eyes, confused, thinking she’s only moving like this to make it easier for him to touch her between her legs, and then she tugs at his shoulders. Inviting him to climb on top of her.

“Are you sure?” he whispers, his eyes wide as he carefully lowers his weight over her. The hard, smooth thing between his legs pokes against her thigh, leaving a bubble of wetness on her skin.

He needn’t have asked. She was sure when she clung to him this afternoon. Sure when she found him outside her house, transplanting primroses in memory of her sister.

Maybe sure the first time she kissed him in the dank cave of their first arena.

She kisses him now with reassurance, and he slowly pushes the hard thing inside her.

She whimpers a little at this first breach of her body, but she’s known so much pain already, so much worse, and this is a sweet pain. The pain of joining two long-separated halves of a whole. Her hands slip over his backside, urging him deeper, and the pain moves from sharp to burning to dull as he hesitantly, then eagerly, begins to pump his hips.

After everything that’s happened to them both, this is the moment that feels surreal: the dusty heat of a summer evening on damp skin, the quiet bounce of the bedsprings, and that hard, thick part of Peeta sliding in and out of her, over and over and over, all slickness and tangy heat between her legs and breathless grunts from his throat.

And then, as he did just a few short hours ago, he collapses over her and she feels yet more wetness, farther inside her than she would have thought possible. She caresses his back, startled by the sweat pooled over his spine, and hears him give a half-hearted groan as her hands brush his ribs.

“I think you cracked them,” he murmurs happily against her throat.

She inches up a little to peer down the length of his back and spies bruises. Small ones here and there in a faint circular pattern around his ribcage, and a fist-sized one to the left of his spine. Had she held him as tightly as that? Small, broken Katniss Everdeen, with the power to subdue – no, contain – hijacked Peeta Mellark in a rage?

“I don’t mind them,” he says quietly, lifting his head, and he brings a shaky hand to her cheek. “Not one bit. They won’t last long at all, but the memory will. The memory of the fierce, perfect woman who refused to let go of me.”

“No matter what shape you took,” she recalls softly, and he dusts her mouth with gentle kisses.

“You said something then,” he whispers, “just once, and…I was wondering if I heard it right. I hear lots of things in my episodes, but…that one was unexpected. Like…it almost might be real.”

She knows what he means, and she trembles a little as she replies, “So ask me and find out.”

He climbs off her, settling against her side, and she feels wet lips at her shoulder, though she’s not certain which of them it’s meant to reassure. “You love me,” he says hoarsely. “Real or not real?”

She turns to her side, curling to face him, and finds tears in his eyes. She kisses those haunted eyes, as though her lips could banish the horrors behind them, then progresses to his burns . The rippled scars on his forehead from the flames that took his brows but spared his eyes. The jagged line that cuts across his right cheek.

She kisses them all, again and again, and realizes he is more beautiful than she ever imagined. Worth every tear, every bruise. And she will fight, every day if she must, to keep the darkness from reclaiming him.

“Real,” she whispers.