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The Only Thing Stronger Than Fear

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We've established something of a routine, Peeta and I. Come to think of it, we've gone through several different versions since we first found our way back to District 12. Back to each other. But this one might actually stick.

At first we cling to our separate living spaces. I don't know if it's pride or stubbornness or some combination of the two. Every morning he shows up at my house with fresh bread or pastries and has breakfast with me while Greasy Sae watches over us, nagging us about still being too thin.

We go on long walks in the woods or through the district, which is slowly returning from the grave. There are now several crews working on clearing the rubble and laying the foundations for new buildings. At least once a month a team from the Capitol or the inner districts comes through, mapping out new roads and rail lines. The districts are finally going to be united as a country.

We walk with our fingers intertwined, occasionally bumping shoulders. I know that someday I'll need personal space again, some physical distance. But for now, the emotional scars of months of isolation are too close to the surface. Hell, I've even hugged Haymitch a couple of times when he wasn't too sloppy. I'm not sure which one of us was more surprised when that happened.

Peeta and I separate in the afternoons, hunting and baking to feed the returning refugees and workers. We don't have enough town yet to deal with things like money. Everyone works to rebuild the public areas and establish their homes. Food and supplies come on trains from the Capitol and are shared out of a supply depot near the station. It's kind of like District 13, without the uniforms and schedules and military training and backbiting politicians. Okay, so it's not that much like District 13. It's not a plush life, but it's far more secure than it ever was out here before the war.

Peeta's occupations take a lot more supplies than mine, so it makes sense for us to spend our evenings at his house. We work on the memory book or I mend things while he paints. We don't talk a whole lot. We share news if we have it, from letters or talking to people in town. But mostly we work in companionable silence, always close enough to touch.

As the sun sets, we gravitate to the sofa in the living room. It's not romantic. I can't really imagine either of us wanting that. But it's comforting. The numbness retreats a little bit when Peeta's arms are around me.

Every night he walks me home. All the way from his front door to mine, three houses down. Then I stand on my porch and watch until he gets back to his place. He waves and we both go inside to face the night and our nightmares alone.

That initial pattern sticks for months. It's ridiculous, but neither of us is willing to say so. We might have limped along like that forever if not for the night Peeta dozes off on the sofa.

We talk even less once we're holding each other, so it takes me a while to realize he's actually asleep. I'm swamped by the desire to just relax into sleep myself and wake up in his arms, which of course causes me to panic. I try to ease away without waking him. He shifts a little, holds me tighter, and murmurs, "No, stay."

I freeze. His eyes pop open and he looks as appalled as I feel. Just when the moment stretches out long enough that I'm sure one of us is going to die from the embarrassment, he blurts out, "I have a bedroom."

Clearly, he's the one who's going to die of embarrassment. I swear I can feel his body temperature spike as every visible part of him turns bright red. "I mean…I mean I have an extra bedroom," he stammers. "Several of them. These houses were built for families. No! I mean, there's plenty of room for…." He stops, closes his eyes, and takes a deep breath. I swallow a totally inappropriate laugh.

"Katniss," he sighs, opening his eyes, "I don't want to end up like Haymitch. I don't want to be alone."

"Neither do I," I whisper.

"This house is big enough that we won't be in each other's way all the time. Will you…will you live here? With me?"

I can't. Even thinking about it makes me feel like I can't breathe. I can't let anyone in again. I really, really can't let him in again.

I can't.

So it's a big surprise when the word that comes out of my mouth is "okay."

We agree to move my stuff the next day and Peeta walks me home for the last time. It's harder than ever to ignore how much we look like a typical District 12 courting couple from before the war. I can't help wondering if that's what we'd be in a different place, a different life. If the prickly coal miner's daughter would have found happiness with the gentle baker's son. But my willingness to consider marriage and children was destroyed by the world we live in long before the Games and revolution took away the rest of my ability to love.

The ghosts are restless tonight.

In the morning, I catch Greasy Sae before Peeta arrives and tell her about the new arrangements. It's not quite as mortifying as I'd feared. She just pats my hand and mutters something that sounds like, "About time." I focus on my breakfast and pretend not to hear.

I don't own much so the actual process of moving doesn't take long at all. A few changes of clothing, my hunting gear, whatever food is left in the kitchen, and my small stash of keepsakes are all I take with me. The memory book is already stored at Peeta's house and I have no problem leaving behind all the household items that were here when the house was assigned to me. I've never felt at home here and the only items with any sentimental value are the locket, spile, and pearl that are wrapped in a silver parachute and stuffed deep into the pocket of my father's hunting jacket. I don't want Peeta to see them. I don't want to make him uncomfortable, make him think that I'm still clinging to the memory of when he loved me. Even if I am. I tell myself that it's better this way. Less complicated.

I decide not to bother with the storage closet of beautiful clothes Cinna left for me. I can't imagine needing to wear any of them. Going through them, even looking at them, would cause too much pain for me to be willing to face it without a damned good reason.

For the rest of the day, we cling to our routines and pretend nothing's changed. It works, more or less, until we're on the sofa, watching the stars and putting off the moment when we have to go upstairs. Together.

Exhaustion finally wins. I'm fighting nausea as we slowly climb the stairs, because if we were a caricature of a courting couple before, now it feels like we're newlyweds and the dread I feel is totally out of proportion to the situation. It would probably be out of proportion even if I were a bride on my wedding night, but I've never given that much thought and I'm sure as hell not going to start now.

Outside my new bedroom, Peeta squeezes my hand, says goodnight, and gives me that sweet, shy smile that never fails to make me warm and flustered. That is not a pleasant addition to the turmoil I'm already experiencing. I scrape up as much of a smile as I can in return and flee to the relative safety of my room.

I don't sleep much that first night. The sounds of an unfamiliar house and the feel of an unfamiliar bed combine with everything else to ensure that I don't manage more than a light doze.

I've taken to hunting first thing in the morning to get something fresh for the day for myself. That way, my afternoon hunts can be just for meat to donate to the town. Just before dawn, I dress and creep downstairs, trying not to wake Peeta on my way out. I'm lacing up my boots when I hear his tread on the stairs. He stops short in the doorway to the kitchen when he sees me.

"Oh. You're up. I was trying not to bother you," he says.

I can't stop from smirking. "Really? That was you being stealthy?"

He looks abashed for a moment, then laughs. "Hey, at least I get points for trying, right?"

I shake my head but I'm laughing too. "You're just lucky I'm always up this early. And I was trying not to bother you."

"I've been getting up at dawn to work in the bakery since I was little," he says with a shrug. "It's not likely to change now. Besides, where did you think your cheese buns came from every morning?"

I'm still smiling to myself as I promise not to be gone long and head off towards the Meadow. Somehow, the teasing transformed what might have been an excruciating scene into something almost comfortable. And it's not only that. Just one night not being alone in an empty house and I'm already feeling less like a mutt. There's still panic fluttering at the edge of my thoughts, but I make an effort to push it away.

I return after an hour with fish and blackberries. Peeta adds the berries to muffin batter that's about to go in the oven. I fry the fish and we eat it with piping hot muffins dripping with butter. We agree that it's the best breakfast we've had in a while. Even if he didn't make me cheese buns.

That first morning sets the pattern of our new routine. Every day gets easier. We get more comfortable with each other, though we still skirt around certain subjects. Like most of the past year. But I start to feel like I belong in my own skin again. It's bittersweet, realizing I'm not truly a ghost yet and I have to start letting go of the past.

The nights are a different story. The walk up the stairs doesn't get less awkward. If anything, it gets worse. And I'm still not sleeping. I try leaving my door open a crack, telling myself it's so I can hear if Peeta has a nightmare but really just because I hope I can hear him breathing in the night. I can't.

For better or worse, we last this way for less than a week. On the fifth night, I finally slip into a deep sleep. And into a dream of burning flesh and screaming children.

Within moments, Peeta is there with me. I sob hysterically into his chest as he wraps his arms around me, strokes my hair, and murmurs comforting nonsense against my ear. The last thing I feel before crying myself out and surrendering to sleep again is the gentle press of his lips.

I wake up at my normal time, but I'm bleary and out-of-sorts and I don't want to move. I don't want Peeta to move, either, but he points out that one of us has to worry about breakfast.

Going back to sleep is impossible. I can't get comfortable and he really is making an incredible racket in the kitchen. I give up and stumble downstairs in my pajamas, where I sit at the kitchen table and sulk. You'd think that finally getting some decent sleep would be a good thing. But those few stolen hours have just reminded my body how worn out it is.

I can't hold onto my annoyance with the boy who makes my favorite breakfast and doesn't seem to mind when I shut down all his attempts at conversation. "I'm sorry," I mumble around a mouthful of bread.

He slants me a look I can't interpret. "For having a nightmare or for being a brat the next morning?"

"Both," I answer with a scowl.

He studies me for a moment and I try not to squirm. "I sleep better with you there, too, you know." I can't make myself meet his eyes but I nod. When he gets up, I think he's not going to say anything else. But he touches my shoulder as he crosses behind me to the sink. "Katniss, I know what the dreams take out of you. And I like you just as you are. Even when you're a brat."

All I can manage is a muffled "hrmph" because I don't trust my voice. I've never been good at dealing with his calm statements of affection like that. It's even more confusing now, when he's not motivated by love. He can't be, after everything he's been through because of me. Right?

I'm so tired. Far too tired to deal with any of this. "I'm going back to bed," I grumble.

"So I get to cook and do the dishes?" he asks lightly, then laughs when I groan and drop my head onto my arms on the table. "I'm just kidding, Katniss. Go to bed."

I slink upstairs but stop in the doorway to my room. The empty bed doesn't look any more inviting than it was before. Without letting myself think about it too hard, I turn around and go into Peeta's room across the hall.

For a moment, I'm taken aback by his neatly-made bed. Did he not go to bed at all before he joined me last night? No, I would have heard him moving around. He must have made the bed before going downstairs this morning. The thought is both sweet and aggravating. A lot like the boy himself.

I burrow under covers that smell faintly of cinnamon.

That night, as usual, we hesitate at the top of the stairs. "Do you want me to…?" he says, nodding at my door. I shake my head and his face falls. "Right. Sorry. I didn't mean…"

I put my hand on his chest, which stops him cold. "I like yours better." He nods but clearly has no idea what I'm talking about. "Let me get ready for bed and I'll join you. If that's okay."

He clears his throat and I can't tell in the dim light but I think he might be blushing. "Yeah. That's okay."

And that's all the discussion we have about it. I still have my own room and bathroom where I keep my clothes and stuff. I just don't sleep there.

I forget to tell Dr. Aurelius about the move and he gets very annoyed when I don't answer the phone at my old house. He finds me easily enough when he calls Peeta for information and he seems pleased with the change. My next package from the Capitol contains a new bottle of pills, which I stick in my bathroom cabinet without looking at. I've learned the hard way not to argue with the doctor about all the medication he wants me to take. For the most part I just ignore it. It's too bad we don't have a black market anymore. I've got quite a stash.

It also doesn't occur to me to say anything to Haymitch. He figures it out when he finally accepts an invitation to dinner. He spends most of the meal watching us suspiciously. Afterwards, when he's getting ready to leave, he casually – too casually – offers to walk me home.

Even though I've been expecting this, I find myself tongue-tied. I glance over at Peeta.

"We figured it was wasteful to keep up two households when one is big enough for both of us," he says just as casually as Haymitch. "So Katniss moved over here a couple of weeks ago."

"Peeta's house has fewer ghosts," I add softly.

Something flickers across Haymitch's face. Understanding. Still, he sighs and shakes his head. "I just hope you're using protection."

Peeta makes what sounds like a half-strangled laugh and excuses himself to go clean the kitchen. I just look steadily back at Haymitch. I'll be damned if I admit I have no idea what he's talking about. Especially since Peeta seems to.

"Come see me tomorrow," Haymitch says, too softly for Peeta to hear. I frown but nod my assent. If Haymitch really wants to speak to me privately, I've got no good reason to refuse.

The next morning, I don't mention that I'm going to Haymitch's. I can't imagine what he needs to say to me and I figure I can still gather some fresh greens and berries before Peeta expects me back for breakfast.

I'm very familiar with Haymitch's habits. I know he won't mind me coming over this early. He hasn't been to bed yet. He'd be a lot more surly if I woke him up in the middle of the afternoon.

I clear a space for myself at the disgusting kitchen table. Haymitch regards me silently for a while, his eyes bloodshot but surprisingly sober. "Katniss, what are you doing?"

This puts me immediately on the defensive. "I don't know what you mean."

"Why are you playing house with that boy?"

"We just didn't want to be alone," I admit. "We're not doing anything. You don't have to worry, he's not going to hurt me."

"You're not the one I'm worried about getting hurt!" He's so vehement that it shocks me. "Have you given any thought at all to what you're doing to Peeta?"

"I'm not doing anything to Peeta!" I yell back. "Why would I want to hurt him?"

"It's never been a question of wanting to hurt him. That hasn't stopped you before."

"Damn it, Haymitch, don't talk in riddles! I get enough of that from my head doctor. Just spit it out." It's like talking to a wall. A scowling, hung-over wall. He clearly expects me to miraculously figure it out on my own and I refuse to give him the satisfaction. But I'm barely out of my seat when it hits me. "It's not like he's still pining over me, you know. That's over."

"Come on, sweetheart, don't be more of an idiot than absolutely necessary," Haymitch snarls.

"He's not in love with me! He can't be! The Capitol took that part of him away!" My anger breaks along with my voice. "They took him away from me."

Haymitch grabs my wrist and steers me back into my chair. "What the Capitol did to that boy…I've never seen anything like it. That whole District 13 brain trust couldn't do anything more than convince him that maybe, just maybe, the memories he was left with weren't real. That's it. The rest was all him.

"I watched him fight his way back to you, day after day, little by little. With absolutely no encouragement from you, I might add. He had to put the pieces of himself back together as best he could. And then he had to deal with the fact that, in the process, he'd almost killed you."

"Twice," I whisper.

Haymitch gives me a sour look. "Yes, twice. And he's still here. Still trying to protect you, even from yourself. So go ahead, tell yourself whatever you want. Whatever gets you through the night. But don't ever try to convince me that boy is anything but devoted to you."

I stay in my chair long after Haymitch grabs a fresh bottle and leaves the room. Finally, my numb legs carry me not to the woods, but home.

Peeta is pouring batter into tins when I enter the kitchen. "Hey, you're back early," he says. "Did you forget something?" Then he gets a good look at me. He drops everything, crosses to me, and cups my face in his hands. "What happened, Katniss? What's wrong?"

I stare fixedly at a button on his shirt. "Haymitch thinks I'm going to hurt you."

He lets go of me and steps back. "That's…just bizarre. Why would he think that? The only time you've ever touched me in anger was when you pushed me into a flower pot. And you were provoked. I'm the one who –" He breaks off.

I don't want to think about what he almost did to me while under the Capitol's brainwashing. And I really didn't mean to make him think about it. If nothing else, Haymitch is right that Peeta's suffered more than enough because of me. I force myself to meet his eyes and state baldly, "He thinks I'm going to break your heart."

Peeta's face clears and he chuckles. "I don't think that's even possible at this point," he says ruefully.

I knew it. I knew he couldn't have feelings for me anymore. But instead of the relief I expect, hearing him say it out loud causes a spike of pain in my chest.

"After all," he continues, "if my heart's held up for the past twelve years, it's not likely to be in danger now."

Okay, hold on. Everyone's speaking in riddles today and I don't like it. "What are you saying?" I ask, almost fearing the answer.

"Katniss, all I've ever asked is that you stay alive. The fact that you're here, with me, is more than I ever let myself hope for. I don't need anything else to be happy."

Despite his words, he doesn't look happy. But I can't stop myself from pushing a little bit more. "You love me? Still?"

"Does it matter?" he responds softly.

I go to him, wrapping my arms around him and burying my face against his chest. "Yes. No. I don't know!" I wail, hating myself for being so selfish that I'm expecting him to comfort me when I'm upset because I'm causing him pain. But I don't know what else to do.