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Alone in a Crowded Room

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Peeta knew good and well that particular cake stand was loose. It also happened to be the only one large enough to support the base of the four tier wedding cake he was decorating for the banker's oldest daughter. He should have been more careful. Should have paid attention to how far he was turning the stand. If he had, the entire turntable wouldn't have come off; wouldn't have slid off the heavy base and sent the entire cake toppling to the floor.

 

“Oh fuck,” Rye muttered, shrinking back from the mess at his feet, looking up at his younger brother's wide eyes. They both knew this was a disaster under any circumstances, but the custard filling for that cake used the last of the expensive powdered cocoa from the Capitol and there was no way to replace it in time for the wedding tomorrow. The bell at the front door rang, signaling the exit of the customer the boys had heard their mother waiting on. Peeta looked to Rye for help, but the older boy just shook his head, his eyes going as wide as Peeta's as their mother's footsteps approached.

 

“What the hell is going on back he-” Lilith Mellark cut herself off, stopping short at the sight of the smashed cake on the floor, the bowl of freshly mixed frosting that had tipped and landed face down on top of it. Just to underline what a colossal job Peeta had done fucking up this order.

 

“Mom,” he started, backing up around the corner of the worktable, holding up his hands. She took a step forward, her eyes still locked on the mess, her shoulders beginning to tremble with rage. “Mom, please. I'm-”

 

“You're what,” she snapped, her voice tight and low, the words squeezed through clenched teeth. “Are you sorry? Is that the bullshit that was about to come out of your mouth, boy?” Peeta stammered, glancing at his brother again and finding nothing. He wished his father were home, even though he'd still be in trouble he wouldn't have to fear for his safety. Lilith advanced on him, snatching the rolling pin off the counter.

 

“Please,” he breathed, shaking his head, sinking back against the ovens, ignoring the feel of the hot brick against his back. The last time she'd used that rolling pin she'd left him with deep black bruises up and down his torso and a fractured rib that took a month to heal.

 

“Do you know how much that just cost us?” Lilith's voice was rising too high, too shrill. She leaned down into his face, her lip curling as if being that close to him was too vile to bear. “What a fuck-up like this does to our reputation? Do you?” She slapped the side of his head. “What am I going to say to Michael Fisk when he shows up here tomorrow morning looking for that fucking cake? Do you think we can afford refunding that kind of order? What about the fucking cancellations we're going to get when word gets out that my god damn cake decorator is an incompetent waste of space?” Lilith brought the pin down against his side. Peeta curled in on himself protectively, taking the brunt against his ribcage.

 

“Mom! Please!” Peeta curled his arms over his head, ducking down. The next blows fell against his forearm, his fingers, his skull. He fell to the floor. The last things he registered were his mother's sharp little shoe colliding with his stomach and Rye's panicked shouts from the other side of the room.

 

“Please, Peeta,” his father's voice broke through the fog. He registered the warmth of his father's arms around him, his big, warm hand cradling the back of his head. “Please. Open your eyes. Look at me, Peet.” Peeta's eyes fluttered open, catching sight of his father, the fear in his face, the vivid red stain down the front of his shirt. An odd color, much deeper than he'd ever been able to achieve with the mixes of powdered dye and berries he blended in the buttercream. He did have a long way to go before he'd catch up with his father, though. Peeta shuddered, cold sweeping over him, unable to keep his eyes open any longer.

 

“I told you he was fine,” Lilith snapped, her voice distant and echoing.

 

“God dammit woman I thought I told you to get the fuck out,” his father's voice rumbled through him, and Peeta slipped away again.

Chapter Text

Peeta Mellark had been missing from school for a month, and all anyone had heard were ridiculous rumors. His mother finally snapped and killed him. He'd finally snapped and tried to kill her. He'd killed himself. Why it was always about death I'll never know. Why his brother never bothered to straighten any of them out was just as much of a mystery. The two of them disappeared the same day, but his brother came back after a week or so. Peeta was still missing.

 

I looked over at his empty seat in the center of the classroom, wondering if any of those rumors were true. Or maybe if the truth was worse. School was mandatory; missing even a few days meant peacekeepers knocking on the door, demanding answers. When my little sister Prim had the flu last year and I stayed home to help our mother care for her they were at our door on day two. We were given a deadline to get back. They never did say what would happen if we failed to meet it, and fortunately we didn't find out. Maybe the Mellarks did.

 

Prim was waiting for me in the schoolyard to start our walk home, a smile on her face and half the Hawthorne brood by her side. Gale loped up behind me and tapped the opposite shoulder he approached, even though I hadn't fallen for that stupid joke since the first time. We were neighbors, our mothers friends for as long as any of us could remember, our fathers lost in the same mining accident four years ago. It was the one thing that finally drove the two of us to something more than acquaintances. My friendship with Gale was begrudging at best, born from our common loss, our need to keep our families going, our skill at hunting and mutual love of the forest. Prim, however, loved every last one of them like siblings, and piggyback rides home from school on Gale's shoulders were her favorite part of the day. He just liked to show off and loved the barely concealed giggles and awws from the girls in the upper school when he kissed her cheek and swung her onto his back.

 

Our walk home was nearly two miles, one that I spent trying to plan the afternoon's hunt. The first frost was weeks ago, winter wasn't far off, and Mom's healing work still had not picked up enough to support us through the harsh weather. After the snowstorm last year that left us suffering through six weeks of fence repairs and peacekeeper border patrols I did not want to run even the slightest risk of being caught short again. The more I dried, salted, and stockpiled the better off we were.

 

“Six?” Gale raised his eyebrows at me, lowering Prim to the ground. There was never enough food to feed his family of five, especially with his brother Rory's new habit of eating everything he got his hands on when left unchecked. He'd be joining me that night.

 

“Yeah,” I nodded, and he smiled at me before turning to follow his brothers to their house further up the lane. Prim and I climbed the creaking porch steps to our house, pushing the door open and shedding our shoes and coats and noisily dropping our books on the table.

 

“Girls,” Mom called from her seat across the room by the low fire burning in the hearth. “To your room please, and try to keep the noise down. I'm with a patient.” Prim ducked her shoulders, muttering a quiet apology before picking up her books and padding off to the small bedroom she and I shared. I scooped my own stack from the table, shifting to see whoever this patient was, the pole that marked the division between our kitchen and living room obscuring them from view.

 

Peeta Mellark looked up at me from the couch, dropping his eyes the moment they met mine. His father turned to look at me as I slipped across the room toward my bedroom; I hadn't noticed him before, sitting with his back to me. He offered a tight smile and a quick nod, both of which I returned before ducking into the bedroom and closing the door behind me.

 

“Cordovan Cartwright told me he was dead,” Prim whispered to me when I sat down beside her on the edge of the bed.

 

“Obviously he's not,” I smirked, wondering how Prim even knew who Peeta was. Was he popular enough to have admirers in the lower school, too? Was she one of them?

 

“What do you think is wrong with him?” she looked over toward the door. “He looked fine. Can we listen?”

 

“Do your homework,” I chuckled softly, shifting myself back to lean against the wall and prop my book up against my knees. Honestly, I wanted to listen in too. I could hear the low murmur of their voices through the wall, but even when I strained I couldn't make out the words. Mom sometimes told us about who her clients were, she tried to keep our curiosity at bay, use some patients as chances to teach us about one illness or another. Peeta could have turned out to be one of those cases. But Prim was right, he looked fine.

 

After an hour or so the shuffle of feet in the living room pulled me away from my reading. Prim scurried to the door, cracking it open to watch the Mellarks leave, hoping to catch a bit of conversation. Mom called us out a few minutes later, pointing to the kitchen table. The two of us sat down on opposite sides.

 

“Before we talk about this I need to make something clear to you girls,” she said, leaning against the kitchen counter and folding her arms over her chest. Prim and I glanced at each other, unsure of where this was going. “Nothing I tell you and nothing you see or hear in regards to Peeta Mellark are to leave this house. Do you understand?”

 

“Is he okay?” Prim asked, frowning.

 

“No,” Mom shook her head. “About a month ago he had an accident, and he has a very serious head injury.” I was almost positive accident was code for a run in with his mother. His home life was the worst kept secret in the District. “He needs a lot of help, he has a lot of work to do to recover, and the doctor in town is a little beyond their means.”

 

“Seriously?” I asked. The idea of someone from town struggling to afford anything was so foreign to me it sounded like a joke. Mom gave me a look.

 

“Twain—Mr. Mellark—is hiring me to work with him instead,” Mom said. “I'll be seeing him three or four days a week, sometimes here, sometimes in town. I know you're in the same class, Katniss, so you need to be respectful of his privacy. He's the same as any other patient.”

 

“Mom,” I frowned at her, a little offended she'd think I would be gossiping about whatever happened to him. Even if she hadn't ground into our heads to never talk about who she treated or what was wrong with them I wouldn't anyway.

 

“It still needs to be said,” she raised her eyebrows at me. She turned to Prim, her expression softening to a smile. “Now come help me with dinner.” Prim beamed at her, sliding off her chair and joining her at the counter. She knew better than to ask me, as much as she harped on my abysmal cooking skills she never seemed to want to teach me, and I never particularly wanted to learn.

 

When dinner was finished, the table cleared and dishes mostly cleaned I stepped away from the sink. Planting a kiss on Prim's cheek, I headed for the door. My hunting boots rested on the floor beside it, and I slipped them on, yanking the laces tight before pulling on my father's coat. I slung my game bag over my shoulder, checking to be sure my gloves were tucked into the side pocket. The nights had been getting cold, and yesterday I forgot them. By the time I got home my fingers were numb and colorless. I spent 20 minutes scouring the living room for the soft leather gloves that fit closely enough to still allow me to use my bow to be sure I wouldn't spend another night trying to warm feeling back into my hands.

 

“Not too late tonight,” mom called just before I slipped out the door. “I still have dessert for you two.”

 

Dessert? I looked over at Prim. She shrugged, a smile ghosting over her lips. Dessert was for birthdays and special occasions, and even then it was rare we could actually afford it. I smiled at her before slipping out the door, wondering what the occasion was.

 

Gale was sitting at the bottom of the porch steps waiting for me. We usually met in the woods, passing through the fence as a pair could be dangerous and call too much attention to us. With night settling in earlier and earlier, though, the fading light offered plenty of cover. He stood as my feet hit the dirt, and I led us further into the Seam, the houses getting smaller and more broken down as we went. Neither of us said a word until we were well into the forest, working our way through a snare line, gathering what little was caught and resetting the snares.

 

“Why was the baker at your house?” Gale asked. I looked back at him, adjusting the quiver on my shoulder. “I saw him leaving earlier. With the youngest one.”

 

“Peeta,” I nodded. One of Peeta's brothers was in Gale's class. The other was much older, and hadn't been at the bakery when we made our visits to trade for a long time. I was sure he'd moved out. Maybe married. I checked the string on my bow, ignoring his question.

 

“Well?” he looked up at me, fiddling with the knot on the snare at his feet. “Baker kid goes missing for a month, his brother gets all weird and quiet all of a sudden, then he turns up at your house and you're not going to share?”

 

“You know better than to ask me shit like this,” I gave him a look. Every once in a while someone turned up looking for treatment and piqued his interest, and I never gave him any answers. Why Peeta had him asking was beyond me. Unless he was looking for ammunition for when Rye Mellark started tormenting him, which wouldn't have surprised me a year or so ago. Gale had calmed down since he started dating my friend Madge.

 

“Just curious,” he stood, shifting his bag on his shoulder. “Is he okay?”

 

“Yeah, he's fine,” I cocked an eyebrow. “Just, you know, taking a four week vacation from school and dropping by the Seam to hang out. It's a townie thing.” It took Gale a moment to catch on to my sarcasm, and I rolled my eyes and turned away as he chuckled. We picked our way to the ridge overlooking the valley. I'd been hoping the migrating geese hadn't passed us by completely yet. The meat wouldn't keep, but the excitement that kicked up when we strolled into the Hob with a dozen birds between us to sell and trade tended to drive up the prices. The money would be just as helpful.

 

Gale dropped the subject, and we returned home after dark had settled in with little more to show for ourselves than what we'd recovered from the snares. I managed to bring down a hare on our walk back toward the District, forcing it on Gale in exchange for something smaller. He had far more mouths to feed, and his mother Hazelle's work brought in even less income than my mother's.

 

“She made me wait for you,” Prim snapped the instant I was back through the door. I stripped off my boots, hanging my coat and bag on the wall, raising an eyebrow at her. “Dessert?” She put one hand on her hip, tilting her head, and I couldn't stop myself from laughing.

 

“I'm sorry, Duck,” I smiled, kissing the top of her head. “What is it?”

 

“Pecan pie,” she grinned, dropping into her seat at the table. I looked over at mom. She was already at the counter, slicing the pie and setting plates in front of Prim and I. The slice she took for herself looked pitifully small, and just before she sat down I swapped plates, pushing the larger slice she served me in front of her.

 

“You didn't have to wait for me,” I said, and she shrugged, smiling to herself and looking down at our plates.

 

“We don't get things like this often,” she said, picking up her fork and laughing softly at the enthusiastic “mmm” Prim let out, her eyes fluttering closed when she took her first bite. “I wanted to enjoy it together.”

 

“Where did it come from?” I asked, though I was fairly sure I already knew the answer. Very little of what she accepted as payment for her healing work was actually money. Food, oil, candles. Prim's goat was payment for helping Mrs. Morgan deliver her youngest child. Mom gave me a look. I did know the answer. I was also pretty sure those were the pecans that I traded with the Mellarks last month.

 

“It's a thank you,” she said, gingerly wiping a crumb from the corner of her mouth. “For taking on Peeta. This was my favorite. He—Mr. Mellark—used to make this for me all the time when we were young.” Her voice was halting and wistful. Mom never talked about the past, and in a way I was grateful. After Dad died she nearly shut down on us completely. It took Hazelle weeks of gently coaxing my mother out of bed and through some kind of daily routine just to get her to function on her own. It wasn't until Hazelle's youngest, Posy, was born, sickly and small and fatherless for two months already, that she began to come back to herself. She threw herself into caring for Posy, and there was no sign left of how much she had struggled as an infant.

 

I wanted to ask her about her life in town since I was a little girl. I knew she gave up everything she had to marry my father. Dad had always hushed me, said it would make her sad. It's not quite sadness I saw in her face now, though, and I wondered what she was thinking about. What Mr. Mellark was to her.

 

“Sounds like steady work,” I said hopefully. If this lasted through the winter I wouldn't have to keep making the twice daily trips out into the woods.

 

“For quite a while,” Mom nodded, answering the question I didn't want to ask.

 

I took care of the dishes once we'd finished, carefully wrapping the pie and setting it aside. The game I brought home needed to be taken care of, and I cleaned and cooked the pitifully small haul I'd brought in before going to bed. I woke early, disentangling myself from Prim to go out and try again. Gale caught up with me halfway through the snare line and the two of us sat on the ridge, sharing a small breakfast and watching the sun rise.

 

Peeta's desk was still empty. I was honestly a little surprised, though I'm not sure why. Someone being dragged to see my mother by their parents rarely meant an immediate return to school. I doodled idly in the margins of my notebooks through class, caught up in trying to fit having a steady income in the house into the plans for getting through the winter. If it was enough to save us from the weeks of little more than pine bark and malnourished snowshoe hares and crows we suffered through last year I swore I would bring that baker a dozen squirrels every fucking weekend when spring came.

 

“Why are you so distracted?” Madge asked when we sat down to lunch. I was still lost in thought, barely even touching the stale cornmeal biscuits I'd scrounged up for my lunch after making sure Prim had something decent to eat for her own.

 

“Just tired,” I shrugged. “Going out too much.” She knew I meant the woods, and that I wouldn't just flat out say what I was up to anywhere I could be overheard.

 

“Gale's been exhausted,” she smirked, picking at her own lunch idly. “Stop running my boyfriend ragged, please. I'd like to spend an afternoon with him where he doesn't fall asleep on me at some point in the near future.”

 

“Spend less time in your bed,” I retorted. She blushed, kicking me under the table and biting back a smile. I knew entirely too much about the two of them. Mostly from Gale's over sharing, but partly from Madge's excited gushing whenever something new went on between the two of them.

 

“Did you hear what's going on with the baker?” she asked, eager to change the subject. Her gushing went on where there were fewer prying ears. Gale and Madge didn't hide their relationship by any means, but they still tried to avoid the idiots that were scandalized by the mayor's daughter sneaking behind the slag heap with a seam boy. I looked up at her, raising my eyebrows, wondering what she meant. “He's divorcing that shrew he married.”

 

“Really?” I gave up on my biscuits, pushing the remnants back into the paper bag I'd brought them in.

 

“I think she finally went too far,” Madge said quietly, her brow creasing. I thought the same thing, and couldn't help but wonder what she did to Peeta that meant needing my mother four times a week or whatever it was she had told us.

 

Divorce was something that just didn't happen in Twelve. Even when Althie Duggins turned up on our front porch looking for my mother, battered and bleeding after confronting her husband about what, exactly, he'd been doing with the widow next door, all she did was leave him. No papers, no formalities. And she was right back there before the year was out. Starting over was near impossible. I had the distinct feeling Mrs. Mellark would have a particularly bad time of it, given what everyone knew about her.

 

While Prim and I waited for Gale and his brothers after school I caught sight of Rye Mellark crossing the schoolyard towards town. He was a step behind his friends, eyes on the ground, a far cry from the outgoing, obnoxious boy I'd bumped into so many times on my way to trade with his father.

 

Mom was nowhere to be found when we got home, just a note on the table that she was in town and would be home for supper. Prim and I settled ourselves in the living room with our homework, stoking the fire as the wind picked up. The cold worked its way into the house too easily, and by the time mom got home a freezing rain had begun to fall. I wasn't exactly disappointed to be kept home from another cold, unsuccessful hunting trip.

 

Over the next couple of weeks books began appearing in our living room, papers and notes hanging out of them, pages dog eared. The titles were all long and dry and complicated, peppered with phrases like “intracranial trauma”, “neurointensive care” and “cognitive rehabilitation”. I flipped through one at one point out of curiosity. I fell asleep before the end of the first page.

 

“Katniss?” Mom poked her head into our bedroom. I looked up from the book in my lap. “Could you come out here for a moment?” I nodded, scooping Prim's legs off my lap to get up from the bed. She frowned at me, silently asking what Mom wanted. I shrugged. I had no idea either and stuck my tongue out at her as I followed mom into the living room.

 

“Something wrong?” I asked, dropping down onto the couch as she took her seat by the fire.

 

“No,” she hesitated a moment, straightening her posture and clasping her hands in her lap. “I actually want to ask for your help with something, if you're willing.”

 

“With what?” I watched her wring her hands, fiddling with her wedding band.

 

“The boy in your class I'm treating, Peeta,” she dropped her hands and looked up at me. “I'd like you to help with his therapy.”

 

“How could I help with his therapy?” I raised an eyebrow. My eyes dropped to the stack of incomprehensible books on the coffee table.

 

“Honestly, not much right now,” she sighed, offering me a weak smile. “But that will change as things go on. He needs social interaction, at the very least. The sort of injury he has... it sets you back. He has to relearn a lot of things, and adapt to what he can't. I need to see how he interacts with someone aside from his family and myself, as well.”

 

“So, what, you're going to drag me to the bakery with you and make us be friends?” I asked, giving her a look.

 

“No,” she chuckled, shaking her head slightly. “I'm asking if you'd like to help. I'm not going to drag you anywhere, though yes, you would go with me to the bakery sometimes. He's going to start coming here as well.” I nodded, turning the idea over in my head. “You don't have to, and before you decide I should probably-”

 

“I'll do it,” I cut her off. She blinked at me for a moment, as though that answer caught her completely off guard.

 

“Oh,” she paused before smiling at me. “Thank you.”

 

“What were you going to say?” I asked. Mom leaned back in her chair, her expression tensing for a moment.

 

“I don't know how well you knew him,” she began, rolling the fabric of her skirt between her fingers as she spoke. “He's not the same. And he might never be. He tires very easily, he has trouble speaking, his balance is so far off it's hard for him to walk. There's more, it's just... I want you to be prepared. Some will get better, some might go away, but some of those things won't.”

 

“So he's a mess,” I said, trying to hide how much the things she said bothered me.

 

“And you need to be a hell of a lot nicer about it when you see him,” she gave me a pointed look. I nodded and she relaxed into a smile. “He's going to be here tomorrow afternoon when you get out of school. Prim is going to the Hawthorne's-”

 

“I am?” Prim asked, hunching up her shoulders and ducking back into the bedroom doorway when the two of us looked over at her. She'd forgotten she was eavesdropping.

 

“Yes you are,” Mom smirked, waiting for Prim to disappear into the bedroom before continuing. “I just want you to talk to him tomorrow. I'm curious to see how he'll do. Keep it light, let him lead the conversation if he can. If he can't... tell him what he's missing at school, I guess.”

 

“He's missing people spreading shitty rumors about him,” I scoffed.

 

“Maybe a different topic, then,” Mom sighed. “And watch your language.” I rolled my eyes, pushing up off the couch. I paused before returning to the bedroom, pressing my lips together for a moment, trying to figure out whether or not to ask.

 

“Mom?” I said, and she looked up at me. “Are his parents actually divorcing?”

 

“Yes,” she said, leaning forward to pick up one of her books from the coffee table. “It's going to be finalized next month.” I nodded as she sat back, settling the book in her lap. “And that's not a suitable topic of conversation.”

 

“Goodnight, Mom,” I turned toward the bedroom, closing the door behind me quietly. Prim already had the lantern turned down, sitting on the edge of the bed in her nightgown.

 

“You get to help Mom,” she said quietly as I changed into my pajamas. The jealousy was more than obvious in her tone.

 

“Only until she realizes I'm useless for that sort of thing,” I planted a kiss on Prim's cheek, dropping down onto the mattress to lay behind her. She loved helping Mom, and she didn't just have an interest in healing, she had a talent for it. I'd seen her all but handle some patients on her own, while Mom just stood back for moral support. Not bad for an 11 year old. Prim sighed and laid down beside me, tugging the blankets up over us.

 

“Maybe,” Prim said skeptically. I reached over her to turn off the lantern before kissing her hair and drifting off to sleep.

Chapter Text

 To be perfectly honest, I was nervous. The more I thought about the things Mom said to me the more I worried this would be awful. Or awkward. Or downright painful. I didn't know Peeta very well. Hardly at all, really. I'd said hello at the bakery when Gale and I stopped by to trade, and I had seen him in passing at school, but that was about it. We had a few classes together last year and this year, but that was the extent of my exposure to Peeta Mellark. He was popular; I'd heard girls talking about him in the halls while hiding giggles behind their hands when he smiled at them. I couldn't fit what little I did know about him in with what Mom had told me.

 

I also didn't know what the hell I was going to talk to him about.

 

When I got home from school the next day I stood on the porch watching Prim continue on with Gale and his brothers while trying to figure out what to expect. She turned back and waved, and Gale shooed me toward my house. I just rolled my eyes, sighing before turning to go inside.

 

“Hi,” I called out, dropping my books on the counter before taking off my coat. I paused as I turned to hang it on the wall, staring down at the empty wheelchair sitting there with what I could only assume to be Peeta's coat draped over the back. He had a hard time walking. Mom had mentioned that, but I didn't realize it meant something like this.

 

“Hello, Katniss,” Mom lifted her chin and smiled at me. Peeta looked up at me, his eyes dropping as soon as they met mine. I pulled off my shoes, watching him for a moment before looking at my mother. “Come sit. I'm going to make some tea.” I nodded, crossing the room and sitting on the end of the couch, tucking my foot up under me to angle myself toward Peeta. He was slouched down on the couch, his shoulders hunched forward, and tensed up when I sat down. He tugged the sleeve of his sweater down, trying to cover the brace on his hand, nervously touching the back of the knit hat that covered nearly all of his hair. Mom got up, patting my shoulder and planting a kiss on my forehead, before moving past me into the kitchen. Peeta watched the exchange out of the corner of his eye.

 

“You probably don't want me to ask how you're doing, do you?” I said. He glanced over at me, the hint of a smirk tugging briefly at the corner of his mouth before he shook his head. I watched him for a moment, chewing the inside of my lip, trying to figure out what to say. “If it makes you feel any better, it's a pretty good time to be out of school. Mr. Capps has been an unbearable asshole.” A brief look of confusion washed over his face as if he didn't know what I was talking about. We had both been stuck with Capps for math for two years in a row, and calling him an unbearable asshole was like calling rain wet. “Math is a shitty class anyway,” I tried, hoping I was piecing that together for him without being too obvious. He frowned, looking over toward the fire. I glanced back at Mom, looking for help, and she made a small gesture with her hand to urge me on. I turned back to Peeta, drawing in a breath to speak again, and he cut me off.

 

“J-just ask,” he said, turning to look directly at me for the first time since I'd sat down.

 

“What?” I shifted. The look he was giving me was unsettling. Angry and lifeless at the same time.

 

“Ask m-me,” he said, taking a breath and blinking slowly. He spoke deliberately, as if every word were a massive effort. “What I know you—want to.”

 

“What do I want to ask you?” I frowned.

 

“What she d-did to me,” he said, holding my gaze. My heart jumped. I did want to know. I'd wondered since the words “head injury” left my mother's mouth. Could I just do that? Even with him telling me to? I looked over at mom. She had the tea kettle steaming on the stove behind her with the top open to silence the whistle. She was ignoring it and watching the two of us. Her expression didn't change. She offered no help at all.

 

“What did she do to you, Peeta?” I said quietly, chewing the inside of my lip. He reached for his hat, pulling it down off his head and wincing a little as he did. Peeta turned his face away from me. The hair was missing in an arc above and behind his left ear around a twisted mat of scabbing thick enough to be mistaken for rock.

 

“Rolling p-p-pin,” he said, his voice flat and dead. He looked down at the hat in his hands for a moment before pulling it back on, gingerly smoothing it over the back of his head. “I d-dropped—a cake.” I covered my mouth, trying to find something to say. The longer the silence stretched, the worse I felt.

 

“I'm sorry,” I breathed. He looked over at me, studying me for a moment before nodding and looking away again.

 

“My b-brother,” he paused, taking a breath and swallowing before continuing. “Told me what they say. At school. Will you tell th—tell them the truth.”

 

“Why doesn't he do that?” I asked, trying to keep any hint of the usual venom I'd throw behind that question out of my voice. Peeta was struggling, and it was harder to watch than I could have prepared myself for.

 

“Rye's an asshole,” he said, and it was the first thing that came out easily. The first thing he'd said without halting or tripping over the words. I couldn't stop myself from laughing, and I pressed my knuckles against my mouth to stifle it.

 

“I'm sorry,” I managed, waving my hand in front of me as I got my laughter under control. Peeta cracked a smile, looking down at his hands.

 

Mom swooped in a moment later, handing me a mug of tea and putting another on the corner of the coffee table closest to Peeta. He craned his neck, eying it for a moment before sitting back. Mom sat in her chair across from us with her own mug, taking a cautious sip as she crossed her legs and balanced a notebook on her knee.

 

She explained that she'd asked for my help. As she spoke I watched Peeta. He hardly even seemed to be listening; just kept his eyes on the floor in front of her feet and nodded a few times. Most of what she had to say was for his benefit. I couldn't help but wonder if a word of it was getting through to him. The questions she asked him afterward seemed mostly for my benefit. He didn't give a straight answer to any of them, just a noncommittal noise or a nervous glance toward me.

 

Mr. Mellark arrived shortly afterward to take Peeta home. He handed my mother a hefty paper bag the moment he stepped through the door. I watched as Peeta carefully made his way to the door with one hand stretched out to help balance him against whatever was in reach. Mom set the bag down and followed the two of them outside while Mr. Mellark carried the wheelchair to the bottom of the stairs. I dropped back to lay on the couch and stare at the ceiling. I dangled my legs over the arm of the couch, jiggling my foot and trying to wrap my head around all of that.

 

Mom came back in a few minutes later. She sighed and I lifted my head, watching her peer into the paper bag on the counter, her eyebrows creeping up. She reached inside, lifting out an envelope and tugging it open. I caught a flash of the blue and grey notes inside before she folded it closed, blowing out a breath and slipping it beneath the bag. Paper money was reserved for the highest denominations—things that changed hands the least—and I'd only even seen it a handful of times. All the selling and trading I did was for coins. Mom reached into the bag again, this time pulling out a muffin. She looked over, holding it out toward me. I nodded and she returned to the living room, breaking a small piece off of the top for herself before handing it to me.

 

“What did you think?” she asked, sitting down in her chair and crossing her legs.

 

“I don't even know what to think,” I frowned, picking at the muffin and licking the cinnamon and sugar from my fingers. “I mean, I didn't even really know him, but that's... not at all what he was like.”

 

“Do you still want to help?” she asked.

 

“Yes,” I answered without hesitation, looking over at her as I took a bite of the muffin. Mom smiled at me, sinking down in her chair and turning toward the fire.

 

“You probably want a better idea of what's coming your way, I'm sure.” She rubbed her hands together and folded them across her chest, hunching up her shoulders against the cold.

 

“That would be nice.” I drew my feet up onto the edge of the couch and rested my chin on my knees.

 

“I'm still learning about this too,” Mom said, casting a pointed glance at the books on the table. “And being grossly overpaid considering I'm making a good portion of it up as I go along. I'll need your help with his speech, you heard how much of a struggle that is. The more he talks, the easier it will get, and I am not someone he wants to talk to.”

 

“And you think I am?” I raised an eyebrow.

 

“You are,” she chuckled. “His memory needs a lot of work. His motor skills, balance, all those cognitive abilities need to be redeveloped. That sounds a little more intimidating than it really is. I'll lay out the exercises for you two to do together. Honestly, it will mostly be card games, getting him to converse as much as you can, and the doctor in town is trying to get me some work books that will help guide all of this.”

 

“He didn't seem very thrilled about any of it,” I pointed out. A brief, humorless smile twitched across Mom's face.

 

“Would you be?” she asked. Her expression saddened as she turned her gaze toward the fire. I thought about the wound on the back of his head, what it really would have taken to inflict something like that. I've taken some hard hits; fallen from trees or hit my head on stones. I once skidded down a ravine a mile into the woods and landed head first at the bottom and only came up feeling dizzy once the initial pain passed. How hard did Mrs. Mellark hit him to turn him into the boy I met today? I hoped she would be held accountable for it.

 

The next few times I saw Peeta he didn't even speak to me. He came out to the Seam once a week. His father brought him to our house, sometimes before I got home from school, sometimes shortly after, and came back for him an hour or two later. Sometimes he stayed to talk to my mother on the front porch while Peeta sat in silence, ignoring anything I had to say to him.

 

His request to set the record straight at school never left my mind. I kept waiting for an opportunity, and it took a couple weeks for one to present itself. I was on my way to the cafeteria with a group of kids from town walking behind me. They were talking about him, and I cast a glance back over my shoulder to see who it was. Merx Miller, of course. The tax collector's son and class bully. He had his arm slung around his girlfriend Gilda's shoulders. Harvey Carrow, Manda Tate, the Whitaker twins. Delly Cartwright trailing behind them with her eyes on the floor. Peeta's friends, though how anyone could voluntarily spend time with Merx or Gilda was beyond me.

 

“She said he did it on purpose,” Manda said. “And she just couldn't stand them all running her into the ground anymore so she left.”

 

“And what, he's staying home crying about it?” Merx snorted, eliciting a few chuckles from the guys around him.

 

“Whatever, he still ruined my sisters wedding,” Gilda snapped. Her voice cut right through me. I slowed my pace, letting them overtake me.

 

“She beat him for it,” I said, looking over at Gilda. She just stared at me, blinking for a moment. “You were talking about Peeta's mom, right?”

 

“Yeah,” Manda frowned at me.

 

“He dropped a cake,” I said, glancing at her before looking back at Gilda. “And she beat him with a rolling pin. He still hasn't healed. And might not really get better than he is right now. Ever.” They all stared at me.

 

“How the hell do you know?” Merx said, his lip curling as he looked me over.

 

“Her mom's a healer,” Delly said quietly from behind me. Merx snorted, rolling his eyes, and picked up his pace. The rest of the merchant kids followed suit, with one exception. Delly Cartwright grabbed my wrist and pulled me toward the wall just inside the cafeteria. She chewed her lip, nervously glancing after the rest of her group as they walked away. They didn't even look back. She took a breath, letting go of my hand and flashing a brief, faint smile. “You've seen him?”

 

“Yeah,” I nodded, waving to Madge as she walked into the cafeteria. She cocked an eyebrow at Delly's back on her way past. “My mom's treating him.”

 

“Um. How is he,” she looked nervous.

 

“His mother almost killed him, how do you think he is?” I frowned. Delly looked down at her lunch bag, rolling it up in her hands.

 

“I'm just worried,” her voice dropped to a near-whisper. “I mean. I've been to the bakery but I haven't seen him. He used to come visit me sometimes after they closed. He just. Stopped.”

 

“Probably because he can barely walk.” I cocked an eyebrow. If she was so worried why didn't she ask to see him? Delly pressed her lips together. I waited for her to say something, but she just frowned.

 

“Could you, um, tell him I was asking about him?” she said. I could barely contain my eye roll.

 

“Tell him yourself,” I snapped. Delly shrunk back as if I'd slapped her, hesitating a moment before retreating from the cafeteria, her curls bouncing around her shoulders as she darted through the door and down the hall. I turned away from her, moving through the cafeteria to the table Madge and I shared toward the back.

 

“Have a nice chat with Miss Cartwright?” Madge smirked as I dropped my lunch bag on the table before sitting down.

 

“She was asking about Peeta,” I shrugged, pulling a cheese bun out of my lunch bag. As soon as Mr Mellark caught on to my taste for them he started making sure they were in every bag of food he sent home with mom.

 

“She hasn't gone to see him?” Madge dropped her hand to the table, her voice incredulous. “They're like, best friends. They have been forever.” I just shrugged. “That's pretty shitty.”

 

“Yeah,” I chewed my lip, wondering whether or not to share that with him later. He was at the house when Prim and I got home that afternoon, sitting at the kitchen table and playing a card game with my mother. She'd suggested I try playing it with him last week. He (correctly) accused me of letting him win and went right back to his indifferent silence.

 

“Hi Peeta,” Prim chirped, beaming at him as she hung up her coat. He raised his fingers in response, glancing at me briefly before looking down at the cards spread over the table.

 

“Want to take my place?” Mom nodded toward the table, getting up and pushing me toward her seat before I could even respond. “I still haven't had a chance to do anything with the grouse you brought home this morning.” She didn't need to do anything with it. The power hadn't been on since early September, but the weather was chilling enough for the old ice box on the porch to stand in perfectly well for the refrigerator, and that grouse was sitting out there. So were the squirrels I pulled out of the snares the night before. They'd keep for a few more days.

 

Peeta slouched back in his chair, fidgeting with the edge of that ever present hat. I looked over the cards, hesitantly taking a turn before leaning back to watch him frown at the edge of the table. More often than not, that was how things went. Mom insisted I was doing some good, that it was important, but I honestly didn't think he cared whether or not I was there.

 

“I overheard Manda Tate talking about your mother today,” I said. He clenched his jaw, drawing in a slow breath and looking away. “She's telling people you dropped that cake on purpose. And that she decided to leave.” His eyes dropped to the brace on his wrist, where it rested on the table. “I set them straight. Like you asked.” Peeta glanced at me briefly before pulling his hand away from the table and dropping it in his lap. “Delly Cartwright asked how you're doing.”

 

“None of them have come to see me,” he said. I shifted in my chair, genuinely caught off guard by the sound of his voice. His speech was still halting and deliberate, though that might have owed as much to the anger I could see in him as much as anything else. “Not a s-single fucking one. I thought—they were my f-friends.”

 

“I could have told you they were shitty people,” I raised an eyebrow. He shook his head and sighed.

 

“Not D-Delly,” he said quietly. I thought about the look on her face when I snapped at her, and the way she ran out of the cafeteria. If she wasn't a shitty person, why wouldn't she at least check on him? She'd always struck me as an idiot; maybe the thought didn't even occur to her. Peeta resumed his silence, the card game going unfinished between us.

 

When I went to the bakery with Mom things were even more awkward. Prim either went to the Hawthorne's or sat out Peeta's visits in our bedroom. At the bakery we had spectators. We spent most of our time in the kitchen, sitting at the edge of the table in the center of the room. Things were mostly tense and quiet, especially when Peeta started staring at that spot on the floor in front of the ovens. Rye quietly told me that it was where Peeta had fallen. After finding that out I began watching him when he stared, trying to figure out what was going through his head.

 

Peeta's oldest brother, Phyl, had been working a couple of evenings a week to pick up the extra work that fell on Rye and Mr. Mellark. He was perpetually surly and exhausted, and spent as much time bickering with Rye as he did actually working. Mr. Mellark apologized for him to my mother and me constantly. He and his wife had just had their first baby a couple of months earlier, and he was still working his job at the Justice Hall in addition to his shifts at the bakery. After three visits of sitting useless in that kitchen I offered to help, ignoring Mr. Mellark's half hearted protests and pitching in.

 

Most of the baking was done in the mornings. Afternoons and evenings, the times when I was actually there, were mostly cleanup, special orders, and preparing for the next day. Rye showed me how to blend the dry ingredients for the next day's bread, how to cover and store it to cut down on the work Mr. Mellark needed to do in the small hours of the morning, when he got out of bed to stoke the ovens and start his work day. More often than not, he excused himself to get to bed before my mother and I even left. From what I'd learned about the schedules they kept even that barely afforded him six hours of sleep.

 

One evening I noticed him leaning against the door frame between the kitchen and the storefront, watching Peeta and I. I had finally gotten him to play this damn memory game without glaring at me every time I missed a match, whether it was intentional or not. Mom went home an hour earlier, needing to run an errand in town for Hazelle, but I wasn't about to walk out when I'd finally gotten Peeta to do something other than look at everything in the room except me. He noticed me looking past him and turned to look over his shoulder. Peeta's expression glazed over instantly and he pushed himself up from the table.

 

“I'm t-tired,” he announced, turning away from the table and starting for the stairs to the second floor, one hand brushing over the edge of the table for balance as he walked. Rye wiped the flour from his hands on his apron, moving to Peeta's side, his hand hovering at his brother's back. Peeta jerked away from him, the motion sending him stumbling a step. Rye caught him by the elbow, saving him from crashing to the floor. As soon as he had his footing Peeta yanked his arm out of Rye's grip, glaring at him. “I'm fine.”

 

“Okay,” Rye said quietly, holding his hands up and taking a step back. I tore my eyes away as he walked to the stairs and watched Mr. Mellark's expression instead. He frowned. The sorrow in his face coupled with his obvious exhaustion made him look years older than he did just a few months ago. Peeta climbed upstairs carefully, gripping the banister until his knuckles went white. When the sound of a door slamming reached us both Mr. Mellark and Rye let out a sigh, their shoulders sagging. Rye turned back to his work and Mr. Mellark disappeared into the storefront. He returned a moment later with a small white paper bag in his hand. He smiled at me and nodded toward the back door, leading me to the mudroom and taking my coat down from where it hung on the wall. He held it out for me, smoothing it over my shoulders after I slipped my arms into it and passed me the bag.

 

“Cookies,” he said, opening the back door for me and smiling. “For you and Prim.”

 

“Thank you, Mr. Mellark.” I stepped out onto the back porch.

 

“It's Twain,” he said, stepping out behind me and pulling the door closed. I gave him a questioning look. He smirked. “Call me Twain. Please.”

 

“Okay,” I returned the smirk before adding, “Twain.”

 

“I just wanted to tell you-” he paused, glancing back toward the house for a moment. “Please don't give up on him. I know he's being an ass, and it's got to be frustrating.”

 

“It's fine,” I said, and he stopped me before I could say anything more.

 

“It's not, none of this is.” Twain drew in a slow breath, looking out over the yard and blowing it out before continuing. “The only time I see any sign of my boy in there still is after he's spent time with you. It's the only time he ever smiles. Or even talks, really.” I frowned, looking down at the bag of cookies in my hand. He didn't speak in front of me, and I could count the number of smiles I'd seen out of him on one hand. If that was an improvement, what was he like the rest of the time? “Don't give up. Please.”

 

“I won't.” I looked up at him, flashing him a brief smile.

 

“Thank you,” he nodded. “Have a good night, Katniss.”

 

“You too, Twain,” I said, and he clapped me on the shoulder, smiling as he went back inside.

 

Chapter Text

 “Fucking useless piece of shit,” Rye muttered under his breath. He'd been stomping around the kitchen since I arrived, slamming down everything he touched and swearing with inspiring dedication.

 

“Will you stop cussing like that in front of her,” Phyl nodded toward me. “And what's your problem now?”

 

“You,” Rye snapped. Phyl was taking off his apron, preparing to leave for the afternoon. I glanced toward the stairs. I could hear the low murmur of my mother's voice from the second floor and the occasional barely audible answer from Peeta. He was most likely hiding from the hostility in the kitchen. “Just fucking taking off and leaving all this shit for me.” Rye gestured to the kitchen. The sink was full of dirty dishes, the table and counter littered with batches of bread and a few pies and desserts cooling to prepare for the afternoon rush.

 

“I have a wife and child to get home to,” Phyl snapped back. “And another job to go to tomorrow morning, thank you very much.”

 

“Rye, stop being an asshole,” Twain called back from the storefront. Phyl shot Rye a triumphant smirk that fell as soon as Twain started speaking again. “Phyl, don't you dare walk out that door without cleaning up after yourself.”

 

“Can I help with anything?” I asked. I felt useless just leaning against the wall by the stairs with nothing to do but watch them and wait.

 

“Yes,” Rye said as he pointed to a tray of at least two dozen bare cupcakes on the end of the work table. “Get some fucking frosting on those, please.” Phyl turned away from the sink to shoot Rye a glare, earning himself a sneer in response.

 

I bit back a smirk as I stepped closer to the table. Prim and I never fought, but I'd seen plenty of fights between Gale's little brothers mirror this a little too closely. There was a tub of frosting sitting on the low set of drawers situated at the end of the table with a full piping bag on top. I'd seen Rye do this a few times before, and I knew what the end result was supposed to look like. With any luck I'd do a decent job of duplicating it. Peeta and my mother made their way downstairs after I managed a couple of shaky cupcakes. He sat down at the opposite end of the table and Mom moved into the storefront to talk to Twain. I noticed the brace was gone, but that hat hadn't gone anywhere. I couldn't help but wonder what the wound looked like under there.

 

“You're—d-doing that wrong,” Peeta said after watching me struggle through a few more.

 

“How am I doing it wrong?” I frowned at him. He rolled his jaw, staring at the piping bag in my hands for a moment.

 

“You're-” he cut himself off, shaking his head in frustration and getting up out of his chair. “Just—g-give it to me.” He moved down to my end of the table. Rye and Phyl froze, looking across the kitchen at each other with wide eyes before turning to watch me hand the piping bag to Peeta. He worked the frosting down into the bag, twisting it off and draping the end over his forearm before leaning forward over the cupcakes. Peeta whipped through more than half the tray in a couple of minutes, topping each of the cupcakes in a perfect, uniform swirl, pausing to squeeze the frosting down toward the metal tip on the bag and twist it off again. He managed a few more before his hands started to shake. He pressed his eyes closed for a moment, drawing a deep breath through his nose and squeezing out one more slightly off kilter swirl of frosting before he dropped the piping bag to the tabletop. Rye took a hesitant step forward as Peeta pressed one hand over his eyes while steadying himself against the table with the other. He was starting to shake.

 

“Peet?” Twain said quietly. I looked back over my shoulder to see him standing in the doorway with my mother. They looked as awestruck as Phyl and Rye. Peeta shoved himself away from the table, beelining for the stairs and stumbling at the bottom. Rye was at his side in a second, helping him to his feet and starting to climb the stairs beside him.

 

“I'm fucking fine,” he snapped in Rye's face, jerking out of his reach. Rye opened his mouth to speak, and Peeta leaned forward, the venom in his expression pushing him back a step. “Just—fuck off.”

 

I stared after him as Peeta moved up the stairs, rubbing the back of his wrist under his eye just before disappearing from view. No one spoke or even moved for a moment. I looked down at the cupcakes. Even the last one, easily the worst he'd done, put everything I did to shame.

 

“Are you going to go up there or not?” Rye finally said, and it took me a moment to realize he was talking to me.

 

“Am I...” I glanced at my mother. “What?”

 

“Go after him,” Rye jerked his thumb over his shoulder toward the staircase. “Now.” I stammered for a moment, looking at Mom again. She just nodded, and I took a breath before crossing the kitchen and climbing the stairs.

 

The Mellarks lived above their business like most of the other merchant families. I had been upstairs briefly before, but I hadn't seen beyond the living room at the top of the stairs. I assumed that Peeta was in his room, but it dawned on me that I had no idea which one was his. I moved down the hall, past the kitchen, the bathroom, and a partially opened door that offered a glimpse of a bedroom I could only assumed belonged to his parents. Or just Twain, really. I turned to the door across from it. It was open just a crack. I stepped forward, looking through it to see Peeta sitting on the edge of his bed, leaning forward against his knees with his hands over his eyes. The shades were drawn, blocking out the late afternoon sun that would otherwise be streaming in through the window.

 

“Peeta?” I rapped my knuckle against the door softly. He startled, sitting up as I pushed the door open. “Can I come in?” Peeta didn't answer, just set his jaw and turned his head away. That was permission enough for me. I pushed the door open further to go in and saw a bed up against the opposite wall as well, realizing he shared with Rye. It occurred to me that meant Phyl was likely crammed in here with them when he still lived at the bakery. I wondered how much worse the mess was then as I stepped over the clothes on the floor to sit down on the edge of Rye's bed. “I'm guessing you haven't done much decorating since, um, that happened.”

 

“I haven't d-done much of—anything,” Peeta snapped, tripping over the sentence as his chin twitched to one side. He squeezed his eyes closed, pressing his knuckles against his mouth. “It's—I can't use—um. Fuck.” He leaned forward again, yanking the hat from his head and tossing it to the floor at his feet before combing his hands into his hair, bouncing his leg.

 

“Squeezing those piping bags is a pain in the ass,” I looked down at my hands, clenching my fists for a moment. “I did, what, five of those? And my hands hurt. I thought I was strong.” He drew a breath, opening his mouth to speak and cutting himself off. I thought about the way he had been before; how easygoing he'd seemed talking to his friends, the time he sweet talked our English teacher out of a vocabulary test last year. He'd flattered her into blushing. That was somehow the same boy who sat in front of me twice a week unable to put together a sentence longer than five or six words without faltering. If he spoke at all.

 

“I can't... d-do it,” he said. I waited for him to continue, watching him look down at his hands and rub them together. “It's like I'm... stuck in someone else. Everything I used to d-do is g-g-gone.”

 

“You did a pretty damn good job on those cupcakes,” I tried. He frowned at me, the rest of that statement hung in the air between us. Until you couldn't even hold the bag anymore.

 

“Eight weeks,” he said, that angry, dead look falling over his face. “And I j-just m-mastered getting up and d-d-down the stairs alone.” His face twisted into a frown and he turned his face away, trying to hide that twitch in his jaw. I still saw it, and I saw him fighting back tears. I got up, stepping across the room to sit on the bed beside him. He tensed up immediately.

 

“I'm sorry this happened to you,” I said, reaching for his hand and weaving our fingers together. Peeta just stared down at where our hands rested on my knee, taking a slow breath before yanking his hand away and swiping his thumb under his eye.

 

“Don't you have s-some—hunting to d-do or someth-thing,” he snapped.

 

“Okay then,” I sighed, shaking my head as I got up and left the room. I glanced back as I pulled the door closed and saw him staring down at his hand, finally letting himself cry.

 

Everyone was still standing around the kitchen when I got back downstairs. They stared at me expectantly, but I had no idea what to say. I looked around at them, shrugging and shaking my head, looking to my mother for help.

 

“Does he need someone up there with him?” Mom asked.

 

“I think he needs some time to himself,” I said. Mom nodded, turning to Twain and flashing him a brief smile.

 

“How about I try again tomorrow,” she said to him softly.

 

“Thank you, Lavender.” Twain smiled at her, brushing his fingers over her arm lightly. The two of us left with a bag of fresh bread. My mother couldn't shake off her smile until we were well into the Seam.

 

“That was a big breakthrough you know,” she said to me, looking over at me with something close to pride on her face. “Good job.”

 

“I didn't do anything,” I gave her a look.

 

“You have no idea of the effect you have on him,” she said, shrugging a bit. “He's better when you're around.”

 

That's better?” I tried to imagine what that meant he was like when I wasn't there. What was worse than the silent, surly, withdrawn boy who frustrated himself near tears with everything he tried to do? Mom just nodded without saying anything more. “What happened to him? I mean. I know what his mother did to him, but what did that do? Why is it so bad?”

 

“He has a brain injury,” Mom said. She sighed, pursing her lips for a moment before continuing. “When I took over, Twain told me that Dr. Lawrence thinks there's two parts to it. One from the actual impact, and one from when he hit the floor.” I frowned, looking down at the ground in front of us and thinking about the look that crossed Peeta's face every time I caught him staring at the space in front of the ovens.

 

“I guess I just don't understand how that affects things like walking or the way he talks,” I said as I shoved my hands into my pockets. “He said it's like he's stuck inside someone else. And the things he used to be able to do aren't there anymore.”

 

“His brain has been damaged,” Mom said. “There are skills and memories he used to have that were just wiped out and just as many that there's no connection to anymore. He has to learn some things all over again.”

 

“No offense Mom, but, um,” I looked over at her, raising my eyebrows. “Isn't this a little-”

 

“Beyond my abilities?” she smirked, shoving my shoulder lightly when I nodded. “It's new, and I'm learning. Dr. Lawrence has been helping me quite a bit, though. All of those books I've been reading are from his collection.” My mother had a longstanding agreement with the doctor in town. Anyone she couldn't handle she sent his way, and anyone who couldn't afford him was sent to her. “He studied in the Capitol when he was young and said that the hospitals there have ways not to just pinpoint the exact damage done, but ways to repair it completely. It's a shame we can't have that here for him.” I chewed on my lip, frowning at the ground and adding that little detail to my list of reasons to hate the Capitol. “What else did he say to you?”

 

“Not a whole lot,” I shrugged as we climbed the stairs to the front porch. “You guys keep telling me all the good I'm doing for him but he still doesn't even talk to me. Any time I spend with him ends with him swearing at someone and storming off.”

 

“You got him to pick up a pastry bag today, Katniss,” she gave me a look, opening the front door for me. “He hasn't even tried doing any bakery work since it happened. That's a huge part of who he is.” I paused in the kitchen, watching her for a moment and trying to figure out what that meant. “Go get your sister. And tell Hazelle I want them over for dinner Sunday.”

 


 

“Do you like helping mom with Peeta?” Prim asked while we were laying in bed that night, huddled together under the blankets against the draft sweeping through our room.

 

“Sometimes,” I turned toward her as she squirmed closer to me, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. “He can be kind of a jerk, though.”

 

“Well, obviously,” she scoffed. “He's scared. He has this awful injury and doesn't know when it's going to get better and he has to rely on everyone to do everything for him. Plus he's afraid of embarrassing himself in front of you.”

 

“How do you know all this?” I smirked, resting my cheek against her hair.

 

“You would too if you were paying attention,” she said, punctuating the statement with a yawn.

 

“Go to sleep, Duck,” I rubbed my hand over her back. How did my baby sister end up more perceptive than me so quickly?

 

The next morning I slipped out to hunt long before the sun rose, bundling up against the cold. A light snow fell overnight, just enough for my tracks toward the fence to be painfully obvious and not enough to truly cover them. I doubled back a ways, finding a pine bough to sweep across the ground behind me and left a swath of bare ground in my wake that was probably just as obvious as actual tracks. I met up with Gale at the ridge over the valley. He had already been through our snare lines and sat on a fallen tree cleaning what little he'd managed to pull from the traps.

 

“Morning, Catnip,” he shot me a smile as I sat down beside him.

 

“You're up early,” I shifted my game bag into my lap and leaned the bow against the tree beside me. He shrugged. “I brought breakfast.” I tossed open the top of my game bag, pulling out a small loaf of dark bread and a packet of cheese from Prim's goat.

 

“Must be nice,” he smirked as he accepted the hunk of bread I tore off for him. “Fresh food all the time.”

 

“My mom gives you guys almost half of what she brings home,” I laughed, offering him the cheese as well.

 

“Still,” he grinned, taking a bite and talking around it. “It'll make for an easier winter.”

 

“For both of us,” I gave him a look. There were times last winter when we had less than nothing; when Mom had no patients, when there was nothing to hunt, and Gale had helped us. He used the money from the odd jobs he picked up around town and the pay from his spot on the crew that repaired the winter damage to the fence to get us all through it. His family and mine. I owed him for that. Between the pay mom was bringing home every few weeks and the food Twain insisted on us taking home nearly every visit I would be able to return the favor this winter.

 

“How is all that going?” he asked. I looked over at him. “Helping. Whatever it is you're doing that has Prim whining to Rory every time she's over.”

 

“It's fine, I guess,” I shrugged, looking out over the valley. “He's kind of a jerk sometimes. Although I guess he can't really help it.”

 

“He can't help being a jerk?” Gale asked. I could hear the laughter in his voice and sighed.

 

“It's complicated. Come on.” I pushed up off the tree and tucked away the leftovers from our breakfast. We managed a decent haul that was well worth the hours we spent trudging through the cold. By the time we made it back home it was well into the morning.

 

Madge was waiting for us at Gale's house, sitting in the living room and braiding Posy's hair. She had started tagging along on our Saturday trips to the Hob this past summer, out of curiosity as much as boredom. Her presence hadn't exactly been welcome to begin with; no one really wanted to do business in front of the mayor's daughter. After a couple of weeks, though, her being with us started to have the opposite effect. It made people more honest. They haggled less and paid a little more, as if there was some unspoken agreement that if the mayor were going to hear about us out at the Hob through his daughter he'd only hear good things. Gale and I certainly didn't mind, so she went with us every weekend.

 

She peppered me with questions throughout the morning, carefully considering my answers as if she were trying to figure something out. Whatever it was, I didn't have the patience to try piecing it together.

 

“I can't believe he's that bad,” Madge frowned and folded her arms over her chest. Gale was a few feet away trying to trade off the last of our game for the day. “I mean, we all knew his mom hit him, but I don't think anyone had any idea how bad it was.”

 

“I know.” I thought about the one time I'd seen it in action. It was on my way to trade a few years ago. He had stumbled out onto the back porch with his mother hot on his heels and slapping the back of his head. You're every bit as slow and stupid as your father. I could still see the angry sneer on her face as she yelled at him. I could remember the way he'd just hunched up his shoulders and turned his face away; his mouth twisted into a frown and his eyes pressed closed. I ducked behind a tree in the back alley, not wanting him to know I'd seen.

 

“He'll get better though, won't he?” Madge asked. I sighed and shrugged.

 

“Mom said some of it will. She also said some of it is permanent, and there isn't really anything to do but wait and see which is which.” I chewed my lip and hugged my arms around my ribs. A pair of peacekeepers on the other side of the Hob caught my eye. I couldn't quite see who it was. If it was anyone but Cray or Darius I hoped Gale had the common sense to pay attention. There were a few of them who took it upon themselves to take a stroll through and take anything that caught their eye and call it 'seizing contraband goods'. I gestured toward them. “And you know what I really hate? These idiots would lock Gale and I up in a heartbeat if they caught us slipping through the fence, but I guarantee that woman won't hear a word about nearly killing her son from them.”

 

“The Capitol cares more about control than welfare,” Madge said, following my line of sight. “Dad hates it. It's part of why he lets so much slide, I think. He hates that double standard.”

 

A few days later Mom sat in the living room with Peeta while Prim and I did homework at the kitchen table. She had been trying to get him out to our house more often than the usual one day a week, insisting that the fresh air would be good for him and that he needed to get out of the bakery more. The card game she played with him had been replaced with flash cards, pictures, words, and phrases she grilled him on in 20 minute bursts. Every once in a while I looked up from my books and saw his face twisted in frustration as she asked him for a fifth way to phrase something or another sentence with whatever word she was focused on. When I listened in to see what sort of things she was putting him through to make him huff and rub his hands over his face like that I found myself getting just as frustrated with some of her questions.

 

“Girls?” Mom looked over at us. “Would you excuse us for a few minutes?” I nodded, nudging Prim up out of her seat. Peeta watched us cross the room, and I flashed him a faint smile as Prim and I disappeared out the back door.

 

“Some of the stuff she asked him is hard,” Prim said, lifting the latch on the gate to the goat pen and slipping inside. I leaned against the fence, smirking at her. She turned to me and raised her eyebrows when I didn't respond. “I know you listened more than you were doing homework, too.”

 

“Maybe,” I smiled, pulling my sweater a little tighter around myself. I watched as Prim lifted the lid of the feed barrel, scooping some grain out for Lady and laughing at the impatient headbutt she took to the hip when she didn't put the bucket down fast enough.

 

“I wonder what they're talking about when she kicks us out,” she scratched along Lady's shoulders, twisting her mouth in thought. I honestly wondered the same thing and was debating shifting close enough to the house to try to listen in on it. I didn't want Prim doing the same thing, though, and decided to set a better example than I wanted to be.

 

“Didn't you tell me last week that he's afraid of embarrassing himself in front of me?” I raised an eyebrow.

 

“Yeah, in front of you,” Prim rolled her eyes, shaking her head. She put her hands on her hips, staring down at the goat. “He doesn't care how he looks to me.” There was a hint of insult in Prim's voice that I couldn't help but smile at.

 

“You mean you wouldn't tell me?” I ask.

 

“Well—yeah. I would,” Prim said, smiling at me sheepishly.

 

“And I'm sure he's well aware of that,” I smiled at her. We cleaned out Lady's shed, replaced her hay, raked the pen, and changed out her water trough before Mom stepped out onto the back porch again.

 

“Kat? Would you like to take Peeta home?” she asked.

 

“Isn't his dad coming?” I stood, brushing the dirt from my pants.

 

“Not today, they're busy tonight,” she folded her arms around herself, rubbing her skin through the sleeves of her dress to warm herself up. “I'll go, if you don't want to.”

 

“No, I'll go,” I said. Prim stood up beside me, scratching behind Lady's ears and biting back a smile. “What.”

 

“Nothing,” she grinned, unlatching the gate and leading the way back into the house. Peeta stood by the kitchen table, leaning against it with one hand and flipping through my homework with the other. His face was pinched in concentration. I wondered how much of it made any sense to him. I crossed the room to him, leaning against the table and watching him for a moment.

 

“Ready?” I asked. He startled, looking up at me as if he didn't know I'd even stepped into the room, and nodded. “Come on.” I nodded toward the door, lifting my arm toward him just a little, just enough for him to see and know he could grab hold if he needed to. Peeta glanced down at the gesture briefly before crossing the space to the front door without my help and lifting his coat off the hook by the door to pull it on. I sighed, looking back at Mom before following suit, pulling on my own coat before opening the door and pushing his wheelchair out ahead of me. He followed behind me, hesitating at the top of the stairs as I bumped the chair down to the bottom. It was heavy and the wheels were wide enough to make moving it over the packed dirt roads that led through the Seam almost as easy as the stone paved streets in town. I turned around and looked up at him. After his refusal of my help inside, I didn't think he'd appreciate it now.

 

“K-Katniss?” he said quietly after a few moments of hesitation. “Um. C-could you-”

 

“Help you?” I asked. He closed his eyes, tensing his jaw and nodding. “Yeah.” I climbed the steps to stand beside him and held onto his elbow as he moved down the stairs.

 

“Steeper—than th-the ones at home.” He frowned as we reached the bottom, lowering himself into the wheelchair and assuming that closed off, angry expression I had come to know too well. The sun started to set as I pushed him toward town, the air chilling dramatically as it dipped below the horizon. I wished I'd brought some damn gloves.

 

“I think it's kind of ridiculous that my mom expects you to want to get out and get some fresh air when it's this damn cold,” I said. He didn't even react, but I didn't really expect him to. “What the hell are you going to do when it snows?” I tried to imagine pushing this thing through the narrow, dirty trails that were worn through the snow by the hundreds of pairs of feet making their way to and from town or school or work. Last year the banks along the paths to school were as tall as Prim. The sidewalks and streets were usually cleared in town, but not very well. Peeta must have been thinking the same thing, he sighed and shifted in the chair, folding his arms over his chest. The rest of our trip was made in silence. I didn't speak again until we'd gotten close to the bakery. “Any of your friends come to see you yet?”

 

“N-no,” he said. I frowned, thinking about what that meant for him, how that must have felt. My list of friends began with Madge and ended with Gale, but if something happened to me and either of them failed to check in on me, I'd have felt horrible. From what I could tell, Peeta had far more, and that had to have made the feeling even worse.

 

“Not even Delly?” I chewed my lip. “I thought she was your best friend.”

 

“Wh-when we were six,” he snapped.

 

“She said you used to visit her at night,” I said, wondering what that meant. What there was to the two of them. He sighed and made a few false starts before speaking again.

 

“We're—were—still friends,” he said, looking down at his knees. “She's d-dating Rye.”

 

“Oh,” I said, unable to hide the surprise in my voice. I tried to remember ever seeing the two of them together and came up completely blank. Not that I'd ever really paid attention. Maybe I'd just missed it. What I didn't miss, though, was the irony of Rye dating someone in my year after Gale told me the nasty shit Rye had said to him about robbing the cradle when he started dating Madge.

 

When we reached the back of the bakery he got up from the wheelchair and started up the back steps before I even had the chance to offer help. I watched him for a moment, sighing as I folded up the chair and hefted it to the top of the stairs. Peeta led the way into the house. I tucked the chair to the side in the small mudroom that separated the back door to the porch from the bakery kitchen before nearly crashing into where he stood rooted in the doorway.

 

Rye had Delly pressed up against the work table, one hand in her hair, the other firmly planted up the front of her shirt. They looked like they were trying to extract each others tonsils with their tongues. I bit back a smirk, glancing over at Peeta. The look on his face killed the expression immediately, though. He was watching them with something caught between annoyance and sadness. I turned back to look at them, wondering how the hell they hadn't noticed our presence at all. I cleared my throat and Delly all but shrieked, shoving Rye away from her and whirling around toward us.

 

“Oh my god,” she said breathlessly, smoothing down her shirt and trying to tuck it back into the waistband of her skirt. “Peeta. Oh my god. I came to see you. See how you're doing, you know? But you weren't here. Um.” She pushed her hair back away from her face, trying in vain to smooth down her curls. “Hi, Katniss.”

 

“Great timing, guys,” Rye deadpanned, stepping closer to Delly, slipping his arm around her waist and trying to work his fingers into the top of her skirt. She slapped his hand away.

 

“Hi D-Delly,” Peeta frowned. He didn't budge from his spot in the door frame, he just turned his attention toward Rye. “Where's D-Dad.”

 

“Out on a delivery,” Rye said, his attention still mostly focused on Delly. Every attempt he made at touching her again was met with a slap or a glare.

 

“How are you doing?” Delly asked, melodramatic concern plastered across her face. “You look great. Really great, Peet.”

 

“F-fine,” he said. I could see the tension settling in and his hands starting to shake. His grip on the door frame tightened.

 

“Everyone says hi,” she tried. His response was obviously unsettling her. She chewed her lip, looking at me and Rye before turning back to Peeta. “We talked about all of us coming over but, um, I thought maybe it would be better to limit it. You know, so we don't overwhelm you.”

 

“No you d-didn't,” he snapped. Delly straightened up, frowning at him. “They don't care. You—you even took this long. Probably j-just here for him, anyway.” Peeta nodded toward Rye. Delly's lip quivered, her eyes shining with tears.

 

“Hey,” Rye frowned, settling his arm around her shoulders, the first gesture she didn't shrug away from. “Don't-”

 

“Shut up,” Peeta hissed, pushing himself away from the door frame and into the kitchen. “I'm g-going upstairs.” He brushed his hand along the wall for balance, pausing when he got to the foot of the stairs for just a moment before continuing up.

 

“I told you,” Rye said to Delly softly. “That's why I keep telling you to wait.” She folded her arms around herself, watching Peeta until he disappeared to the second floor. She closed her eyes as Rye wrapped his arms around her. He stared at me over the top of her head. “Are you going to go up there?”

 

“Are you serious?” I dropped my arms to my sides. “He's your fucking brother, don't you think maybe you should be the one to talk to him about your girlfriend being an insensitive bitch?”

 

“First of all, you're the only one who actually helps him,” Rye snapped at me, pointing toward the stairs. “And secondly, don't fucking talk about her like that.” He rubbed his hand over Delly's back, dipping it far lower than was tasteful for comforting someone. I just rolled my eyes and climbed the stairs to the second floor.

 

I found Peeta in his bedroom, sitting in the dark on the edge of the bed, bouncing his leg and chewing the side of his thumb. He stared blankly at the floor, barely even looking up at me until I sat down beside him.

 

“You okay?” I asked. He glanced at me, taking a breath and dropping his hand into his lap.

 

“No,” he said. I just watched him, waiting for him to continue. He always did, given enough time. The only other person I'd seen wait for him to speak for as long as they really needed to was my mother. “They d-don't care. I thought they did. And she's just—just c-c-covering for them. Because she thinks it'll h-hurt me less.” He stopped, his next words catching in his throat, and stared at the opposite wall.

 

“Kind of fucking rude to turn up like that.” I thought about what he said about her just being there for Rye. It sounded bitter, maybe a little jealous, and that made me wonder about the two of them again. “She seemed a little more interested in jamming her tongue down his throat than your welfare.”

 

“Whatever,” he shrugged, dismissing it. “That's Rye. It's—h-how they are. I'm not-” He hesitated, chewing the inside of his lip for a minute.

 

“Not what?” I asked quietly. He just shook his head, looking down at his lap and picking at a hole in the leg of his pants.

 

“It's getting late. C-cold,” he said, his voice softening a little.

 

“Trying to get rid of me, Mellark?” I smirked. A smile twitched across his lips and he shook his head.

 

“Just s-saying,” he said. I smiled, rubbing my hand across his shoulders before getting up.

 

“See you in a few days,” I said, heading for the door.

 

“Goodn-night, Kat,” he said, and I paused outside his door as I pulled it closed. I wondered if he'd picked that nickname up from my mother. No one else called me that, not even Prim. Not since Dad. I smiled to myself as I made my way back downstairs, deciding that I liked the way it sounded from him. I came to a stop at the foot of the stairs. Rye had Delly against the cabinets this time with his hand under her skirt.

 

“Seriously? I was up there for like, five minutes. If that,” I gestured back up the stairs, dropping my shoulders. She went rigid, her eyes going wide as she shoved him back. Rye just laughed, leaning against her again. I rolled my eyes, heading for the door, and I swear I heard her slap him as I stepped out onto the porch.

 

Chapter Text

 “Hang on,” Madge held up her hand as we walked home from school. “Rye Mellark and Delly Cartwright? Seriously? Delly. And Rye.”

 

“Yup,” I smirked. I had struggled to wrap my head around it during my walk home yesterday, too. My firsthand experience with either of them was limited, but Delly Cartwright was nothing if not a shrinking violet, and Rye was a boisterous shithead.

 

“Isn't she younger than you?” Gale frowned at Madge. Rye tormented Gale for years, but when he started dating Madge the torment took a turn for the specific. Gale still occasionally complained about being called a cradle robber.

 

“She's the youngest girl in our class,” Madge said, raising her eyebrows at Gale.

 

“Huh,” he nodded, rolling his jaw. “Good to know.” I rolled my eyes, hoping at the very least I wasn't putting myself in the middle of some battle between the two of them. When we reached home Gale stopped, giving Madge a kiss as Prim and I climbed the stairs to the front porch. “I'll stop by to walk you home later?”

 

“Yeah,” Madge smiled, squeezing his hand before letting go. It's code, and I don't know why they keep pretending walking is all that happens on those trips back to town. The three of us went inside to find a note on the table from my mother saying that she'd be out in town for most of the evening, though I didn't think she was seeing Peeta again for another day or two. We lounged around the living room, pretending to work on homework but doing more talking than anything else. Madge sat on the floor, letting Prim sit behind her and work an elaborate braid into her hair. She dropped her head back into Prim's lap, looking up at her. “So what do you think of him?”

 

“Peeta?” Prim pushed Madge's head back upright, frowning as she pulled out part of the braid and started over. “He's nice, I guess.”

 

“Is he?” Madge smirked at me. “He's kind of cute, you know.” I just shook my head, watching the blush creep into Prim's cheeks.

 

“Maybe,” she shrugged. Madge raised her eyebrows at me, silently asking if she was getting to Prim. I pressed my lips together, nodding and looking down at the book in my lap to hide the smile I couldn't hold back.

 

“I bet Katniss thinks he is,” Madge said, and I looked up at her, deadening my expression as much as possible.

 

“Madge,” I said, cocking my head to the side.

 

“Well,” she laughed. “She would if she'd seen him in that little wrestling uniform, anyway.” I gave her a look, and she raised her hands. “Just saying. That might have been most of the reason I bothered going.”

 

“To check out Peeta's ass?” I smirked.

 

“Maybe his brother's, too,” she grinned, shrugging. “And Asa Maynard has nothing to be ashamed of either, for the record. Don't tell Gale.”

 

“You're awful,” I laughed.

 

“You should pay more attention to these things,” Madge said, smoothing her hand over her braid as Prim tied off the end. “You're missing out on a critical portion of your teenage experience.”

 

“I don't think the wrestling team's asses are all that critical to my experience,” I said as I shifted in my seat, rolling my eyes before turning my attention back to my book.

 

“Your loss,” Madge shrugged before turning to Prim. “Switch. Your turn.” The two of them swapped places, and I half listened to them talk idly as I read, most of my attention focused on the book. I couldn't help but wonder how serious Madge was about thinking Peeta was attractive, though, and how much was just to get Prim flushed and embarrassed.

 

Gale stopped by before dark, planting himself beside Madge on the couch and dropping his arm around her shoulders. She curled up against him, laying her knees across his lap and slipping her arm around his waist without so much as skipping a beat in our conversation.

 

“What are we talking about?” Gale asked.

 

“Nothing,” I said, biting back a smirk. “You missed out on Madge confessing her passion for wrestling, though.”

 

“Shut up, Katniss,” Madge laughed.

 

“I thought you went to those because your cousin is the coach, not because you actually liked any of it,” Gale said while giving her a look.

 

“He is, and I do,” she said, holding back a smile. “I'm just showing familial support for what he does.”

 

“And the outfits he makes them do it in,” I added on. She shot me a glare she couldn't really maintain through the laughter that rolled out of her.

 

“What?” Gale looked over at me, and it just made us both laugh harder.

 

“How was hunting?” Madge changed the subject, taking his hand and weaving their fingers together.

 

“Fine,” he shrugged. “Boring, now that my afternoons are solo.” He gave me a pointed look. Our circumstances were shifting a little. With less pressure on me to bring home enough food to stockpile through the winter I had eased up on how often I went out. I still went every day, sometimes twice, but I didn't have to start and end every single day with a trip into the woods to keep us from starving later in the winter.

 

“I keep telling you that you don't have to do this,” she said quietly. Gale just raised his eyebrows at her. His pride ran even deeper than my own, and working together toward the same goal with me and splitting the benefits between us stung a hell of a lot less than taking handouts from the mayor's daughter.

 

The two of them left shortly afterward, just an hour or so before Mom arrived home. She set a covered plate down on the kitchen table before turning to hang up her coat. Prim was on it in a second, lifting the corner of the towel draped over it to look underneath. Mom slapped her hand away.

 

“After dinner,” she said. “And I hope you girls don't mind leftovers. I didn't realize I'd be so late.” She hummed to herself, turning on the burner under the pot of yesterday's stew sitting on the stove. Prim slunk back to the living room, sitting down on the edge of my chair and leaning against me.

 

“It's a pie,” she said with a small smile. I leaned back to look at Mom, letting Prim lift my book from my lap and flip through the pages. She had a smile on her face, something that had only become a regular occurrence since she'd started working with Peeta. I wondered if how late she was had anything to do with the extra visit to the bakery that pie seemed to point to.

 

The next day I went with her when she went into town. She wanted me to meet Dr. Lawrence and sit in while she talked to him about Peeta. I had no real patience for it. I spent most of the visit staring at the eye chart on the wall behind his desk and wondering what it meant about my eyesight that the last two rows were nothing but a black smudge to me.

 

“Katniss,” Dr. Lawrence said, jerking my attention toward him. I sat up a bit straighter, raising my eyebrows. “I just want to commend you on your participation in this. It can't be terribly easy on you, and I hear that you've been an excellent influence on him.”

 

“Um, thanks.” I glanced over at Mom and she gave me a proud smile, reaching over to pat the back of my hand. “I don't really do anything.”

 

“Don't sell yourself short,” Mom said quietly.

 

“Do you have any questions? Anything you've seen that you've been wondering about?” the doctor asked, raising his eyebrows. I just shook my head, but I couldn't help wondering if I should have been paying closer attention. The few questions I had Mom already answered for me. Were there things I should have been questioning? The two of them returned to their conversation and I sunk back into thought.

 

We headed for the bakery when they finished. Mom headed straight upstairs to work with Peeta. I ended up working in the kitchen. Twain stood in the doorway to the storefront, watching me with a faint smile on his face. I'd gotten to the point where the prep for the next day's business was like second nature; I barely needed to glance at the recipes. I had started to move on to helping Rye with some of the easier things they needed for the evening rush.

 

“I'm guessing you're the jackass that tipped Hawthorne off to me and Delly,” Rye cocked an eyebrow at me as Twain moved back to the storefront to help a customer.

 

“I don't know what you're talking about,” I smirked without looking up from the cookie dough I was spooning out onto a tray.

 

“Please,” Rye scoffed, folding his arms over his chest and leaning against the table beside me. “No one else knows about us.”

 

“Why not? Ashamed?” I raised my eyebrows, glancing over at him. “Delly might find that interesting.”

 

“No,” Rye snapped, frowning at me. “It's—fuck you. I'm not explaining shit. Just don't fucking talk about me to Hawthorne. That guy's a dick.”

 

“I just thought it was a little funny that you'd be all over him about robbing the cradle when you seemed to have your hand pretty firmly embedded in one yourself.” I shot him a look and he snorted.

 

“I've had more than my hand embedded in that cradle,” Rye grinned, wagging his eyebrows at me and laughing at the disgust on my face. I shoved him away from me, finishing the tray of cookies before sliding it across the table for him to load into the oven. Twain moved back into the kitchen, pulling out a stool across from me at the table.

 

“Katniss,” he said, leaning forward against the table and pulling a bit of cookie dough from the bowl and popping it into his mouth. “Would you like a job?”

 

“A—what?” I set down my spoon, raising my eyebrows.

 

“A job, here,” he repeated. A smile crept over his face. “You're already helping, entirely too much I might add, why don't we make it official? Come out here a little more often, take on a little more work, and get paid for your trouble.”

 

“Hold the fuck on,” Rye turned around, moving to stand beside me at the table.

 

“Watch your mouth,” Twain pointed at him.

 

“You don't even pay me,” he snapped, then hooked his thumb toward me. “And you're going to pay her?”

 

“Your wages have been going into a bank account with your name on it for years; when you actually need something, you'll get them,” Twain said before turning back to me, the smile never leaving his face. “I need the help. Rye and I can't keep up on our own, and Phyl can't keep putting in as much time as he is. Will you come work for me?”

 

“Okay,” I nodded, and Twain grinned. He got up as the bell out in the storefront rang, patting my shoulder on his way past.

 

“Great,” Rye snapped, looking over at me. “So I get more time with you.” He frowned, turning back to his work. Mom came downstairs a few minutes later, crossing the room to me with a smile. She kissed my temple, rubbing her hand over my back.

 

“Did he ask?” she raised an eyebrow. I nodded. “And?”

 

“I'm gonna do it,” I said.

 

“Good,” she nodded, glancing at Rye before leaning closer to me, lowering her voice. “Peeta's asked for you twice. Go upstairs.”

 

“What?” I looked at her, cocking an eyebrow. She just nodded toward the stairs. I slid off my stool, glancing at her as I climbed the stairs to the second floor. Peeta sat on the couch, his hat in his hands, working the fabric between his fingers. He looked up as I approached, flashing a brief smile before I sat down beside him on the couch. I angled toward him. “Looking for me?” His eyes widened briefly before he looked down.

 

“Just. Um, wondering if you c-came,” he said, carefully pulling his hat back on.

 

“I think I might be here a lot more often now,” I said. He looked up at me, raising his eyebrows. “Your dad offered me a job.”

 

“Really?” he asked. A faint smile crossed his face, and I couldn't help but think of Madge calling him cute.

 

“Yeah,” I brushed my hair away from my face, looking away from him. I could feel his eyes on me, that smile never really fading.

 

“You should—stay away from the c-cupcakes,” he said, smirking and dropping his gaze when I turned back to him.

 

“Is that an indictment of my frosting skills?” I chuckled, and Peeta shifted to sit back. He scratched under the edge of his hat, grinning at me and shrugging. He looked like himself for a moment. His laugh came easily, and he gave me a look, deftly avoiding a real answer. “Maybe you could teach me.”

 

“Yeah,” he looked down at his hands, shaking his head. The smile dropped from his face. “M-maybe.”

 

“Sorry,” I bit my lip. “I didn't mean to-” He held up his hand, cutting me off as he pressed his eyes closed, his expression growing pained for the briefest moment.

 

“Just um. P-promise me something,” he said, looking over at me. His chin twitched to one side and he rubbed his hand against it, trying to hide it.

 

“What?”

 

“If you're going to um—b-be around,” he paused, a smile twitching across his lips. “K-keep pissing Rye off.”

 

“So did he bitch about that to you, too?” I laughed. Peeta nodded, flashing me a genuine smile.

 

“It's funny when he g-gets—worked up,” he hesitated, frowning slightly for a moment before continuing. “It doesn't really um. Work. When I try.”

 

“I promise I will piss your brother off as much as humanly possible,” I smirked, touching my hand to my heart. He chuckled, looking down at his hands again. Silence fell between us. Over the past couple of weeks it had started becoming less and less frequent. Peeta seemed to struggle less to speak, but he seemed a little more comfortable around me, and that was proving to be more important. When we had an audience he clammed up again. When it was the two of us he opened up. “Can I ask you something?”

 

“What?”

 

“You and Delly,” I started, and the look I got in response made me feel like an idiot before I even finished the question. “Were you always just friends?”

 

“Sh-she, uh. Kissed me once. On a d-dare,” he smirked, glancing over at me. “When we were ten. D- does that count?”

 

“Maybe,” I shrugged. “Was it any good?”

 

“No,” he deadpanned without hesitation. I didn't even bother trying to hold back my laughter. I stayed with him longer than usual. The conversation flowed a little easier. It wasn't until Mom interrupted us, quietly telling me we needed to get home to get dinner on the table, that I even realized how much time had passed. We left with the promise I'd return the next day to start work.

 

I got an early start the next morning, slipping out of bed long before I usually would to head out into the forest. It was dark and cold, the ground coated in a thick frost hard enough that I barely left any footprints in it on my way to the fence. I fished my bow from a nearby tree, my quiver from another further in. The snare line Gale and I had been milking for a few weeks was gone, and I stood looking over the treeline, frowning. He had to have moved it the night before. I continued up toward the ridge, picking off a few birds along the way.

 

“I've been trying to catch up with you for about half a mile,” Gale huffed, cresting the hill as I sat down to pluck my kills. He dropped down onto the tree beside me, setting a brace of small game at his feet.

 

“What happened to the snares?” I asked, glancing down at what he dropped.

 

“Had to move them,” he said. He fished a knife out of his pocket and cut off the rope that held the game together, divvying it between us. “I caught Jeb Maynard snooping the line yesterday. I'm not losing any more dinners to that lazy fucking hayseed.”

 

“Where did you move it to?” I smirked, watching him work.

 

“I'll show you on our way out,” he said, cocking an eyebrow and glancing over at me. “Unless, you know, you're too busy.”

 

“I might be,” I said, ripping the last of the feathers out of the quail in my hands before dropping it and moving on to the crow. “I have a job now.” Gale dropped his hands into his lap, shooting me a look that I couldn't help laughing at.

 

“Don't tell me it's at that damn bakery,” he said.

 

“What's wrong with that damn bakery?” I asked, and Gale's look grew a little more pointed. I knew good and well Rye was what was wrong with that bakery. Their egos were too evenly matched, and their mutual disdain for each other had kept them butting heads long after most of us outgrew playground fights. “Well, if it makes you feel any better, whatever you had to say about him and Delly got under his skin.”

 

“It does, actually,” Gale smirked, wiping his knife against the leg of his pants before getting back to work. “How often?”

 

“I'm not sure yet. I'm starting today,” I said.

 

“He's just trying to get you to hang around Peeta more, you know,” he glanced over at me, raising an eyebrow.

 

“They do actually need the help.” I mirrored the expression right back at him. He just nodded, smirking to himself, and I backhanded his arm before turning my attention to my own share of the game from the snares. Honestly, I agreed with him. But he didn't need to know that.

 

I went straight to the bakery after school, mostly to avoid having to walk all the way out to the Seam only to turn around and head back to town. Rye was a little ways ahead of me, and I considered calling out and walking with him since we were going to the same place, until I noticed Delly ahead of him. The shoe shop was across the square from the bakery, and if he wasn't walking with her I seriously doubted getting his attention would earn anything more than an eye roll.

 

Twain asked me to stop by at least three days during the week, as well as Saturdays after I was finished hunting. The work wasn't much more than I'd already been doing, though I knew he was trying to ease me into things. Rye had no problem dumping grunt work he had no interest in doing on me, and I ended up spending more time at the deep double sinks scraping down and cleaning the trays that came out of the oven than I did just about anything else.

 

Peeta started venturing downstairs the second day I turned up to work. He had very little to say, but every once in a while I'd catch an amused smirk on his face while he watched me. That look usually preceded some condescending lesson from Rye on what I was doing wrong, though he never really bothered taking the time to tell me how to correct myself.

 

“You're a shitty teacher, you know that?” I finally snapped at him on Friday.

 

“I think you're just a shitty student,” Rye countered, dragging the pie tin away from me and all but erasing the tears in the dough I'd been trying to lay across the bottom with a few swipes of his hand. Peeta pressed his knuckles against his mouth, trying in vain to hide just how amused he was by the entire scenario.

 

“I made my first pie two days ago,” I cocked an eyebrow, reaching for the bowl of filling. “I bet you sucked at it when you started, too.”

 

“I wouldn't know,” Rye smirked. “I made my first pie when I was three. So congratulations on fucking up something I've been able to do since before I could read the recipes for them.” Peeta snorted, turning his face away and trying to hide his laughter.

 

“You think that's funny, Mellark?” I snapped. He just shook his head, waving me off, but only laughed harder when I tore the top crust as I tried to cover the pie.

 

“Give me that.” Rye snatched the crust from my hands, balling up the top to roll it out again. I swear I caught a genuine smile on his face as he looked over at Peeta and then to me before crimping the edge of the crust.

 

“Katniss, if you're not busy, why don't you come by on Sunday,” Twain said from where he was leaning in the doorway to the storefront. I hadn't realized he was there, and it made me feel a little more embarrassed at how atrocious my pie had come along. The fact that the finished product looked even remotely passable was Rye's doing. “We'll be closed and I'm sure Rye isn't going to stick around. You and Peet can have the kitchen to yourselves. He can teach you a few things.” Peeta's brow furrowed, and he tensed up for a moment, glancing at me briefly before looking up at his father.

 

“You're gonna make her clean the ovens by herself?” Rye laughed. Sundays were the one day a week the ovens were completely shut down and cooled, and that meant the day was usually devoted to cleaning out the soot and grime that couldn't be touched when they were up and running.

 

“Nope, you're going to get up early and do it before she gets here,” Twain said. The smile dropped off of Rye's face instantly as his father turned back to me. “Sound good?”

 

“Sounds good,” I nodded. Peeta took a breath, glancing at me before getting up from the table. He followed Twain out to the storefront, one hand braced against the wall as he went.

 

“Dad—hang on,” Peeta said as he slipped through the door and out of earshot. I watched the doorway for a minute, wishing I could hear more than just a vague murmur of their voices. Was he trying to argue the point? Was it because he didn't want me here or because he was nervous about having to teach me? Rye dropped an empty pie tin in front of me, and the loud clatter of it against the table made me jump. He cackled and I grabbed the tin, thwacking him with it before setting it down to try not fucking up my second pie of the day.

 

Prim frowned at me from the porch when I left for the bakery Sunday afternoon. Sunday afternoons when the weather was cold were usually spent sitting together by the fire playing cards. It took a promise of a few rounds after dinner to get her to stop fussing at me long enough to let me leave to begin with. She wasn't used to sharing my time with anyone other than Gale and Madge, and more often than not Madge made the trip out to the Seam instead of the other way around.

 

Peeta and Twain were in the kitchen when I arrived at the bakery. I'd long moved beyond knocking, and that seemed to suit them just fine. Peeta flashed me a nervous smile, just barely making eye contact before turning back to the book he was flipping through. The recipe books had been hauled down from the top of the set of shelves by the staircase, stacked on the end of the worktable. I sat down beside Peeta, looking over his shoulder. The books seemed to be mostly handwritten and had very obviously seen a few generations of bakers. The bindings were cracked, pages falling out around what had to have been the most frequently used recipes, where the books were laid open flat the most often.

 

“I'll be upstairs if you guys need me,” Twain said, smiling at me before excusing himself and retreating to the second floor. Peeta's attention was focused on the book in front of him, a faint smile on his face as he flipped through the pages.

 

“I haven't looked th-through these in—in years,” he chewed the inside of his lip, pausing on a page full of illustrations of cake borders. “M-my grandfather illustrated these.” He flipped through a few more pages. “His father s-started the writing.”

 

“Really?” I smiled to myself, thinking of the book of plants and herbs my mother and father put together before he died.

 

“Yeah,” Peeta flipped to the first page, pointing to the names signed to the front.

 

“Barley and Graham Mellark?” I smirked, raising my eyebrows. “I think I sense a theme with your family's choices in names.” Peeta chuckled quietly.

 

“D-Dad's always said that um. If he had a daughter—he'd n-name her Pumpernickel,” he grinned, flipping the book closed.

 

“She doesn't even exist and I still feel bad for her,” I laughed.

 

“He had a b-brother named Leaven,” Peeta smirked. He paused as he reached for another book, catching what must have been a confused look on my face. “Forget it. It—it fits.”

 

“So what are you teaching me today, boss?” I asked as Peeta opened one of the smaller books. He pressed his lips together, holding back a smile, and thumbed through the book for a moment. After settling on a page, he slid the open book in front of me. I looked down at the recipe, closing my eyes and shaking my head. “Cupcakes. Funny.”

 

“I, um—I thought we'd fix that little, um, p-problem of yours,” he grinned, laughing quietly when I backhanded his arm. We worked through the recipe together, one that I was sure he had known by heart at one point. This was one of those worn pages, flour practically embedded in the paper, the text lighter than the rest of the book from wear. He struggled with parts of it, though. I'd learned my way around the kitchen just well enough to fill in the gaps and keep him on track. By the time we got toward the end of the recipe he had to pass the book off to me. “Sorry. Eyes d-don't focus for too long.” He rubbed his hand over his face.

 

“It's okay, we're almost done anyway, right?” I looked over the recipe before glancing at the ovens, realizing not only were they stone cold, but also that I had no idea how to get them running. I turned back toward Peeta. “So, um-”

 

“Oh,” he shook his head, getting up from his stool. “This little one.” He moved to one side of the wall of ovens, crouching down to a smaller door near the bottom. “It's kind of, uh—self c-contained. We'll use this.” I watched as he loaded a few logs into the oven, pushing them far back against the brick. He paused for a moment afterward, his expression blanking for the briefest moment, snapping back when I handed him the long matches that sat on a shelf over the oven doors.

 

We moved back to the table and he sat down and watched as I spooned the batter into a cupcake tray. While we waited for the oven to heat up I asked him about the bakery, about work, trying to get a feel for what, exactly I was getting myself into. It was also good to just hear him talk. He halted less when he talked about the bakery, his stuttering eased, though it didn't disappear completely. Once the cupcakes were in to bake we went back to flipping through the books, though I spent more time looking at him than I did at the pages. He asked me to read a couple of the recipes to him, his brow furrowing in concentration as he listened.

 

When the cupcakes were finished and set out to cool, he talked me through a frosting recipe. He didn't give me a single exact measurement, just listed the ingredients and eyeballed whatever I was putting into the mixing bowl. Every so often he would reach into the bowl and scoop out a little with his pinkie to taste before telling me to add a little more of one of the ingredients. After nearly a half hour of fine-tuning he scooped out a larger fingerful, working the taste around in his mouth for a moment before his expression shifted to a satisfied smile.

 

“I'm g-glad I still have that,” he said quietly. I scooped a bit out of the bowl to taste for myself. It was rich and creamy, sweet without the sugary bite of the frosting I was used to.

 

“I don't know if I can make this look as good as it tastes,” I smirked at him. He laughed softly, reaching for the pastry bag. He showed me how to fill it, how to soften the icing with the warmth from my hands, and how to work out the air bubbles before I started piping onto the cupcakes. Even with the coaching my first two were horrendous. “I told you.”

 

“You're just moving t-too slow,” he said as he stood up beside me, taking the bag from my hands and demonstrating, though he was slowing the motion way down from what I'd seen him do before. He worked the frosting further down into the bag before twisting it off and handing it back to me. I tried again, trying to imitate what I'd seen him do. Peeta leaned closer, rubbing the palm of his hand with his thumb as he watched. He chewed the inside of his lip, shaking his head briefly before resting one hand on my shoulder, curling the other around my wrist to guide me. I turned my attention to him, not the cupcakes, and he jerked his hand away from me, muttering a stuttering apology as he sat down, his cheeks flushing.

 

“It's okay,” I smiled to myself, watching him for a moment. My shoulder felt hot where he'd been leaning on me, and I looked down at my wrist, biting back a wider smile before continuing. I managed to get the hang of it before the last few. Even though they weren't completely atrocious, they still didn't live up to the few Peeta had done as my examples to follow. He emptied the rest of the bag back into the bowl and passed me a spoon. His shoulders sagged and he leaned forward against the table to rub his hands over his eyes. Exhaustion was quickly overtaking him. I scooped a spoonful of frosting from the bowl and nudged him with my elbow to offer it to him. Peeta just waved me off, rubbing the side of his jaw in attempt to relieve a visible muscle spasm. I turned my attention back to the bowl of frosting in front of me. Twain came downstairs a few moments later.

 

“You're a much better teacher than your asshole brother,” I smirked, nudging Peeta gently with my elbow as he put together a box for me to bring my cupcakes home in.

 

“These are pretty damn good, Katniss,” Twain winked at me, taking another bite of the cupcake he'd swiped from the tray as soon as he'd come downstairs. He pointed to the frosting, covering his mouth with the back of his hand before speaking. “And Peet, I'm glad you didn't lose this. But that's no excuse not to figure out how to write it the hell down for me.”

 

“What is he talking about?” I glanced at Peeta. He just shrugged, closing the box before sliding it across the table to me.

 

“Oh, did he neglect to tell you?”

 

“D-dad,” Peeta rolled his eyes, looking away.

 

“Tell me,” I smiled expectantly, watching that flush creep into Peeta's face again.

 

“This is his recipe. The frosting.” Twain popped the last of the cupcake into his mouth, wiping the crumbs from his fingers onto the leg of his pants. “But he just makes it up as he goes along and has no idea how much of what goes in there. And none of the rest of us can figure out how the hell he does it.”

 

“Really?” I hooked my finger in the nearly empty bowl of frosting, pulling it closer to me and wiping a bit of what still clung to the sides off with my finger to get another taste.

 

“He's a genius,” Twain shrugged, folding his arms across his chest.

 

“Please st-stop,” Peeta pushed his hat back on his head, scratching his fingers into his hair before smoothing it back down. He was avoiding my gaze, and it just made me smile a little wider.

 

He was at my house the next day when I got home from school, sitting on the couch with my mother, the look on his face a complete contrast to the way I had seen him yesterday. Mom was holding a book open between them. He was scowling at it as if it had personally offended him, rubbing his fingers over his forehead. There was no sign that he even still knew how to smile as warmly as he had before I'd left last night.

 

“Just try, one more time, please,” Mom said, passing the book to him before standing up and walking into the kitchen. She leaned close to me, lowering her voice so he couldn't hear. “I think we're going to cut it short today. Mind taking him home in a bit?”

 

“That's fine,” I said. Peeta shifted, his eyes dropping down to the book in his lap as soon as I looked over at him. “Everything okay?” Mom just sighed, rolling her eyes before moving to the stove, checking on whatever she had on the burner.

 

I followed Prim to our bedroom and sat at the end of our bed, my back against the wall, the door open just a crack. I wanted to hear whatever was going on out there to put him in such a foul mood, not to mention get my mother rolling her eyes at him. After a few minutes I heard Mom return to the living room, the couch creaking as she sat back down. She started asking him questions about whatever he'd read, every one of them met with silence or a hesitant, stuttering answer that ended up needing to be corrected.

 

“We could try something else,” Mom said softly. Peeta sighed, and I heard the book thump closed.

 

“Can—I'd like to,” he paused. “G-go home.”

 

“Okay,” Mom said. I turned my attention back to the notebook I'd laid across my lap and hadn't given a single glance to since sitting down. Mom nudged the door open and I waited a moment before looking up at her, hoping she wouldn't realize I'd been listening in. She nodded toward the living room. “Ready?”

 

“Sure,” I set my notebook aside, pinching Prim's foot as I got up from the bed. She yanked it away and smiled at me as I left the room. Peeta was already by the door, steadying himself with both hands against the wall as he stepped into his shoes. He gave me a brief, tense smile as I stepped up next to him, stepping into my own shoes before pulling on my coat. “Rough day?”

 

“Yeah,” he squeezed out, dropping his gaze to the floor as he put on his coat. I watched him for a moment before opening the door and pushing his wheelchair out. Once I'd gotten it down the stairs I climbed back up them to help him down. Peeta jerked his arm out of my grasp. “I'm fine.”

 

“Okay,” I raised my eyebrows, taking a small step back as he moved down the steps, gripping the railing with one hand. He stumbled a bit halfway down, catching himself on the rail in the same instant I got to him, one hand on his back, the other on his arm.

 

“I s-said I'm fine,” he snapped, jerking away from me again.

 

“Fine then,” I muttered. “If you're fine.” I moved to stand behind the wheelchair, watching him take the last couple of steps carefully before dropping down into the wheelchair with a sigh. “What's up your ass?”

 

“Can we j-jus—just go,” he kicked down the footrests, slouching down in the chair and folding his arms over his chest.

 

“Okay,” I sighed, and started pushing his chair toward town. We had recently started talking on the walks home. As awkward as it felt talking to the back of his head, walking in silence was even worse. Every once in a while he'd shift in his seat, or I'd hear him draw in a breath as though he had something to say, but nothing ever came of it. Halfway to town I heard footsteps running up behind us.

 

“Catnip!” Gale called out to me, stretching his arm out in a brief wave. I slowed our pace, ignoring the impatient sigh that Peeta didn't even bother hiding. Gale caught up in a few strides, grinning at me. “Heading to town?”

 

“Yeah,” I nodded.

 

“Hey buddy,” Gale clapped Peeta on the shoulder, nudging me out of the way and taking over pushing the wheelchair. “How're you feeling today?”

 

“He's feeling great,” I said, trying not to smile too much and tip Gale off to my sarcasm. Peeta glared at me. I just clapped him on the shoulder, imitating Gale's gesture. “Aren't you, buddy.” If he wanted to be a surly asshole, I had no problem having a little fun at his expense. He narrowed his eyes at me before turning away. I looked back to Gale. “Going to see Madge?”

 

“Dinner with her parents,” he said, shooting me a brief grimace. I just chuckled. He could pretend to hate it all he wanted, but once he'd finally won Madge's father over he may as well have been part of the family.

 

“You could have at least changed your pants,” I pointed to the side of his pant leg, to the spot where he habitually wiped his hunting knife clean. It was still streaked with dried blood from the morning's hunt.

 

“Ah, fuck,” he frowned down at his leg before sighing and turning his attention to Peeta again. He kept his voice too light and casual, like he was speaking to a child, completely oblivious to Peeta's shoulders tensing up. I had a hard time not laughing at the entire exchange. By the time we made it to the bakery Peeta had started flat out staring me down, making it even harder not to laugh. When we got to the back porch Gale had his arm around Peeta's shoulders before he even stood up from the chair, completely oblivious to the attempts he was making at protesting. I just folded up the chair, carrying it up onto the porch behind them.

 

“Thanks for your help, Gale,” I said, smiling at Peeta and folding my arms over my chest.

 

“You're welcome,” Gale cocked an eyebrow, looking from me to Peeta and back, finally catching on to something being off. Peeta set his jaw, shaking his head at me. Rye yanked open the back door a moment later, his expression shifting the moment he caught sight of Gale.

 

“The fuck you doing here, Hawthorne?” he sneered.

 

“I was walking your brother home,” Gale snapped, finally giving up his grip on Peeta. “You're welcome.”

 

“Katniss walks my brother home, oil slick,” Rye folded his arms over his chest, leaning against the door frame. “The fuck are you doing here.” Peeta just rolled his eyes, squeezing past Rye and disappearing into the bakery. I had just as much patience with the pissing contest gearing up between the two of them.

 

“Hey,” I caught him by the elbow just before he reached the staircase. He turned to me, frowning. “I was just playing with you. You know that, right? He's an idiot.” Peeta shook his head, pulling his arm away from me, but he didn't just start straight up the stairs like I expected him to. “You were kind of being a dick.” He straightened up, drawing in a breath to say something and hesitating, looking me over.

 

“I—um,” Peeta cut himself off when I looked past him. Twain was standing in the doorway, watching the two of us. Peeta looked over his shoulder, his eyes deadening a little when he turned back to me.

 

“Sorry,” Twain held his hands up, disappearing into the storefront.

 

“Want some help getting upstairs?” I lowered my voice a little, raising my eyebrows. I hope he understood what I was really asking. Did he want to talk somewhere without an audience. He looked confused for a moment, his face softening when Rye stepped back in the kitchen.

 

“Please,” he said. I nodded. I walked up the stairs beside him, offering my arm if he needed it, and followed him down the hall to his bedroom. He sat down on the edge of his bed, pulling off his hat and tossing it onto the dresser that stood between his and Rye's beds. I sat down beside him, catching a glimpse at the back of his head when he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. That scab was still there. Smaller now, much smaller, but still not gone. It left a patch of bare skin, the hair that had started growing back around it was almost white.

 

“So what's going on,” I asked, frowning to myself. “You were fine yesterday.”

 

“Yeah—yesterday,” he straightened back up, glancing over at me. He ran his hand through his hair, closing his eyes and blowing out a breath when his fingers brushed over the scab. He dropped his hand into his lap. “It's like—there's only s-so much. Of me. And um. Once I use it up it—it's just gone. And I—I don't know how long it'll t-take to get—get it back.”

 

“So I tired you out, is what you're saying,” I said. He looked over at me, stuttering for a moment before just taking a breath and nodding. “You could have just said that. Instead of being a jerk.”

 

“It's embarrassing,” he muttered softly.

 

“Peeta,” I said, a little stronger than I meant to. He snapped his attention toward me. “No it isn't. This was done to you. Your mother is the one that needs to be embarrassed.”

 

“Yeah, b-but-” he dropped his gaze again, picking at a hole along the seam of his pants. “I—I'm the one who has t-to live with it.”

 

I had no idea what to say. Peeta closed his eyes after a moment, rolling his jaw, his lip trembling faintly. I shifted a little closer, reaching out and taking his hand, squeezing it softly. He looked down at our hands, glancing up at me before dropping his gaze back down to the floor. He chewed his lip, squeezing my hand back after a moment.

 

 

Chapter Text

 “Not working today?” Madge asked as she joined Prim and I, along with Gale and his brothers, for our walk back to the seam. I shook my head, taking Prim's hand in mine. “How's that going?”

 

“It's good,” I shrugged. “I mean. I'm enjoying it, I guess, even though I'm a terrible baker. And horrible with customers, apparently.” Madge laughed.

 

“Rye makes her clean everything,” Gale said.

 

“I'm really good at that,” I said, pointing at Gale. “I'm there to get Peeta to leave his room as much as actually help them out.”

 

“You know, when I said that you denied it,” Gale pointed right back at me. I turned my hand and flipped him off.

 

“How is he doing?” Madge asked as Prim pulled away from me, clearly bored with our conversation, and ran a few steps to catch up with Rory and Vick.

 

“Okay, I guess,” I shrugged. “I don't really have anything to compare it to. He's not okay, but he has good days and bad ones. He's had a few good days lately.”

 

“I saw his parents leaving the Justice Hall the other day,” Madge said as she made a face. “They were walking with about 20 feet of space between them, didn't even look at each other. I think the divorce is over. And good fucking riddance.”

 

“Remember that time she caught us trading with him and threw an entire tray of muffins at us?” Gale smirked at me. I laughed. That was my first encounter with Mrs. Mellark. She had thundered down the stairs at the sound of our voices and grabbed the first thing she could get her hands on to heave at not just Gale and I, but Twain as well.

 

“And then chased us out with the tray still in her hands,” I added, still laughing.

 

“That woman is a witch,” Madge frowned. “Maybe now that it's official people will stop talking shit about Twain and your mom.”

 

“Why are they doing that?” I raised an eyebrow. “And what are they saying? And who's saying it, for that matter?”

 

“Katniss, the two of them were, like, a thing,” Madge said, as if this were something I should have known. How could I have known? Mom barely even talked about Dad, let alone about anything that came before him in her life. “Before she ran off with your dad. She left him for your dad. Everyone in town knows about that. It was kind of a huge deal.”

 

“Even I knew about that,” Gale chimed in, draping his arm around Madge's shoulders.

 

“Well, why the hell wouldn't you tell me?” I snapped.

 

“I thought you knew,” he said, shooting me a defensive look.

 

“If your mom isn't hitting that yet, she should,” Madge said. “Twain's a catch.”

 

“Ew,” I narrowed my eyes at her. Gale leaned away from Madge, cutting his eyes toward her.

 

“Oh, come on,” Madge looked up at him, her shoulders slumping. “Are you jealous? Give me a break, he's old.”

 

“Whatever,” Gale muttered. I tuned out of the rest of their conversation, fitting this new piece of my mother's history into my image of her. Were they serious? What made her leave? Did she love him? Did she still have feelings for him? I found myself thinking of the way Twain looked at her. I thought it had been gratitude, but the more I thought about it the more it seemed like love.

 

I went with them to Gale's, briefly saying hello to Hazelle before the three of us retreated to the loft over the living room that Gale had claimed as his bedroom. Hazelle shared with Posy while Vick and Rory shared the other bedroom. I perched on the arm of the couch he slept on, my feet on the cushions, facing Gale and Madge where they sat cuddled up at the opposite end.

 

“You got awfully quiet, Catnip,” Gale smirked at me, absently winding his fingers in Madge's hair.

 

“Mellarks on your mind?” Madge cocked an eyebrow, her smile entirely too knowing.

 

“What?” I made a face at the two of them, and Madge just laughed.

 

“He told me how smiley you are around him,” she said, pressing her lips together in a tight little smile. “How you followed him inside after walking him home.”

 

“We're friends,” I said, giving them both a pointed look. Madge returned it. “He's really sweet, and I'm the only one who can get him to come out of his shell at all, apparently.”

 

“How long did you spend over there with him after I left the other night?” Gale asked.

 

“I don't know,” I shrugged. “A couple hours?”

 

“That's a pretty serious time investment for just walking him home,” Madge pointed out, failing miserably at hiding a smile. I raised an eyebrow.

 

“We went upstairs to talk,” I said, and the two of them looked at each other. I sighed, my shoulders dropping. They were obviously trying to make something of this, and I was not amused in the least. “He gets really stressed and self conscious and has a hard time talking when he's around other people. It's easier for him when it's just the two of us. We went up to his room and sat down to talk for a while.”

 

“On his bed?” Madge smirked. Gale snorted quietly.

 

“Yes,” I deadpanned. The two of them looked at each other again, this time sharing a barely hidden smile. “What?”

 

“Nothing,” they said in near-unison. I just rolled my eyes.

 

I went home shortly before dinner, trying to figure out what the hell those two were implying. I could easily figure out Madge's perspective. Even though she'd long given up on the very idea of me dating anyone, her crusade to at least get me to admit to finding someone attractive had not ended. If she was trying to plant ideas in my head about Peeta I wasn't going to let it work. We were friends. Nothing more.

 

“Mom?” I turned to her as we were washing up after dinner, leaning against the counter by the sink. She raised her eyebrows, glancing over at me. “Is there anything more that I could be doing?”

 

“You could wash out that pot on the stove,” she said, nodding towards it and smirking down at the washing she was working on in the sink.

 

“I meant for Peeta.” I shook my head, moving to pick up the empty pot anyway, setting it down on the counter next to the sink. “To help him.”

 

“You want to do more?” Mom smiled at me. I nodded. She turned back to the washing, the smile never quite leaving her face. “I could find a way to get you more involved. If you really want to be.”

 

“I do,” I said. Mom nudged me with her elbow, picking up the pot I'd carried over to wash it.

 

“You can start by just getting him out of the house more,” she said. “He needs to get out of his comfort zone. Start learning to be adaptive. Go for walks with him.”

 

“I don't think he'd particularly enjoy that.” I raised an eyebrow, thinking about the look that crossed his face every time he saw me moving that wheelchair for him.

 

“That's kind of the point, Katniss.” Mom gave me a look, raising an eyebrow. “And he'd enjoy spending the time with you. He's certainly not going to let anyone else put him through any of that.”

 

“I really don't have that much influence on him. I don't know where you and Twain are getting this from,” I said as I lifted myself up to sit on the counter. “I get that he's comfortable with me, but obviously he is, we're the same age. I'm not his father or his doctor. He doesn't have to be all tense and nervous around me.”

 

“Still selling yourself short,” Mom smiled, setting aside the pot to dry and wiping her hands on the towel draped over her shoulder. She turned toward me, running the towel through her hands. “When I'll really need your help is when he starts getting back to school.”

 

“School?” I raised an eyebrow, trying to imagine that happening any time in the near future. Unless he started getting a hell of a lot better a hell of a lot faster, I didn't see it coming. He was still struggling with just walking around, talking, and concentrating. Rye had made some offhand comments about how much Peeta slept. Sitting in classrooms for seven hours, trying to focus on lessons, tests, and homework seemed far beyond what he could handle; not to mention Merx Miller one seat behind him in every class they shared. Former friends or not, I couldn't imagine Merx keeping his mouth shut about Peeta's trouble talking or the prominent twitch in his jaw. Even the more subtle flutter of the muscle around his eye. “Do you seriously think he's ready for that?”

 

“Absolutely not,” Mom tossed the towel onto the kitchen counter, folding her arms across her chest. “This year will be something of a wash, but the sooner he's eased back into the environment the better. After winter break is what Twain and I discussed. Peeta would start with just a couple of classes a couple of days a week. We have to speak with the school, obviously. He may not advance with the rest of your class into next year, though.”

 

“Because he's not going to stand out enough already,” I rolled my eyes, shaking my head and looking away.

 

“I'm hoping we can work something out for him so that won't happen,” Mom said. I looked back at her. “Would you be okay with adding tutoring him to your list of duties once we get to that point?”

 

“Sure,” I shrugged.

 

“And keep him talking, it helps him more than you realize,” Mom said as I slid off of the counter to join Prim by the fire.

 

It only took about two weeks of spending more time with Rye to stop taking anything he had to say about me or what I was doing seriously. He seemed to be mastering the art of finding ways under my skin, and I wasn't finding any ways to give him that treatment right back. I settled on purposefully making more work for him when Peeta was around to see it, including intentionally screwing things up that didn't really matter but would annoy the hell out of him. It never failed to earn a quiet laugh out of Peeta.

 

More often than not, when the prep work was finished I ended up flipping through the recipe books with Peeta and trying to familiarize myself with the ones they prepared on a regular basis. It amazed me how much both of them seemed to know by heart. All it took was listing a few ingredients, or the first few steps in some cases, and Rye would rattle off the rest, including the preparation, the cost, and who bought it the most often. Peeta managed to do the same with one or two, though it took him far longer to dredge up the memory than it did Rye. It made me wonder how much he knew before.

 

“What was the first thing you learned how to make?” I asked Peeta, flipping the book in front of me closed and sliding it toward him to stack with the others at the end of the table. He pushed it out of the way, picking up another and flipping through it for a moment before settling on a page and sliding it in front of me. He hadn't said much at all today and what he had was halting and disjointed. It was a bad speaking day, though he seemed okay otherwise. I slid my stool closer, looking down at the book. “What the fuck is a snickerdoodle?”

 

“A c-cookie,” he smirked, tapping the page. “Read.”

 

“Aw, little Peet's suck up cookies,” Rye turned around, smirking at Peeta and wiping his hands on the towel over his shoulder. I glanced at him before looking down at the recipe. Flour, butter, sugar, eggs, and not much else, rolled in cinnamon before baking. Far simpler than most of the recipes I'd been looking at recently. “Gramma's favorite. He used to make those for her whenever he wanted something, and it always fucking worked.” Peeta laughed softly, nodding.

 

“Will you make some for me?” I asked, flipping through the pages of the book. He looked nervous and hesitant about giving an answer. “I didn't mean right now. Just... at some point?”

 

“O-okay,” he nodded, looking down and flushing a little, trying to hide it by scratching his fingers up under the edge of his hat before smoothing it back down. I smiled at him for a moment, watching him carefully avoid my eyes, then backhanded his leg lightly before turning back to the book in front of me. I could see him smiling faintly out of the corner of my eye.

 

“Or you could show me how,” I tried, looking over at him. He glanced at me before ducking his chin, a little half smile forming on his lips. I looked up to find Rye staring me down and frowning. “Since your asshole brother doesn't let me near anything more complicated than white bread.”

 

“Try not sucking at the job and maybe you'll get to do more,” Rye cocked an eyebrow. I rolled my eyes, opening my mouth to speak, but Peeta cut me off.

 

“You know—uh, c-considering how long you've b-been doing this, Rye,” Peeta said. Both Rye and I turned our complete attention toward him, a little shocked at him speaking up. “You k-kind of—suck at the job, too.” I laughed, setting my hand on Peeta's arm. Rye just frowned at us.

 

“Are you a shitty baker?” I asked him.

 

“He c-can't do the—fancy stuff,” Peeta said before dropping his eyes back down to where my hand still rested on his arm. I tried to read his expression before pulling my hand back, wondering whether he enjoyed the touch or not. He was carefully blank. When I looked up at Rye he was chewing the inside of his lip, clearly holding back plenty he wanted to say. He turned back to his work without a word.

 

I stayed to help clean up after the bakery was closed, which was far later than I usually stayed. Peeta had finally started talking, and it made me a little reluctant to leave. I could see him getting tired though, and I called to Rye from the storefront that I'd be leaving once the cases were cleaned, hoping that would enable Peeta to get upstairs and get some rest instead of pushing himself. He leaned into the storefront a few minutes later, waving to me briefly.

 

“Goodnight, Peeta.” I smiled at him, and he returned it before making his way upstairs. Rye hovered in the doorway for a moment, scowling at me as I finished wiping down the glass. I raised an eyebrow at him, and he just disappeared back into the kitchen. I stood, stretching my legs out and following him, crossing the room to the sink to rinse out the towel I'd used on the cases. I could feel him staring me down and turned around to look at him after draping the towel between the two sinks to dry. “What?”

 

“The hell are you doing?” he snapped.

 

“Are you kidding? What did I do wrong this time?” I dropped my arms to my sides, looking up at the ceiling before looking back to him. That phrase usually preceded a five minute rant about how terrible I was at my job.

 

“I meant-” he cut himself off, looking over to the staircase for a moment. Rye crossed the room to me, lowering his voice. “I meant with Peeta. What the hell are you doing?”

 

“I'm trying to help him,” I cock an eyebrow.

 

“By fucking with his head?” he snapped.

 

“I'm not—fucking with his head.” I looked over to the staircase, lowering my voice. I couldn't remember if I'd heard the bedroom door close or the creak of the floorboards overhead. This wasn't the sort of thing he'd appreciate overhearing.

 

“Are you kidding? This weird fake flirting?” Rye put on a high, obnoxious falsetto, flipping his hand over his shoulder. “Ooh, Peeta, make me cookies, but not like, right now or anything, just, y'know, whenever.”

 

“Fuck you, I do not sound like that,” I folded my arms across my chest, frowning at him. “And I'm not flirting.”

 

“Yes, you are, you're just fucking terrible at it,” he said, looking me over with a sneer on his face. “And it's driving me nuts. Decide whether or not you're doing this and fucking get your shit together.”

 

“Doing what?” I snapped, not quite understanding what he was trying to say and getting too annoyed with that fact to do anything but take it out on him.

 

“Hitting on him,” Rye said, taking a step closer to me. “Don't do it if you don't mean it. You have no fucking idea what you mean to him, and if you break his heart I swear I'll murder you.”

 

“I'm not-” I started, cutting myself off when I saw the look I was getting from Rye. Sighing, I looked over at the staircase again. I really wasn't hitting on him. I wasn't flirting. Not on purpose, anyway. I didn't think of Peeta in that way, no matter how hard Madge kept hinting at it. “I'm not going to break his heart.”

 

“You can't joke about this shit, either. He doesn't-” Rye cut himself off and sighed, glancing toward the stairs before taking a step closer to me. He turned to me with an expression so serious I barely recognized him. “Look. He takes everything anyone does or says at face value now, period. If you're just dicking around you will.”

 

“I'm not,” I said, holding my hands up in front of me. His expression didn't change in the slightest. “Rye. I'm not.” He rolled his jaw, staring me down for a minute as if he was trying to figure out whether or not I was lying. He stepped back, nodding and turning back to his work.

 

“Go the fuck home. You're just in the way,” he said. I rolled my eyes and went out to the mudroom to snatch my coat from one of the hooks along the wall. As I crossed the yard I glanced up toward what I knew was Peeta's window, tugging my coat on. Whether I expected to actually see him there, maybe watching me leave, I don't know. All I could make out was the faint ring of light leaking out around the drawn shade.

 

I walked back to the Seam slowly with Rye's words echoing in my head. He hardly knew me, who was he to judge how I was acting? I certainly wasn't hitting on Peeta. We were friends, and I wanted to help him. If I was in a position to do that, I'd do it. And to hell with what anyone had to say about it.

 

Gale was not out in the woods. I was a little surprised. He'd told me he was still out hunting every afternoon, and it wasn't as if the weather had gotten too poor. The first snow had yet to fall, unseasonably late, and it wasn't even as cold as late November should have been. The leaves crunched underfoot as I hiked through the woods, and I knew I was likely scaring off any potential game. Not that it was really needed any more. We no longer needed to rely so heavily on what I brought home, and the unseasonably mild weather had made the past couple of mornings especially productive. Gale was probably taking advantage of that and spending his time with Madge.

 

Peeta was back at the house with Mom. I'd said hello before I left, earning a smile and a wave in return. His smiles were coming easier lately, it seemed, and I hoped I had something to do with it. I had promised to be back in time to get him home, but decided to head back early. He hadn't spent much time downstairs yesterday while I was at the bakery, and I wanted to see him.

 

I picked my way back to the fence, carefully stashing my bow and quiver before breaking from the treeline and slipping through a hole in the fence. As I walk I realize the closer I get to home the happier I feel about the fact that Peeta will be there. I'd never looked forward to seeing Madge or Gale quite like this. It didn't lend any meaning to anything they had been implying though. Or to any of the things Rye had said to me. Did it?

 

I lost myself so deep in thought I didn't realize how close to home I was until Buttercup darted across my path. How the hell had that stupid cat gotten outside? The last time he had gotten out he went missing for nearly a week, and Prim was out of her mind with worry. I crouched down, trying to coax him to me, clicking my tongue against my teeth and holding out my fingers. He just sat down, looking me over for a moment before getting up and trotting away. I followed after him, chasing him around the side of the house and finally getting a hold on the scruff of his neck before he made it past the goat pen.

 

“You're a pain in the ass, cat.” I held him up, frowning at him before wrapping both of my arms around him and getting as firm of a grip as I could. If I dropped him he'd just take off and I had no patience to chase after him. I climbed the back steps, pausing when I realized the window by the door was cracked open. That's how he got out, though how he managed to squeeze his mangy, fat ass through that tiny space I can't even imagine.

 

“So nothing else has changed there?” Mom asked, a few beats of silence passing. I leaned against the porch railing, waiting to hear where these questions would lead. What she'd bring up when I wasn't around. “And what about your sexual activity?” I nearly dropped Buttercup then and there.

 

“I—k-keep telling you I'm n-not,” Peeta stuttered, obviously flustered, and obviously implying this isn't a new conversation. Why the hell was she asking about that?

 

“And I keep telling you I don't mean with other people,” Mom retorted. Buttercup dug his claws into my shoulder in protest of my tightening grip on him.

 

“It's f-f-ine,” he said, sighing. A full minute of silence passed. “I d-don't get why—there's no one—no need-”

 

“Peeta,” Mom said, and I heard the slap of her notebook hitting the table. “This might not be a priority for you now, but it will be. Your body forms habits and your brain forms habits. We need to work on everything that you had before and build it back up little by little all together. I seriously doubt you want to let that particular issue go until you do find someone.”

 

“I w-won't,” he muttered. I frowned, resting my lips against the top of Buttercup's head. His tone of voice made my chest tighten.

 

“Peeta,” Mom said, her voice soft. “You will. And whoever you do will be lucky to have you.” He didn't respond, and I looked down at the cat, scratching the back of his neck and trying to figure out how long I should tastefully wait before going in. “Are you ready to get back to those questions?”

 

“D-don't have much of—a choice, do I?” he said, and I heard a humorless chuckle from my mother.

 

“Thank you,” she said. I shifted, looking toward the window, grateful I was concealed. I wondered just how much I'd get away with listening to before I was either found out or found an appropriate moment to make an appearance. “Are you having any trouble getting erections?” There's a pause, and my eyes go wide. Why am I disappointed he didn't give a verbal answer? “And what about maintaining them?” Another pause. “Peeta, you don't have anything to be ashamed of, here. The medicines you're on can affect this, and your depression can as well, not to mention the injury itself. There's nothing wrong with you.”

 

“No, I j-just don't—work,” he snapped. Mom sighed.

 

“Are you still able to achieve orgasm?” mom asked. Peeta let out a pained little groan. “And is it still...”

 

“Disappointing?” he supplied. “Y-yes.”

 

“Now, one more of your favorite subjects,” Mom continued, and I knew that sarcastic tone meant more was about to come out of her that I did not want to hear. I yanked the door open, muttering to Buttercup before dumping him onto the floor, and making a show of sounding out of breath. Peeta stared at me with wide eyes. My mother looked up from the notebook in her lap, raising her eyebrows.

 

“You let the damn cat out,” I snapped, pointing toward the window. “I just had to chase him halfway to the Harpers to get him back.”

 

“I didn't think that was wide enough,” she frowned, getting up to push it closed. The look on Peeta's face still hadn't changed, though he'd dropped his gaze to the floor. He must be afraid I overheard. I wonder how he'd feel if he knew I did. “It was getting too hot with that fire.” She sighed, picking up a workbook from the table and passing it to Peeta. “I think that's enough questions for today. Why don't the two of you work on a few pages in this?”

 

I flashed a brief smile and draped my coat over the edge of the couch before sitting down beside him. He and I had steadily worked our way through a few pages of the book every week. Some of the exercises were painfully easy; drawings of objects or activities to be identified. The page he flipped to had alternating lists of numbers and words that I read aloud for him to repeat back from memory. It gave me a reason to keep some space between us and keep my eyes on the pages. Every time I looked up at him I felt my face get hot.

 

I focused on the book, on helping him, pushing everything I'd just heard out of my mind. By the time we started on the second exercise Peeta was struggling to concentrate, and he kept putting down the pencil to rub his hand and wrist. His fingers were trembling. After nearly twenty minutes of working through a simple page of matching similar words I couldn't take watching him anymore. He needed a break. I picked up the pencil, pulling the workbook into my lap and writing in the margin before passing it back to him.

 

Just fake it for a little longer, then I'll take you home.

 

A small smile spread across his face when he finished reading it, and he nodded. His posture relaxed a bit with the pressure of actually having to do something gone, and I glanced over at Mom. She was sitting at the end of the kitchen table, hunched over a book with her glasses perched at the end of her nose. I wondered how much longer we would have to wait before we could leave without drawing any annoyance from her. Buttercup leapt over the back of the couch, planting himself in between us, immediately bringing back everything I'd overheard and been forcing myself not to think about while sitting so close to Peeta. I got up from the couch, walking over to Mom and leaning against the kitchen table.

 

“Mom, he's exhausted. I'm going to take him home,” I said. Mom glanced up at me, looking behind me for a moment before nodding.

 

“Okay,” she said, turning her attention back to her book. “Should I expect you for dinner or is this going to be another long outing?” She smirked, and I rolled my eyes. I looked back at Peeta. He had Buttercup stretching out on his back on the couch, scratching the damn cat's belly and eliciting a purr so loud I could hear it from where I stood. He smiled before looking up at me, and I nodded to the door.

 

There was nothing to distract me during the walk home. The silence between the two of us that had grown comfortable in its rarity was suddenly horrendously awkward. The idea of sex was far from foreign to me. I'd heard more than I ever really wanted to from Madge about her and Gale, and even Rye kept making offhanded comments about him and Delly. The practicalities, though, were not anything that held my interest. With others or alone. I didn't even really see the appeal, which was something that had shocked Madge into speechlessness when she asked if I'd ever touched myself and all I had to say was that I didn't particularly care to. I was apparently alone in that, though. I was also trying very hard to keep the mental images of Peeta at bay, and it was only barely working.

 

“How are you feeling?” I tried, grimacing immediately at how it sounded. How was he feeling? I knew how he was feeling. And the soft, humorless bark of laughter I got in response told me he was thinking the exact same thing. If I could just get him talking I might be able to rid myself of this image of him in bed, on his back – “Mom said they want to get you back to school after winter break. Did they say anything to you about that?”

 

“Y-yeah,” he said, looking down. “D-don't really—want to.”

 

“Don't really blame you.” I chewed my lip, looking at the ends of his blonde hair curling out from under the hat at the back of his neck. “Might not be a bad idea, though. I mean-” I cut myself off before I nearly repeated my mom's statement about forming habits and getting back to normal. Peeta just shook his head, slouching down in the chair a bit and looking off to the side. The rest of the walk passed in silence, and Peeta hesitated nervously in the mudroom when I folded up his wheelchair against the wall. The past few times I walked him home I stayed, but today he looked like he was fighting with the idea of it. And I definitely couldn't handle being alone with him upstairs after everything I'd listened to. He looked relieved when I said goodbye and that I'd see him tomorrow. I ducked out the back, blowing out a slow breath as I crossed the yard toward the alley to head home.

 

At school I found myself suddenly aware of just how many couples were around me. How many pairs there were walking down the hall holding hands and kissing in the hall between classes. When Madge and I sat down to lunch I found myself staring across the cafeteria at Thill Maynard and Meadow Poole, who were leaning close and talking quietly to each other. He whispered in her ear and she flushed, slapping his arm and laughing. She looked like an idiot.

 

“How the hell do people do this?” I snapped, gesturing toward them. Madge raised an eyebrow, turning to look over her shoulder and see what I was gesturing toward. Those stupid smiles hadn't left either Thill or Meadow's faces.

 

“Do what?” Madge turned back to me, an amused little smile creeping across her face. “Flirt?”

 

“I don't know, I guess,” I frowned, watching them. Thill wrapped his arm around Meadow's shoulder, his smile shifting to something a little more self satisfied. “Yeah. Is that really what that is?”

 

“Is this seriously the first time you're paying attention?” Madge asked, glancing at the couple again. I shrugged. “If you're looking for an example those two are probably the shittiest one you could find in this cafeteria, he's been trying to get in her pants for almost a year. Kind of ironic she's been so uptight about it after that whole thing with the peacekeeper last year.” Madge cast another glance over her shoulder.

 

“What thing with what peacekeeper?” I frowned.

 

“See? This is what I've been telling you. Forever. There is a whole world out there of stories and gossip and interpersonal relationships that you are missing out on because you're too cool to pay attention to your vagina,” Madge said, raising her eyebrows. I just stared at her, my jaw slack, completely at a loss of what to say. “So is that changing?”

 

“Shut up,” I snapped, rolling my eyes and looking away.

 

“Wonder why,” she said, smiling to herself and looking down at her lunch. I huffed, cutting my eyes at her. Peeta had nothing to do with this, but I wasn't going to even bother trying to point that out to her.

 

“Were you that awful and stupid with Gale and I just never noticed?” I asked. Thill and Meadow caught my eye again. Her giggle was obnoxious.

 

“No, but we're a little weird,” Madge shrugged. “Or a lot weird, I guess.” On one of the rare days Gale turned up without me at the Undersee's back door with strawberries to sell Madge had invited him in, kissed him, and told him to stop dating Ada Brattice and start dating her instead. He did, less than a week later. “Normal people do that whole smiling and laughing and touching routine you've been giving the stink eye over there.” She waved over her shoulder toward the couple behind her.

 

I frowned at them, trying to imagine myself doing any of the silly bullshit I saw Meadow doing. The way she kept nervously pushing her fingers into her hair at the side of her neck, the blush on her face, and the smile that wouldn't leave. Thill pecked a kiss against her cheek and she giggled furiously, shoving him away from her. There was no way I'd ever act that ridiculous.

 

After school I headed to the bakery, saying goodbye to Madge as she stopped to wait for Gale while I continued on toward town. Peeta was, fortunately, shut up in his room when I arrived. I wasn't quite prepared to see him again after yesterday. I worked with Twain, learning a new recipe in the lull between customers. Rye was nowhere to be found, and the break from his harassment was more than welcome.

 

“Katniss?” Twain said quietly, leaning against the door frame with his hands shoved into his pockets. I looked up form my work, raising my eyebrows. “Did something happen?”

 

“What do you mean?” I asked, my heart dropping. Was my eavesdropping somehow discovered?

 

“He just usually comes down to see you by now,” he sighed, looking up the stairs. There'd been absolutely no sign of life from the second floor all afternoon. “I thought maybe something had happened yesterday to put him in even more of a funk than usual today.”

 

“I don't think so,” I said, shrugging and trying to keep my voice light. I could feel Twain's eyes on me, and I let out a tiny sigh of relief when the bell at the front door rang.

 

“Once Rye gets home, why don't you go check in on him,” Twain said before disappearing into the storefront to help the customer that had walked in. I chewed the inside of my lip, looking toward the stairs, and wondered how the hell I was going to face him. And if it was going to be as weird as that walk home had been.

 

I had the prep work nearly finished and was in the middle of washing down the dishes from the afternoon when Rye finally turned up. He had a shit eating grin on his face, his hair even more of a mess than usual, and stood in the doorway by the mudroom, shucking his coat.

 

“Sorry I'm late,” he called out to Twain.

 

“No you're not,” came the response.

 

“I'm really not,” Rye grinned at me, ducking back into the mudroom to hang up his coat. I just rolled my eyes. He was back in the kitchen a moment later, looking things over and watching me at the sink as he tied an apron around his waist. “So where are we at?”

 

“Just this and the last of the prep,” I said, nodding toward the sink. “I think I heard your dad taking a cake order a few minutes ago, though.”

 

“Whatever, I'm not doing that,” Rye shook his head, nudging me away from the sink and taking over. I caught sight of an obviously fresh hickey on the side of his neck and stared at it for a minute, raising my eyebrows. “Jealous, are you, Catpiss? Just go upstairs and get your own.”

 

“Fuck you, Rye.” I took off my apron and whipped it at him before crossing the kitchen.

 

“And where are you going?” he smirked at me.

 

“Upstairs,” I snapped, and climbed the stairs to the sound of his cackling. The second floor was dark, just a single light on in the living room. I moved carefully down the hall toward Peeta's bedroom. I listened for a moment and was met with nothing but silence. “Peeta?” I knocked on the door softly. A soft, indistinct answer drifted through the door back to me. “Can I come in?” Another soft murmur. It didn't exactly sound negative, though. I opened the door carefully, poking my head in. Peeta was lifting himself to sit against the headboard, his blankets bunched up around his waist.

 

“Hi,” he said, rubbing his hand over his face as I stepped in and sat at the foot of his bed. The room was freezing. I rubbed my hands over my arms, and he murmured an apology before leaning over and pushing his window closed.

 

“Everything okay?” I asked. He shrugged, shifting a little and blowing out a breath. “Your dad's worried, and I got a little lonely down there today.”

 

“I'm f-fine,” he said quietly. “Haven't r-really—slept.” With my eyes adjusted to the darkness of his room I could see the rings under his eyes and the exhaustion on his face. He was struggling with something more to say; I could see it in his expression. I waited, pushing my shoes off and tucking my feet up onto the bed, turning to face him. “Did um.” He pressed his eyes closed. “Did you hear anyth-anything yesterday?”

 

“What do you mean?” I asked, though I knew exactly what he meant. And I most certainly did. I wasn't about to tell him that.

 

“Before you um—got home,” he said, shifting uncomfortably and running his hand through the rumpled mess of his hair. “You didn't o-overhear anything?”

 

“No,” I frowned, shaking my head and hoping that he'd buy it. “Was there something I was supposed to hear?” I raised an eyebrow.

 

“No,” he said a little too forcefully. I bit my lip, mostly to hide the smile I could feel rising. He didn't seem to notice.

 

“That's not what was keeping you awake, was it?” I asked. Peeta hesitated for a moment before shaking his head and dropping his eyes to the floor. I wondered if he was lying and if it meant something more than just general embarrassment. He pressed his mouth into a hard line, still staring down. “Do you just want me to let you get some sleep?” He looked up at me, searching my face as if I'd give him his answer.

 

“I guess,” he said softly.

 

“Are you going to come down tomorrow and see me?” I asked, and he frowned, confusion crossing his face for a moment.

 

“You—want me to?” he asked.

 

“Yes,” I frowned a little, hating how genuinely mystified he sounded by the idea. “So say you will or tell me what's really keeping you awake.”

 

“I-” he cut himself off, looking down at his hands, a small smile twitching briefly across his face. “I will.”

 

“Okay,” I slapped his leg lightly, pushing myself up from the bed.

 

“Kat?” he said, stopping me. I turned, looking down at him and raising my eyebrows. “Th-thanks. For coming up.”

 

“You're my friend, of course I'm going to come check on you,” I said. He smiled, looking down again. “See you tomorrow, Peet.”

 

“Bye,” he said quietly. I closed the door softly behind me, going back downstairs, flipping Rye off, and ducking into the storefront before he could get out any comments.

 

“How is he?” Twain asked, concern etched on his face.

 

“He's okay. Very, very tired,” I said, looking out toward the front windows. A light snow had begun falling. “I think he just needs to sleep. I made him promise to come down tomorrow.”

 

“Good,” he nodded, sighing. “You ought to get going before that gets any worse. And take that bag on the worktable home to your mother.”

 

“See you tomorrow,” I said. Twain smiled at me, patting me on the shoulder as I turned to leave. I went into the mudroom, lifting my coat off one of the hooks and pulling it on.

 

“You made up your mind yet?” Rye asked as I moved back into the kitchen for the bag.

 

“About what?” I picked up the bag, frowning at him.

 

“You know what I mean,” he cocked an eyebrow, looking me over. About Peeta. I just sneered at him, refusing to dignify that with an answer, and left through the back.

 

Peeta kept to his word. Shortly after I arrived he came down into the kitchen and sat at the worktable, offering a brief smile before turning his attention to Twain. Rye was forced to the front counter while Twain worked on the cake order that had been placed last night. A birthday cake. He kept insisting it wasn't anything terribly ornate, but seeing what he was doing made me wonder what would qualify as 'ornate' in this bakery. As much as I watched Twain, I watched Peeta. That job had been his, and something he was exceptionally good at, from everything both Rye and Twain had told me. He was frowning at the cake, the pastry bags, the bowls of frosting, and his father's hands as he worked. Was he thinking about the last time? His mother? What happened to him? Peeta looked over at me as I watched him, glancing down at my hands and raising his eyebrows. I'd completely forgotten about the dough I'd been kneading against the table, and I had to peel it away from my fingers.

 

“You should help me finish the prep work tonight,” I said, leaning against the counter and watching Peeta examine the cake. Twain had gone to bed not too long ago, leaving Rye and I to close up on our own. Rye had taken advantage of the lack of supervision and stuck to the front, doing absolutely nothing to help clean the kitchen for the night. Peeta looked up at me, his expression almost startled. “I'll measure everything out, you put it together. It'll go faster that way.”

 

“I- I guess,” he said softly, nudging the cake stand a little further back on the counter top. I tugged the stool under the worktable out for him to sit, then ducking into the storeroom to retrieve the containers and ingredients we would need.

 

Rye hovered in the doorway as we worked, ignoring every glare I shot his way. Peeta never fully turned around to look back at him, but every so often he'd shift just enough to catch a glance at the doorway to the storefront out of the corner of his eye. He tensed more each time he saw Rye there, until I finally turned around, intent on chasing that little shithead off if I had to. It only took one step toward the doorway for him to back out of sight, hands raised. With the distraction gone I was able to shift my focus back to Peeta.

 

Chapter Text

I heard Katniss downstairs as soon as I woke. Or maybe it was her voice that woke me. The room spun briefly as I sat up in bed, and I had to wait for the feeling to pass before reaching for a shirt from the floor to pull on. I felt around with my feet for a pair of pants, standing carefully to pull them on. It took a few moments to be sure I was steady enough on my feet to walk. I moved down the hall toward the stairs, steeling myself for the trip down them. I tripped halfway down the last time I even bothered trying—two days ago—and doing that in front of her would hurt more than the fall itself.

 

“Hey, Peeta,” she smiled at me as I reached the bottom step. I tried to return it, but hers was too unguarded and too easy. I knew mine was falling short. Dad was sitting at the worktable with a cake on the stand in front of him. I sat down across from the two of them and watched him work, trying to wrestle down the panic in my chest at the very idea of it. I knew that I could do what he was doing. Hell, I knew that I was probably a little better at some of it. I knew my basket weave was more consistent. I knew my flowers were more delicate, but I couldn't remember the feel of doing it. I couldn't even imagine picking up one of those bags to try.

 

“Would you mind if I left you alone with these two idiots to close up on your own?” Dad asked Katniss. She smirked, turning away from the order she was boxing up to look at him.

 

“Go get some sleep,” she said, moving the box to the counter beside the finished cake. “We'll be fine. Right, Peet?” I looked up, caught off guard by her addressing me with that as if I had anything to do with the bakery anymore. Dad was looking at me with a soft, sad smile, and I nodded, holding his gaze as long as I could stomach. He moved toward the storefront, saying goodnight to Rye before going upstairs to bed. He was exhausted, all the time, and it was my fault. It wasn't just Mom they were making up for, it was me, too. Two people down, and Katniss needed more training before she would be enough to keep up with everything. “Hey.”

 

I looked up, raising my eyebrows. Katniss had her hand on the table in front of me, looking directly at me. It made my breath catch in my throat. I pressed my lips together, raising my eyebrows, and waited for her to go on.

 

“Help me with the prep for tomorrow,” she said. I wasn't quite sure if I heard her right. She couldn't be serious. The one time I'd done anything in this kitchen—those cupcakes we made that Sunday—I'd done nothing but embarrass myself. I couldn't even remember to light the ovens. “I'll measure it all out, and you mix it together. It'll go faster with two.” She touched my shoulder as she moved past me into the storage room, pulling out the containers and ingredients she'd need. Rye slid into the doorway as she returned, crossing his arms over his chest and watching. An audience. Perfect.

 

Katniss led me through it, all but holding my hand without being too overt about any of it. She pulled out the recipes, though I knew she didn't need them anymore, laying them on the table within my reach. One by one, she passed me the ingredients in the order they were listed on the page. It felt almost familiar, and knowing that this had once been second nature to me was maddening.

 

“Hey,” Katniss leaned close to me, resting her hand on my shoulder. She lowered her voice. “Are you okay?”

 

“I'm—fine.” I glanced back toward the storefront. Rye was gone, and I drew in a breath, laying both my hands on the table. Trying to ground myself.

 

“We finished it, you know,” she smiled at me, and I looked up at the containers on the table. She bumped her shoulder against mine, moving to cover them and carry them back into the storage room. “I told you it would go faster with two.”

 

“As do many things,” Rye grinned, spinning the keys to the front around his fingers as he crossed the kitchen to sit across from me. I rolled my eyes. I had trouble wrapping my head around a lot of things now, but Rye's double entendres were too constant to be on the list. “We're closed up, kiddos. What's left?”

 

“You can clean up,” Katniss dropped down to sit next to me. The stool was closer than I realized, and I could feel her body heat alongside me. “Since I did everything else.”

 

“Oh yeah, I bet you worked real hard back here,” Rye smirked, getting up from the table and shooting her a look before turning to the sink full of dishes. “What did you do, box up some cookies? Make Peeta do your prep work?”

 

“You know damn well what I did, asshole.” Katniss rolled her eyes before turning to me. “How the hell did you put up with him for fifteen years without murdering him?” She gestured toward Rye and I laughed.

 

“It w-wasn't easy,” I said. She laughed, and it never failed to make me smile, the squint of her eyes, flash of her teeth. She elbowed me.

 

“Like you were a fucking treat your whole life.” Rye gave me a look, cutting his eyes toward Katniss briefly.

 

“I'm sure he was a far sight better than you,” Katniss raised an eyebrow, and I looked away. I could feel a flush creeping into my cheeks, and I didn't want her to see it. I reached up to comb my fingers through my hair and hide behind my hand in the process when I realized I'd forgotten my damn hat. And that I'd turned my head far enough for her to see that stupid scar. The last bits of the scab still hadn't fallen away, and there was a wide patch of bare skin where it had been. I snapped my vision down toward the table, but I could see her out of the corner of my eye. She had been staring. And it hurt. “Thanks for your help.”

 

I looked over at her. Her voice was soft, her expression genuine, and everything about her was too, too beautiful. The muscles in my neck tightened, jerking my chin to the side, and I rubbed at my jaw, turning away from her before she saw the twitching in my cheek and around my eye that inevitably followed. Of course. I couldn't even find a response for her, though I knew I should have been giving one. I felt her hand on my arm and looked up at her. She was still smiling at me. I took a deep breath, forcing myself to keep my arm still and not jerk away from the touch. She was the only one who did that just for the sake of doing it. The only one who didn't make me feel like I was being pitied when she smiled at me. I wished I could have found a way to say any of that, or to thank her for any of it. Instead I just offered a weak excuse for a smile and stared down at her hand.

 

“Do you want to go upstairs?” Katniss asked softly. I nodded. I could feel Rye watching us. I didn't need to look up at him. Katniss slid her hand across my shoulders, pulling at me gently. I closed my eyes, trying not to think about how close she was, or the softness of her. I let her guide me off of the stool and shrugged away from her to make my way to the stairs. She didn't need to see me any weaker than I already looked.

 

Katniss followed behind me, her hand gently hovering at my shoulder blades when I faltered at the top of the stairs. I led her to my bedroom, snatching my hat off the nightstand before I dropped down onto the bed. I pulled it on, smoothing it down over the back of my head. Katniss smiled and sat down next to me.

 

“You don't have to wear that around me,” she said, gesturing to the hat. “I didn't mean to stare earlier. I just can't believe that scab hasn't come off yet.”

 

“M-me neither,” I chewed my lip, touching the hat nervously. “Whenever, um. A n-new piece—falls off-” I stopped, squeezing my eyes closed, hating the stupid fucking stutter. I took a breath, trying to relax before pushing on. “There's st-still stitches—in there. That your m-mom has to take out.”

 

“Seriously?” she asked, her lip curling. I nodded, her expression pulling a smile to my face. “Let me see it.”

 

“What?” I looked over at her.

 

“Please?” she smiled, raising her eyebrows. I stared at her for a minute, trying to figure out whether or not she was joking. Or if she just wanted to poke fun at me. I hesitated before reaching for the hat and tugging it off. I leaned forward, turning my face to the side and resting my elbows on my knees. After a moment I felt her fingers brush over my hair and on to the bare skin around the wound. Just barely grazing the scab. I flinched, and she snatched her fingers away. “Sorry. It's hot. That's weird. Does it still hurt?” I shrugged, rolling the hat in my hands.

 

“I g-get—headaches a lot,” I said. One was just starting, creeping up from the base of my skull and working its way through my brain. I rubbed my hand over my eyes, trying to ease it. She'd leave when it got bad. She seemed too able to pick up on it without me even needing to say so. I didn't quite want her to go. I also didn't want to keep fucking up this chance to be close to her that I'd been waiting for for years. Why would I even think she'd have an interest in me?

 

“Are you okay?” Katniss asked. I sighed. I couldn't quite bring myself to lie to her. “I'll let you get some sleep, okay?” She set her hand on my arm, her thumb rubbing over my skin. I nodded, closing my eyes and hoping she'd be out of the room before I lost my battle against the tears I felt rising. The mattress shifted as she stood, and the door clicked closed a moment later. I threw my hat to the floor, shoving open the window and leaning over the dresser to suck in the cold night air. Why would I think she'd feel anything but pity? Why wouldn't she want to get out of here as quickly as possible?

 

I forced my breathing to slow, combing my fingers into my hair. I tried the exercise Mrs. Everdeen kept talking me through, relaxing my body one piece at a time to smooth out the tension. It didn't do much for my racing thoughts. The back door opened. I knew it was Katniss leaving, and my body immediately seized up again.

 

“Hey, get back here,” Rye snapped. “I was trying to fucking talk to you.”

 

“I need to get home, Rye,” Katniss huffed. “What?”

 

“I know you heard me, are you going to make me repeat myself?” he said.

 

“I don't get what your problem is,” Katniss snapped. “I am his friend. I enjoy being his friend.” I straightened up, staring out the window. Any romantic notions I might have had were far beyond reach, that was clear. But was she serious? Did she actually consider us friends? Actually enjoy our friendship?

 

“I'm watching you,” he said. That should have sounded like a threat, but I could tell he was on the verge of laughter. I couldn't wrap my head around it. “Every day. Every. Day.”

 

“You're fucking creepy,” she said, letting out a heavy sigh. “I'm leaving.”

 

“Have a lovely walk home, you belligerent pain in the ass,” Rye said as I heard Katniss' footsteps on the stairs.

 

“Fuck you, Rye,” Katniss called over her shoulder. I stepped back away from the window when she moved into view in the backyard, watching her until she disappeared from view down the alley. I sat down at the edge of the bed, looking down at the space where she'd been sitting, where she had sat so many times recently. What would I have done a couple of months ago if she'd been sitting there? How often had I thought about having her up here, alone, in my bed? How often did I still think about it? And I let her lean close to me, touch me, and leave. Without even a word.

 

I lowered myself down onto the bed, draping my arm over my face. That headache was taking a stronger hold, and the effort of going into the kitchen to get a glass of water to choke down the pills for it was beyond what I wanted to handle. I drifted instead, waiting futilely for it to pass. I listened to footsteps on the back stairs, the door opening and closing beneath my window, Delly's squeals and Rye's low, throaty chuckle.

 

We grew apart years ago when Delly started growing out of the brief tomboy phase that had brought us so close together to begin with. She got quiet, and I never really understood why. By the time she started acting like herself again our friendship was never as easy as it had been. It didn't help that Rye had already begun his less than subtle pursuit of her. He started that the summer she grew boobs.

 

My jealousy had nothing to do with either of them personally. I hadn't even felt it until after—well, after what happened—and that took a while to set in. They were in the thick of something I didn't think I'd get. At all. Ever. And all it took was one hard blow to the back of my head to take away any chance at ever having something normal.

 

The back door opened again. I dropped my arm to my side and stared at the ceiling. This was the same every night she turned up. She'd get giggly, try to leave and half heartedly resist his persuasions to stay. Half the time they ended up messing around right on that damn porch.

 

“Rye,” Delly giggled. I heard her whimper and then the smack of their lips. “I said I'm going home.”

 

“You didn't mean it,” Rye said, and I rolled onto my side, folding my pillow around my head to block out the high, soft noises Delly kept making. After a while the bedroom door opened, and I let go of the pillow, rolling onto my back as Rye dropped onto his bed on the other side of the room. “Still awake?” I turned my head to look at him, cocking an eyebrow. “You did not hear any of that. Cut the shit.” I sighed, rolling away and tugging the blankets up. Rye went quiet, letting out a breath. “Sorry.”

 

“D-don't,” I said. Rye didn't apologize for any of it before. He probably would have been louder about it, too. He'd gotten careful and quiet and polite with me, the latter being the weirdest part, and I couldn't stand it. Just another reminder that I was different. I'd rather he be the same asshole he always had been.

 

“Hey,” he said, and I turned to look at him. “I gotta ask you something.”

 

“W-what,” I pushed out. He looked over at the open window, frowning at it for a moment before standing to push it closed.

 

“What do you think about Katniss?” He dropped back down, yanking his shoes off and tossing them to the floor. “I mean, I know what you think of her.” He jerked his fist in front of his lap. I curled my lip and turned away from him. He sighed, pausing for a moment. “I'm sorry, Peet.” That stupid apology, making everything worse. “I meant, ah. What do you think about her being around so much?”

 

“It's f-fine,” I closed my eyes, listening as Rye settled himself in bed.

 

“That's not really an answer, you know,” he finally said. I sighed, opening my eyes to stare at the wall. I didn't know how to narrow down anything I thought about it to one statement I could actually say out loud.

 

“I j-just um—wish it were d-different,” I said quietly. The statement was met with silence. After a moment I heard the mattress springs creak as he turned away. I picked at a crack in the wall, chipping the paint with my fingernail, letting the chips fall to the floor behind my bed. When Rye's breathing evened out I pushed myself up, opening the window again before laying back down.

 

I woke in what felt like a puddle of sweat with sunlight streaming through the closed window. Rye snoring loud enough to shake the floorboards. I eased myself out of bed as carefully as possible; my head was pounding, my mouth was painfully dry. I moved out to the kitchen.

 

“Peet?” Dad leaned in from the living room, frowning at me. “What are you doing up?” I looked back toward the bedroom. Right on cue, Rye snorted in his sleep. Dad chuckled, shaking his head and going into the bedroom. I heard a slap, followed by a yelp out of Rye. “Get up, get to work. I already let you sleep in.”

 

“Fuck,” Rye groaned, yawning loudly and earning another slap. “Okay! Okay.” Dad reappeared in the doorway, smirking at me. I returned it for a moment before pulling down a glass from the cabinet and filling it with water. I stared out the window, forcing the water down and waiting for the sounds of the two of them to filter downstairs before moving back to bed.

 

I sat on the edge of the bed, running my hands through my hair. I felt like I hadn't even slept, and the glass of water did very little to help any of the awful feelings I had when I woke up. My shirt was still soaked with sweat. I pulled it off, dropping it to the floor and pushing off my pants before laying down.

 

I dreamt about Katniss again. About having her here and not having a damn thing wrong with me when I did. I can't remember what I did, how I spoke to her, or whatever that whole, healthy version of me did in that dream to win her over, but it worked. What I did remember was the feel of her against me. I remembered leaning into her and the feel of her skin. I'd felt her close to me while awake, though I knew it was innocent. I knew she was just being kind, sympathetic, caring—I'd felt her body on mine, and it didn't take much to translate the warmth and softness of it into what I wished it could have been.

 

I listened for a moment to the sounds from downstairs, tracking their routine and making sure I'd have privacy. It wasn't as easy as it was before—unpredictable, inconsistent, though I certainly had no issues wanting it. I was rock hard when I nudged my boxers down, and I pressed my tongue between my lips as I curled my hand around my cock.

 

In my dream Katniss was under me. Nervous and hesitant. I'd been the confident one, leading her through it, peeling away her clothes and kissing away the barest hints at reluctance she'd shown. She had wrapped her legs around me, drew me into her, and all I'd heard were those gentle, breathy moans and gasps that I sometimes heard drifting up from the kitchen late at night. They were sexier; my mind filling in the lower, throatier register of Katniss' voice. I wanted to hear her say my name like that, and the thought of it pushed me closer.

 

I imagined her mouth against mine, the feel of her breasts in my hands and the way her hair would look splayed out over my pillow. I imagined turning her around, entering her from behind and the way she'd push back against me. Imagined laying back as she lowered herself onto me. I nearly gave up on it, cycling through the images in my head, with nothing tipping me over, when I thought of the way she looked me in the eye last night and felt her fingers in my hair again. I came with a soft grunt, dribbling over my hand and—that was it. Barely even felt it.

 

I jammed my hand between the bed and the wall, pulling out the towel I kept stuffed there and cleaned myself off before shoving it back, even more miserable than I woke up. Not just miserable, but guilty now, too. Because the next time Mrs. Everdeen grilled me with those humiliating questions about every single bodily function I had, when she got to the questions about that, I'd never be able to get it out of my head that it was her daughter I was jerking off to.

 

When I couldn't stand being alone with myself any longer I dressed and made my way downstairs. I couldn't keep track of days any more, and it took me a few minutes to figure out why, exactly, Rye was home. Saturday. It was Saturday. In the same minute I realized that, there was a knock at the back door.

That would be Katniss, of course, here to trade with Dad, and I still had too much floating through my head to handle facing her. The knock came again. There were customers out front, keeping Dad occupied, and Rye just looked over at me, holding up his dough-covered hands. I sighed, pushing away from my seat at the table and going to the back door.

 

“Hey,” Katniss smiled when I opened the door, her expression brightening. She seemed happy to see me, and I could barely even hold her gaze.

 

“Hi,” I tried smiling back, but it died as soon as I caught sight of Gale leaning against the porch railing.

 

“Hey, buddy.” He walked over to the door, clapping his arm against my shoulder. I pressed my eyes closed. Great. This asshole again. “How you doin'?”

 

“F-f-fine,” I said, trying to hide the stutter behind an intake of breath and looking over at Katniss. She gave me a brief apologetic look before pressing her lips together to hide a smile and looking down. I stepped back to let the two of them in. “D-dad's out front.”

 

“We can wait,” Katniss said and smiled at me over her shoulder as the two of them went into the kitchen. I followed behind, lowering myself back onto my stool. “No rush. At least, not for me. Gale might be kind of eager to get out of here.”

 

“Oh?” Rye glanced over his shoulder, a smirk plastered across his face. “Time for your annual bath?”

 

“Blow me, Mellark,” Gale snapped. I smirked, looking down at my lap and tugging the sleeves of my shirt down over my knuckles.

 

“No thanks,” Rye turned back to his work. “Wouldn't want your girlfriend getting jealous.”

 

“And that's his next stop.” Katniss sat down beside me, but not before pulling the stool a little closer to me. “Mayor and his wife are on a little trip to the Capitol this weekend.” I glanced down as her knee bumped against mine when she leaned forward against the table before looking up at her. She bumped her knee against me again, on purpose this time.

 

“And you're still propositioning me? Damn, Hawthorne, calm the fuck down,” Rye said. Katniss pressed her knuckles against her mouth, hiding a smile.

 

“Eat a dick,” Gale snapped.

 

“There he goes again!” Rye turned around, pointing at Gale and looking over at Katniss. “Will you get this fucking Seam slut under control?” Gale rolled his eyes, folding his arms over his chest. Katniss just laughed. I watched her, and I couldn't help but smile myself. She was beautiful when she laughed.

 

“Enough,” Dad walked in from the storefront, shooting Rye a look. “You scare off my favorite meal and we're going to have a problem.”

 

“They're all from me today, anyway,” Katniss said, lifting her game bag over her shoulder and sliding it across the table to my father. “Since someone didn't reset our snares last night after checking the line.”

 

I stared down at the table, chewing on my lip and letting the rest of the conversation buzz around me. Saturdays used to go differently. With Mom around, the two of them rarely, if ever, actually came inside. Now that they did it just felt like work to try to keep up with the conversation. Gale's presence made me feel even more uncomfortable. That stupid patronizing tone he kept using with me, like I was a fucking child, made my skin crawl.

 

“Hey,” Katniss set her hand on my shoulder, startling me out of my stupor. I looked up at her. “I'll be back in a couple of hours, okay?” I nodded. “You all right?” I nodded again, which was a complete lie. All I wanted to do was go back upstairs and fall back to sleep. She smiled at me, sliding her hand across my shoulders as she got up to leave. As soon as the two of them were out the back door I went upstairs.

 

By the time I woke I could hear Katniss and Rye bickering downstairs. I stared at the ceiling, trying to will myself to get up, go downstairs and see her. If I didn't that would more than likely end with her making a trip upstairs to look for me, and I wanted to face that even less. There were days when having her walk up with me and sit to talk were more than welcome. Today wasn't one of them. A gentle knock came at the door and I pushed myself up, rubbing my hand over my eyes.

 

“Just me, Peet,” Dad said, opening the door just enough to lean in. “You need anything?”

 

“I'm o-okay,” I smiled briefly and he nodded. He hovered for a moment, chewing his lip and nodding.

 

“Okay,” his brow furrowed as he looked at me, then dropped his gaze before ducking out and closing the door. He didn't seem to know what to do around me anymore. Mrs. Everdeen said it was guilt, and when he avoided me it was because he was ashamed of what happened. That he blamed himself. That sounded ridiculous to me. None of it was his fault. He wasn't even there when it happened. When I'd pointed that out she had just said that it didn't matter, and that even though I was the only one physically injured, I wasn't the only one hurt that day.

 

I eased myself out of bed, listening to the sounds in the house and trying to prepare myself for whatever I'd face downstairs. Katniss and Rye had gone quiet, and I couldn't quite tell where Dad was. I sat and rubbed my wrist. Even though the fracture had healed the pain still came back, sometimes worse than others. The ache was starting to settle in, and I shook my hand as I got up, trying to rid myself of the feeling.

 

Dad sat on the couch, dozing with his feet up on the coffee table. He jerked awake as I walked past, blinking at me for a moment before sitting back and smiling at me as I moved downstairs. Rye nodded to me, pulling a tray of bread from one of the ovens and sliding it onto the table. Katniss was out front, and I had yet to actually see that in action. Rye had poked at her lack of people skills more than once, and I wanted to see what he was talking about.

 

I didn't recognize whoever it was. Though the smile and wave they gave me while Katniss was bagging their order told me I should have. I returned it, hoping my lack of recognition didn't show. Katniss was polite, if a little short, and I wondered if she had improved, or if he was just exaggerating all along. I slipped back into the kitchen as she rang up the order, keeping one hand out to maintain my balance on my way to sit at the table.

 

Most of the afternoon slipped by too easily. I couldn't find it in me to focus on any of the things Katniss or Rye had to say. I just tried to time a smile or a nod the best I could when they seemed to be addressing me directly. Their conversation, the noises in the kitchen, and the voices of customers out front blended together so completely I couldn't sort out which was which. As the customers dwindled and their pace began to slow I finally found a way out of the fog.

 

“Where are you going?” Katniss asked, frowning at Rye as he hung his apron by the back door.

 

“To Delly's,” he said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “It's dead, and it's going to stay dead until you close. You can handle it, sugar tits.” He pulled the keys from his pocket and tossed them to her. Katniss caught them easily, rolling her eyes as she turned back to the book we were looking through on the table.

 

“You're brother is a pain in the ass,” she said to me before Rye was even out the back door.

 

“Y-yeah, he is,” I said, watching the way her fingers curled carefully around the pages as she turned them. “It's um—k-kind of nice th-though. When you're here. He's um. He's more like h-himself.”

 

“What do you mean?” she asked, turning toward me.

 

“It's-” I shook my head, looking away. That was usually enough to get Dad to drop a subject, and sometimes even Rye, but it didn't do anything to thwart her. “He's d-different around me now—everyone is.”

 

“I'm not,” she said.

 

“You w-weren't ar-around-”

 

“I was here every Saturday,” she pointed at me. “Sometimes more often. And I've been exactly the same.”

 

“That's—it's d-different,” I said as I scratched my forehead, working my fingers up under the edge of my hat. She didn't know me before, not really, and she barely knew me now. She had been exactly the same because aside from a hello when I was actually home when she turned up to trade, her interaction with me had been limited to me as—whatever that injury turned me into. “It's the worst with Dad.” She just looked at me and waited for me to go on, but I couldn't put the words in the right order.

 

“I overheard him talking with my mom a few days ago,” she said. She flipped the book closed, running her fingers along the edge of the cover. Her brow furrowed, and she frowned before speaking again. “He said he should have done something about your mom years ago. And that he won't ever forgive himself for letting her do any of the things she did.”

 

I could feel my face getting hot and pressed my lips together to hide their shaking. No one ever talked about it, but it wasn't exactly a secret. Not when both Rye and I kept turning up with bruises, and sometimes scratches and burns to go with them. Even Phyl had a scar or two to show for it. That didn't make it any easier to know that everyone knew. Especially Katniss.

 

“Shit, Peeta, I'm sorry.” I felt her hand slide across my shoulders as she stood to move closer to me. “I shouldn't have said anything. Really, I'm sorry. Please don't cry.”

 

I hadn't even realized I was—not until she said that, and I jerked my chin down, tears falling onto my hands when I did. I didn't want to do this, not in front of Katniss—not in front of anyone—but I couldn't hold it back now. There was too much behind it. Too much I couldn't get a handle on. Just the sheer fact that I couldn't vocalize any of it making it all so much worse. Katniss put her arms around me, and gently pressed my head down onto her shoulder. It felt too good, too comforting, and I hesitantly slipped my arm around her waist. I swear I felt her smile when I did.

 

Days slipped by without me even really noticing sometimes. Others dragged on painfully slow. I'd lay in bed, wander around upstairs and drift down to the bakery when I felt able to handle the stairs. I had nothing to fill my time anymore. Holding a pencil made the ache in my wrist flare up, and even if that didn't happen I couldn't keep my hands steady enough to draw. I'd tossed my sketchbook under my bed weeks ago, tired of seeing it sitting on the nightstand and knowing the drawing I'd begun that morning would never be finished. I could only read for short stretches, and it left me with throbbing headaches.

 

I usually ended up in the kitchen, especially on days when Rye was in school. It kept Dad from making constant trips upstairs to check on me and leaving the bakery unattended. He'd talk to me, though I didn't always pay attention. Sometimes I couldn't. I don't know if he even noticed, but if he did he didn't seem to mind. When he wasn't busy with work he'd sit with me, talk, slip food in front of me that I rarely ate. I sat picking at a slice of raisin bread, listening to Dad talk with a customer out front. The conversation was stilted, awkward. Most were now, and they'd gotten worse after the divorce. The bell over the door rang as whoever it was left and I heard him sigh, followed by a soft thunk against the counter. The door opened again, the bell jingling softly.

 

“Hey, Grampa.” It was Darla, Phyl's wife, more than likely with their son in tow.

 

“That will never get old,” Dad said, sounding more than a little relieved. I looked toward the storefront as I heard the low doors at the end of the counter swing open. The two of them met in the doorway, and Dad had his hands outstretched toward the baby. “Hello there, Little Me.”

 

“I see how it is,” Darla smiled, letting Dad take the baby—named after him, of course—out of her arms. Both she and Phyl had said more than once that no one even bothered greeting either of them anymore because all of the attention went straight to Little Twain. Dad did nothing but prove them right whenever either of them turned up. “Hi, Peeta.” She smiled at me, crossing the kitchen and pulling me into a hug.

 

“Hi.” I curled my arm loosely around her back for a moment before she pulled away and sat down beside me.

 

“And what are the two of you up to today?” Dad asked, tickling Little Twain's sides and drawing high, happy gurgles out of him.

 

“I had to make a trip to the grocer next door,” she said, smiling at the two of them. “I thought I'd check on my boys first.” Darla nudged me with her elbow before turning her attention toward me. “How are you feeling today?” I just shrugged and looked down at the table, running my thumbnail against a crack in the grain.

 

“Have the two of you seen Lilith lately?” Dad asked, his voice softening. Phyl was Mom's favorite, and what little affection she had to offer went to him. He was also just like her. The same way I was—before what happened, anyway—just like Dad. Darla nodded, her expression tightening. “How is she doing?” Darla widened her eyes, her eyebrows creeping up her forehead before she shook her head and let out a humorless chuckle.

 

“Spare yourself the grief, Twain,” she said, folding her arms against the edge of the table. “She did this to herself.”

 

“She didn't just do it to herself,” Dad said quietly. Not so quietly I couldn't hear it. And I didn't want to sit next to Darla and listen to things like that. I pushed away from the table, heading up the stairs as quickly as my lack of coordination would allow.

 

I laid down on my bed, pressing my hands over my eyes and listening to the low murmur of their voices drifting up through the floor. Just another dramatic change in everyone's lives that I'd brought about. I didn't know what the public opinion was of all this—for the most part I'd been shielded from it—but I certainly knew that there was one. There was always an opinion, and I honestly couldn't think of a single divorce I'd actually known of happening. That had to have sent a shockwave through the gossip in town.

 

After a while things went quiet downstairs. I curled onto my side, tugging the blankets over myself and hoping to just sleep through the rest of the day. And most of tomorrow, if at all possible. It felt like I had only just barely nodded off when Dad knocked on the door, dragging me out of sleep before opening it.

 

“We're going out to the Everdeens today,” he said softly. “Come down once you're ready. Rye just got home.”

 

“O-okay.” I sat up, rubbing my hand over my face and back through my hair. I'd forgotten about it. Somehow. Even though it was the same day every week. It had been twice a week for a little while, until the weather turned bitter. To be perfectly honest, I was looking forward to the first snowfall, when I wouldn't have to make the trip out there. It wasn't much better to have Mrs. Everdeen descend on the bakery and make me feel uncomfortable and out of place in the one place I shouldn't.

 

I dressed and made my way downstairs, acknowledging Rye's brief hello with a nod. Dad came in from the storefront, dropping a bag of food on the table before going into the mudroom. He stepped back into the kitchen, passing me my coat before pulling on his own.

 

“I don't mind taking him,” Rye said, leaning against the worktable and folding his arms over his chest.

 

“I know you don't,” Dad cocked an eyebrow, buttoning his coat. I fished my mittens out of the pocket, trying not to smirk. The last time Rye brought me over there he didn't get home until after I did. “That's why you're staying here and getting some damn work done. And if the Millers' order isn't in the ovens by the time I get back we're going to have a problem.”

 

“Fine,” Rye rolled his eyes, turning back to his work. Dad winked at me, nodding toward the door and lifting the bag of food off of the table.

 

“I don't know how the hell he thinks he gets away with anything when it's my best friend's daughter he sneaks around with,” Dad said as he shook his head and waited at the bottom of the steps for me. I chuckled, carefully making my way to the wheelchair before taking the bag of food from him to hold in my lap. It probably didn't help that Delly told her parents absolutely everything and always had. There couldn't be a whole hell of a lot that her father didn't share with mine.

 

The trip out to the Everdeens was a solid two miles from home, and Dad talked through much of it. I only half listened, slouching down in the chair, staring off into the distance, hating every single time we passed by someone's house and I could feel them looking out at us. When we arrived Dad took the bag from my lap. I got up from the chair, climbing up the steps carefully—going up them was far easier than going back down—and waited for Dad by the door. He folded the chair, carrying it up with one hand and setting it down to knock on the door. I felt him rub his hand across my back and closed my eyes against it. Mrs. Everdeen opened the door a moment later, saving the moment from getting any more awkward.

 

“Gentlemen,” she smiled at us, stepping back and opening the door wider. “How is everything?”

 

“Hello, Lavender.” Dad returned her smile, nodding for me to step in ahead of him. “We're doing fine, all things considered.” I went into the house. The acrid, wild smell of the fire burning in the hearth hit me hard every time I came here. The fire at home smelled warmer and more comforting. It was the coal dust out here, I'd been told. This neighborhood was close to one of the inactive mines, but the inactivity hadn't done anything to stop the dust that settled over everything. Dad wheeled the chair in behind me, lining it up against the wall before setting the bag of food down on the table. “Things good out here?”

 

“Much better than they've been,” she said, folding her arms around herself and pressing her lips together in a tight smile. “Thank you for that.” Dad reached out and touched her elbow. I sighed and looked away. If either of them thought they were being subtle they were sorely mistaken. “Katniss is out hunting. She said she'd be back to take you home, though.” I glanced at her and nodded, pulling off my mittens.

 

“I'll see you in a bit, Peet,” Dad said. I turned toward him, not quite looking up, and nodded. “And I'll see you tomorrow?” I could hear the smile in his voice and had to force myself not to roll my eyes.

 

“I'll be over after lunch,” she said. I jammed my mittens into the pocket of my coat before sliding it off my shoulders to hang on one of the hooks by the door. Mrs. Everdeen stood by the open door, watching my father leave with a faint smile on her face. She closed the door and turned to me. “You look exhausted.”

 

“Y-yeah,” I said. She gestured to the living room and I moved to sit on the couch, the room spinning for a moment when I lowered myself onto the cushions.

 

“I thought we'd get the worst of it over with first,” she said as she sat down, lifting one of her notebooks from the stack on the coffee table and flipping it open. “And don't worry, Prim is with friends today. It's just you and me. And your friend, there.” She pointed to the back of the couch, where Prim's cat perched, leaning toward me with his nose twitching. Buttercup moved closer, jumping over my shoulder and into my lap.

 

“Hey b-buddy,” I smirked as Buttercup flattened his ears back at the greeting. Even he knew how stupid that sounded. I scratched along his spine.

 

“Would you like a pet?” Mrs. Everdeen asked. I looked up, raising my eyebrows. “It might do you some good. There's plenty of kittens to be had in the spring.”

 

“Yeah, a c-cat in the b-bakery,” I said sarcastically, looking down at Buttercup as he curled up in my lap, laying his head down on top of my hand. Every time I stopped scratching his chin he nipped lightly at my fingers.

 

“Something else then,” she smiled. I shrugged. Mrs. Everdeen sat in silence for a moment, watching me. I knew what was coming, and I didn't want anything to do with it. The longer she waited the better. Maybe Katniss or Prim would turn up early again and cut off the conversation completely. “Still overheating?”

 

“Y-yeah,” I said. I was constantly hot, even with the weather as cold as it had been. I couldn't sleep without the window open and the cold air blowing into the room. It drove Rye crazy. He complained about the cold all the time. If I was asleep, he'd shut the window. When I inevitably woke up drenched in sweat I'd open it again. Back and forth. Every night.

 

“How are your headaches? Any worse? Any better?” She made a few notes before looking back up at me.

 

“They're—um. Longer. Sometimes.”

 

“Are they more intense?” Mrs. Everdeen furrowed her brow, flipping back a few pages in her notebook and scanning her writing.

 

“N-not really,” I watched her, wondering what that meant. How concerned I should be about it. “S-sometimes, I guess.”

 

“Are you still taking the morphling for them?” She flipped back to the current page. The medications I took came from Dr. Lawrence. Mrs. Everdeen had told Dad she was trying to figure out less expensive alternatives. Something I'm sure I wasn't supposed to hear. He didn't want me knowing just how much of a financial burden I'd become.

 

“Sometimes.” I pressed my lips together, focusing on the cat and the feel of his fur under my fingers. I heard her pen fall against the page, and I didn't have to look up to know what look that was earning me.

 

“These medications only help you if you actually take them, you know,” she said. I nodded. I knew that. I also knew how much I hated those little plastic bottles, the chalky pills inside of them and the effort it took to choke them down. “I have some ideas for alternative treatments, but we'll have to wait until things start growing in the spring. I'm going to guess your appetite is still poor as well?” I nodded. “And your sex drive?”

 

I froze, tightening my jaw and staring down at the cat. I tried not to think about Katniss and tried even harder to just wish these questions away. It would be humiliating from anyone. It was a little worse from her.

 

“Peeta-”

 

“It's—fine,” I squeezed out.

 

“If you don't go into more detail you know I have to ask,” she said. I just looked away, setting my jaw. “Are you able to achieve an erection?” I nodded. “Maintain it?” I closed my eyes, nodding again. “And you've said your orgasms are disappointing, is that still true?” I bit hard on the inside of my lip, nodding again. “Would you mind being a little more specific about what you mean by that?”

 

“I-” I shook my head, taking in a breath and looking anywhere and everywhere in the room but at her. She wasn't moving on though, not faltering in the least. Just looking at me and waiting for her damn answer. “It just—happens. I mean. It doesn't feel—b-bad. But—not very g-good either.”

 

“It's a very common side effect, I hope you understand that,” Mrs. Everdeen said, her voice impossibly soft and patient. “Both your injury and the combination of medications you take daily cause that more often than not. The same thing goes for your constipation. I'm guessing that's still an issue?”

 

“Y-yes.” I frowned, hating the vaguely amused tone in that last question. Mrs. Everdeen sighed, her attention focused on her notebook.

 

“I am hoping to find a way to change all of this, Peeta. I can't imagine any of it is making you feel very good about yourself,” she frowned, writing entirely too many notes about that for my liking. “Which, speaking of, how are you feeling about all of this?” She stopped writing and set her pen down to look up at me. I took in a breath, trying to search for an answer in my head and coming up empty. What could I possibly say to that? Where could I even start?

 

“I'm, um,” I frowned, thrown off by where she ended her questioning. There was usually more. I had been hoping something would just come out when I started talking, that something would surface without having to think about it, the way it always used to. Nothing came. Mrs. Everdeen just waited. Buttercup reached for my hand with his paw, pulling it back toward him to scratch at his chin again. “I'm lonely. There's—people there. M-my dad. Brothers. D-Darla. And—Katniss. I see you. But n-no one's really—no one g-gets-” I stopped, pressing my lips together and closing my eyes. I couldn't find what I wanted to say. How to express what I meant.

 

“This room could be full of people and you'd still feel alone,” she said softly. “Because no one else has been where you are.” I looked up at her. That was exactly it. I nodded, and I could feel tears rising. I just hoped I could keep them under control.

 

“And everyone is s-so—c-c-careful.” I took a deep breath, closing my eyes briefly and trying to swallow back the stutter. “I think that I'd—feel less d-different and lonely if—they w-were the same as before too.”

 

“Have you said this to anyone else?” she asked, picking up her pen. I sighed, slouching down a little more and shaking my head. How could I say that to anyone? To my father, while he stressed about keeping up with the bakery, about me and about the divorce. To Rye, who struggled to carry on any sort of real conversation with me at all now? Phyl, when I was still kind of wondering if he was on mom's side of everything? Darla, who spent too much time and energy doting on us and taking care of the house in Mom's absence? Or maybe to my friends who haven't bothered turning up since it happened. “They won't know unless you tell them.” I chewed my lip, looking up at her before turning my attention back to Buttercup. “Peeta? Have you given any more thought to going back to school?”

 

“N-no,” I frowned. There was far too much attached to that I didn't want to deal with right now. Too many people, too much of a change, too much stress. Things I had done my whole life without a second thought seemed like a wall I'd never be able to climb over.

 

“I want you to be on board with that,” she said, her voice soft and constant and patient. “It's important you are. If we're going to return you to some semblance of normalcy-”

 

“I will n-never have normal,” I snapped, cutting her off. The outburst surprised even me, and I regretted it immediately. She was trying to help and truly did not have to put as much time into helping me as she did. I pulled my hat off, rubbing my hand through my hair and looking away.

 

“You'll never have what your normal used to be,” Mrs Everdeen said softly. “You'll have a new one. I want to make sure it's one that you can be happy with.”

 

I couldn't think of a way to be happy with anything going on with me. She talked me through exercises for my arm, trying to strengthen my wrist and forearm enough to support an injury that would never truly heal. That would, in all likelihood, hurt for the rest of my life. She suggested ways to talk to my family about how I felt, none of which sounded very plausible to me. By the time Katniss arrived I was more than ready to leave.

 

“We were having a nice winter until about a week ago,” she huffed, dropping down on the couch beside me after warming her hands by the fire for a few moments. She smelled like cold, clean air, and her braid was loose and wispy. She rubbed her hands together. “It got too damn cold too fast.” Katniss looked over at me, smiling a little. “I'll take you home once I warm up a little.” I nodded, unable to quite trust myself to get any words out clearly. She studied me for a moment, and I could see the thoughtful look on her face out of the corner of my eye. “Rough day?”

 

“Y-yeah,” I said as I chewed the inside of my lip.

 

“Can I help?” she asked, her voice softening. I looked toward her, unable to lift my eyes to meet hers, focusing on her hands in her lap instead. I shook my head. Even if I could bring myself to ask her, of all people, for help, I wouldn't even know where to begin asking. She bumped her shoulder against mine. “How about if I get you home?”

 

“Okay.” I offered a weak smile. She shooed the cat from my lap, earning herself an indignant meow in response, and offered her hand to help me get up. Once I was on my feet she didn't let go at first, just smiled down at our hands before squeezing gently and letting her fingers slide away from mine. I couldn't even will myself to talk to her during the walk home. I kept my eyes on the ground ahead of us, trying to ignore how awkward and awful I felt.

 

“Dad, it's fucking pointless.” Rye's voice was clearly audible as soon as we were on the porch. Katniss cocked an eyebrow at me, clearly wondering what the hell he was talking about. I didn't have an answer for her.

 

“It's not pointless, it's your education.” Dad's answer became clearer as we moved inside. I glanced at him as I hung my coat in the mudroom. “It's also not up for discussion.”

 

“Wh-what's going on?” I asked.

 

“Dad's being a fascist,” Rye snapped, dropping the dirty trays into the sink a little too forcefully before turning on the water.

 

“Your brother wants to drop out,” Dad folded his arms across his chest, frowning at Rye's back. “He has half the school year to go before he graduates, and he's gotten it into his head that giving up on it is a better idea.”

 

“And why the fuck isn't it?” Rye tossed the scrub brush in his hand into the sink. “What am I going to do when I get out of there? Work here. What am I going to learn in four months that could possibly make me a better baker? A little more about coal that I'm never going to fucking mine? The grand fuckin' history of Panem we all memorized before we were twelve?”

 

“Will you please stop swearing so much,” Dad sighed and shook his head, closing his eyes briefly.

 

“Will you please stop being such an idiot about this,” Rye snapped. “We need it to keep this place running. You can't keep doing it all day by yourself.” I looked at Dad, at the set of his jaw, and knew that Rye was telling the truth. It was hard enough before, after Phyl got his own job working for the District and wasn't around to help out. The four of us kept it going, and now it was just down to the two of them and Katniss, and it wasn't enough. I felt myself starting to panic at the thought. Knowing all that was because of me. What I really wanted was to turn right around and walk out the door and just keep walking until my mind and heart stopped racing but I couldn't. I made for the stairs instead, and I didn't even realize until I was in the kitchen, leaning over the sink and splashing water over my face, that Katniss had followed me. She rubbed her hand over my back, and I dropped my head even lower, trying to hide my face.

 

“Is that the sort of thing you've had to deal with that's got you feeling so shitty?” she asked. I nodded. Not quite that, specifically, but the reminders that I wasn't the same, that I couldn't function the same, that I was a wholly different person that I didn't even particularly like. I couldn't find a way to say any of that. I glanced up at the bottles on the ledge by the sink, deciding an extra to get me to sleep wouldn't be such a bad thing. Katniss dropped her hand from my back as I straightened up and reached for the small container tucked between the bottles that had the mix of pills I had to take for the night already sorted into it, added an extra dose of diazepam, and downed them with a scoop of water cupped in my hand from the tap.

 

“You c-can go,” I said, looking out of the window over the sink. I could see her reflection in the glass, standing beside me and watching me carefully. It hurt. “I'm just—going to g-go to bed.”

 

“Then come on.” She touched my wrist lightly, nodding toward the hall that led to the bedrooms. I looked at her, too shocked to argue as she curled her fingers around my wrist and led me to the bedroom. What was she planning on doing, exactly? She stopped just inside the bedroom door, turning around to face me. “Listen, it might not mean much coming from me, but I think you need to hear it. You're beating the shit out of yourself about of all this but nobody blames you for any of it. You didn't do anything wrong. No one thinks you did.” She paused, and I just looked at her. If she was waiting for a response I didn't have one to give her. “Beating yourself up over it does nothing but hurt you. Although it doesn't really help the people who care about you to watch it, either.”

 

I had no idea what to even say to that. Katniss just stood there for a moment, searching my face. I nodded and looked down, hoping that would be enough for her.

 

“I'll see you tomorrow, okay?” she said, her voice quiet, and I nodded again. She left a moment later, quietly closing the door behind her, and I just dropped down onto my bed without even changing out of my clothes.

 

Chapter Text

I paused outside of Peeta's door for a moment to listen. I heard the groan of the bed springs as he dropped down onto his mattress. I moved downstairs quietly, a little nervous that I'd offended him. Rye was sulking in the kitchen and scrubbing the hell out of the pans in the sink. Twain stepped into the room as he heard me come down.

 

“Everything okay up there?” he asked, glancing toward the stairs.

 

“I think so,” I said, looking back over my shoulder. “He's having a rough few days, I think.” Twain nodded. I tightened my scarf as we said some slightly awkward goodbyes before I left. Rye didn't even look away from the sink.

 

As I walked I thought back over the past couple of weeks; how detached he always was and how distant he seemed. It was frustrating. When I did seem to catch his attention it was clear that I didn't have all of it, but it was rarely that even happened. He certainly seemed more at ease with me than anyone else, though I found myself wondering what I could do to work that to my advantage.

 

At school the next day Madge noticed my preoccupation immediately and made a few idle comments I did my best to ignore. That lasted until about lunchtime, when I couldn't stand the circle my brain was running in any longer. I pushed my meal aside, leaning forward. She cocked an eyebrow, slowing mid-chew.

 

“How do you get Gale to pay attention to you?” I asked. She looked both thoroughly confused and very, very amused by the question.

 

“What?” she laughed.

 

“I know he listens to you,” I rolled my eyes. “And he doesn't listen to anyone. How do you do that?”

 

“Why are you trying to get Gale to listen to you?” she said, putting her sandwich down and leaning her arms against the table.

 

“Not Gale,” I shook my head. I could feel a hint of a blush creeping into my face and hoped it didn't show. “I'm just sort of...asking. In general.”

 

“Katniss Everdeen are you trying to get a boy's attention?” Madge's face all but lit up. “Is it Peeta? It's so Peeta. It's either him or his brother and...ew. It's Peeta isn't it?”

 

“I'm not trying to get his attention like that,” I gave her a look. The smirk on her face told me she didn't believe a word of it. “I just want to help him, and I'm the only person he opens up to.”

 

“Yeah, you've mentioned that,” Madge raised her eyebrows. I sighed, looking away. “Listen, if he likes you it's only going to work in your favor. And who knows, Peeta's a good guy, pretty cute. Maybe he'll bring out the human in you.”

 

“Spare me.” I glanced back at her before pulling my meal in front of me again. I shouldn't have opened my mouth.

 

“You're the one who asked for advice,” she smirked. I just looked at her, waiting for the damn advice. “Just talk to him. And listen. Pay attention to what he has to say and ask him questions about himself. Look him in the eye. Laugh at his jokes. Touch him.”

 

“That's it, seriously?” I raised an eyebrow.

 

“Just pay attention to him,” she shrugged. “If he knows you think what he has to say is important he's going to listen to you, too.” I picked apart my bread, pursing my lips for a moment. That did seem to make sense. “And don't forget to touch him. A lot.” That just made me roll my eyes. “You're going to be awful at flirting, you know that, right?”

 

“Shut up,” I snapped. “And I'm not trying to flirt.”

 

“Whatever you say.” Madge pressed her lips together in a tight little smile I wanted to slap right off her face.

 

That did nothing to help. As I followed Rye to the bakery—noting, interestingly enough, he was actually acknowledging Delly's existence today as they walked home—I hadn't found any peace of mind. The kiss I caught Rye plant on Delly's cheek, though, gave me plenty of ammunition to use. By the time Peeta came downstairs to sit I had Rye so worked up his ears were turning red.

 

“Just promise me one thing,” I said, shooting a smile at Peeta. He raised his eyebrows in question. Rye turned away from the counter, narrowing his eyes at me.

 

“What?” he spat.

 

“That you'll invite me to your toasting,” I said.

 

“Oh, fuck you,” Rye snapped, turning back around.

 

“Wh-what's going on?” Peeta asked, a hint of a smile on his face.

 

“Your little girlfriend over here is a pain in my ass,” Rye looked over at Peeta, hooking his thumb toward me before moving the tray of cookies he had finished frosting onto the worktable with a loud clang. Peeta startled and winced at the sound.

 

“He was being quite adorable with Miss Cartwright,” I said, raising my eyebrows and smirking at him. “In public, no less. Held her hand on the walk home. Even kissed her cheek.”

 

“And th-the world d-didn't end?” Peeta feigned shock, looking over at Rye. I laughed, nudging Peeta with my elbow as I picked up the tray of cookies to move into the cases out front. I could hear the two of them talking quietly. Twain gave me a grateful smile as he rang up the customer in front of him. I unloaded the tray and returned to the kitchen.

 

“It's none of your business,” Rye said, frowning at Peeta. He'd moved his work from the counter to the table, meaning he was no longer standing with his back to the two of us. It felt like a little bit of a victory, getting the two of them talking to each other. Even if they were bickering. “And it will never be any of your business.”

 

“Rye is, um,” Peeta shook his head, turning toward me as I stood beside him. “He's afraid th-that if he actually admits he—likes her. That he has t-to start treating her like he d-does.”

 

“But if you do like her why wouldn't you want to treat her like you do?” I reached over the table and snatched two cookies off of the tray, handing one to Peeta and keeping the other for myself. Twain didn't seem to mind us sampling as long as we didn't take advantage of the kindness.

 

“It's not that I don't want-” Rye cut himself off, shaking his head and sighing. “I'm not explaining this shit to you.”

 

“He doesn't have—feelings,” Peeta explained, still smirking. I snorted back a laugh. “Also D-Delly c-can be-”

 

“She is fucking needy and high maintenance and I am not opening those floodgates,” Rye snapped.

 

“I think it might be a little late for that.” I raised an eyebrow, taking a small bite of my cookie before going on. “You didn't see the way she kept looking over her shoulder at you when you walked away after that kiss. You might have a real girlfriend now, not just someone you're secretly fooling around with.”

 

“It's n-not that much of a, um—secret,” Peeta said. Rye tightened his jaw, cutting his eyes at the two of us before turning the bag of icing over in his hands. I looked over at Peeta, saw the smile in his eyes, something I hadn't seen in nearly a week. If helping him poke at his brother was going to bring him back to himself then I'd be more than happy to oblige. I nudged him with my knee, wanting him to turn that smile toward me, and he did, if only for a moment. A light, splotchy blush crept into his cheeks, and he dropped his gaze to the table.

 

Peeta stayed downstairs with us until it was time for me to leave, though he seemed to slip in and out of focus. A distant look would cross his face, he'd get silent and still, and a few minutes later he'd blink himself out of it, or draw a breath and return to the conversation. He looked absolutely exhausted when I said goodnight and headed for the stairs before I was even out the door.

 

When I arrived home Prim was setting the table for dinner, and she gave me a smile that looked a little too much like the one I'd seen on Madge earlier in the day for my liking. She raised her eyebrows, looking back down at the table and straightening out the flatware around her plate before moving to the next.

 

“What?” I frowned at her, hanging my coat and scarf by the door.

 

“Nothing,” she said, her voice a little too high. I dropped down into my seat at the table, eying her as she finished and sat down across from me. Mom took absolutely no notice of the exchange, just plopped a hot casserole dish in the middle of the table and took her own seat. It took a few minutes of silent staring between Prim and I for her to catch on to the atmosphere at the table.

 

“What's going on?” Mom cocked an eyebrow at me before looking over at Prim.

 

“Katniss has a crush on Peeta,” Prim said, biting back her smile and hunching up her shoulders when I dropped my fork to stare at her.

 

“Prim! I do not,” I snapped. “Where did you even hear that?”

 

“Madge,” she said, giggling. Sweet as she could be, Prim loved nothing more than getting me worked up, and this was doing exactly that.

 

Madge told you?” I nearly slapped the table, leaning forward toward her.

 

“So it's true,” Prim grinned.

 

“It's not,” I said, sitting back and folding my arms across my chest. And it wasn't, but that didn't stop the flush from creeping into my cheeks. Mom was watching the exchange with a vague air of amusement, her eyes flicking back and forth between us. “And why would Madge talk to you about something like that.”

 

“Well, she didn't, exactly,” Prim concedes, looking off to the side. “She told Gale.”

 

“She told Gale?” I dropped my arms, my lip curling involuntarily. At least I had a warning, and wouldn't be blindsided on our hunting trip in the morning. Not that that meant I was going to spare Madge from getting an earful about it. “Then how do you know.”

 

“Primrose, we've talked about your eavesdropping,” Mom raised an eyebrow, giving Prim a look over the edge of her glass.

 

“I wasn't though!” Prim protested. “I was out back with Lady and they were out on the Hawthorne's porch and I can't help it if they're loud.”

 

“Well, they're also wrong,” I snapped, picking my fork back up to continue eating.

 

“Are they?” Mom asked, looking over at me, a slow smile spreading across her face.

 

“Yes,” I deadpanned, giving her a look before glaring down at my plate for the rest of the meal. The subject was mercifully dropped after that.

 

The next morning I had to drag myself out of bed. It was freezing; just slipping out from beneath the covers felt like torture. Prim frowned and curled in on herself without even waking as I tucked the blankets back around her. I layered the best I could, frowning and picking at the hole in the side of my wool pants. They'd need replacing, and a moment after the thought occurred to me I realized I had more than enough money to do exactly that. I gave most of what I made at the bakery to Mom to help cover our expenses at the house, but she refused to take it all, and I had nothing to spend it on. I'd bought some sweets for Prim and replaced our boots for the winter, but aside from that most of what we needed I was still trading for at the Hob. Having breathing room was completely foreign, and I decided that if I managed to bring down anything on this trip I was going to force it on Gale one way or another. We still had nearly a whole side of pork in our ice box from a particularly enthusiastic trip to the butcher Mom had made the week before.

 

I slipped through the fence, the cold air burning my lungs, and ducked into the treeline before slowing. I picked my way through the forest carefully and quietly. Being so dead set on being generous didn't make game appear any faster. It had been a lean couple of weeks for hunting. I caught up with Gale near our ridge. He stood on the hilltop, overlooking the valley with a hard frown on his face.

 

“Snares were empty again this morning,” he said, turning up the collar on his coat as a gust of wind blew past us.

 

“Maybe it's time to move them,” I suggested, shrugging my bow off my shoulder and checking the string. “They've been sitting there a while.”

 

“No point,” he shook his head and tugged at the strap of his quiver. I felt a little guilty being out here with no need for it and for having enough to go around at home when he was barely scraping by. I'd been in the same place last year, though. “Can't find any game trails.”

 

“Yeah, well, I'm better at that than you are, anyway.” I smirked at him, trying to lighten the mood, and started down the hill. He rolled his eyes and followed after me. I didn't have much luck finding anything either, but I had no intention of admitting to it. The two of us combed the woods until the sun rose without sign of anything more than a few starved looking crows. Neither of us had ever turned up our nose at crow, but even a healthy one is barely a meal for one. “Have dinner with us tonight.”

 

“Katniss, there are five of us. You're not going to keep feeding us all winter,” Gale sighed, dropping his shoulders. They'd shared a few dinners with us in the past weeks, and that was nothing compared to how many we ate with them last winter. The snow had been relentless and brutal, fence repairs were necessary at least once a month, and the money Gale made working on the repair crew carried both of our families through the worst of the season. “Besides, aren't you a little busy with your new townie boyfriend?”

 

“Oh fuck you,” I groaned, looking over at him. Gale just laughed. “Your townie girlfriend doesn't know what the hell she's talking about.”

 

“Yeah, okay.” He cut his eyes at me, a smirk lingering on his face. “You're awful smiley when you come back from that bakery, though.”

 

“I'm reconsidering my offer for dinner,” I muttered, shaking my head and starting back for the fence. Gale laughed again, trailing behind me the entire way home.

 

Maybe I did smile easier when I spent my afternoons at the bakery. I liked it there. That kitchen was warm and comforting, and the work was satisfying without being too taxing. Honestly, I spent as much time with Peeta as I did actually getting any bakery work done. On the afternoons Mom was there I was more than content to pass the time antagonizing Rye or talking and working with Twain until she finished her work with Peeta.

 

Not much of what I did seemed to stop him from disappearing now and then, though he did seem more engaged when he was present. I was learning which topics were safe and which needed to be avoided. His friends were always a touchy subject, with the exception of Delly and her relationship with Rye. Stories about life in the bakery were fine as long as they steered clear of his mother's temper. When he was in a good mood I could even get him talking about his artwork. My attempts to get him to show me any of it were still falling short, though.

 

“You don't stutter as much as you used to, you know,” I said. I leaned across the table and pulled the tray of danishes Rye had liberated from one of the front cases closer to the two of us as Peeta snapped his attention toward me. Rye was stuck out front, a line of customers keeping him occupied.

 

“I don't?” he asked, frowning a bit as I passed him one of the danishes.

 

“You still do when you're tired,” I shrugged. “Or when you're stressed. But it used to be all the time.”

 

“I didn't even really—notice.” He dropped his eyes, a small smile on his face. I nudged him with my elbow, picking apart one of the danishes for myself.

 

“So when are you going to let me see your paintings?” I angled myself toward him. His eyes went wide briefly before he looked over at me.

 

“Um. N-never,” he said.

 

“Drawings, then,” I tried. He shook his head. “Why not?” He didn't answer, just raised his eyebrows at me and took a bite of the danish. Eating was another thing he seemed to be doing more lately. He'd lost a lot of weight in the months since it happened, and though he certainly didn't gain any back, he'd at least stopped shrinking.

 

“He's hiding his sketch book under his bed if you want to track it down,” Rye said as he came back into the kitchen.

 

“Sh-shut up,” Peeta frowned.

 

“Don't be a jerk,” I narrowed my eyes at Rye, setting my hand on Peeta's back. “Although now I know where to look.” I glanced at Peeta out of the corner of my eye, smiling a little. The look on his face told me he wasn't amused. Maybe he wasn't in as good of a mood as I thought. “I'm just curious.”

 

“He's good,” Rye said, sitting down and taking one of the danishes for himself. It was nearly closing time, and the prep work had yet to be started, but considering how much I did this afternoon while he trotted across the square to see Delly the minute Twain went upstairs I had no intention of pointing it out until I was on my way out the door. Rye raised an eyebrow, looking me over for a moment. “He just keeps it to himself.”

 

“Well, that doesn't seem exactly fair,” I said. Peeta glanced at me, and I realized I'd been scratching lightly across his back. I pulled my hand away, dropping it into my lap. “I'm going to annoy you about it until I get to see.”

 

“I'm—sure you will,” Peeta said quietly, trying—and failing—to hide a smile. He laughed softly when I slapped his arm.

 

“Think you're funny, huh?” I tried to scowl and couldn't quite manage it. Rye just stared us down, the bell in the storefront saving us from whatever comment he was gearing up to make.

 

Some things might have improved, but Peeta still tired quickly. I was getting better at seeing it coming. When I suggested getting upstairs he seemed grateful for it, and I stood up, rubbing my hand across his shoulder as he got up as well. Before I made it to the stairs, Rye grabbed my arm.

 

“Um, no,” he said, giving me a look before turning to his brother. “Goodnight, Peet.”

 

“Goodn-night,” Peeta raised an eyebrow, clearly as confused by this as me, but Rye offered no answers. I shrugged as Peeta glanced at me before heading upstairs. Rye watched him, his eyes trained on the top of the stairs until we heard the bedroom door close at the opposite end of the hall.

 

“Okay, listen,” Rye let go of my arm and pointed in my face. “If you're fucking with him I'm going to kill you.”

 

“I'm not—what?” I jerked back, frowning.

 

“Whatever the hell this touchy feely shit you're doing is,” he said, waving his hand toward me. “Are you making fun of him? I'm not fucking kidding. Do not mess with my brother.”

 

“I'm not messing with him,” I snapped.

 

“Are you actually hitting on him? Like, really trying this time?” Rye said. The disbelief in his voice offended me more than the accusation. “Do we seriously have to have this conversation again? I mean I know you like him but that-”

 

“I'm not hitting on him, either.” I folded my arms across my chest. Rye's expression blanked, and he just stared at me. I drew a breath to speak, thinking better of it at the last moment and looking away.

 

“You like him, you're just too stupid to see it. That's fine,” Rye said, his voice dripping with patronization.

 

“Not everyone wants to fuck everyone else,” I snapped. “I know you can't fathom a world that doesn't revolve around getting your dick wet, but you should try it.”

 

“Friends are more fun when you can touch them, just so you know,” he said. “And you can deny it and get all annoyed with me all you want, but it just proves what I'm about to say right. You are flirting with him, and you are terrible at it.”

 

“I am n-” I cut myself off and sighed. “Am I really that bad at it?”

 

“You're awkward as fuck, and it would be adorable if you were like, nine, but you're fifteen fucking years old. Get your shit together,” Rye said, smirking at me. I dropped my shoulders and frowned at him. “Look, if you want to get in his pants you need to be way more obvious about it. He couldn't even handle subtle before, let alone now, and you fucking blow at subtlety anyway.”

 

“I do not,” I protested, shifting and glancing toward the stairs. I really hoped Peeta couldn't hear any of this. “Do I?”

 

“Yes,” he chuckled. “And at this point he's not going to clue in unless you climb into his lap and stick your tongue down his throat.” I gave Rye a look and he smirked, shaking his head and looking away. “Look. If you're going to do this you need to fucking stick to it. If you hurt him you're going to regret it. Really regret it. Do you understand me?”

 

“And what the hell are you actually going to do?” I said, putting my hands on my hips.

 

“Stop it,” he pointed at me again. I was starting to hate that gesture. “I'm being serious. Do not fuck around with him.”

 

“Okay,” I raised my hands. “I won't.”

 

“Good.” Rye looked me over for a minute, like he was trying to decide whether or not to believe me. When he turned away I sighed, looking back toward the stairs. I was not equipped to handle the gravity Rye had just laden the entire situation with, and while I had every intention of staying here late to spend more time with Peeta before that conversation, now I just wanted to get home.

 

“I have to go,” I blurted out, heading for the back door. I pulled my coat on, leaning back into the kitchen from the mudroom as I tied my scarf around my neck. “Have fun with the prep work, by the way.”

 

“What?” Rye looked at me, and I ducked back into the mudroom as he whirled to look around the kitchen. I was already halfway out the door when the realization of what I'd stuck him with hit, and he unleashed a slew of exceptionally creative cursing.

 

The insinuations about me and Peeta didn't just go away. Prim harped on it like a dog with a new bone, and Madge just encouraged her. Her amusement with it all didn't seem to end. Even Gale found a way to get in on it on a regular basis. It made me self-conscious around Peeta when I was at the bakery. It wasn't as bad at home, when there was no one there to see but Mom. Rye had taken to staring me down, watching everything I did with a scrutiny that I hated.

 

I took an afternoon for myself, bundling up against the cold and making my way out into the woods. A light snow began to fall as I walked toward the ridge; small, light flakes that drifted down slowly. Snow was late coming this year, but this had taken some of the bitterness out of the cold. When I reached the hilltop I leaned back against a tree, drinking in the wide expanse of the valley that opened up before me. I tried breathing in the cold air, focusing on the slow build up of white over the ground. I wanted to clear my mind. That's the whole reason I came out here, to get away from the annoyances at home and have some time to myself. It didn't really work, because my mind kept going back to the same subject. Peeta.

 

He was nice. Sweet. He needed help, and for whatever reason, I was able to give it to him. Or maybe it was just that I was the one he was able to accept it from. I wasn't sure which one of those was stranger to me. The more I thought about it the more I did find that I was caring about him. More than I realized I would when this started. But that was part of my job, wasn't it? I wouldn't be much of a help at all if I didn't actually invest myself in helping him. And it didn't hurt that he was so damn endearing. When he smiled at me all I could really do was smile back.

 

The snow began falling harder, in heavy clumps, and I headed back toward the fence. By the time I slipped through enough had fallen that I needed to conceal my tracks around the fence. I didn't even realize how long I'd stayed out until I got back into the house, and the heat of the fire made my hands and feet ache as they warmed. I still felt restless, and as I sat warming myself I tried running through what little options the weather left me to solve that. Gale was in town with Madge, and that was too far of a walk this late in the day in this kind of weather. Not to mention if I made that walk I'd go to the bakery before I went to the mayor's mansion.

 

The realization made me pause. Did I really want to see Peeta more than I wanted to see my friends? And did that make all the nonsense I'd been listening to about myself true? I didn't have time for that kind of garbage. I had school, I had work, and I had to help take care of my family. Developing feelings for Peeta Mellark didn't exactly fit in to any of that. It had to be that desire to help him messing with me and making me think more of our friendship. It had to be.

 

I thought I'd been noticing an abundance of couples before, but now it seemed worse. Maybe winter was making everyone feel a little lonely and clingy. Maybe that was really what was at work with me. I sat in the cafeteria and watched. If Madge had been right, and Thill had been trying to get into Meadow's pants, he certainly seemed to have succeeded. There was nothing coy about her interaction with him anymore. The two of them shared their lunches, leaning close as they talked. The pair they were sitting across from were holding hands under the table, tossing sly little smiles back and forth during lulls in conversation. I chewed the inside of my lip and watched as Thill draped his arm around Meadow before kissing her temple and making her blush furiously.

 

“You're really puzzling over this one, huh?” Madge said. I snapped my attention back to her, carefully controlling my expression.

 

“Puzzling over what?” I raised my eyebrows, turning my attention back to the cinnamon bread I'd brought for lunch. Madge didn't answer, just dropped her hands to the table and gave me a look. “What?”

 

“I know that look,” she said. “You're studying their behavior like you're out in the woods watching game. Please don't tell me things are so bad that you're seriously considering eating our classmates.”

 

“Things are fine,” I chuckled, shaking my head. “Though there's a few I wouldn't mind putting an arrow through.”

 

“Way to evade the real question, Everdeen,” Madge smirked. I rolled my eyes, looking away and waiting for her to drop it, even though I knew better than to expect her to. “Well?”

 

“What do you want me to tell you?” I sighed.

 

“That you are an actual, breathing, normal teenage girl with needs,” she said, her smile widening. I dropped my shoulders and stared at her. “And you have a crush on Peeta Mellark.”

 

“Oh, shut up,” I snapped. Madge just laughed.

 

“For the record, the longer you take to own up to this, the more I get to say 'I told you so'.” She shot me a satisfied little smirk. She was blissfully quiet on the topic until school let out, though I fully expected one last jab as she said goodbye to Gale and I before heading to town. The fact that she didn't had me feeling a little hopeful they were going to let up on the topic.

 

Gale and I made plans to go out into the woods. The bitterness had gone out of the air as the afternoon went on, and though we didn't expect much in the way of game this time of day, we were at least hoping to find a decent spot to relocate our snare line. Maybe put together a second and give the other side of the District a try if we had to. It wasn't as easy to get through the fence on that side; it was a little more densely populated and there was less cover around the fence itself, but if the hunting was better it could be worth it.

 

We were nearly home when we passed Twain heading back to town from my house. He stopped to talk to Prim, who was walking a short distance ahead of us, drawing a broad smile out of her. She ran off toward the house, leaving Twain chuckling as we stopped beside him.

 

“I left some of those jelly cookies she loves so much with your mother,” he said, watching her bounce up the porch stairs as soon as she reached them.

 

“No wonder she's so excited,” I smirked. I brought some home for her a few weeks ago, and she hadn't stopped talking about them since. They were far too sweet for my taste, though.

 

“Don't worry, I left a little something for you, too.” Twain patted my shoulder. “I have to get back there before Phyl and Rye kill each other. I'll see you later.” He nodded to Gale and I before turning and heading back to town.

 

“I bet he means his son,” Gale said with a grin. I slapped his arm and moved ahead, ignoring his laughter. “I'm guessing this means you're not going out to the woods with me?”

 

“Your smarmy little comment means I'm not going into the woods with you, ass,” I sneered over my shoulder at him before climbing the steps to my house. He just laughed and continued on to his own house.

 

Peeta's wheelchair stood just inside the door, and I set my hand on the back of it to balance as I pulled my boots off. Prim was standing by the kitchen table, grinning at me around a mouthful of cookie, pointing to a second bag sitting next to the one she had her hand in. I hung up my jacket before turning around.

 

“Hey girls.” Mom looked over at us from her seat by the fire. Peeta was sitting in his usual spot on the couch with Buttercup curled up on his lap. The cat was watching us, and Peeta's attention was turned toward the fire. “Did you see Twain on your way home?” I nodded, forcing myself to look at her instead of Peeta. “Would you mind taking your homework and your cookies into your bedroom for a bit while we get some work done?”

 

“Okay!” Prim chirped, scooping her books off of the table and dropping the bags of cookies on top of the stack before crossing the room to our bedroom. I didn't have any homework—or at least any that I had any real intention of doing—but I knew Peeta was still painfully self-conscious about having witnesses to his appointments with Mom.

 

“Hi, Peeta,” I said, lifting up my books and watching him hesitantly turn toward me.

 

“Hey,” he said softly, glancing up at me briefly before looking back down at the cat in his lap. That damn thing loved him, though it made sense. He was gentle and kind, and probably spent significantly less time hissing insults at the thing than I did. I went into the bedroom, closing the door behind me and flopping down onto the bed beside Prim.

 

“These gross ones are yours.” She tossed the small white paper bag onto my chest. I turned the top of it toward me, noting that she'd opened it to see if whatever Twain had brought for me was worth poaching, and smiled as soon as the smell hit me.

 

“They aren't gross,” I smiled to myself, pulling one of the peanut butter cookies from the bag and taking a bite. They were still warm in the center, and I was halfway through the bag when I realized how bizarre this was. How completely foreign. Just a few months ago I'd have laughed at someone if they tried telling me there would be any point in my life that I'd happily be lounging in bed in the middle of winter plowing through half a dozen cookies without a second thought. I wondered if Twain had any real idea of how much he had done for us just through giving both my mother and I work, let alone the extra food that always seemed to find its way to our house. Prim hadn't looked so healthy in a long time.

 

I folded up the bag, suddenly feeling guilty for the gluttony, and set it down on the floor before turning onto my side. Prim sat up against the wall, a textbook in her lap, frowning at the page. I watched her absently suck powdered sugar from her fingertips as she read. There was a point last winter when she got so hungry she barely had the energy to cry. I had considered resorting to some seriously desperate measures then to keep us going until spring came around. With any luck by the time Peeta no longer needed my mother I'd have figured something out. And it wouldn't be much longer until I could legally drop out to work full time. Maybe Twain would take me on at the bakery. It'd certainly pay better than the mines. And be less likely to kill me.

 

The door opened, jerking me out of my train of thought. Mom poked her head in, smiling at me before saying, “We're all set, if you'd like to come out.”

 

“Thanks,” I smiled at her. I looked over at Prim as Mom moved back into the living room, leaving the door partially open. My sister was giving me a barely suppressed grin I did not like the look of one bit. “What?”

 

“Go hang out with your boyfriend,” she teased as she nudged my hip with her toe. Her smile burst into giggles when I slapped her shin and got out of bed.

 

Peeta was standing by the window near the back porch with his arms folded against his chest. He glanced over his shoulder at me as I crossed the room to stand beside him. I returned his brief smile before he turned his attention outside. Lady had climbed up onto her shed, something I still wasn't entirely sure how she managed to accomplish; none of us actually ever saw her get up or get down.

 

“Your mom asked me to stay—for d-dinner,” he said, chewing his lip.

 

“I hope you said yes.” I smiled to myself.

 

“It would be d-dark afterward,” he looked over at me. “It's a long walk—part of it you'd be alone.”

 

“Peeta,” I chuckled and raise an eyebrow at him. “I sneak outside the District before the sun comes up every day. One of my hobbies is killing things. You think I can't handle walking home from town by myself in the dark?” He laughed quietly, ducking his chin and rubbing his hand over his eyes as his face flushed lightly. I should have been insulted that he thought I was so incapable of taking care of myself, but his concern for my safety was oddly touching.

 

“Can we um, go outside?” he asked, glancing briefly toward the bedroom. “It's k-kind of hot in here.”

 

“Yeah, hang on,” I smiled and touched his arm before turning to go get my coat. Prim was standing in the bedroom doorway, half hidden behind the frame. Her grin broadened as I narrowed my eyes at her, and she ducked back into the bedroom before I got too close to her. I tugged my coat on and stepped into my boots, lifting his coat from the hook on the wall as well. He might run entirely too hot, but that didn't rule out him wanting it at some point out there.

 

I led Peeta out to the tiny back porch; really nothing more than a small landing and a set of rickety stairs. He held on to the crook of my elbow as we walked down them,then walked with me over to Lady's pen. I hung his coat on one of the posts before holding my hand out and snapping to get her attention. She was still up on the sloped roof of her shed, and she turned toward us. Her hooves thunked against the weather beaten tar shingles I'd nailed to an old door—both of which I'd had to salvage from an abandoned house nearby, along with the wood and chicken wire for the fence—when I rebuilt the pen over the summer. She stretched out her neck toward us, sniffing at my hand and briefly leaning into Peeta's as he scratched along her jaw. As soon as she realized neither of us had any food to offer she snapped back indignantly and turned her head away.

 

“She has more p-personality than our animals,” Peeta smirked.

 

“I don't think you'd want animals you raised for food to have personalities.” I raised an eyebrow at him. He laughed softly, shaking his head.

 

“The chickens aren't—neither are the d-ducks,” he said, and reached out to drum his fingers against the roof of the shed. Lady stomped and shook her head in protest. He smiled at her. “The pigs are—but that doesn't make eating s-someone I f-feed every day any easier.”

 

I looked over at him. Someone. I had a hard time seeing animals as anything beyond a resource, even when they were as full of personality as Lady and Buttercup. Lady brought us income, through her kids and her milk, when we could actually afford the stud fee that the Goat Man charged. Buttercup made Prim happy, and that was as valuable as any amount of food to me. Tending to the animals was possibly the only duty at the bakery I knew he still kept up with from time to time. They shared the small livestock they had with the tailor next door, splitting the daily eggs and the meat from the occasional slaughter. I looked over at Lady, thinking about how close we had come to eating her in the past, and how little remorse I'd felt over the notion. Peeta would be horrified.

 

“Your mom thinks I n-need a pet,” he said, still watching Lady.

 

“You can have Buttercup. That hell beast loves you,” I joked, turning toward him and leaning against the fence, shoving my hands into the pockets of my coat.

 

“Yeah, P-Prim would love that,” he shook his head, smiling down at the ground.

 

“You could give her visitation rights,” I said, drawing a gentle laugh out of him. “She'd love an excuse to drop in on the bakery. She thinks you're cute.”

 

“She has q-questionable taste,” Peeta chewed his lip, his gaze still turned down.

 

“Not really,” I said, looking away when I realized what had come out of my mouth without a single conscious thought on the matter. So was that actually how I felt? I could feel him looking at me and feel the heat that was drawing to my face. I must have been bright red. I caught sight of Gale leaning against the railing of the Hawthornes' back porch, watching the two of us. He waved, and even from this distance I could see that stupid smug grin on his face. I snatched Peeta's coat from the railing. “Let's go in.”

 

“Um, okay,” he said, a hint of confusion in his voice. I walked behind him up the stairs, my hand hovering between his shoulder blades. Before going in I looked toward Gale. He cocked his head to the side and laid his hands over his heart. I held my arm out to flip him off as I followed Peeta into the house.

 

We settled around the table for dinner with Peeta beside me. Mom hefted a crock of beef and noodles in a thick white gravy onto the table and spooned some out to each of us, an odd gesture she explained away by pointing out that the crock was hot. I think it was really just to spare Peeta the embarrassment of struggling to serve himself. Prim chattered away with Mom, and I tuned them out even more than I usually did, sneaking glances over at Peeta. His grip on his fork was odd; his hand curled around it as if he was trying to brace the handle against his palm with his fingers. He ate slowly and deliberately, with his hand shaking a bit, even moreso when he noticed that I saw it. I smiled at him and nudged his foot with mine under the table before turning back to my meal.

 

“Peeta,” Prim lifted her chin and set her fork down. He looked up, slowing down mid-chew and raising his eyebrows. “Do you have a girlfriend?” He nearly choked, raising his hand to his mouth.

 

“Prim!” I snapped. She ignored me, waiting for her answer. Peeta shook his head and put his fork down on the edge of his plate.

 

“Have you ever had one?” Prim pushed on. Peeta cleared his throat, and I wasn't so busy glaring at Prim that I couldn't see him cast a nervous glance at me as he wiped his mouth with his napkin.

 

“N-no, I haven't,” he said, chewing his lip and looking between me and Prim.

 

“Have you ever kissed a girl?” Prim asked, and I kicked her foot under the table. She just jerked her foot away, staring me down.

 

“He just said he hasn't had a girlfriend,” I snapped before turning to Mom and staring at her in disbelief. Why wasn't she doing anything?

 

“So? Rory kissed Jenny Morgan, and she's not his girlfriend,” Prim sneered.

 

“Yeah? Is that because you are?” I imitated her tone.

 

“Ladies,” Mom cut us off finally, sitting up a bit. “Behave yourselves, please. I'd like Peeta to actually want to stay for dinner again in the foreseeable future.” She cast an apologetic glance toward Peeta. He looked caught between terrified and amused.

 

The walk home in the dark proved to have a benefit I didn't think of. On our trips through the Seam, and especially when we got into town, I'd noticed the stares. People peering through their windows at us, and anyone we passed outside either stared or went out of their way to pretend we were invisible. It bothered the hell out of me. It must have been horrible for him. I did, however, manage to get the wheelchair stuck in a pothole I didn't see just before we got into town. He laughed it off, getting up to try to help me get it moving again. He didn't sit back down, though, instead walked the last short leg of the trip beside me, with one hand on the wheelchair to steady himself. I helped him up the bakery steps, parked the wheelchair just inside the mudroom, and said goodbye before heading home.

 

It was a few days before I worked at the bakery again, and I was surprised to find myself nearly rushing to get there. Peeta was already sitting in the kitchen when I arrived. He seemed as close to comfortable and relaxed as I'd seen him in a long damn time. He sat talking with Rye, the two of them too caught up in their conversation to see me coming in, hunched over a book, and arguing over a recipe. I hovered by the doorway, watching Peeta shoot Rye a glare and shove him away, catching sight of me in the same minute. His smile faltered briefly.

 

“Oh, hey, Catpiss.” Rye looked over toward me, shoving Peeta right back, though far softer than he probably would have to anyone else. “You're just in time.”

 

“For what?” I pulled one of the aprons off of the hook on the wall, watching Rye pat Peeta's back a little too hard as he passed behind him toward the ovens. Peeta dropped his gaze, scratching his fingers up under the edge of his hat and trying to hide the blush creeping onto his face.

 

“I wanted to make sure I c-could still make them,” Peeta glanced up at me before looking over toward Rye to watch him open the ovens and pull out a tray of cookies. The small of warm cinnamon hit me before he even set the tray down. “B-before I try—teaching you.”

 

“You made me your suck-up cookies?” I smiled, crossing the room to the table and leaning forward to get a better whiff. They smelled incredible. Peeta turned away, hiding a smile, and picked up a spatula from the counter behind him. I watched him scoop the cookies from the tray onto the cooling racks, smiling to myself at his hesitance, and the light tremble in his hand.

 

I tried getting him to help in the kitchen as much as I could, guiding him through what I knew he could do. Every now and then Twain would step in from the storefront, leaning against the wall by the door and watching with an approving smile. Peeta was nervous about his work, second guessing everything he did. The key to snapping him out of that, though, was invariably to get him to laugh. Even Rye seemed to pick up on that, and it was a good three hours before Peeta started wearing out.

 

The heat from the ovens had him drenched in sweat, and the two of us went out back to sit on the edge of the porch. I kept my jacket draped over my shoulders, a bag filled with the cookies he made sitting on the boards between us. He wouldn't let me try them until he'd had one first. They were delicious. Soft and buttery, just sweet enough for my taste.

 

“Thank you for those,” I nodded toward the bag. “They're great.”

 

“I'm g-glad I didn't lose that,” he smiled to himself, glancing at the bag before looking out over the yard. His posture sagged a bit. He looked exhausted, but that smile never quite left his face.

 

“You've said that before,” I said, watching him. He looked over at me, raising his eyebrows in question. “Said you're glad you didn't lose something. What do you mean? What have you lost?”

 

“Um—memories. Just—things I should be able to do,” he frowned, dropping his gaze. “Even th-those. I c-couldn't do that without Rye helping.” Peeta sighed. “I used t-to be able to tell when something was d-done—just by the smell in the kitchen. D-didn't have to check. It was always—perfect. N-now I c-can't even remember if I have s-something in the oven.”

 

“Can't you learn that again?” I regretted the question as soon as it left my mouth. He looked at me with painful disappointment.

 

“That t-took my whole life,” he said softly. I knew, logically, that fifteen years wasn't a long time in the grand scheme of things. That if he could learn it again, if it would come back to him at the same pace he learned it to begin with, he'd have that back by the time he turned 30. But that was still twice as long as either of us had been alive. “There's things I c-can't learn ag-again, though.”

 

“What do you mean?” I asked, shifting a little closer. He pressed his lips together and looked down at his hands for a moment.

 

“M-memories. My family-” he pressed his eyes closed, clearly struggling with something. I waited, watching him quietly as his chin jerked to one side, and he tried to rub the twitching from his face, pressing his fingers into the muscle around his eye. “Dad had Mr. C-Cartwright here, a couple d-days ago. He was t-telling this story about—me. And my uncle. From when I was nine. I sh-should, um, remember th-that. But I d-didn't. None of it.” I wasn't sure what to say to that, or if anything I could say would make things worse. Peeta looked out over the yard, his mouth twisting briefly. “Leaven d-d-died three years ago. I d-don't get any n-new—memories with him. What else d-did I lose?” He frowned, looking down at his hands and closing his eyes. I moved the bag of cookies and closed the gap between us, reaching out for his hand. He curled his fingers around mine, squeezing gently.

 

“I'm sorry,” I said quietly, not sure of what else to say. Or what else to even do. We sat in silence for a few minutes, the tension in him slowly easing. He took a deep breath before opening his eyes, loosening his grip without quite letting go of my hand. “At least you didn't lose your suck-up cookies.” He laughed softly, and I smiled in relief. I wasn't sure the joke would be well received. “So what are you trying to get out of me? That's what those are for, right?”

 

“N-nothing,” he chuckled, his cheeks flushing as he looked away. I couldn't tell if he was lying, but I found myself hoping he was. There wasn't much he could have asked from me at that moment I wouldn't have done for him. I studied him, the gold of his hair in the late afternoon sun, the angle of his jaw, the way his tongue nervously darted over his lower lip before he snagged it in his teeth. He looked over at me, flashing a brief, almost shy smile that made me realize Madge was right. He was cute. Very cute. Handsome, even. And we were comfortable with each other. It really seemed like he could only be comfortable with me. He certainly wasn't around anyone else. I smiled back at him, looking out over the yard and trying to figure out how to keep him out here with me, away from Rye and Twain, for a little longer.

 

“Introduce me to your birds.” I tossed my chin toward the chicken coop before looking back at him.

 

“Seriously?” he raised an eyebrow.

 

“Yeah,” I nodded. He laughed, and as indignant as I felt about that I couldn't help but laugh with him. “What?”

 

“Just p-promise you won't k-kill any of them,” he smirked as I stood up, holding out my hand to help him pull himself to his feet. “I know th-that's your favorite hobby.”

 

“Shut up,” I laughed, following him down the stairs and over toward the pen. Peeta kept close to the porch as he walked, one arm outstretched towards it, his fingertips running along the boards to help keep his balance. He paused at the corner, lifting the lid from a drum full of what looked like dried corn and grain, scooping some out with a pail that sat inside and passing it to me. He knew every one of the dozen speckled red hens by name, and pointed out how to differentiate them when I refused to believe he wasn't making it up. The hens were mean. They pecked at the toes of my boots and picked at the hem of my pants until Peeta shooed them away, tossing their feed to the other side of the pen to keep them from tormenting me any more. The ducks I didn't mind as much. They were docile enough, and they ate calmly from my hand when Peeta filled it with a bit of what was left in the bucket, crouching down beside me and leaning on me for balance.

 

“N-not interested in the p-pigs?” he smirked, glancing over at me as he latched the pen closed again.

 

“I'm interested in bacon,” I said. “Does that count?” He rolled his eyes.

 

“They d-don't like leaving their shed now anyway—too c-cold,” he looked toward their pen. I could hear them snuffling around in the shed. “And it st-stinks in there.”

 

“That definitely gets me interested,” I smirked. He gave me an odd look, the expression breaking into a laugh when I grinned at him. We went back into the house, and Peeta sat down at the table as I got back to work. Rye kept shooting looks my way in between moving out front to handle customers—Twain had gone upstairs to rest while Peeta and I were outside. It didn't take long for fatigue to completely overtake Peeta, too. I paused behind him, rubbing my hand over his shoulders and lowering my voice, leaning close for him to hear. “If you want to go upstairs to get some sleep then go. I'll see you Monday.”

 

“I'm j-just um—very t-tired all of a sudden,” he said, glancing toward me. He didn't need to point it out. I could see it in his face.

 

“Go on,” I nodded toward the stairs, letting my hand slide down his arm.

 

“T-take those cookies home,” he nodded toward the last of them as he stood.

 

“I will,” I smiled to myself, watching him carefully cross the kitchen and climb the stairs. Rye was leaning in the doorway to the storefront, arms folded across his chest, that same stupid look on his face he'd been giving me since Peeta and I came back in. “What?”

 

“So you decided to do this, then,” he nodded toward the stairs.

 

“Do what?” I dropped my shoulders and narrowed my eyes at him.

 

“You're not this dumb,” he scoffed, crossing the room to me and pulling out a stool to sit at the table across from me. “You like him. I know you do. And I'm pretty sure you know you do now, so why don't you just say it so we can have this fucking conversation.”

 

“What conversation?” I snapped. He just raised an eyebrow, folded his arms against the edge of the table, and waited. “Fine!” I threw my hands up. “I like him. I'm pretty sure I like him a lot, actually. Why? What 'conversation' do we need to have?”

 

“He likes you. A lot,” Rye said, his voice uncharacteristically serious. “And you need to not fuck this up by being... you.”

 

“What the hell does that mean?” I frowned.

 

“Katniss, I know this might come as a shock,” his sarcasm returned full force. “You're an idiot about social interaction. And Peeta kind of is now, too, though his idiocy is acquired. Six months ago he'd have probably already sweet talked his way under your shirt, if not into your pants at this point.”

 

“I thought he hadn't had any girlfriends.” I sat up a little straighter, wondering who Rye was talking about, and why it was making me feel—jealous.

 

“He hasn't, and I'm not saying he put that ability to use, just that he had it,” he shook his head, scratching his hand through his hair. “He doesn't get what you're doing. Not that you do either, but- look. You need to be more direct, but if you just throw yourself at him it will probably scare the shit out of him.”

 

“If you're trying to give me advice please stop dancing around it and just say it,” I said without bothering to mask my impatience.

 

“Be patient,” he said. I raised an eyebrow. That was the point of this big conversation? “You're deciding to do this, and I'm glad, because watching you pretend otherwise was fucking painful, but now you stay with it until he's done with you.”

 

“Excuse me?” I folded my arms over my chest. Rye blew out a breath, looking at me with nothing but honesty; his expression almost pleading. It was unsettling; he was never anything but a smarmy ass around me.

 

“If you give him the time and space he needs to be the person he wants to be for you,” he paused, shaking his head briefly before looking back up at me. “You won't ever get tired of him. But you need to stay with this. Don't just give up. On any of it. Understand?”

 

“Yeah,” I chewed my lip, dropping my eyes to the table as the bell in the storefront rang. Rye slapped his hand lightly against the tabletop before getting up to go out front. I turned the idea over in my head, trying to figure out what he meant. And it didn't escape me that he pointed out that Peeta liked me. I had to process that piece of information along with the rest of it. At least that was straightforward. But the rest of what he had to say felt like there was a layer of meaning I wasn't grasping, and I didn't like it.

Chapter Text

 As soon as I got to the bakery after school my mother sent me back out with a shopping list and a bag of coins. I didn't even have a chance to take my coat off before she ushered me out the door, quietly saying she needed a bit more time with Peeta. She couldn't, of course, just tell me when to be back and send me on my way. Madge was home, a visit to her would have been a hell of a lot better than traipsing all over town to cross out that damn list.

 

They were all things we needed and I felt guilty for not noticing we'd been running low. Though the supplies for her practice were certainly not something I'd have ever noticed. I worked my way from shop to shop, saving where the bulk of what I needed would come from—the general store—for last. As I headed down one of the aisles I looked over my list, trying to figure out where everything was, and work out how to get in and out as quickly as possible. As I moved down the aisle I finally glanced up and realized I was nearly face to face with Peeta's mother. I sucked in a breath, ducking through a break in the aisles to avoid her.

 

I honestly couldn't remember the last time I'd seen her. At least a year ago. Gale and I learned the hard way—more than once—not to show up on that back porch when there was even the slightest risk she might be around. She looked even more miserable and bitter than I remembered.

 

“Lily!” A woman's voice called from the front of the store.

 

“Hello, Trudie,” Mrs. Mellark replied. She was directly on the other side of the shelves; I'd have been facing her if they weren't in the way. I stood rooted to the spot, listening as the other woman approached. “Good to see you.”

 

“Oh, it's so good to see you out. I know things have been hard,” she said, her tone entirely too melodramatic for my liking. I pretended to be torn between two different soaps on the shelf in front of me—something not even on the list—just to stick around and hear a little more of this bullshit. Trudie lowered her voice. “He has that woman over there right now, you know.”

 

“To treat our son,” Mrs. Mellark replied, and I could tell just by the tone of her voice how seriously she took that. It made my skin crawl. “Honestly. I thought Twain had a little more class than that.”

 

“We all did, honey.” The sympathy in that statement had my hair on end. Lilith Mellark deserved a lot of things. Sympathy was not one of them.

 

“There's nothing even wrong with him, you know,” Mrs Mellark huffed. “He was perfectly fine when I left. That boy is lazy, and he always has been. This is nothing more than an excuse to skip out on work and school and desperately try to milk sympathy out of anyone he can. His father is no better.”

 

“I'm sure Twain is getting plenty of sympathy right now.”

 

That was enough. I slammed the bars of soap in my hands back down onto the shelves and moved back to the gap in the aisles in two strides, swinging around into the aisle where the two women stood. Mrs Mellark's eyes narrowed as soon as she saw me. Trudie—I immediately recognized her as Gilda Fisk's mother, they looked exactly the same—turned toward me, looking me over with one eyebrow raised. Mrs Mellark drew in a breath to speak.

 

“No.” I pointed in her face, cutting her off before turning to Mrs Fisk. “You want to know what's really going on over there? She almost killed him. Her own son. He has a severe brain injury that she inflicted and is still struggling to get the hang of stairs. My mother is over there because he needs more treatment than Dr Lawrence has the time to give. Make another insinuation about her and see how that goes for you.” I turned toward Mrs Mellark, leaving Mrs Fisk gaping like a fish on a riverbank. “And you. Stop. Lying. I don't know who you think you're kidding. There isn't a person in this District who doesn't know what you did to your sons and idiots like this-” I hooked my thumb over my shoulder toward Mrs Fisk- “may buy into whatever bullshit you're feeding them, but you're not doing yourself any favors with the rest of us.”

 

“Who the hell do you think you are?” Mrs Mellark snapped, her voice creeping up entirely too high, and her skin flushing an inhumanly dark shade.

 

“This isn't a conversation,” I said, glancing behind her and catching sight of the lamp oil my mother listed. I stepped between them, reaching past her and snatching a bottle from the shelf before turning away and leaving the two of them standing there in shock. My triumph barely lasted until I finished the shopping and headed back to the bakery. The more I thought about what she had to say, the angrier I was about it. Nothing wrong with him my ass. And lazy? Peeta or Twain? I stomped straight through the front door, knowing full well the fact that they all went around to the back porch was a holdover from that witch's reign over this house.

 

“I see you're in another winning mood.” Rye raised an eyebrow at me from where he stood ringing up a customer as I blew through the doors at the end of the counter and toward the kitchen.

 

“Ask me why,” I snapped, continuing into the kitchen without waiting for him to respond. Mom was leaning against the worktable with a mug in her hands and talking with Twain as he sat frosting a cake. I dropped the bags I'd brought back with me at her feet. “Here's your crap.”

 

“Excuse me?” Mom raised an eyebrow.

 

“So, who shit in your gamebag?” Rye moved into the doorway, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning against the frame.

 

“I ran into-” I cut myself off when I heard Peeta on the stairs and looked over toward him as he came into view. I pressed my lips together, dropping my eyes when he paused partway down, clearly confused by everyone standing quietly and staring at him. There's no way I wanted to say any of what I heard in front of him. I didn't even particularly want to say it in front of Twain and my mother, but at least their reactions would be a little more predictable. She also didn't assault either of them.

 

“Wh-what's going on?” Peeta asked, looking from one of us to the other and cautiously taking the last few steps into the kitchen.

 

“Katniss has her panties all in a knot and won't tell us why,” Rye said. I shot him a look.

 

“Is s-something wrong?” Peeta asked, looking over at me, one hand still braced on the banister. I sighed, looking over at Twain and my mother before turning toward him. If he was going to find out I'd rather say it to him directly.

 

“I ran into your mother while I was out,” I said, and it was as if someone sucked the air out of the room. Peeta clenched his jaw, Rye stood up straight, his hands balling into fists, and I heard my mother set her mug on the table. “She was at the general store, talking with Mrs. Fisk.”

 

“What did that bitch have to say for herself?” Rye snarled.

 

“Rye,” Twain warned. I looked over my shoulder at him. He was just as tense as his sons, though where Peeta had fear and Rye had anger, Twain looked almost heartbroken.

 

“What d-did she say?” Peeta said softly.

 

“She said, um,” I looked at Mom, not sure if I should actually tell him this. She nodded subtly, and I chewed my lip, moving a little closer to Peeta and lowering my voice, as if that would make it easier to hear. “She said you're fine. And that you're just using it as an excuse to gain sympathy and skip out on work and school.”

 

“That fuc-”

 

“Rye,” Twain snapped, cutting his son off. Rye pressed his lips together, turning and leaning his back against the door frame, letting his head thunk against the wood.

 

“And, um,” I scratched my neck, looking over at Twain. “She said Peeta isn't why you have my mother over here all the time.” Mom straightened her posture, dropping her gaze to the floor.

 

“Fuck, Dad, will you do something about that b-”

 

Rye,” Twain cut him off again as the bell at the door rang. They stared at each other for a moment. “Customer.” Rye huffed and rolled his eyes, disappearing into the storefront.

 

“Peeta, you know none of that is true,” Mom said, her voice gentle. Peeta startled, looking up at her for a moment before vaguely nodding. He turned toward the stairs, stumbling at the first one before regaining his footing. I dropped my shoulders and looked over at Mom. She raised her eyebrows, casting a pointed look at Peeta before looking back to me. Go with him. Just before I got too far up the stairs to see them I caught sight of Twain standing and setting his hand on my mother's back as she covered her face with her hands.

 

Peeta was already in his room with the door closed. Something smashed behind it just as I reached for the handle, and I jerked back. I heard a quiet groan and the creak of his bed springs. It had been a while since I'd seen anything even resembling anger out of Peeta, and I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. I knocked softly and called his name, wondering if bringing it up at all had been a mistake.

 

“Go away,” Peeta's voice was thick. I waited a moment, my hand hovering over the door knob, then twisted it and pushed the door open.

 

“You should know by now I'm not just going to go away,” I said. Something crunched underfoot as I stepped into the room, and I looked down to see the remains of the lamp that had stood on the dresser between the two beds in pieces on the floor. I closed the door behind me and carefully stepped over it to sit beside him on the bed.

 

“I d-don't know why you'd st-stick around,” he said, his tone darkening. “I'm j-j-just milking you for s-sympathy, you know.”

 

“Don't,” I said, probably a little more severely than I should. Peeta frowned, turning to look at me. “I don't care if she's your mother, that woman is a soulless bitch and is not fucking worth this.” Peeta stared at me, clearly at a complete loss for words. “You're better than she is, and you're better off without her. All of you are.” He looked down, chewing his lip. I could see him turning the statement over in his head.

 

“Thank you,” he said, quietly breaking a long stretch of silence. I leaned closer to him, bumping my shoulder against his.

 

“I told her off,” I said. He looked over at me, raising an eyebrow. I just smirked and pressed my lips together.

 

“What d-did you—say?” Peeta looked as though he couldn't decide whether he was horrified or impressed.

 

“I set the record straight,” I shrugged. “I told them both what you're actually going through, like you told me to the first time we sat down together. And I told her to stop lying, and that only idiots like the Fisks believe a word of what she has to say. She turned purple. And I think I might have also threatened Mrs Fisk. That was probably a mistake.” I pursed my lips to the side, trying to remember exactly what had come out of my mouth. A slow smile broke out over Peeta's face that progressed into a brief burst of laughter.

 

“I b-broke the lamp.” he shook his head and rubbed his hand over his forehead.

 

“It had it coming,” I smirked. He snorted. “I'll help you clean it up.” I set my hand on his knee and pushed to my feet, crouching down and picking up the crumpled shade so I could sweep the broken shards of the ceramic base together.

 


 

 

“What's up your ass?” Rye slowed his pace, looking over his shoulder at me as I caught up with him.

 

“What? Nothing.” I frowned at him, and he imitated an expression far worse than the one I realized I was making.

 

“You've been stomping behind me for like, half a mile,” he hooked his thumb over his shoulder in the direction we came. “Are you going to be a pain in the ass all day?”

 

“I am not a pain in the ass.” I folded my arms over my chest, hugging my books against myself. Rye snorted.

 

“Yeah, okay,” he scoffed. I huffed and walked faster. “At least tell me what it's about so I know exactly how to piss you off even more.”

 

“Fuck you,” I said, glancing back at him. I caught sight of Delly a few paces behind us, a slightly concerned look on her face as she watched us. I turned around and raised my voice, slapping on the most indignant expression I could muster. “And for the last time I am not staying late to sneak down into that basement with you!”

 

What?” Rye stopped, staring after me. Before I turned around I saw Delly stop beside him. She crossed her arms over her chest, cocking an eyebrow as she slowly turned toward him. That put a smile back on my face. I glanced back at them before slipping down the alley between the bakery and the tailor just in time to see Rye drop his shoulders and tilt his head back in exasperation while Delly fussed at him.

 

I could hear voices in the kitchen as I climbed the back steps. I recognized my mother and Twain, but there was another woman whose voice I didn't recognize. Whatever they were talking about was eliciting an embarrassed groan out of Twain and entirely too much laughter out of both my mother and whoever else was in there. I climbed the back porch and let myself in, setting my books down on the bench in the mudroom.

 

“I'm honestly not entirely sure how you handle them all,” Mom laughed.

 

“You'd better be glad I do,” the other woman spoke. I hung my jacket on the wall, casting a curious glance toward the kitchen. “The state he'd have this place in is shameful.”

 

“Darla, please,” Twain chuckled. The three of them were sitting around the worktable with Twain covering his face and chuckling as he shook his head.

 

“Hey, sweetie,” Mom looked up at me as I walked into the kitchen. Darla whirled around on her stool, beaming at me.

 

“Katniss! I'm so glad to finally meet you!” She slid off her stool and pulled me into a hug. Darla was Phyl's wife, I knew that much, but given the few times I'd met the eldest Mellark boy I wasn't entirely sure what to expect of her. “I've been hearing so much about you. I just haven't been able to find the time to get over when you've been here.”

 

“Um, it's good to meet you, too,” I said, mostly to be polite. She pulled back, holding me by the shoulders and smiling. She was tiny, at least half a foot shorter than me. Everything about her was delicate and soft, and she had her wispy blonde hair pinned up off her neck. There was something warm and comforting about her I couldn't quite reconcile with my impression of her husband.

 

“I can always tell when you've been here. Peeta's always a little more talkative. And, well, Rye's always a little surlier,” she said. I couldn't help but chuckle at that as she sat back down.

 

“Where is he, by the way?” Twain asked.

 

“He'll be along soon, I'm sure,” I said as I pressed my lips together to hold back my smile. “I'm sure he'll be in a winning mood when he gets here, too.”

 

“Anything I need to be prepared for?” Twain raised an eyebrow.

 

“I have no doubt he'll fill you in himself,” I said, ignoring the annoyance on Mom's face. She had taken issue with some of the stories she'd heard about the way Rye and I spoke to each other in this kitchen.

 

“Peeta's upstairs,” Darla said in a half whisper, leaning close to me. I smiled and nodded hesitantly, unsure if that meant I was free to go up to see him before starting work. As soon as I heard the footsteps on the back steps I stopped caring. I didn't particularly want my mother to witness the torrent of verbal abuse I knew Rye was itching to unleash on me.

 

“Go ahead,” Twain smiled, answering the question I hadn't even had the chance to ask him.

 

“Thanks,” I glanced toward the back door as it opened and headed for the stairs, all but running up them as it slammed shut. I found Peeta in his bedroom, the shades drawn and the room dim. He looked up from where he sat on the bed, back to the wall, as I rapped my knuckle against the door frame. “Hey.”

 

“Hi.” He gave me a lopsided smile that was quickly replaced with confusion at the sound of Rye's shouting drifting up from downstairs.

 

“Yeah, that might be my fault,” I smirked and scratched my forehead.

 

“What did you d-do?” he said as I crossed the room to sit beside him, scooting back against the wall and kicking off my shoes.

 

“I may have made Delly think he's been hitting on me.” I smiled and bit my lip as Peeta laughed.

 

“L-let me guess,” he said, shifting toward me, crossing his arms over his chest and putting on a perfect imitation of the expression that had been on Delly's face just before I left the two of them behind. I laughed, my shoulders hunching forward. It was hard to tell in the low light, but I swear I saw Peeta blush as he sat back again. “He-he's not—is he?”

 

“Oh, ew, no,” I shook my head.

 

“Okay,” Peeta dropped his gaze. He had his sketchbook in his lap, flipped open to a page I couldn't quite see. I reached for it, and he flinched.

 

“Please?” I said, taking the edge in my hand without moving it from where it rested against his legs. He stuttered for a moment, not quite able to get out an answer. I took that as consent, pulling the book closer. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust fully enough to make out the light pencil marks on the page. It was their backyard, the view from his bedroom window. It was perfect, down the leaves on the tree by the alley, the pigs and chickens they shared with the tailor next door. “Peeta, this is amazing.” I looked over at him before turning back to the beginning and flipping through each page slowly.

 

“Th-thank you,” he said quietly. I could feel him watching me as I looked through the pages. He seemed nervous, and when I glanced over at him his eyes seemed to beg for approval. I wondered if he was even aware of that. The pages were filled with sketches of the bakery, the square, his family. Twain sitting by the till with a book in his hand and his glasses perched at the end of his nose. Rye and Delly playing cards in the kitchen. Even his mother, in profile, knuckles pressed to her mouth with a distant look on her face. I flipped past that one quickly. The next page was a drawing of Phyl and Darla, both of their hands pressed to the swell of her pregnant belly. He captured their expressions so perfectly, something I could truly appreciate after having just met her and been on the receiving end of her impossibly warm and maternal smile. “These are incredible.”

 

“Th-thanks,” Peeta said, his voice soft. I smiled at him, reaching over and touching his hand lightly before I continued looking through the pages. I stopped on a page of faces. His family again. Phyl and Darla in the corner. He looked a little more like the Phyl I'd met in this picture, his face grim and serious, but she was still smiling.

 

“Okay, I just met Darla.” I set my hand on the page, shaking my head for a moment. “And I've met Phyl a few times. How is it that-” I paused, staring at the opposite wall and trying to figure out how to tactfully phrase what I wanted to ask.

 

“Sh-she's so nice and Phyl is such a d-dick?” Peeta supplied. I snorted, pressing my hand over my mouth as I nodded. “We're st-still trying to figure that out t-too.” I laughed. He smiled, looking down at his hands as he rubbed his wrist. The injury still bothered him, I knew that, and I wondered what was making the pain flare up today. I looked through the rest of the sketchbook, stopping on an unfinished page near the end of it. I pulled my knees up, the shading on this was even lighter than the rest and harder to see with what little light leaked in around the shades. It looked familiar, though. A field, a gnarled oak tree off to one side, and the hint of a fence just being penciled in at the edge.

 

“Is this the meadow?” I asked, turning toward him. It stood on the outskirts of the District, halfway between town and the seam, as far as you could get from either without being in the other. It was where Gale and I gathered dandelion greens in the early morning hours when spring first began. Peeta's face was tight; his jaw clenched. He nodded briefly, and I started to feel as though I'd done something wrong or maybe seen something I shouldn't have. I flipped to the next page—blank. Then I realized that was the last thing Peeta had drawn. Maybe the last thing he ever would with the same ease and skill that the rest of his drawings made so obvious. And he didn't even finish it. I closed the book, sliding my hand over the cardboard cover and looking up at him.

 

Peeta was turned away from me, rubbing his hand over his jaw the way he did when he was trying to hide his twitch. I set the sketchbook aside and shifted closer, setting my hand on his shoulder. He flinched at my touch. I jerked my hand back.

 

“Sorry,” I said softly. I tried again and tugged at his shoulder gently, wanting to turn him back to me. He wiped at his eyes and let me turn him back. He was crying. That was obvious even in the low light. The furrow of his brow and the way he kept his chin ducked away from me told me he didn't want me to see it. My heart tightened, and I moved even closer, turning toward him and pulling him against me. He stiffened at first, but his arms moved around me, his hands trembling against my back. I tightened my hold on him and rubbed my hand over the back of his neck. “It's okay.”

 

“N-no. It's n-n-not,” he said so quietly I wouldn't have heard him if he hadn't been so close to me. I felt his tears soak into my shirt and nearly cried with him. No one deserves to suffer so much, but it seemed especially cruel that he was robbed of everything he had by his own mother—the one person who was supposed to love and protect him no matter what. Even my mother, who had some frightening moments in the months after my father's death, had never once made us feel unloved.

 

I laid my cheek against his hair, rubbing my hand over his back as sobs wracked his shoulders. I knew he was vulnerable, and I'd seen him hurting, but up until now he had done his best to hide it from me. Whatever was going through his head, or whatever he was feeling that pushed him to this had to have been awful. His breathing slowed, evening out, and he abruptly pulled back. He wiped his face, drawing in a breath. He dropped back against the wall and turned his face away from me. The scar caught my eye, the scabbing finally gone, wispy pale hairs growing along the edges.

 

“You s-should probably—g-go,” he croaked. I watched as he rubbed his hand over his eyes. “Gotta w-work, right?”

 

“Do you want me to go?” I asked. He dropped his hands, glancing toward me without quite meeting my eyes. I waited, trying to figure out why the idea unsettled me so much. After a few moments of silence he shook his head, his mouth twisting into a hard frown. “Then I think your dad and Rye can handle the bakery themselves.”

 

Peeta looked down at his hands, all but chewing through his lip. I wished that I had some idea of what was going on in his head. Or that I could at least ask without feeling like I was tormenting him. His speech truly had improved, but today it seemed worse. His twitching was more prominent, and he was having a hard time disguising any of the things he usually did. I moved a little closer, reaching over and setting my hand on top of both of his. The look on his face was so honest and open and real I felt like I needed to do something and had no idea what.

 

So I kissed him.

 

When I pulled back his entire body was tense, his eyes were pressed closed, and his breathing was slow and purposeful. I sat back against the wall, moving to pull my hand away, and he caught it in his, holding onto me. I looked over at him, trying to figure out if that was the right thing to do, or if I'd crossed some kind of line he didn't want crossed. He opened his eyes, dropping his gaze when he realized I was looking at him, and let go of my hand.

 

“Peeta, I'm-”

 

“Please,” he looked down at his hands again, biting down on his lip. “D-don't say—anything.”

 

I looked away, chewing on the side of my thumb and trying to figure out what the hell I just did and what the hell to do now. Neither of us moved for a long time. I kept gearing up to speak, trying to come up with something worth saying, and drawing a complete blank. I didn't think announcing that it was the dumbest thing I'd ever done was probably a good idea, but that was certainly what I was feeling.

 

“K-Katniss,” he said, finally breaking the silence. I looked over at him, pressing my lips together. The look on his face made me feel horribly guilty. He hesitated, glancing at me before continuing. “D-don't—pity me. I d-don't want that.”

 

“I don't pity you,” I said quietly. He frowned at the edge of the bed, his face angled toward me. “I don't. I feel bad for you. What you're going through is awful, but that's different.” Peeta swallowed hard before looking over toward the window. I looked down at his sketchbook on the bed beside me and ran my finger along the edge before picking it up. “I didn't mean to upset you.”

 

“It's f-fine,” he said, his voice soft and hurt. I'm not sure if he meant that I didn't, or that I did and he was forgiving me, or even if we were talking about his drawings or the kiss. I also wasn't sure how to ask. I passed the book back to him. He accepted it, laying it on the bed on his other side, pressing his palm against the cover and closing his eyes for a moment. “I'll meet you d-downstairs in a few m-minutes?”

 

“Okay,” I nodded, hesitating a moment before easing off the bed. That was without a doubt a dismissal, but if I'd done anything terribly wrong he wouldn't have offered to go downstairs. Unless, of course, he was trying to get rid of me, which was entirely possible. I'd probably want to get rid of me too after a dumb stunt like that. I picked my shoes up off of the floor, pausing to look back at him from the doorway. He hadn't moved and didn't look up at me. I cursed myself under my breath as I moved down the hall toward the stairs, stopping at the top to pull my shoes back on before stomping down them.

 

“Well it's about fucking time,” Rye snapped as soon as I hit the bottom step. My mother and Darla were both long gone. “Just going to fuck up my relationship and my job all in one day? You are a delightful fucking ray of sunshine today.”

 

“Can it, Mellark, I'm not in the mood,” I snapped. I got to work immediately, stocking the last batch of bread for the day in the cases; a small one to tide over the customers who were uppity enough to turn their noses at the morning's baking as 'not fresh enough'. It must be nice.

 

Peeta came down not long after I had the cases stocked. He sat at the table, understandably reticent about talking to me. I wasn't sure how to take it or how to act. It didn't help at all that Rye was constantly shooting glares at me. They were too carefully timed with the times I started to move toward Peeta, or say something to him, to be solely about Delly. Eventually I just gave up, focused on the work, blocked Rye out and did my best to get Peeta to strike up a conversation. If I had made a mistake upstairs I wasn't about to let it ruin a good friendship. I could barely even get him to make eye contact, though.

 

I worried over what Rye had told me about pushing too fast. Did I just throw myself at Peeta? Did I scare the shit out of him in the process? I think I may have scared the shit out of myself. He had a hard time even looking at me, it seemed. He startled when I touched him, spoke a little more softly, and stuttered just as much as he had in the beginning. I was supposed to be helping him, and I'd set him back months with one stupid gesture.

 

My preoccupation with it carried me right through to the exams before winter break. I hardly even noticed the week slip by until the exams were in front of me. A full day of tests I hadn't studied for felt like torture on top of it all. I knew before I even got my scores back that I hadn't done as well as my usual As and Bs. But I passed, at least, and I doubted Mom would have much to say about it.

 

The week had also managed to bring the first significant snowfall of the year, long overdue, and the route to the bakery was a slushy mess. Madge and I took the path to town together, discussing plans for the break, when I'd visit and when she'd be out to the Seam. She had noticed how I was acting, of course. Nothing slipped by Madge. She had the good graces to let it go, though, after the first couple days of teasing did nothing to snap me out of it.

 

We parted ways before the square. Madge took the path that continued on to the municipal side of town. I veered off toward the bakery, picking my way through the alley to the back through the footsteps Rye had worn into the snow drifts. I could hear voices in the kitchen as I climbed the back steps. I let myself in and hung my coat in the back room as someone dropped a stack of trays into the sink with a loud clatter.

 

“Un-fucking-believable,” Twain snapped. I stepped into the doorway cautiously. I'd never heard him swear like that, or raise his voice, or show any sort of anger, but it was him who threw the trays.

 

“I told you that it's a waste of time,” Rye said. He was leaning against the end of the worktable with his arms folded over his chest. He smirked at me. “No real point in going back, I guess.”

 

“You're f-” Twain spun around, cutting himself off when he saw me and blowing out a breath. He combed his hand through his hair, leveling his gaze at Rye.

 

“What's going on?” I asked, looking from one to the other.

 

“This as-” Twain pointed at Rye, stopping himself from cursing in front of me. “My son has decided that proving a point is more important than his education.”

 

“I didn't do too hot on my exams,” Rye shrugged. Twain snatched the papers off of the table behind him.

 

“I'm pretty sure you get more points than this for spelling your damn name,” Twain said as he shook the papers in Rye's face. I could see the red marks all over them from where I stood. Twain pulled one out, raising his eyebrows and reading from it. “'A triangle has a perimeter of 56. If two sides are equal and the third side is 8 more than the equal sides, what is the length of the third side?' You wrote a recipe for cheese buns.” He slapped the papers against Rye's chest. I snorted, covering my mouth before I could start laughing. Twain gave me a look.

 

“I'm sorry. That's not funny,” I said, pressing my lips together.

 

“My history exam is a particularly engaging series of stick figure drawings of Mr Wilson. Wanna see?” Rye flipped through the pages, and Twain snatched them back.

 

“Will you do some damn work?” he spat, rolling his shoulders and stalking out to the storefront. Rye folded his arms across his chest again and grinned at me.

 

“I'm not going back to school,” he said.

 

“Yes, you are.” Twain popped into the doorway, scowling and pointing at Rye. “I get four more months of you out of my hair for seven hours every weekday, and I will be damned if you take that away from me.” Rye snorted, turning to me and shaking his head as soon as Twain disappeared from view again.

 

“You're an idiot,” I said, snatching a pair of aprons off the wall and throwing one at him. He laughed, snatching it out of the air before it hit him and tying it around his waist. “Am I going to have to spend even more time with you now?”

 

“You mean you aren't excited to spend the next six weeks hanging out in here with me?” Rye raised an eyebrow, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Because I'm absolutely fucking thrilled about getting more quality time with you.” I flipped him off before turning to the sink to wash the trays Twain left there.

 

Peeta didn't even make the trip downstairs. Once the work was under control I went looking for him. I found his bedroom door opened just a crack and carefully pushed it open. He was curled up in bed facing the wall, blankets pulled up around his shoulders. I said his name quietly. He didn't respond, but I didn't think he was actually sleeping either.

 

“Just wanted to come say hi,” I said softly, and got no response. I stepped back, pulling the door closed and startling when I saw Twain leaning against the wall by the kitchen. I hadn't even heard him come upstairs, and I wondered how long I'd been standing there staring at Peeta without even realizing it.

 

“Snow's starting again,” he said, offering a faint smile and glancing at the bedroom door. “I just want to make sure you get home safely.”

 

“I'll head out,” I nodded, chewing the inside of my lip and glancing toward Peeta's door.

 

“Mind coming by around 10 on Tuesday morning?” Twain asked. I raised my eyebrows and looked up at him.

 

“Sure,” I shrugged.

 

“You don't have to put any extra time in over break if you don't want to,” he said. “You're welcome any time you like. I can always use an extra set of hands. Not to mention you get paid by the hour,” he smirked. I chuckled softly, looking down at the floor. “I just want to make sure you know that you don't have to work extra just because you're out of school.”

 

“I know.” I smiled a little and looked up at him. “I like it here.” He smiled and nodded before pushing himself away from the wall.

 

“Good,” he tossed his head toward the stairs. “Now get out of here before the weather turns foul and your mother comes to kill me.”

 

The snow kept us homebound for the weekend. By the time the storm had passed it had dropped nearly three feet of snow over the course of two days. Gale and I spent Monday digging our homes out, shoveling paths between our houses, and clearing off the roof over my front porch as best we could. It was close to caving on one side and really should have been repaired over the summer. It fell by the wayside, as so much did. Now it would have to wait for spring or until it finally did collapse. Whichever came first.

 

On Tuesday Mom and I slowly picked our way to the bakery down the narrow footpaths that had been started in the snow. The District didn't bother clearing snow outside of town. Even in town it wasn't exactly a priority. Twain had been out front last week clearing snow from the front of the bakery. As soon as we hit the square, though, I could see Rye had gotten stuck with the task today. He spent just as much time peering across the square toward the Cartwright's shoe shop as he did actually shoveling. I knew he'd be disappearing before the day was over. Mom and Twain were taking Peeta to see Dr. Lawrence for a good chunk of the day, and that was only going to make it easier for him.

 

“Peeta's out back,” Twain said as soon as we stepped into the storefront. The alley that led to the back still hadn't been cleared of snow.

 

“Is that a hint?” I smirked, scraping my boots against the mat just inside the door.

 

“He's nervous,” Twain said, smiling and glancing toward my mother before I continued through the kitchen to the back porch.

 

Peeta was crouched by the pig pen with one hand through the slats in the fence and the other braced against the boards for balance. Two of their sows were trying to nose each other out of the way to get his attention. A narrow path had been cleared leading from the porch to the pens. I stood on the steps, watching him speak softly to the two animals while he scratched along their jaws. I couldn't quite hear what he was saying and moved closer. The bottom stair creaked under my foot, and he snapped his attention toward me, smiling and dropping his eyes as a deep blush crept over his face.

 

“Hi.” I crossed the yard to him as he grabbed ahold of the top of the fence, pulling himself up. The pigs snuffled in disapproval and raced each other back into the shed.

 

“They—hate the c-cold,” he said, tugging at the sleeves of his shirt as he watched them. “E-especially the snow.”

 

“Yeah, me too.” I leaned against the fence next to him, backhanding his arm lightly. Even out in the cold without a coat he felt hot. “Nervous about today?”

 

“N-no,” he lifted his chin, glancing at me out of the corner of his eye. I raised an eyebrow, and he smiled and looked away, scratching up under the edge of his hat. “Yeah.”

 

“It's not because anything is wrong, though, is it? Mom didn't really tell me,” I said.

 

“No, just to—ch-ch-” he paused and closed his eyes for a moment. He must have been nervous if he was struggling this much to speak after how much better he'd gotten. “Check my p-progress.”

 

“Nothing to be worried about, then. Right?” I shrugged and smiled at him, and he shot me a look that told me how completely wrong I was. I chuckled, turning toward the fence and bumping my shoulder against his. He smiled and shook his head.

 

“Peet,” Twain called from the porch, and both of us turned to look at him. He was leaning against the rail, arms crossed over his chest with a wry smile on his face. I couldn't help but wonder how long he'd been standing there watching us. “Let's get going.”

 

Peeta nodded and glanced over at me, drawing a deep breath and holding it for a moment before blowing it out and dropping his shoulders. I smiled and slapped his back lightly as he moved past me toward the house. Twain led us in, picking up Peeta's coat from the mudroom and absently holding it out while he listed the things he needed Rye to finish before they returned. Rye wasn't even bothering to listen.

 

“Hey,” Twain picked up a towel and threw it at Rye, finally getting him to turn away from the counter. “And you need to do them. Darla will be here in a few, and Katniss is going to help her today.”

 

“I am?” I asked, unsure of exactly what Darla did for them.

 

What?” Rye snapped before glaring at me as if I had something to do with the decision. “So I'm here alone, basically.”

 

“For four hours, yes. You can handle it,” Twain raised an eyebrow. “You're so dead set on dropping out to do this and nothing else, prove that you actually can.” Rye frowned, knowing there was nothing he could even say in response. Mom hid a smile behind her hand.

 

“D-Darla's a little excited sh-she's not the only w-woman in the house now,” Peeta said, picking up on my confusion.

 

“Should I be nervous?” I asked quietly, remembering the exuberant hug I'd gotten the one and only time I'd met her.

 

“Should I?” Peeta smirked. I laughed softly and backhanded his arm.

 

“Come on,” Twain hooked his arm around Peeta's shoulders and ushered him forward through the storefront.

 

“Try not to kill each other,” Mom smirked at me, cutting her eyes at Rye for a moment. “Or burn the place down.”

 

“No promises,” Rye said, narrowing his eyes at me as Mom left.

 

“Are you actually mad that I have to hang out with your sister-in-law?” I cocked an eyebrow at him. “I don't think I can handle her. I thought you enjoyed my misery.”

 

“Do not talk shit about Darla. That woman is a saint,” Rye pointed at me, his face completely serious. He dropped his hand, a slow smile spreading across his face that escalated to a low chuckle. “You definitely have to do my laundry today. That's awesome.”

 

“Wait, what?” I stared at him, and he just laughed harder. The bell out front rang, and he wiped his hands on his apron, still laughing as he walked out to the storefront.

 

“Hey, Darla,” he said, with more affection in his voice than I think I'd ever heard out of him.

 

“Hey, Trouble,” Darla said. I heard the doors at the other end of the counter swing open, and Darla greeted Rye by the doorway a moment later with a hug and a sisterly kiss on the cheek. “Did you filthy up the place for me?”

 

“Well, you know I'd hate to disappoint,” he smirked, glancing back at me. “I don't want it to be too easy on the two of you.”

 

“Oh good!” Darla leaned around Rye and beamed at me. “I was hoping for the help.” She poked Rye in the chest. “And you're the one that's outnumbered today.”

 

“I kinda like it.” Rye followed her into the kitchen.

 

“Don't be vile,” she snapped before turning to me. “I hope you don't mind a little cleaning. These boys are animals.”

 

“You're the one who married into this,” Rye said as he went back to the batch of dough he had out on the counter. “Where's LT?”

 

“With his grandmother,” Darla said, her smile vanishing the second the sentence left her mouth. She snapped her head towards Rye. “The good one.”

 

“I certainly fucking hope so,” he muttered.

 

“I figured you wouldn't mind being spared this one for the day,” she turned back to me and pointed her thumb toward Rye.

 

“I definitely don't mind that,” I said, drawing a laugh out of Darla.

 

“Hey,” Rye snapped, looking over at us. “I am a delight.”

 

“Sure you are, sweetie,” Darla said in the most condescending tone I think I'd ever heard. I snorted and covered my mouth. “Now why don't you put on your big boy pants and prove you really are better off here instead of in school.”

 

“Don't worry, I put them on this morning,” he shot Darla a grin over his shoulder, crossing his eyes before turning back to his work. She just laughed, hooking her arm through mine and hauling me up the stairs like we were little girls at a sleepover.

 

“I've been coming over to clean for them and set things in order since Lilith left,” Darla explained as soon as we reached the second floor. “Well. Since she was rightfully kicked the hell out.”

 

“They can't take care of themselves?” I raised an eyebrow and Darla just laughed, leading the way down the hall.

 

“Honey,” she said, giving me a look before pushing open the door to Peeta and Rye's room. There were clothes covering the floor, worse than I'd ever seen it, to the point that the actual floorboards were barely visible beneath them. Neither of the beds were made, the blankets a bundled up mess, and the sheets on Rye's were barely even on the mattress. I just laughed, and Darla held up her hand before turning around and stepping across the hall to push open the door to Twain's room. It looked exactly the same, if not a little worse. I just laughed even harder. The bakery was immaculate, and though the upstairs kitchen and living room were a little cluttered. I occasionally caught sight of dishes in the sink, but there was nothing to give away what Darla had just showed me. “Between keeping that bakery running, looking out for Peeta, and fighting the uphill battle to keep Rye under control—not to mention the divorce, though thank god that's over with—Twain doesn't have the time to deal with any of this. So I do.”

 

“I didn't really think of that,” I said, leaning against the wall in the hallway as she moved into the small laundry room tucked between the office and the boys' room to haul out a laundry basket.

 

“They didn't either,” she winked at me as she carried the basket into the boys' room. I followed behind her, stopping at the door and watching as she started piling the clothes from the floor into the basket. She glanced over her shoulder at me and smiled. “A helper would be much more appreciated than a spectator.”

 

“Sorry,” I smiled sheepishly and stepped into the room to help. I tried adding this in to what I considered my job, tried not to think about what an idiot I'd made of myself sitting right on that bed with Peeta barely a week and a half ago. Mostly I tried not to think about the fact that somewhere in the jumble of clothing I was purposefully not looking too closely at was Peeta's underwear. And Rye's, for that matter.

 

“Do you like working at the bakery?” Darla smiled, glancing over her shoulder at me as she yanked the blankets from Rye's bed before pulling up the sheets and tossing them on top of the pile of laundry in the basket.

 

“I do,” I hesitated for a moment before following her example and doing the same to Peeta's bed. “I like coming here. And it feels good not to, um, struggle as much.” I bit down on the inside of my lip, wishing I hadn't said that. I had no real idea what Phyl did for work beyond the fact that he worked for the District government, but I knew he was paid well enough to afford a townhouse on the municipal side of town, not far from where Madge lived, and that Darla didn't have to work. A stay at home mother was not something that happened in the seam by choice, and even in town there were very few women who didn't need to work to keep their family going.

 

“They love having you here, you know,” she gracefully avoided the comment. She put one knee up on Rye's mattress, leaning across and wedging her hand between the mattress and the wall, gingerly pulling out a towel and immediately dropping it into the basket before doing the same on Peeta's side of the room. I followed her back to the hall, leaning against the door frame as she dropped the basket on the floor in the small laundry room. The Mellarks had an actual electric washer and a small dryer beside it. I couldn't help but think of poor Hazelle and her dry, cracked hands that looked decades older than she was from the constant scalding as she scrubbed laundry in the galvanized tub she kept by the fire in the living room. “And Twain is a wonderful, kind man. Peeta is so very much like him.” Darla smiled to herself as she stuffed the boys' sheets into the washer. “Rye is...um.”

 

“An ass?” I stepped forward and started separating the rest of the laundry—something I certainly never bothered with when it was left to me at home. Darla laughed.

 

“Rye is a good boy,” she barely gets out before she gets her laughter under control. “Somewhere under there. I promise. He just doesn't want anyone to know about it.”

 

“He seems fond of you,” I said, thinking of the way he all but snapped at me for even speaking about Darla just before she arrived.

 

“He is very protective of the people he loves,” she said, a faint smile never quite leaving her face. “To a fault, sometimes. I think you're falling under that little umbrella for him.”

 

“What?” I paused, looking up at her.

 

“Rye loves Peeta. And you have done amazing things for him, things I know you don't even see, but Rye sees them,” she looked up at me, her smile broadening briefly. She must have seen the confusion in my face. After tossing the shirts in her hands into one of the piles on the floor she rested her hands on the edge of the laundry basket, a thoughtful look crossing her face. “I'm not sure how to explain it, but with all three of the boys—and especially with Twain—the people they care about are family. They become part of the family, if that makes sense. Everything you and your mother have done to help around here...” Darla shook her head and reached into the basket to continue. “You're Mellarks now.”

 

I chewed my lip, turning over the idea in my head. It didn't feel like I had done very much, though I didn't doubt that my mother had. I got paid for most of the time I spent at the bakery, hardly something that should make me family. But maybe that was what had scared Peeta off so much. Any affection he accepted from me was no different to him than affection I shared with Prim. If he thought of me as anything more as a friend, it was as a sister, and it was no wonder that had bothered him so much.

 

We repeated the task in Twain's room, dividing the laundry and moving on to other chores as the laundry cycles ran. Darla pushed me into the kitchen to clean while she finished the bedrooms. Eventually we ended up sitting in the living room, folding the laundry as it came out of the dryer. I couldn't tell any of it apart, aside from a few things I recognized as Peeta's simply from seeing him wear them. Darla pointed out what belonged to who with hardly more than a glance in between telling stories about her son. He was six months old, had just mastered sitting up on his own, and did nothing but babble nonsense.

 

“I'd like to meet him,” I said, smiling to myself as I thought of Posy as a baby. My memories of her were hazy at best, but she was adorable, and very sweet. Somehow she managed to stay that way. I remembered her learning to crawl, and Darla seemed to think Little Twain was fast approaching that. If that was the case, the window of my tolerance for small children was rapidly closing on him.

 

“I'd like that, too,” she smiled, then dropped her hands into her lap and looked up at me. “You should come for dinner! You and Peeta can both come, and I promise Phyl will behave. I can't imagine your impression of him is all that great.”

 

“I've really only met him in passing,” I said, biting back a smile.

 

“Don't worry, I know that's a polite way to say he was rude,” Darla smirked at me. “He can be very much like his mother in some ways.” I frowned and kept my eyes on the pants I was folding. Anything about that woman made me bristle. Darla seemed to sense it. “Not in the ways that are making you make that face.”

 

“I just don't-” I paused and shook my head, unsure of what, exactly, I really wanted to say. “I don't get it.”

 

“Lilith has not had an easy life,” she said, scowling briefly. “That doesn't excuse anything about her behavior. But it might explain it.” I just bit down on the inside of my lip to stop myself from telling her how I really felt about it. And about Peeta's mother. A few minutes of tense silence passed before I realized Darla was looking at me. And that I had refolded the same shirt about six times. “You care about him.”

 

“Peeta?” I asked, Darla smiled and nodded. “I do. We're friends.”

 

“And he's a wonderful friend to have,” she said, shaking out and folding the bath towels. “Far better than those people he used to spend his time with certainly deserve. I know you know them.”

 

“I do,” I frowned, making sure she could hear exactly how unimpressed I was just by the sound of my voice.

 

“Don't judge him based on them,” she glanced up at me. “I know you've spent enough time with him to form your own opinion, but that impression might have stuck around.”

 

“Not really,” I shrugged, thinking back to the day I overheard the kids he used to call his friends talking about him; the things they were saying, how they'd never even bothered to check on him. “I guess I used to lump him in with them. That's changed, though.”

 

“Good,” Darla smiled, looking me over for a moment before getting up for the last of the laundry. The rest of the work went quickly; putting away the laundry, dusting, piecing the bedrooms back together. I was finishing making the boys' beds when I heard Darla swear quietly from the hall. She leaned into the room. “Katniss, I have to get going. I have to pick Little Twain up from my mother's in a few minutes, I didn't realize how late it had gotten. Do you remember where I took these from?” She held up the towels she'd pulled out from behind the boys' mattresses earlier. I nodded, and she tossed them to me. “Good. Put them back for me? The third one goes under Twain's mattress. Left side. I'll see you soon, we'll plan that dinner.” She smiled and winked at me before disappearing, and I listened to her footsteps on the stairs, staring at the towels in my hand and wondering what the hell they were for. That thought was quickly replaced by the realization I'd somehow been roped into dinner with Peeta and his family.

 


 

“So are we going to spend any time with you at all this break, or are you going to be at the bakery every day?” Madge stretched her leg out across the couch and jabbed my hip with her toe.

 

“You're spending today with me, aren't you?” I slapped her foot away and pointed at Gale where he sat on the floor, back against a coffee table, feet up on the couch. “And you see me every damn morning.”

 

“Hunting is work,” he said without bothering to look up from the book in his lap. He was working his way through a plate of dried apple slices on the floor beside him and popped a few pieces into his mouth. “Doesn't count.”

 

“We've only been out for a week.” I raised an eyebrow, looking from one of them to the other. “And three days of that it snowed.”

 

“Yes, and the rest of the time you spent with your boyfriend,” Madge smirked.

 

“I spent it working,” I frowned at her.

 

“Look, if you're going to be one of those girls who gets a guy and then just forgets about everyone and everything else in your life that's fine, just warn me,” she said. Gale chuckled, and I just glared at her. She laughed, muttering an apology she didn't really mean before leaning over and snatching the book from Gale's hands, thumping the top of his head with it and scolding him for being antisocial.

 

“Are you going to spend the next five weeks annoying me about this?” I asked.

 

“Of course she is,” Gale smirked, yanking the book out of her hand and tossing it out of reach.

 

“What kind of friend would I be if I didn't?” Madge flashed a grin at me. I just rolled my eyes. The three of us lounged around the upstairs sitting room for a few hours, talking about school, our finals and Gale's birthday approaching in a couple of weeks. Madge wanted to host a dinner for him and invite a few of his friends from the seam, completely oblivious to the misery they'd put him through over a birthday dinner at the mayor's mansion, so I encouraged it. I would have loved to see that embarrassment fall onto him. Sometimes I thought he'd forgotten what he got himself into with Madge.

 

The discussion, inevitably, devolved into Gale's graduation in the spring and what he'd be doing after that. I'd heard this argument between the two of them enough to know exactly how it would go. Madge's father had already lined up a job for Gale with the District, and he wanted nothing to do with it. His plan was to go into the mines, the same as anyone else, and he resented the idea of anything being handed to him. They'd debate it for at least a half an hour, if not more, until going into a complete stalemate. I reached for the book Gale had tossed aside earlier to occupy my attention until they'd worn themselves out.

 

Gale left shortly afterward. Madge stopped me when I tried to go as well, dragging me back to her room and pushing me to sit down on the bed before dropping down beside me. I just raised an eyebrow, more than a little confused by the expectant look on her face.

 

“What?” I said.

 

“Something happened,” she said, and her expression didn't falter for a second. I shrugged, even more confused. “Okay, you used to be all over chances to talk about Peeta, and you've been all tight lipped and weird since before we got out of school. Something happened. Tell me.”

 

“Nothing,” I looked away, and I could feel my face getting hot as I thought about that kiss. It was stupid, I was stupid, and admitting that stupidity to Madge was not on my list of things to do that day. Or ever.

 

“You do not blush over nothing,” Madge smirked. “In fact, you don't blush at all. I'm not letting you leave until you tell me.”

 

“Really, it's nothing,” I shrugged, still not quite able to look at her. “I haven't even really been talking to him as much as I used to. He comes down while I'm working sometimes, but he's been sleeping a lot, so...” I trailed off, hoping that was good enough for her. It wasn't entirely the truth. Things were a little more awkward than they had been, and I was pretty sure every time I'd gone upstairs to find him asleep he was faking.

 

“Why,” she said, and it wasn't even a question. That meant I had to answer, or she wasn't going to let it go. I glanced at her, blowing out a breath and trying to figure out what I could say without actually telling the truth to satisfy her. I was coming up completely empty. “Katniss.”

 

“I kissed him,” I blurted out. Madge slapped my leg.

 

“I knew it,” she snapped, grinning ear to ear.

 

“It was stupid,” I said, giving her a pointed look that I hoped would wipe that smile off her face. It only faltered for a moment. “He's not interested in that, and it scared him off. That's when things started getting weird, and he started closing off again. I didn't just fuck up being friends with him, I'm a little worried I fucked up his therapy, too.”

 

“There is no way that kissing him fucked everything up,” she scoffed, crossing her arms over her chest.

 

“He used to talk to me,” I shrugged. “All the time. And as far as I know he didn't really talk to anyone else. He used to hang out in the kitchen while I was working, and now he only bothers coming downstairs maybe half of the time I'm there. And when he does he's quiet and awkward.”

 

“Did you ever think that maybe it's because he likes you?” Madge raised an eyebrow. I all but rolled my eyes.

 

“His sister-in-law said they think of me and Mom like family,” I pointed out, hoping maybe that would end the entire debate.

 

“So he does like you,” she said, as if that somehow supported her stance instead of mine. “And when did you talk to Darla? She's my cousin, you know.”

 

“Really?” I asked. Madge nodded. “She was at the bakery on Monday, and she invited me and Peeta to dinner at her place.” A slow smile broke out over her face. “What?”

 

“She's setting you up on a date,” she said, practically brimming with excitement at the prospect.

 

“She wants me to meet her son,” I said.

 

“Bullshit,” Madge countered, grinning ear to ear. “She wants you to get with her husband's baby brother. When's the big date?”

 

“Tomorrow,” I said, slouching and looking away. I wasn't particularly looking forward to it. As awkward as things had been with Peeta and I, not to mention how awkward getting to know two new people would be, the night was looking like it would be just shy of torture. Madge pushed up off of the bed, walking over to her closet and pulling open the doors. She pushed a few hangers aside before pulling something down and tossing it at me.

 

“Wear that,” she said as I caught it. It was simple; brown, short sleeves, buttons down the front, tied at the waist. I'd seen Madge wear it a few times.

 

“I am not wearing a dress,” I stared at it, raising an eyebrow before looking up at her. I had worn a dress exactly one day per year since I turned twelve, and that was Reaping Day. Granted, I was looking forward to this only slightly more. “And for the record, it's not a date.”

 

“I'll say it again,” Madge grinned, digging out a pair of leggings and low heeled shoes, tossing those at me as well before straightening up. “Bull. Shit. You're going on a date. Dress like you are.” She turned around, folding her arms across her chest and straightening up, raising her chin like she was challenging me. I frowned, knowing I'd already lost that battle.  

Chapter Text

Darla had already laid out the plans. Katniss would stop here, she and I would walk over there, we'd have dinner, spend a little time if I was feeling up to it, and then Katniss would walk me home. Knowing the plan didn't help my anxiety. It took some serious convincing to get me to even go through with it at all.

 

Rye knew about my reluctance. Knew it better than Dad. He told me that kiss meant something, and that she wasn't making fun of me or trying to shut me up. I had a hard time believing him and an even harder time actually facing her. She noticed that, of course she did, and knowing that only made things worse.

 

Maybe this dinner thing could fix it. Maybe if I could manage to keep myself together, and not be as painfully awkward and quiet around her as I had been, I could at least get things back to where she wanted to be my friend. The only thing that could make going back to school in a month more nerve wracking was facing it alone.

 

I pulled on one of the few pairs of pants I owned that was free of holes and stains before searching through the dresser for a shirt. It was more to avoid the looks from Phyl than to impress her. It hadn't taken him long to start turning up his nose at the flour embedded in everything we wore. He acted as if the only thing that had gotten rid of that problem for him wasn't Darla systematically replacing all of his clothes. I found a sweater in one of the bottom drawers that seemed whole and clean, though I honestly wasn't sure whether it was mine or Rye's or something Phyl had left behind. I pulled it on, fixing the collar of the shirt I had on under it. I could hear Katniss' voice downstairs, bickering with Rye, and ran my fingers through my hair before pulling on my hat and steeling myself to head downstairs.

 

“Will you shut up?” Katniss snapped. I could hear her clearly as soon as I reached the top of the stairs. I braced one hand against the wall as I carefully made my way down. Even coupled with my grip on the banister it didn't keep me steady enough. I couldn't help but wonder if there would ever be a time I'd be able to get downstairs without feeling like I'd fall with every step.

 

“You're the only girl on the planet who would be offended by a compliment,” Rye scoffed. “You could stand to show a little more leg, though.”

 

“Dammit, Rye, shut your mouth,” Katniss turned away from him as I reached the bottom of the stairs, folding her arms over her chest. She was wearing a light brown dress with her hair pinned up away from her neck. She looked beautiful, but then again she always looked beautiful. This just made it a little more obvious. That had to have been what Rye was commenting on. I watched her snatch her coat from where it sat on one of the stools and shake it out before pulling it on. “Ready to go?” Her voice startled me, making me realize I'd been staring. I nodded, slipping into the mudroom for my own coat. I could hear the two of them continuing their little fight in a harsh whisper before she left the kitchen, huffing and shaking her head.

 

“Make sure you tell her how pretty she looks!” Rye called after the two of us. Katniss glared back toward the kitchen before slamming the door closed behind us. We followed the path packed down through the snow that led around the side of the building toward the square. Katniss walked close behind me, reaching out and catching my elbow when I faltered as we crossed a snowbank. Once we were clear I shoved my hands into my pockets, glancing over at her.

 

“He's r-right,” I said, dropping my gaze to the ground in front of my feet when she snapped her attention toward me. “You do look—p-pretty.”

 

“Shut up.” She backhanded my arm before hugging her arms around herself. I caught her smiling out of the corner of my eye, her cheeks flushing. Was that just from the cold or was that because of what I said? I led us to Phyl and Darla's, hesitating at the sight of the ice coating their steps. Someone had scratched into it for traction, but I knew that wasn't going to be enough to keep me from slipping. Katniss didn't even break stride, just hooked her arm through mine and led me up the steps. She was still holding onto my arm when Darla answered the door, and I wondered if she noticed the expression on Darla's face as we stepped into the house.

 

“I'm so glad you two came,” Darla smiled at us both.

 

“Thank you for the invitation,” Katniss said, slipping her coat off. Darla took it from her, tugging at the collar of mine lightly before turning to the coat rack.

 

“I'm impressed you actually wore one of those,” she said, raising an eyebrow at me as she hung up Katniss' coat. “Overheating or not, you'll catch your death without it this time of year.” She held her hand out as I slipped it from my shoulders, exchanging a look with Katniss. “I've been telling him that for weeks.”

 

“She means she's b-been—henpecking,” I said to Katniss as Darla snatched my coat from my hands, giving me a light shove toward the living room.

 

“Very funny. Have a seat, you two,” Darla said, following us into the living room and gesturing toward the couch. “Little Twain is keeping his daddy company in the kitchen.”

 

“Phyl is in the k-kitchen?” I asked, lowering myself onto the couch. Katniss sat down beside me, leaving at least a foot of space between us. Darla laughed softly at the look on my face. Cooking had never been one of Phyl's strengths. Baking, yes, but not cooking.

 

“He's learning,” she said, leaning to one side to peer through the kitchen door to look in on him. She raised her voice for him to hear. “And I certainly hope whatever he's preparing in there is a far sight better than his manners tonight.”

 

“I can hear you just fine,” Phyl called back. He appeared in the doorway a moment later, wiping his hands with a towel. “Hello, Katniss. And it's good to finally have you over here again, Peet.” He smiled at us both for a moment before Little Twain gurgled happily from the kitchen, drawing his attention away from us. Phyl threw himself head over heels into fatherhood from the minute Twain was born, and I was glad to see that hadn't changed a bit. I had been afraid that parenthood would be another area where he'd take after Mom rather than Dad.

 

Darla kept Katniss talking, turning the conversation toward me enough to keep me from feeling too left out. I was, truthfully, just trying to keep my head together. The only place I had been besides the bakery was the Everdeen's up to that point. Even though the townhouse was familiar, the accident had made it so I only felt comfortable in those two places. It was as if the ghost of the old me haunted everywhere else, reminding me that I'm different, and making me feel unwelcome and ill-at-ease.

 

The two of them talked about the bakery, with Phyl stepping into the doorway to add a comment now and then, drawing me into the conversation every time. I wondered if he was aware of how patronizing the tone he used with me was, or if those looks he kept giving me were even on purpose. He and Gale would get along great. Katniss seemed to pick up on it. I caught her looking between Phyl and I at one point, an odd expression on her face that I couldn't quite read.

 

“Are you still hunting?” Darla asked as we sat down to dinner. Phyl let out a disgusted sigh and rolled his eyes. Katniss shot him a look that made me wonder if sitting between the two of them for this entire meal would be safe. “I can't imagine it's very good this time of year.”

 

“It's really not,” she conceded, shrugging a bit. “I still go out every morning, though.”

 

“I don't exactly think that's an appropriate conversation,” Phyl said, giving Darla a pointed look as she served each of us—pasta, something mercifully easy on me. I still didn't quite have the strength in my grip to handle even a dinner knife.

 

“Is that so?” Darla raised an eyebrow, not quite clarifying whether she was speaking to Phyl or Katniss. That was on purpose, I knew, and she caught the smile I was trying to hide behind my hand and winked at me.

 

“I just don't think blatant disregard for the laws we're all required to follow is exactly-”

 

“Then how do you think I should keep my family fed?” Katniss cut Phyl off, her voice even and calm. Her jaw was clenched, though, and her hands balled into fists in her lap.

 

“You and your mother both have jobs,” Phyl pointed out. “Thanks to my father.”

 

“Phyl,” Darla snapped quietly, frowning at him. Katniss closed her eyes for a moment and took a breath before turning to him again.

 

“We do this year,” she said, and I could hear the tension in her tone. I wanted to reach over and touch her hand and try to calm her, but I couldn't quite bring myself to do it. My hand came to rest on the edge of my chair instead. “This time last year if I came home empty-handed—as I did this morning—we would be left boiling tree bark.”

 

“Which is why tessera is an option,” Phyl said. Katniss laughed; a short, mean bark.

 

“Grain and oil,” she said. “Does that sound like a good meal to you?”

 

“Even your c-cooking is better than—that,” I managed, grateful I was able to squeeze out the joke with minimal stuttering. Darla laughed quietly and slapped Phyl's arm lightly.

 

“Maybe if more of us followed your father's example no one would have to struggle the way the Everdeens have,” she said, giving him a look that I knew would shut him up. He sighed as she turned away from her own meal to feed Little Twain, who seemed entirely too preoccupied by the bits of cut up noodle covering his highchair tray to pay any attention to what an asshole his father was being.

 

Conversation took a lighter turn after that, thankfully. Once we'd finished eating Darla all but threw Little Twain into Katniss' arms before she even had a chance to protest. It only took one toothless, gurgling smile out of him to get her laughing and wipe the fear off her face. I watched her with him, holding out her hand for him to slap as she listened with rapt attention to Darla's stories about his antics. The two of them got along a little too well, leaving Phyl and I to our own devices. I could tell he was skirting the one thing he actually wanted to talk about, and I really didn't want him to. Avoiding it was starting to get even more painful.

 

Phyl had always been close to Mom. He was old enough to remember how she was before everything went downhill for our parents. He was also mostly spared her anger. I could only remember seeing Phyl take a blow from her once. She hardly even raised her voice with him. That she saved for me and Rye, though I seemed to get a hell of a lot more of it. I still wondered what I did wrong that made her dislike me more than either of them.

 

“G-go on,” I finally said, waving my hand vaguely and slumping back in my chair. Katniss and Darla had cleared the dishes from the table and were standing by the sink. Phyl shifted his son in his lap, frowning at me. “Just—say whatever it is.”

 

“Mom asked about you,” he said quietly. Not so quietly Katniss didn't hear. Her head snapped around so fast I swear I heard her neck crack. I gave her what I hoped was a reassuring smile, however brief it was.

 

“Wh-what did you—s-say,” I turned back to him, reaching out and grabbing Little Twain's foot. He stopped fidgeting and stared, as if he hadn't realized the appendage even existed until I'd brought his attention to it.

 

“The truth,” he said, his voice sad and serious. I could feel him watching me, and I focused on the baby, trying to hide how uncomfortable everything about the conversation made me. “That she changed you forever. Ruined your life.”

 

I looked up at him, letting go of Twain's foot. My hand shot to the back of my head, my fingers working up under the edge of my hat before I even realized what I was doing. I couldn't believe he'd actually say something like that to her, and I couldn't figure out how I felt about someone else saying that for me. I'd thought it, plenty of times, and that exact phrase—she ruined my life—had come to me in every emotional form it could possibly take. But no one else had ever said that out loud around me. Changed my life, yes. But not ruined. I felt a little indignant, as if he'd decided I would never have anything good again. And there were times I thought I wouldn't. I thought that more often than I thought things would get better, to be honest. But having someone else decide it for me felt wrong.

 

“Peeta?” I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up into Katniss' face. She slid her hand across my upper back. “Are you okay?”

 

“Yeah,” I said, looking down at my hands, suddenly aware of the tears on my face. I brushed my fingers over my cheeks and fought against the embarrassment threatening to drag a hot blush into my features.

 

“We can go, if you want,” she said softly, sitting down next to me. She wiped her thumb under my eye gently, her palm resting against my cheek for the briefest moment before she snapped her hand away. A faint blush crept into her face and she dropped her eyes to her lap.

 

“I'm sorry, Peet,” Phyl bit down on his lip and looked away. “I shouldn't have... I'm sorry.”

 

“D-don't,” I looked at him, wincing softly when that stupid twitch jerked my chin to the side. “It's not like sh-she j-j-just—goes away. I c-can't pretend—that she d-did.” I turned my attention to Little Twain, still mesmerized by his foot. He'd yanked his sock off and was curling his fingers around his toes, brow furrowed in concentration.

 

“She's a bitch,” Phyl snapped after a moment. All three of us stared at him, the room filling with a tense silence. He looked over at Darla, taking a hesitant breath before turning back to me. “I know you think I'm... 'wedged up her ass', as Rye has so eloquently phrased it, but this...” He trailed off, shaking his head. I didn't want to speak, afraid breaking the silence would somehow ruin this. Fifteen years and I hadn't so much as heard a whisper of Phyl ever speaking against Mom. “She fucked you up, Peeta. She could have killed you. Or Rye. Or-” He cut himself off, curling his arm around his son and brushing a kiss over Little Twain's wispy blonde hair. It wasn't himself he was going to list next. “Don't really know why I still speak to her,” he muttered, pushing up from the table and carrying Twain into the next room. Darla watched him, her knuckles pressed to her mouth, and took a slow, deep breath before turning and flashing us a sad smile.

 

“You're both welcome to stay,” she said, her voice shaking. “But I can pack up some dessert for you to take with you, if you like. For Prim, too.” She bit down hard on the inside of her lip, and I looked over at Katniss, hoping she'd make the decision for us. I wasn't sure I could actually make myself form any words if I wanted to, and even if I could, my mind was filled with too many thoughts to choose what we should do.

 

“Thank you,” Katniss said. “I think we should get going.” She looked over at me, rubbing her hand over my back. It felt good—reassuring—and that made me resent what Phyl had said about my life being ruined even more. I might not be normal, or whatever kind of normal I was going to be, but I had something good.

 

Katniss and I waited in the living room as Darla disappeared into the kitchen. She pulled our jackets down, passing mine to me before pulling on her own. She looked me over for a moment, a faint, sad smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. After a moment she stepped closer, straightening out the collar of my coat and letting her hands rest on my shoulders.

 

“You okay?” she asked. Her voice was gentle and quiet. She brushed a lock of hair away from my forehead, her fingers combing through the hair above my ear. I nodded, trying to ignore the shivers her touch and her voice sent rippling down my back. Katniss smiled at me, her fingers ghosting over my neck and down my arm as she stepped away. I took a deep breath and blew it out slowly, willing the less than appropriate feelings she'd ignited in me to subside.

 

Phyl had gone upstairs, and didn't bother coming down to say goodbye. It was just as well. I wasn't sure I could handle trying to talk to him again. I could feel the muscles in my neck and along my jaw tightening, threatening to seize and start twitching again beyond what I could control, and I just wanted to get out of there. Darla saw us to the door, passing Katniss a covered dish full of some sort of cake I didn't have the stomach to even look at. I focused on the walk, eyes trained to the ground, carefully choosing my footing around patches of ice and trying to sort out my thoughts. The cold air relaxed the buildup of tension in my neck.

 

“So, your nephew is pretty cute,” Katniss said, glancing over at me. She was trying to break the silence.

 

“Yeah,” I smirked. My pace was agonizingly slow, and she kept right beside me, hands in her pockets, easily matching my stride.

 

“Happy little guy, too,” she said. My footing grew shaky, and she redirected herself to walk closer to my side. “I don't know how they do it, though.”

 

“What d-do you mean?” I set my hand on her arm for a moment to steady myself.

 

“Have a baby,” she said with a shrug. “On purpose.”

 

“What?” I looked up at her, a smile tugging at the corner of my mouth, expecting that to be a joke. The look on her face quieted me. Her eyes were down, brow furrowed in concentration. “You—you don't want k-kids?”

 

“No,” she said, her eyes widening briefly.

 

“Ever?” We reached a stretch of cobblestone free of ice, and I took the opportunity to look over at her. She looked at me like I'd asked the stupidest question she'd ever heard.

 

“Of course not,” she said. She sighed and gestured vaguely. “Why would I bring someone into this?”

 

“Wh-what do you m-mean?”

 

“Poor and hungry all the time? Shivering through winters with your neighbors because there isn't enough to burn to keep warm? People dying around you all the time?” Katniss paused, chewing on her lip. “And the Reaping. That... It's Prim's first this year. It's five months away and I'm already having nightmares.”

 

“I th-thought things were—getting better,” I said quietly, looking down at the ground. She wasn't as skinny as she had been. Prim had looked healthier in my recent visits than she ever had. How bad was it out there for them that those weren't signs of improvement?

 

“They are, but that doesn't mean they always will be,” she shrugged. “It's pretty bleak in the Seam, Peeta. Even if I had the patience for them, I couldn't force that on my kids.”

 

“I think it's d-different—when they're your own. And is-isn't that the point, t-though?” I asked. “To give them—better? Have some hope instead of g-giving up?”

 

“Wouldn't stop the Reaping,” she said softly, hooking her arm around mine before I even realized my step was faltering. I leaned against her and she paused to give me a moment to regain my balance.

 

“There's—a lot of n-names in those bowls,” I said, matching her tone.

 

“You'd risk it?” Katniss looked at me in confusion before we started to walk again.

 

“Yeah,” I shrugged. “I always, um, wanted to be like my Dad. Run the b-bakery. Fill it with kids.” I bit down hard on the inside of my lip. “Hopefully with a b-better wife. I w-wanted my kids to have a Mom who—loves them. And th-the world might—change. Maybe not in our lifetime b-but don't you w-want a piece of yourself here when it d-does?” Katniss frowned, but didn't say anything. “Phyl only g-got the job he did because the last—g-guy was thrown in j-jail for p-p-publicly questioning funding for t-the orphanage. If he—screws up, he won't g-get fired, he'll be g-gone. But it means D-Darla can be at home. It means L-LT gets wh-what we couldn't. A mother who l-loves him and is always—there.”

 

“Better than what you guys had,” she said, her voice quiet and thoughtful. “I never thought of it that way.” She would be a good mother. It was all too obvious in how she cared for Prim. She'd be the sort of mother I'd want for my children; protective, warm, and kind. Tough but not cruel. The fact that she'd refuse to even entertain the idea of ever having kids saddened me. I'd never have them, not now. Not with how clear Dr. Lawrence made it in my last visit that more of what I struggled with was permanent than not. And I'd certainly never be able to run the bakery myself. Maybe Mom did ruin my life. She ruined the one that I'd wanted, at least.

 

My chances at what I'd imagined for my future may have been gone, but I did still have one. Everyone kept reminding me I came very close to losing that as well. My future may not have been what I used to dream, but I still had a present. I glanced over at Katniss. I did have something good right now, something I wouldn't have had before. When would I have ever worked up the courage to talk to her? In ten years of walking through the same halls at school and sitting in the same classrooms I hadn't found it. I didn't find it when she turned up at my own back door to trade, first with her father, then with Gale, sometimes on her own. In a way, Mom had brought her into my life. That was a sick little piece of irony; that the one person she'd never, ever want me near was now the only person I enjoyed any significant time with. The fact that Phyl couldn't see any of that just proved how much like her he really was.

 

“I was completely prepared to hate Phyl the minute we sat down to eat, you know,” Katniss said as we neared the bakery. Her train of thought seemed to be on the same track as mine. “I did, actually, hate him for most of that meal.” I glanced over at her. “Until the end, anyway. I think he could have been a little... I don't know. Do you think your life is ruined?” I shrugged, but I could still feel her eyes on me. She was waiting for a real answer.

 

“S-sometimes I th-think that.” I chewed hard on my lip, bracing my hand against the wall as we passed down the alley. I stumbled at the corner and Katniss grabbed my arm, saving me from falling into the snow. “T-times like—now.” I frowned, staring down at the packed snow, slick with a layer of ice that had formed as the night chilled. I'd need her help just to get to the porch steps, not ten feet away, and I hated it.

 

“'Ruined' just seems a little harsh,” she said, hooking her arm through mine without hesitation and carefully picking her way toward the stairs. I let her take the lead, wondering if she had any idea how much harder all of this would be if I had to actually ask for help. I couldn't figure out if she was even conscious of what she was doing when she stepped up to help without prompting. When we reached the porch I stopped, taking hold of her arm as she reached for the door. She turned to me with a questioning look on her face. “You okay?”

 

“Yeah, um-” I hesitated, letting my hand slide down her arm and weaving our fingers together. I did have something good. I closed the space between us and hesitated a moment, squeezing her hand in mine and raising the other to slip around her waist. Before I lost my nerve completely I leaned in to kiss her. In the same moment our lips met the door beside us opened.

 

“Oh! Um, I'm- uh. I'm sorry,” Delly stammered, her eyes going wide. Katniss jumped back, staring at Delly. I bit my lip and looked away. I couldn't stand the smile I could see forming on Delly's lips. She could barely contain herself. “I didn't mean to, um, interrupt anything. Should I just-”

 

“What did you interrupt?” Rye leaned out of the doorway as Delly awkwardly gestured behind herself. Katniss pulled her hand away from mine and I tried to wish the two of us—or maybe the two of them—off this damn porch. “Oh.”

 

“I'm gonna go,” Katniss said, Rye all but leering at the two of us. “I'll stop by in a couple of days.” She touched my arm lightly before turning to go, and was around the corner and out of sight before I could even figure out how to ask her to stay. I turned back to the two of them. Delly at least had the decency to look guilty, but Rye was still grinning at me like an idiot. I pushed past them, shoving Rye against the wall with more strength than I realized I still had, and went straight upstairs, pulling myself up by the banister. I could hear Delly chewing him out, trying to be quiet about it and failing miserably. I moved down the hall carefully, realizing once I was in the bedroom I hadn't even bothered to take off my coat. I shrugged it to the floor, sat down to pull off my shoes, and curled up in bed facing the wall.

 

I heard Rye's heavy footsteps on the stairs a few minutes later and mapped his path down the hall. He stopped in the doorway, sighed heavily, and paused before continuing to his side of the room. The mattress creaked as he sat down on his bed, and the room stayed silent. I wished I had it in me to cuss him out like I would have if that scenario had taken place months ago. If it had, I wouldn't have just let Katniss walk away. I could have persuaded her to stay, or at least walked her home and tried that kiss again.

 

“I'm sorry Delly fucked that up,” he finally said. I stared at the wall. She wasn't the only one who fucked it up. He had a decent hand in it, too. “If I had known you guys were going to be back so early I'd have... I don't know. Kept her inside. At least paid attention so she didn't walk into that. I didn't know you were out there.”

 

“Just—stop,” I said, rubbing my hand over my forehead and pulling off my hat. The muscles in my neck seized, jerking my chin to the side painfully. My jaw tensed even further as the twitching worked its way up into my cheek and brow. Sometimes I could rub it away; tonight I couldn't seem to.

 

“I just don't want to fuck this up for you, Peet,” Rye said quietly. I turned onto my back and looked over at him, working my fingers into the muscles down the side of my neck, trying to loosen them. He flicked his eyes up at me before looking back down at his hands. “This is your chance, you know?”

 

“I d-don't have much of a ch-chance.” I dropped my hand to my side, staring up at the crack in the ceiling.

 

“Peet, she likes you. You're perfect for her, and she fucking knows it,” he said. I gave him a look before resuming my staring. “She got all dolled up for your little date. I was expecting her to turn up in her grubby ass hunting clothes. Those beat to hell boots and that disgusting fucking jacket.”

 

“That j-jacket was her d-dad's,” I pointed out. She'd hit him if she heard a comment like that.

 

“See? Who the hell else would know that kind of crap about her?” he said.

 

“Gale,” I squeezed out, my jaw tensing again.

 

“Hawthorne has been sticking it in the mayor's daughter for a year,” Rye half chuckled, and I couldn't tell if he was mocking the fact that I didn't trust that as truth, or if he was just amused by his own phrasing. Silence fell between us, and he shifted, pushing himself to sit with his back to the wall. “You should show her that sketchbook in your desk in the basement.”

 

“No,” I frowned, thinking about the book I had down there and the drawing I'd torn from the sketchbook she looked through as soon as I heard her on the stairs. I'd drawn her too, of course. The way she looked when she turned up to trade; her braid loose and wispy, the collar of that too-big coat draped loosely around her shoulders. The smile that softened her features when she brought a particularly good haul to the back door.

 

“Girls eat that shit up, Peet,” Rye raised an eyebrow. “Draw any fucking girl in this District, and you'd be waist deep in pussy if you flashed those around. Even Delly has one framed on her fucking wall.”

 

“D-don't be vile,” I lifted my head to scratch at the scar, looking away from him. He went quiet. Something like that used to earn some snide jeer in response. I'd prefer that to the silence. I rolled over again to face the wall.

 

“Hey,” he said, and I turned my head just enough for him to know I was listening. “Do you trust me?”

 

“No,” I scoffed, laying my head back down against the pillow. He snorted and chuckled quietly.

 

“That was a stupid fucking question, wasn't it?” he said. “Will you just listen, then?”

 

“What?”

 

“Try again,” Rye said. I heard the mattress springs creak as he shifted and got up. “With Katniss. Kissing her or whatever. Just. Try it again.”

 

“Maybe.” I just wanted the conversation to be over. Rye hesitated for a moment before leaving the room. I closed my eyes, hoping that I might be able to get past the tension that had slowly built up in every damn muscle in my body and get some sleep. Nothing that Mrs. Everdeen had tried to teach me worked, and I was still awake when Rye returned. I stayed as still as I could, hoping he'd accept the ruse and just get in bed without saying anything. Before he got in bed he pushed the window open, and a smile twitched across my lips at the gesture.

 

I spent the next day in bed. Katniss wasn't going to be there, I didn't have to see her mother, and I just wanted to try to sleep. There had been too much going on in my head, too much tension in me, and I laid wide awake through the night, listening to Rye snore. The day didn't do much to change that, though. I drifted here and there, but couldn't manage any real sleep. I got up to pick at a meal Dad put together, mostly to keep him from feeling as though the effort was wasted. My appetite was still shaky at best. I finally nodded off as it got dark, only to be woken by Rye going to bed, and dozed fitfully until sunup.

 

The snow saved me from trips to the Seam. It was too difficult to get out there. Even if I could walk that far, I wouldn't be able to maintain my balance in the snow. The light bouncing off of it was blinding to me, as well. That just meant Mrs. Everdeen made more trips to the bakery. The work she brought with her for me—she could call them games all she wanted, they were work—seemed to be getting impossibly difficult, and somehow concentrating at home was even harder than at the Everdeen's. My mind wandered, and I spent as much time looking over her shoulder and down the hall toward the bedroom as I did doing anything else. More, sometimes. Especially now.

 

The exercise she'd picked out of the workbook today was a special kind of torture. Reading aloud. The essay was dry and awkwardly worded. It was full of facts and figures, as well as names and complicated words I'd have struggled to pronounce before the injury. After I finished reading, she gave me a few minutes to look over the page before starting her questions about what I'd read, but the words were swimming. I couldn't get my eyes to focus. I stumbled through everything she asked, taking what felt like random guesses and somehow managing to answer more questions correctly than usual.

 

“You've come a long way, you know,” Mrs. Everdeen said, smiling and tucking the workbook back into her bag. “You probably don't even realize it.”

 

“Because I'm not,” I sighed, running my hand through my hair. My mind felt fogged up after that, and I knew she had been planning on doing more. I just didn't have it in me.

 

“Not a single stutter or pause in that sentence,” she pointed out, reaching for her notebook on the table between us and pulling it into her lap. “After something that strenuous? That's impressive.”

 

I pressed my lips together, knowing that if I spoke I'd do both of the things she just pointed out. The sounds from the bakery drifted up the stairs; customers out in the storefront and Katniss and Rye bickering in the back. I hadn't seen her since she stormed off of the porch, and I knew she would be up the stairs as soon as her mother went down. I wasn't prepared for her, and I was pretty sure anything I tried saying to her would be full of fucking stutters and pauses.

 

“Peeta?” Mrs. Everdeen said quietly, drawing my attention back to her. “What's on your mind?”

 

“I d-don't know,” I looked down at the table and picked at the edge. I certainly wasn't going to tell her it was her daughter.

 

“Did you enjoy going to dinner at your brother's?” she asked. I wondered if I could manage to talk about it without getting to what happened afterward.

 

“As- as much as I could,” I shifted, leaning forward to rest my elbows on the table. Mrs. Everdeen just raised her eyebrows, and I knew if I didn't elaborate on that a string of questions that would force me to was about to follow. It took me a moment to gather the words together. “They're th-the same. Their house is the same. Their lives are the same—their p-personalities are the s-same. And I'm n-not. That's the f-first place I've gone. D-doesn't really make me want to go—anywhere else.”

 

“Because of this new way you have to learn to interact with what's around you?” She phrased it as a statement as much as a question.

 

“Yeah.” I watched her make notes. Her handwriting was consistent and clean, and if I could have gotten my eyes to cooperate I probably could have read it from where I was sitting. The fact that I couldn't felt a little cruel. What did she write that filled up those pages?

 

“You can't let things like that keep you at home,” she said, setting down her pen and leaning back in her chair. “The longer you keep yourself out of the world the harder it will be to reenter it.” I just dropped my eyes to the table, wondering what the point in reentering would be. I was still being shielded from it. Aside from the comment from Phyl, I hadn't heard a word about my mother since Katniss ran into her, and I knew that there had to have been talk. Dad ushered me upstairs before the evening rush to save me from overhearing things. And somehow I was expected to go back to school in a few short weeks.

 

Mrs. Everdeen sighed softly, turning to a fresh page in her notebook and picking up her pen again. She moved on to the exhaustive list of medical questions. There were different sets of them that she rotated through, and the answers fell out of me automatically. Even some of the things that used to embarrass me barely made me flinch anymore. Some, anyway.

 

After I'd recovered from the barrage of questioning, I made my way downstairs. Dad and Mrs. Everdeen had left, mercifully keeping Rye out front while Katniss worked in the kitchen. I sat down at the table, my heart hammering every time she passed by me. Our conversation was stilted, and I could barely stop thinking about the other night long enough to really speak to her at all. I want to go back to that moment and fix it, do it over and do it right this time. I wanted the time to actually enjoy how good her lips felt on mine, a chance to put my arms around her, and every time she moved close to me that was all I could think of.

 

“When d-did you start making those?” I asked as Katniss pulled a tray of danishes from the oven and set it on the table to cool. They're not exactly easy to make, and the delicate folds of the crust looked almost perfect.

 

“Your dad taught me,” she said, a small smile on her face as she brushed a layer of sugared glaze over them while they were still hot enough to melt it. “These are, um, a lot more successful than my first batch.”

 

“Doesn't take much to be more successful than they were,” Rye chimed in from the doorway. “I don't think the pigs were particularly grateful for them, either.”

 

“Fuck you,” Katniss snapped. That had become her automatic response to just about anything he had to say to her, it seemed. He grinned, pushing himself away from the door frame and crossing the kitchen to examine the trays. I watched Rye closely, wondering why he was so dead set on pissing her off when everything else he had to say about wanting this to work out for me. The sentiment must have shown in my expression. When he glanced toward me before looking down at them his grin faltered.

 

“These actually look pretty damn good,” he said, wiping a stray glob of glaze from the edge of the tray and sucking it off of his fingertip. He was being sincere, and Katniss clearly didn't trust it. She narrowed her eyes at him, pulling a second tray from another oven and setting it down beside the first. He pointed at a cheese danish with a little too much filling in the center of the second tray. “Dibs on that when they cool.”

 

“Who said you could have any of them?” Katniss slapped his hand away before dropping the oven mitts on the counter and moving to stand next to me.

 

“My name is painted on the front of the building. I'll eat what I want,” Rye scoffed. I looked over at Katniss, tuning him out and just watching her. She was just a few inches away, as close as she'd been when I kissed her, though then we were facing each other. I watched the curl in her lip and the shift of her shoulders as she leaned forward to hiss something at Rye, jerking back and crossing her arms over her chest at his response. I looked down at the curve of her hip where it rested against the table and at the sliver of exposed skin above the waist of her paints where the soft cotton of her shirt had ridden up. I wanted to touch her, and had to pull my eyes away from her and smother the impulse. A moment later I felt her hand slide across my shoulders.

 

“And, by the way,” she said, still glaring at Rye. “Your girlfriend is a pain in the ass. Keep her away from me.”

 

“I really am sorry about that,” Rye said, the smarmy overtone falling out of his voice. Katniss' hand stopped moving, her face going blank. “Seriously. I didn't think you guys would be back so soon. I was actually kind of trying to make sure she was gone before you got home.” He shrugged, sighing and heading back to the storefront before Katniss could respond, the bell ringing as a customer opened the front door. Katniss' jaw tightened for a moment and she glanced down at me, her hand sliding down my back before she pulled away. I wanted the contact back. I wanted to say something, but she seemed as dead set on refusing to acknowledge the kiss as I was. I wish I knew what her reasons were and if they were anything like mine. Fear of ruining whatever could happen. Mostly I wished she would be the one to break that forced silence, because I knew I didn't have it in me to be the one to do it.

 

As soon as the danishes were cooled Rye snatched the one he'd been eying. Katniss caught my eye and pointed toward the tray, gesturing for me to take one. After I took one from the side she lifted the other tray to bring the rest to the cases out front, leaving Rye and I sitting at the worktable to eat.

 

“She might be turning out to be useful after all,” he said, chuckling when she paused to flip him off before disappearing through the doorway. He returned the gesture a moment too late, she was already gone. “These are actually really good.” I took a bite from my own, immediately wondering if he'd lost his damn mind. It was dry to the point that if it weren't for the heavy coating of glaze it would be inedible, and there was an odd taste to it that I couldn't quite place. The apple preserves it was filled with were gelatinous and thick. My sense of taste had been somehow altered by the injury. Nothing quite tasted the same anymore, and I had found things that I used to love that I could barely stomach. These danishes, though, were something I'd had since then, and they hadn't changed much. I tore it apart, frowning to myself and trying to figure out the problem.

 

“Good?” Katniss came back into the kitchen and set the empty tray into the sink, raising her eyebrows and looking at me, ignoring Rye's enthusiastic nod. I smiled around the mouthful I had, nodding quickly and hoping she couldn't tell I was lying. I forced it down and tore off another piece, finally catching sight of the bottom. Overdone was a polite way to put it; the bottom was nearly black. I glanced down at the empty spot at the corner of the tray where I'd gotten it from and tried to remember which oven she'd pulled the tray from. One had a hot spot, some quirk of whatever had been used to repair a crack in the stone that made a small portion of the bottom far hotter than the rest of it.

 

“Hang on,” I set my hand on the tray as Katniss reached for it, pulling it closer to me. The three pastries that sat around it had the same discoloring at the bottom edges closer to the corner, and I smirked to myself before pulling them from the tray.

 

“What did I do?” Katniss asked, frowning as she watched. I flipped the four pastries over, showing her the discolored crust on the bottom. Rye laughed, and Katniss jabbed her finger at him. “You lied! I fucked them up again.”

 

“N-no,” I laughed, shaking my head and tearing off a piece of one of the pastries that wasn't completely destroyed. “That oven—it has a hot sp-spot. Just these ones are fucked up. And it's n-not your fault.” I took a bite of the piece I'd torn off. Rye was right, they were good.

 

“I am not a liar,” Rye pointed at her before sucking the last of the glaze off of his fingers. “Especially when it comes to food.”

 

“You're still a dick,” she said, picking up the tray and carrying it out front.

 

“Never denied that one,” he called after her. He watched the doorway for a moment, the smile dropping from his face, then leaned toward me, lowering his voice to a harsh whisper. “Are you going to make a move or what?”

 

“What?” I looked at him, pushing the ruined danishes away from me.

 

“Talk to her, touch her, return the fucking affection she's giving you. Do something,” he backhanded my arm. “Shit, Peet, the work is done for a while, take her down to the basement. Show her those drawings. Get in her fucking pants.”

 

“Shut up,” I squeezed out through my teeth, looking over my shoulder as I heard the case slide closed out front. Katniss returned a moment later. When she walked past me to the sink my gaze lingered on the doorway to the basement. When Mom was still here, it had been the one place in the house she hardly set foot in and the one place in the house any of the rest of us could truly have any sort of privacy. It was a repository for junk more than anything else, but my desk was down there, along the majority of my art supplies. Rye's workbench and woodworking tools were there as well, which as far as I know hadn't been touched since he started sneaking Delly down there. I'm sure Phyl and Darla had spent their share of time there before he moved out. Even if I could make it down those rickety wooden stairs, and even if I had that kind of privacy with Katniss, what the hell would I do? It would be even more awkward than being up here with Rye as an audience. He got up from his stool, catching my eye to make sure I saw him mime slapping her ass as she leaned over the sink to clean the empty trays. I just glared at him as he snickered and retreated to the storefront.  

Chapter Text

 “Peet, it's been two weeks since you left the house,” Dad said, frowning at me from the doorway. “Please go out and do something.” The weather had made my trips to the Seam impossible. If it wasn't actually snowing, the temperature plummeted so low the ground was a solid sheet of ice.

 

“D-do what?” I sat up in bed, turning to lean my back against the wall. Dad sighed. I did have him there. Where would I go? How the hell would I even get there? I certainly didn't have anyone to go spend time with. Delly, maybe, but that would just be weird. There was no one else in town I'd even entertain the idea of tolerating.

 

“Just-” Dad shrugged, pulling one of his hands out of his pocket and running it through his hair. He took a deep breath before shaking his head. “Come downstairs, at least. Katniss is here.” He slapped his hand against the edge of the door frame and moved down the hall. I heard his footsteps on the stairs a moment later.

 

There had been a vague sense of normal that had returned between Katniss and I, though it seemed affection wasn't as easy. She still sometimes jerked away when she caught herself touching me, and I couldn't even bring myself to initiate anything. Not that I ever had before. We could at least speak to each other, though, and that was a definite improvement. I eased myself off of the bed, toeing through the clothes on the floor to find the least wrinkled shirt I could. After I dressed I made my way downstairs, taking my seat at the table and watching Katniss as she moved around the kitchen.

 

“Alright shit stains,” Rye announced, pulling his apron off to hang it by the door. “I'm going out.”

 

“No you're not,” Dad said, stepping into the kitchen. He pointed to a white box sitting on the counter. “Katniss, I'd like you to deliver that for me.”

 

“Um, okay,” Katniss raised an eyebrow. So far as I knew she hadn't yet been out on any deliveries.

 

“Peeta will help you,” he said, lifting his chin slightly when he looked over at me.

 

“I will?” I asked, and he just gave me a look. He was dead set on getting me out of the house and fighting it was futile. “I w-will.”

 

“Seriously? Dell's waiting for me,” Rye frowned, looking over at Katniss and I before turning back to dad.

 

“And she can keep waiting until they get back,” he said, turning back toward the storefront. He pointed toward the box again before moving out of sight. “Get moving.”

 

“Feeling up to it?” Katniss turned toward me, pulling her apron off and balling it up before throwing it at Rye. It unfurled midair and landed across his chest. He just rolled his eyes and pulled it away.

 

“This trip isn't—optional,” I said quietly, shaking my head and pushing to my feet to cross the kitchen toward the box, picking up the slip on top of it. It was going to the Boothes, the family who owned the hardware store on the other end of the square. They were one of the few families that didn't actually live above their business, instead renting out the space over the store. They occupied a small house behind it. Katniss brought me my coat, smiling at me when I took it before pulling on her own.

 

“We'll make it quick,” she said, pulling her braid out of her collar.

 

“Please fucking do, I have better things to do than hang around this fucking kitchen all day,” Rye snapped. Katniss all but rolled her eyes.

 

“On second thought, let's take our time.” She gave me a look, lifting the box from the counter and leading the way outside. I held onto her arm as we worked our way down the back steps, around the side of the bakery, and out to the square. The sun had melted the snow just enough to give some traction as my feet sank into it, but it still took all of my concentration to keep from slipping. I quickly pointed out where we were going before turning my attention back to my footing.

 

We left the square and moved past the shops to the row of houses behind it, mostly occupied by teachers and a few of the District officials. The ground was uneven and only a narrow path had been cleared of snow. I set my hand on Katniss' arm, hoping it just looked as though I was guiding her to the right house, not like I was trying desperately to keep myself on my feet.

 

“I seriously never would have found that if you hadn't come with me,” she said after we got back to the square, and I could stop spending so much of my energy focusing on my footing. I chuckled quietly, glancing across the square toward the bakery. Katniss paused, looking over her shoulder toward the sweet shop. I stopped to look back at her, and she just smiled at me. “Want to make Rye miserable?”

 

“Of c-course,” I smirked.

 

“Then let's make him wait for his stupid little date,” she nodded toward the shop, leading me in. Darla's family owned it, though it had been a long time since she'd made regular appearances behind the counter. One of her sisters smiled and waved at us as we walked in. I returned it, trying to remember her name and drawing a complete blank. I followed Katniss to the counter in the back where they served soda and malts in the summer and hot cider and tea in the winter. She ordered a couple of cups of cider for us as we sat down, and it took me a moment to realize it was Darla's older sister serving us. I couldn't remember her name either.

 

“Ethel, don't be rude!” The younger of the two girls bounded down one of the short aisles and launched herself to sit on the counter beside me. At the mention of the name the rest of the details flooded in. The one currently scooping half the whipped cream off of my mug with her finger was Virginia, went by Ginny, just finished school last spring, and was the only member of the Donner clan I actually liked aside from Darla herself. Ethel was a year older than Darla, perpetually gloomy, and had very little to say to anyone. Ever. “Just slipping that mug in front of him like he's not family. What's wrong with you?”

 

“Hi, Peeta,” Ethel rolled her eyes, turning away from the counter when Ginny leaned back to slap her arm.

 

“I haven't seen you since Little Twain was born,” Ginny smirked, turning her attention back to me as Ethel disappeared to the other end of the store. “Missed you, kid. Is this Katniss? I've heard a lot about you, you know.”

 

“You have?” Katniss raised an eyebrow, scooping a bit of whipped cream from the top of her mug and sucking her finger clean. I watched her lips purse against her skin and took a slow, even breath, trying not to let my imagination run away from me. She glanced over at me, pleading for a little help.

 

“I'm sorry,” Ginny let out a high, brief laugh before leaning over me and holding out her hand. “I'm Ginny, Darla's baby sister. She is absolutely taken with you and wouldn't stop talking about how great you are the last time she came by.” Katniss hesitantly accepted Ginny's hand, shaking it lightly and looking over at me as Ginny let her go.

 

“Darla's... very sweet,” Katniss said hesitantly.

 

“She's new to us, isn't she,” Ginny said to me. I laughed and nodded, reaching over and touching Katniss' knee before I actually realized what I was doing and pulled my hand back. “So, um. How are things?” Ginny's voice softened, her expression adopting a level of concern I was too used to seeing. It didn't feel as patronizing from her, just as it didn't from Darla.

 

“They're, um—better.” I smiled as best I could, and for once I wasn't lying. Things weren't exactly great, but they were getting better.

 

“Good,” Ginny looked up as the front door opened and slid down off of the counter. “Don't be such a stranger. I know it's not easy to get out, but we miss you.” She kissed my cheek before walking away, and I wondered who the hell the 'we' she was referring to was. It certainly wasn't Ethel. I could count on one hand the number of complete sentences I'd heard out of her. Maybe Darla. I really didn't see her as often as I used to. Or maybe she was just being polite.

 

“Are they all like that?” Katniss asked, looking over her shoulder at Ginny.

 

“N-no,” I smirked. “Just Darla and Ginny. The rest are um-”

 

“Like her?” Katniss leaned close and lowered her voice, tilting her head toward Ethel. She was standing just inside the back room with her arms folded across her chest, watching over the store with a vacant, bored look on her face. I had to cover my mouth to keep from choking on my drink.

 

“Kind of,” I said quietly. While we sat and finished our drinks I told her what I could piece together from my memory about Darla slowly becoming part of the family, and my limited experience with anyone in her own family beyond Ginny. Katniss' smile grew wider the longer we sat there, until I realized the last bit of my cider had long gone cold and I'd been the only one doing any talking.

 

“Come on,” she nudged me with her elbow once I'd gone quiet, and I could feel the blush rising in my face. “I think we made Rye suffer enough.”

 

“I d-don't think Rye can ever—suffer enough,” I smirked, and she laughed quietly as we made our way out of the shop. We were barely halfway across the square when I caught sight of a group of kids from school. I swore under my breath as soon as I recognized them.

 

“What is it?” Katniss looked over at me, frowning as soon as she caught sight of them. Merx Miller, Harvey Carrow, Lee and Verne Whitaker. Of course. Lee elbowed Merx and pointed toward me, the four of them immediately changing course toward us. “Great.”

 

“What the fuck, Mellark?” Merx threw his arms out as he approached, a cocky smirk on his face. “Thought you died or some shit.”

 

“Almost,” I frowned, not really wanting to deal with this. With any of them. Katniss kept her eyes on me, and I could feel the tension in her. It only made my own worse.

 

“You doing alright?” Harvey asked. I took a breath to answer, and Merx cut me off.

 

“Course he is, look at him,” Merx gestured to me, looking toward Katniss as they came to a stop in front of us. “Got a new girlfriend, eh? Pissed your brother snatched Cartwright out from under you? Slumming it with the Seam sluts now?”

 

“Hey,” Katniss snapped, finally looking away from me. I wanted to say something, to step up and defend her, but I couldn't find the words. I glared at him instead. He all but ignored me, turning his attention toward Katniss.

 

“Can't say I blame you,” he cocked an eyebrow, a slow grin spreading across his face as he looked Katniss over. “Long as you don't mind a little coal dust on your dick.”

 

“Fuck you,” I spat, shifting closer to Katniss.

 

“Let's just go,” she said quietly, putting her hand on my back.

 

“Come on, man,” Harvey frowned, backhanding Merx's arm and turning to walk away. Lee and Verne didn't move, just traded amused smirks and waited for whatever Merx was working up to next.

 

“A little defensive, are we?” Merx raised an eyebrow.

 

“J-just don't want to—listen to your sh-shit,” I tightened my jaw, hating that fucking stutter and hoping he didn't notice. That was hoping for too much, and I knew it. Merx chuckled, looking over at the twins before turning back to me.

 

“So she didn't kill you,” he said, smirking at me. “Just beat some retard into you.”

 

“I'm gonna beat some fucking retard into you,” Katniss snapped, stepping around me toward Merx. He took a step back, only starting to laugh once he saw I had Katniss by the arm, holding her back. She looked down at my hand, relaxing a little before looking up into my face.

 

“Let's g-go,” I said quietly, and she nodded. I blocked out whatever shit Merx still had to say as we turned and walked away, back toward the bakery.

 

“It's about fucking time,” Rye snapped as soon as we were inside. I just headed straight for the stairs. I was in no mood for his shit. “Since when does a delivery that close take two fucking hours?”

 

“Can it, Mellark,” Katniss snapped, and I heard her on the stairs behind me. I didn't really know if I even wanted her to follow me, but I knew there was no need to even bother arguing the point. She'd be following whether I wanted her to or not. I moved down the hall and dropped down to sit on my bed, leaning my elbows against my knees and burying my face in my hands. I felt her sit beside me, her hand hesitantly hovering by my back.

 

I could barely breathe. It felt like someone had a hold on my lungs and was squeezing as hard as they could. My heart raced and my head swam and I pressed my hands harder against my face in an attempt to put a stop to it. It only got worse. Katniss tried speaking, but I couldn't hear her over the ringing in my ears. After a moment I felt her hand between my shoulder blades and tried to focus on it. She rubbed a slow circle across my upper back. I swallowed hard, forcing my breathing to slow as I concentrated on the feeling.

 

“This d-doesn't make me feel any better—about going back to school,” I muttered, dropping my hands.

 

“Merx is a dick,” she said quietly, setting her hand on my shoulders. “And that was my fault. He went after me. You just got caught up in it. I'm sorry.”

 

“Don't,” I frowned, shaking my head. She rubbed her hand over my shoulders, calming me. It wasn't her fault, and her thinking it was just made me feel even worse about the entire situation, if possible. Merx and I had been at odds for a long time. Somewhere along the line he'd gone from just being a bit of a jerk to being a flat out bully, and I rarely had the patience for it. I had also been fortunate enough to never be a target—until this.

 

“I'm going to go downstairs before Rye blows a fuse,” Katniss said, setting her other hand on my arm. “Will you come down in a bit?”

 

“Yeah,” I nodded, pulling off my hat as she got up. Katniss closed the door quietly behind her, and I listened to her footsteps on the stairs before dropping back to lay down. My mind ran circles around the encounter, around how stupid I sounded, and that stupid look on Merx's face. By the time school started back he'd have spread that word—retard—about me to anyone who would listen, and I'd be treated like I was defective. Maybe I could just dig in my heels and get out of going back completely. If Rye could get away with it there had to be a way I that could, as well. He may have the legal right to drop out, but between the two of us, I certainly had a better reason.

 

A quiet knock at the door jerked me out of a sound sleep. The room was dark, and I glanced over toward the window, pulling the shade aside to find that the sun had almost completely set. Katniss poked her head into the room as I sat up on the edge of the bed, smirking at me.

 

“That trip tire you out?” she asked softly. I just nodded, mumbling an apology and running my hand through my hair. “I came up to check on you earlier, and you were out cold. I didn't mean to wake you up.”

 

“It's—okay.” I arched my back, my spine popping audibly as I stretched it. “Shouldn't have sl-slept so long.”

 

“Don't worry about it,” she smiled at me, shifting the doorknob in her grip and dropping her gaze for a moment. “I'm, um, I'm gonna get going, though. I just wanted to say goodbye before I left. I won't be back for a few days. You'll probably see my mom before me.”

 

“Oh good,” I deadpanned. Katniss laughed softly. I watched her for a moment, wondering why she was so hesitant. Why she kept worrying her lip between her teeth like that. Was she feeling bad for me? That had to be it. Unless she didn't really want to leave, but I couldn't think of any reason she'd want to actually stick around. I couldn't even stay awake for an afternoon.

 

“I'll see you, Peet,” she smiled briefly.

 

“Bye, Kat,” I smirked. I liked the way my nickname sounded coming from her. She ducked out of the room, closing the door gently, and I listened as she retreated down the hall, waiting for the sound of the back door closing behind her before even getting up from the bed.

 

I made my way into the kitchen, standing at the sink and staring out the window, my entire reason for coming in completely forgotten. The bottles of pills on the shelves next to the sink caught my eye, and that seemed as likely a reason as any. I picked out the bottles I needed for the night, shaking the pills into the palm of my hand. I stood staring at the pile of ten or so for a minute before tossing them into my mouth and leaning over the sink to gulp enough water from the faucet to choke them down. I hated every single one of them. Each was just a reminder of all of the things wrong with me. Of the fact that Merx was right. That it would never end. The most humiliating part was it had to happen in front of Katniss. I wanted to be the one protecting her, not the weakling needing her to stand up for me.

 

Rye was sitting on the worktable, staring out the back window and absentmindedly picking at a sandwich. He looked up as I came down, putting his foot on one of the chairs beside him and pushing it away from the table while nodding for me to sit. As I dropped into the chair he pushed a napkin with the other half of his sandwich toward me. The idea of eating made my stomach churn, but I knew at least one of those pills would make me feel even worse in a few hours if I didn't choke down something along with them.

 

“If that Miller kid starts any more shit I am going to fuck him up,” Rye said, his mouth still half full of food. I gave him a look as I picked up the sandwich half he'd given me. Katniss must have told him. I wonder what else she had to say about it. “He's a fucking princess.”

 

“P-please don't,” I took a bite, forcing myself to chew through it and choke it back.

 

“I'll tell him it's for what he said about Katniss to save your pride or whatever,” Rye shrugged, wiping the crumbs from his fingers off on his pants. I rolled my eyes, shaking my head and looking away. “She was pretty broken up about that, you know.”

 

“What?” I glanced up at him before frowning down at the sandwich, opening it up and picking out the meat.

 

“Katniss,” he clarified. “She was worried. About how you took it. She spent all fucking afternoon looking over at the staircase. Have you made another move yet or what?”

 

“N-no.” I shredded the chicken as I ate it, trying not to wonder whether this was one of ours, and which one I was eating.

 

“You need to,” he cocked an eyebrow at me. I just rolled my eyes. “I'm serious.”

 

“Yeah, okay,” I said as I tore apart one of the pieces of bread, shoving half into my mouth before pushing the remains of the sandwich away from me.

 

“You didn't actually listen to anything that cocksmooch Miller had to say, did you?” he frowned, snatching the other half of the bread from the table to eat it. I looked away from him. It was hard not to listen when all he was doing was saying everything out loud that I had running through my head for god knows how long. Rye backhanded my shoulder. “Don't do that shit to yourself. I'm serious. You're a hell of a lot better than him.”

 

“Still have to face him in a couple of weeks,” I muttered, leaning forward against the table and scratching my hand through my hair. I let my fingertips drift over the patch left by the wound. The hair hadn't grown back over most of it. Both Mrs. Everdeen and Dr. Lawrence had said it might not. Ever. And the hair that was growing back was fine, sparse, and nearly white, and would probably stay that way. I'd spend the rest of my life hiding under hats. The fact that there wasn't a person in the District who didn't know is bad enough. Carrying around visual evidence forever had about as much appeal as reliving the day it happened.

 

“Fuck him, your girlfriend's hotter,” Rye said, pushing himself down off the table.

 

“She's not my g-girlfriend,” I sighed, dropping my hands into my lap.

 

“Only because you won't make a fucking move,” he leaned over the table and pulled the destroyed remnants of my half of the sandwich toward him. “You gonna finish this?” I gestured towards it, telling him to go ahead. He piled it together before scooping it off the table and turning around to finish it over the sink, turning the water on to wash the stray pieces of lettuce and chicken that fell out of it down the drain. “Help me get this shit taken care of, I still have to clean out front, too.” He nodded toward the array of tools littering the counter and worktable, and the ingredients left out from the prep. I nodded, surprised he even asked, and pushed away from the table to help.

 

The constant cold was making my wrist ache; the pain radiating up to my elbow and down through my fingers. The more exhausted I felt the more it hurt, and the more it hurt the harder it was to sleep. The cycle spiraled to a breaking point by the weekend, and I collapsed into bed Saturday afternoon and barely moved until well into Sunday morning. Dad brought me a plate of food and a glass of water with my round of pills for the morning, promising the house would stay quiet. He had already kicked Rye out for the day, and the bakery work that needed to be taken care of with the shop closed was already done. I barely managed a few bites of the meal he left before I drifted off again.

 

I woke sometime in the afternoon, disoriented and groggy. My back was sore and my joints felt loose from laying in bed for so long without really moving. I gingerly swung my feet to the floor, my head immediately pounding and dizziness taking over when I sat upright. The ache settled right back in my wrist, and I wished I hadn't woken at all. Something for my head, a fresh glass of water, and maybe an extra muscle relaxer to put me back to sleep sounded perfect. I was already out in the hall before I was aware of the voices in the kitchen.

 

“If it weren't for my boys, I'd say she was a mistake,” Dad said, his voice heavy and sad. “My mistake was not confronting her before she got out of hand.”

 

“You couldn't have seen this coming. I hope you know that,” Mrs. Everdeen answered quietly. Surprised that she was here, I stopped and leaned against the wall. I knew this wasn't something I should listen in on, but I'd never actually heard Dad talk about any of it.

 

“I should have,” he sighed. I bit down hard on my lip. I hated that he blamed himself. He didn't do a damn thing wrong. “And I should have stepped in before she raised a hand to any of them.”

 

“I'm sorry, Twain,” she said after a few moments of silence.

 

“I'm glad it's you,” Dad said, a bit of the weight lifting from his tone. I smirked to myself. Rye had teased the hell out of him when he'd decided to try bringing me to see Mrs. Everdeen as soon as it became clear we wouldn't be able to keep Dr. Lawrence for anything more than the occasional check ups on my progress. It was the first bit of life we'd had in the house since it had happened. And the only time I had ever seen my father blush. “Helping him, I mean. He couldn't be in better hands.”

 

“Please,” Mrs. Everdeen said, her tone all too reminiscent of Katniss. “I'm making this up as I go along, and you are well aware of that.”

 

“You're doing wonderfully,” he responded, silence falling between them again. I waited, unsure whether to attempt quietly slipping back into the bedroom or to continue on into the kitchen. The pounding got a little worse, and that made my decision for me. I rounded the corner into the kitchen, stopping short at the sight of Mrs. Everdeen sitting shoulder to shoulder with my father at the kitchen table, one of his hands pressed between both of hers. She jerked away from him, her pale skin flushing as she touched the hair at the back of her neck nervously.

 

“Peeta,” she smiled, the expression failing as she glanced at my father. “I didn't realize you were awake.”

 

“Everything okay, Peet?” Dad asked, his posture still angled toward Mrs. Everdeen. She sat bolt upright in her chair, hands in her lap, the color slowly receding from her face.

 

“Um, sorry—headache,” I gestured toward the counter where my row of pill bottles sat.

 

“Why don't you get back in bed and I'll bring that in for you,” he said. I nodded, turning away and slipping back down the hall toward the bedroom.

 

“I should get going,” Mrs. Everdeen said, and I heard the scrape of their chairs against the kitchen floor. I hovered just inside my doorway, feeling like a complete ass for ruining whatever Dad had going in there. “Thank you for dinner, Twain. It was lovely, really.”

 

“You're sure you wouldn't like to stay,” Dad tried, and I listened to the clack of the pill bottles as he picked two of them up, the tap running as he filled a glass of water.

 

“I really should get back to the girls,” Mrs. Everdeen said.

 

“Well, at least give me a moment so I can walk you out,” Dad said, earning a quiet laugh that I hoped for his sake meant she would. I ducked into the room, dropping down to sit on the edge of the bed before he reached the doorway. He paused, letting out a sigh and raising his eyebrows at me. I twisted my mouth to hide a smile, looking down at the floor before I started laughing.

 

“Didn't mean t-to, uh—cockblock you, Dad,” I said quietly.

 

“Don't be vile,” he stepped into the room and set the glass on the dresser next to the bed. “And don't do it again,” he smirked, looking down at the bottles in his hand. He handed one to me. “Two of these for your head. And if you just want to get back to sleep-” he put the other down on the dresser beside the glass of water. “One of those.”

 

“Thanks, Dad,” I smiled, and he shoved the side of my head lightly as he turned to leave the room. I listened to both sets of footsteps on the stairs before taking all three of the pills, pushing the bedroom window open a crack and laying back down. I managed to doze for at least a few minutes, jerking awake when Rye pushed the door open, all but stomping into the room and dropping down to sit on his bed. I rolled over to look at him, raising an eyebrow at the vacant smile on his face.

 

“What?” I demanded when he ignored the question I wasn't asking out loud.

 

“I just caught Dad kissing Mrs. Everdeen on the back porch,” he said, a beat of silence passing before his grin broadened. I smiled back at him, and the two of us started to laugh in the same minute.

 

“Both of you can shut the hell up,” Dad called from down the hall, and it only made us laugh harder.

 

Rye and I sat in the back of the bakery, playing a hand of cards between customers. Dad was upstairs, sound asleep, and Katniss had left for the night. My head was still reeling from trying to find some kind of opportunity with her, and I wouldn't be sleeping any time in the near future. The bell at the front door rang and Rye rolled his eyes, letting out an exaggerated sigh, throwing his cards on the table in front of him and slumping out to the storefront.

 

“Oh, it's you,” he said, his posture brightening as he slipped through the doorway. “You know we're not closed. I thought you were coming by later.”

 

“Yeah, to see you,” Delly answered. I heard the doors at the end of the counter swing open and a happy little sigh out of Delly as they kissed. “And who says I'm here to see you?”

 

“Peet's in the back,” Rye said, his tone shifting to something knowing. Approving. “I've got some shit to finish up out here.” Delly appeared in the doorway a moment later, and I did my best to smile at her as she crossed the kitchen and took Rye's seat at the table.

 

“Hi,” she said.

 

“Hey.” I set my cards down, shifting in my stool. I'd spoken all of three sentences to Delly in the past few months, and none of them had been particularly nice.

 

“I've, um,” Delly bit her lip, resting her hands on the table and fidgeting with the charms on her bracelet. “I've been wanting to talk to you for a while. And I didn't really know how. And that... was stupid of me.” I frowned, watching her tug the chain around her wrist. I gave her a charm for it for her eighth birthday, and I was surprised I could remember it. Even more surprised when I saw the tiny little star still hanging from it as she spun it around her wrist. “I know we're not friends like we were when we were little, but I still think of you as my friend. And I've been a terrible friend.”

 

“Its—fine,” I said, dropping my eyes to the table.

 

“Peeta,” Delly reached across the corner of the table, setting her hand on mine. I looked up at her. She looked like she was on the verge of tears. “It's not fine. I'm sorry.” I offered her a weak smile, and it only served to make her lip quiver. Rye hovered in the doorway, and that just made the situation even more awkward. “You're like my brother, and I just dropped you. I shouldn't have, and I feel like a complete jerk. I want to be here for you, however I can.”

 

“It's okay—really,” I said. I turned my hand over and curled my fingers around hers. “We're f-fine.”

 

“Friends?” she furrowed her brow, squeezing my hand.

 

“Yeah,” I nodded, and she got up from her stool, moving around the corner of the table and throwing her arms around my neck to pull me into a hug. I shot Rye a look over her shoulder and he shrugged, turning back into the storefront and chuckling quietly.

 

“I'm glad you're coming back to school,” Delly said as she sat back down. “And I'm sorry I ever tried to cover for those assholes.”

 

“Don't worry about it,” I smirked, shaking my head.

 

“Merx is a dick,” she said, frowning and picking up Rye's cards. She was spending entirely too much time with him. Delly never cursed—never—and I'm pretty sure if Rye ever stopped the world would stop spinning. It was rubbing off on her. She slapped his cards down and reached across the table for mine. I let her pick up the hand without protest. She rolled her eyes, slapping them down in front of me. “Get rid of that four and call on the next draw. He's got nothing.”

 

“Thanks,” I laughed, and Rye rejoined us a few minutes later. I took her advice and ended up pulling so far ahead in points that he threw his cards down and declared the game a waste of time. He had Delly in his lap in nearly the same breath, and I excused myself to go upstairs. My jealousy of the two of them hadn't quite subsided, and as I lowered myself into bed I couldn't get Katniss out of my mind. It would be another day or two before she returned, one of which Dad wanted to attempt a trip out to the Seam; trying to get me out of the house again, but there hadn't been any change in the weather, and I really didn't see it happening. I wasn't all that heartbroken over the idea, even though I would have enjoyed seeing Katniss sooner.

 

The weather only worsened the following days; the wind was too harsh to make the walk. It began snowing off and on, the wind whipping the powder away from the ground as fast as it fell. Seeing Katniss had become one of the only things I looked forward to when I got up in the morning. I didn't mind skipping the appointments with her mother, but when the weather didn't break it seemed to be unlikely she would make it to the bakery. When she did show up for work she found herself on the receiving end of a half hearted lecture out of my father about walking so far with the threat of an incoming blizzard.

 

“Shit,” Katniss stopped, turning off the faucet and staring out the window over the sink. “When the hell did this happen?” She pointed outside; snow was being driven sideways across the yard, whipping around in a hard wind. As if on cue, a gust rattled the window.

 

“I thought you were keeping an eye on the weather,” Rye raised an eyebrow, looking up from the pie crust he was weaving together.

 

“I was,” she snapped before turning around to me. Her arms were covered in soap suds up to the elbow, a stray strand of hair that had come loose from her braid hanging in her face. She blew it out of her eyes before shaking her head at me in disbelief.

 

“W-wait it out?” I shrugged.

 

“I'm gonna have to,” she said, shaking her head again as she stared back out the window.

 

“Katniss?” Dad called from the top of the stairs.

 

“Yes?” She angled her head toward the stairs, not quite tearing her eyes away from the driving snow outside.

 

“Just making sure you're still here,” Dad moved halfway down, into view. “Don't you dare leave until this is over. You might be here for the night.”

 

“Oh, good,” Rye spat sarcastically, sneering at Katniss. “She can sleep in the basement.”

 

“She'll sleep in my bed,” Dad said, moving the rest of the way down the stairs. “I'll take the couch. ” He folded his arms over his chest and walked out into the storefront. I walked behind him, stopping and leaning against the door frame. The opposite side of the square was barely visible through the snow. He sighed, turning back and clapping his hand against my back as he passed by me. “Might as well shut it down, guys. Relax a bit. I think we're done for the day.”

 

“Excellent,” Rye grinned, dropping the half finished crust on top of the pie and lifting it from the table to put into the refrigerator in the storage room.

 

“And no, you're not going anywhere,” Dad said before going back upstairs.

 

“Dammit,” Rye's tone barely changed from his last statement. I helped the two of them clean up the kitchen, and we spent the rest of the afternoon sitting around the living room, talking and cycling through any card games we could come up with. Dad sat with us for a while and showed us a couple of card tricks before settling in to alternately frown at his book and frown at the snow outside.

 

“I just hope your mother doesn't worry,” he muttered to Katniss more than once. Rye and I smirked at each other. I wondered if Katniss had any idea about the two of them, and what she made of it if she did. If she didn't, I certainly didn't want to be the one to break that news to her. We were glad to see Dad getting a chance with someone who could make him happy after years of he and Mom making each other miserable. Things were definitely different for Katniss though, in that respect.

 

She followed me into the kitchen and sat on the counter as I took my pills for the night. She accepted the glass of water I offered her, sipping from it without taking her eyes off of me. She watched me shift the bottles I needed into a lineup on the counter, raising her eyebrows as I popped one after the other into my mouth.

 

“All of those,” she said. “Every night?” I nodded, washing them down.

 

“More in the morning,” I said. “A c-couple in the afternoon.”

 

“What are these?” She reached for one of the bottles I hadn't touched, and I really hoped she left most of those alone.

 

“Morphling,” I chewed the inside of my lip, willing her to give up and let it rest. “For when the headaches or my arm or...whatever get really b-bad.” She opened the bottle, glancing inside before covering it and putting it back. Her hands fell on the one bottle I'd hoped she would just leave sitting there.

 

“What about these?”

 

“They're, uh,” I cleared my throat. “To help me with the b-bathroom.” I threw back the rest of the glass of water.

 

“You have trouble peeing, too?” She raised an eyebrow, twisting off the top and glancing inside. I shook my head. “Holy shit, these are huge. You have to swallow these?”

 

“No...” I said slowly, looking away, waiting for that to sink in. I heard her twist the cap back on and slam the bottle back onto the shelf.

 

“I'm going to leave those alone now,” she said, setting her empty glass down on the counter and sliding off of it onto her feet.

 

“Thank you,” I said, finishing off the water and setting the glass down in the sink. Anything to change the subject. “Do you, um—do you need something to sleep in?”

 

“Actually, yeah,” she brightened, apparently as glad as I was for the change in subject. “If you don't mind. I can just sleep in this, though.” She looked down at herself, plucking at the hem of her shirt.

 

“C-come on,” I nodded toward the hall and led her toward my bedroom, rapping my knuckle against the door once before opening it. Rye looked up from where he lay in bed, one arm behind his head, a book in his hand.

 

“I didn't know you could read,” Katniss folded her arms and leaned against the doorframe. I crouched in front of the dresser, yanking open the bottom drawer and rifling through it for something to give her.

 

“I just like the pictures,” Rye said without missing a beat. I smirked, draping a shirt—an older one, soft and worn but smaller than most of what I had—over my shoulder and realizing I had absolutely no pants to give her that would fit. “If you're trying to find jammies for your girlfriend there's a pair of Delly's sweatpants in my drawer.”

 

“Why do you ha-” I cut myself off and shook my head. “Never mind.” I straightened up and pulled open his drawer. The bright pink pants stood out like a sore thumb.

 

“No, don't never mind,” Katniss leaned back out the door and glanced down the hall, raising her voice so Dad would hear. “Why do you have Delly's clothes in your room, Rye?”

 

“Don't be an ass,” Rye snapped, dropping his book on his chest. “She was in a rush to leave and forgot them.”

 

“Her pants,” Katniss deadpanned. I snorted, turning to pass the clothes to her.

 

“We fell asleep and didn't even wake up until the next morning, she scrambled out of here,” he shrugged. Katniss raised an eyebrow at him before shaking the pants out, stretching the waistband and holding them up against her waist. They weren't going to fit her either. “She had them on under her skirt. It gets cold down in that basement.”

 

“I like how you th-think either of us b-believes she—keeps her clothes on down there,” I said. Katniss laughed, draping the clothes over her arm.

 

“That's enough about how thoroughly you've debased my best friend's daughter,” Dad called from down the hall. “Bed.”

 

“Goodnight,” Katniss smiled at me. “And thanks.” She held up the clothes before turning to go into dad's room across the hall. I hovered in the doorway, watching her as she closed the door.

 

“Goodnight, Catpiss,” Rye hollered, loud enough to startle me. Katniss' hand shot out from behind the door to flip him off. I chuckled and closed the bedroom door. “I noticed neither of you denied the girlfriend statement.”

 

“D-don't be an ass,” I gave him a look, purposefully mimicking what he'd said to Katniss. I slipped off my pants and sat on the edge of the bed.

 

“Be nice to me or I'll rat you out when you sneak across the hall later,” he closed his book and dropped it onto the dresser.

 

“I'm not sneaking anywhere,” I yanked my shirt off, whipping it across the room at him. He laughed and swatted it to the floor before it hit him.

 

“Your loss,” Rye turned away from me, tugging the blankets up to his shoulders. I glared at his back for a moment before leaning over and cracking open the bedroom window. He turned to say something and I just turned out the lights before he got the chance, turning over to face the wall.

 

I wanted to sneak across the hall. What I really wanted was for her to actually want me to, but I couldn't imagine that even being a possibility. I couldn't sleep, thinking about her over there. I wondered if she could sleep. Listened Rye's snoring on the other side of the room. Dad's snoring in the living room. The wind howling outside. Every once in a while it would shift, whipping a faint dust of snow into the room. It felt good. After a while Rye got up, grumbling, and reached for the window.

 

“Don't,” I snapped. He startled, bumping against the dresser and hissed a string of obscenities under his breath before dropping back into bed. He was snoring again in a matter of minutes. I sighed, turning over and staring at him as if that would make him stop. It didn't work. I got up out of bed, yanked on the first pair of pants I could find, and quietly opened my door to go into the kitchen. I hadn't really been able to stomach eating much at dinner, and dad had brought up some of what we were left with after closing the bakery so early. There was a plate of croissants on the counter. I tore one in half and leaned against the edge of the counter to eat it.

 

“I can't sleep either,” Katniss said quietly, her voice just above a whisper. She stood in the doorway, hugging her arms around herself. Her braid was loose, wispy strands of hair falling around her face. She had the drawstring on Delly's pants cinched tight and they still barely hung onto her hips. I tore my eyes away from the strip of bare skin above them. “I think this is the first time I've seen you eat just to eat and not to be polite.”

 

“N-not usually hungry,” I said quietly as she crossed the kitchen to me. “Want something?” She shrugged, picking up the croissant half I'd left on the plate and tearing off a piece. Rye's snoring got a little louder, and she rolled her eyes.

 

“How the hell do you sleep through that?” she gave me a look, and I had to hold back a laugh.

 

“I used to be able to t-tune it out,” I smirked.

 

“How?” She made a face.

 

“I w-wish I could—remember,” I said, and she laughed softly. Dad shuffled in his sleep in the next room and she pressed her lips closed, her eyes going wide for a moment. She nodded for me to follow her and led the way into my father's room. I hovered by the door after she closed it, all too aware that the only piece of furniture in the room aside from the two dressers was the bed. She crossed the room to sit down, pulling the sweatpants up as she went.

 

“I probably would have been better off in yours,” she said, still keeping her voice low.

 

“Wh-what?”

 

“A pair of your pants,” she said, tugging at the leg of her sweats. “These keep falling off.”

 

“The c-color suits you,” I smirked. She rolled her eyes, smiling faintly as she looked away.

 

“Are you going to sit down or what?” she said, nodding toward the bed beside her when I raised my eyebrows in question. I nodded, smiling a little and dropping my eyes to the floor as I sat down beside her. “Rye told me Delly came over to apologize to you.”

 

“Yeah,” I scratched my forehead, glancing over at her.

 

“That must have been awkward,” she said. I chuckled quietly and nodded, pushing my hand back through my hair. The only thing that could have made that entire encounter more awkward was if she had actually cried. Katniss chewed her lip, looking past me thoughtfully. “Okay. I need you to explain something to me.”

 

“What?” I watched as she tugged the elastic off the end of her hair, stretching it between her fingers and taking a breath before speaking.

 

“Your brother... and Delly Cartwright,” she said, laughing softly at herself when I started to laugh. “Seriously. How does that work? Rye is an loudmouthed asshole, and Delly is...”

 

“Q-quiet and sweet?” I supplied.

 

“I was going to say spineless and boring, but that works,” Katniss laughed. I rubbed my hand over my eyes, laughing at her description in spite of myself and feeling like a jerk for doing it.

 

“They c-compliment each other well. It might make more—s-sense if you knew her,” I said, turning the idea over in my head. “Then again—I know her and I d-d-don't get it sometimes.” I watched as Katniss started pulling the braid out of her hair, combing her fingers through it as she worked it loose. “He c-cares about her though. J-just don't tell him I s-said so.” She laughed quietly, scratching her fingers through her hair and shaking it out. I tried to remember if I'd ever seen her with her hair down, and if I ever had, she hadn't looked quite as beautiful as she did right now. Just go for it. Rye kept saying to, kept telling me she wanted me to, even if I couldn't fathom the idea. I shifted closer, ignoring the hammering in my chest and leaning in to kiss her.

 

I set my hand on her knee, gently pressing my lips to hers. Her fingertips brushed over the back of my hand, and I swear she leaned into me before I pulled back. Her eyes were wide, her posture rigid, her eyes unfocused. I couldn't gauge her response, couldn't figure out if I'd fucked up. She took a breath and I pulled my hand back, closing my eyes for a moment and gearing up to apologize as much as possible. Katniss took my face in her hands before I could get the words out, pulling me back to her and leaning in to kiss me. I melted into it, leaning as close as I dared, tentatively slipping my hand around her waist. She shifted closer, aligning her body against mine and draping one arm around my neck, her other hand drifting down to rest against my bare chest. Her lips parted, her tongue brushing against my lower lip lightly. I met it with my own, opening my mouth against hers. Katniss let out a soft murmur before she pulled back and rested her forehead against mine. I kissed the corner of her mouth, suddenly aware that my hand was resting on the bare skin of her lower back. I didn't want to pull away, didn't want anything about that moment to end, and I'd never been happier about Rye being right about something. I brushed my hand through her hair, letting it slide between my fingers, and she ducked her chin, pulling back a little. Even in the dark I could see her face was flushed. She pulled her hands back, letting them slide down my arms and dropping them in her lap. I shifted away from her, adjusting myself as I turned to look down at the floor and pressed my tongue between my lips. Neither of us spoke.

 

“Um,” I finally broke the silence, glancing at her before dropping my eyes to the floor again. “I sh-should um-” I gestured toward the door.

 

“Um. Okay,” Katniss chewed her lip, her expression hesitant and unsure as she watched me get up. I smiled at her briefly, not sure of what the hell to do with myself, and ducked out of the room as quickly as possible. I stepped back into my bedroom and closed the door behind me, standing by it for a moment and trying to stop my heart from racing.

 

“I'm not sneaking anywhere,” Rye said, his voice lowered in a goofy imitation of what I'd said earlier. He jerked me out of my stupor and I swore at him before flopping down onto my bed. I sat back up and shoved the window open again, then turned over to face the wall, finally realizing I was rock hard. I yanked the blankets up to my shoulders and adjusted myself through my pants, hoping Rye would fall back to sleep as quickly as he had earlier. It would take a little bit of relief if I wanted to get any sleep before what was looking to be the most awkward morning this house had ever seen.

Chapter Text

I couldn't sleep. I couldn't sleep before I heard Peeta in the kitchen, and I absolutely did not get a bit of sleep after he went back to his bedroom. I laid back and stared at the ceiling, absently running my fingers over my lips. I could still feel that kiss, soft and tentative and earnest. I replayed it over and over in my mind, trying to figure out what I could have—should have done differently to get him to stay. He froze up when I kissed him back, the breath he took when I pulled back was ragged and shallow. He didn't even open his eyes at first, didn't move. I could still feel where his hand was on my back. Where he'd rested the other on my leg when he first leaned in.

Twain was up early. I listened to him move through the second floor, heard him open the boys' door and pretended to be asleep when he looked in on me. After he moved downstairs I slipped out of bed and lifted the curtains to look out the window. The wind was still howling, but the snow seemed to have died down a bit. I debated going downstairs to help Twain or looking in across the hall to see if Peeta was still awake as well, but I didn't quite trust myself to be around anyone yet.

What had made him go for that kiss to begin with? Peeta hadn't even been able to look me in the eye for days after Delly interrupted us. He didn't initiate physical contact, and the progression to him accepting it from me had been slow and awkward. I hitched up my sweatpants—I could just barely pull the drawstring tight enough to keep them on—and laid back down on the bed. I dozed fitfully, trying not to think about Peeta on the other side of that hallway, or wonder if he was running all of this through his head as thoroughly as I was.

After a while I gave up completely and slipped out of bed, changed back into my clothes, and made up the bed before leaving the pajamas Peeta had given me folded at the foot of it. Twain had gone through the trouble of straightening out the room last night, and I was sure it hadn't been that neat since the last time Darla swept through and cleaned.

Peeta's door was still closed, and I could hear Rye still snoring away behind it. I hesitated, wondering again if I should poke my head in and see if Peeta was awake, but thought better of it and moved downstairs.

“Morning,” Twain said, shooting me a brief smile as he carried a load of warm, fresh bread out to the storefront. The kitchen was warm, and the smell of the bread as it baked was inviting and oddly comforting. “Bagels on the counter are still warm. Help yourself. Jam and butter are in the storeroom refrigerator.”

“Thanks.” I crossed the kitchen and lifted one of the bagels from the tray sitting on the counter. When they were that fresh I preferred them plain, and it was still steaming and soft when I tore it open. I leaned against the counter as I ate, immediately feeling guilty for standing around while Twain moved quickly in and out of the kitchen, pulling trays from the ovens and sliding in the ones waiting with a speed that would have seemed rushed had everything he did not been so fluid and easy. “What would you like me to do?”

“Enjoy your breakfast,” he winked at me. “It's likely going to be a slow morning. If I needed the help I'd have dragged Rye out of bed by now.” I smiled briefly, the guilt lingering until Twain had cleared the kitchen, all but the currently baking batch of danishes and pastries stocked, and sat down to eat. “Did you manage any sleep last night?”

“A little,” I lied, pulling out the chair across from him and sitting down. “I'm not used to sleeping anywhere but home.” That part was true, at least. I'd spent a night or two at the Hawthornes last year when firewood had started getting scarce as winter wore on. I didn't sleep there either, for completely different reasons than what kept me awake last night.

“I'm sure your mother's worried herself sick,” he smirked. “Though I hope she realizes there's enough common sense between the four of us here to keep you from trying to trek all the way out there in that storm.”

“I'll hear all about it once I get home,” I looked over his shoulder toward the window. The sun had just barely risen, and though the wind had died, there was still a bit of snow falling.

“You're not going to like it, but I'd feel better if Rye walked you home,” he said. I gave him a look that made him chuckle, glancing down at his half eaten breakfast in front of him. “I know you're fully capable of getting yourself home, even in this. But still. Indulge me.”

“You know he'll just use it as an excuse to chase after Delly, right?” I raised an eyebrow, and Twain laughed a bit harder.

“I know more about what those two get up to than you think,” he winked at me and got up from the table. The statement sent a rush through me. Did he hear us last night? We were quiet enough, weren't we? Did he know Peeta was in his bedroom with me? Alone. In the middle of the night. Was that really any different than being alone with Peeta in his own room during the day? “I'm going to get Rye out of bed. Let's not let your poor mother worry any longer than she needs to.”

“Okay,” I nodded, chewing hard on the inside of my lip. I couldn't quite look him in the eye, though I thought I caught him smiling to himself as he disappeared up to the second floor. He returned with both of the boys a short while later, and Peeta hesitated before sitting down next to me. He smiled faintly and I reached out and took his hand under the table, squeezing it and returning the smile before letting go. I wanted him to know I meant that kiss, and wasn't just going to pretend it didn't happen the way I had with those two false starts. The gesture seemed to relax him, if only a little.

“Good morning, kids,” Rye smirked, passing behind us to snatch a bagel from the counter before dropping down into the seat across from us at the table. I narrowed my eyes at him. Even if Twain knew, I didn't want a word out of Rye about any of it. Especially not here. If he had anything to get out of his system, I just hoped he had the decency to save it for the walk home. “We're not going anywhere until I've eaten, Catpiss. I'm sure you're not all that eager to leave, anyway.” He purposefully cut his eyes toward Peeta, still grinning around a mouth full of bagel.

Neither Peeta or I had anything to say in response. I really wasn't all that eager to leave, but I definitely wasn't all that eager to continue sitting with the father and older brother of the boy I kissed last night—both of whom likely knew exactly what went on. A knock at the back door saved the silence from getting any more awkward. Twain frowned for a moment before stepping into the mudroom.

“I should have seen this coming,” he chuckled. “Come on in.”

“She's beside herself, you know,” Gale said, stomping the snow off on the straw mat in the mudroom and stopping in the doorway. He looked at Peeta before looking at me, a slow grin spreading across his face. “Your mother wanted me to make sure you're not dead.”

“Still alive.” I tightened my jaw and looked over at Peeta.

“Well, if it isn't Hillbilly Hawthorne,” Rye grinned, turning a bit on his stool. The smile dropped from Gale's face. “Are you sparing me the odious task of delivering she who needs no slag heap to her home?”

“It's my odious task today,” Gale said, turning to me with an odd look as Rye's little dig at me sunk in. I sneered at both of them before turning toward Peeta.

“Excellent,” Rye jumped off of his stool. “I'm going across the square.”

“I'll stop by tomorrow,” I said softly.

“You most certainly are not,” Twain snapped at Rye. “Get the shovel. Go clear the snow out front.”

“Okay,” Peeta smiled, his eyes downcast. I squeezed his hand. What I really wanted to do was kiss him, but not here. Not in front of everyone.

“I shoveled us out before I came over here,” Gale said, shooting Rye a smug grin. “My house and the Everdeen's.”

“Well aren't you just a smarmy little overachiever,” Rye shoved away from the table.

“Are you okay?” I asked, leaning a little closer. I just wanted him to look at me before I left.

“Gale, can I ask you a question?” Twain said, folding his arms over his chest. I caught a look of feigned curiosity on his face before turning back to Peeta.

“I'm f-fine,” he said. He still wouldn't look at me.

“So, you're seventeen,” Twain continued, drawing the question out and tapping his finger against his chin. Gale nodded. Rye's shoulders sank. “But you're finishing school. Even though you very well could drop out and do the same work now that you'd do after graduation. Isn't that right?”

“Oh, for fuck's sake, Dad,” Rye groaned.

“Peeta,” I said softly, and he finally looked up at me. I smiled and touched his cheek lightly, looking over at Twain, Gale, and Rye.

“I'm finishing school, yes,” Gale smirked, looking from Twain to Rye and back again.

“Yeah, because they're going to pay this squirrel fucker more if he does,” Rye gestured toward Gale. “You're not gonna do that for me.”

“S-something wrong?” Peeta furrowed his brow and glanced over at the three of them. When he turned back I pressed my lips to his. Soft, brief, unseen. He reached for my hand, squeezed it in his, and let go.

“Not with that attitude I'm not,” Twain shot Rye a look.

“Not a thing,” I said, drinking in the blue of his eyes, the warmth in his expression. “See you tomorrow.”

“Bye,” he said, and turned in his seat as I crossed the kitchen.

“Don't you have some snow to shovel?” I snapped at Rye before turning to Gale. “It's time to go home.”

“Please apologize to your mother for me, Katniss,” Twain said. He pointed to bag resting on the floor beside the door to the mudroom. “That's my peace offering.”

“I will,” I smirked, looking over at Peeta one last time on my way out the door. His eyes hadn't left me. He smiled at me before I picked up the bag and turned to follow Gale through the mudroom, pulling on my coat as I walked. Gale kept shooting glances at me out of the corner of his eye, a wry little smile on his face. I wasn't about to dignify a minute of it, and he didn't speak until we were well out of town.

“I saw that, you know,” he said.

“Saw what?” I did my best to feign nonchalance, but I could feel my cheeks flushing. Of course he saw the kiss. I just hoped Twain didn't. Or worse, Rye.

“I'm guessing you enjoyed your little sleepover with the baker kid.” His smile grew a little wider.

“Yes, I loved being trapped at my job for 24 hours,” I gave him a look, but I knew he saw right through it. No one knew me better, even Madge wasn't as good at calling me out on my bullshit as Gale was.

“How far did it go?” he asked, and I stopped walking completely.

“Excuse me?”

“Oh, come on,” he dropped his shoulders, turning toward me and cocking his head to one side. “All night with him? Madge told me about the kiss. Kisses. Whatever.” I folded my arms across my chest and narrowed my eyes. Madge had weaseled out what little details I'd been willing to give a week ago after she caught wind of Peeta and I out together in town. Word traveled fast, apparently. Too fast. I'd already made the decision to keep my distance at school and give him a chance to salvage whatever I'd tarnished of his reputation. If anyone caught wind of me spending the night after the things I imagined them saying now there'd be no hope for him.

“It didn't go anywhere,” I snapped and continued walking. “And I don't like the insinuation that it did.” I frowned at him as I walked by, and he laughed, jogging a couple of steps to catch up with me. The snow was thick, light and powdery, our footsteps muffled. I was already covered in snow up to my thighs, my pants soaking through. It would only get worse as the walk went on, and that did nothing to lighten my mood.

“Sure it didn't,” Gale smirked. We finally came to the path worn through the snow by the miners headed to work, though it was too narrow to walk side by side. I quickened my step to keep ahead of him, forcing him to either stay behind me or slog through the snowbank to one side if he wanted to do anything but speak to my back. He opted to stay behind me and just raised his voice to compensate. “I think you're forgetting I know his dickhead brother, and he will make a pass at anything with a pulse.”

“Rye has a girlfriend,” I pointed out, though his statement had me feeling a little sorry for Delly. Was he screwing around on her? She certainly didn't seem like the sort to do anything but quietly put up with it. “And I don't see what that has to do with anything.”

“Peeta can't be all that different,” Gale said. “Especially if the shit being said around town about Twain and your mother has any morsel of truth to it. Apples, tree. You know.”

“Don't say that kind of shit about my mom,” I frowned. They may have been involved before, but Twain was fresh out of a divorce, and the idea of my mother involved with anyone but my father was too much to stomach. It would also involve her having a life beyond healing and visiting Hazelle, and that seemed about as likely as hell freezing over.

“Hey, if Twain and your mom actually are a thing, does that make you tongue wrestling with Peeta incest or no?”

“You are disgusting,” I whirled around and glared at him, and all he did was laugh. I snatched a fistful of snow from the bank beside the path and threw it at his face. The powder didn't stick, and the ball broke apart and showered a mist of snow over him instead of making contact. He grinned at me and reached for the snow. Gale had a few very odd talents, and one of them, of course, happened to be making deadly snowballs out of anything—even powder as fine as this. “No. I am not in the fucking mood. Don't-!” I took off running as he packed the snow down, my annoyance only worsening when my foot skidded mid-stride on a patch of ice beneath the snowy path and I faltered. Gale hit me square in the back, laughing as he caught up to me. I looped the handles of the bag around my wrist and shoved him as hard as I could, sending him flying back into the snow, and stomped away, leaving him there.

“Lighten up, Catnip!” he called as he got up and dusted himself off. “Whatever's going on over there is doing you good, you know.” I flipped him off over my shoulder, continuing on by myself. Even when he caught up to me, I didn't acknowledge him, though I wanted to demand to know what he meant by that. He knew I did, and I wasn't about to give him the satisfaction of letting him know how thoroughly he pushed my buttons. He could be worse than Rye, if only because he knew me so much better.

He patted my back when we got to my house, extending the offer for the three of us to stop by. We tended to hunker down together during storms. It was easier to stay warm with more people together, and my house was impossibly drafty. It wouldn't surprise me to find out that Prim and Mom spent the night next door. I shook the snow out of my hair as I climbed the front steps, taking a breath before I stomped the snow out of my boots and went inside.

“My god, Katniss!” Mom was hovering in the kitchen, her posture tight and nervous. “Do you have any idea how much I worried? I'm assuming you spent the night with the Mellarks. You'd better not have even tried to get home in that.”

“Of course I didn't,” I frowned at her and held out the bag. “Twain says he's sorry. I didn't look in the bag, but I'm guessing that's apology bread.” I turned away from her once she took it, peeling away my cold weather gear as she muttered quietly to herself and set the bag on the table to peer inside.

“Did you have a fun sleepover?” Prim looked up at me over the arm of the couch, her smile and tone far too close to Gale's for my liking. He had to have made some sort of comment that she heard last night.

“Shut up, Prim,” I rolled my eyes, rubbing my hands over my arms and retreating to the bedroom to put on fresh, warm clothes. My pants were completely soaked through from the snow, and my skin was cold and numb. I put my long johns on under my clothes and sat down on the bed, tugging an extra sweater on for good measure. The heat of the ovens kept the bakery, as well as the entire second floor, warm. The cold in our house took some getting used to when I got home. What I wanted to do was curl up under the blankets and get some sleep, but more than that I wanted to be near the fire.

Prim was sitting on the couch, a book in her lap, her fingers already sticky from the danish she was eating. Something from that bag, I assumed. Mom offered me one as well, bringing it to me with a cup of hot tea, though I only took the drink. She kept the danish for herself and settled into her chair, watching me as she ate. I pretended not to notice and watched the fire instead, pressing the hot mug between my hands. Did she somehow know something happened between Peeta and I? Did Gale run his mouth last night and put ideas in her head?

“I'm glad you got home safely,” she finally said, offering a faint smile. I smiled back at her, taking a sip of my tea. Prim kept casting glances at me over the top of her book, the smirk never leaving her face. I managed to last until the tea was gone before the exhaustion set in.

“I didn't really sleep all that good last night,” I said, getting up off the couch and setting my empty mug on the table. “I'm going to try to get some rest.”

“Okay, sweetie,” Mom looked up at me as she leaned forward to pick up one of her notebooks from the table. “Would you like me to wake you when we go over to the Hawthornes?”

“I'll pass.” As much as I was still annoyed with Gale, I really did just want to get some sleep. Maybe that would help me make sense of what I was feeling about last night, though part of me worried once I was alone my thoughts would start circling too fast again and I'd never get any sleep.

That worry turned out to be completely unfounded. I was asleep the moment my head hit the pillow. A few hours later I snapped awake as Mom slipped a hot water bottle under the sheets at my feet. She smiled at me, apologizing quietly before brushing my hair away from my face and kissing my forehead.

“We're going next door for a bit,” she said, her voice soft and quiet. “Just didn't want you getting cold. We won't be long. There's some stew simmering on the stove, if you get hungry.”

“Thanks, Mom,” I smiled, turning onto my side as she left the room, the door clicking shut behind her. I had been dreaming and pieces of it were coming back to me. It was about Peeta; apparently one real kiss was all it took to turn me into one of those girls who dreams about boys. Most of the dream was gone, but I could still recall pieces of it. Peeta's hands on me; his lips against mine. I could almost feel his weight when he shifted on top of me. The thought set my heart racing. That's the direction I'd set things in by returning that kiss, wasn't it? And it still made me nervous. But I wanted it, and I recognized the feelings it was stirring up in me.

I heard Prim and Mom leaving, their footsteps crunching through the snow on their way next door. The house would be empty for hours, time meant for me to use to catch up on sleep. Time I would have complete privacy. I slipped my fingers under the waistband of my pants, pushing them between my thighs. I moved my fingers over myself, pressing lightly and biting down on my lip when I realized how wet I was, the effect Peeta was having on me already. I thought about the feel of his hand on my back and the taste of his lips. My breath quickening as I imagined going further and feeling more of him against me, feeling his skin under my hands. I thought of the look on his face when he first pulled away from me, the pained expression that had crossed his features when he closed his eyes, and I started feeling guilty.

My fingers stilled and I pressed my hand between my thighs, opening my eyes to frown at the wall as if it would help me with anything running through my head. Did he actually want any of this? He smiled at me this morning when I left, but was that just for the sake of being polite? He was next to impossible to read and rarely ever said anything that would help interpret anything he felt. I wondered if that was a side effect of the accident or if he'd always been like that. He seemed more open before, livelier, at the very least. Would that ever come back?

And what about what Rye had told me? I definitely hadn't forgotten that. What sort of person did he want to be for me? How different was that from how he was now? And what the hell did Rye even mean by time and space? I got the time part of it, but was I supposed to just stand back and not do anything? Wait? It didn't seem likely that Peeta would do anything on his own if I did. Although, he had been the one to kiss me first last night. Is that the sort of thing I was supposed to wait for?

I drifted back to sleep with that still racing through my head, finally waking for good when I heard Mom and Prim returning from the Hawthornes. I went straight for the washroom, doing my best to clean up with the icy cold water from the tap before joining them in the living room. I claimed still feeling sleepy and disoriented to cover my introspection, though it wasn't entirely a lie.

“Gale told me a secret,” Prim whispered when we got in bed, a wide grin on her face. I sighed. I knew what it was.

“Did he?” I deadpanned. She giggled and nodded. “And what on earth did he tell you?”

“That he saw you,” she paused, her shoulders hunching up as she suppressed a giggle. “Kiss Peeta.” I shook my head, rolling onto my back and staring at the ceiling. Prim squirmed a little closer, shivering lightly in the cold. “Did you really?”

“Don't tell Mom,” I said softly, looking over at her. The excitement on her face made me laugh, and I turned back toward her, wrapping an arm around her to help keep her warm.

“Really really?” she said, and I nodded, kissing her hair lightly. “Katniss, he's so cute. And he likes you so much.”

“How do you know that?” I pulled back and looked down at her. She let out an exasperated little huff.

“It's obvious,” she said, shaking her head at me. “Whenever you talk to him he looks like he can't believe you're real. And you don't even notice it. And he made me promise not to tell you but-”

“Peeta made you promise something?” I asked, wondering when the two of them have spoken. “When was this?”

“Yes,” she snapped impatiently, sleepiness starting to edge into her voice. “It was right before break started. You weren't here, and Mom was talking to Mr. Mellark on the porch, and he asked me if you ever talked about him. And I said yes because you talk about him all the time, and he asked what you say. I said you stick up for him and make sure people know the truth about him and that you love the bakery, and you've never spent time with anyone but Gale and Madge, and he got this big smile on his face.”

“Prim!” I said, a little too loud. I caught myself, lowering my voice before I continued. “Why would you say all that stuff?”

“Because it's true, and he asked!” she said. “Besides, it made him really happy. He made me promise not to tell you because I think he didn't want you to know how much he likes you, but if you're kissing each other it's probably okay.”

“He just likes me because he doesn't have any other options,” I muttered, thinking of that day in the square when we ran into Merx. About that awkward apology he said he got from Delly. He had no shortage of friends and admirers before what happened. What would they think of him now? It was only another week and a half before we found out.

“He likes you because you're kind to him,” Prim said, closing her eyes and snuggling under my chin. “And because you're pretty. Way prettier than that girl Madge said liked him.”

“Who did Madge say likes him?” I look down at her, wondering why Madge didn't mention any of this to me in her campaign for me to pursue him.

“Um,” she yawned, her brow furrowing as she tried to remember. “The one his Mom's staying with. Is it the Tates? Which one is in your class?”

“Manda?” I frowned. Manda was in a few of the classes we shared—or would have shared, if Peeta had stayed in school this year. She sat in front of Madge and spent more time twirling her hair around her pencil than anything else.

“Yeah, that one. Madge thinks it's funny,” Prim said, tightening her arm around me. “Because I guess Manda didn't know they're cousins.” I snorted, trying to hold back my laughter to keep from waking Mom. The look on Manda's face when she found out that piece of news must have been priceless.

“You should have told me,” I said, rubbing her back. Knowing Peeta had been asking her about me made the things Rye had kept saying make more sense. How long had Peeta liked me, though? What did I do during the time we'd spent together to earn that?

“He made me promise,” she yawned again, her voice growing even more faint with exhaustion.

“Goodnight, Prim,” I said, smiling into her hair. She murmured softly as she nodded off.

The next morning I let myself sleep in, passing up on the usual hunting trip with Gale. I wanted nothing to do with trudging through the snow for hours only to come home empty-handed. Mom had breakfast waiting when I dragged myself out of bed, a luxury I didn't think I'd ever get used to. Before the Mellarks became such a huge part of our lives, we were lucky to have a single complete meal on any given day; a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast was absolutely unheard of. I'd managed to find ways to force some of the wealth onto Gale and his family, mostly through bringing it directly to Hazelle. Gale had gone from angry to mildly annoyed about it over the course of the past couple of months. Seeing Posy thrive through the winter, for the first time in her short life, had ultimately won him over.

He walked with me to town, trying to pick at me for what happened when I spent the night at the bakery. Anything and everything I told him was going straight to Madge, I knew that, and it took me until we got to the edge of town to decide whether I wanted him to just tell her for me to get it over with, or I'd rather do it myself. When we reached the point where he had to break away to continue to the mayor's mansion, I stopped and turned to him.

“You can tell Madge I kissed him,” I said. Gale made a face and looked around.

“I was planning on it,” he said, looking at me like I was stupid. “I saw it happen. You know me better than that.”

“No, I mean,” I sighed, pushing my hair back away from my face when I realized I had just further incriminated myself. A grin spread across Gale's face as the realization dawned on him. “The other night. We couldn't sleep. We sat and talked. We kissed.”

“You kissed him, or he kissed you?” Gale raised an eyebrow.

“Both,” I frowned, chewing on the inside of my lip. Gale nodded, chuckling to himself.

“Alright. You gonna be home tonight?” he asked.

“Of course I am,” I snapped.

“You know she's gonna want to talk to you,” he smirked, tossing his head toward the other end of town.

“I know,” I rolled my eyes and turned away, continuing on toward the bakery.

“See you later, Catnip,” Gale called after me. I waved over my shoulder to him before slipping between the buildings.

I expected the day to be painfully awkward and for Rye to have plenty of jabs to make at me. For Twain to somehow let on that he knew. Nothing seemed the slightest bit different, though. Rye's jabs at me weren't any more specific than usual. Twain was perfectly natural. Peeta didn't come downstairs, though. Even that wasn't unusual, but it made me a little nervous. It gave my doubts validity.

As the afternoon wore on with Peeta still conspicuously absent from the kitchen, I kept my eye out for an opportunity to slip upstairs unnoticed. There was finally a break in the kitchen work, Twain was out on a delivery, and Rye was out front, talking with his friends from school. I went straight upstairs and made my way to the end of the hall, hesitating in front of the closed bedroom door. Did he even want to see me? I listened for a moment and took a breath before raising my hand to knock. Peeta opened the door before my knuckles even hit the wood.

“I h-heard you come up,” he said, opening the door wider and moving back to the bed to sit down.

“I was getting a little nervous about you not coming down,” I said, stepping in and sitting down next to him. I'd done this more times than I could count; come up here alone, sat down with him in his bed. Why was it making my heart pound this time?

“Just t-tired,” he shrugged, scratching his fingers through his hair. He'd stopped wearing the hat around me, for the most part. He saved it for when he went downstairs, and when he knew he'd have to be around my mother, or his father and brothers. “I didn't sleep much while you were here. D-didn't last night either.”

“I slept all day yesterday,” I chuckled. The sound caught in my throat when that dream came back to me, my skin flushing almost immediately when I thought about the one thing I'd done besides sleep. I shifted, crossing my legs to try to suppress the feeling there. He couldn't even look at me. “Peeta—I'm. I need to say I'm s-”

“Don't,” he cut me off, pressing his eyes closed. “P-please don't apologize. You can say—anything except 'I'm sorry'. Please.”

“So you're not, um, upset?” I chewed my lip, looking over at him.

“Wh-what?” He stammered, staring at me for a moment. “N-no! God no.”

“Okay,” I looked down at my hands, twisting my fingers together in my lap.

“Katniss?” He shifted closer to me, and I glanced over at him, lifting my eyes to his. He smiled faintly, his tongue darting nervously over his lips. Peeta raised his hand to my cheek and leaned in to kiss me. It was soft and sweet, steadier than the other, firmer. I felt his tongue brush lightly over my lower lip and opened my mouth to him, leaning my body into his. A quiet whimper escaped me as his tongue slid against my own, and he answered it with a gentle rumble I felt through his chest. We pulled back after a moment, my arms around him. His hand had worked its way back into my hair. I couldn't find anything to do with myself but kiss him again; and I did.

His cheeks were flushed when I pulled back, and his other hand had found its way to my waist. One of mine rested on the bed behind him, the other on his thigh. I thought again about that dream. He had laid me down, moved over me, and kissed me deeply. I straightened up, looking down at my hand, then back up at his face. Peeta brushed my hair back over my ear, smiling and looking away when our eyes met. I watched him, trying to figure out exactly what was going through his head; why he had so little to say. Then again, I couldn't find much to say, either.

I coaxed him downstairs after a while and made him keep me company. Rye's smirks seemed to gain a little more weight when I did, though I couldn't be sure if that was my imagination. His behavior didn't change, though. I expected jeers; I had managed to avoid them most of the day. When I sat down to eat before leaving for home Peeta reached for my hand under the table, twining our fingers together. I caught Rye smiling at us before ducking out into the storefront.

“I have to go visit your m-mom as soon as the weather allows,” he said, chewing his lip. “B-before school starts again.”

“Are you starting back right away?” I asked. He nodded, frowning at the table. He didn't want to go at all, and I honestly didn't blame him. I didn't want to get in the way of him working his way back into whatever he could salvage from his old life, either, and that was going to mean keeping my distance.

“She wants to p-prepare me,” he rolled his eyes, shifting his grip on my hand and looking down at it.

“Like she has any idea of what's coming,” I smirked, resting our hands on my knee.

“I feel like you're—the only one who c-can understand what that'll be like,” Peeta said quietly, looking down at our hands. It bothered me that considering my complete and utter lack of social awareness I seemed to be the only one who saw this was likely to be a disaster. How could my mother consider this something he was ready for? How could his father not see it for the bad idea it was?

 

Twain let me go early. I had never actually worked through a day without Peeta there. Rye brought him to see my mother early in the morning since the paths from the seam to town were clear of snow, the mud packed hard and solid in the cold. Enough for his wheelchair, though it'd be a bumpier ride than usual. It would be a rough trip home. One we needed to make together. I was, honestly, going home only to turn right back around and make the walk again, this time with Peeta, but I didn't mind. I'd walked longer and farther through the woods with less purpose, and I was happy to finally get a little time truly alone with him after that kiss.

I stepped in through the front door, slipping out of my boots before shedding my jacket and draping it over Peeta's empty wheelchair. He was in his usual spot on the couch, Buttercup curled up in his lap. It was odd seeing him here after it having been so long since the last time he was able to make the trip. Not to mention the change in things between us. He glanced up at me, smiling and looking down at the cat again.

“Katniss,” Mom shifted in her chair to look at me. Her tone was off; I didn't trust it. “I'm glad you're back. There's something I'd like to talk about with the both of you.” There it was.

“Is there?” I looked at Peeta, hoping for an explanation. He shrugged. He looked as lost as I did.

“Come sit,” Mom smiled, gesturing to the empty spot beside Peeta on the couch. I raised my eyebrows, but she didn't offer a word of explanation. I crossed the room, looking to Peeta again, and he had even less to offer. I sat down beside him, ignoring the indignant glare from Buttercup. The cat flattened his ears as I settled back, and Peeta scratched the cat's chin, immediately distracting him. “So. Twain's been noticing a bit of a shift in your relationship.”

“What?” I snapped, my posture snapping upright. Peeta tensed beside me. Mom raised an eyebrow at me, and I glanced at Peeta. He shook his head subtly. “What has he been noticing?”

“Just that you're very close,” Mom said, and I swear she was holding back a smile. “He agreed it would be prudent if we had a little... discussion.”

“My f-father did?” Peeta frowned, looking over at me. Mom nodded. She had her Patient Smile on; one I'd seen too many times over the years, explaining one thing or another to her clients. Her bedside manner was always complimented, but facing it in this light was just making me uneasy. I could sense the same feeling in Peeta.

“Now, I know none of this will be completely foreign to either of you,” she said, crossing one leg over the other and lacing her fingers together around her knee. “But I can certainly assure you that neither of you knows as much as you might think you know.” She gestured to Peeta and I in turn. “As your doctor and your mother, I feel it's my responsibility to be sure that you're both educated and safe.” My heart dropped. She couldn't possibly be going where I thought she was with this. Was she really going to do this to me?

“You've gotten very close, and that's wonderful,” she continued, her smile softening. “It's good to see physical affection between you. It can play an important part in recovery, and it's certainly healthy to behave that way. Especially at your age. I think, though, that you're both well aware of where that can lead. Maybe a bit of discussion and education will help the two of you proceed appropriately.”

“Mom,” I groaned. She was going to do this to me. I covered my eyes with one hand, peeking toward Peeta from under my fingers. The color had completely drained from his face.

“Katniss,” she imitated my tone. I gave Peeta the most apologetic look I could muster. “It is healthy to want to explore that part of yourselves. And each other. While I certainly hope you'll demonstrate restraint, I'm well aware of how rare that truly is. You need to keep yourselves safe.”

“Please stop, Mom,” I pressed my eyes closed, sagging against the back of the couch. Peeta's grip on the scruff at the back of Buttercup's neck had grown so firm the damn cat's eyes were pulled back tight, making him look as shocked and terrified as the two of us felt.

“I honestly doubt either of you has any idea how easy it is to become pregnant,” Mom huffed. She gestured toward Peeta's lap, and he pressed his knees together, sinking back against the couch like he was trying to disappear into it. “A single ejaculation contains millions of sperm. And I promise you, Katniss, I am done raising children.”

“This isn't- I'm not- We haven't- ugh,” I gave up trying to find a way to phrase it and sagged a bit further. I just wanted to find a hole somewhere to crawl into forever. Peeta gave me a desperate, pleading look. Make it stop. All I could do was shrug in response. I couldn't.

“You will,” Mom gave me a pointed look. “Maybe not soon, maybe not with each other, but neither of those things change the fact that this conversation is important. Now, I'm sure he'll try to tell you he'll pull out. Believe me, he won't. Many men do not have the self control necessary to do so, let alone an inexperienced teenage boy. That's why the use of a prophylactic-”

“Oh my god! Mom! Stop talking!” I snapped, sitting up again.

“A wh-what?” Peeta said, his brow furrowed in confusion. I just looked over at him, my jaw slack, shaking my head.

“Well, that's certainly a surprise,” Mom muttered, raising her eyebrows. “Two older brothers and this is still news.” She leaned over the side of her chair, fishing around in the bag leaning against it and producing a small tin. She flipped it open, producing a small, unmistakeable square piece of plastic packaging.

“Are you kidding?” I snapped.

“Oh! Oh, uh, n-no I- um, I kn-n-n-” Peeta stuttered, waving his hand in front of him in futile protest.

“Where the hell did you even get those?” I stare at my mother, folding my arms across my chest. This had to be the single most painful experience of my life.

“Well, I only had a couple left,” she said. Peeta's eyebrows flew to his hairline, and I swear he was fighting back a smile. My lip curled in disgust. “But Gale offered-”

“Oh my god, Gale knows about this??” My jaw dropped, my shoulders hunching up around my ears. I wanted to get up and go straight next door to slap the shit out of him. I lowered my voice to a mutter. “Of course. Of course Gale knows. Because how could this possibly be any worse?” I leaned back, glancing over at Peeta in complete disbelief. His eyes were the size of dinner plates. Buttercup hissed and squirmed to claw at Peeta's iron grip on the back of his neck.

“Now, Katniss, pay attention, you may need to help him with this,” Mom said, and we both just stared at her. I'd brought this on us, tempted fate with that question, because at that moment it became infinitely worse. Both Peeta and I just stared in quiet horror as she demonstrated how to use one, unrolling it over her fingers, and I struggled to hold back vomit when the phrase 'pinch the tip' left my mother's mouth. She let out a short, soft laugh. “Obviously this is significantly different from what he will look like-”

“I know,” I snapped. Both Peeta and my mother stared at me, raising their eyebrows. I gaped for a moment, stammering as I tried to explain myself. “You- you treat patients here, it's not like I haven't seen- you know.”

“Katniss, that's a bit different from his erect p-”

“I'm aware,” I snapped, cutting her off before she could even finish the sentence. I folded my arms across my chest and dropped against the back of the couch, frowning and staring toward the fire. I could feel Peeta looking at me. There was no way I could bring myself to look back.

“Well then,” Mom muttered, clearing her throat. She handed the tin and its remaining contents to Peeta. He took them hesitantly, dropping his arm against his leg immediately, as if he was afraid to bring them too close. “You'll need to take care in putting them on, as they can be extremely easy to tear. Especially in the heat of the moment.”

“That's stupid,” I spat, glancing at the tin and at Peeta before looking back toward the fire. His face was a deep, vivid red.

“Be sure to keep them near your bed,” Mom continued as if I hadn't even spoken. “Even carry one with you. Arousal can and will make you both stupid enough not to care about protection if it isn't easily accessible, but that's no excuse.” She wasn't even close to done, but I blocked out anything more she had to say. It felt like a century before she finally finished, smiling warmly at both myself and Peeta and ushering us toward the door. “I hope I've given you some things to think about to guide your decisions.”

Neither of us spoke for most of the walk home. I couldn't swallow the utter humiliation she'd just forced on me. On Peeta. Though maybe that was purposeful. It was certainly the most effective birth control she could possibly give. There's no way I would even be able to look at Peeta any time in the near future, let alone touch him. Even staring down at the back of his head as I pushed his chair was too much, and I looked over him, staring at the path ahead of us. Peeta's shoulders started to shake, his hand moving to cover his face, and I looked down at him. Great, on top of all that horror she'd put me through, now I needed to find a way to get my shit together long enough to talk him down from his tears.

Peeta threw his head back, covering his face with both hands, and I realized he hadn't been crying at all. He'd started laughing. It grew louder the longer it went on, until I couldn't help but join in. My laughter was far more hesitant and confused.

“I don't think this is all that funny,” I said, pressing my lips together and trying to stop my own laughter. “You had to ask.”

“I've n-never heard that word!” he chuckled, twisting to look at me. “Who c-calls them that?”

“My mother,” I frowned, shaking my head. “Apparently. Ugh.”

“That w-was h-horrible,” he squeezed out, nearly wheezing as he hunched forward again. “I th-thought it was bad. And then she p-put it on her fingers. Oh god.” He covered his face with his hands, shaking his head, his shoulders still shaking with laughter. I joined in, knowing full well the two of us must have looked like lunatics to anyone who saw us walk by.

“I thought you were going to strangle that poor cat,” I said, unable to wipe the smile off of my face. He shifted in his chair so he could look over his shoulder at me without straining his neck, still chuckling.

“Can we p-please pretend that never—ever happened?” he said, raising his eyebrows.

“Please,” I begged, and he laughed again, holding his hand out for me to shake.

“Deal,” he said, gripping my hand for a moment before letting my fingers slide through his as he turned back around. When we reached the edge of town I heard a familiar voice that made my heart bottom out somewhere around my feet. Of course.

“Catnip! Hold up!” Gale was jogging the last stretch of the shortcut he sometimes used toward the mayor's mansion. Peeta swore under his breath, sagging in his chair. “I was hoping I'd catch you two.” He grinned at me as he caught up to us, nudging me out of the way and taking hold of the back of Peeta's chair.

“Hi Gale,” I deadpanned.

“Hey, buddy,” he grinned down at Peeta, drawing the words out four times as long as necessary. “I'm guessing you two just had a wonderful afternoon.”

“Which we have sworn never to speak of again,” I pointed out, folding my arms across my chest. “And what the fuck is wrong with you, giving that shit to my mother?”

“I overheard her talking to my mom,” he shrugged, looking over at me and grinning. “And I seem to remember you making sure I had the most humiliating birthday possible just a couple of weeks ago.” I huffed and rolled my eyes. “Payback's a bitch, isn't it?”

“Will you go home?” I pleaded. Peeta had his hand over his eyes, slouched against the armrest of the chair.

“Alright, alright,” Gale grinned. We were almost at the bakery. He stood back, gesturing toward the chair for me to take hold of the back. “Just promise me something. Both of you.”

“What,” I snapped, and Peeta turned to look up at him.

“You'll think of me when you put them to use,” he grinned, turning and jogging away as I exaggerated the shudder that rolled over me. “Goodnight, Catnip! Play safe!”

“I'm going to kill him in his sleep,” I muttered, leaning against the back of Peeta's chair and maneuvering it to the alley between the bakery and the tailor's.

“I'm giving them to Rye,” he frowned, getting up and helping me pull the chair the rest of the way, taking my arm as we made our way up the back steps. “I'm not even going to b-be able to l-look at that without thinking of... all that. We'll just get more.”

“We?” I smirked, raising an eyebrow at him. Peeta froze, his hand halfway to the doorknob. His eyes went wide as he looked over at me.

“Um, I, uh I d-d-didn't m-mean t-t-” he stuttered, searching for the words and trying desperately to cover for himself. My heart melted a little at the terrified look on his face as he yanked off his hat and scratched his fingers into his hair. I stepped closer and kissed him, cutting him off before he got himself any more worked up. His lips were soft and wet against mine, and his body relaxed as he leaned into the kiss. He sighed when I pulled back, his brow furrowing. “Sorry.”

“Don't,” I smiled and kissed the corner of his mouth, taking his hand in mine and squeezing it lightly before turning to open the door and tuck his wheelchair into the mudroom. “See you, Peet.”

“Goodnight, Kat,” he smiled, watching me until I turned to go, closing the door softly behind me.

Chapter Text

 The first day back at school was painful. Gale and I spent two hours in the woods beforehand, shivering and numb but managing to successfully track and bag a pair of snowshoe hares and a fox before heading for home. Peeta turned up for our third class. The room went silent as he wheeled himself in, heading for a chairless desk at the back of the room the teacher had the foresight to arrange. She approached him before class started, her voice quiet and kind, and I strained to listen to the exchange.

 

“I'm very glad to see you back,” she said, leaning close with her hand on Peeta's back. He nodded, flashing a tight smile at her. “If you need anything, don't hesitate to ask. And I'm sure your father told you, but all the same; I'm more than happy to tutor you a bit after school, any day you like, with anything you may need.”

 

“Th-thank you,” he said quietly, shifting and pressing his hand to the side of his face to cover the twitch in his jaw. She smiled and patted his shoulder before returning to the front of the class. He caught my eye briefly, dropping his eyes to the desk as Miss Krugel began her lecture on the coming semester. As I shifted to face the front of the room I noticed Merx Miller turning around as well. He'd been staring at Peeta, and I didn't like the smirk on his face one bit.

 

I wasted a few minutes at my desk after class, making a show of gathering the few textbooks I'd accumulated during the morning. They didn't even let us keep them through the winter break. Afraid we'd burn them to keep warm, I'm sure. I wanted to catch up with Peeta, but I didn't want to do so when any of the kids from town would be around to notice. Most of them spent the last minute or two of every class perched on the edge of their chairs, ready to take to the halls the second the bell rang so they could mill around as long as possible. I assumed Peeta would take his time and leave after most of the students had filed out of the classroom, but by the time I looked up he was gone, and I couldn't find him in the hall.

 

His schedule consisted of one class every day. They rotated to a different one each day of the week to cover the five academics we were required to take. When Mom explained it to me I assumed that meant he was exempt from the rotation of Life Studies, PE, and study hall that filled our sixth class period of the day. Skipping gym went without saying, and as much as I envied him for not having to suffer through the lectures on marriage, health, and our roles in society, that seemed a bit backhanded to me. It was as if those lessons on what the Capitol considered a responsible, productive adulthood no longer applied to him.

 

The second day was worse. The hush that fell over our fourth period class when Peeta wheeled himself in was broken by whispers and half-stifled laughing. It didn't help that Capps hadn't bothered being as courteous as Miss Krugel had about the desk, just pointed Peeta to an empty one at the back of the room. He kicked off our second day of class with a quiz as Peeta moved from his wheelchair to his seat. One of the Whitaker twins all but stared Peeta down as he sat. I hated the cocky smirk on his face. Even more than that, I hated the look he shot toward Merx when he turned around.

 

Fourth period was split in half by lunch, and I left the classroom as quickly as I could. I glanced toward Peeta on my way out the door; he was sitting sideways in his seat, looking at the wheelchair at the back of the classroom and frowning.

 

“I'd like to eat today too, Mr. Mellark, if you don't mind picking up the pace,” I heard Capps say just before I turned down the hall. There were a few laughs behind me and it made my skin crawl. I walked faster, trying to get away from them, and the pace just brought me right up behind Merx and his crowd of simpering assholes.

 

“Can you fuckin' believe that chair after we saw him walking around town?” Verne Whitaker elbowed Merx as they walked.

 

“I told you he was milking it,” Merx chuckled. I wanted to elbow my way between them and set them both straight. Point out the mile and a half walk to and from the school, the jostling in the halls, and maybe knock the two of them against the damn walls while I was at it. Instead I just stared daggers at the backs of their heads, trying to listen to every other conversation in the hall but theirs until I could duck around them when we reached the cafeteria.

 

“So Peeta joined you for math today, hm?” Madge said after I sat down, smirking at me and unwrapping her lunch.

 

“Word seems to travel awful fast,” I shook my head, looking over to the merchant kids' table.

 

“His brother stopped to make eyes at his girlfriend through the window of our classroom,” she rolled her eyes. She and Delly were on the same class rotation this year.

 

“So he's acknowledging her in public? Where there's witnesses?” I smirked, the expression faltering when I saw Peeta wheeling himself into the cafeteria. Everyone he passed stopped their conversations and turned to stare. Even after what they'd said, I still half expected him to go right back to the merchant table, but he barely gave them a passing glance before continuing past them to an empty table near the wall. Delly watched him, a vague frown on her face, and picked up her lunch before shoving her chair back and standing, still looking over toward him.

 

“Where do you think you're going?” Gilda Fisk's high, grating voice was easily audible from where we sat. Delly's quiet answer wasn't. Gilda let out a harsh laugh. “Sit down.” She grabbed Delly's arm, yanking her back into her seat. Delly dropped her lunch bag on the table and stared down at it, her expression twisting with the threat of tears. Peeta either didn't notice the exchange or was making a point of ignoring it.

 

“For the love of god, seriously?” Madge dropped her hands against the table, staring at me.

 

“What?” I frowned, tearing my eyes away from Peeta.

 

“You're a pain in my ass,” she snapped, getting up from the table and walking straight over to where Peeta sat. She leaned down to speak to him, and he glanced over his shoulder at me, chewing the inside of his lip. More people watched her take ahold of his chair and push him to our table than had watched him enter in the first place. “You'll be sitting here from now on.” She smiled at me, pushing him to my side of the table and pulling away the empty chair beside me, pointing to the empty spot it left at the table.

 

“Um, o-okay,” he raised his eyebrows, wheeling himself forward the last couple of feet and moving up to the table beside me. I glanced toward the people he used to call his friends. There wasn't a single set of eyes at that table that wasn't watching us, and I could feel more around the cafeteria. If they were going to watch, I was at least going to show them exactly how Peeta should have been treated.

 

“Hey,” I angled toward him and smiled. Confusion flashed across his face for a moment. “Getting through it okay?”

 

“I g-guess,” he shrugged, resting his forearms against the table and glancing up at Madge. “You d-didn't have to do that.”

 

“You mean get my friend to eat lunch with her boyfriend?” Madge raised an eyebrow, smirking at us. Peeta straightened up a bit, stammering quietly before looking over at me. A faint blush crept into his face.

 

“Don't bother protesting. It's useless on her,” I muttered, looking down at my lunch. I could feel heat rising in my own face, as well. Kissing or not, referring to each other as boyfriend and girlfriend sounded strange.

 

“You're turning her into an actual human being, you know,” Madge said, smirking at Peeta. I gave her a look that she ignored. “Good job.”

 

“Wh-what?” he glanced over at me before turning back to Madge.

 

“You're good for her,” she said. Peeta just looked at me again, clearly unsure of how to respond. I saved him from needing to, sliding one of the cinnamon rolls I packed for lunch in front of him. He frowned at it.

 

“You didn't bring anything,” I shrugged.

 

“I'm n-not going to b-be here long,” he said, not quite lifting his eyes from the table.

 

“Eat anyway,” I said, tearing my own roll in half before eating it. “Might make you feel a little less awkward. Give them one less reason to stare.” I nodded toward Merx and his friends. They still hadn't taken their eyes off of us. Peeta looked up at them, his jaw tightening, and nodded to me in thanks.

 

Madge occupied most of the conversation, keeping both of us talking. Peeta was quiet, though, shy of his stutter. He wanted to keep it hidden, and I understood why. I couldn't help but steal glances toward the merchant table. It was more than obvious who they were talking about, if the looks they cast in our direction were any indicator. When lunch ended, I took ahold of the back of Peeta's wheel chair and began pushing him out ahead of me.

 

“K-Kat,” he said, his voice tense and low. I leaned down to hear him better. “Walk b-beside me.”

 

“What?”

 

“I c-can get around on my own,” he said, cutting his eyes to the side as someone leered at him on their way past us. “P-please.”

 

“Sorry,” I frowned briefly, letting go and moving to walk beside him. I glanced back at Madge as she turned toward her class. She just waved at me, smiling a little too sweetly for my liking. I rolled my eyes, glancing down at the way Peeta gripped the push ring on the wheel, pressing down with his palms instead of fully curling his fingers around it. “I'll be at the bakery today.”

 

“I w-was wondering-” he started, cutting himself off as Merx pushed past, the group he was with fanning across the hall in front of us and slowing their pace immediately. Peeta pressed his hands against the wheels of his chair, frowning and slowing himself down. They walked at a crawl, most of the students filtering around them to one side or the other, a luxury Peeta didn't quite have. I wasn't about to leave him to get back to class. His jaw tensed. He looked up at me and shook his head, his twitch kicking in when the kids ahead of us erupted into laughter before breaking into a near-run to get back to their classrooms. We would be late after that, a move that was deliberate on their part.

 

“Assholes,” I muttered. When Peeta and I got back to class everyone was already in their seats with Capps on the verge of closing the door.

 

“Late. I'd expect better from you,” he frowned at Peeta before looking at me with disgust and forcing me to duck around him to get to my desk. The meaning was clear. Trusting me to get anywhere on time was a stretch. Capps went out of his way to be hard on the seam kids. “You're not getting any special treatment out of this, Mellark.”

 

“S-s-sorry—sir,” Peeta frowned, ducking his head and moving to the back of the classroom. There were a few snickers from around the room.

 

“S-s-sorry s-s-sir,” Merx muttered under his breath, earning himself a couple of laughs before Capps glared at us and silenced them. I leaned over my desk, pretending to be taking notes but really angling my head to watch Peeta. He kept the heel of his hand pressed against his jaw, his skin flushing, and stared down at the desk for the rest of class. As soon as the bell rang, he moved into his wheelchair and pushed himself out the door before I had a chance to catch up with him.

 

Rye was tense and quiet when I got to the bakery that afternoon. He kept shooting dark looks at me, gearing up to say something and cutting himself off before the words made it out. Twain asked a few idle questions about school, being a little too obvious in his skirting of Peeta in class. He wanted to know, and I did my best to fill him in without overstepping any boundaries Peeta may have wanted to maintain. Some things were his to tell. After Twain went out to take care of a few deliveries Rye finally spat out what he had been holding in.

 

“The fuck is going on in that school?” he snapped at me, dropping his work to stare me down.

 

“What are you talking about?” I frowned.

 

“I get that they're making fun of him. We knew that was coming,” he folded his arms across his chest. “But why is it that when I asked about you on the way home he refused to fucking speak? Are you ignoring him? You're all fine with kissing my brother in private but you don't want anyone knowing you're spending all your time with a cripple?”

 

I gaped at him, turning to stare, still elbow deep in the cookie dough I was mixing. My anger was quickly replaced by guilt, though. Peeta had to share those same thoughts, and the idea of causing him any more stress than he already had to deal with was terrible. The idea of him thinking that was how I felt about him, though, felt like a vice tightening around my chest.

 

“I don't want to hear shit from you,” Rye snapped. “But if you don't get the fuck up those stairs and explain your bullshit to him I will throw you in that fucking oven and lock the door.”

 

I yanked my hands out of the bowl, shoving at him and walking over to the sink to scrub off the flour and bits of dough sticking to my forearms. As I did I kept looking over my shoulder to the stairs, trying to figure out what state I'd find Peeta in when I got up there. I dried my hands, frowning at Rye and slapping the towel and my apron onto the counter. He narrowed his eyes at me as I crossed the kitchen, and I tried to ignore him and get my thoughts in order.

 

The second floor was dark and quiet. I picked my way down the hall toward the bedroom, trying to listen for any hint of Peeta awake in there. There was nothing. I knocked on the door and got no response. I tried again, listening for a moment, and heard the shift of the mattress springs but nothing else. I waited a few seconds before cracking open the door.

 

“Peeta?” I kept my voice low. If he was asleep, I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to wake him. Though I know Rye wouldn't accept that as an excuse if I went back downstairs that quickly. Peeta murmured wordlessly in response. I stepped into the room and closed the door behind me. He was pushing himself up in bed, rubbing his hand over his eyes.

 

“Hey,” he ran his hand back through his hair, blinking at me and stretching his legs under the blankets. I sat on the edge of the bed by his knees, forcing myself to look away from his bare chest, the hint of muscle still visible across his stomach, how soft and smooth his skin looked in the faint evening light that leaked in around the drawn shade.

 

“I, um,” I paused, chewing my lip and trying again to get my thoughts in order. “I owe you an apology.”

 

“F-for what?” he frowned. He wasn't even looking at me, just staring down at his hands.

 

“I wasn't ignoring you,” I said. His expression only shifted slightly, but enough to tighten the vice a bit further. “I mean. I was. But it wasn't...” I sighed. “I thought you would want your old friends back. And they certainly wouldn't talk to you if I was hanging around.” He looked up at me for the first time since I opened the door. His jaw was set, a hint of distrust in his eyes. “I'm sorry if I upset you. I was being pretty stupid.”

 

“You—you're n-not emb-embarrassed by me?” he balled the blankets in his fists and bit down on his lower lip to hide the tremble that had started there.

 

“Peeta,” I shifted closer, closing my eyes for a moment and covering his hand with mine. “No. No, I'm not. I thought that. Well. You'd be embarrassed by me.”

 

“Th-that is p-pretty stupid,” he said, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. I laughed at myself quietly and looked away. A few moments of silence passed between us. “Kat?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“It's okay,” he said, and the look on his face made my heart jump. Soft and open and warm. He smiled faintly. “J-just don't d-do it anymore.”

 

“Okay,” I chuckled, covering my eyes for a moment. I could feel my face flushing. Peeta took my hand, tugging it gently, and I shifted further up the bed to be closer to him. As soon as I was within reach he sat up and put his arms around me. Tentative at first, but tightening them when I moved closer and slipped my arms around his waist. His skin was as hot as the brick of the ovens downstairs, and my breath caught in my throat when I felt his lips graze my neck. I kissed his shoulder and flattened my hands against his back, turning my head to tuck up against his neck. My breathing fell into rhythm with his. I was too conscious of the heat of his skin, the smell of him, and his hand moving slowly across my lower back. I couldn't tell if it was his heart I heard pounding or my own. He leaned back against the headboard, pulling me with him. I tucked my feet up onto the mattress, letting myself lean into him. I didn't want to move.

 

After a while I felt him yawn, his chest expanding with it and lifting me. I straightened up, knowing I needed to leave him to get some sleep, and that it was getting close to when I'd need to head home anyway, and hating both of those things. I kissed him softly, his mouth opening gently against mine for only a moment before he pulled back, untangling himself from me as I sat up.

 

“See you tomorrow, Peet,” I smiled, looking down as his hands slid away from me and dropped into his lap.

 

“B-bright and early,” he smirked humorlessly.

 

“First class of the day?” I asked, chuckling at the annoyed expression I got in response. I squeezed his hand before getting up, glancing back at him from the doorway. “Goodnight.”

 

“Bye,” he smiled faintly, dropping his eyes before I even got the door closed. I took a deep breath, smoothing my hand over my hair as I moved down the hall and went downstairs.

 

“Judging by how long you took I'm going to guess that was a proper apology,” Rye said before I even hit the bottom step, accompanying the statement with a few vulgar gestures. I sneered at him.

 

“I apologized,” I said, looking to see what was still left to do for the night. It seemed as though Rye had actually managed to finish before I came down. “And explained my 'bullshit'.”

 

“Good,” Rye smirked. “And I'm guessing I probably need to give him some, uh, privacy before I head up there.”

 

“Don't be vile,” I frowned at him. “And I'm leaving.”

 

“Goodnight, Catpiss,” Rye grinned and waved as I headed into the mudroom and snatched my coat from where it hung on the wall, tugging it on as I went out back. I nearly ran headlong into Twain as I hit the bottom of the stairs.

 

“Woah,” he set his hands on my shoulders, steering me around him. “Headed home?”

 

“Yes,” I smiled briefly and wondered if he knew why Peeta had been coming back from class upset every day.

 

“See you tomorrow,” he nodded. “Be careful out there, the paths are a little icy.”

 

“Goodnight, Twain,” I waved before rounding the corner to head back home. The night air was frigid, and I hugged my arms around myself, huddling against the bitter wind. I thought of Peeta. How warm it was wrapped in his arms. How good it felt to be there. I occupied myself with thoughts of being back in that warm bed with him to pass the time and found myself at my own front door far sooner than I thought I'd be. I let myself in, shucking my cold weather gear and crossing the room to the fire as quickly as I could manage. Mom looked up from where she sat at the table as I sat on the edge of the hearth. “Hi.”

 

“How was work?” she flipped her notebook closed, smiling at me.

 

“Good,” I shrugged, trying my best to sound casual. Most of my shift was spent in Peeta's bed. I rubbed my hands over my arms, turning to hold them out toward the fire.

 

“How has Peeta been doing in school?” She pushed her chair back from the table. I glanced over my shoulder to see her reaching into the cabinet for a plate and turned back to the fire.

 

“How do you think?” I frowned. “The people he used to be friends with are making fun of him, and our math teacher made a point of singling him out today. He didn't even leave his bedroom while I was over there today.” She probably knew I spend a good chunk of my time up there with him. That lecture she gave us popped back into my head, and I was too shocked by the realization of what she thought was going on in that room to realize she was still talking to me. It wasn't until she held a plate with a slice of cake on it in front of me and passed me a fork that I snapped out of it. “What?”

 

“I asked what you're doing to help,” she repeated as I took the plate and fork.

 

“Um, I was avoiding him,” I frowned, hating to admit it, but if she heard it from me I'd be less likely to get a lecture than if she heard it from Peeta tomorrow. I looked down at the cake as I scooped a piece onto my fork. The flowers piped along the side—this was one of Twain's. “I thought he'd want his friends back, and they wouldn't talk to him with me hanging around.”

 

“Noble, but misguided,” Mom smiled at me. I looked down at the cake again. It was obviously fresh, and I wondered if this was the delivery Twain had been out on. It did seem to take longer than the ones he usually made. “I hope you straightened that out.”

 

“I apologized today,” I nodded.

 

“Good,” she said, watching me for a moment. “Anything else I should be prepared for before I head over there tomorrow?” Peeta had gotten a break from Mom for the few days right before and right after school began. She'd thought the entire ordeal would leave him too exhausted for her to do him any good. I shook my head, hoping the warmth in my face was from the fire and that she wasn't trying to weasel anything about Peeta and I from me. It wasn't going to work.

 

Even after a couple of weeks at school Peeta was still earning stares. The whispers had nearly ended, and the holdouts were among Merx and his group of assholes. I honestly didn't expect that to ever stop. When we sat down to lunch on Tuesdays they stared at us, turning back to each other long enough for one of them to say something that would set the rest laughing before turning back. Peeta did his best to ignore it, but I could see the tension in his shoulders and how exhausted he looked after the days when they were at their worst. Madge filled in the conversational gaps when I fell into staring daggers at them, though more often than not I watched Delly. She sat at the end of the table and spent most of lunch staring down at her uneaten meal. She didn't laugh. Every now and then she'd cut her eyes at them, her face twisting at something they said. On the rare occasion she lifted her eyes from the table to look at us she looked sad.

 

Peeta hardly left his room. When he did come down to the bakery while I worked it was only for a short while. I invariably followed him when he went back upstairs. He didn't talk about it, though I was sure my mother spent enough time trying to get him to that he didn't need it from me. I tried to open doors, pointing out their bullshit and making sure he knew that I'd listen. Talking about school at all was the fastest way to get him to shut down on me, though.

 

I walked downstairs one afternoon, my lips still burning from his kiss, to find Delly standing in the kitchen. Rye was leaning against her, his hands on her waist, and his voice soft. She had the knuckles of one hand pressed to her mouth, staring off to one side. She shook her head at whatever he was saying and sniffled, tearing her gaze away from the floor when I neared the bottom of the stairs. She shoved Rye back a step and smoothed down her dress.

 

“Hi, Katniss,” she said quietly, flashing a faint smile and folding her arms around herself.

 

“Hey,” I frowned. Rye raised an eyebrow at me, trying to tell me something with his expression that I wasn't quite getting. He rolled his eyes and cleared his throat.

 

“We were talking about those shitheads at school,” he said, raising his eyebrows at me. He obviously wanted me to weigh in, but I didn't think Delly would much care for what I had to say.

 

“'Shitheads' doesn't cover it,” I muttered, tugging an apron down off the wall and tying it around my waist. “Why do you still hang out with them?”

 

“It's not like I can just walk away,” Delly frowned. “I know you saw Gilda grab me when I tried to get up that first day.”

 

“Fuckin' bitch,” Rye muttered, shaking his head.

 

“You could have just kept going,” I turned to her, folding my arms across my chest. “Who gives a shit about Gilda Fisk?”

 

“Her dad runs the bank,” Delly said, an edge of panic in her voice. I just raised an eyebrow. “Which means if her sister and her new husband don't take over, she will. Or whoever she ends up marrying. People hold grudges, Katniss.”

 

“We're fifteen,” I said, trying to imagine anyone holding a grudge about a school fight into adulthood. “Who the hell cares?”

 

“When they were fourteen Hollis Ayers and my mom got into a fight and didn't speak to each other again,” she said. “They're like, 40, and the supply orders for the shoe shop still 'get lost' a couple of times a year.”

 

“Who the fuck is Hollis Ayers?” I rolled my eyes. I had no idea who any of these townies were and hated listening to them talk like I did.

 

“Hollis collects the order forms for the monthly supply trains,” Rye explained. “And the Ayers pretty much run the Justice Hall, half of the people who work there are related to them. Phyl bitches about it all the damn time.”

 

“That's stupid,” I looked from one to the other, expecting this to be a joke. Were people in town really this petty? If someone held a grudge in the seam the source of it tended to be something far more serious than a schoolyard fight. And even then I couldn't think of anyone who'd go that far to act on it. Maybe it was because most of us were too busy struggling to survive. It amazed me what sort of bullshit suddenly came up when life got easier. “Delly, who cares what they think of you? And why would you just play into them being that petty? It's only going to make them worse. If you don't want to listen to them, walk away from them. I know Peeta would certainly appreciate it. You're supposed to be his friend. And it's one less person backing them up.”

 

“See?” Rye said, stepping closer to Delly and rubbing his hand across her back. “She thinks so, too. Fuck 'em.” Delly leaned into him, smiling for a moment before her expression turned thoughtful.

 

The following Tuesday she leaned toward Gilda Fisk during lunch, her expression pinched and angry as she spoke. Gilda just stared at her, too shocked to even respond. Delly picked up her lunch, stood up from their table, and crossed the cafeteria. Every single one of them sitting at that table craned to watch her, and she beelined for us, dropping down into the seat beside Madge.

 

“You guys don't mind if I sit here, do you?” she asked, the bravado dropping out of her expression.

 

“Nope,” I smirked and looked over at Peeta. He shook his head, smiling to himself.

 

“It's about time you grew a spine,” Madge smiled at her, drawing a faint blush to Delly's face.

 


 

“So I hear you have a new friend,” Gale leaned against a tree, looking down at me as I tied off a snare. I gave him a look. “Your social circle just keeps expanding, Catnip.”

 

“Oh, shut up,” I rolled my eyes and threw the dead squirrel I liberated from the snare a little harder than I should have. He caught it easily.

 

“You're stuck with Delly now, you know,” he said as I stood, pushing off from the tree and leading the way to our next snare in the line. “Madge likes her. They were hanging out when I stopped by the other day. Not to mention you're dating her boyfriend's brother.”

 

“I'm not dating Peeta,” I shoved his shoulder as he crouched over the next snare. Empty, but tripped. He glanced up at me before he set it again.

 

“Hooking up with him, then,” Gale corrected.

 

“I'm not hooking up with him, either,” I tugged at the strap of my game bag, looking away from him. I hated that casual phrasing. It made me sound like a slut.

 

“Whatever it is you're doing, then,” he chuckled. I felt like slapping him but couldn't come up with a way to explain why out loud, and I knew he'd demand to know. A sharp wind blew through the trees, whipping pine needles at the two of us. I tightened my scarf and moved ahead, forcing Gale to chase after me until I got to the ridge.

 

I wasn't entirely sure what I was doing, to be perfectly honest. I didn't think about any of it. Nothing I did with Peeta was premeditated. There was definitely no planning that went into anything that went on between us. At lunch that day I moved my chair closer to him and took his hand under the table. He smiled down at the sandwich half in front of him and threaded our fingers together. Neither Delly or Madge even looked up from their conversation.

 

I spent more time at the bakery, stayed later than usual and turned up earlier on Saturdays. Slowly, Peeta started spending more time out of his bedroom. School wasn't going to get any easier, but he seemed to be getting better at putting up with it. Mom wanted him to spend more time in classes as soon as he felt ready. She spent time discussing it with Twain and made a trip to speak with the school administration about it. All it did was stress Peeta out.

 

The first day he stayed for two classes was a Friday and was meant to give him the weekend to recover. By the end of the second class his twitch had grown impossible to hide. Our science teacher—clueless but well meaning—had addressed him in class twice, and the stuttering, halted responses she got left half the class stifling laughter, not just Merx. Peeta dropped his gaze to his desk, leaning forward and tugging his hat down. I saw him wipe under his eyes quickly before turning around.

 

After class I nearly had to run to keep from losing him as he pushed his chair down the hall. Rye would be waiting for him out front, but I was intent on bringing him home. I'd already put in my work for the week at the bakery, but what happened in class was going to leave him shaky, at best, for a couple of days. Maybe I could help.

 

Rye and Delly were standing out front, his arm around her waist. He made a point of kissing her when Merx and Gilda walked by, twin sneers on their faces. Delly's face was flushed crimson when he pulled away. Peeta didn't even slow down, just rolled past them, letting the wheels run through his hands down the gentle slope leading away from the front of the school.

 

“The hell happened?” Rye said as I blew past, still trying to catch up. He pulled away from Delly to walk with me, and I heard her quick little footsteps behind us.

 

“What do you think?” I snapped. “I'll take care of it. Go... do whatever.” I glanced over my shoulder at Delly. The two of them slowed to a stop, and I ran a few steps to catch up with Peeta. I grabbed the handles of his wheelchair. “Will you slow down?”

 

“N-no,” he kept going, giving the wheels a shove forward that jerked the chair from my grasp. I swore under my breath and just tried to keep up his pace. When we reached the front of the bakery he got up out of the wheelchair and tried hauling it down the alley between the two buildings. I was a step behind him and grabbed onto it when he faltered, reaching out and hooking my arm through his as his foot skidded on the snow.

 

“Peeta-”

 

“I'm fine,” he snapped, jerking his arm away from me and steadying himself against the building. Before he turned and walked away I caught sight of the tears in his eyes. He disappeared around the side of the building, and I pushed his wheelchair ahead of me and hauled it up the back stairs. As I stepped into the mudroom I could hear him on the stairs, his bedroom door slamming shut a moment later.

 

“Rye?” Twain called, poking his head in as I pulled off my jacket. “Wait. Katniss? What happened? Where's Rye?”

 

“Bad day,” I frowned, glancing past Twain toward the stairs. He moved back into the kitchen, and I followed behind. “It was too much, I think. The kids... you know.” Twain nodded, folding his arms across his chest and frowning at the floor. “Rye's with Delly. I thought I might be able to do a little more good.”

 

“Thank you,” Twain looked over at me, his voice sincere. He gestured toward the stairs. “Go on.” I nodded before heading upstairs. I knocked softly on his door but didn't bother waiting for a response before opening it. I knew I wasn't going to get one. Peeta was laying in bed, curled up facing the wall, the blankets pulled up to his ears.

 

“Peet?” I said quietly. He just curled in on himself further. I sat down on the edge of the bed and reached out to touch his shoulder. He flinched and drew a slow breath. “They're assholes. You know that.”

 

“S-st-stop,” he said, his voice muffled and thick. I sighed and stared down at the floor. After a moment I heard him trying to muffle tears and pushed my hair back away from my face, trying to figure out what the hell to do. It only took a moment. I tugged my boots off, got up off of the bed, and lifted the edge of the blanket to slip underneath. Peeta stuttered a quiet protest that ended as soon as I pressed against his back, curling my arm under his and pressing a kiss against his shoulder. I laid my cheek against the soft, worn cotton of his t-shirt and closed my eyes. His shoulders shook with the sobs he was trying to keep silent, and I tightened my arm around him.

 

The room had darkened by the time he'd cried himself out. When he finally went still, his breathing evening out, I pressed my lips to the side of his neck. He turned to face me, shifting carefully in the narrow bed. His eyes were red and swollen. I smiled and pushed his hat back off of his head to comb my fingers through his hair.

 

“I h-hate that—you s-see me like this,” he said softly, reaching for the hat and looking down at it in his hand.

 

“I'm glad you let me.” I took the hat from him and pushed myself up to set it on the dresser. I laid back down, resting my head on his pillow, the intimacy of laying here so close to him finally hitting me. It made my heart race.

 

“Th-there's um—something I've wanted to t-tell you f-for a while,” he said, dropping his gaze. The muscles along his jaw twitched, and I reached out to brush my fingers over them. He took my hand in his, pulling it away but keeping a gentle hold on it. “It's j-just hard to s-say.”

 

“It's okay,” I squeezed his hand. It took him a minute to put himself together, his eyes unfocused. I could see him working through it in his head, getting the words in order.

 

“It d-doesn't feel real—that you're this n-nice to me,” he chewed his lip, looking down at our hands. He stroked his thumb over the back of mine. “I've wanted th-this. Forever. I. Um.” He closed his eyes, frowning for a moment. “I've b-been hoping for a way to g-get close to you—since th-the first time I saw you. Th-this isn't how I want to b-be.” I moved a little closer to him, pressing my lips together. What Rye had said to me popped back into my head—that he needed time to be the person he wanted to be for me. He'd been alluding to this, that Peeta had always cared about me. “I d-don't know if I can be—better-”

 

“Stop,” I said softly. “I don't want you to be better.” I shifted my hold on his hand and set it on my waist. “If you want to be better then I'll help, but I just want you to be you.” I kissed him softly. He just stared at me, his expression laced with confusion. “You're hurt, I know, but there's nothing wrong with who you are.”

 

He took a breath to speak, his brow furrowing, but stopped himself. His hand slid to my back, pulling me closer, and he leaned in to kiss me. I smiled against his lips, sliding my arm around his waist and melting against him. His skin was hot, the blankets trapping it against us, and the heat only got more intense when his mouth opened against mine, his tongue brushing my lips. I met it with my own, sliding my leg against his. He pulled back briefly, his lips never quite leaving mine, and his breath hot and heavy. Peeta shifted carefully, his hand sliding from my back to my hip, turning me onto my back and moving until he was nearly on top of me. I wrapped my arms around him, lifting my chin and catching his mouth with mine.

 

His weight on me was dizzying, and I couldn't let go of him. I couldn't bring myself to break my lips away from his. When his kisses shifted, trailing away from the corner of my mouth, a small whimper of disappointment escaped me, shifting to a gasp when he found the hollow beneath my jaw. He wound his fingers into my hair, moving himself over me, his hips tilting and pressing into my own. I felt him swelling against me and let my hand drift down his back as I offered my neck to him. I combed my fingers into his hair, my heart pounding as his hands crept up my sides. I wanted him to touch me, wanted his hands on my skin. I'd imagined it, but the idea of it being this close to a reality was making me short of breath. His mouth found its way back to mine, and I turned my head to meet his kiss, craning forward and opening my mouth, trying to draw something deeper from him. He moaned softly, the sound a low rumble that vibrated through his chest into mine. We were getting carried away. Too fast. And I didn't want to stop it. I raised my knee, my thigh sliding against his hip. Peeta rolled against me, and his hardness made me gasp.

 

Footsteps in the hall. Peeta froze, his lips hovering over mine, fingers just barely brushing my breasts. I took a deep breath as the sound ceased, unintentionally lifting into one of his hands. We both shrank back from the contact, and a knock on the door jerked us away from each other.

 

“Peet? Katniss?” Twain said quietly as we sat up. “Everything okay?” I stared at Peeta. My eyes had to be as wide as his; my jaw working uselessly. He pointed to his mouth, his eyes frantic.

 

“Um, yeah, we're fine,” I said, grimacing and praying that Twain didn't open the door.

 

“Okay. If you need anything, you let me know,” he paused.

 

“Okay, D-Dad.” Peeta pressed his eyes closed, rubbing his fingers over the bridge of his nose.

 

“Rye still hasn't turned up so, uh, I have to get back downstairs,” he said. The doorknob jerked, and I hoped he had just dropped his hand there. My heart was in my throat. “Just wanted to check on you.”

 

“Thanks, Twain.” I covered my eyes, my face burning hot. “We're okay.” After a moment his footsteps receded down the hall. As soon as he hit the stairs, I dropped back against the pillows and blew out a breath I didn't realize I'd been holding. “Fuck.”

 

“Yeah,” Peeta said quietly, his eyes still wide. He laid down beside me, gingerly lowering himself on his side, being careful not to touch me.

 

“That was um-”

 

“T-too much,” he said. I looked over at him. His eyes were downcast and his expression almost sad.

 

“A little, yeah,” I turned on my side to face him. He frowned. “But I was going to say good.” The expression fell and he looked up at me.

 

“R-really?”

 

“Yes,” I chuckled, leaning forward and kissing him softly.

 

“Katniss, um-” he swallowed, chewing the inside of his lip for a moment. “Are we—um. D-doing this? You and I, I mean. T-together.”

 

“I'd like to,” I said, tucking my hands under my cheek. A smile twitched across his lips, settling in and brightening his features as it grew. He shifted a little closer and brushed a stray wisp of hair behind my ear.

 

“I um—I don't want you t-to leave yet,” he said, smirking at me. “B-but when you do, um—you might want t-to fix your hair.” I lifted my hand and smoothed it back over my hair, feeling the mess my braid had turned into. I laughed quietly and let the end of the braid run through my hand to reach the elastic. I pulled it off and slipped it around my wrist before working my fingers through, loosening my hair and letting it come undone. Peeta watched me, a faint smile on his face, and leaned in to kiss me as soon as I finished.

 

I stayed with him. The kisses we shared as we talked were brief and chaste. When we heard Rye's voice downstairs, and the beginnings of an argument with Twain, I reluctantly slipped away from him. I leaned over him and kissed him again before sitting on the edge of the bed to tug my boots on. He sat up and smoothed his hand over my hair, untangling the snarls with his fingers.

 

“S-see you tomorrow?” he asked quietly. I nodded, smiling as he kissed my cheek.

 

“Tomorrow.” I pushed up from the bed, hovering by the door for a minute and looking back at him before slipping out. I pulled my hair back into a ponytail as I made my way down the stairs.

 

“I don't fucking understand it, Rye,” Twain snapped. “You're so good with him most of the time, and then you pull shit like this. Disappear without a damn word. He could have used his brother around today, you know.”

 

“She told me she had it,” Rye gestured past Twain toward me. Twain straightened up and turned around, sighing and running his hand through his hair, muttering an apology for his language. “She certainly spent enough time up there.” Rye raised an eyebrow at me.

 

“He's okay,” I offered, even though I had no desire to get in the middle of it. I just knew if Peeta heard them it would ruin the good mood I hoped I was leaving him in. “He could probably use some sleep, but he's okay.”

 

“Thank you, Katniss,” Twain nodded, turning a hard look towards Rye. “For looking out for my boy.”

 

“Um, you're welcome.” I couldn't help but wonder what he'd think if he knew what he was inches away from walking in on earlier. “It's late, though, so I'm just going to get going.”

 

“Of course,” Twain nodded, turning back to me. He pointed toward the mudroom. “There's a bag on the bench in there for you to take home with you. Are you coming in tomorrow?”

 

“I'll be here,” I nodded, ignoring the devious expression that was overtaking Rye's face. He slipped off his stool, ducking behind Twain and taking off up the stairs before I even had my coat on. Twain just sighed, shaking his head.

 

“Goodnight, Katniss,” he scratched his hand through his hair and turned toward the storefront, muttering to himself as he went.

 

“Goodnight, Twain,” I said, chuckling as I picked up the bag filled with a share of the day's leftovers and heading out the back door.

 

Peeta was all I thought of through the walk home, when I handed the bag to my mother, while we ate dinner, while Prim and I sat by the fire and took turns brushing and braiding each others hair before bed. When I laid down to sleep beside Prim all I thought of was his weight and his heat on me, and it made pulse quicken. I carefully disentangled myself from Prim and relocated to the living room. Mom was long in bed, the fire low and dim. It barely warmed the couch, but the thoughts creeping into my head had me flushed, not to mention feeling guilty for thinking them in that bed beside my sister.

 

I dropped onto the couch, tugging a quilt down from where it lay draped across the back and kicked the fold out to cover my legs. I could feel Peeta's weight on me still, and bit my lip as heat bloomed from between my thighs. The taste of his mouth was something I had come to know, along with the feel of his lips, and his hands in my hair. The pressure of him on me was new, and so sweet, and my breath caught in my throat when I thought of his hardness pushing against my hip. Where would things have led, if Twain hadn't interrupted us? What did we think we were doing? My fingers slipped below the waist of my pajamas as I thought about it. Imagined him moving against me, touching me; his tongue and lips moving against mine and roaming my skin. I imagined pulling his clothes from him, and his hands working their way beneath mine, peeling them back. I thought of our bare skin pressed together, and a tiny moan escaped me that stopped me cold. My fingers stopped and I held my breath, listening to the sounds of the house; the crackle of the fire, my mother's steady breathing, a soft murmur out of Prim as she slept. I sighed, pulling my hand out of my pants and shifting on the couch. I caught sight of Buttercup, perched on the arm of the couch by my feet and staring at me.

 

“Don't you look at me like that,” I hissed at him, kicking my foot in his direction. He just blinked at it, his tail twitching behind him. “I've seen you lick your ass, you know.” His ears flicked back, but he didn't move. I sat up, lunging for him with no real intention of following through, but it scared him off of the couch anyway. I flopped back, tugging the blanket up to my ears and turning toward the back of the couch. Maybe sleep would get Peeta off of my mind.

 

It didn't work. I couldn't shake him. Not during breakfast, not while I was hunting, not until partway through my workday at the bakery and he came down to the kitchen to sit. I had to stop myself from kissing him the minute I saw him. My smile was too wide, though and earned me a look from Rye that made my face burn. Peeta smiled down at the table, scratching his fingers up under his hat. We made it until mid-afternoon before going upstairs together. He took my hand in his the minute we were out of Rye's sight.

 

“I was, um, a little nervous I scared you off,” he said as we went into the bedroom.

 

“You didn't-” I started to laugh, stopping short when it hit me. Peeta turned to me as he closed the door, his eyebrows raised. I pointed at him. “You didn't stutter.”

 

“What?”

 

“Your stutter,” I smiled. He took a breath, his shoulders rising with it as the realization hit him. He blushed, his cheeks flushing a splotchy pink.

 

“You had to p-point it out,” he shook his head, rubbing the back of his neck and looking away. I laughed softly.

 

“I'm sorry,” I said as I stepped closer and kissed him. “I know the stress from school makes it worse. It's just nice to hear that you're... I don't know. Feeling a little better, I guess.”

 

“For n-now,” he chewed the inside of his lip, looking down. I set my hand on his cheek and kissed him again, and this time he kissed me back, his hands settling lightly on my waist.

 

“And you didn't scare me off,” I said. Peeta pulled his hands back, moving away from me and sitting on the edge of the bed.

 

“I g-got carried away and I'm—sorry,” he swallowed, apparently unable to raise his eyes to look at me. I sat down next to him, my heart fluttering at the feel of his leg against mine. Did he think about me anywhere near as much as I thought about him last night?

 

“It's okay,” I said, looking away before he could see the blush I felt rising into my face. His hand was on my cheek a moment later, turning me back to him so he could kiss me. By the time I made my way back downstairs my lips were swollen and hot.

 

“If you'd like to leave early today, Katniss, feel free,” Twain said. He was leaning in the doorway to the storefront, hands shoved in his pockets, watching Rye work. “Rye's going to close up on his own tonight. Aren't you?”

 

“Yes, sir,” Rye sneered sarcastically. “Just like last night. Because I'm being punished. Because you-” He stopped and pointed at me accusingly. “Sent me off to hang out with my girlfriend. So thanks for that.”

 

“She did shit. Get back to work,” Twain snapped at him, turning to me and apologizing for his language before turning into the storefront to help a customer.

 

“Have some more fun up there today, Catpiss?” Rye grinned, wagging his eyebrows at me. I remembered him running up the stairs as I left yesterday, and my face went slack. Peeta told him. That little bastard. My expression betrayed me, and Rye was already laughing when I recovered enough to make a poor attempt at a poker face. Twain stepped back in a moment later, cutting off whatever else Rye had to say.

 

“I'll walk you out.” Twain lifted a small brown bag from one of the shelves by the door, following me into the mudroom and standing in the doorway as I pulled my coat on. He watched me with a vague smile on his face that made me feel a little self conscious and didn't say another word until we were out on the back porch. He closed the door behind us and turned to me, his smile widening for a moment. “I just need to thank you for whatever you did for Peeta yesterday.”

 

“I- um. What?” I could feel the color flooding my face. There's no way—no way—he could really be thanking me for that.

 

“He hasn't been doing well.” Twain's smile faded a bit, his gaze falling. “Not since school started up again. I had started to worry it was a mistake to send him back. But last night he was as close to himself as he's been in a long time. He had dinner with us downstairs, pitched in with some of the prep work—Rye was exaggerating about closing alone—and actually spoke. Even got up to have breakfast with us this morning. Other than school he hasn't been out of bed before noon since—well.” Twain paused, glancing down at his feet before continuing. “He was happy, and I honestly can't remember the last time I was able to say that.”

 

“Really?” I couldn't help but smile, remembering how he'd looked at me after Twain had interrupted us. His smile at the idea of he and I together. I'd never really accepted that I had been the positive influence Twain and my mother kept insisting I was, or that I had actually been helping him in any way. But maybe I was. Maybe I really could help him be happy again.

 

“Yes,” Twain chuckled softly. “Thank you, Katniss.”

 

“Don't thank me,” I looked away, biting my lip and smiling. What would he think if he knew what we'd been doing?

 

“You're good for him,” he said. He shook his head, laughing to himself for a moment and scratching the back of his neck. The gesture was so much like Peeta. “And honestly, I think you've been a good influence on Rye too, somehow. Never thought I'd say that about anyone, but he's been a little more human lately. It's kind of nice. I may end up eating my words on that, though.”

 

“I think that's going a little too far,” I raised an eyebrow, and Twain chuckled softly.

 

“Would you give this to your mother for me, please?” He handed me the bag cradled in his arm.

 

“Of course.” I took it from him, and he pulled me into a loose hug, careful not to press the bag between us.

 

“I'll see you in a few days, Katniss,” he said, patting my shoulder and letting his hand slide off my arm.

 

“Bye, Twain,” I smiled, and he stood on the porch until I'd rounded the corner of the building, deciding to stop in and see Madge before heading home.

 

Flora let me in through the back door. The stout, matronly seam woman had worked for the Undersees since before Madge was born and had all but raised her. My more recent visits to the mansion had fallen on her days off, and I couldn't even remember the last time I had seen her. She appraised me with a warm, lopsided smile and pulled me into a hug before I even had a chance to say hello properly.

 

“Heard you found yourself a sweetie,” she said, setting her hands on my shoulders.

 

“I do not have a 'sweetie',” I rolled my eyes.

 

“Mhm,” she cocked an eyebrow at me. “Whatever you say. At least his father is feeding you girls. I swear the three of you would have blown away in a stiff breeze this time last year. I know your mother's a delicate woman, but, well. Nice to see some well-placed meat on your bones for once.”

 

“Flora,” I laughed, looking away. I had definitely put on weight in the past few months. I'd had to let out the seams mom had sewn up the sides of my pants to keep them from slipping off my hips in leaner times and most of my shirts actually had something to stretch over now. Aside from my mother's commentary, Madge had been the only one to actually point any of it out. Madge, though, had mostly pointed out the attention my newly acquired curves had apparently earned me. Attention I neither noticed nor cared about.

 

“Girls are upstairs,” Flora tapped her finger against the end of my nose, tossing her head toward the narrow staircase at the back of the kitchen. “In Maggie's room.”

 

“Thanks,” I shifted the bag in my arms and headed for the stairs. Flora had flustered me enough that it wasn't until halfway up that I realized she'd said 'girls'. Who else was here? Madge's laughter filtered down the hall; a quiet, high giggle joining it as I made my way to her room. I pushed on the partially open door. Madge was sitting in the middle of her expansive bed with Delly Cartwright sitting facing her, covering half of her face and blushing. The two of them looked up as I stepped into the room.

 

“Katniss!” Madge grinned. “Tore yourself away from the bakery for five minutes, hm?”

 

“Shut up,” I rolled my eyes, shrugging my coat off and setting the bag on the floor.

 

“Hi, Katniss,” Delly said, a warm smile on her face.

 

“Hi,” I tried to return it, turning my attention to tugging my boots off instead. Even with her sitting with us at lunch I'd hardly said more than a few sentences to Delly. She was a little too vapid for me, all smiles and dresses and carefully primped curls. Madge kept telling me to cut her a break, that if I lightened up and just tried being her friend she would surprise me. I had a hard time buying it. I dropped my boots on the floor next to her shoes, a pair of black leather booties with ribbon laces and low heels. I couldn't tell whether how ridiculous they looked was a product of my mud caked hunting boots slouching beside them or not.

 

“What's in the bag?” Madge's eyebrows crept up as she craned to look toward where it sat on the floor.

 

“Nothing for you,” I sat down on the edge of the bed. “It's for my mom.”

 

“From Twain?” Delly asked. I nodded, and she bit her lip and smiled, exchanging a look with Madge.

 

“Don't,” I gave them a look.

 

“Oh, come on, Twain and your mom? That's adorable,” Madge said, tilting her head to the side.

 

“It's gross and weird,” I countered.

 

“Because she's your mom or because you're well on your way to nailing his son?” Madge said, straightening up and raising her chin, a smile playing across her lips that I wanted to slap off her face.

 

“My dad said Twain's been making an awful lot of trips out to the seam lately,” Delly said, dropping her gaze and smiling when I turned my scowl toward her. “Just saying.”

 

“Let your mom have her thing with your boyfriend's dad, it's cute,” Madge pushed. I turned to sit facing the two of them, crossing my legs and picking at the hem of my pants, frowning at the idea. My mother did not have a life outside of Prim and me and the Hawthornes and healing, and trying to wrap my head around anything else was not working.

 

“I do not have a boyfriend,” I snapped. “And my mother is not having a thing with anyone.”

 

“Which one of those is a bigger lie?” Madge said to Delly. Delly let out a soft snort, stifling her laugh with the back of her knuckles.

 

“I don't! We're just friends,” I frowned.

 

“Friends who spend a lot of time alone in his bedroom.” Madge raised an eyebrow. I just rolled my eyes and looked away. “That's where you were, before you came here. Don't deny it. Does Twain, you know, pay you any extra to get in bed with his son? I mean, I know you'd do it for free-”

 

“Madge!” I slapped her leg, staring at her and cutting my eyes toward Delly. Not that she didn't know about me spending time upstairs with Peeta, but I didn't know how much she knew about things between he and I. If she and Rye were anything like Madge and Gale—which I seriously doubted they were, anyway—she knew everything. More than I even wanted Rye to know. The look on her face was thoughtful, though, and she wasn't even looking at me, but over my shoulder toward the wall.

 

“What does their bedroom look like?” she asked, turning her attention toward me. Both Madge and I stared at her. “What?”

 

“How long have you been with Rye?” Madge cocked an eyebrow.

 

“Um. Two years?” she said, her shoulders lifting slightly.

 

“And you've never even seen his bedroom?” A smile tugged at Madge's lips.

 

“I'm not allowed upstairs,” Delly said, a deep blush creeping into her face.

 

“Why?” Madge laughed. I tuned out, chewing my lip and worrying at a hole in the seam of my pants. I knew why Delly wasn't allowed upstairs. It was because Rye was utterly incapable of keeping his hands to himself. Nearly every time I'd walked downstairs and found her there, he was weaseling his tongue down her throat, and his hands into her dress.

 

Of course, Peeta and I were starting to creep towards being incapable of the same thing. All I wanted to do was kiss him. Truthfully, I kept thinking about what we'd done the day before, and I kept wanting more of that. He was hesitant today, like he was afraid to touch me. If I hadn't been so focused on his lips against mine I'd have just grabbed his hands and put them where I wanted. That probably would have shocked him into stopping completely, and I didn't have the patience for that.

 

But it wasn't just that. It wasn't just wanting to kiss and touch him—I cared about him. A lot. It bothered me when he was upset, to an extent that caught me off guard. Just knowing how much he struggled got to me, but seeing him cry absolutely broke my heart. And by the same token, knowing that I'd been the direct source of him being so happy last night and this morning made me feel almost giddy. I gave up on the stray threads of my pants and chewed my nails instead, trying to put all of this in order.

 

I thought of Peeta's question. Were we doing this? He and I. Together. I hadn't exactly said yes, but that was exactly what I'd meant. And for all of his difficulty picking up on subtleties, he'd certainly picked up on that.

 

“Does he even take you out on dates?” Madge asked, her tone incredulous and teasing and dragging me out of my own head.

 

“He took me to the cafe yesterday,” Delly shrugged, a shy smile on her face. “He works all the time, and I've been helping a lot more in my parents' shop. There's not a lot of time together unless we sneak off.” She glanced toward me. “I have Katniss to thank for having the time with him yesterday. She chased after Peeta when he got so upset, and Rye stayed with me. It was nice.”

 

“So, what, one date?” Madge smirked. “In two years?”

 

“No!” Delly snapped, a little indignantly. “He's taken me out plenty.”

 

“Dell, the slag heap doesn't count,” Madge said, and Delly laughed, covering her face to hide how vivid her blushing had grown.

 

“Just because he doesn't take me out doesn't make him any less my boyfriend than Gale is yours,” Delly said, dropping her hands into her lap and pressing her lips together into a tight smile before leaning toward Madge. “And don't think for a minute I haven't heard all about how often you've been spotted out by that heap, Madge.”

 

“I'm sure the reports are greatly understated,” Madge smirked. Delly slapped her leg as the two of them broke into laughter.

 

“Oh my god.” My thoughts finally came together, reaching a conclusion that was all too clear once it finally hit me. Delly and Madge quieted, turning toward me looking quizzical and amused, respectively. “I do have a boyfriend.” They looked at each other for a moment before laughter burst out of them.

Chapter Text

I didn't want Katniss to leave, though we both knew she had to at least make another appearance downstairs, whether or not Dad actually wanted her to work. I knew he'd send her home. I'd heard him talking to Rye earlier, lecturing him on taking off the day before and what he'd have to do to make up for it. When Katniss left my room I wouldn't see her until school on Monday, and that was most of my reluctance to let her go. Then there was the taste of her lips, her arms around my neck, the way she played with my hair when I kissed her, the feel of her tongue seeking mine and the soft curves of her body so close to me. I wished I could lay her down again, but I was too nervous, too afraid of pushing her away. Especially after that admission, that she wanted to give us a try. The last thing I wanted to do was ruin it by being too eager.

 

I took a nap when she was gone, trying to push the feel and taste of her out of my mind until I'd have a guarantee of the privacy I needed to really think about them. I dreamed about her anyway, of having her in bed with me again, and I woke aching and dizzy. It only took a few pumps of my fist to relieve the feeling. When I finished, I cleaned any trace of it away, changed, and picked my way downstairs. The bakery was closed for the night with Dad nowhere to be found and Rye crouched behind the cases in the storefront, cleaning them out and muttering to himself.

 

“Hey,” I leaned against the door frame. “Want s-some help?”

 

“Nah,” he shrugged. “Almost done.” I nodded, pushing away from the frame and walking to the half price case at the end of the counter, where the leftovers from the day had already been moved. I pulled out a muffin, breaking off part of the top and popping it into my mouth as I went back into the kitchen to get a drink.

 

“Where's Dad?” I asked, turning to sit at the work table after filling a glass at the sink. Rye came back into the kitchen, tossing his rag onto the table and pulling out the seat across from me.

 

“The Cartwrights',” he said, reaching over and breaking off a piece of my muffin for himself before I could so much as protest.

 

“Surprised D-Delly's not here,” I said, raising an eyebrow.

 

“She's with um, whatsername,” Rye frowned, sucking the crumbs off of his thumb. “Your friend. The mayor's daughter.”

 

“Madge,” I supplied, and Rye nodded.

 

“Yeah,” he wiped his hand on the side of his pants. “She's coming over afterward.”

 

“Think you could t-take it to the basement this time?” I raised an eyebrow. Last weekend they had sex in the kitchen, and I don't know how the hell it didn't wake Dad. Rye snorted.

 

“You're going to have to start sneaking Katniss down there too once Dad catches on to what you're doing to her upstairs,” he smirked. I rolled my eyes. Once Dad caught on it would probably end altogether; there was no way I had it in me to handle those rickety basement stairs in the dark. Falling face first down them certainly wasn't going to do me any favors with getting Katniss under me again. “She let you get frisky again today?”

 

“I didn't—um,” I shook my head. Rye dropped his hand to the table and gave me a look.

 

“You didn't even try?” he rolled his eyes when I nodded, letting out an annoyed sigh. “How are we related?”

 

“Sh-shut up,” I chuckled, scratching my fingers up into my hair.

 

“That girl wants to be on your dick. Why are you not all over her?” Rye tossed his hands out to either side and let them fall back into his lap. “Do you know I would have done to Delly if we'd had the chances you're having with Katniss? Fuck, Peet.”

 

“Yeah, well—you're a p-pervert,” I raised an eyebrow, and he opened his mouth to protest, thinking better of it and shrugging instead.

 

“Just take advantage of it,” he smirked. “Before you lose the chance.” I frowned, looking down at the table. Did he mean because of Dad? Or was he trying to tell me I might lose Katniss altogether?

 

At school the next day she was watching the door from her seat when I wheeled myself into the classroom. The smile on her face when our eyes met gave me a much needed boost. My stutter had returned with a vengeance at the prospect of another two classes in a row. Friday had been torture, even if what followed was amazing. With any luck I'd be able to skirt under the radar and get home relatively unscathed. Some days I did.

 

It wasn't going to be one of those days. Merx and Verne exchanged looks as I took my spot in the back of the room. Verne was a desk away, and I did my best to ignore him. Not all that easy with him staring right at me. My old seat would have had me sitting right in front of Merx in every class, and that would have been worse. I tugged on the edge of my hat and kept my eyes trained on the front of the room.

 

“You're fucking defective, Mellark, you know that?” Verne hissed, leaning closer to me. My jaw tightened, the twitch threatening, and I rubbed the heel of my palm against it, thankful that the faint flutter I couldn't hold back was at least on the opposite side of my face. Verne couldn't see it from where he was sitting. Merx could. He was turned around in his chair, staring at me like I was a fucking freak.

 

Katniss walked with me to the next class, Merx and Verne well ahead of us, thereby freeing me from the two of them. A little over an hour, that's all I had to suffer through, and then I could leave. I was free of Mrs. Everdeen today, Katniss wasn't working, I could just go home and crawl into bed and shut out the world. And I wanted to.

 

Miss Krugel made her way to the back of the class where she'd set up my desk, slipping a paper in front of me. She'd been giving me separate assignments, and as much as I appreciated the care she took in it, it singled me out. I didn't need anything more singling me out.

 

“Good work, Peeta,” she said softly, tapping the top page. She'd asked for a book report on something I'd read recently. Gave me a list of titles if I hadn't been reading. Reading took a painfully long time; I'd been picking away at the same book for months. I couldn't help but wonder if the B she had given me was pure leniency.

 

“Th-th-thanks,” I said quietly. Not quietly enough that Verne didn't immediately whirl around and grin at me. I slouched deeper into my chair, frowning at my desk. Katniss was watching me, her brow furrowing when I raised my eyes to hers. I flashed a small smile and dropped my eyes to the desk again.

 

I rushed for the door when class was through, my coat draped across my lap. Rye would be out front waiting. I could get out and get the hell home. It was over. The minute I was in the hall Merx and Verne fenced me in on either side, walking beside my wheelchair. I heaved a sigh, refusing to look up at them, and just pushed the wheels a little faster. They easily kept pace with me.

 

“Hey P-P-P-Peeta,” Verne said, and I could hear the grin in his tone. He was awfully fucking pleased with that stupid joke. It made my skin crawl.

 

“Going back to the b-b-b-bakery?” Merx leaned down, thumping his hand hard against my shoulder. I sucked my lower lip between my teeth, biting down hard and trying to move the wheels faster, in an attempt to get away from them. “Why are you in such a r-r-rush?” The two of them cackled, breaking away from me. I felt one of them give my wheelchair a hard shove. It skidded to one side, and I had to put my foot out to keep from crashing into the wall. I closed my eyes and listened to their cackling fade down the hall and squaring my shoulders before pushing on. The students had at least thinned out at this end of the hall, toward the administrative wing and away from the classrooms. There weren't many people around to witness what had happened. The ones who did would be talking about it, though. Everyone would know by tomorrow.

 

“Are you okay, Peeta?” The school administrator stepped out of her office, glancing down the hall in the direction Merx and Verne had disappeared before turning her attention back to me.

 

“Yeah,” I kept my head down, avoiding her gaze. She walked to the front door ahead of me, pushing it open and stepping out to hold it as I pushed myself through.

 

“Have a good afternoon,” she said, her voice soft with a hint of pity in it that I absolutely hated. “Say hello to you father for me.”

 

“Okay.” I pushed myself past her as quickly as I could, gliding down the front walkway toward Rye. He raised his arm to wave to her before taking ahold of the back of my chair.

 

“Always wanted to bang her,” he said. I turned to give him a look, shifting to pull my coat on as I glanced around him to see the administrator disappear back into the building. She was far younger than most of the other faculty, but that didn't change the fact that she was an adult, and hearing my brother talk about her like that, when he most certainly wasn't one, was bizarre.

 

“I'm sure, um, D-Delly would be—th-thrilled t-to know,” I dropped back, slouching in the seat and folding my arms over my chest.

 

“Yeah, I'm sure her husband would be, too,” Rye snorted.

 

“Just g-get me—home p-p-please,” I grumbled, tugging my hat down and hating the stupid fucking stutter even more. If he had anything else to say during the walk home, I blocked it out. The minute we were back to the bakery I went straight to my bedroom. I stopped on the way to shed my coat and boots in the mudroom before pulling myself upstairs and kicking the bedroom door closed behind me. I could hear the low murmur of Dad and Rye's voices downstairs, but I couldn't make out a thing they were saying. I collapsed into bed and buried my head beneath the pillows. Staying there until I had to get up for school the next day.

 

Merx was standing outside the history classroom when I arrived, his girlfriend Gilda on his arm. She giggled when she saw me, and he pushed her away, off toward her own class, without even turning his devious grin away from me. He pushed up off the wall, glancing over his shoulder to be sure Verne and whoever else was hanging onto him now were watching.

 

“Hey P-P-P-Peeta,” he grinned, I didn't stop or look up, just kept pushing past him. “Aw, let me give you a hand, there.” He grabbed the back of my chair and jerked it to one side, turning too hard toward the door and making my gut wrench.

 

“Just—f-fucking-” I pressed my lips together, not trusting myself to go any further without stuttering. I definitely did not want to do that in front of him ever again.

 

“No need to th-th-thank me,” he said, lowering his head to speak low enough that the teacher wouldn't overhear as he pushed me toward the back of the class. He steered me into a desk, my shin barking painfully against the bar between the legs and fell all over himself to apologize as he arranged me at the back of the room.

 

“F-fuck off,” I muttered, half a moment too late, and he just shot a grin at me over his shoulder before dropping down into his desk. Katniss walked into the classroom to a chorus of half stifled giggling at the entire display and stopped short. She frowned, looking to me for an explanation as she slowly made her way to her desk beside the windows. I just shook my head, dropping my gaze to my desk.

 

Katniss tried coaxing something out of me throughout lunch, but all I could do was shake my head. My jaw was clenching to the point I was afraid any movement would unleash a torrent of twitching I'd never get under control. I squeezed her hand under the table, hoping that would be enough to reassure her. She fixed a worried look on me that stuck through the rest of the day. It stayed in my head through the trip home, the appointment with her mother—during which I did my best to say as little as possible—and through the nap I took afterward.

 

That look was still on her face when I woke to her sitting on the edge of the bed, her hand resting on my hip, and her fingertips rubbing over the blanket. She smiled briefly as I turned onto my back, stretching as I sat up and trying to return the smile. Mine had to be as weak as hers, if not moreso.

 

“You okay?” she asked, moving a little closer. I nodded and she cocked her head to one side. She knew I was lying. “I heard some of the shit they've been saying.”

 

“F-fuck them,” I frowned, pressing my hand over my cheek as the twitch settled in, jerking my jaw to the side before fluttering uncontrollably over the muscles on the side of my face.

 

“Exactly,” Katniss took my hand, pulling it away and lacing our fingers together. I turned my head in an awkward attempt to hide the twitching. “Fuck them. You're better than this.”

 

I squeezed her hand, frowning and avoiding her eyes. Rye had said the same thing more than once. It was hard to feel better than any of it when all those guys kept doing was repeating the same things I thought about myself. Tears stung my eyes. I'd managed to avoid crying all day, even with all the shit Merx and his friends slung at me, and now I was about to lose it in front of her.

 

“Peeta,” she said softly, setting her hand on my cheek and turning my face toward her. “Stop.” I took a deep breath before opening my eyes to look at her. Her hand slid to the back of my neck as she leaned in to kiss me. I melted against her, hating myself for crying, hating myself for not being able to hold it together, and for being unable to initiate any of this. I couldn't even bring myself to move closer to her, and I wanted to, so badly. Katniss pulled back, her arms resting on my shoulders, and I clenched my jaw, keeping my eyes down. “Do you just want me to let you get some rest?”

 

No. No, I didn't. I didn't want her to go anywhere. I wanted her to stay with me and kiss me again. I wanted to silence everything else in my head and kiss her back and lay down in this bed with her and just be close to someone who made me feel like I mattered. Why couldn't I say any of it?

 

“It is kind of getting late,” she said, shifting away from me but still keeping her hold on my hand. “My mom's actually started caring about when I get home. Why she suddenly cares now...” She trailed off, letting out a brief, humorless laugh and shaking her head. She leaned in and kissed me again, and I found it in me to kiss her back, but it was too brief for it to matter. “I'll see you tomorrow, okay? Get some rest.”

 

I nodded and she stood, letting her fingers slide through mine as she did. I watched until she quietly closed the door and dropped onto my back. I rolled onto my side, hugging my pillow around my head as I did, and decided I wouldn't be getting out of bed tonight, either. Dad poked his head in at one point, and Rye was in and out a few times. I ignored them both, feigning sleep. Dozing a little here and there. When Rye finally settled in to sleep for the night I listened to his breathing even out, slowly morphing into snores, and I slipped out of bed.

 

I picked my way downstairs in the dark, as carefully as I could, stumbling a little at the bottom of the steps. The kitchen was warm. Even with the ovens low in the middle of winter they kept it that way. The storefront was drafty and cold, with a bitter wind rattling the panes and squeezing through the cracks. I folded my arms around my chest and crossed the room to the windows. I'd avoided the storefront as much as I could since everything happened. I'd never been out here with customers present. Coming here when we were open was something I tried to avoid now. It felt strange to be out here at all, and even stranger to feel uncomfortable about it. I used to like working the counter. I liked talking to people; I liked talking about nothing with people whose names I barely knew. Dad knew everyone by name, and I knew most of them by what they ordered. Remembering that was more than enough to put a smile on someone's face, and I enjoyed it. I doubted I'd ever do that again. I couldn't remember a damn thing and couldn't speak properly. I most likely didn't even have enough control over myself to successfully bag a fucking order. I'd certainly never manage the till again. Mrs. Everdeen had been working on my grip and my motor skills. It made me feel like a child, having to learn everything over again, having her correct how I held a pencil or refold my fingers around a fork. More than anything I wanted my old life back, my old self. I was stuck in a body I couldn't control with a mind I only had a tenuous grasp on at times. The one thing I had felt was missing before was right in front of me now, and I was fucking it up. Katniss would get sick of it, of me, and then what would I have?

 

“Rough couple of days, huh?” Dad's voice startled me. I whirled away from the windows, wiping at my face quickly and nodding. “Gotta be worse after how good you felt this weekend.”

 

“Yeah,” I frowned, listening to the floorboards creak as Dad crossed the room to stand beside me.

 

“Kills me to see you like this,” he said quietly. He shoved his hands into his pockets and looked down at his feet. “I'm sorry.” His voice hitched, and he took a slow breath, lifting his chin and leaning forward to squint at the sky through the window. “You deserve a hell of a lot better than this. Shit, Peet, you deserve a hell of a lot better than you ever got.”

 

“Dad,” I said quietly, watching the tight expression on his face and the tense shift of his jaw.

 

“I'm sorry,” he looped his arm around my shoulders. I turned toward him and that was all it took. He pulled me into a hug tight enough to squeeze the breath out of me. My hands settled on his back and I leaned against him, biting down on my lip as he pressed a kiss into my hair and rested his cheek against the top of my head. Affection like this did not come easy in this house. With Mom around, exchanges had always been brief, and even in her absence that had been slow to change. It just piled onto everything I'd been struggling to contain. I started to cry. Again. Dad rubbed his hand over my back and I felt a shift in his breathing; he was crying too.

 

“I j-just—need t-to sleep.” I pushed away from him, afraid to look him in the eye, and moved toward the back kitchen, needing to escape.

 

“Goodnight, Peet,” Dad said softly, his voice painfully sad. I pulled myself upstairs, shoving the bedroom window open before collapsing into my bed.

 

I drifted through the next day, blocking everything out, just wanting to get through and escape. I ignored the jeers in the hall. Ignored Merx stuttering out my name to a chorus of obnoxious laughter. Ignored the classes, the gibberish being taught, and the looks cast toward where I sat in the back of the room. At the end of math, I got up from my desk and picked my way past the other students making their way into the coat room at the back of the class. I lowered myself into my wheelchair, my body aching from the complete lack of sleep I'd had over the past two days. It lurched backward just as I was about to sit, knocking me off balance, my hand slipping from the arm of it and twisting my bad wrist against the seat. I swore under my breath, looking up to see Verne and Merx walking away, making a point of looking away from me and tsking the half stifled laughter around me.

 

“Fucking prick,” Katniss muttered, standing in front of me and watching the two of them go. I didn't know which one of them did it, and I didn't particularly care. I just wanted to leave. My wrist burned, and I frowned as I tried to rub the feeling away. Katniss stepped away from me and a moment later she draped my coat over my lap. “I'm taking you home.” Her voice was tight and tense, and she moved behind the chair, taking hold and pushing me out of the room.

 

“Shit, Mellark, finally low enough to need help from the seam rats, huh?” Merx said, smirking as the kids behind him laughed. Katniss veered my chair toward him, steering one side of it straight over his foot. Merx winced, jerking back and hissing a string of obscenities at her.

 

“Oh, I'm sorry,” she said, her voice laden with sarcasm. I pressed my knuckles against my mouth, trying to hold back laughter. “That was terrible of me. Can't really expect a Seam rat like me to know what I'm doing, can you?” She didn't even stop, just pushed me ahead of her and headed straight for the front door of the school. Once we were out front she slowed a bit and sighed. “Sorry about that.”

 

“D-don't be,” I chuckled.

 

“Is your wrist okay?” she sounded concerned. Upset, even.

 

“It'll b-be fine,” I said, hiding the swelling under my coat. She guided the chair down the walkway in front of the school toward where Rye stood waiting for me.

 

“What's wrong with you?” he asked, looking past me toward Katniss. All she did was huff in response and he looked down at me. “What happened?”

 

“N-nothing,” I shook my head. He knew damn well I was lying. Katniss relayed the story to him quietly as we made our way to the bakery, and I could feel the tension in him. Delly caught up with us partway to town, panting and quietly scolding Rye for not waiting for her.

 

“Listen to me,” Rye snapped, ignoring Delly completely. “If that assfuck turns up in the Birchfield's dump I'm gonna need a fuckin' alibi.”

 

“Rye,” I scowled at him.

 

“No,” he pointed at me. “I'm not putting up with this bullshit. Maybe I shouldn't have dropped out. Fuck. Tell Dad I'm gonna be late.” Rye veered away from us, headed toward the other end of town.

 

“Where are you going!” Delly called after him.

 

“I'm going to see Alden,” he called over his shoulder. His friend from school. Rye and Alden occupied the top rungs of the social ladder in his year. The last thing I wanted was whoever was left of Rye's friends policing anyone who came near me, no matter how effective it would be.

 

“Dell,” I looked over at her. She was frowning in the direction Rye had left, nearly jogging to keep up with Katniss' angry march. “G-go t-t-talk him out of it. P-please.”

 

“Of course I will,” Delly gave my arm a brief, affectionate squeeze before she took off running after Rye, kicking up slush behind her.

 

“He just wants to look out for you,” Katniss said. Her voice was tight and low as she muscled the chair down the alley without even giving me a chance to get up and walk the last stretch.

 

“Would you w-want th-that?” I stood up when we reached the bottom of the back steps, shooting her a look as I took hold of the railing to pull myself up.

 

“Well, no,” she frowned, tugging the seat of the chair up to fold it closed before hefting it up the stairs. I hated watching her do it. The chair didn't weigh much, but it was just another jab at my pride. I would never have stood by empty-handed while she did something like that, and holding the door open for her was a poor substitute for actually helping.

 

“Hey,” Dad looked me over, his tone tentative, and his eyes flicked past me toward Katniss. An edge of annoyance crept into his voice. “Where's Rye?”

 

“He said he's going to be late,” Katniss said. I could hear the frown in her voice. She stepped up behind me, her hand settling on my back.

 

“Great,” dad sighed. “What happened?”

 

“N-nothing,” I shook my head, tugging the sleeve of my sweater down over my wrist. It was throbbing, and I didn't need to look to know it was red and swollen.

 

“Peet?” The annoyance fell out of Dad's voice. I just shook my head and went up the stairs without a word. I caught Katniss shrugging out of the corner of my eye before she followed me.

 

“You should tell him what happened,” she said softly, closing my bedroom door and leaning against it.

 

“Why?” I dropped down on the bed and gave her a look, setting my hand over my wrist and rubbing it through the sleeve of my sweater. “So he c-can worry and n-not b-b-be able to—d-do anything?” I shook my head, biting back a wince as I balled my hand into a fist.

 

“Peeta,” she frowned, moving to sit next to me. She curled her fingers around my hand and pulled my arm toward her, uncurling my fingers and laying them on her knee. I bit my lip as she folded back the sleeve of my sweater. “Oh my god, Peeta.” I looked down. My wrist had already ballooned up, a bruise starting to form under my thumb. “I should go get my mom, or we should get Dr. Lawrence. That looks awful-”

 

“Kat,” I pressed my lips together and shook my head.

 

“But if it's broken again-”

 

“It w-wasn't to b-begin with,” I smirked. My thumb had been dislocated with a hairline fracture in one of the bones in my arm. Neither had healed very well, and both Mrs. Everdeen and Dr. Lawrence had thought there was more to the injury than that; nerve or tendon damage, something that would account for the pain I still felt, and the severe muscle weakness. Without any equipment to examine it internally they had no way of knowing. Katniss' fingers moved gingerly over the swelling, just barely ghosting over my skin.

 

“Still,” she frowned, leaning down and lightly pressing her lips to the bruise. I smiled to myself, the expression fading when she looked up at me. “I should've done something. I was right there. I saw him go for your chair, and I didn't even-”

 

I leaned in and kissed her, cutting her off. I didn't want anyone else apologizing to me for things they didn't do. Or couldn't do. Or shouldn't have done. Katniss didn't need to step in for me. She didn't need to stand up for me. I needed to stand up for myself. The fact that she wanted to was the only thing that made me feel like standing up for myself may have been a good idea. That feeling crumbled the minute she left this room, though.

 

Katniss raised her hand to my cheek, drawing me back into the kiss when I faltered and moved away. I wrapped my arm around her waist, letting my injured wrist lay across her lap. Her lips moved against mine slowly, and she draped her arms around my neck. I shifted, taking a chance and tightening my arm around her waist, sinking back toward my pillow and pulling her with me. She moved with me, her lips hovering against mine, and let me lay her down between myself and the wall. Katniss carefully arranged my hand against her neck, turning to kiss my wrist before turning her lips back to mine. She shifted herself closer as I pulled my legs up onto the bed, her mouth opening against mine. I took a deep breath, my heart hammering against my ribs, and met her tongue with mine. She whimpered quietly, the sound sucking the air from my lungs, and I leaned my body against hers, my hips tilting forward.

 

“Peeta,” she breathed, sucking in a breath that made her lips quiver. I pulled back, my fingers twitching away from where they'd drifted to her hair.

 

“I'm s-s—um, I'm s-” I bit down on my lip, pressing my eyes closed. I'd pushed too far and she just wanted to get away from me. “I'm s-sorry.” Katniss pulled my hat off and ran her fingers through my hair. I forced myself to open my eyes. Her smile was soft and gentle, and she kissed me again, sliding her hand around my shoulders and pulling me towards her.

 

“Don't be sorry,” she said quietly, smiling against my lips. I eased myself toward her, deepening the kiss, letting her lead me. I didn't want to get swept up again. I didn't want to push her and ruin this. She pulled me to her and shifted onto her back. My heart jumped, and Katniss wound her fingers into my hair, deepening the kiss, her tongue snaking into my mouth. I shifted onto her, leaning on my elbow and sliding my free hand over her waist. My fingers worked under the hem of her shirt, and I pressed my palm against that soft stretch of skin just above the waist of her pants that had caught my attention so often. Soft, gentle noises leaked out of her as she wrapped her arms around me, her kisses shifting to my jaw as I murmured her name.

 

“C-c-can I-” I swallowed hard, trying to keep a hold on what I wanted to ask; the feel of her lips and tongue against my skin, her hands on my back, her hips tilting against mine all fighting to push the question out of my head completely. “K-Katniss—c-c-can-”

 

“Can you...” she supplied, her voice soft and patient, her mouth hot and wet against my throat.

 

“Can I—t-t-” I swallowed again, fighting against the tightening in my neck to get the words out. Katniss kissed me gently, her fingers finding their way to my hair again. “T-t-touch-”

 

“Yes,” she cut me off, her chest fluttering with a brief, quiet laugh. I could feel myself blushing and dropped my face against the crook of her neck, smiling and pressing a kiss to her skin. I shifted my hand, looking down between us and smoothing it over her shirt. She stopped me, pushing my hand back down and tugging up the hem of her shirt. Katniss pressed my palm against her skin, and I pulled back to look at her. Her voice was a whisper. “It's okay.” She lifted her mouth to mine as I moved my hand up under her shirt, my fingertips brushing against her bra. She arched her back, pressing into my hand as I cupped her breast, whimpering into my mouth. My fingertips traced the edge of her bra, shaking lightly against her impossibly soft skin.

 

“You fuckin' win, okay?” Rye kicked the bedroom door open. “Just trying to help, you gotta be all stubb-” He stopped short as Katniss and I scrambled away from each other.

 

“Rye!” Katniss snapped, tugging her shirt down as she pushed herself up to sit against the headboard. “What the fuck!” I pushed myself against the wall, faltering as I put my weight against my injured wrist without thinking. Pain shot up through my arm, and I swallowed a pitiful little whimper and drew it up against my chest. Rye was too busy laughing to notice, leaning against the door frame. Katniss let out a huff of frustration, glaring at him as she moved closer to me. “Let me see.” She pulled my arm away from my chest, pressing her lips together as she turned my wrist over in her hand. I drew my knees up, hoping to hide just how much I'd been enjoying her before Rye interrupted us.

 

“I'm sorry,” Rye wheezed, waving his hand through the air, crossing to his own bed and dropping down to sit.

 

“Are you seriously sitting down?” Katniss' head whipped around, her braid shifting over her shoulder. “Get the fuck out.”

 

“Why, you gonna let him get back up your shirt?” Rye grinned. “Don't let me stop you.”

 

“Your brother's a fucking dick,” Katniss hissed through gritted teeth as she turned her attention back to me. I stared Rye down as she carefully touched my wrist and moved my fingers. He grimaced and mouthed an apology before Katniss turned my hand the wrong way, snapping my attention away and drawing a wince out of me. “Shit, I'm sorry. I'm going to get my mom.”

 

“Katniss, p-please-”

 

“Don't,” she kissed me, lingering for a moment. “I'm getting her. I'll be back in an hour or two.” Katniss kissed me again, a brief peck at the corner of my mouth before sliding off the bed and leaving the room. It was the first time she'd kissed me in front of anyone else, and I couldn't help smiling to myself. Rye watched her leave, smacking his tongue against his teeth as her footsteps receded downstairs.

 

“Bet that killed your boner real fast,” he pushed himself back to sit against the wall. “Jumping up and yammering about her mother.”

 

“Yeah—y-you had n-nothing to d-do with it,” I frown, shifting and settling back against the wall. The throbbing in my wrist was worse after whatever I managed to do to it when I sat back up.

 

“Look, if I'd known—I'm sorry,” Rye chuckled, rubbing his hand through his hair. “Seriously. You lucky bastard. I'd fucking love to get Delly in my bed.”

 

“You g-get in hers,” I gave him a look.

 

“Yeah. Door open, her little brother kicking around,” he rolled his eyes. “That goes real well.” I chuckled. “Is your wrist okay? I didn't see that earlier. It looks like hell.”

 

“H-hurts like hell,” I frowned.

 

“Rye!” Dad called from the bottom of the stairs. “Get down here, please.” Rye let out an exasperated sigh, pushing off the bed and dragging himself from the room. Their footsteps crossed on the stairs, and Dad appeared in the doorway a moment later. He paused, looking at me for a moment before sighing and stepping into the room. He dropped heavily onto Rye's bed, his brow furrowing. “What happened, Peet?”

 

“I t-t-told you-”

 

“Nothing. Right,” his voice was soft. Sad. It made me feel guilty. “I know something is going on at school. I just wish you would tell me.” He dropped his head, rubbing his hand over his hair before leaning his elbows against his knees. When he looked up at me he looked close to tears. “Did I make a mistake, Peet? Was sending you back wrong?”

 

“Dad,” I frowned, not sure what to say. I didn't want to be in school. Didn't want to face any of it; the ridicule, the confusion, the constant reminder I wasn't going to be the same. Ever. That nothing would be. But I knew, logically, that avoiding it all would only make my life worse. It would only make me hate myself more.

 

“I'm sorry,” he shook his head, straightening up and leveling his gaze. “Tell me what happened. Please.”

 

I frowned, staring down at my swollen wrist where it sat in my lap. It took me a moment to work up to it, to gather the words and put them in order. I stuttered too much, mixed up parts of it, and tried to avoid most of what had happened. Most of what they said. Downplayed other parts. I tried to play off what happened with my chair as an accident, but I could tell he didn't buy it. He swore quietly under his breath and stared out the window for a long moment, rolling his jaw.

 

“Lavender's going to take a look at your wrist, see if we need to take you to Dr. Lawrence,” Dad sighed. “It's going to be a while until Katniss gets back with her. Why don't you get some rest?” I nodded. He stood up, stepping across the room and leaning down to kiss my forehead before he left, pulling the door closed behind him.

 

I didn't move. I sat and tried to puzzle out how one day could swing from so horrible to so wildly amazing. Nothing could top having Katniss in my bed like that, except maybe getting to do it again without Rye barging in on us. I could still feel her skin under my fingertips, the swell of her breast in my hand, and I did my best to block all that out when I heard her return. She came into the bedroom, hovering just inside the doorway and nodding for me to follow her to the living room.

 

Katniss sat beside me as her mother perched on the edge of the coffee table to examine my wrist with Dad hovering by the top of the stairs. Every time I winced Katniss tensed up beside me, though her mother seemed too focused to notice. After a few minutes she straightened up, sighing and brushing her hair back. She guessed a sprain and sent Katniss to get some ice for me out of the freezer, and my father to hunt down the brace for my wrist. Only one was immediately necessary. The other was just to get Dad out of the room.

 

“Peeta,” she lowered her voice, squeezing my hand and waiting for me to look her in the eye before continuing. “Katniss told me what happened. And they probably didn't mean to actually hurt you today. If this bullying ever goes so far that they do, promise me you're going to tell someone.” I frowned, looking down at my hand. “It doesn't have to be me or your dad. It can be someone at the school, your brother. Even Katniss. Though if you tell her I think we both know it might not end well for whoever it is behind this, and I'd rather not see my daughter arrested for assault.” I chuckled quietly and she smiled, waiting for my answer.

 

“I w-will,” I said.

 

“Okay,” she stood as Katniss came back in to sit down beside me, armed with a dish towel bundled around some ice. I tried to take it from her and she waved me off, gently pulling my wrist toward her and pressing the ice against it. Dad returned a moment later with the brace. Mrs. Everdeen lowered her voice, leaning against the wall by the stairs as she spoke to my father. “He'll need to wear that for a while, but not until the swelling goes down. Give it until tomorrow afternoon before he puts it on. I think his wrist may just be a little weaker than I thought.”

 

“You okay?” Katniss asked softly, turning my wrist and carefully pressing the ice against it again.

 

“I th-think I'll survive,” I smirked. She smiled, still looking down at my hand. I wanted to know what she was thinking, and I really wanted to kiss her again before she left. Not with both her mother and my father in the room, though.

 

“Katniss,” Mrs. Everdeen said softly. “Come on, sweetie.” Katniss glanced over at her, biting down on the inside of her lip.

 

“See you tomorrow,” she squeezed my hand lightly and I nodded, flashing a brief smile before she got up. Dad grinned as soon as Katniss and her mother moved past him toward the stairs. I gave him a look that I hoped communicated every last bit of my annoyance, and he just held up his hands in defeat before following the two of them downstairs.

 

Dad was up to check on me every half hour, inspecting my wrist, trying to get me to eat. I finally accepted some toast and asked for my pills for the night just to get him to leave me alone. I took both of them into my bedroom and closed the door behind me before setting them on the dresser. My pillow still smelled like Katniss' hair, and I lowered myself onto the bed, carefully avoiding my injured wrist, and pressed my face against the pillow. I wished I still had her there, tried to ignore the fact that horrible days were what led her there. Though if that was going to turn into a pattern, it at least made getting through it well worth the trouble.

 

I thought about the breathless way she said my name. She hadn't been trying to stop me. Had that been encouragement? I tried to hear it that way and it sent a jolt through me. Where could all of that have gone if we hadn't been interrupted? I thought of the way she felt under me, how her body had shifted against mine, and turned onto my back to ease my pants off my hips.

 

I ran through it in my mind. Every detail; every sound she made, the feel of her fingers in my hair, the taste of her lips and tongue. She'd lifted her hips against me. She felt me getting hard against her and didn't pull back. I curled my hand around my cock and held onto that thought as I stroked myself. Her skin had been so fucking soft and smooth under my hand. I thought about her lifting against my hand, imagined her letting me take that further, letting me pull her shirt off, press my lips to that curve. I wanted to hear the noises she'd make then, brush my tongue over that soft skin, get her to breathe my name that way again. I thought of the look on her face when she slipped my hand under her shirt and the orgasm hit me like a freight train. It caught me so off guard I nearly bit through my lip in my effort to keep quiet. I'd gotten too used to too much work for not much payoff.

 

It took a few minutes for the room to stop spinning and for me to catch my breath again. I sat up, yanking the towel from behind the mattress to clean myself off. I wiped it across my chest, trying not to be too impressed at my own range after months of disappointing dribbles, and shoved it back down against the wall.  

Chapter Text

 My wrist was throbbing when I woke the next morning, the redness in it faded to an ugly, splotchy purple. The swelling had gone down, but not completely. It still looked terrible. Dad and I made the trip out to the Seam once the morning rush was finished, leaving Rye to look after the bakery. It was freezing; my hands were so numb I couldn't even feel the pain in my wrist by the time we arrived. Dad sat by the fire, chatting with Mrs Everdeen and warming up before making the trip back. Mrs Everdeen offered to walk with me to the school so that neither Rye or my dad would need to venture out into the cold this far. Her offer was refused, of course. Dad would wait out front before he let her do something like that. She walked him to the porch, as if the partially closed door hid the kiss he planted on her cheek before leaving. Mrs Everdeen's face was flushed when she came back into the house, quietly closing the door behind her.

 

“How are you feeling?” she asked, smoothing her hand over her hair as she crossed the room back to me. I shrugged as she sat on the couch beside me and gestured toward my injured wrist. “May I?”

 

I pulled back the sleeve of my shirt and held my arm out toward her. Mrs Everdeen carefully curled her hand around my wrist, manipulating my fingers with her other hand and squeezing gently. It hurt, and I bit back a whimper when she tried bending my hand back. I pulled away from her instead.

 

“I'm sorry,” she smiled faintly, dropping her hands into her lap. “That looks much better than last night. Did you bring the brace?”

 

“It's—in my coat,” I nodded toward where it hung on the wall. “Right p-pocket.”

 

“Katniss told me about school while we were on our way back home last night,” she said, getting up from the couch and walking over to my coat. “She was too upset to say much of anything beyond the immediate problem on the way to the bakery except to snap at me to hurry up.” She smiled to herself for a moment, pausing before reaching into my coat for the brace. “But she told me on the way home. What those boys have been doing. I know that has to be hard to deal with. You can talk about it with me, if you like.”

 

“That's um—that's okay,” I frowned, staring at the floor as she sat down beside me again and lifted my wrist to put the brace on. It felt too tight, and having it on felt like a hard fall backward—I'd been free of it for months.

 

“Peeta,” she sighed. “I'll let this go for now, just know that we are going to have to discuss it at some point. Soon.” I nodded , glancing at her as she shifted to the chair across from me. I didn't want to discuss it with anyone, ever. It was embarrassing to have people I used to consider friends turn on me like that, not to mention how true everything they said felt. It hurt. And just thinking about it reinforced that hurt, let alone actually talking about it.

 

Mrs Everdeen lifted one of her notebooks from the table beside her chair, thumbing through it for a moment. Buttercup jumped onto the arm of the couch, craning his neck toward me and purring before I even reached out to touch him. He pawed for my hand, arching his back against my fingers and stepping into my lap. My injured wrist captured his attention, and he nuzzled at the brace as he dropped onto his side on my legs.

 

“It's been a while since we've gone through all of these questions,” she said, and I frowned down at the cat, knowing that meant I'd have to suffer through every last humiliating piece of it today. I'd hoped that the fact that I had to leave for class would have meant this would be shortened, maybe a even little rushed. I was hoping she'd just skip to the exercises in the books or maybe attempt a little physical therapy for my hand. No such luck. “I don't really need to ask if your wrist is worse, do I?”

 

“No,” I shook my head, smirking to myself.

 

“Is the pain in it now the same or different as the initial injury?” she asked, making a note before looking up at me.

 

“It's, um—n-not as bad,” I looked down at my hand. Buttercup had given up on his nuzzling and had one paw draped over my forearm, holding me still while he licked the patches of skin visible through the holes in the brace. “It's worse n-near my th-thumb. Before it was j-just—my um, my wrist.”

 

“Did it keep you awake last night?” she asked.

 

“No.” I bit down on the inside of my lip, letting out a short, quiet laugh. “I, um—took an extra pill. To get to s-sleep.” Not entirely a lie, though it was thinking of Katniss that would have kept me awake, not my wrist.

 

“Does that mean you're actually taking your medications?” she raised her eyebrows, fixing me with a small smile.

 

“M-more than I used to,” I said as I scratched under Buttercup's chin. He'd finally decided I'd had enough grooming and curled up with his head tucked against the brace on my wrist.

 

“That's wonderful, Peeta,” she smiled. “Let's try making that a solid 'yes' for the next time we go through all this, hm?”

 

“Maybe,” I smirked, and she shook her head.

 

“Headaches?”

 

“Still—awful.” I shifted in my seat, looking over at the fire, knowing where this was about to go and hating it. “Worse when it s-snows.”

 

“I'm going to guess it makes the ache in your arm worse, too,” she said, her voice soft and gentle. I nodded. “That's not just the cold; that's the pressure change in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, that's not going to be a symptom confined to winter. You'll feel it when the summer thunderstorms roll through, as well.”

 

“Oh, good,” I deadpanned. In the height of summer those storms happened nearly every afternoon.

 

“How is your appetite?”

 

“Not—so great,” I shrugged. I never really told her how much the idea of food had repulsed me for a while; the fact that I actually wanted to eat at times was certainly an improvement, but there were still days I didn't want anything.

 

“Bowel movements?” she didn't even look up from her writing. I closed my eyes, frowning and trying to find the word she used.

 

“Ir-irregular.”

 

“And your sex drive?” she glanced up at me. The progression of these questions never failed to disgust me.

 

“It's—the same,” I shook my head, staring into the fire. Just when these questions had gotten a little easier things had started with Katniss, and I would never be able to look her mother in the eye again.

 

“Still able to achieve and maintain an erection?” she asked. I nodded, trying to keep my face neutral and push last night out of my head. I hoped she wouldn't find out her daughter could answer those questions for me. “And orgasms—still disappointing?”

 

“No,” I chuckled, raising my eyebrows and regretting it the instant her pen dropped. I pressed my lips together, keeping my eyes on those flames in the fireplace and ignoring her eyes on me.

 

“That's different,” she said, her voice carefully light. “So what changed?”

 

“N-nothing,” I shook my head. What changed was your daughter. It was Katniss letting me lay her in my bed and make things happen that I'd thought about for years. I shrugged, hating the heat rising to my face and hoping she didn't suspect the true source of my embarrassment. “I d-don't know.”

 

“Well,” she looked back down at her notes, and I ventured a glance at her. There was a hint of a smirk on her face and it made my chest knot up. “That's an improvement, at least, even if the reason is a mystery.” There was a brief moment of silence while she wrote, and I pressed my lips together, turning my attention to the cat as he rolled onto his back, stretching in his sleep. “Your speech has been getting much better. I've noticed it myself, and your father and Katniss have both pointed it out. That must feel wonderful.”

 

“I still, um, st-stutter,” I frowned, scratching at the soft, thick fur over Buttercup's belly. “Especially at sc-school.”

 

“That's where a great deal of this bullying problem is stemming from, isn't it,” she said, and I nodded. She closed her notebook and set it aside, looking at me thoughtfully for a moment. “Peeta, you need to understand something. You're different. From who you used to be, and from the other people in this District. But you are not abnormal, and you are not defective.” There was that word. Katniss must have heard Verne, shared that with her. I bit down on my lip. “People don't survive head injuries here. I have miners brought to me with them. A lot. I'm sure you didn't know that. Most people don't.” I looked up at her, furrowing my brow. I didn't know that. “They take a blow as bad as yours, or worse—and once they wake up they seem fine for a few days. Almost back to normal. Then they just drop dead. That's if they wake up at all. I'm not exactly sure what's different about what happened to you, or why your injury was bad enough for you to be going through all of this, but not enough to actually kill you. I do know that you understand you came close to dying, but I don't think you truly understand how close. And that it wasn't just while you were lying on that kitchen floor.”

 

I stared at her. I didn't know any of that. Of course I knew I'd almost died. I'd woken up in my father's arms in a puddle of my own blood. I didn't remember much of it, just brief images and sounds, but Rye had told me after I begged him to. The look on his face and the tone of his voice while he related the story told me everything I needed to know about how bad it really was, even more than his actual words could convey. But I thought that was the end of the danger I had been in.

 

“You're safe now,” Mrs Everdeen smiled at me. “You have been for a good long while. But for the first few days—the first couple of weeks, really—any time you fell asleep could have been the time you didn't wake up.” I sat back against the couch, letting that settle in. It didn't feel real, and the gravity of it was too big for me to get a solid handle on. “I'm only telling you this because I want you to understand what the people who poke fun at you never can. It's a miracle you're still here, even though most of the time it feels like a curse.” Her eyes softened, her smile warming, and I did my best to return the expression. I knew I was falling pitifully short.

 

The rest of the appointment was spent on logic problems and speech exercises, both of which left me with a headache and worsened my stutter. I still had to get through two classes, one of which was math and never failed to remind me of exactly how pathetic I'd become. Rye turned up with a bag of food almost an hour early, shivering and flushed with the cold.

 

“I told your father I'd take him,” Mrs Everdeen huffed, arranging Rye on the edge of the hearth with a cup of tea.

 

“You don't know him very well if you actually thought he'd accept,” Rye smirked, pressing his hands against the sides of the mug. She turned away, hiding a smile and shaking her head. The two of us traded a look, and I couldn't help but wonder if she had any idea we knew about her relationship with him. Buttercup jumped off my lap, slinking toward Rye and sniffing tentatively at the leg of his pants. Rye glanced up at me. “Is this that cat she keeps bitching about?” I smirked and nodded, though I didn't understand Katniss' loathing of Buttercup. Rye grinned, reaching down and sliding his hand over Buttercup's back before the cat decided he'd had enough and loped across the room.

 

“So did he tell you he's still not taking his medications?” Rye said, turning away from the fire to face Mrs. Everdeen.

 

“Stop,” I said, cocking my head to one side. He just smirked at me over the edge of his mug.

 

“He mentioned something about that,” Mrs. Everdeen said, cutting her eyes toward me briefly as she bit back a smile.

 

“I t-take them,” I insisted before quietly tacking on, “somet-times.”

 

“I'm just looking out for you, you know,” Rye said. Mrs. Everdeen turned back toward the kitchen. “Did you mention that it's been about four days since you took a shit?”

 

“Sh-shut up,” I snapped, glancing toward the kitchen. Mrs. Everdeen had her back to us, but I swear I saw her shoulders shaking with laughter.

 

 


 

Katniss was waiting for me outside of class, craning her neck looking for me and shifting her books from one hand to the other. As soon as she spotted me she sagged a little, an apologetic look crossing her face. She wove through the students in the short stretch of the hall separating us and stopped in front of me.

 

“I really didn't mean to tell her as much as I did,” she grimaced. “I was just so mad, and I started ranting, and it sort of all came out. I didn't realize it until we got home and she started asking me more about it how much I had said. I'm sorry.”

 

“It's f-fine,” I smirked. The worst part of sitting with her mom had absolutely nothing to do with any of that, though I couldn't exactly share that embarrassment with Katniss.

 

“And for the record,” she moved to the back of my chair, “I'm not letting you try pushing yourself around with your wrist fucked up again.”

 

“K-Kat-” I scratched my forehead, looking down at my feet as she pushed me the rest of the way to class. I was torn between being grateful for the help and terrified this would somehow make things worse. Or get her caught up in whatever stupid campaign Merx and Verne were trying to run on me.

 

“I know you can get around yourself. I just want to help. You can stop being such a stubborn ass about it for a few days,” she said before we entered the classroom.

 

“N-no promises,” I said, and Katniss laughed quietly. She brought me to the back of the room, continuing around to her desk in the row by the windows. Verne and Merx were staring at each other, wordlessly communicating something I could tell I was going to hate. I tugged the sleeve of my sweater down over the brace, keeping it below my desk in my lap and hoping neither of them would see.

 

Katniss pushed me down to the cafeteria for lunch. Somehow that was even more awkward than doing it myself. Madge and Delly were already at the table, engrossed in their own conversation that ended as soon as Katniss and I approached.

 

“Hey,” Delly beamed at me as Katniss sat down beside me. Her expression shifted to worry so quickly I had a hard time not smirking at her. Dell's emotions have had a hair trigger since we were little. “How's your hand?”

 

“F-fine,” I glanced down, pulling the sleeve of my sweater back down over the brace. Katniss caught the gesture and frowned at me, shifting a little closer.

 

“Dell told me what happened,” Madge said, scowling and casting a look over her shoulder toward where Merx and the Whitaker twins sat surrounded by the rest of the merchant kids. “They're assholes. Seriously. Don't let them get to you.”

 

“Y-yeah,” I chewed the inside of my lip, wishing it could be that easy.

 

The cafeteria was painfully overwhelming. Everyone's conversations echoed off the high ceiling and merged into one overpowering jumble of noise. I struggled to focus on the one in front of me, but their voices blended into the rest. Katniss' hand found mine under the table and she curled our fingers together. I dropped my eyes and smiled for a moment, hanging onto her hand to ground myself.

 

“You should come, too,” Madge said, and I looked up at her, realizing she was talking to me and I had no idea what I was being invited to do. I glanced at Katniss, looking for help.

 

“Delly and I are going over to Madge's after school,” she clarified, and I nodded, flashing a brief smile toward Madge. I'd assumed Katniss would be going to the bakery today and felt more than a little stupid for it. Of course she had other things going on in her life, even though I didn't.

 

“And Gale,” Madge said. As if I needed something more to keep me from wanting to go. I knew, honestly, that he didn't mean anything by the way he acted toward me. He just had no idea how to deal with it, or with me, and it made everything painfully awkward. He was trying to make me feel more comfortable, but he couldn't find a more ass backwards way to go about it. Katniss seemed a little too amused by it most of the time.

 

“You okay?” she said softly, turning toward me. I straightened up, taking a breath, forcing myself to nod. She frowned, studying me for a moment. “What is it?”

 

“Um,” I glanced toward Madge and Delly, who were clearly absorbed in their own conversation. I still felt self-conscious. Katniss leaned forward, her expression soft and encouraging. I lowered my voice. “I j-just um—thought we'd s-sp-spend time together. You and m-me.”

 

“We will,” she smiled and bit her lip, keeping her voice low. A faint blush rose in her face. “We'll leave early. And um, go back to the bakery.”

 

I nodded, glad for the promise but still apprehensive about the entire thing. Aside from school, that delivery Katniss and I had made, trips to the doctor in town and to see Mrs Everdeen out in the Seam I hadn't spent any length of time out of the house in months. And I hadn't spent any time with anyone new, either. Delly wasn't exactly new, but we had drifted so far apart it felt like she was at times. Madge was new. Gale may as well have been. I didn't know what to expect of this; I didn't know what to expect of myself. The more I thought about it, the more I worked myself up, with the noise of the cafeteria adding to it. The overhead lights suddenly felt a thousand times brighter, and I could feel the beginnings of a headache creeping in at the base of my skull. And I still had another class and a half to sit through.

 

“Peet?” Katniss said quietly. I glanced around. I hadn't realized lunch was over. Everyone was getting up from their tables. Madge and Delly were already leaving the cafeteria. “Everything okay?” I nodded, but I could tell just by the look on her face that she knew I was lying. “Listen, if you need to get home I'll take you. I'm pretty sure they'd understand, and my mom isn't going to get mad if I skip a class for that. I definitely don't mind missing out on the rest of Capps' droning for today.”

 

“I'll b-b-be f-fine,” I swallowed hard, grateful that the bustle of students leaving was enough to keep my voice from being overheard. Katniss chewed her lip, studying me for a moment.

 

“Okay,” she finally conceded. We were the last ones back to class, something our teacher didn't let go without a comment. Katniss pushed me to the back of the room and gave my shoulder a reassuring squeeze before continuing to her own desk. I pushed up out of my chair, biting back a wince when I put my weight on my injured wrist without even thinking, and moved to my desk, trying to ignore the room spinning as I did.

 

“Are you fucking kidding me with that thing on your arm, Mellark?” Verne leaned across the aisle to whisper at me. The sleeve of my sweater had ridden up over it. I tugged it back down, tucking my arm under the desk and keeping my eyes forward. My face was burning. “Keep milking that shit. It'll get you in that Seam slut's pants. Not like you have any dignity left, anyway. May as well go for it.”

 

I frowned at the back of the chair in front of me, my jaw locking closed. I couldn't even get out any of the insults I wanted to spit back at him. That headache was getting a firmer grip on me, tightening around the back of my head like a vice and making my vision swim. My twitch was threatening, the muscles along my cheek and jaw on the left side fluttering dangerously. Verne get an eyeful of that would just be fucking perfect. Or worse, Merx, who kept turning around in his chair to shoot me that stupid, smug grin. The distance between us was the only thing keeping his mouth shut.

 

I couldn't even focus on class. The drone of Mr Capps' voice was painful, the problems on the page in front of me a complete jumble of gibberish. Before class even ended I had both elbows up on my desk, hands over my eyes, doing everything in my power just to quell the nausea rising from the pit of my stomach.

 

Katniss pushed me to our next class, and all I did was keep my head low and wait for it to end. By the time class let out my head was throbbing, and I knew I was doing a horrible job of hiding just how bad it was. Katniss waited until the classroom had all but cleared before we left, crouching beside me and trying to make it look like she was pointing something out in the homework assignment that had been handed out.

 

“We don't have to go to Madge's,” she said quietly, setting her hand on my knee. “We can just go to the bakery.”

 

“It's o-okay,” I smiled faintly, not quite able to meet her eyes. She gave my knee a squeeze and straightened up, pushing my wheelchair closer as the last stragglers left the classroom.

 

“Everything okay back there?” Mr Wilson looked up from his desk, raising his eyebrows.

 

“We're fine,” Katniss nodded, rubbing her hand over my shoulder as I sat down. She pushed me out of the room and through the noisy hall toward the front doors of the school. I kept my chin low and my eyes closed, waiting for the cold, fresh air outside.

 

“Hey, let me give you a hand with that.” Merx. I cringed. I glanced up to see him opening the door.

 

“Oh piss off,” Katniss said, picking up her pace as we moved through the door. Merx just followed, jogging a step to walk beside me. I glanced over to see the Whitaker twins catch up on the other side.

 

“Just trying to help,” Merx said. “I mean, he's so fragile and everything that I thought you could use it.” Merx reached for my brace, lifting my arm and dropping it back down into my lap. As soon as he did he let out a yelp.

 

“Hey, fuckstick!” It was Alden Fletcher, Rye's best friend. He had Merx by the back of the neck, bending him forward at the waist to shove his head down, grinning and cackling as he did. “Don't you have something better to do? I heard that ugly fuckin' girlfriend of yours was sniffing around one of my buddies. Might want to get her shit in line.”

 

“Fuck you!” Merx squeaked out, shrugging away from Alden's grip and turning to glare. Lee Whitaker was trying to hide a laugh behind his fist and failing miserably.

 

“I bet you think that's funny, asshole,” Alden tossed his chin toward the twins. “Wanna give it a try?” That silenced both of them immediately. They quickened their pace, catching up with Merx to head toward town.

 

“You didn't have to do that,” Katniss said, sounding almost annoyed.

 

“That kid's a shithead,” Alden shrugged. “Needs to be busted down a few pegs every now and then.” He backhanded my shoulder, jogging ahead to where Rye was waiting. I watched the two of them greet each other, both immediately looking back at me. Rye clapped Alden hard on the back as they laughed.

 

“So is that who Rye was running off to see that time?” Katniss asked. I nodded. “I thought he wasn't going to say anything.”

 

“M-me t-t-too,” I frowned, clamping my mouth shut around the stutter. And I still had at least a few hours ahead of me with this stupid trip to the Undersee's I'd agreed to. Madge and Delly joined Rye as Alden left, and I watched as Rye looped his arm around Dell's shoulders. She blushed faintly, ducking her chin as she smiled. She looked happy, biting her lip and brushing her hair away from her face as she leaned into him and looked up at Madge.

 

“So how come I'm not invited?” Rye smirked, raising an eyebrow at Madge before looking at Delly.

 

“Don't you have to work?” Madge asked.

 

“There's another reason,” Delly said quietly, a smile playing across her lips as she looked past me.

 

“Ready?” Gale said as he crossed behind me, dropping his arm around Madge's shoulders. I'd been so worked up about everything else I'd forgotten he was part of this. He backhanded my shoulder lightly. “Hey buddy. How you feeling today?”

 

“Fine,” I said, gritting my teeth. I took a slow breath, trying to calm myself down. It didn't work.

 

“You're right, I'll pass.” Rye kissed Delly's cheek, giving her a light shove toward Gale and Madge as the two of them turned toward town.

 

“You guys coming?” Delly asked, smiling at me. My throat closed the minute I opened my mouth.

 

“We're going to pass, too, actually,” Katniss said. I twisted to look at her, wanting to question it or insist she go even if I didn't. She just waved as Delly turned around, jogging a few steps to catch up to Gale and Madge.

 

“Why aren't you guys going?” Rye asked, glancing at Katniss before looking down at me.

 

“I don't want to,” Katniss said before I even had a chance to figure out how to answer. Rye nodded and frowned at me briefly before the three of us started toward the bakery.

 

“I th-thought you d-didn't say anything to—Alden,” I kept my eyes on the ground. Glad as I was to see Merx get some of his own medicine, the source was humiliating.

 

“I didn't,” Rye hunched up his shoulders, shoving his hands into his coat pockets. I glanced up at him and raised an eyebrow. “I really didn't. He asks about you, I answer. He kinda has an idea about what's going on with you and offered to keep an eye out before any of this. Before school even started. Not all of my friends are assholes.”

 

I sighed and looked away, unsure whether or not I could believe a word he said to me. Most of his friends were assholes, and that's why I tried to avoid them as much as possible. Alden was always one of the nicer ones though, and the one I'd overheard our parents complaining about the least. That didn't mean I wanted him coming to my rescue, even if I needed it.

 

“You're getting awful cute with your little girlfriend, you know,” Katniss said, breaking the silence and steering the conversation somewhere else. Could she tell I was getting upset over it? Her timing couldn't be better.

 

“Oh, shut up,” Rye rolled his eyes.

 

“Seriously, though, it's sweet,” Katniss said. “Delly's obviously loving it.”

 

“Sh-she's right,” I said, looking up at Rye. “Wh-when did you g-grow a heart?”

 

“Fuck you both,” he snapped. “I'm a catch, of course she loves me.”

 

“'Loves', huh?” Katniss said, and I could hear the smile in her voice. “Did she drop that four letter bomb on you? Is that why?” Rye clenched his jaw, moving a little faster. Katniss kept up with him easily. He didn't even look at us.

 

“You-you're the one who said it,” my eyebrows shot to my hairline, the realization dragging a burst of laughter out of me. Delly would have said it ages ago, that's how she was, and it wouldn't have been a big deal to either of them when she did. The look Rye gave me just confirmed it. Katniss started to laugh as well.

 

“Keep your damn mouths shut,” Rye glared at us before turning down the alley beside the bakery. “I'm serious. She gets all worked up about it and does that thing.” Rye flapped his hands in front of his chest, pulling a perfect imitation of that look Delly gets on her face when she can't decide if she's going to laugh or cry. “I hate that thing.” He was still smiling when he turned away to keep walking. I stood from my chair and turned to look at Katniss. We looked at each other for a moment before laughing. He loved that thing, and we both knew it.

 

I carefully picked my way through the alley. Rye was long inside by the time Katniss and I made it up the back steps. I braced both hands against the wall as I kicked off my boots, trying not to look up until Katniss had the chair tucked against the wall next to the door. I hated that thing, hated the brace on my wrist and the attention both called to me. Even without them I knew I'd call plenty of attention to myself between the twitching and the stutter and every other tic over which I had absolutely no control.

 

“So what's up his ass,” Dad appeared in the doorway as Katniss and I hung up our coats. “He snapped at me and went straight to work the counter when I said hello.”

 

“He loves his girlfriend,” Katniss smirked.

 

“Ah,” he cast a confused glance toward the storefront and turned back to us, the hint of a smile shifting over his features. “You're not working today.” It was a statement, not a question.

 

“Just came over to hang out,” Katniss shrugged. Dad nodded and smiled at me. I rolled my jaw, willing him to stop.

 

“We'll b-be upstairs,” I said. If he wasn't going to stop he could at least get the hint and let us out of the damn mudroom.

 

“Okay,” he said, his smile getting a little wider as he turned away. I glanced at Katniss over my shoulder and shook my head before leading her through the kitchen and up the stairs. She closed my bedroom door behind us, and as I sat on the edge of the bed I caught her raising an eyebrow at the mess of clothes on the floor.

 

“Been a while since Darla stopped by?” She kicked a pair of pants aside on her way to sit down beside me.

 

“M-most of it is R-Rye's,” I said, smiling down at my feet.

 

“Uh huh,” Katniss dropped down beside me, unconvinced. It was a lie, anyway. Just as much of it was mine, though for the most part neither of us actually knew—or cared—which clothes belonged to which of us. She pulled pff my hat and tossed it onto the dresser. As she ran her fingers through my matted hair I closed my eyes, trying not to flinch when her fingertips brushed over the scar at the back of my head.

 

“Th-thank you,” I said quietly. “For sk-skipping out on your friends f-for me.”

 

“I'm not skipping out on anything,” she said, bumping her shoulder against mine. “I'd rather be here.” I flashed a smile, the motion setting off the tension that had been building along my neck and jaw all afternoon. I rubbed my hand over my face, turning to look away from her, trying to will it to pass. She pulled my hand away and wove our fingers together. “It was kind of funny to see Alden doing that to Merx.”

 

“Yeah, i-it w-was,” I chuckled, remembering the look on his face when Alden let him go.

 

“I've never seen him get red like that before,” she squeezed my hand and then let go, shifting behind me to lay down on the bed. I turned and glanced down at her, my heart pounding. Was that an invitation? Did she want me laying down with her? Before I could figure it out for myself she tugged on the back of my shirt, raising her eyebrows when I looked at her.

 

“S-sorry,” I muttered quietly, turning around and stretching out on my side to face her.

 

“Why are you apologizing?” she smiled, squirming closer and kissing me before I could respond.

 

“I don't know,” I murmured against her lips, snaking my arm around her waist as she leaned into me. I felt her laugh softly. She draped an arm around me, leading me through the kiss, her tongue parting my lips. I fought with myself over where to put my hands, wanting to continue what Rye had interrupted the day before but unsure if I could pull it off. I was too nervous, too wound up from the afternoon, and shaking too hard. Katniss didn't seem to mind. Her hand wandered over my back, the other moving between us to cup my cheek.

 

A quiet whimper escaped her and made me feel bolder. I carefully eased her onto her back, shifting my weight onto her, and I swear I felt her smile against my mouth before she kissed me again. I laid my hand on her ribs, my fingers curling into the soft fabric of her shirt. Katniss nudged my hand toward her breast before sliding her hands to my neck, her fingers tangling in my hair. I hesitated before cupping her lightly in my palm, my breath catching in my throat.

 

“Peeta,” she breathed. I snapped my hand away, but she was smiling. She took a breath to say something and stopped herself, laughing softly. “Do you think anyone's going to barge in here today?”

 

“H-hope not.” My voice came out lower and huskier than I intended. Katniss blushed, biting down on her lower lip and reaching for the hem of her shirt. I stared as she pulled it off, leaning back as she lifted her shoulders to get it up over her head. I couldn't even move, couldn't really draw a full breath, just staring down at her; her bare skin, the gentle curve of her breasts under the fabric of her bra. I had never seen this much of someone, and I certainly didn't realize it would be quite so heart stopping.

 

“You're staring,” she said quietly, pressing her lips together to ward off a smirk. I stuttered out an apology, biting down on my lip and smiling as I smoothed my hand over her skin. She just smiled, tilting her head as I lowered my lips to her neck, covering her breast with my hand. I felt the hardness of her nipple under my palm and rubbed it through her bra with my fingertips, wishing I could be bold enough to move that thin bit of fabric out of my way. The kisses I was pressing along her neck and collarbone were about as adventurous as I felt. The sound of her whimpers, the feel of her voice vibrating through her throat under my lips and tongue chased any other thoughts out of my head.

 

Katniss' hands moved down my sides, her fingers hooking under the hem of my sweater. I froze as I registered what she was doing; my eyes still closed, panting against her skin. She pulled one hand away and set it on my cheek, kissing me slowly before pulling at my sweater, breaking away to lift it and the shirt beneath it up and over my head. I lowered myself onto her and kissed her again. The feel of her skin against mine was so perfect, so soft and warm.

 

I felt myself hardening and started to move away, but she held me closer, as though she enjoyed the feeling of me against her. The longer we kissed, the more unbearable the pressure became. I wanted more and knew if I didn't stop this soon I was going to embarrass myself. Reluctantly I pulled away.

“Aren't you cold?” Katniss said, shivering lightly and squirming closer to me.

 

“N-no,” I smirked, reaching for the blanket bunched at the bottom of the bed and pulling it over us. I wrapped her in my arms for good measure, pressing a kiss to her forehead and rubbing my hand over the soft, smooth skin of her back. “I'm a-always hot. I c-can't even sleep unless th-the window's open.”

 

“In February?” Katniss raised her eyebrows.

 

“R-Rye and I fight about it,” I smirked. “C-can't help it. Started after—um. Y'know.” I frowned, trailing off. I couldn't even refer to it. Dr Lawrence called it an accident, but I had a hard time calling it that. It wasn't one. Maybe the severity was, but she meant what she was doing. I'd never be able to get that out of my head.

 

“Then keep me warm,” Katniss said, pressing her lips to my neck and tucking herself against my chest, pushing my thoughts out of the hole they were starting to slip into. I trailed my fingers over her skin, wanting to touch every inch of it, figuring out the places that made her shiver. She shied away when I hit a spot between her ribs and her hip; she laughed and slapped my arm lightly when I tried to find it again. Her breath caught when I ran my fingers across her back along the waist of her pants. She hummed contentedly when I traced her spine, wedging one of her legs between mine and sliding her hand to the small of my back and pulling herself closer.

 

I could have stayed that way for the rest of the night, but I could feel Katniss getting restless. Things were starting to get awkward. Neither of us really had anything to say and doing nothing more than kissing didn't seem right. The sound of footsteps on the stairs startled us away from each other, and she yanked her shirt back on, helping me straighten out my sweater.

 

“You staying for dinner, Katniss?” Dad asked through the door, the handle jiggling as he dropped his hand onto it on the other side.

 

“I should-um, I should probably get home,” she said, turning to me with an apologetic expression. “Before it gets too late and too cold.”

 

“Okay,” Dad said. The two of us listened as he moved away and into the kitchen.

 

“I'm sorry,” Katniss said, lowering her voice. “I really should go.”

 

“It's okay,” I said. She smiled, leaning toward me and kissing me softly, lingering against my lips for a moment.

 

“Um,” she bit her lip, hesitating, then looked down and blushed faintly. “I'll see you tomorrow, okay?”

 

“T-tomorrow,” I nodded, wondering what she was really going to say. “Goodnight, K-Kat.”

 

“Goodnight, Peet,” she pecked a kiss against my cheek and got up from the bed, straightening her shirt and smoothing down her hair as she left my room.

 

Since Katniss wasn't staying, Dad asked if I was okay with a sandwich. I declined, telling him I wasn't hungry, anyway. He rarely cooked; remembering to feed himself, let alone us, had become almost an afterthought thanks to of his constant exhaustion. Mom didn't do much for us, but she was definitely the source of meals for our family.

Rye's bed stayed empty. Thankfully. It was hard enough trying to keep my head from running away from me with Dad constantly poking his head into the room to check on me, look at my wrist, try to get some dinner into me and to tell me he was going to bed six or seven times before actually doing it. Once his bedroom door finally did close for the night I let myself think about Katniss again; her lips, her tongue, her body underneath me, her skin on mine. The way she'd moved her hands over my skin. I had to smother a moan with my pillow when I came and hastily cleaned myself off.

 

As I laid in bed staring at the ceiling, I thought back to when Katniss had been nothing more than a classmate. An acquaintance. I thought I loved her, but whatever I felt then seemed insignificant. It had been a crush, nothing more. Thinking about her as a part of my life, maybe even staying on at the bakery when we finished school, where things might lead; it all made my heart race. It didn't take much for my thoughts to run away from me. Trying to get my mind under control, I decided to go down to the bakery to see what sweets were left from the day

I didn't realize Rye and Delly were sitting in the kitchen together until I hit the bottom of the stairs. The two of them looked over at me from where they sat side by side at the worktable. There was hardly even any airspace between them.

 

“Uh, s-sorry,” I hesitated. Delly had a pleasant enough smile on her face, as always, but Rye's expression made me feel like I'd interrupted something. “J-just looking f-for—uh-” I gestured toward the storefront, hoping they knew I meant the day's leftovers. I couldn't find the right words.

 

“I already raided the case,” Delly hunched up her shoulders. She gestured to the table in front of her, loaded with an array of food I hadn't noticed before. “The last of the cupcakes are over here.”

 

“And most of the cookies, and that loaf of raisin bread, and half of the cinnamon rolls,” Rye smirked at her and earned himself an elbow to the ribs. Mom had always kept a tight control over the bakery's inventory. Leftovers were off limits until they'd sat in the case at half price for a day, and by that point they were too stale to be appetizing. Dad didn't care as much, and cut the prices on the day old goods even further. Without Mom constantly policing the output, he'd started making a little more, though he denied it. It was partly for me, I knew; to ensure there would be something my fickle appetite could handle. It was partly for the Everdeens too, to give Katniss an opportunity to learn as well as make sure there was plenty to send home with them whenever she or her mother left.

 

“Come sit with us,” she cast a pointed look to the stool across the table from them. Rye raised an eyebrow at her as I reluctantly crossed the room. What I wanted to do was snag something to eat and retreat back upstairs, but I was also a little reluctant to go back to staring at the wall and letting my thoughts run in circles. Delly mirrored Rye's expression and turned back to me. “Missed you today.”

 

“I uh—w-wasn't feeling t-to g-great,” I frowned, avoiding her eyes by keeping mine on the food. Now that I was faced with it, none of it actually looked appealing.

 

“He's just too polite to tell you he had someone better to do,” Rye said. “I mean something.”

 

“Don't be vile,” Delly spat at Rye without missing a beat before turning her attention to me. “I've noticed you and Katniss getting a little cozy. How is that going?”

 

“It's f-fine.” I reached for a pastry, mostly to give my hands something to do, and began picking it apart. I didn't really want to talk about how awkward this afternoon had started to feel.

 

“What's wrong?” Rye dropped his hand to the table, his shoulders sagging.

 

“Wh-what?” I frowned at him. He always could read me far too easily.

 

“I walked in on more than 'fine' yesterday. What happened?” he demanded.

 

“What did you walk in on?” Delly cocked an eyebrow at him, popping a cookie into her mouth and staring him down for an answer. He smirked, ignoring the pleading look on my face and turning to Dell.

 

“I caught them in his bed, and he had his hands up her shirt,” he grinned. Delly's eyebrows flew to her hairline and she covered her mouth, nearly choking on the cookie as she swallowed.

 

“I didn't know you were getting that cozy,” her eyes lit up.

 

“It's n-not-”

 

“Don't tell me I scared her off,” Rye cut me off and I gave up on the pastry, dropping the piece in my hand on top of the rest of it.

 

“N-no, you d-d-didn't-”

 

“Even if you did she's not going to let him know that,” Delly gestured to me. I tried finishing the sentence before the rest of what I wanted to say slipped out of my grasp.

 

“If I did she's got no business 'getting cozy' with him in the first place,” Rye said, giving Delly a look and snatching the cookie out of her hand.

 

“And if you ruin his chances with her you can forget about 'getting cozy' with me for a while,” Delly mirrored his look right back at him. I couldn't sneak in a word between their bantering.

 

“Oh come on, now,” Rye shifted closer. His arm moved, but fortunately the table blocked whatever he was doing with his hand from view. “You wouldn't do that to yourself.”

 

“Dammit, Rye!” Dell slapped him and he just chuckled, completely undaunted.

 

“She took her shirt off,” I blurted out, knowing if I didn't interrupt them they'd go somewhere I didn't want to be present for. The two of them snapped their attention toward me, twin smiles spreading across their faces. After a moment Delly slapped Rye's hand away.

 

“She did what?” Delly leaned forward.

 

“You're lying,” Rye grinned. “You didn't stutter.”

 

“I'm not—l-lying.” I could feel my face reddening. He knew I wasn't lying, and he also knew poking at me like that was only going to embarrass me more.

 

“He wouldn't blush that hard if he was lying,” Delly barely looked away from me, and the smile didn't leave her face. She raised her eyebrows expectantly. I glanced at Rye and back at her. “Tell me!”

 

“T-tell you?” I raised an eyebrow. We were close, but we were never that close.

 

“Oh, come on,” Dell cocked her head to one side. I looked to Rye for help.

 

“I want to know, too,” he shrugged. “Sorry, man. Out with it.” I rolled my eyes and looked away, hoping they'd drop it if I just refused to open my mouth. After a couple minutes of silent stares from both of them I started to talk. I tried to be tactful about it, and honestly had a hard time looking them both in the eye. I tried to get across the awkwardness that had settled in before she left.

 

“Wh-what do you d-do,” I asked them, my embarrassment gone in the face of getting some real advice. “I m-mean. You g-guys aren't—awkward.”

 

“We were,” Delly offered with a shrug.

 

“She was awkward.” Rye pointed at Delly. “I never was.” Delly rolled her eyes and turned to him.

 

“The first time you kissed me you said I smelled like shoe leather.”

 

“You did,” he said, clearly baffled as to why that wouldn't be flattering. Even I picked up on that much. “You still do sometimes. It's nice.” Delly sighed and looked over at me, the pained look on her face making me laugh.

 

“You are allowed to talk to her after you've kissed her,” she said.

 

“Ab-about what?”

 

“The same things you talk about the rest of the time,” Delly shrugged. “You do talk to her, don't you?”

 

“Compared to how much he talks to the rest of us he's a regular fucking chatterbox with Katniss,” Rye pointed out. I felt myself blush again. Delly just smiled.

 

“Sh-she does most of—th-the talking,” I mumbled, picking at the edge of the table to keep my hands occupied. I could feel a weariness starting to settle in and a headache creeping up the back of my skull; I was pushing it too far with staying to interact with them, and I would regret it later.

 

“That's funny, since I've only ever heard about three complete sentences out of her. Maybe her being so quiet means you don't have to talk,” Dell said. “There is such a thing as comfortable silence. Not that I would know.” She punctuated the statement with a pointed glare at Rye.

 

“The hell is that supposed to mean,” he snapped.

 

“She does like you, you know,” Delly continued as if Rye hadn't even spoken. “She called you her boyfriend when she and I were at Madge's a little while ago.”

 

“She d-did?” I asked.

 

“She did?” Rye echoed with a grin.

 

“She did!” Delly beamed, hunching up her shoulders. “It was really adorable and kind of funny, but um, Peeta? I think she might be kind of dumb. And that's a little ironic because I'm almost positive she thinks I'm a moron.”

 

“She does,” Rye said. “You're not, for the record.”

 

“Nice cover,” Dell shot him a look and shook her head. I stared down at the pile of crumbled danish I left on the table without really looking at it. My mind was hooked on that statement. I'd overheard her calling me her friend long before I realized that was true. She had said she wanted to give us a try, but I wasn't sure if that made things between us official. Their banter faded to background noise; I couldn't force myself to keep up with them anymore. Maybe I really did die, because there is no way this could be real. She never seemed that friendly to anyone besides Gale, Madge, and Prim. She never did much besides scowl at me when she came to trade. I could count on one hand the number of times she'd even bothered to say hello. How did I end up with my hand up her shirt and her wanting it there? She liked me. Romantically, no less

 

“How d-did I end up with a girlfriend?” I wondered out loud. Rye and Delly stopped talking and looked over at me. Rye let out an amused snort.

 

“They are perfect for each other,” Dell turned to Rye, raising her eyebrows. He just nodded and chuckled.

 

Chapter Text

“You're not doing as badly as you think you are,” Katniss said, her voice entirely too patient. I leaned forward against the table, rubbing my hands over my face and combing my fingers back into my hair. We sat on the floor in my living room on opposite sides of the coffee table. Our English textbooks were open on the table between us, with Katniss' notes from class covering the rest of the table.

 

“I'm n-never going to g-get this,” I stared down at the page in front of me, the notebook beside it. We were meant to be writing a two page paper on the historical context of some essay on the state of the government before President Snow came to power. Even though Miss Krugel had pulled me aside to let me know I only needed to turn in one page since writing was so difficult for me, I was having a hard time piecing together enough to say to even do that. Every time I picked up my pencil my hand started to shake. I didn't even recognize my own handwriting.

 

“Do you want me to read it for you again?” Katniss offered, flipping back to the essay in her own textbook. She had already read the passage out loud to me three times, and we'd talked over it. Then Katniss had proceeded to write out two and a half pages in her tiny, neat handwriting while I struggled to string more than two sentences together. I sighed and shook my head, rubbing my hand over the bare patch of skin at the back of my head. It still itched, though the scab was finally completely gone, and I had to constantly remind myself not to pick at the scar. “Just read mine and rephrase it, she's not even going to care. It's not like there's a lot to interpret here.” Katniss held her paper out to me and I took it, laying it on top of my open book. I pulled my hat back on to try and keep myself from scratching as I read.

 

Katniss all but dictated my essay to me before all was said and done, though she made sure I understood the concepts behind what I was writing. Our teacher had strongly suggested there would be a test of some kind on the material without outright telling us. By the time we had finished my mind felt like static. I dropped my head back against the couch as Katniss moved to sit beside me.

 

“You okay?” she asked as she leaned against me. I nodded, smiling to myself when I felt her lips on my neck and her head on my shoulder. I truly was okay, though it felt strange to be able to say so. I slipped my arm around her waist and turned my head just enough to rest my cheek against her hair.

 

The moment didn't last long. Over the past few weeks what had once been a light flutter in the muscles around my eye had turned into a flat out twitch, and it was getting impossible to keep ignoring. I shifted away from her as it began, and rubbed my hand hard against the side of my face, trying to get it to stop. Katniss turned to look at me, planting a soft kiss on my cheek before reaching toward the table and closing my textbook.

 

“I think we're done with all of that for today,” she said. I smirked a little, trying to blink the spots of color out of my vision that had appeared after I stopped rubbing my eye. Even those spots couldn't take my mind off of the feel of her besides me, which was something I would never believe as real.

 

“Good,” I said. There was no way I'd be able to focus on another minute of any of it. Katniss kissed me, and I couldn't stop myself from smiling against her mouth. That was something I would definitely still be able to focus on. As she pulled back I frowned, lifting my chin and inhaling through my nose. “Do you smell that?” It was the same smell that sometimes filled the bakery kitchen when one of us accidentally bumped the damper lever by the oven chimneys, though not nearly as strong. I wondered if Rye had overfilled one of the ovens. It wouldn't be the first time.

 

“I don't smell anything,” Katniss said. The spots got a little worse and then Katniss' hand was on my cheek. She was close enough to me to nearly be in my lap—though I'm not sure how she got there—her face etched with worry. “Peeta? Are you okay?”

 

“I'm—yeah,” I pressed my eyes closed, reaching up and touching her hand lightly. A headache was rolling up from the base of my skull, faster than I was used to. “I th-think, um—I should lay down.”

 

“Okay,” Katniss stood up, holding her hands out to me to help pull me to my feet. “Come on.” I took her hands, clinging to them when I realized just how unsteady I was on my feet, and let her lead me to my bedroom, making a stop along the way for my pain pills. She stayed with me until they started to kick in, laying beside me and brushing her hand over my forehead, her fingers back through my hair. It helped more than the morphling.

 

Dad brought me to school the next day. I picked at the edges of my textbooks as he talked. Merx and Verne had given me a few days of peace, though I knew there was no way it would last. That's what Dad kept bringing up. It was bad enough when it was actually happening, rehashing it all the time just made me feel worse.

 

“I have to talk with your principal, anyway. I think I ought to bring that up with him,” Dad said. They were getting ready to add another class into my school day. Another thing I wanted nothing to do with. Two classes a day wasn't getting any easier.

 

“P-please d-don't,” I frowned. As if I needed another thing to add to the list of reasons I was their favorite target.

 

“Grant Miller was in this morning,” Dad said. I could hear the frown in his voice. “I seriously considered having a talk with him about his boy then and there.”

 

“D-Dad,” I sighed, rubbing my hand over my face. “J-just let it g-go. It's—f-fine.”

 

“No, it's not,” he said softly, almost to himself. I knew what he was thinking. School had set things back. Kicked off new symptoms. My headaches had changed; gotten worse. The lights in the building made me feel sick some days. Any improvement I'd had in my speech was gone. The pain in my wrist was near constant now, to the point that days when it didn't hurt were the ones that stood out.

 

“D-don't say anything—please?” I turned to look at Dad after we got through the doors to the school.

 

“I won't,” he sighed, stopping outside of the offices as I took over pushing the chair myself. He was still standing there watching when I rounded the corner toward the classrooms.

 

The last class hadn't quite let out yet, giving me a chance to move through the halls without having to weave my way through the other students. I could feel people staring from the rooms as I wheeled myself past, and I tried to position myself as far out of view as possible outside of the English room. I tried to rub the ache from my wrist as I waited to go inside.

 

Class was excruciating. I could feel the flutters around my eye that told me a full blown twitch was not far off. I couldn't stop thinking about whether or not Dad would actually listen to me or what might happen if he didn't. I kept my eyes on the desk and on my notes, trying to listen and keep up, but mostly just trying to keep a level head. After collecting our papers Miss Krugel sat on the edge of her desk, asking questions about what we'd read that no one was eager to answer. I sat up a little straighter. For the first time in a very long time, I was able to keep up with the conversation. And then, of course, she called on me.

 

I knew what she was asking. I knew the answer. It was something Katniss and I had just discussed the night before. When I tried to call up the words to say it, though, I was drawing a complete and utter blank. I couldn't get it out. The longer my silence stretched, the more eyes turned toward me. Merx was turned around in his chair completely. The grin on his face made my stomach churn. I stuttered a brief apology, scratching my fingers up under the edge of my hat.

 

“Quite alright, Peeta,” Miss Krugel smiled. I sagged in my chair, hoping she was about to let me off the hook. “I know you have trouble speaking from time to time.” My blood went cold. She did not just say that in front of this entire classroom. Truth or not, whether they knew it already or not, the statement was followed by a few snorts of barely stifled laughter. The loudest came from Merx, who turned around as I sunk a little lower in my chair and pushed my hat further down my forehead.

 

“Good fucking going, retard,” Verne hissed. I just clenched my jaw, allowing myself the briefest glance toward Katniss before dropping my eyes to my desk. She was glaring at Merx, sneering in response to something I didn't catch from him.

 

“Mr. Miller,” the teacher snapped, her voice stern. “Something to share?”

 

“N-n-n-no m-ma'am,” Merx said, joining a few others who laughed at the joke. I hunched forward, hiding my face behind my hands and willing the class to end. I was so focused on that and on holding back the hot sting of tears I felt threatening to slip out of my control that I didn't even notice the bell ring.

 

“Hey,” Katniss said quietly, her hand sliding over the back of my neck. I startled, glancing at the rapidly emptying classroom before looking up at her. She nodded toward the door. “Let's go.”

 

“I'm sorry, Peeta,” Miss Krugel said as we passed her on the way out of the class. I just flashed her a brief smile, the look on her face too painfully apologetic for me to stomach.

 

“That guy is a fucking dick,” Katniss snapped, arms folded over her books against her chest, her pace almost too fast for me to keep up.

 

“Wh—um, d-did he s-say s-” I bit down on my lip, unable to get the sentence out and too aware of the people around us staring at me. I knew she was talking about Merx, about whatever it was he'd said to her after that stupid scene.

 

“He-” Katniss shook her head and took a breath, slowing down enough to glance at me. Her shoulders dropped. “It's nothing. He's just a shithead. That's all.” I frowned, wanting to ask again but afraid to open my mouth. The tension in her set me even further on edge, and I couldn't even find the words to ask her to calm down.

 

I spent the next class in a haze, staring down at the open textbook in front of me. Every noise echoed in my ears, compounding the ringing in my head and the dull throb of pain in my wrist. I wish I had just stayed home; feigned sleep when Dad came in to get me or just flat out refused to come, citing one pain or another as the reason. The chapter we were meant to be reading was nothing but a blur, even the few illustrations accompanying them were out of focus. To top everything off I was too hot. Sweat soaked into my sweater, though most of the other students had their arms hugged against themselves to stave off the cold in the classroom. A ball of paper bounced off of my forehead and I startled, snapping upright to see Merx turned around in his desk, flipping me the middle finger. Our teacher was nowhere to be found.

 

“Will you stop it? You're such an asshole,” Katniss snapped, her face pinched and angry.

 

“You need this seam rat sticking up for you, Mellark?” Merx smirked, turning to Katniss. “No wonder Mommy beat the shit out of him for so long. He's fucking spineless.” Verne snorted beside me, the only break in the tense silence that followed that comment.

 

“I swear to fucking god, Merx, I'll-” Katniss cut herself off as our teacher stepped back into the room. He stopped short, his eyes flicking between Merx and Katniss before he looked back toward me.

 

“Is there a problem here?” he demanded, closing the door behind him. I turned my attention back to my book, trying desperately to ignore the leer I could see on Verne's face out of the corner of my eye.

 

“No,” Katniss said before Merx got the chance to repeat the stunt he pulled in our last class. I glanced up at her. She was turned to look at me and waited until I made eye contact, an apology written on her face. It just pushed me over the edge. I felt the hot sting of rising tears and slouched down in my seat, pressing both hands against my hat and pulling it down over my forehead. There was no hope of holding it back, and no way to hide it well enough. I just hoped that I wouldn't have to hear about it; that I could escape the building as soon as class got out without any more damage.

 

The muscles in my face and neck hurt from trying to hold back the tears, and my chest was tightening to the point where it was becoming difficult to breathe. The harder I tried to control it, the more the tears seemed to come. To top it all off, the strain was making the glare of the lights and the pounding in my head even worse. My thoughts raced and the fog clouding up my mind was making it difficult to think. Class had ended just before I lost all semblance of composure.

 

“Are you okay?” Katniss set her hand on my arm.

 

“You'll b-be—late,” I said, glancing back toward the classrooms as we neared the front doors.

 

“It's fine,” she shrugged. “Are you okay?” I looked up at her, letting the wheels run through my hands. My expression said what I couldn't find the words for. She sighed, quickening her pace and opening the door for me. I pushed past her, and she grabbed the back of the chair before I got too far out the door. “Peeta?”

 

“Yeah?” I stopped, turning to look at her.

 

“I'll be by after school, okay?” Katniss leaned down and pressed a kiss to my temple. The gesture drew a brief smile from me, and she repeated it before going back into the building. Rye grinned at me as I approached where he stood waiting, leaning against a low brick wall that lined the path from the doors. The smile dropped from his face as I got closer.

 

“What's wrong?” he frowned, his voice flat and stern.

 

“Just—shit day,” I said, shaking my head as I wheeled myself past him. Rye blew out a breath as he pushed off the wall and followed behind me, taking ahold of the back of the chair to take over pushing.

 

“Well, if you'd been at home you would have gotten to watch Dad put some really fucking awkward moves on Mrs. Everdeen for a solid hour and a half,” he said. I just pressed my eyes closed. Of course she would be there when I got home. God forbid I catch a break today.

 

Mrs. Everdeen was sitting at the worktable when we stepped into the kitchen, her posture painfully rigid, a tight smile on her face as she greeted us. Dad was leaning against the counter across from her, rubbing his hand over the back of his neck and looking anywhere in the kitchen but at the two of us. The tension in the room was palpable, and I couldn't help but wonder how either of them thought we wouldn't notice.

 

“Hello boys,” Mrs. Everdeen said, her voice stilted. She got up off of the stool and lifted her bag onto her shoulder. “Shall we head upstairs and get started, Peeta?”

 

“Y-yeah.” I nodded, following her to the stairs. I glanced back before climbing up behind her, only to catch Rye smirking at Dad and earning an eye roll and a light shove in return. I slumped on the couch, tugging off my hat and running my hand through my hair with a heavy sigh. Mrs. Everdeen paused, her notebooks in hand, and looked up at me for a moment. “C-can we just—get this over with?”

 

“Did something happen today?” She straightened up and sat back in the chair across from me, setting the notebooks in her lap.

 

“I j-just want to—sleep,” I said, trying to shrug her off. A few moments of silence passed between us.

 

“Peeta,” she began, her voice soft. “You really do need to talk about these things at some point. I know it's not easy. That's part of what I'm here for, though. I'm not going to repeat any of it, and I won't say anything to anyone unless you ask me to. You may feel better if you talk about it.” I chewed my lip and glanced toward her notebooks. I didn't have much talking left in me, and I knew she still planned on running through one of those lists of questions. She looked down at the notebooks, a faint smile crossing her face before she tucked them back into the bag she'd set on the floor by her feet. “We'll skip that today if you'll talk about the things that have been going on at school.”

 

I frowned at the floor, unsure of where to start. Or if I really should start. Mrs. Everdeen waited patiently, watching me as I picked at the seam of my pants. It took me a few long, tense minutes to get my thoughts in order. When I started to speak, though, more came pouring out of me than I expected. I told her about running into Merx and the twins in town at the end of break and about how quickly they'd started in on me once classes started again. I told her some of the things they'd said and the laughter it drew out of some of my classmates.

 

“You know these things they're saying to you are complete garbage,” she shifted, concern etched in her face.

 

“It's-” I pressed my lips together, trying to get my words in order and stop the trembling in my lip. I began to cry again and quickly wiped the tears away, humiliated I still hadn't gotten that under control. “When th-they call me—retard. Or t-tell me I'm d-defective, they're just—saying what I think ab-about myself already.”

 

“Peeta, look at me,” Mrs. Everdeen said. There was a commanding edge to her voice that I wasn't used to hearing. I snapped my attention up towards her. “You are neither of those things. You've suffered. You're still suffering, and you still have a lot of work to do. None of that makes you abnormal. None of it makes you lesser than anyone else. You're stronger than any of those people.”

 

I blinked dumbly at her for a moment; the anger in her voice had me thrown off. Was she angry with me? For thinking those things? With them for saying them? I opened my mouth to speak, but completely lost whatever it was I had to say and turned my attention back to the hole in my pants instead.

 

“I'm sorry, Peeta,” she said, sitting back with a sigh. An awkward silence fell. The longer she watched me the more uncomfortable I felt, and I found myself starting to fidget. “Katniss told me you've been having lunch with Madge and Delly at school. I've figured out a bit about how your friendship with Delly went just from what you, your father, and Katniss have mentioned in passing. How has reconnecting with her been?”

 

“Um—strange,” I chewed my lip, staring at the floor. “I th-thought she would have c-come to see me sooner. Than she did, I mean. That hurt. She d-did, um, apologize though. It's just, um, she's the same—as b-before. But I'm not. I j-just don't, um. I don't-” I cut myself off, unable to put the thought together and growing too frustrated to keep trying.

 

“You don't know how to relate to her anymore,” Mrs. Everdeen said, pulling exactly what I was trying to express from my head. I nodded. She smiled at me for a moment. “I want to pose an idea to you, and I want you to try not to shut out the possibility immediately. I know it'll take some work to get there, but I do think it will do you a lot of good. Not just emotionally, but physically.”

 

“Wh-what?”

 

“Please don't be upset with him,” she said with a smirk. “Your father has shown me some of your artwork. It's good, Peeta. Very good. It's also clearly a huge part of who you are. I think you should start painting again.” I couldn't even stop myself from rolling my eyes. There were too many reasons that wasn't going to happen. I could barely hold a pencil for more than a few minutes at a time, and I didn't really have enough motor control to write, let alone draw or paint. It didn't help that that particular hobby was always a point of contention with my mother. I'd never be able to do any of it without my thoughts going somewhere much darker than I could handle. “I'm not going to force it on you, and I'm not going to let anyone harp on the subject with you. It would give you an outlet to express yourself again, and it would be a much more effective physical therapy than any of the things I've shown you for that injured wrist. Just promise me you'll consider it a possibility in the future.”

 

“I—um, I g-guess.” I tried to shrug it off, hoping for a change in subject. It only took a few moments for Mrs. Everdeen to find a way to break the silence. We talked about the classes I was taking, about the plan to add a third to my day, and the way the schedule would work out. The entire prospect made my chest feel tight. Mrs. Everdeen's plan was to work me up to a full school day within a month or two, and she made a cryptic reference to some sort of idea she had to ensure I'd move on to the next grade with the rest of my class. I wasn't thinking that far ahead. Honestly, I was hoping to find a way to convince Dad to just let me drop out once the school year ended. Especially if they were planning to hold me back a year.

 

“Why don't you try to get some rest?” Mrs. Everdeen nodded toward my bedroom down the hall. “You look exhausted. I think I've put you through enough for one day.”

 

“Th-thanks,” I smirked, pushing myself up off the couch. A headache was creeping in again and my speech had gotten far worse as the conversation went on. I kept my hand against the wall as I walked toward the bedroom. As soon as I closed the door behind me I yanked off my sweater, threw myself in bed, and tried to ignore the way the room kept spinning around me.

 

I woke to Katniss lowering herself onto my back. She stretched out on top me, brushing her lips against my cheek before resting her head against my shoulder. I smiled to myself, glancing at her out of the corner of my eye. It had gotten dark, and I tried to figure out how long I'd been asleep.

 

“Hi,” Katniss said quietly.

 

“Hi.” I smiled.

 

“You were asleep every time I came up to check on you,” she said, her voice soft and low. I could feel it vibrating through her chest and against my back and absolutely loved it. “I couldn't leave without making sure you're okay, though.”

 

“I'm okay,” I said, closing my eyes and burying my face against the blankets. I felt her fingers in the hair at the back of my neck. “What time is it?”

 

“A little after eight.” Katniss scratched her fingers into my hair gently. I felt myself let out a soft hum of approval. “Your dad wants me to learn how to do the books. I stayed to close with him today. Rye had to do all pf the kitchen work. I know you love when he gets all worked up; you missed out today.” I chuckled quietly and felt her smile against my shoulder.

 

“S-sorry I slept through it,” I said quietly. And I was. Not because of Rye, but because I missed out on an afternoon I could have spent with her.

 

“Maybe I'll come early tomorrow,” she said as she trailed her fingers down my arm. “Since you hid from me today.”

 

“I w-wasn't hiding,” I said. I felt her shake against me, trying to hold back laughter. I chuckled softly. I wanted to wrap her in my arms and kiss her, but the way she was laying on me felt too good. If I moved that would be ruined. I took her hand instead, knitting our fingers together and bringing her knuckles to my lips.

 

“In that case I guess I don't need to come early,” she said.

 

“You, um—you still can,” I squeezed her hand. She laughed softly before sliding off to lay beside me.

 

“I will,” she said as I turned to face her. She pressed her lips to mine. “But I have to get home.”

 

“Okay,” I said softly, hoping my disappointment didn't show. Katniss didn't move, just smiled faintly and kissed me again, deeper this time. I set my hand on her waist, smiling against her mouth as she shifted closer and slipped her tongue into my mouth.

 

By the time Katniss reluctantly pulled away from me we were both bordering breathless. Her face was flushed, her lips full and wet, and I wanted nothing more than to take her hand and drag her back into my bed. She kissed me softly, promising she'd be back in the morning, and I watched her leave with a smile on my face.

 

The taste of her mouth stayed with me, tinged with sugar; something sweet she'd eaten before coming upstairs. I unbuttoned my pants, lifting my hips to slide them down, breathing deep as I curled my hand around my cock. I could still feel her lips on mine and smell her beside me. I tightened my grip as I thought of the way she'd nudged her leg between mine, rubbing her thigh against me as she threaded her fingers in my hair. I couldn't help but wonder if she thought of me after any of the times we spent alone together. The idea of her touching herself had barely even formed in my head when my hips jerked off the bed, a wave of dizzy heat rushing through me. I bit back a grunt as my balls tightened, shooting come up onto my stomach. I dropped my head back against the pillows, swearing quietly and staring at the ceiling as my breathing slowed.

 

I stretched out on my back after cleaning myself off, trying to sort through the day in my head. The anger and embarrassment I'd felt at school started to return to me, and I struggled to hold it back. It didn't seem fair that I had to go through it all. What had I done to deserve it? What made my mom dislike me so much that she was willing to hurt me that way? I hated those thoughts that played in a constant loop in my head, but no matter how bad they got, it always seemed to end with the knowledge that I have Katniss. She would never be in my life otherwise, and even though I often imagined what life would be like without the injury, it was impossible to imagine going back to any sort of life at all that didn't include her. Rye shoved the door open, interrupting my train of thought as he crossed the room and dropped down onto his bed. I had never really minded the lack of privacy before, but it seemed like whenever I needed it—with or without Katniss—it was impossible to get.

 

“You know, once Dad figures out what you're up to when she comes up here you're fucked,” he smirked, tugging off his shoes.

 

“I d-don't know what you're—talking about,” I said, holding back a smile.

 

“Please,” Rye scoffed. “You're lucky Katniss ducked out before he saw her bouncing through the kitchen all red and disheveled.” I chuckled, rubbing my hand over my face. Rye whipped his sweater across the room at me. “Lucky son of a bitch.”

 

“You send D-Delly home all red and d-disheveled every time she's here,” I threw the sweater back at him. “Once without pants, ap-apparently.”

 

“But I don't get her in my bed.” He caught the sweater and dropped it to the floor before laying down. “Any progress there? She still ripping off her clothes for you?”

 

“N-none of your business.” I smirked.

 

“I'll take that as a yes,” Rye said, laughing quietly. “Make me proud, Peet.” I rolled my eyes and chuckled. As much as I wanted more, I couldn't bring myself to think about it—or her—the way Rye did. It felt good to be able to relate to him about all of this though, especially since I had nearly resigned myself to never having any of it.

 

Eventually Rye's breathing evened out, leveled into a snore, and I was left alone with my thoughts again. My mind raced without any sort of distraction, bouncing from relief at the two day break from school the weekend afforded me to premature dread of going back to class on Monday. I thought of Katniss, too, and the new side of her I was learning. She had always seemed distant and quiet. Aloof. I hadn't seen any of that in a long time, though. She was affectionate and kind, and seemed to see what I needed before I did. It was surprising to see all of that coming from her. I don't think that I, or anyone else for that matter, would have ever expected it. I'm sure most of the people in school wouldn't believe me if I ever had the opportunity, or desire, to tell them.

 

I got up and pushed the bedroom window open. The room felt like a sauna, and I pulled my shirt off over my head before laying back down. Rye snorted in his sleep, tugging the blankets up around his ears. His snoring evened back out, but he'd be up in a few minutes to close the window, muttering something under his breath about it that he thought I couldn't hear. I stared at the ceiling and waited for it.

 

“Fuck,” Rye hissed under his breath. “Dammit, Peet.” He threw the blankets off of himself and leaned over the dresser to shove the window closed. I glanced over at him as he laid back down to huddle under his blankets. It only took a few minutes for his snoring to resume. I rolled out of bed, snatching a t-shirt off the floor and pulling it on as I slipped out the door.

 

There was a light on in the living room, and I walked quietly down the hall to find Dad sitting on the couch with a notebook in his lap. He glanced up when I looked in, flashing me a faint smile. I returned it before moving into the kitchen and pulling a glass down from one of the cabinets.

 

“Trouble sleeping?” Dad asked. I glanced over my shoulder as I moved to the sink. He was leaning against the door frame, hands shoved in his pockets. I nodded before pouring myself a glass of water and turning around to lean against the counter. “Me, too.” He lifted the notebook in his hand, waving it briefly before dropping it back to his side. I recognized it immediately. “I was hoping a little, uh, reading would solve my problem. Not that your health would put me to sleep, Lavender's just, ah-”

 

“Painfully thorough?” I supplied, surprising myself with the ease the phrase came out of my mouth. Dad chuckled and nodded.

 

“If you blink she writes it down,” he smirked, glancing down at the notebook. His voice grew soft, almost wistful. “She's a good woman.” I bit down hard on my lip, trying to hold back the laughter I felt bubbling up. Dad caught one glimpse of the look on my face and rolled his eyes, his shoulders slumping. I couldn't hold it back any longer. “Will you stop?”

 

“I'm—s-sorry,” I said, trying to get my laughter under control. Dad smirked and shook his head. “How, um. How is that going?”

 

“How is it going with Katniss?” Dad asked, raising an eyebrow, the smirk never leaving his face. I just looked away; I could feel my face burning. “That's what I thought.”

 

“Shut up.” I drained the rest of the water before turning around and setting the glass in the sink. I could hear Dad chuckling behind me. As soon as the sound died down all either of us could hear was Rye snoring in the other room.

 

“Is that what's keeping you up?” he asked.

 

“One of the th-things,” I shrugged as I turned around.

 

“Did he close the window, too?” Dad stepped into the kitchen and dropped the notebook onto the table. I nodded as he set his hands on one of the chair backs and leaned forward against it. “Still whining about it?”

 

“He thinks I d-don't hear what, um, what he says,” I frowned, looking at the notebook and trying to figure out if I'd be able to sneak a look at what she was writing about me in there. “I think, um, that he thinks I'm s-still as-asleep.”

 

“Would you like to have the room to yourself?” Dad asked.

 

“Are you k-kicking Rye out?” I smirked.

 

“No. Not yet, anyway,” he chuckled. He rubbed his hand over the back of his neck and sighed, shifting and glancing toward the hall. “I thought we'd clean out that office. We don't use it. It's big enough,” he shrugged. He didn't have to say it. That was Mom's room. Where she hid from us when she just couldn't even handle being in the same space as her own family. “I have to go through everything in there anyway, figure out what we actually need and what I can just... throw away.” Dad chewed his lip, his expression blank and distant. After a moment he rubbed his hand over his face. “Sorry.”

 

“It's okay,” I said quietly. I wanted to talk to him about her. I needed someone who knew her and loved her to help me untangle everything that wrapped so tightly around my heart every time she was mentioned. There was no way I'd be able to figure out where to begin, though.

 

“So how would you like your own room?” Dad asked, wiping away any trace of that distance I'd seen in his face and smiling at me. I nodded. It would be nice to end the argument over the window, and nicer to have quiet at night. The laundry room separated our bedroom from the office, even though I'd probably still hear him, the same way I heard Dad snoring at night, it would be quiet enough to ignore a bit easier though. It would mean more privacy with Katniss, at least until Dad decided to ban her from the second floor the way he had Delly. That would also leave me alone, though. For the first time in my entire life. What would it be like to fall asleep without the sound and feel of someone else on the other side of the room?

 

I couldn't help but think back to when Phyl moved out; when Rye and I were able to dismantle our bunk beds and spread out a bit. It had been so strange to lay in bed and stare up at the ceiling instead of the bottom of Rye's mattress that I went a solid month before I could sleep through the night. How long would it take me to adjust to this now? Any deviation from the norm sent me into a panic. When Dad swapped our bedding for the heavier winter blankets in November, I was near tears at the change, and that was something expected. Something that happened every year, our entire lives. Sleeping in a room by myself was wholly new and alien, and the idea of being alone was already starting to terrify me.

 

“It's going to take a while to get that room cleaned out,” Dad said, as if he could see the panic rising in me. He smirked, chuckling to himself. “And to convince Rye that taking the smaller room is not the end of the world.” I flashed a brief smile. The idea that he wouldn't be the one to move out of the room hadn't even occurred to me. I couldn't take moving out of the room I'd called my own my entire life. My panic was starting to get a firmer grip on my chest, and I turned away from Dad. The feel of his eyes on me was only making matters worse. I reached for the glass I'd left in the sink, filling it again and setting it on the counter before fumbling with my diazepam bottle. Rye snorted in his sleep and Dad chuckled quietly. “Want me to tell him to sleep on the couch tonight?”

 

“N-no,” I stared down at the pill in my hand before shaking out a second. I hated them; hated taking extra. It wasn't just because of how they made me feel. I knew how expensive those damn bottles were and how little we had to spare. With the panic over sleeping alone taking so thorough a hold on me I needed it, though. And I needed Rye to stay right where he was. “I'll b-be fine.”

 

“Okay,” Dad said. I dropped both the pills into my mouth before draining the entire glass of water, my eyes trained on the darkness outside the window over the sink. I tried to look past my reflection. And Dad's. I could feel him watching me. “Goodnight, Peet.”

 

“Goodn-night,” I said, glancing back over my shoulder as he reached for the notebook on the table and disappeared down the hall toward his bedroom. I set the glass down in the sink, listening as he closed his bedroom door, to the groan of his mattress springs, the click of the light on the nightstand, and sighed heavily. After a few minutes I went back to my bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed, looking across the room at Rye as he slept and trying to imagine the room with only one bed in it. I couldn't. I gave up as the medication started to kick in and laid down to let it drag me into sleep.

 

I woke to the sunlight streaming through the window and hunched my shoulders up, trying to shield myself from it. The room was comfortable, though, with a breeze blowing through it, and I rolled over to see that the window was open. I smiled to myself, stretching and scratching my hands into my hair and wondering whether it had been Dad or Rye who'd opened it before they went down for the morning. Voices drifted up from downstairs, Katniss' among them, and as I got dressed I wondered how long I'd been out.

 

“I don't know why you're so mad.” Gale's voice was the first I heard as I made my way down the stairs, one hand on the wall. I was still a bit groggy, but the last of the diazepam wouldn't fade unless I got myself up and moving. Dad was leaning against the doorway to the storefront at the bottom of the stairs, arms folded over his chest, an amused smile on his face. Katniss was standing at the bottom of the steps and turned to look at me as I got closer to her.

 

“You're just in time,” she said quietly, smiling at me.

 

“Wh-what's going on?” I said, looking from her to Dad and back. Neither of them offered any explanation.

 

“I'm mad because I'm fucking sick to death of hearing about you and your fucking girlfriend,” Rye snapped, dropping a tray against the worktable. The noise made me jump.

 

“Language, Rye,” Dad warned.

 

“Delly was on her way out when we got here a little while ago,” Katniss said quietly, shifting closer to me. “She hung out with Gale and Madge last night.” I rubbed my hand through my hair. That didn't really explain anything to me, and knowing Delly had already been and gone made me wonder exactly what time it really was. I couldn't see the clock from where I was standing.

 

“Am I making you feel inadequate, Mellark?” Gale smirked, raising his chin and shifting his game bag on his shoulder.

 

“You're making me feel fucking sick, is what you are,” Rye frowned. He rolled his eyes, his voice rising to a ridiculous falsetto as he touched his hand to his chest and hunched up his shoulders in a spot-on imitation of Delly. “Do you know what Gale did for Madge it was just so romantic and sweet and why don't you ever do things like that for me?” Rye's posture sagged and he narrowed his eyes at Gale. “I swear to god if I hear any of that bullshit again I'm fucking coming for you.”

 

“Maybe you should start doing romantic and sweet things for your girlfriend,” Gale raised an eyebrow. “Like, y'know, buying her dinner before you weasel her out of her dress.” Dad snorted, pressing his knuckles against his mouth and waving us off when all four of us turned to look at him.

 

“I can't be a part of this conversation anymore,” he said, chuckling and shaking his head as he disappeared into the storefront.

 

“So um, what d-did Gale do?” I asked Katniss quietly.

 

“That's a good question,” she grinned at me before turning to Rye. “Hey, what did Delly say was so sweet and romantic?”

 

“This motherfucker brought that chick cookies,” Rye pointed at Gale. “Fucking cookies. Any fucking idea where he bought those fucking things?”

 

“Can you calm down with the language, please?” Dad called from the storefront.

 

“I thought you weren't part of this conversation anymore!” Rye shouted, snapping his head towards the sound of Dad's voice. All he got in response was a quiet chuckle. Katniss covered her face as she laughed, leaning against me as she muffled the sound against her palm.

 

“I'm sorry that you can't even be bothered to give Delly something you make on a daily basis,” Gale said, barely containing his own laughter. “But really, it's not my fault you're such a shitty boyfriend.”

 

“You're doing this on purpose,” Rye said, his lip curling. “I fucking know you are. You're just trying to make my life miserable.”

 

“It's working, isn't it?” Gale shrugged, glancing over at Katniss and me with a grin on his face. His eyebrow twitched at the sight of Katniss leaning up against me. It was brief and subtle, but I knew I wasn't imagining it. Did he know about us?

 

“Yeah, actually, it is,” Rye dropped his hands against the table. “A little too fucking well, you asshat.”

 

“Maybe you should try not being a shitty boyfriend,” Katniss offered. I felt her hand snake around mine and she linked our fingers together, the gesture hidden by how close she was standing to me. I squeezed her hand and smiled to myself.

 

“I am an excellent fucking boyfriend,” Rye snapped.

 

“You do realize you are supposed to be more than just a fucking boyfriend, right?” Dad called from the storefront. There was a beat of silence as the four of us registered what he meant. Everyone but Rye doubled over in laughter. He let out a sigh, rubbing his hand over his face.

 

“Fuck you, Dad,” he muttered, letting out a defeated chuckle.

 

“Take the night off and take your girlfriend out,” Dad said, stepping back into the doorway. “To the restaurant, not the slag heap.”

 

“See what you've gotten me into?” Rye turned to Gale, gesturing toward Dad. “You're a dick.”

 

“So, you're going to yell at me because you don't do anything nice for your girlfriend. Ever,” Gale said, lifting his chin a little. “And then get mad because you are getting the chance to do something nice for her?”

 

“Lick my taint,” Rye snapped, turning to the counter behind him and moving the bowl of cookie dough resting there onto the worktable.

 

“Where the hell did I go wrong with that one?” Dad muttered to himself, shaking his head and disappearing back into the storefront. Katniss snorted, ducking her chin as her shoulders shook with silent laughter. I turned my attention toward her, whatever else Rye and Gale had to say to each other fading into the background. She watched the two of them, laughing as she did. I was mesmerized by her; the crinkle of her eyes when she smiled, the way she pressed her tongue between her teeth to keep herself from laughing. When she turned to me, that smile still on her face, my breath caught in my throat.

 

“Ready to go?” Gale said, dragging her attention away from me.

 

“Oh, I'm staying,” Katniss said.

 

“Fantastic,” Rye squeezed out through gritted teeth.

 

“You are?” Gale raised an eyebrow, a faint smile on his face as he looked from Katniss to me and back again.

 

“Yeah.” Katniss tugged the strap of her game bag, shifting it on her hip. “Brought a change of clothes. Too long of a walk,” she shrugged, trying to dismiss it. Gale didn't buy it, just nodded and smirked at me.

 

“Alright then,” he said. “See you next week, Mr. Mellark.”

 

“Twain,” Dad corrected, still out of sight in the storefront.

 

“Twain,” Gale echoed quietly, rolling his eyes. He backhanded my arm. “See you around, buddy. Have fun, Catnip.”

 

“Shit, Hawthorne, will you just get the fuck out already?” Rye scowled, slapping the dough onto the tray angrily. If he didn't fix what he was doing those were going to be some hideously inconsistent cookies.

 

“Later, yeastbag,” Gale flipped Rye off as he disappeared out the door.

 

“Eat shit, chigger crotch!” Rye shouted after him.

 

“For the love of god, Rye,” Dad was at the doorway in an instant. “Will you get your mouth under control?” He gestured toward Katniss. Rye rolled his eyes and Katniss turned toward me, distracting me immediately.

 

“Let's go upstairs,” she said quietly, nodding toward the staircase. I glanced toward Dad and Rye, letting her lead me up the stairs without actually waiting for my response. She dropped down to sit on my bed, kicking off her shoes before scooting back to lean against the wall, and immediately started telling me more about what had just gone on down in the kitchen. Apparently Gale knew exactly what he was doing, and saved anything over the top for when he knew Delly would be around to see it.

 

“He is really good to her,” she said as I sat down beside her. “Now he's just carefully timing what he does anyway. I think Madge knows what he's doing.”

 

“D-do you, um,” I bit down on my lip, feeling like an ass for taking so long to ask this. “Want to g-go out?” Katniss turned to me, a slow smile spreading across her face.

 

“Like on a date?”

 

“Um, y-yeah,” I rubbed my hand over the back of my neck. “A real one. Not, um, t-to my brother's or anything.” She laughed and shifted closer, leaning against me when I carefully slipped my arm around her shoulders.

 

“I'd love to,” she said, dropping her head back against my shoulder. “I think your Dad roped me into the late shift tonight, though.”

 

“Well, not t-tonight,” I said, smirking a little. I turned my face toward her hair. She smelled like woodsmoke and pine and incoming snow.

 

“Tomorrow,” she said before turning toward me.

 

“Okay,” I half-chuckled, raising my eyebrows. She grinned and kissed me, and she could have said 'right now' and I would have said yes. Anything she wanted. I wrapped my arms around her, pulling her down on top of me as I sank back against the pillows, her mouth never leaving mine.

 

Chapter Text

“It's Sunday,” Prim said. She frowned at me from where she sat on the edge of the bed, shoulders slumped forward, a pitiful frown on her face. I paused in the middle of changing my shirt—for the third time—and turned to her.

 

“I'll be back tonight, Prim.” I straightened out the hem of my shirt before frowning down at how low the neckline dipped. I usually wore something else under it.

 

“Sunday's our day. Where are you even going?” Prim shifted as I sat down beside her. She watched me comb my fingers through my hair, parting it before braiding it.

 

“I'm going to see Peeta,” I said. The look on her face made my roll my eyes.

 

“Well, if you have a date,” she said with a mischievous little grin. “I guess I don't mind waiting. Is he really your boyfriend like Madge said?”

 

“When did Madge say that?” I asked. Prim shrugged, a sure sign it was something she'd overheard from a conversation she likely wasn't supposed to hear. Her eavesdropping habit was getting worse as she got older. “I guess he is.”

 

“Really?!” Prim nearly leaped to her feet in excitement. She hunched up her shoulders and slapped my arm.

 

“Ow! Prim!” I tied off my braid before shoving her shoulder lightly.

 

“I'm sorry, I'm just really happy for you,” she said. “I didn't think you'd ever get a boyfriend.” I narrowed my eyes at her, taking a breath to speak before it occurred to me just how accurate she was. I didn't think I'd ever have one either, but I didn't particularly want one. Peeta was a coincidence. A welcome one.

 

“Thanks, Prim,” I said, chuckling to myself. She completely missed the edge of sarcasm in my voice, smiling at me and getting up off the bed.

 

“You shouldn't wear those pants, though,” she said as she yanked open the bottom drawer of the dresser we shared. After a moment of rooting around inside she pulled out a pair of brown corduroys that barely fit me now that my hipbones weren't jutting through my skin anymore. “You should wear these ones instead. The last time you had them on Asa Maynard followed us home so he could look at your butt. I bet Peeta would like them, too.” I grabbed the pants out of her hands and chased her out of the bedroom, my lip curling. Prim just giggled furiously at me as I slammed the door behind her. I looked down at the pants I had on, chewing the inside of my lip for a minute before heaving a sigh and changing into the pair Prim had pulled out.

 

“Have fun,” Mom said, watching me pull on my coat. I hated the smug little smile on her face.

 

“Thanks,” I said, tying my scarf around my neck before ducking out the front door and making my way towards town.

 

Peeta was sitting at the kitchen table when I arrived, talking with Rye as he cleaned out the ovens. I joined the conversation easily, standing beside the stool where Peeta sat. He flashed a smile at me; his arm slipping around my waist to pull me closer. I settled my arm around his shoulders and kissed his hair. We both realized at the same moment that Rye was staring at us.

 

“You guys want some privacy?” Rye smirked.

 

“Shut up,” Peeta said, sucking in a deep breath and shifting on his stool before glancing at me. Rye raised his eyebrows, the two of them sharing a wordless exchange I had no idea how to translate. Peeta's jaw tightened, and he shook his head at Rye before getting to his feet. “Ready t-to go?”

 

“Sure,” I said, giving Rye a confused look that he met with a wide, fake grin.

 

“Have fun, kiddos,” he said. I glanced at Peeta, but he wasn't even looking at me, still staring daggers at Rye. Their little staring contest escalated to harsh, unintelligible whispers as I lost patience and headed for the door.

 

“Cut the shit,” Peeta snapped before following me into the mudroom and snatching his jacket from where it hung on the wall. The two of us left the bakery with Rye chuckling in the kitchen behind us.

 

“What was that all about?” I asked. Peeta took my hand when I started toward the side of the building, intending to head for the square. He nodded in the opposite direction, down the packed dirt alley that led behind the row of businesses on this side of the square.

 

“N-nothing,” he smirked, keeping close to me as we walked. “He's just been—giving me shit all d-day.”

 

“Oh,” I said, wondering exactly what kind of shit Peeta was getting from him. Peeta's hand tightened on mine when his step faltered. He leaned toward me to maintain his balance, and I gently bumped his shoulder with mine, drawing a smile out of him. “So where are we going, anyway?”

 

“The, um, the restaurant,” he said, glancing over at me.

 

“Gaskins'?” I asked, raising my eyebrows a bit.

 

“That, um, that would be the only r-restaurant in t-town, so yes,” he said, holding back a smirk.

 

“Shut up,” I chuckled, nudging him with my elbow. He smiled, reaching up and tugging at the edge of his hat. “There are other places to eat, you know.”

 

“Yeah, and t-the sandwich counter at th-the butcher's sounds like a great—first date,” he said, drawing another laugh out of me. When did I turn into such a giggling idiot?

 

“Well, I've never been to either,” I pointed out.

 

“At all?”

 

I shook my head.

 

“Ever?”

 

“Peeta, when do you think we had the money to go out to eat?” I raised an eyebrow. The look on his face made me regret my tone immediately.

 

“I've only b-been a couple of times,” he said sheepishly, his eyes dropping to the ground. A faint blush crept into his face. I shifted my grip on his hand and laced our fingers together. His blush got a little deeper.

 

The two of us sat at a booth in the corner, away from the few other patrons out in the middle of the afternoon on a Sunday. I scanned the menu, trying not to look at the prices. My mind automatically converted every set of numbers to what I'd have to drag in out of the woods to cover the meal. The fact that we had a little money hadn't trained that instinct out of me. I chose a simple dish. Not the least expensive thing on the menu; I didn't want to be too obvious. Peeta was staring at the menu, chewing the inside of his lip, and it occurred to me that I'd never seen him eat anything but pasta. I glanced at the menu where it sat on the table beside me.

 

“We don't have to stay if there's nothing you like,” I said quietly. He snapped his attention toward me; he must not have realized I was watching him. “We can go somewhere else. Or just back to the bakery.” Most of the businesses in town closed on Sundays. It wouldn't surprise me if this was the only place open.

 

“N-no. It's, um, it's not that,” he said, dropping his eyes back to the menu.

 

“You don't have to pay for me,” I said. “I brought my own money.”

 

“No,” he chuckled, shaking his head as he set the menu down. “It's n-not that, either.”

 

“Then what-”

 

“Hey, Peet!” A tall, stocky blonde boy clapped Peeta on the shoulder before leaning his hands against the end of our table. I recognized him from school but couldn't dredge up his name. He was in Gale's year. “Rye said you were coming today. This your girlfriend?”

 

“Um, yeah,” Peeta flashed me a hesitant smile before dropping his eyes to the menu again. He was tense, and it stopped me from truly enjoying hearing him call me his girlfriend.

 

“Hi, I'm Jimmie.” He smiled as he turned his attention toward me.

 

“Katniss,” I said, trying to smile back. I glanced at the apron around his waist. Was he going to be our waiter? Was he just going to hang around and make Peeta uncomfortable for the entire meal?

 

“Yeah, you're that girl who's always hanging out with Hawthorne, right?” he asked. I nodded. Jimmie chuckled, backhanding Peeta's arm as if they were sharing some sort of private joke. “Rye was right; she is hot.”

 

“Don't,” Peeta said, closing his eyes as a pained look crossed his face.

 

“I'm going to slap the shit out of your brother when we get back,” I frowned down at the menu.

 

“He was right about the mouth on you, too,” Jimmie chuckled. Peeta raised an eyebrow, giving me a look that Jimmie either didn't notice or preferred to ignore. “You guys know what you want?”

 

Jimmie took our menus after we ordered. Peeta had rattled off something at the last minute before passing off the menu without really looking at it. He rubbed the back of his neck, leaning forward against the table and watching Jimmie disappear into the back.

 

“I was, um, kind of h-hoping he wouldn't b-be here,” Peeta said quietly. “He's Rye's friend. I d-don't, um, like him much.” That didn't really surprise me. Rye's reputation was a little closer to Merx's than to Peeta's; it would make sense for his friends to be jerks. It had been more of a surprise to find out just how caring and protective Rye was with Peeta.

 

“We can still go, if you want,” I said, leaning forward a bit. The table was ridiculously wide. I felt like I was a mile away from him.

 

“You know—if you k-keep suggesting we leave I m-might start to think you d-don't want to be here with me,” he said, raising his eyebrows at me.

 

“I'm sorry,” I cracked a smile, dropping my eyes to the table and running my hand over my braid. “I just don't want you putting yourself out for me. I kind of like just hanging out at the bakery.”

 

“We can d-do that after,” he smiled at me. The expression was contagious. I felt my cheeks flush and dropped my eyes to the tabletop as Jimmie brought over our drinks and two sets of flatware wrapped in cloth napkins. As we talked I watched Peeta fiddle with his napkin, slowly unwrapping the bundle until he was fiddling with the fork instead. It suddenly dawned on me why the menu had him so stumped. I had never actually seen him pick up a dinner knife. His grip on his fork was always shaky and awkward, as if he was afraid he'd drop it. Then there were the exercises my mother had him doing to help his grip. Every dish on the menu had one cut of meat or another as its main feature, and he probably didn't have the strength in his hand to cut it. As soon as Jimmie walked away after putting our plates down in front of us, I swapped them. The confusion on Peeta's face faded when I started cutting his pork. After I switched our plates back, he just stared at me for a minute before muttering a quiet thank you. He didn't stop smiling for the rest of the meal.

 

We walked back to the bakery hand in hand while Peeta playfully chided me for trying to split the bill. By the time we hit the back steps I knew my face was bright red. He stopped me at the bottom of the stairs and kissed me, cutting off what I had to say to him in retaliation. I felt like I was melting against him, and I couldn't help but wonder where this burst of confidence had come from. How was this the same boy who had hidden tears behind his hands in the back of the classroom last week?

 

We went inside to find the bakery dim and completely empty. The entire building was quiet as we made our way up to the second floor and down the hall to his bedroom. Rye was stretched out on his bed, glancing up from his book as we stepped into the room.

 

“Where's D-Dad?” Peeta asked.

 

“Over at the Cartwrights',” Rye said, dropping his book on his chest. Peeta nodded.

 

“Out,” he said, hooking his thumb over his shoulder toward the door.

 

“You know there are other rooms in this house, right?” Rye raised an eyebrow before looking me over a little too slowly. “Nice pants.”

 

“Fuck you,” I snapped, dropping down to sit on the edge of Peeta's bed.

 

“Get—out,” Peeta repeated without moving.

 

“Okay, fine,” Rye said, sighing and swinging his legs to the floor. “One condition, though-”

 

“No,” Peeta snapped, staring Rye down as he got up and crossed the room. “Out.”

 

“Hey,” Rye turned toward me as Peeta stepped aside to give him room to get through the door. “Peet's got something to-” He didn't even get the entire sentence out before Peeta shoved him out the door, slamming it in his face. “Show you!”

 

“What do you have to show me?” I asked, smirking as Peeta crossed the room and sat beside me on the bed.

 

“It's n-nothing,” he shook his head, blushing a bit and glancing toward the closed door. I just looked at him, waiting for him to go on. He sighed and scratched his fingers up under the edge of his hat before smoothing it back down. “Rye, um, d-dug one of my sketchb-books up out of the b-basement.”

 

“Well, obviously I want to see,” I said, kicking off my shoes and tucking my feet up onto the bed under me.

 

“I was—p-planning on showing you,” he muttered, almost sheepishly. “He's j-just been p-pushing it all day.” He ran his hand through his hair before pushing to his feet and walking to the low bookshelf against the wall by the foot of his bed. He picked up one of the notebooks sitting on top of it and handed it to me before sitting back down. It was beat up, a few of the pages loose and sticking out from the edges. “It's a little, um, older than the other one. I mean, some of it is.” He chewed on his lip, watching me nervously as I flipped open the sketchbook. Some of the drawings in this were in color; paintings on thicker paper tucked into the pages of the notebook. They were similar to what I'd seen in the first sketchbook. Scenes in the bakery; drawings of the kitchen downstairs, cakes in the display cases. His friends and family. He pulled his sweater off as I looked, kicking off his shoes and picking at the fabric of his pants nervously. One of the pages was a watercolor of the canvas shoes they all wore in the bakery lined up against the wall. The drawing on the next page was of a slender girl with dark hair, her arms up as she tied her hair back.

 

“That's me,” I stopped, setting my hand on the page. I couldn't even hide the surprise in my voice. Peeta nodded, his mouth twisted to one side in a tight smile. The girl on the page was a hell of a lot prettier than me, but I recognized my nose, my jawline, and my hair. I wondered when he'd seen me like this. Did he draw this while we sat in school? Was this from memory? I flipped through the next few pages, studying each of the drawings.

 

Mixed in with the drawings from his life—his father asleep on the couch, Rye and Delly sitting side by side on the edge of the worktable, his mother sitting in their office, leaning over the desk with her back to him—there were things I recognized. Myself standing in the kitchen with his father, fiddling with the strap on my game bag. Prim clutching the basket full of goat cheese she brought over to trade whenever we had some. Another drawing of me, slouched in my desk at school, frowning at a textbook. I couldn't even think of anything to say. How often did he think of me? How often did he look at me? How closely was he studying me to be able to capture these things so perfectly?

 

“Peeta, these are amazing,” I said softly. The last page was a watercolor painting. Of me. I touched the page gently, marveling at the color and the life he captured on just a simple piece of paper. Was that beautiful girl he drew who he saw when he looked at me? I carefully tucked the page back and flipped through the drawings again quickly. “Why aren't there any of you?”

 

“Um, n-never really liked looking in a m-mirror that—long,” he said, taking the sketchbook from my hands and leaning down to tuck it under his bed. The statement made my chest tighten, and I frowned at him. How could he not see how special he was? When he straightened up I leaned forward and kissed him. He flinched in surprise before leaning into the kiss, his arms carefully snaking around my waist. I leaned back, pulling him down with me.

 

I finally began to understand why Gale and Madge couldn't be around each other without constantly touching; why they took advantage of every minute of privacy they had. I couldn't get enough of Peeta's kisses. I loved the taste of his mouth and the quiet little rumble in the back of his throat when I pulled off his hat to run my fingers through his hair. I loved the cautious way his tongue ran across my lips, as if he were trying to ask permission, and how eagerly he'd deepen the kiss when I opened my mouth and gave it to him.

 

His hand drifted over my side; his fingers bunching up the fabric of my shirt, tugging it up until he could slip his hand beneath it. The feel of his hand flattened against my skin made my heart hammer against my ribs. I gasped softly as his fingertips grazed my bra, drawing a smile out of him that he buried against my neck. Wherever this burst of confidence came from, I loved it. His fingers curled over the top of my bra as he pressed slow kisses to my neck. I lifted to the touch, too aware of the slick heat between my legs, a tiny whimper escaping me when he tugged my bra to one side to cup my bare breast in his hand.

 

I pulled Peeta on top of me and turned my mouth to his. His weight on me made my head spin. The feel of his hard on pressing against me made every inch of my body flush with heat. I smoothed my hands under his shirt, over his back, shifting under him and wordlessly murmuring against his lips. He squeezed my breast gently and moved his hand to run his thumb over my nipple. His hips started to move against mine, and I had to ball my hands into fists against his back to hide their shaking.

 

I spread my legs, gasping against his mouth when he dropped between them, a soft moan escaping him. I could feel him against me, and it completely took my breath away. I nipped at his lips, wanting more and trying to figure out how on earth to communicate it. My hand drifted down his back and over his ass, pressing him closer to me. The pressure of him between my thighs felt too good, his hips rocking against me had me burning from head to toe.

 

“Peeta,” I said quietly, barely conscious of it until he paused, sucking in a sharp breath. He rested his forehead against mine, eyes closed, and swallowed hard. I hadn't meant to stop him. I didn't want him to stop. I tightened my arms around him and rolled my hips the way he had been. He swore quietly under his breath.

 

“I, um—I'll b-be right back,” he said, pecking a kiss against my cheek and untangling himself from me. Peeta all but ran from the room, leaving the door swinging open behind him. I propped myself up on my elbows, dropping back down when I heard the bathroom door slam. What had I done wrong? I straightened out my bra and smoothed my shirt back down, pressing my thighs together and trying to ignore how flushed and hot I felt. It felt like an hour before Peeta came back, though it couldn't have been more than a few minutes. He gave me a self-conscious smile as he closed the door and crossed the room to lay down beside me. “Sorry.”

 

“You okay?” I asked, turning onto my side and tucking myself up against him. He nodded, brushing his fingers through my hair and smiling faintly. The expression faded, his eyes slipping out of focus. Peeta's hand went limp against my neck. I raised my hand to his cheek. “Peet?” It took a moment, but he blinked himself back into focus and flashed a brief smile. “Are you okay?”

 

“I'm f-fine,” he said, wrapping his arm around my waist and pulling me against him. I pressed a kiss to his jaw and tucked my arms between us, laying my head against his chest and letting him hold me. I could have spent the night there. If I hadn't heard Twain coming home and talking to Rye downstairs I would have fallen asleep. I reluctantly pulled away from him, and he sat up with me, smoothing my hair down and tucking a stray wisp behind my ear.

 

“Prim is probably waiting for me,” I said quietly. I wanted any excuse to stay, though I knew with Twain home and the bakery closed neither of us would risk what we'd been doing.

 

“Okay,” Peeta said. He smiled at me for a moment before leaning in to kiss me. He followed close behind me as we made our way downstairs. Peeta followed close behind me, his fingers interwoven with mine. He kissed me at the top of the stairs, and I couldn't hold back the bubble of laughter that escaped me when he stole another kiss on the way down. Rye and Twain were standing in the kitchen grinning at us when we reached to bottom of the stairs.

 

“Well, aren't you two the cute little couple,” Twain smirked, shifting to lean against the table. Peeta sighed. I caught him rolling his eyes when I glanced in his direction. “You two have fun? Was my son a gentleman?”

 

“Dad,” Peeta groaned, dropping his head back and staring up at the ceiling.

 

“Yes,” I said, though I could feel my cheeks flushing and ducked my chin to hide it. I seriously doubted that what Peeta and I were doing upstairs would fall under Twain's definition of gentlemanly. It was only a matter of time before he put an end to the privacy we had up there.

 

“I bet he was,” Rye said, earning himself a glare from both of us.

 

“I'm, um, I'm going to get going,” I said, taking a breath and glancing awkwardly at Peeta. He nodded and followed me into the mudroom. He took my coat down from the hook and passed it to me, pulling my braid from the back after I put it on. “Thank you for today.” Peeta smiled before glancing back toward the kitchen and leading me out the back door.

 

“Thank you for coming,” he said. I just smiled and stepped closer to kiss him again. I really didn't want to leave, and the way his mouth felt against mine wasn't helping. Neither was how much I loved feeling his arms around me. After a few minutes, I reluctantly pulled away and said one final goodbye before heading home.

 

Peeta stayed on my mind all night. I still had homework to finish and could barely even force myself to concentrate long enough to get through it. I lost every round of cards I played with Prim. That alone earned me an annoyed huff when she finally gave up on me and retreated to the couch with a book. Her annoyance from earlier in the day seemed to be progressing to flat out jealousy. She ventured a few tentative questions as we were laying in bed that night. Whatever happiness she may have professed before I left had faded completely.

 

I woke in the dark of morning and snapped upright; my heart pounding, my breath ragged. I'd been dreaming about him, and there was no way I'd shake the feelings that dream had left me. I glanced down at Prim beside me, instantly feeling guilty for everything running through my head, and carefully extracted myself from bed without waking her.

 

I dressed quickly in the dark, tugging on a few layers and slipping out of the door in silence. The cold pre-dawn air did little to cool me off. I trekked out into the woods, hauling myself into a tree nearly a mile from the fence, and stretched my legs out along a wide bough; my back to the trunk. I'd dreamt about being under him, the way I was yesterday, with his hands on my skin and his tongue in my mouth. I could still feel him between my thighs, and I shifted on the tree limb, slinging my bow over a knot just overhead. I unbuttoned my pants, slipping my hand into them and beneath the thin cotton of my panties. I let out a slow breath. Heat swept over me as I rubbed my fingers over myself; my flesh hot and slick. I imagined him over me, the way his lips moved against mine, and tried to recreate that heady breathlessness I'd felt in his bed yesterday. I was falling pitifully short. Even with more direct contact, even with every vivid moment of that dream fresh in my mind, and the memory of yesterday, I couldn't come close.

 

Whatever the hell Peeta did to me, I couldn't do it to myself.

 

I gave up, pulled my hand from my pants, wiped my fingers against the side of them, and zipped my pants back up. I pulled my bow down and shifted to a more exposed length of the tree limb, hoping that I'd at least manage to bring in some game so this trip wouldn't be a complete waste of time. The first thing that ended up wandering into view, though, was Gale. I whistled, trying to get his attention, and he looked around in confusion until I dropped down out of the tree to the ground beside him. He startled and whirled toward me.

 

“Shit, Catnip,” he said, blowing out a breath and chuckling. “What are you doing this far out so early?”

 

“Couldn't sleep,” I shrugged. It wasn't entirely a lie. Gale nodded, and the two of us wordlessly picked through the woods, falling into step with each other without even trying. The ritual did little to take my mind off things. Though the frustration of my failure had all but erased the lingering heat between my legs, I still couldn't get Peeta off my mind.

 

“How was your date?” Gale asked as we sat down to rest before heading back to the District. We'd managed a half decent haul between the two of us, though I had every intention of forcing most of it on him before we got back.

 

“You know about that?” I raised an eyebrow, glancing over at him.

 

“Well, Prim did find her way to my house to whine about it for most of the afternoon yesterday,” he chuckled.

 

“Was Madge there for that?” I sighed. He grinned a bit wider and nodded. “Of course.” I sighed, chewing my lip and holding back a smile as I thought back through yesterday, cutting off my train of thought just short of what I'd been imagining so vividly earlier. “It was good. I had a good time.” Gale nodded, pressing his lips together to hide a grin as he squinted into the rising sun. “What?”

 

“Nothing,” he said with a chuckle.

 

“Are you part of that never thought I'd get a boyfriend club, too?” I raised an eyebrow.

 

“Actually, yeah,” Gale laughed, looking over at me. “Madge, too, for that matter. We had a plan worked out and everything.”

 

“What do you mean you 'had a plan'?” I straightened up, turning toward him.

 

“Well, we weren't going to just let you be alone,” he said. The indignant look on my face was just making him laugh more. “You could have lived with us. Not like some weird three way thing, just so you wouldn't have to live alone. Or with your mother.”

 

“I'm not even sixteen and the two of you had already that thoroughly given up on me?” I snapped, staring at him.

 

“We were just looking out for you,” he shrugged. Still laughing. The bastard.

 

“You're a dick,” I frowned, pushing up to start back toward the District. “And she's a bitch.”

 

“We're your best friends,” he said, getting up and following me as I trudged downhill. “You don't mean that.” I just flipped him off, doing my best to keep my pace just a little too fast for him, making him chase me the entire way back.

 


 

The week slipped by uneventfully. Both Peeta and I managed to avoid much more than a few knowing smiles out of Madge and Delly at lunch, though I expected a hell of a lot more out of Madge. She was likely saving it for when she could get me alone. Even the jerks from town left Peeta alone. I should have been grateful for it, but as the weekend drew closer, it just made me uneasy.

 

As I made my way through the halls toward the front of the school I found Peeta leaning against the wall by the bathroom. He'd left class a few minutes early, and I assumed this was why. His chair was nowhere to be found, though he'd left in it. As I drew closer to him I could see him looking up and down the hall in agitation, chewing his lip so hard I was afraid he'd bite right through it.

 

“Hey.” I stopped beside him, reaching out to touch his arm. He startled and looked down at my hand before snapping his gaze up to mine. His jaw was tense, the twitch around his eye fluttering. “What's wrong?”

 

“I—um,” Peeta swallowed and glanced up and down the hallway. He shook his head as if to clear it, pressing his eyes closed for a moment. “I w-went in-” He cut himself off, swallowing hard again and gesturing toward the bathroom door. “And my ch-chair—it d-doesn't fit ins-inside s-so I h-h-h-” he cut himself off again, pressing his lips closed and pushing his fingers up under his hat to scratch at his hair.

 

“So you left it out here,” I supplied, ducking my head to catch his eyes. He looked into mine, taking a slow breath and nodding. “And then it was gone when you came out?” He nodded again.

 

“I h-hate that I—f-fucking need it t-to b-b-begin with,” he hissed under his breath, still fiddling with the blonde curls that stuck out beneath the edge of his hat.

 

“I know,” I frowned, shifting and sliding my hand over his shoulder to his back. “I'll help you get outside, okay? At least out of this noisy hall. You can wait with Rye while I find the motherfucker that took it.”

 

“K-Kat—don't-” Peeta slipped his arm around my waist, leaning toward me to keep his balance. It was trickier for him in the halls with so many other students rushing past. I kept my hand on his shoulder. “D-don't-”

 

“Don't what?” I frowned. I was livid. And I had a damn good idea of who was behind it. Merx and Verne had been a little too quick to get out of the classroom, and I'd had enough of their bullshit.

 

“O-over react,” Peeta said, his voice getting quiet. I glanced over at him, realizing I'd been moving entirely too fast and he was struggling to keep up.

 

“I'm not going to overreact,” I frowned, shoving the front door of the school open. Rye was standing with a small knot of his friends, Peeta's wheelchair in front of him, frowning toward the school.

 

“What the hell is going on?” he demanded as we got closer. I just shook my head at him, letting my hand drag across Peeta's shoulders as I continued. Merx and both the Whitaker twins weren't too far off, surrounded by the rest of their shithead merchant friends.

 

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” I snapped as soon as their attention turned towards me.

 

“I don't know what you're talking abo-” Merx's head snapped back as my fist connected with his nose, cutting off his sniveling little voice. Gilda shrieked and darted forward, grabbing the end of Merx's scarf and trying to staunch the heavy flow of blood coming out of his nose. The rest of them took a step back, staring at me with wide eyes.

 

“Just leave him the fuck alone,” I said, rolling my jaw and waiting for some kind of response out of any of them. I got nothing but silence.

 

“You bitch,” Gilda snapped as I turned away. I took a deep breath, forcing myself to keep moving and looking down at my hand. My knuckles were red and starting to swell, and my hand started to throb. I shook it out as I walked back toward Peeta and Rye, earning myself a round of applause and a few hoots out of Rye's friends. Gale, Madge, and Delly had joined them as well. Peeta was just staring at me, one eyebrow raised, trying to hold back a smile.

 

“That was pretty hot,” Alden smirked. The girl beside him rolled her eyes and slapped his arm.

 

“Katniss, what the hell?” Gale chuckled.

 

“It's about time,” Madge said.

 

“Is, um, is your h-hand ok?” Peeta asked, pointing toward my swelling knuckles.

 

“I think so. I might have broken his nose.” I looked down at my hand and chewed the inside of my lip for a moment. Delly started to laugh, muttering an apology and waving her hand in front of her face. I just smirked and looked back at Peeta. “You want to go?”

 

“P-please,” he said, smirking as he scratched his hand up under the edge of his hat. I smiled, leaning down to kiss his cheek before moving to the back of his chair to push him home. By the time we got to the bakery my hand was already starting to ache. Rye got the chair inside, leaving Peeta and I standing on the back porch.

 

“You okay?” I asked, thinking of the look of panic on his face when I'd seen him outside that bathroom at school.

 

“I am,” Peeta smiled at me. “You uh—you d-didn't have to d-do that.”

 

“Please,” I rolled my eyes and looked away, smiling to myself. “I know you don't like anyone making a fuss about you or causing scenes, but he had that coming before all this. I still don't get how you even hung around him.”

 

“It's um, it's easy to—ignore when you're n-not on the receiving end,” he looked down sheepishly. “I d-didn't really t-talk to him much, though.” I nodded, watching him for a moment before stepping closer. I set my hand on his cheek, waiting for him to look up at me before kissing him.

 

“Will you be okay if I go?” I lifted my hand between us; my knuckles were red and swollen. “I should probably have my mom look at this.”

 

“I'm fine,” he said, taking my hand and gently rubbing his thumb over the tender skin.

 

“I'll come by early tomorrow, after hunting. Like last week. Okay?” I turned my hand around, curling my fingers around his. Peeta nodded, leaning forward to kiss me. He stayed on the porch, leaning against the rail as I left, and waved to me as I looked back before passing out of sight.

 


 

At some point during my trading I'd completely lost Gale and Madge. The Hob was busier than usual. The bitterness of winter had broken, for the day at least, and it had brought half of the Seam out of hiding. I'd been selective in my selling and trading; for the first time in months the morning Gale and I had spent hunting didn't feel like an exercise in futility. I wandered, hoping I would bump into them without having to actively search. I spotted Madge first. Her pale blonde hair stuck out like a sore thumb. She was standing with Gale and Ripper, smiling down at whatever she was holding. The way she was standing blocked whatever it was from view.

 

“Katniss!” Ripper snapped as soon as she spotted me. “Get over here.”

 

“She's not going to know anything,” Gale said as I approached, rolling his eyes. He reached toward Madge, who turned as I got closer. She was holding a tiny, scrawny kitten. It stretched its neck out as Gale scratched under its chin.

 

“About what?” I asked, glancing down at the cat before turning to Ripper.

 

“Some jackass left this thing on my steps,” she gestured toward it, huffing and rolling her eyes. “And I want to know who, so I can bitch slap the shit out of them.”

 

“It probably just wandered there,” I said.

 

“Thank you,” Gale said pointedly.

 

Are you kidding?” Ripper lifted the kitten from Madge's arms, holding it up for us to see its rear legs. Leg. One was little more than a stump. “How far do you think this gimpy fucking thing is going to wander?”

 

“Don't call him gimpy!” Madge said, taking the kitten back and cradling it against her chest protectively. “He might be sensitive about it. Poor guy.”

 

“Yeah, poor him,” Ripper folded her arm around herself, frowning and looking away. She wasn't overly sensitive about her missing arm, so far as I knew. She'd had six years to adjust and didn't seem to care that the machine that had torn the limb off had become her namesake. Dad had been among the ones who pulled her out. He had carried her to town and taken up a collection for her, pitching in what little he could spare to cover the expense of the doctor. She'd only been twenty at the time. “What about me? What kind of asshole thinks that's funny? 'Hey, I've got this crippled cat. Wouldn't it be awesome if we left it with the District cripple?' Ha fucking ha.” Gale snorted. Ripper punched him in the arm.

 

“It's kind of cute,” I shrugged, taking a step closer and running my knuckles along the kitten's back. It mewled softly, leaning back in Madge's arms to look at me. Part of one ear was missing, his eyes were crossed, and he barely had half his tail left.

 

“He's adorable,” Madge said, lifting it up to nuzzle against its black and white fur. “I wish my dad wasn't allergic.”

 

“Isn't your house gigantic?” Ripper raised an eyebrow. “Take him anyway. They'd never cross paths.” Madge laughed.

 

“Can he even walk?” Gale asked, smiling to himself as he watched Madge dote on the little thing.

 

“He's a little wobbly,” Ripper shrugged. “He can't jump up on anything, and I'm pretty sure stairs are beyond his abilities, but he gets around fine.”

 

“I'll take him,” I said, before I'd even consciously gotten on board the train of thought.

 

“You don't even like the cat you have,” Gale gave me a look.

 

“Oh my god, you're going to give him to Peeta,” Madge said, her entire face lighting up with the statement. “Oh my god, you're so cute.”

 

“Who?” Ripper made a face, looking between the three of us.

 

“She's dating one of the baker's kids,” Gale said. Ripper thought it over for a moment before raising her eyebrows and smirking at me.

 

“Good for you. I wouldn't mind letting something other than the oven get me hot in that kitchen,” she nodded, glancing over her shoulder as someone called her name. She waved and turned back to me. “Take him. But if I find any cat hair in my bread I'll come after you.”

 

“Yeah, okay,” I smirked, shooting Ripper a look before turning toward Madge to get a closer look at the kitten. He was painfully cute, his fur soft and warm. He flicked his ear and mewled when I touched the notch missing from it. He reached for my hand, curling his paw around it and staring.

 

“You know, she's kind of got a point. A cat in a bakery doesn't really seem like the best idea,” Gale said.

 

“He can't jump,” Madge pointed out, smiling down at the kitten and scratching his chin. “Ripper said he can't handle stairs. He can just stay on the second floor.” Her eyes went wide for a moment and she looked up at me, letting out a whiny little sigh and cocking her head to one side. I knew she was seeing the same parallel I did. “Katniss Everdeen, when did you get so fucking cute.”

 

“Shut up,” I rolled my eyes, lifting the kitten from her arms. He sniffed at my hands curiously and stretched his head closer to me, his whiskers twitching. “I think he'll like you. As long as Twain doesn't kill me for this.”

 

He didn't. When I turned up at the bakery that afternoon Twain took one look at the furball nestled in the crook of my elbow and just chuckled and shook his head.

 

“So is this our newest family member?” he asked, crossing the kitchen and leaning closer to take a look at the kitten. “Cute little thing.”

 

“You don't mind, do you?” I asked, grimacing a bit. “I don't think he'll really be much trouble.” I shifted the kitten so he could see the missing leg.

 

“Oh, that poor thing,” he said, a pained look briefly crossing his face.

 

“What poor thing?” Rye came in from the front. His shoulders dropped as soon as he saw what I was holding. “Are you kidding?”

 

“No?” I held the kitten a little closer, laying my hand over its back protectively. “He's cute.”

 

“Did you forget the part where we live in a bakery?” Rye cocked an eyebrow.

 

“He'll stay upstairs,” Twain said, smirking at me and ignoring the annoyance on Rye's face. “Go bring him to Peeta.”

 

“Yeah, 'cause you're not giving him enough pussy,” Rye muttered as I brushed past him. I gave him a shove backward through the doorway before climbing the stairs to the second floor. Peeta's bedroom door was closed. I knocked softly and got no answer, so I opened the door gently.

 

He was sound asleep, curled on his side facing the wall with the blankets twisted around his waist. The kitten mewled softly and I shushed him, stepping into the room and closing the door behind me. Peeta didn't even move as I stepped toward the bed. I watched the rise and fall of his shoulders, studying the faint lines of muscle in his back and the faded scars shadowing his skin. After a moment I toed my shoes off and slipped under the blankets behind him. I set the kitten down, leaning up on my elbow to watch him wobble unsteadily on the blankets. He looked at Peeta for a moment, sniffing the air and flicking what little was left of his tail back and forth before flopping down on his side. As I pressed myself against Peeta's back, the kitten began to purr and Peeta finally started to wake up.

 

“Katniss?” He stretched and started to turn towards me, stopping short at the sight of the kitten. “What...?”

 

“I brought you a friend,” I said, smiling and kissing his shoulder.

 

“Dad di-didn't mind?”

 

“Well,” I propped myself up again, reaching across Peeta to pet the kitten. I nudged the little thing onto his back to show Peeta his missing leg. He just clamped his front paws around my arm and nibbled at my skin. “He has a little trouble getting around, but I didn't think you'd care about that.” Peeta shifted, turning to look at me with a tight little smile twisting his mouth to one side. I smiled and kissed him, pressing against his back and winding my arm around his waist as he laid back down.

 

“Hey, buddy,” he said, mimicking Gale's greeting for him as he held his hand toward the kitten. The kitten stared at Peeta's hand, his eyes crossing as he tried to focus, then hobbled closer, arching his back as Peeta scratched along his spine. “He's cute.”

 

“So you like him?” I smiled to myself.

 

“I d-do.” Peeta laid his hand over mine. I laid my cheek against his shoulders and closed my eyes; his warmth and the sound of the kitten's steady purring nearly lulling me to sleep. Peeta turned toward me, settling the kitten between us before kissing me. “Thank you.”

 

“You're welcome,” I smiled, laying my arm across his waist and looking down at the kitten between us. The little furball immediately pawed at the bandage wrapped around my hand, hooking his claws into the frayed edge he'd chewed up on the way to town and tugging at it.

 

“How's, um, how's your hand?” Peeta asked, drumming his fingers against the mattress to distract the kitten. My bandage was immediately forgotten, his eyes went wide and he hunched down before he pounced toward Peeta's fingers. The gesture was so pathetically stunted by his missing leg neither one of us could stop ourselves from laughing.

 

“It's fine,” I said, looking down at the bandage. “A little sore, but that's my own fault for shooting all morning.”

 

“You p-probably should have sk-skipped that,” Peeta smirked at me, and I narrowed my eyes at him playfully. He chuckled, dropping his gaze after a moment. He flipped the kitten onto its back, wiggling his fingers in the air. The kitten reached for his hand, batting at his fingers.

 

The door opened a moment later. Rye didn't even bother knocking. I looked back toward Peeta, rolling my eyes as I sat up. I shifted to sit behind him, leaning against the wall and draping my legs over his hip. Rye dropped down onto his bed and glared at the two of us.

 

“Y'know, I don't even get one pussy in my bed,” Rye frowned. “And that thing is ugly as fuck.”

 

“He's not ugly, he's cute,” I said. Why was I defending that little thing?

 

“He's missing a leg, and he still has, like, three cat's worth of toes,” he gestured toward the kitten. Peeta snorted, his shoulders shaking as he laughed. “And he's going to be fucking annoying and get into everything.” Peeta glanced over at me, a sly little smile on his face, before turning back toward Rye. “What?”

 

“I remembered something,” Peeta said. Rye's expression fell. “You always wanted a c-cat. You used to—beg for one.”

 

“Really? That's one of the memories you didn't lose?” Rye frowned. Peeta turned onto his back, setting his hand on my leg and smirking at me.

 

“When we were lit-little,” he gestured toward Rye. “He harped on th-that for at least a year. M-more, I think. Mom used to g-get so mad about it.”

 

“Yeah, and my answer was always 'we live in a bakery, you can't get a damn cat',” Rye huffed. “Even Dad said it. And he didn't even fucking blink over that mangy little shit.”

 

“You're jealous,” I said, pressing my tongue between my teeth and glancing down at Peeta. The smile on his face was so genuine and sweet. I remembered what he said when we were first getting to know each other, about not being able to tease Rye anymore. He looked thrilled to have that back.

 

“He is,” Peeta said.

 

“I am not,” Rye snapped, pushing himself up off of the bed and stalking out of the room, all but slamming the door on his way out. Peeta and I looked at each other for a moment before breaking into laughter. I lowered myself down beside him, pressing my lips to his jaw as he wrapped an arm around my shoulders. The kitten mewled quietly, stepping up onto Peeta's chest before flopping down onto its side and yawning at the two of us.  

Chapter Text

 “You look exhausted,” Madge said to Peeta as we sat down for lunch.

 

“Added a third c-class today,” he said, rubbing his hand over his face. I scooted my chair a bit closer and took his other hand under the table. “It's—exhausting.”

 

“Well, I bet Merx is behaving himself now, at least,” Madge smirked, glancing back over her shoulder toward the merchant kids' table. His nose was still swollen and crooked, twin yellowing bruises circling under each eye.

 

“He's kept his mouth shut,” I said, smirking and glancing at Peeta. I couldn't help but feel a little proud of myself.

 

“I heard somebody ask Lee Whitaker how it felt to be too much of a pussy to stand up to a girl,” Delly said, biting back a smile. The four of us dissolved into half-smothered laughter for a moment. Delly and Madge settled into their own conversation, leaving Peeta and I to our own devices.

 

“You, um—might w-want to reconsider coming over t-today,” Peeta said, letting go of my hand long enough to open his lunch bag and split the food between us. “Dad has a p-project for you.”

 

“A project?” I raised an eyebrow. “He knows it's my day off, right?”

 

“Well, you d-don't have to,” he shrugged, smirking down at the table. “But, um, once t-that office is cleaned out—Rye's moving int-to it.”

 

“So he wants me to help clean out the office?” I asked. Peeta nodded. “So that you can have your own room?” He nodded again. “Can I start right now?” He laughed, bumping his shoulder against mine. “How bad is it in there?” Not once in the time I'd spent at the Mellarks had I seen that office door open. I'd certainly never seen any of them go in there. That had been Mrs. Mellark's domain.

 

“I d-don't think anything has b-been taken out—since I was b-born,” he said, smirking before turning his attention back to his lunch.

 

“Hey, how's that kitten?” Madge asked. “Did you name him?”

 

“He's, um—good,” Peeta smiled, scratching his fingers under the edge of his hat before smoothing it back down. “Haven't, um, figured out a n-name yet though.”

 

“Oh my god,” Delly slapped both hands against the table, a wide smile breaking out over her face. “Rye whined about it all day yesterday. I need to come visit; I want to see. He sounds so cute.” The words poured out of her all at once. Peeta snorted, nodded, and started to laugh, leaning his elbows against the table and covering his face with one hand. Delly just looked confused. “What's so funny?”

 

“S-sorry,” Peeta said, rubbing his hand over his eyes as he sat back. “I j-just forget how—excitable you are s-sometimes.”

 

“I am not!” Delly straightened up indignantly. Madge turned toward her, cocking an eyebrow. Delly's shoulders sagged. “Okay, maybe a little.”

 

Class slipped by without incident after lunch. Merx was nowhere to be found. Either his absence or my performance last week kept Verne quiet. I stole glances over my shoulder toward Peeta, smiling to myself when I caught him watching me. After school let out I walked with Delly toward town, barely listening to the steady stream of chatter coming out of her. Peeta had left before our last class of the day, leaving me without either him or Rye as a buffer. I couldn't find anything to say to her. She didn't seem to mind, or even really notice. We parted ways at the square. Peeta was sound asleep when I arrived at the bakery. After a few pleasantries and and a cupcake that I knew was meant to soften the proposition of this project, Twain led me upstairs.

 

“Okay,” he stopped in front of the door to the office and dropped his hand onto the doorknob. “The only things we actually need to keep are the ledgers, and only going back five years. Got it?”

 

“Got it,” I said. Five years? I thought Peeta had been exaggerating.

 

“Oh, and the invoices from last year,” he added. “Any other bakery paperwork needs to go. As for the rest... I'll trust your judgment.”

 

“What else is there?” I asked, raising my eyebrows.

 

“To be honest? I'm not sure.” Twain pushed the door open, giving me space to step inside. The room was small and stuffy; the walls were lined with shelves and a wide, heavy desk against the wall under the window. The chair tucked beneath it was made of the same worn, dark wood. Every surface was covered in paper and notebooks, the shelves lined with books and boxes. There were a few bare spaces among the clutter, as if Mrs. Mellark had just cut out whatever she felt was hers and taken it when she left. Between that and the dust it was painfully obvious no one had spent any time in the room since she left. “There's still a few more weeks of cold left, so a lot of this we'll just use for fuel. There's some empty file boxes behind the desk, there. Use those for whatever we need to keep. There's a couple of empty boxes in the living room to fill with anything that can be burned. Once those are full the rest will just be garbage.”

 

“Okay,” I said, trying not to betray the vague horror I felt at just how big this task actually was. I didn't really anticipate this much work when Peeta mentioned it at school that afternoon.

 

“Sorry,” Twain said sheepishly. He clapped me on the shoulder. “Thank you for doing this.”

 

“It's fine,” I said with a shrug. He nodded before turning to leave the room, and I sighed. Where the hell would I even start? I walked over toward the desk, pulling out the chair to sit down before looking over the papers sitting on top of it. “Okay,” I muttered to myself, leaning forward to start sifting through everything in front of me.

 

Most of it was easy enough. Invoices from the bakery. Copies of their supply order forms. Invoices for customers. It honestly surprised me how many special orders they actually handled. Though I'd certainly seen them coming in and going out on a regular basis, much of that work was still Twain's doing and was handled before I even walked through the door. The amount of money that changed hands looked more staggering on paper than it felt while I stood behind the register.

 

They brought in a great deal of money, and the amount of it that went into paying for supply orders was lower than I expected it to be, even with the enormous tax that the Capitol levied on everything. From what I'd observed, though, the Mellarks were not nearly as well off as many of the other merchant families. Out of curiosity, I got up from the chair and crossed the room to a shelf lined with ledgers marked by year. I pulled one out and thumbed through it, and the reason quickly became clear.

 

Most of the families in town had run their businesses for generations, and the Mellarks were no exception. What I didn't realize, though, was that they didn't actually own the bakery. I only had a vague idea of how things were run in town, but I had always been under the impression that nearly everyone had managed to buy their homes and businesses from the Capitol. Some of these businesses were established before the Dark Days, and the bakery was among the older establishments still running. They still paid a mortgage to the Capitol that ate a huge portion of their profits every month, though. What was left after all of the expenses were accounted for seemed pitiful.

 

I closed the ledger and slid it back onto the shelf, chewing my lip for a moment before returning to the desk. As I worked, I turned all of this over in my head, wondering what had prevented them from being able to buy the place outright. It made me even more grateful that Dad had somehow managed to pay off our own house before he died.

 

Most of what I came across went into the boxes to be burned, though every once in a while I'd find a stack of neatly organized invoices to be filed away. There were a few personal odds and ends here and there; handwritten notes that had been mixed up with the order forms.

 

The Spencers need that order a day sooner than planned – canceled delivery. Will pick up.

 

Need more brown sugar next month, already out.

 

Phyl stopped in – bringing Darla for dinner Sunday.

 

Twain's handwriting was a stark contrast to how neatly scripted he piped lettering onto the cakes he decorated; sloppy and uneven. Mrs. Mellark wrote in a severe, angular cursive, though the only place I saw her writing was the order forms and invoices. I sorted through the drawers, the endless pages of print blending together. At the bottom of the second drawer I found a worn, yellowed piece of paper. It was folded into thirds, the creases frayed and the corners feathered. It was old and had obviously been held and reread countless times. I carefully unfolded it, recognizing Twain's writing immediately.

 

Lily,

 

I know this isn't what you wanted. It's okay. This certainly isn't what I wanted for you. We're too young and this is too fast. I should have been more careful. I'm sorry. I understand why you don't want to see me. I just hope I can persuade you to at least sit down and talk about this.

 

I'm sorry about what happened with your parents. They don't care for me and I know that plays a part in why you started seeing me to begin with – that's okay, too. Whatever they think of me isn't going to change what's happening or how I feel. When it comes down to it, Lily, this isn't about them. It's about you and I and that baby. If they want to be a part of that, they need to realize that they are not going about it the right way.

 

Come and see me. Please, Lil. I've already talked to my parents. You are more than welcome here. You can just show up when you're ready and you will never have to leave. My father thinks we should get married. I can't make that decision for us, and I certainly can't ask with the way things are. Come see me. We can talk things through. We can decide on these things together.

 

I might not be able to give you everything you wanted, but I at least want the chance to try. I can take care of you, Lily. You and our baby. If I do nothing else with the rest of my life I swear to you I'll do that much. And I will do everything I can to make you happy. I always will.

 

This can't be a tragedy forever, right?

 

I love you.

 

Twain

 

I stared down at the letter in my hand; my heart in my throat, trying to fit all this together. I had wondered, more than once, how on earth Twain found himself married to that shrew, but I never really gave it more than a passing thought. That letter made me wonder what she had been like. How did she respond? What happened with her parents? She clearly accepted his proposal. And from the state of the letter, she'd read this many, many times over the years. What went through her mind when she did? Did she mean to leave it behind? I pulled my feet up onto the edge of the chair, resting my chin on my knees, and read it again.

 

“How's this bullshit going, Catpiss?” Rye said. I jumped a solid six inches off of the chair; I hadn't even heard him on the stairs. I folded the letter and buried it in the middle of a stack of papers to be filed away.

 

“You scared the shit out of me,” I muttered, shooting him a brief glare as he crossed the room and hoisted himself up to sit on the desk.

 

“I'm sorry, did I interrupt you?” he asked, laying the sarcasm on and cocking his head to one side. “Wading through a couple decades worth of compulsive hoarding up here?” I rolled my eyes, turning away from him and back to the open drawer I'd been sifting through. He lifted the edge of the stack of papers on the desk, fanning through them idly with his thumb. “Dad told me to come help.”

 

“Are you going to help or are you going to sit there?” I asked, lifting a folder out of the drawer and setting it down on the desk.

 

“Okay, slave driver,” Rye scoffed, getting down from the desk and turning toward one of the bookshelves. “You touched any of this yet?”

 

“No, just the desk,” I glanced over my shoulder to see Rye pulling down one of the ledgers, wrinkling his nose at the dust thrown into the air. “Did he tell you what to save?”

 

“Um, probably not the shit that's older than I am,” he held the book open toward me so I could see the dates. I chuckled and turned back to my own stack of papers. We worked in silence for a while, punctuated by the harsh slap of Rye tossing old ledgers and books into the box by the door. I winced every time he did it, thinking of Peeta trying to sleep down the hall, but Rye ignored my scolding.

 

“How long has all of this been in here?” I asked. The box of papers I'd pulled down from one of the shelves was nearly six years old.

 

“I'm pretty sure this has never not been an office,” Rye said, frowning at the pile of papers on the floor in front of him. “I have also never actually seen anything get thrown out of this room. None of us were really allowed in here, anyway.”

 

“Why not?” I shifted the box to one side and pulled down another.

 

“Mom pretty much just locked herself away in here when she didn't want to deal with us,” he said, the tone of his voice shifting to something I didn't recognize. “Which was. Y'know. Most of the time.” I frowned, unsure of what to say, watching him as he cast a cursory glance over the first few pages of the pile in front of him before hefting the entire thing into the box to be burned. “She wasn't always awful. Peet doesn't really remember. Shit, I barely do. But she was okay when we were little. It got worse as we got older.” I thought of that letter and glanced toward the file box on top of the desk where it had ended up, still sandwiched between order forms from last June. Rye scratched his hand through his hair and sighed. “I mean. She smacked us sometimes but never anything serious. Then I was, I don't know, seven, I think. Peet had just learned to write. She had this fucking rocking chair in the living room, and I carved his name into the seat. I don't even know why. Just to be a dick. I made sure it was sloppy, so it looked like it was him. I think I just wanted to see what happened.” He paused and rubbed his hand over his face before frowning down at his hands. “She beat the shit out of him. Gave her five year old son a black eye and a split lip. And it was my fucking fault. Just kept getting worse after that, and she always went after him. After that, I-”

 

Rye cut himself off and shook his head, looking over at me as if he'd forgotten I was even sitting there. He took a deep breath, rolling his shoulders to rid himself of the tension that had settled there. I was afraid to even open my mouth, so I just watched in silence as he pushed up to his feet.

 

“We should just get rid of fucking everything in this room,” he muttered, grabbing one of the full filing boxes of documents Twain wanted saved and carrying it from the room. I listened to him walk down the hall, the thud of the box dropping against the floor, and a door closing. His voice was a low murmur through the walls, Peeta's answers even quieter, and I couldn't make out what they were saying. I had already learned far more about the Mellarks than I ever thought possible in a single afternoon. I continued to work until I heard the bedroom door open, and Rye passed by the office door to go downstairs.

 

I picked myself up out of the mess I'd made on the floor, brushing the dust out of my clothes. Most of what was left would end up as trash, I was sure. I'd found several personal odds and ends mixed in with things, though, and I didn't want to just throw it all away. Tossing out family history alongside bakery paperwork didn't sit right with me. I'd started a separate box that was nearly full of letters, recipes, and even drawings. After organizing it as quickly as I could, I left the room, closed the door behind me, and went down the darkened hall to Peeta's room.

 

“Peet?” I nudged the door open gently. It was too dark to even really see into the room, but I heard him shift in bed and murmur quietly. I stepped in and closed the door behind me, shuffling my feet to keep from tripping over the clothes strewn across the floor that I couldn't see. My eyes adjusted to the dark, and I could make out his shape as he shifted to sit up against the wall.

 

“Hey,” he said.

 

“Hi,” I climbed up onto the bed to sit beside him, leaning in close.

 

“How's um—it g-going in there?” he asked, taking my hand and weaving our fingers together.

 

“It's okay.” I laid my head on his shoulder. “There's a lot of shit in there.”

 

“Yeah,” Peeta half chuckled, slipping into silence.

 

“You okay?” I asked, lifting my head to look at him. He didn't answer, just looked down at our hands and chewed his lip. I shifted, angling myself toward him. “Hey.”

 

“I just—wish he hadn't t-told you that,” he said softly, the corners of his mouth twisting down for the briefest moment.

 

“It's okay,” I said as I squeezed his hand. I tried to find something to say and drew a complete blank, so I slipped my arms around his waist and laid my head down on his shoulder. After a moment he put his arm around me and I felt his lips against my hair. A soft meow broke the silence, and Peeta chuckled quietly as I straightened up. “Where is he?”

 

“He um—he sleeps und-derneath the bed a lot,” Peeta pushed away from the wall, resting one hand on my leg as he leaned over the edge of the bed and scooped the kitten up off the floor. He nuzzled against the top of its head. “Don't you, Buddy?”

 

“Buddy?” I smirked. Peeta settled back against the wall and chuckled, setting the kitten down in my lap.

 

“It was, um—a joke at first,” he shrugged. “But it stuck.” The kitten sniffed at the hem of my shirt before jerking back and unleashing a series of sneezes, shaking his head as he did.

 

“I'm sorry, Buddy, it's dusty in there,” I said, scratching along his back. The kitten turned away from me and made his way into Peeta's lap. He immediately curled up and settled into a contented purr. “I don't think he likes me.”

 

“He's a little c-clingy,” Peeta said. I laid my head on his shoulder, watching the cat blink itself to sleep. Peeta let out a soft, deep sigh.

 

“Are you okay?” I asked.

 

“I g-guess,” he said. I straightened up and turned to look at him. He wasn't. Any answer but 'yes' was as good as a 'no'. He glanced at me before looking down at the kitten, taking a breath as he sorted out what he had to say. “It's just—strange, I guess. No one ever t-talks about her. And she's j-just—gone. Your mom t-tries to help but—she's not—she wasn't—fuck.” He paused, rubbing his hand over his eyes and back through his hair. His hand lingered at the scar, and the look on his face grew distant and sad. “The last t-time I saw my m-mom was when she was—raising that rolling p-pin.”

 

“Peeta,” I said softly. He bit down hard on his lip. My heart tightened.

 

“I j-just don't—know how to deal with that,” he said, his voice quiet and shaky. I took a breath, hoping something to say would come to me and drawing an utter blank. What could I say? How could any input I had help him with this? He clearly needed to talk, but I was not at all capable of doing anything more than sitting and listening. Was that even good enough? I felt tears welling as his face twisted and moved myself closer, laying my knees against his lap and taking his hand in both of mine. “Right b-before it, um, happened, we had a t-test. In history. I g-got an A. My f-first one. Ever.” He paused, a smile flitting across his features. “She was p-proud. Even b-bragged about it to a few c-customers. Made my favorite d-dinner. It was nice. And th-then two weeks later she—almost k-killed me. I don't—I j-just don't understand.”

 

“I'm sorry,” I said quietly, unsure of what else I could possibly say. He just shrugged, pressing his eyes closed as he started to cry. I swore quietly under my breath and put my arms around him, pulling him against me. Peeta looped his arms around me and buried his face against my shoulder, a few quiet sobs leaking out of him. I rubbed his back, laying my cheek against his hair and doing my best not to cry with him. After a few minutes he pulled away, wiping his face and mumbling a red-faced apology.

 

“Th-thank you,” he said. “For staying.”

 

“Of course I stayed,” I said, leaning forward and kissing him softly. “I wish I didn't have to go. Are you going to be okay?”

 

“Yeah,” Peeta took my hand, weaving our fingers together and squeezing it gently before lifting my knuckles to his lips.

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“I'll b-be okay,” he said, flashing me a brief, but genuine, smile. I kissed him again for good measure, drawing a chuckle out of him that vibrated against my lips. I left the bakery with a smile on my face, but it faded quickly. I hated to see him cry. Hated that I couldn't do anything to change what he was feeling, or to make any of this better for him. The more I learned about his mother the less prepared I felt to help him with any of it. I could listen. I could hold him when he cried. But what on earth could I say? It ran too deep for him, for all of them, deeper than I even realized, and the only thing I wanted to do was track down Lilith Mellark and find some way to hurt her as badly as she'd hurt her family. I lost myself so deep in thought I didn't realize I had made it home until my feet hit the front steps.

 

“We had dinner without you,” Prim said as soon as I walked through the door, raising her chin as she carried her plate from the table to the sink. “You're late.”

 

“Sorry,” I said, hanging my coat on the wall. “I was with Peeta.”

 

“You're always with Peeta,” she rolled her eyes. “Mom even made me leave dessert for you. I didn't think you should get any for making us wait, and you spent your whole afternoon in the bakery, anyway.” She dropped her dishes into the sink before spinning around on her heel and stalking into our bedroom. I didn't even have time to get out a response. Mom sighed, glancing over her shoulder at Prim before opening one of the cabinets.

 

“Someone's a little jealous,” she said, stepping back in front of the stove with a bowl in her hand to fill with stew. She nodded toward the table. “Sit.”

 

“I really didn't mean to be so late,” I said, pulling out my chair and dropping down into it. Mom set the bowl down in front of me, passed me a spoon, and took her own seat.

 

“That's okay,” she said. “That's not what I wanted to talk to you about.” I just raised my eyebrows, taking a cautious bite of dinner. “When were you planning on telling me what actually happened to your hand?”

 

“I told you, I hurt it at the bakery,” I dropped my eyes to the table, hoping she wouldn't see through the lie.

 

“Katniss.”

 

“What?”

 

“You broke Merx Miller's nose,” she said; her voice flat, her expression tight. I just looked at her for a moment before continuing to eat. “You have nothing to say for yourself?”

 

“What do you want me to say?” I dropped my spoon into the bowl. “That I'm sorry? I'm not sorry.”

 

“You know better than to behave like that. You're lucky the school isn't taking disciplinary action,” she raised an eyebrow. I just rolled my eyes.

 

“All of the shit Merx and his asshole friends have been doing to Peeta and they didn't even blink,” I picked my spoon up again and resumed eating. I only managed a few bites before the thought caught up with me and I lost my appetite. I dropped my spoon again, letting it clatter against the bowl. “It'd be pretty fucked up if they tried saying anything to me about sticking up for him.”

 

“Katniss,” Mom snapped. “Language. Honestly, what's gotten into you? Are you picking up any more of Rye's bad habits that I need to know about?”

 

“Are you actually mad at me for standing up for him?” I leaned back in my chair, folding my arms across my chest.

 

“No, I'm not,” Mom's expression softened. “I only wish you could have found a more appropriate way to do so. And you lied to me about it. Did you really think I wouldn't find out that you didn't get hurt at the bakery?”

 

“So you're mad at me for lying?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Shouldn't you be happy that I lied?” I tried, hoping it would just fluster her. “I mean, since it shows I knew that what I did was wrong, proves I have a conscience, and that I was worried about what you'd think?”

 

“Kat,” Mom sighed, smoothing her hair away from her face. “I think it's wonderful that you care about Peeta so much. I do, however, think you can find more appropriate ways to defend him when the need arises.”

 

“Yes, mother,” I rolled my eyes; a gesture she ignored as I leaned forward and picked at the rest of my dinner.

 

“Was everything okay over there?” Mom asked, shifting in her chair and plucking at her sweater.

 

“I guess. Kind of an emotional day,” I glanced up at her. She nodded.

 

“Twain mentioned he would need someone to deal with that room,” she said, twisting her mouth to one side for a moment. “How are things with Peeta?”

 

“Fine,” I set my spoon down. I didn't trust her with the subject, and hadn't since that humiliating speech she'd held both Peeta and I captive for. The thought of that stupid sex talk still twisted my gut into a knot.

 

“I hope you're being careful with him.”

 

“Mom,” I groaned, dropping my head back. “Could you please just... not?”

 

“I didn't mean that,” she chuckled. “Though since you brought it up; you're still too young but if anything goes on, you better have been paying attention to what I told the two of you.”

 

“Mom,” I pressed my hands over my face, trying to will that event out of existence.

 

“What I really meant was that he has a long way to go,” Mom shifted forward, leaning against the edge of the table. “He's made incredible progress, and no matter what you might think you really have helped him with that, but his mind just isn't what it was.”

 

“Do you—Mom! Do you think I'm taking advantage of him?” I folded my arms across my chest, my lip curling at the idea.

 

“Katniss, you have,” she paused, taking a breath and looking off to one side before turning back to me. “A very strong personality. And he does get overwhelmed easily.”

 

“Oh my god,” I said quietly, closing my eyes. What the hell was she thinking? A moment of silence passed before I opened my eyes. She was just sitting there smiling at me. “What?”

 

“It's good to see you caring about someone like this,” she said, her voice soft and warm. I just raised an eyebrow. “Even though it's brought a whole new set of worries that I thought I'd be spared until Prim gets to be your age.”

 

“You didn't think I'd date either,” I deadpanned. A faint smirk twitched across Mom's mouth and that was all the confirmation I needed. “Do you all think there's something wrong with me? It was bad enough when it was just Prim's little comment and Gale's stupid confession in the woods, but now you, too? What the hell, Mom?”

 

“I'm just saying,” she smiled. “You've never had any interest in boys at all, aside from hunting with Gale.”

 

“I have never been interested in Gale,” I frowned at the idea.

 

“My point exactly,” she said. I nudged my bowl to the side.

 

“Can I ask you something?” I chewed my lip, hesitating to even continue.

 

“Of course.”

 

“Did you know Peeta's mom? When you were younger, I mean,” I said.

 

“Lilith? Not particularly well. She was in the class below mine. We rarely crossed paths,” Mom studied me thoughtfully for a moment. “Why do you ask?”

 

“Just wondering, I guess,” I shrugged, leaning forward and crossing my arms against the edge of the table. “Was she always, um-”

 

“The way she turned out?” Mom cut me off, raising an eyebrow. “No. She was very quiet when we were in school. Kept to herself, for the most part. She always seemed sad. I don't think she had a particularly good home life.” I nodded, keeping my eyes on the table and fitting that in with what I'd learned about her. “Is there anything in particular that brought that on? Has Peeta been talking to you about her?”

 

“A little,” I admitted.

 

“I know it's a lot to handle,” she said, ducking her chin to catch my eye. “If you need to talk about any of it, you know you can come to me, right?” I nodded, though I doubted I'd actually take her up on the offer. “Would you like dessert? There's still a bit of pie left, in spite of Prim's wishes.”

 

“No thanks,” I chuckled. “I still have some homework to do. Put it in with her lunch tomorrow.” Mom smiled as I stood up from the table, stopping to pick up my books on the way to the bedroom.

 

 


 

Working through the office took days before it even looked like I'd made a significant dent in the mess. The further back I got the more personal things I found mixed in with the business paperwork, and I couldn't bring myself to throw any of that away. We had next to nothing of family history. Mom had nothing to bring with her from town, and Dad had been too practical to save much in the way of mementos. All I had left of him were his jacket, his bows, and the skills he taught me. His parents passed before I was old enough to truly know them, and they had nothing. The Mellarks had history tucked away in the pages of ledgers and stacks of invoices. They had roots in this bakery and a solid sense of where they came from. I couldn't help but feel a little jealous of that.

 

“Hey, Katniss,” Darla poked her head into the room halfway through my third day. As I looked up from the pile that had built up around me she stepped into the room, her eyebrows creeping up to her hairline. “Wow.”

 

“Hi,” I said, tossing another fistful of papers into the trash box. “Is that a good wow or a bad wow?”

 

“A good one,” she laughed softly. “And god love you for taking this on. Though I think I have a pretty good idea why,” she smirked and winked at me.

 

“Shut up,” I mumbled, smiling as I did. I could feel myself blushing and ducked my chin to hide it.

 

“Trust me, I'm well aware of how hard privacy is to come by around here,” Darla chuckled, turning toward a nearly empty set of shelves and wiping her fingers across the wood. She frowned down at them, rubbing them against her thumb. “How about I help you out for a bit once I get the laundry going?”

 

“That would be great,” I said. The help was more than welcome. Rye hadn't set foot back in the room since that first day, and I didn't expect him to until it was empty. Though Twain checked in from time to time, his days were too busy to pitch in. More often than not he came up to ask me to help out downstairs.

 

Darla returned a short while later and immediately set to work wiping down every surface in the room with a damp cloth. She held it up to me as she finished; it had gone from white to a dingy black as she cleaned, and she skipped one wall of the room altogether. One I hadn't even started on. She parked herself on the floor across from me and pulled a stack of papers closer to her to start going through them.

 

“Oh my god,” she paused, staring down at the pile she'd managed to work about a quarter of the way through. “Wow. Look at this.” She picked up a small piece of thick paper and leaned forward to pass it to me. A photograph. I'd hardly ever seen any. Cameras were rare, and the process to actually turn the film inside into something like this was expensive and difficult. Madge had a camera, but even she avoided using it for the most part. I took it from her, staring at it for a moment.

 

“Oh my god, is that Twain?” I glanced at Darla as she nodded and grinned at me. He was young, not much older than Peeta and myself. He was dressed in a suit, his arm around a petite young woman in a white dress. Proof Lilith Mellark had not only been beautiful once, but also had the ability to smile. Twain looked exactly like Peeta. A little taller, not quite as broad in the shoulders, but otherwise identical, right down to the crooked half smile on his face. Their toasting. That had to have been when the picture was taken. I thought back to the letter I'd found as I studied the photograph and noticed the faint bump in the front of Lilith's dress. She'd been pregnant. I passed the photograph back to Darla.

 

“I ought to take this home and frame it,” she said, looking down at it. “Hang it somewhere Lilith can see just to make her feel like garbage about her life the next time she stops by.”

 

“You still see her?” I asked, my tone far more abrasive than I meant it to be. “Why?”

 

“It's hardly something either of us enjoy,” Darla said, blowing out a puff of air. “She was a good mother once. Peeta and Rye didn't get much of that from her, but Phyl did. For a while, at least. She gave him all of the good she had left, I think. That ran out long ago, obviously.” She paused, looking down at the picture thoughtfully. “He wants to believe the best of her. I think he needs to, in a way. Needs to find whatever is left of who she used to be. Who she was here.” Darla holds up the picture briefly before setting it aside on a shelf.

 

“What about your son?” I thought back to what Phyl had said when Peeta and I had dinner with them; the look on his face when he got up and left the table with Little Twain in his arms.

 

“That never leaves my mind,” Darla said sadly. “Phyl would never allow anything more to happen to his family, though. He'd drop her without a second thought if she even tried.” A faint smile crossed Darla's face for a moment. “The last time we saw her he demanded an explanation. She had made some comment about Twain, and Phyl just lost it. He does have a bit of her temper at times. He called her a monster. She was in tears before he even finished his tirade. God, that was weeks ago. I haven't even seen her out in town since.”

 

“I don't know how she even shows her face anywhere,” I frowned, looking back down at the pile in front of me. For a moment I considered telling her about the letter and asking for the full story. The sound of Twain's voice downstairs pushed the thought from my mind. It wasn't my place to ask, and I can't imagine how he'd feel if he knew I'd found that letter. Or how he'd react if he even knew it still existed. The dryer buzzed down the hall. Darla excused herself, brushing the dust off her knees as she left the room.

 

The quiet murmur of voices down the hall distracted me from the mix of letters and old tax forms I was attempting to sort through. I arched my back, rubbing my hands over my face and taking a moment to stretch. With a perky little mewl Buddy bounded into the room, pulling up short at the sight of the boxes around me.

 

“Buddy, get back here,” Peeta said, turning into the doorway. He stopped and leaned against the frame with one hand. The cat ignored him and sniffed curiously at the boxes, the little stub of his tail twitching back and forth. Peeta stared into the room, his eyes lingering on the now-empty desk by the window. “Um. D-Darla kicked us out to wash t-the sheets.”

 

“That's okay,” I smiled at him, pushing to my feet and brushing the dust off my hands. I scooped the kitten up off of the floor as I crossed the room to him. “I could use a break.”

 

Peeta nodded vaguely in response. His eyes were out of focus, trained on some invisible point in the room, his hands trembling slightly. I reached out and touched his forearm. He startled, jerking out of his daze and looking at me.

 

“You okay?”

 

“Yeah, um.” Peeta bit down on his lip and brushed his hand through his hair. His fingers paused on the scar at the back of his head. “It's just... d-different.”

 

“Good different or bad different?” I asked, searching his face. I honestly couldn't imagine that getting rid of the clutter that so clearly reminded all of them so much of the former Mrs. Mellark would be anything but good. After hearing Darla explain the complexities of Phyl's relationship with his mother, though, I had no idea what to make of how Peeta felt about this.

 

“I'm—um—I d-don't know,” Peeta said quietly. I watched him for a moment, trying to read his expression. He pressed his eyes closed, turning his head to disguise the twitch in the side of his face and took a deep breath. The picture Darla had found was sitting on top of the shelves closest to Peeta. He took a cautious step into the room and reached for it, frowning as he picked it up. “I've n-never seen this. I didn't—even know there were any p-pictures of them.”

 

I studied Peeta as he studied the picture. His jaw tensed; his mouth drawing into a tight line. I hooked my arm through his, wanting to ask what he thought of it but unsure how he would react. I moved closer to him, looking down over his shoulder at the picture in his hand. Twain really did look exactly like Peeta in it; he had the same easy, unguarded smile I sometimes saw on Peeta. I imagined that was far more common before he was injured. I thought back to the night we had dinner with Phyl and Darla, to what he'd said on the walk home. That he'd wanted to be like his father. I wondered how alike they truly were before their lives had been changed so drastically. Peeta moved to set the photograph back down, and I pressed a kiss to the corner of his jaw.

 

“Let's sit,” I suggested, nodding toward the couch. Peeta just chewed on his lip, but followed me into the living room all the same. I wanted to ask him what he was thinking. Maybe even get him to talk about his mother again. As soon as we sat down the kitten scrambled out of my arms and into Peeta's lap. He smiled, though looked completely worn out. “Still exhausted?”

 

“Yeah,” he slouched down, running his knuckles over the kitten's throat. Its purring filled the room; it was entirely too loud for such a tiny little animal. “I g-got a little sleep—not enough.”

 

“Well, tell Darla to hurry up so you can get back in bed,” I smirked, shifting a little closer to him and combing my fingers through his tousled hair.

 

“Hey!” Darla called from down the hall. “I do this out of the kindness of my heart, you know. The three of you can wallow in your own filth if you don't like my pace.” Peeta smiled, his shoulders shaking with silent laughter. I could feel myself blushing and dropped my forehead against his shoulder. Darla rounded the corner into the living room a moment later with a basket of laundry balanced against her hip. She set it down on the coffee table with a wink. “Feel free to help.”

 

“You d-don't want me folding—laundry,” Peeta said, glancing up at her with a smirk.

 

“Then you just sit there and keep that cutie pie from shedding all over your clean clothes,” she nodded toward the cat as she began to fold. Peeta chuckled to himself as I shifted forward to help. “I will say though, someone's been taking better care of things lately.”

 

“D-Darla—don't,” he said, his cheeks reddening.

 

“Hey, credit where credit's due,” she said before looking over at me. “Most of that mess was Rye's. Enjoy it while he still thinks he needs to impress you. Once that goes out the window there's no getting it back.”

 

“Stop,” Peeta laughed, rubbing his hand over his face. He was blushing furiously. I smiled, bumping my knee against his to get him to look up at me. He just shook his head, laughing to himself before turning his attention back to the kitten.

 

Once she was through with the laundry, Darla turned her whirlwind toward the office. With her help we got the last of it sorted and cleared out long before I even thought possible. She swept out the room as Rye and I brought the last of the boxes to be thrown out to the back porch. When we returned we found Twain leaning in the doorway of the cleared out room, talking with Darla. He grinned at me, hooking his arm around my shoulders and pulling me to his side.

 

“Thank you, Katniss,” he said, pecking a kiss against my hair. “I know this wasn't easy.”

 

“It was fine,” I shrugged as he squeezed my shoulder before letting go. I left shortly after dinner with a promise to return in the morning. Rye rolled his eyes when Twain pointed out I didn't work on Sundays. Whether or not I worked, I wanted to see Peeta.

 

When I returned the next day I found him sitting in the kitchen with Delly, picking at a tray of cinnamon rolls on the table between them. She beamed at me as I paused in the mudroom to hang up my coat, greeting me entirely too enthusiastically as I sat down.

 

“Hey,” I kissed Peeta's cheek as I pulled out the stool beside him.

 

“Hi,” he smiled at me, sliding me a napkin with a cinnamon roll sitting on top of it. Delly hunched up her shoulders as she watched us, grinning from ear to ear. Peeta gave her a look, opening his mouth to say something that was cut off by a scrape, a bang, and a muffled string of curses from the second floor.

 

“Did they already start moving everything?” I asked.

 

“Twain made Rye get up early and clean out the ovens so you wouldn't try to,” Delly smirked, glancing over her shoulder toward the stairs. “And Peeta is refusing to let me meet his new friend.”

 

“I'm n-not bringing him d-down here,” Peeta said, rolling his eyes.

 

“It's Sunday!” Delly argued. “You're closed. There's no baking going on in here. What's the big deal?”

 

“He's not—allowed,” Peeta said.

 

“Well, I'm not allowed up there,” Delly frowned. “So go get him.”

 

“Even with Twain up there?” I raised an eyebrow. Delly clamped her mouth closed, her cheeks flushing red. Peeta snorted, pressing his knuckles against his mouth to muffle his laughter.

 

“Shut up,” Delly folded her arms over her chest, trying—and failing—to stop herself from smiling. “I'll tell Twain what the two of you get up to in that room.”

 

“What have you told her?” I turned to Peeta, and his eyes went wide. His jaw worked uselessly for a moment before he gave up and shrugged. “Peeta.” He took a breath, looking from me to Delly and back again before sliding off of his stool. He muttered something about the kitten before heading for the stairs.

 

“Don't be mad,” Delly said as Peeta disappeared to the second floor. “I sort of made him tell me. And he didn't tell me much. It's just really sweet. The two of you, I mean. He's loved you forever.”

 

“Loved?” I echoed.

 

“Don't tell him I said that,” she leaned forward with a conspiratorial smile. “He has, though. And now you're here and it's so obvious you care about him so much and it's just so sweet.” She sighed, cocking her head to one side.

 

“Okay,” I said, letting out a self conscious laugh. Peeta returned a moment later with the kitten draped over the crook of his arm. Delly turned around, pressing her hands over her mouth before holding out both arms and making grabbing motions with her hands.

 

“Ohmygod he's so cute,” Delly all but squealed as Peeta let her take the kitten from his arms. “Buddy, right?”

 

“Yeah,” Peeta sat back down beside me and looped his arm around my waist. “Just d-don't put him down.”

 

“You were serious about that? ” I looked over at Peeta. “The name?” He chuckled, snagging his lip between his teeth.

 

“I t-told you,” he said. “It stuck.” I laughed, leaning against him and pulling apart the roll he set in front of me. Delly was entirely too preoccupied with the kitten to have any part in the conversation, leaving Peeta and I to our own devices. We talked idly for a while, occasionally listening to the commotion upstairs. Eventually Delly reluctantly returned the kitten to Peeta's arms, babbling something about going to see Madge and hugging us both before fluttering out the back door.

 

“I kind of want to see how things are going up there,” I said, glancing toward the stairs. The racket had died down, and I assumed that meant they were nearly finished.

 

“Let's go see,” Peeta said, shifting Buddy to one hand and taking mine with the other. He let go when we reached the stairs, pulling himself up by the banister. His balance had gotten much better, and he moved more quickly up the stairs than I was used to from him. We found Twain standing in the hall with a mug in his hands and a smirk on his face.

 

“You know this fucking room is smaller, right?” Rye snapped, still out of sight in what was now his bedroom. “How the hell is that fair?”

 

“Watch your language,” Twain responded, sighing and shaking his head. “And you know what's not fair? Spending my one day off hauling furniture around for my kid without so much as a thank you, you ingrate.”

 

“Oh, thank you,” Rye spat sarcastically.

 

“Get out here and thank Katniss for clearing the room out, too,” Twain winked at me.

 

“Hey, I helped,” Rye appeared in the doorway, glancing over at me and folding his arms across his chest.

 

“You carried one box out,” I corrected.

 

“And l-left it in the hall for—three days,” Peeta added.

 

“Whatever,” Rye rolled his eyes before turning to me. “Thanks.”

 

“Yeah, you're welcome,” I deadpanned. Peeta chuckled quietly.

 

“Well,” Twain sighed. “I'm going over to the Cartwright's. Stay out of trouble.”

 

I will,” Rye said. “I don't know about these two.” Twain just shook his head, draining his mug as he disappeared into the kitchen. Peeta led the way down the hall to his bedroom.

 

“Wow,” I said, standing in the center of the room and looking around. “It looks... so much bigger than I thought it was.”

 

“It's so—empty,” Peeta sat on the edge of his bed, staring at the space where Rye's had been. The kitten climbed out of his arms, jumped to the floor, and cautiously approached the newly emptied side of the room. Peeta retained the dresser, though the brief glance I'd given Rye's new bedroom as I passed it in the hall told me they'd scrounged up another from somewhere for him. How they managed to successfully divide any clothing I will never know. I had seen the same clothes on both of them. The last time I had taken Peeta's shirt off, the one that he had snatched off of the floor and pulled back on afterward was one that I'd seen Rye wearing the previous day.

 

“Aren't they going to get your desk out of the basement?” I closed the door before crossing the room to drop down onto the bed beside him. He nodded as I leaned against him. “That will take up some space.”

 

“I g-guess,” he said, chewing on his lip.

 

“You don't like the change,” I said. He shook his head. “I bet I could make you feel better about it.”

 

“D-do you?” he said, looking over at me, a faint smile spreading across his face. I returned it before leaning in to kiss him, opening my mouth against his as he leaned back, hooking an arm around me to pull me down with him. I settled myself on top of him, combing my fingers through his hair and kissing him lazily. I took my time deepening it, running my tongue along his lip and sucking at it for a moment. Peeta tightened his arms around me, hugging my body tight against his. I smiled into the kiss, running my knuckles along his jaw. The taste of cinnamon and icing still clung to his tongue, and I savored it as he kissed me, his fingers working into my hair.

 

Peeta took a shuddering breath, slipping his hand beneath my shirt and smoothing his palm across my back. I could feel him stiffening between us, sending that wave of dizziness over me that I'd tried so hard to recreate on my own. I was flushed and hot in an instant, and I wanted more. I shifted, planting my knees on either side of his hips to get enough purchase to lift myself up and pull off his shirt. Peeta slid his hands over my thighs, whimpering quietly when I leaned back down to kiss him again. He lifted his hips, pressing himself between my thighs, and I echoed his noise. His hands found their way under my shirt as I shifted my kisses to his neck, only pulling back long enough for him to pull it off over my head. The heat of his skin against mine made my heart pound. His hands smoothed over my back and he bent his knees, the tops of his thighs lifting up against my ass. I arched my back, the movement rolling my hips against his.

 

“Katniss,” he gasped, both his hands shifting up my back. I murmured against his neck in response, still kissing and sucking the cord that stood out when he turned his head. His fingers slid under the band of my bra. His voice was a hoarse whisper when he spoke. “C-can you—take th-this off?” I pulled back to look at him, my full weight coming to rest on his hips as I sat up. His eyelids fluttered briefly and I chewed on my lip, considering his request for only a moment before nodding. I took a deep breath, wondering just how flushed I really was, and reached behind me to unhook my bra. Peeta sucked in a breath, reaching for the straps to slide them down my arms.

 

He pressed his tongue between his lips as he looked at me, his hands hovering at my hips. His face was splotchy and red; his lips full and wet as he blew out a slow breath. I took one of his hands and lifted it to my breast, covering it with my own and squeezing lightly. He swore quietly, swallowing hard as I set my hands on his chest. He cupped my breast in his hand, shifting it to pinch my nipple lightly between his fingers. The gentle tug he gave sent a jolt through me. It was all I could do just to keep my eyes open. I didn't want to look away from his face.

 

Peeta looked up at me, his breathing carefully even, and wrapped his arms around me again, pulling me down against his chest. He kissed me slowly, his tongue sweeping through my mouth, and turned to one side. I shifted off of him, settling myself onto the mattress beside him and letting my hand come to rest on his waist. He left me gasping for air when he pulled away, trailing his lips along my jaw and resting his forehead on my shoulder, looking down between us. He palmed my breasts gently; first one, then the other. He rubbed his fingers over my nipples, drawing a sharp gasp from me. I had no idea this could feel so good. After a few minutes he draped his arm around me, pulling me to him until my chest was flush with his before kissing me. He was careful to keep his hips away from mine, and I wanted that back. I wanted to feel him against me; wanted to figure out what on earth it was about him that made that pressure feel so good when I fell so short of it on my own. I reached between us, sliding my fingers over his belly lightly and covering the front of his pants with my hand. He was hot and hard, and he pulled away from the kiss as I curled my fingers around him, feeling him through the fabric.

 

“Wh-what—ar-are you d-d-doing?” he stuttered, his voice shaky. His tone was not at all what I expected; it was too nervous and soft. I jerked my hand away, looking up at him with wide eyes.

 

“Oh my god—I'm, um, I'm sorry,” I stammered, drawing my hands against my chest and pulling back. I went too far. My mother was right; I was taking advantage of him. “I didn't—I was just. Fuck, I'm sorry.”

 

“N-n-no,” he pressed his eyes closed and swallowed. “It's um—I—um. D-don't, um, stop. I j-just wasn't, um, ex-exp—expecting th-that.”

 

“You, um, you want me to do that again?” I asked, biting down on my lip. He nodded, drawing a deep breath before opening his eyes again. I licked my lips nervously, my heart hammering against my ribs, and shifted toward him. I reached between us, nervous this time, and hesitated for a moment before sliding my hand over him again. He felt so hard and thick, and my face burned as I imagined what he looked like. Peeta moaned quietly as I stroked my hand over him, my fingers curling as much as I could through the fabric of his pants. His hips rocked forward, and I rested my forehead on his shoulder as he had on mine, staring down between us. The fluttering of the muscles in his stomach was mesmerizing; his chest heaved as I moved my hand over him. He let out a shaky, stuttering moan, his hips tilting toward me. I heard him breathe my name, burying the sound against my hair as he wrapped both arms around me, scooping me off the bed and against his body, my hand pinned between us. His hips bucked against me and he squeezed me against his chest, moaning into my hair. I couldn't even breathe as he slowly relaxed; I had a pretty good idea of what had just happened, but I had no idea that was where things were headed. Peeta swore softly, taking my face in his hands and pressing his lips to mine, murmuring an apology against my mouth as he kissed me. I couldn't help but smile at that.

 

“M-maybe, um,” he swallowed, resting his forehead against mine. “We c-could talk about n-new things b-before we tr-try them?”

 

“I think that's a good idea,” I said, biting down on my lip and letting out an embarrassed burst of laughter. “I'm sorry, Peeta.”

 

“It's okay—um, I n-need t-to—um,” he closed his eyes, still cradling my face between his palms, his lip trembling. After a moment he drew a sharp breath and looked at me. “I'll, um—be right b-back.”

 

“Okay,” I said, smiling briefly as he turned away and got to his feet. As soon as he closed the door on his way out of the room I rolled onto my back and pressed my hands over my face. I'd just given Peeta Mellark an orgasm. And now I wanted one too.

Chapter Text

“I promised Madge and Delly I'd hang out with them today,” I said, giving Peeta a look over the tray of cookie dough I was laying out.

 

“Why d-do you look so upset about it?” Peeta asked, smirking at me.

 

“Madge just wants to grill me about us,” I sighed. “You have no idea how she gets.”

 

“Us?” Peeta said, a slow smile spreading across his face. “Wh-what are you going to—tell her?”

 

“Nothing,” I said, swatting Peeta's hand away as he reached for a lump of dough from the corner of the tray.

 

“You could t-tell her—some things,” he said, reaching for the bowl of dough instead. I didn't even bother stopping him.

 

“Like what?” I snapped, pulling the tray to the edge of the table. Peeta shrugged, grinning at me as he popped a piece of cookie dough into his mouth.

 

“He just wants everyone to know he's seen your boobs,” Rye said. I whipped my head around to look at him; I hadn't even heard the customer he was helping leave, let alone step into the kitchen.

 

“He told you?” I turned back to Peeta, who was already blushing. “You told him?”

 

“He—he asked,” Peeta muttered, dropping his eyes to the table and tugging at the edge of his hat. I just rolled my eyes, picking up the tray to carry it to the ovens. How much was he telling Rye and Delly about us? Was Delly telling Madge? If Delly was telling Madge, then Madge was certainly telling Gale, and Gale was completely unable to keep his mouth shut if he had something to tease me about. Did Rye's friends talk that way, too? Was that why that jerk at the restaurant acted the way he did? I slid the tray into the oven and closed the door before turning around to look at Peeta.

 

“Don't say things like that about us to people,” I gestured toward Rye. “Especially him.”

 

“I resent that,” Rye said, pointing at me.

 

“Shut up,” I snapped, crossing the room to Peeta as Rye returned to the storefront.

 

“Are you r-really—mad?” Peeta asked, looping his arm around my waist as I reached his side.

 

“No,” I leaned against him and draped my arm around his shoulders. “But you shouldn't share... stuff like that. Details. Especially if you ever want to see them again.” I smirked as I leaned in and kissed him, loving the way it felt when he smiled against my lips. He deepened the kiss briefly, pulling away at the sound of Twain's footsteps on the stairs.

 

“Behaving yourselves down here?” Twain smirked, looking at Peeta and I.

 

“Yes,” I shoved Peeta's hand off my hip.

 

“Careful,” he grinned at us, punctuating his sentence with a wink. “Try not to let him distract you too much.”

 

“Too late,” Rye called from the storefront.

 

“I should get going,” I said, turning to Peeta and trying to stop the conversation from progressing any further. “I'm sure they're already waiting for me.”

 

“Where are you off to?” Twain asked.

 

“The Cartwright's,” I said, turning back to Peeta as he stood from his seat.

 

“Okay,” Peeta kissed my cheek. He didn't seem to care that his father was still standing there. “See you tomorrow.”

 

“Yeah,” I said, glancing toward Twain as he disappeared into the storefront, sparing me any more embarrassment than I already felt. I watched Peeta climb the stairs before going into the mudroom to get my coat.

 

“Here,” Twain stepped in as I pulled on my coat, holding out a paper bag. “Take these over there with you.”

 

“Um, okay,” I took the bag, opening the top to look inside. Cookies.

 

“You don't visit the Cartwrights without bringing food,” Rye supplied, rolling his eyes before moving further into the kitchen and out of sight.

 

“We don't visit anyone without bringing food,” Twain corrected.

 

“Well, thanks,” I said, chuckling a bit.

 

“Have a good night, Katniss,” Twain said. “I'm sure we'll see you tomorrow.”

 

“You will,” I said, turning away to hide my blushing. “Goodnight.”

 

I slipped out the back door, pausing in the yard to look up at Peeta's window. It was dark; he'd likely fallen asleep the minute his head hit the pillow. I walked down the alley and crossed the square toward the shoe shop. I'd rarely even set foot in it before, and I wasn't entirely sure if they had any odd rules about using the front door the way the Mellarks seemed to, so I momentarily considered going around to the back.

 

“You must be Katniss,” a round-faced blonde woman smiled at me from behind the counter as I stepped inside.

 

“Yeah, um. Hi,” I closed the door behind me. The shop was small; little more than a chair for fittings, a set of shelves lined with boxes and shoe samples, and the counter.

 

“I'm Loretta. Delly's mom,” she said, getting to her feet. “There was a bit of debate as to whether or not you were going to tear yourself away from your man over there to stop by.”

 

“Oh my god,” I muttered quietly, rubbing my hand over my eyes. Loretta laughed.

 

“You landed the best one of them. Nothing to get all flustered over,” she said with a wink. “The girls are upstairs. This way.” She nodded toward the doorway behind her and held aside the beaded curtain hanging there as I walked behind the counter. She led the way down a short hall toward a workroom in the back of the building. The walls were dark wood paneling, three sides of the room lined with a counter top littered with tools and parts and shoes in varying states of repair and completion. The rest of the room was occupied by a broad table covered with more of the same. It was a stark contrast to the light, open, airy kitchen of the bakery. A stocky man with ashy blonde hair looked up from from the table, lifting his chin to peer at us through the glasses perched on the end of his nose.

 

“This is Katniss,” Loretta clapped her hands on my shoulders. “Katniss, this is my husband, Dewey.”

 

“About damn time you turned up,” Dewey said with a smirk. “Between Rye's whining, Delly's chattering and Twain's fawning, I feel like I already know you. Nice to put a face to the name.” I forced a smile, unsure of how to even respond, and a little taken aback by the notion that the three of them talked about me so much. “Glad to see the surgery to remove you from Peeta's side for the night was a success.”

 

“Ignore him,” Loretta said. She steered me toward the stairs by my shoulders, saving me from needing to respond. “The girls are in Delly's room. First door on the left.”

 

“Thanks,” I flashed a brief smile, retreating up the narrow staircase to the sound of Delly's parents playfully bickering over the bag of cookies still clutched in my hand.

 

The top of the stairs opened up into their living room, which was dominated by a wide, broken-in couch and a hand braided rug spread across the floor. Her brother leaned out of one of the doors at the end of the hall, frowning at me for a moment and disappearing before I even managed to raise my hand and wave. I sighed and turned toward Delly's room, nudging the door open and leaning in. Madge was sitting on the floor with her back to the bed; Delly sat in a chair by her desk. The two of them looked up as I stepped into the room.

 

“Oh, speak of the devil,” Delly smiled as I stepped into the room, tugging my coat off and draping it over the end of her bed. They'd been talking about me. Perfect.

 

“Hi,” I said, forcing a smile before sitting down on the edge of the bed.

 

“I'm sorry about my parents, they're so embarrassing,” Delly hunched up her shoulders, a pained look crossing her face. “Did they say anything about Peeta? I told them not to. Ugh, I'm sorry.”

 

“They were fine,” I said.

 

“So, how are things going?” Madge asked, dropping her head back on the bed too look up at me.

 

“What do you mean?” I looked down at her skeptically.

 

“With Peeta!” she said. “I'm guessing they're going well since I never see you anymore.”

 

“You see me every day,” I scoffed. She just rolled her eyes.

 

“Sitting with you at lunch doesn't count. You never hang out with us anymore,” Madge slapped my leg. “I told you that you'd turn into one of those girls who gets a boyfriend and forgets everyone else.” Delly giggled quietly, cutting herself off when I shot a glare in her direction.

 

“I work,” I said, shoving Madge's head to one side.

 

“I bet you do,” she laughed, trading smiles with Delly before lifting herself up onto the edge of the bed to sit beside me.

 

“Why are you smiling like that?” I narrowed my eyes at her before turning to Delly. “Why are you smiling like that? What else did he tell you?”

 

“Hang on,” Madge held up her hand and turned to Delly. “'What else'? How are you getting inside information that I'm not?” Delly stammered for a minute, her eyes going wide as Madge and I stared her down.

 

“All I know is that she took her shirt off for him!” she said, hunching her shoulders and holding up her hands defensively. “He didn't tell me anything else, and he was really telling Rye that to begin with. I was just sort of there and maybe egging him on a little. Or a lot.”

 

“You took your shirt off?” Madge turned to me. I just tightened my jaw and stared at her. “When was that?”

 

“I don't know. A little while ago?” I looked away, unable to even keep looking at her. She may have been more than comfortable with telling me all about what she and Gale got up to when that was still new for them, but I didn't share the feeling. “It's none of your business, anyway.”

 

“How long ago? You've gone further than that, right?” Madge pressed on. I folded my arms over my chest, but the color I felt rising to my cheeks gave me away. “Have you already had sex with him?”

 

“No!” I snapped, turning to glare at her.

 

“Well, have you gone down on him?” she asked.

 

“Have I—what?”

 

“You know,” Delly supplied. “Had him in your mouth. Used your finger and stuff.” I stared at her for a moment before looking back to Madge.

 

“Have you sucked his dick yet?” she clarified, cutting her eyes toward Delly.

 

“Oh my god, no,” I said, hugging my arms around myself.

 

“Has he gone down on you?” Madge asked.

 

“That's way more fun,” Delly interjected.

 

“No,” I said, taking a breath and shaking my head, avoiding their eyes.

 

“So what have you done?” Madge said, nudging my leg with her toe. I had to fight back the urge to slap it away. I knew I shouldn't have agreed to hanging out with these two. “Has he made you come?”

 

“Will you stop?” I cut my eyes toward her. That one didn't need clarifying. He hadn't, and I wanted him to. I didn't even know how to bring it up, but he wanted to talk about new things before doing them. Unless he was the one to bring it up we probably wouldn't do anything new ever again.

 

“Ooh, annoyed and refuses to answer,” Madge looked over toward Delly. “That's a no. A no she's not happy about.” I just let out a sigh, wishing I hadn't come. She grinned at me, waiting for me to turn back to her before speaking. “So you got him off, then, huh?”

 

“Oh my god, will you please stop?” I shifted uncomfortably, crossing my legs and hunching my shoulders forward. I just wanted to disappear; this conversation was only going to get worse.

 

“Come on,” she gave me a look. “I want to know! I told you everything about me and Gale.”

 

“Against my will.”

 

“Delly tells me all the weird shit Rye does to her,” she gestured toward Delly.

 

“It's not weird,” Delly protested, laughing as her cheeks flushed.

 

“The underwear thing is weird,” Madge rolled her eyes.

 

“What underwear thing?” I asked, looking over at Delly. She opened her mouth to answer, and Madge cut her off.

 

“No! No details about her pervert boyfriend until you spill it about yours,” Madge said.

 

“Peeta is not a pervert,” I snapped. Neither of them flinched, just continued watching me with twin expectant smiles on their faces.

 

“Come on!” Madge slapped my leg. I jerked away from her with a frown.

 

“Fine!” I snapped. “I—y'know, touched him. Through his pants.”

 

“You made him come that way?” Madge asked, grinning ear to ear.

 

“Yes,” I huffed, looking away. “He didn't even like it.”

 

“What do you mean he didn't like it?” Delly asked, scrunching up her nose.

 

“What the hell did you do to that poor kid?” Madge laughed.

 

“I just—y'know,” I gestured awkwardly with my hands, miming the motion. “Touched him. And he freaked out about it.”

 

“Obviously he freaked out,” Madge rolled her eyes. “You were grabbing his junk. That's like a dream come true.”

 

“No,” I sighed, getting more exasperated by the second. “He—ugh—just forget it.” Delly burst into a fit of giggles, pressing her hands over her face. Madge and I stared at her as she struggled to compose herself.

 

“I'm sorry!” she gasped. “It's just—you must have scared the hell out of him. He's really not too good with new things now.”

 

“He wants to talk about new things before we try them,” I said, absolutely hating the whine in my tone.

 

“Oh, you mean he wants to have a normal, healthy sex life?” Madge mused. “I can see how that would be a problem for you, Everdeen.”

 

“Shut up,” I rubbed my hand over my face. “It's not a problem. I don't even know what I'm doing. How the hell do I talk about it?”

 

“Well, what do you want to do?” Delly asked.

 

“I don't know,” I snapped. Even if I did, I wasn't about to admit it to her. Or even to Madge.

 

“Well, we already figured out you want him to return your little favor,” Madge said. “Tell him that. Tell him how.”

 

“I don't know how,” I blurted out. The look on Delly's face made me regret it instantly.

 

“You mean you've never...” she trailed off.

 

“Katniss doesn't believe in self-exploration,” Madge smirked. Delly's eyes got even wider.

 

“I don't see the point,” I said, rolling my jaw.

 

“Well, you wouldn't be having this problem if you saw the point, would you?” Madge retorted.

 

“Oh, fuck you,” I rolled my eyes.

 

“Don't get all huffy with me over your own dumb hangups,” she said. “Just tell him what you want, and let him figure out the rest.”

 

“It's not like he can't ask Rye for advice,” Delly shrugged.

 

“Do not let him take advice from that weirdo,” Madge said. Delly let out an indignant little huff.

 

“Just because he's not boring like Gale doesn't mean he's a weirdo,” she said.

 

“Gale is not boring,” Madge said. “Your boyfriend has problems.”

 

“He does not!” Delly laughed.

 

“Hi, still here, guys,” I said, cutting off whatever Madge was about to say. She shook her head subtly, cutting her eyes at Delly before turning back to me.

 

“Just tell him he owes you an O,” she shrugged.

 

 


 

Peeta was sound asleep when I let myself into his room. Buddy lifted his head to blink at me, stretching his front paws out over Peeta's legs. I closed the door quietly behind me and crossed the room, toeing off my shoes to slip between the sheets and press against his back. He shifted, turning toward me and stretching his legs. Buddy mewled indignantly at being dislodged and picked himself up, glaring at the two of us before picking his way across the bed and thumping to the floor.

 

“Hey,” Peeta smiled, his voice thick with sleep.

 

“Hi,” I said as he scooped an arm around me, pulling me closer. I closed my eyes, letting his warmth envelop me. I pressed a kiss to his shoulder and closed my eyes, nuzzling into his neck. We dozed together for a while, the sun fading and the room darkening around us. Peeta's hands moved over my back, slowly working my shirt up and pressing against my bare skin. He angled himself toward me, his bare leg slipping out from beneath the sheets. My heart pounded at the realization that he was wearing nothing more than his boxers. His lips found my neck, sending a wave of heat through me. I shifted, acutely aware of the feel of his body against mine; the way his hips pressed forward, and his hands smoothing over my bare skin.

 

“Peeta,” I said softly, combing my fingers into his hair and turning my head to kiss him. He murmured against my mouth. My nerves were on fire, and I kept thinking about what Madge said. About Peeta's need to talk about new things. I didn't want to talk. My throat locked up at the idea.

 

“W-what is it?” Peeta broke away long enough to get the question out before kissing me again. He dragged his lips to my jaw, nipping at my skin.

 

“Maybe, um,” I swallowed hard, pressing my eyes closed. “We could, um—You could, ah-” Just spit it out, Katniss.

 

“You s-sound like—me,” he said, grinning against my neck.

 

“We could, um-” my voice caught in my throat as he shifted on top of me. “Do a little more?”

 

“What d-do you have in mind?” he asked. His voice was low and throaty and entirely too sexy for me to form a coherent response. I let my legs fall open instead, pulling at his waist as he kissed me. I gasped at just how much of him I could feel against me, and how hard he was already. He rolled his hips on mine, and a soft moan leaked out of me. “More of th-that?”

 

“Yes,” I breathed, wrapping my arms around him. Peeta smiled, lowering his mouth to mine and grinding his hips slowly. It felt so good—too good—and I lifted into the motion as he fumbled with the buttons on the front of my shirt. His lips never left my own.

 

He gave up on the buttons halfway down, tugging my shirt to one side and slipping his hand into my bra. I pressed my hands to the small of his back, drawing him closer, my fingers sliding under the waistband of his shorts. Peeta moaned against my mouth, shifting his angle and squeezing my breast in his hand. I spread my legs further, trying to get that perfect friction he'd started with back.

 

“Oh my g-god,” Peeta muttered, burying his face against my neck and swearing softly. I raised my knees, capturing his hips between my thighs and using them to guide his movement. I knit my fingers into his hair, pressing my lips to his temple. His hips bucked forward, drawing a high, sharp moan out of me. I could feel something building; a hot, perfect tension that made it hard to breathe. Peeta's hand drifted down my side, coming to rest on my thigh. I could feel my voice vibrating in my throat, but every ounce of my attention was focused on the feel of Peeta's erection rubbing against me and the impossible heat it was spreading through me. He drew in a sharp breath, his movement slowing.

 

“Don't stop,” I said, pulling at him and lifting my hips. There was a desperate edge in my voice I didn't recognize.

 

“K-Kat,” he chuckled, nuzzling against my neck. “Q-quiet.”

 

“I'm sorry,” I breathed, rolling my hips against him. “That just—it felt good.”

 

“I know,” he smirked, moving with me and saving that feeling from vanishing completely. I tilted my hips toward him, barely holding in my gasping. Peeta kissed me as a soft moan leaked out of me, and I slid my hands down his back, grabbing his ass and pushing him against me. I broke away from the kiss, pressing my head back against the pillows. This was what I had wanted. This was the feeling I couldn't get for myself. I pressed my eyes closed, clinging to Peeta and moving with him, barely conscious of his shushing, and vaguely registering his nervous laugh against my skin. Then my world shattered.

 

Every muscle in my body contracted at once. I hunched up against Peeta, crying out and burying my face against his shoulder. My legs trembled, my hands balled into fists against his back, and warmth flooded through me as the room swam back into focus.

 

“Holy shit,” I breathed.

 

“A-are you—okay?” Peeta asked, smoothing his hand over my hair as I laid back. My limbs suddenly felt weak and useless. I struggled to catch my breath. Peeta's movement had ceased, though he still lay flush between my thighs. “K-Kat?”

 

“Yeah? Yes, um,” I forced myself to take a slow breath and look him in the eye. The concern etched on his face dragged a bubble of laughter out of me I couldn't even control.

 

“Wh-why are you laughing?” he frowned, chuckling nervously after a moment. “What j-just—happened? What's so f-funny?”

 

“Peeta,” I buried my face against his neck, unable to look him in the eye and say it out loud. “You made me come.”

 

“I—what?” he said, jerking back. “K-Katniss—they h-heard you out in th-the Seam. My d-dad's gonna—kill me.” The look on his face was rapidly approaching frantic, and that was the last thing I wanted for him. I wanted him on the same page as me; relaxed and warm and content. And I wanted to get him there quickly.

 

“He's not home,” I slid my hand to the back of Peeta's neck, pulling him back and kissing below his jaw. Even if Twain was downstairs, I felt too good to even care. I smiled against his skin. “It's okay.”

 

“Are you s-sure?” Peeta swallowed, the muscles in his throat shifting under my lips. “You were s-so—loud. And the way you were m-moving. It—scared me. I th-thought I'd hurt you.”

 

“Well, it felt really good,” I chuckled, smoothing my hands over his back. “Really good. That's nothing to be scared of.” I began to kiss him slowly, shifting him beside me. He whimpered against my mouth. I reached between his legs, moving just enough to slide my hand over the front of his boxers. I had to fight the temptation to slip my fingers inside. That was too new. We didn't discuss it. And judging from the panicked expression that was still on his face—his eyes pressed closed, brow knit together, and his lower lip trembling—he'd had enough new for one afternoon. He was hard beneath my hand. I could feel him better through the linen of his underwear than I did through his pants the last time. “Are you okay?”

 

“Y-yeah,” he nodded, taking a shaky breath. I kissed his hair as he buried his face against my neck, his breath hot against my skin. I curled my fingers around him, stroking his length.

 

“Does that feel good?” I asked softly, nuzzling against his hair. Peeta nodded, his breath quickening, and a gentle moan vibrating against my skin. He shuddered, his hips pitching forward into my hand. I murmured quiet encouragements, my heart still pounding in my chest. My thumb slipped into the fly of his boxers, and the heat of his flesh made my breath catch in my throat. I kept moving, closing my hand tighter around him. He grunted, his hand clenching against my side, pumping toward me as he came. I felt it; hot and wet against my hand, and looked down nervously as he shifted away from me. That was a practicality of this I hadn't exactly expected. I knew, obviously, what would happen. I just hadn't actually thought about the reality of it.

 

“Sh-shit I'm—sorry,” Peeta said, reaching over me and wedging his hand between the mattress and the wall. He produced a small, ratty-looking towel and quickly wiped my hand before turning away from me to clean himself.

 

“Oh my god,” I gaped at him. He turned toward me again, frowning at the look on my face. “That's what that's for? I don't want to see that thing! Put it away! Oh my god you touched me with it. That's disgusting!”

 

“You—what?” Peeta's expression dropped, his face flushing immediately. He leaned over me to shove it back where it came from.

 

“That fucking towel?” I pointed toward the wall. “Your sister in law cleans that. I've cleaned that. Oh my god, Rye has one.” I shook my hands and pressed them over my face, muffling a cry of disgust. “And your dad. Oh my god.” I curled up on my side, the contentment I'd felt just a few moments ago completely wiped out. Peeta snorted, prying my hands away from my face. That asshole was laughing at me. I glared at him.

 

“Y-you mean Darla knows? Oh f-fuck,” he let out a gusty sigh. “H-how am I—going to even l-look her in the face anymore. But—wh-what did you th-think that was—for?” he asked, blushing furiously, a hint of embarrassment in his voice.

 

“I don't know,” I snapped. “I didn't think about it.” I jerked my hands away from him and he laughed again, wrapping his arms around me and pulling me against him. I let him, burying my face against his chest before muttering, “you're all disgusting.”

 

Eventually I had to pry myself out of bed. I didn't want to leave, and resented the long walk home I still had ahead of me. Peeta got up with me, stopping in the bathroom as I went into the kitchen to wash my hands. We walked downstairs together, grateful to find that Twain was still out. Peeta kissed me on the back porch, watching me leave until I was out of sight.

 

I couldn't stop replaying it in my head. I could still feel it; the warmth tingling through my arms and legs hadn't quite subsided. As much as I hated to admit Madge had been right, she was. If I'd managed to do that to myself, I most certainly would see the point of trying. Even Delly and Rye's complete inability to keep their hands to themselves was starting to make sense to me.

 

How much better would it be to go further? Where would we even take it? Less clothing, obviously. I wanted to feel Peeta's skin on mine, not just under my hands. I wanted to see what he looked like, not just feel it.

 

I'd touched him this time, though. Actually touched him. The idea made my heart catch in my throat. His flesh and been so hot and surprisingly soft. I felt my face flushing immediately and hoped I'd remain blissfully alone on the walk home. If I ran into Gale he'd know immediately that I'd been up to something and pester me until I just blurted it all out. I couldn't remember whether he'd mentioned any plans that would put him in town this afternoon, and it was later than he'd usually be out hunting.

 

It wasn't until I was nearly home that I realized I still had to face my mother. And Prim. They'd know something was off. They'd know I was acting weird, or that I felt different. Mom would demand an explanation, and I couldn't just plead not feeling well and hide in my bedroom. Having a healer for a mother had far fewer perks than anyone would be led to believe. I flashed a brief smile when I walked in the door and turned my back to Mom as I took my coat off, willing myself to just calm the fuck down.

 

“Did you have a good day?” she asked.

 

“Mhmm,” I said, setting my books down. She turned away from the stove, an odd look on her face that I didn't like one bit.

 

“Are you okay, sweetie?” she said, cupping one hand under the spoon she held to catch the drips. I nodded, not quite trusting my voice. She nodded back at me before turning back to the stove. “Set the table, please. This is nearly done.”

 

“Sure,” I wiped my sweaty hands on the side of my pants and moved to the cabinets. I suffered through dinner the best I could, opting to keep relatively quiet to keep myself from betraying my frayed nerves. I still felt just as hot and flushed as I had in Peeta's bed, and that alone made it hard enough to think of anything else.

 

“Did Twain have a chance to speak with you?” Mom asked as we were finishing. I looked up at her. No, Mom, no he didn't. Because I was too busy getting off with his son.

 

“Um. About what?” I asked, trying to keep my voice light.

 

“We'll be eating dinner with the Mellarks tomorrow night,” she said, reaching for Prim's empty plate.

 

“Really?” Prim asked, raising an eyebrow.

 

“We are?” I asked. Of course. She'd gotten wind of Peeta and I having so much time to ourselves and was dead set on embarrassing the habit right out of us. Doing it by herself wasn't enough, she had to shame us in front of Twain, Rye, and Prim now, too. And I had no doubt that somehow Twain would catch wind of what went on today, tell her immediately, and then it would be all over.

 

“Yes,” Mom looked at each of us. “Twain thought that since our families have spent so much time working together, it would be nice to bring everyone together without work as the reason. And I agree.” No hint at wanting to speak to Peeta or myself; no vague threats. Maybe this dinner would be safe.

 

“That's dumb,” Prim rolled her eyes.

 

“Primrose,” Mom scolded, frowning at her. “I think you can manage the dishes yourself tonight, if that's how you feel.”

 

“Mom!” she protested. Our mother just held up her hand, silencing anything else Prim had to say.

 

“I think I'm just going to go to bed,” I blurted out, eager to get away from the table and have a bit of privacy. “I'm exhausted.”

 

“Are you sure you're okay?” Mom said, standing as I did.

 

“I'm fine, Mom,” I said, pushing my chair back in before crossing the room.

 

“You've just been working long hours,” Mom said, stepping away from the table. “I don't want you getting sick.”

 

“Oh my god, Mom. I said I'm fine,” I snapped, shooting her a look before shoving my bedroom door closed a little harder than I meant to, grateful to finally be alone with my thoughts.

 

 


 

“I still think this is dumb,” Prim huffed as we made our way to the bakery after school. Peeta had gone home two classes ago, leaving the two of us to walk to the bakery on our own.

 

“Stop it, Prim,” I rolled my eyes. I wasn't particularly interested in the entire affair either, but I had the common courtesy to keep quiet about it. How was I supposed to sit beside Peeta in front of both of our families after yesterday? Lunch today had been awkward enough.

 

“No,” she snapped, glaring at me. “He's your boyfriend. I shouldn't have to spend time with him and his stupid family.”

 

“Do not call the Mellarks stupid,” I turned toward her. “You are not this much of a brat. Knock it off.”

 

“Whatever,” she rolled her eyes. “I was supposed to spend today with the Hawthornes. You know, like you used to before you got a stupid boyfriend.”

 

“Stop saying 'stupid',” I snapped. “You sound like a whiny six year old.”

 

“Fine,” Prim snapped, falling in line behind me as we climbed the steps to the bakery. She shucked her coat in the mudroom, shoving it into my arms and leaving me to hang it up. I didn't even have it in me to argue and just hung it beside my own before following her into the kitchen.

 

“You're hogging my sister,” Prim said, crossing the room and pulling out a stool at the worktable to sit down. She raised her eyebrows at Peeta, her mouth pinched into a tight little scowl. “I don't like it.”

 

“I—um, I'm sorry?” Peeta said, looking over at me. I just rolled my eyes.

 

“Prim, don't,” I sighed.

 

“She really is here all the time,” Rye interjected, moving the tray of cookies he was frosting from the counter to the table beside Prim.

 

“See, even he thinks so,” she said, leaning forward to sneer at me before turning to Peeta again. “She's my sister. What do you two even do over here every day?” Rye snorted, and both Peeta and I stared at him, willing him to keep his damn mouth shut. “And it's not bad enough you're just always here,” she continued. “You're always talking about him. You talk about him to Mom, and Madge keeps asking me all of these stupid questions about you guys when I see her at the Hawthorne's. You even say his name in your sleep.”

 

“She does?” Rye's face lit up and he stopped what he was doing, turning to face Prim.

 

Yes,” she huffed. Peeta glanced over at me, a pleased little smile on his face. I pressed my lips together, ducking my chin to hide the blush I felt rising. That was news to me. God knows what else I'd said in my sleep, given the direction my dreams had been heading.

 

“That's terrible,” Rye said. The patronization in his voice went right over Prim's head. “Tell me more.”

 

“She's always sighing and smiling when she does it, too,” she rolled her eyes. Rye grinned, looking over at Peeta and I as he wordlessly held a cookie out in front of her. She accepted it without even breaking stride. “And she's way too happy about him having his own room. That doesn't sound very fun to me.”

 

“Me neither, Prim,” Rye smirked, turning his attention back to his work. “You know, you should come over more often. You can hang out with them upstairs and try to make things less boring.”

 

“No, she shouldn't,” I said.

 

“Really?” Prim glanced at him.

 

“Yeah,” he said.

 

“No,” I frowned.

 

“You can see her more,” Rye said. “And tell me all about how annoying she is at home.”

 

“She's so annoying,” Prim said, picking the frosting off of the top of the cookie with her finger. “It's awful. At least when she hangs out with Gale and Madge I still get to see her. And she's not all weird about it.”

 

“Prim, stop,” I sighed. Peeta looked caught between embarrassed and amused, looking from me to Prim and back. I shook my head, lifting a tray of rolls from the table and carrying it into the storefront to stock the cases.

 

“Makes me wish I had a daughter,” Twain smirked at me, glancing up from his book. He sat on a stool behind the register, one foot up on the shelves below the counter. I had to physically stop myself from rolling my eyes. “I'll make sure she comes upstairs once your mother gets here. Keep her out of your hair for a while, at least.”

 

“Thanks,” I smirked. Mom was due to arrive shortly; after her time with Peeta before we'd arrived she'd gone to see Dr. Lawrence. Once she got back, Rye and I would be handling the evening rush on our own while she and Twain got dinner ready upstairs. He seemed pleased about the prospect. Sit down meals seemed to be a rarity in this house, though I certainly understood why. The bakery still needed to be run, and eating after closing every night was impractical. I was already starting to get hungry, and I knew I wasn't going to make it to 8 o'clock without something to eat.

 

I retreated back to the kitchen and tried to ignore Prim's whining as I continued working. It was late enough in the day that there wasn't much to do to keep me occupied. I was grateful that it didn't take long for Mom to turn up with a neatly wrapped parcel from the butcher tucked under her arm. As promised, Twain whisked Prim upstairs with the two of them, much to my relief.

 

“You two gonna be able to keep your hands to yourselves?” Rye smirked. “I doubt the good Dr. Everdeen would stay quiet if she caught wind of even a fraction of what you two have been up to. And if you think Dad wouldn't be a thousand times worse, you're wrong.”

 

“What do you know about what we've been up to?” I turned toward Peeta, who pressed his lips together and looked away.

 

“He didn't say a word,” Rye chuckled. “But I'm pretty sure half the District heard your little performance upstairs yesterday.” I snatched a wet rag from the table, whipping it across the room at him. Rye cackled ducked out into the storefront. The rag hit the wall he'd been standing in front of with a wet smack.

 

“Is sh-she really that upset?” Peeta asked, getting up off of his stool to help me with the prep work. “Prim, I mean—not your m-mother.” I smiled to myself at the gesture, wanting to point it out but afraid to make him feel self-conscious. He rarely did anything in the bakery without careful prompting and persuasion.

 

“She's just jealous,” I shrugged, passing Peeta the ingredients to be mixed one at a time. “She's still not used to me doing anything but going out to hunt or hanging out with Gale and Madge. I was almost always home. She'll get over it.” Peeta frowned, seemingly unconvinced. I leaned against the edge of the table and watched him, letting him take over the work for himself. He only hesitated briefly, chewing on his lip before covering one container and moving on to fill another. I glanced over my shoulder to see Rye standing in the doorway, a faint smile on his face as he watched Peeta. His smile broadened when he caught me looking at him, and he disappeared back into the storefront as the bell over the door rang.

 

Peeta finished the rest of it on his own, glancing over at me with a pleased smile on his face as he sat back down. I stepped forward and kissed him, looping my arms around his shoulders and hoping to show what I didn't quite know how to say. That was huge, and in a weird way, I felt proud. Peeta turned toward me, sliding his hands around my waist and pressing his lips to mine. I draped my arms around his neck, leaning into him and tangling my fingers in his hair as he deepened the kiss. His hand slipped beneath the back of my shirt, sending a shiver through me that made us both smile.

 

“That's what I'm talking about, idiots,” Rye said, startling both of us. Peeta and I all but jumped away from each other. He ran his hand through his hair, clenching his jaw and glaring at Rye. “Don't do that.”

 

Peeta and I headed upstairs shortly before closing. The work was done, the kitchen clean, and even he was hungry. The smell of whatever was cooking upstairs had been driving us both crazy for the past hour, and we all but chased each other to the second floor. Prim was in the living room, sitting on the couch and dragging a piece of string across the cushions for Buddy to chase. Twain poked his head out of the kitchen as we sat down.

 

“Where's Rye?” he asked, glancing toward the stairs.

 

“Downstairs,” I said. Twain had changed for dinner, and it was the first time I'd seen him in anything other than the worn t-shirts and faded corduroys he wore in the bakery every day. He looked nice. I couldn't help but wonder if that was typical for sit down meals; an event that seemed so rare in their house it didn't surprise me I hadn't once seen it happen.

 

“Why don't you kids go sit, dinner's about ready,” he nodded toward the kitchen as he crossed the room, moving down the first few steps to yell down to the first floor. “Rye! Get up here, please.”

 

Peeta led the way into the kitchen, his fingers curled around mine. I snatched my hand away when I caught Prim staring down at the gesture, glaring at her and willing her to keep her mouth shut. I sat down beside Peeta; Prim across from the two of us. Rye slumped into the kitchen and dropped into the chair at the head of the table, only to be shoved out of it by Twain as he crossed the room to help my mother serve dinner. Conversation was light and stilted, punctuated by the scrape of silverware over the plates as we ate.

 

“This is pretty damn good,” Rye said, glancing toward my mother.

 

“Watch your mouth,” Twain snapped.

 

“I wish I could accept the compliment,” Mom said, unfazed by Rye's cursing. “But your father did the cooking.”

 

“Oh,” Rye nodded. “Then I take it back.” Peeta chuckled quietly. Twain just rolled his eyes.

 

“Mom told me you were a good cook,” Prim said, “but I didn't believe her.”

 

“Well,” Twain smirked, looking down the table toward my mother. “Thank you. I think.” Rye and Peeta traded barely stifled grins, and I got the distinct feeling there was a part of this conversation I was missing out on. I looked to Peeta, hoping for an explanation and finding nothing. I watched him for a few minutes, all but ignoring my own dinner. Seeing him side by side with Twain like this, I couldn't help but notice just how similar they both were. I could easily see Peeta growing into exactly the same man his father was, and the thought made me smile.

 

The rest of dinner went smoothly enough, though I could see fatigue creeping in on Peeta. School hadn't been easy on him that day, and he'd spent most of his afternoon helping me downstairs. He had to have been exhausted. I set my hand on his arm when he started to get up to help clear the table, cutting him off and getting up to help Rye with it myself.

 

“Rye, why don't you take Prim downstairs,” Twain said after the table had been cleared. “Help her make something to take home tonight.”

 

“Sound good to you?” Rye turned toward Prim, flashing me a brief smirk before looking at her.

 

“Really?” Prim smiled, her face lighting up when Rye nodded. I sat back down beside Peeta, eying the two of them suspiciously.

 

“Come on,” he nodded toward the stairs. Prim leapt to her feet, following him out of the room. “You can tell me more about how terrible and annoying Katniss is.”

 

“I'm going to break his nose next, okay?” I said quietly to Peeta as Rye and Prim retreated downstairs. He laughed quietly, reaching for my hand under the table and squeezing it before we both moved to get up.

 

“Sit back down,” Mom said, leaning forward and laying her forearms across the table. “There's something we have to talk to the two of you about.”

 

My heart leapt into my throat. This was it. She knew. She knew what we were getting up to, and so did Twain, and that nightmarish embarrassment she'd put Peeta and I through on her own wasn't enough. Now we were going to get it from both of them. I looked over at Peeta, my eyes wide, and he just gave me a confused shrug, the panic I was feeling mirrored in his expression.

 

“Don't look so terrified, guys. Nobody's in trouble,” Twain winked at us. Peeta glanced over at me, his expression telling me exactly what I was afraid of. He knew. Mom got up from her chair, moving to sit down across from Peeta.

 

“We may have worked things out so that you will be able to progress with your class at school,” Mom said, quelling my panic almost immediately. “And it's something you'll have to help with quite a bit, Katniss, so we wanted to talk to both of you about it.”

 

“I d-don't have to—stay back?” Peeta asked with a cautious hope in his voice.

 

“You may not need to,” Twain said, smiling at Peeta.

 

“It took a bit of bargaining with one or two of your teachers,” Mom said, smirking a bit. I knew exactly which of them would have taken the most bargaining. Peeta muttered Capps' name under his breath, echoing exactly what I was thinking. “But if you get back to a full day's class schedule before the end of the year, and can pass the same final exams the rest of your classmates will be taking, you can move ahead to the next grade along with them.”

 

“That's great.” I looked over at Peeta, expecting to see the same sort of relief the idea made me feel. Being held back would only make things harder for him. New classmates, new ridicule, a new reason to be singled out on top of the ones he already had to deal with. He looked far from relieved.

 

“I d-don't want to go back—next year,” he said quietly, glancing at his father before dropping his eyes to the table. I reached for his hand again, weaving our fingers together under the table. My mother shifted in her chair, pressing her lips together and glancing from Peeta to Twain.

 

“I'd like you to finish school, Peeta,” he said, leaning forward onto the table and lacing his fingers together. “I know it's got to be frustrating with Rye dropping out, but you're a hell of a lot smarter than he is. It's important-”

 

“Important?” Peeta snapped, snapping upright in his chair. “Important for-for wh-what?”

 

“Peet,” Twain began.

 

“No! What am I g-gonna—do? I'm n-not going t-to work,” Peeta cut his father off, squeezing my hand. I squeezed back, trying to get his attention without interrupting him. “I c-can't do any f-f-ucking bakery work. N-no one—no one's g-going to hire the k-kid with the fucked up head. Wh-what's the point, Dad? Wh-why am I even b-bothering?”

 

“Please watch your language,” Twain pleaded, his jaw tightening. Mom reached across the corner of the table, setting her hand on his forearm.

 

“Twain, it's fine,” she said softly, deflating the tension in his shoulders.

 

Twain sighed, looking down at his hands and clenching his jaw. He glanced up at my mother, his expression pleading for help. She pressed her hands against the table, looking to me. She nodded toward Peeta pointedly, trying to get me to handle this. I wasn't the adult in the room. I wasn't the parent. I scowled at her for a moment before turning toward him.

 

“You just did the prep work for tomorrow yourself,” I said, trying to keep my voice soft. I hadn't seen anger out of him in a long time, and it was unnerving.

 

“You helped,” he snapped, looking away.

 

“I really didn't, though,” I chuckled, pulling his hand into my lap in an effort to turn him toward me. “You did that. No one even asked you to. No one helped you. I got everything out of storage. That was it. Don't say you can't do bakery work, because that's not true.”

 

“Doesn't ch-change school,” he said, the fire gone out of his voice. Twain flashed me a relieved smile.

 

“I know you're tired of hearing it,” my mother said. “But you're not a lost cause. You're different; you're not dead. You can't just let your life grind to a halt.” Peeta sighed, looking over at me.

 

“She kind of has a point,” I said quietly, hunching up my shoulders.

 

“You're s-supposed to b-be on my side,” he muttered, holding back a smile. I laughed briefly, looking down at where our hands were clasped beneath the table. Peeta rubbed his thumb over my knuckles, and a few moments of silence passed.

 

“I think you can easily do this, Peeta,” my mother said, keeping her voice soft. “I know you're reticent about school in general, but this is well within what you could realistically accomplish.”

 

“I h-haven't even t-taken a-any tests since I—started school again,” he said, snagging his lip between his teeth and biting down.

 

“Katniss will make sure you're prepared,” Mom said, giving me a pointed look when I snapped my head towards her. “Won't you?”

 

“Of course I will,” I said quickly. I hadn't even realized that was being questioned. Peeta gave me a grateful smile when I turned back to him.

 

“Good,” Twain nodded in approval, slapping his hand against the table. “Glad that's settled. I think you can count on spending more time tutoring than baking until the end the school year, Katniss. The sooner you start the better. Tomorrow, I should think.”

 

“Great,” Peeta muttered. I glanced over at him, wondering if he'd even realized we'd been handed an excuse to spend even more time alone together.

 

Chapter Text

“Mr. Mellark. Twain,” Principal Gunn held open the door to his office, nodding to me and my father respectively. I wanted nothing to do with this meeting, even if it was getting me out of math class for the day. I stood from my wheelchair, crossing the hall, my hand shooting out to the door frame as soon it was in reach. I had been trying to become less dependent on it over the past week. I wanted to be rid of it entirely, but I had a ways to go before that would be possible. The principal stood back as my father and I entered the room, closing the door as we sat down in front of his desk.

 

“I appreciate this, Nate,” Dad said as the principal stepped around his desk to sit down.

 

“Not a problem,” he waved his hand dismissively. “I think this is long overdue. And given the plan we're attempting to put into action here it's certainly unavoidable.”

 

Dad reached over and squeezed my knee. I had been to exactly one of these meetings, and that was before I'd even started school. Principal Gunn was a tall, intimidating man who seemed to believe smiling would result in his untimely death. At that meeting we had discussed the courses I'd be taking and the progression to full school days. It was going slower than we'd discussed then. My recovery was going slower than we'd expected. It was hard to push that out of my head.

 

“You've been doing well,” Mr. Gunn began, flipping open the folder on his desk and passing a few pieces of paper from it to my father. “I know there's less to draw on for your average with no tests as of yet, but you've managed to improve a bit from last year's GPA.” I leaned toward my father to look at the pages in his hand; listings of my grades. They'd gotten better because Katniss all but did the assignments for me. I had never been a very good student on my own. Dad nudged me me with his elbow, smiling when I looked up at him before handing the papers to me.

 

“Now, what's unfortunate is that you've missed a great deal,” Mr. Gunn pulled out a packet of papers, laying them on the edge of his desk in front of me. “I understand you've been working with a classmate, but this may be a bit beyond what she can help you with. I've spoken with a few of your teachers who are more than willing to help in that area.” He tapped the pages on the edge of his desk. “Take that home, they list the lessons covered. You should be able to put together what you're missing. The exams will cover the entire year. You do have quite a bit of work to do to fill in the gaps.”

 

“Okay,” I said, setting down the pages in my hand and picking up the packet on the edge of the desk. It contained a syllabus for each of my classes that looked intimidating enough on their own, let alone together.

 

“So you understand the expectations there?” Mr. Gunn asked. I nodded, handing the packet to my father. He raised his eyebrows.

 

“I swear this has gotten worse,” he said, shaking his head as he flipped through the pages.

 

“The syllabus hasn't changed in 45 years, Twain,” Mr. Gunn chuckled. “I promise you it was the same for us.”

 

“Must have just forgotten more than I thought I did,” Dad smirked, passing the packet back to me.

 

“Now, I understand this isn't the only concern either of you have,” Gunn continued, leaning back in his seat. “We're aware of the trouble that has been going on with your classmates, Mr. Mellark.”

 

“Then why haven't you done anything?” my father snapped, straightening in his chair. Principal Gunn cocked an eyebrow, shifting his attention from me to my father. Dad cleared his throat, muttering an apology and leaning back again.

 

“Unfortunately, without actually catching the aggressors in the act, we're unable to take any official disciplinary action,” Mr. Gunn folded his hands in his lap. “Of course, that doesn't mean we can't turn a blind eye to the occasional retaliation as well.” I looked up at him, wondering if that meant what I thought it did; that they'd purposefully ignored Katniss' stunt punching Merx. A faint smirk twitched across Mr. Gunn's face. “Just don't push it.”

 

“If you understand how bad it's been for him, then why haven't you been looking out for him?,” Dad said, glancing toward me for a moment.

 

“Believe me, I am,” Mr. Gunn nodded. “As is much of the faculty. They know who they're watching, and they have a very good idea of what to look for. I don't mean to diminish what you're going through by any means, but this is far from the first time we have had an issue like this, and it has yet to reach the level of the worst we've seen.”

 

“I'd still feel better if something were being done to stop it,” Dad said, shaking his head.

 

“You understand my hands are tied to an extent, Twain,” Mr. Gunn spread his hands in front of him. “I do the best I can here. You know I'll step in personally should things get out of hand.”

 

“They've already gotten out of hand,” Dad said, gesturing toward me. “He's come home upset more times than he hasn't. Injured, at one point. Not to mention stealing his wheelchair not too long ago. Why the hell didn't you step in then?”

 

“Dad, p-please stop,” I said quietly, glancing over at him before dropping my eyes to the floor.

 

“No, it's inexcusable that this has been tolerated,” he snapped. “I know exactly who those boys are, and they're sure as hell old enough to know better. You're supposed to be teaching these kids to be responsible, and this is the behavior coming out of the young men who are supposed to be leaders in this District? It's disgusting, Nathan.”

 

“None of this is being tolerated,” Mr. Gunn leaned forward against the edge of his desk, his voice calm and even. “And I'm sorry you disagree with the way things are handled here, but you know as well as I do policy is dictated to us, not something we're able to take control of ourselves. I mean it when I say this isn't the first time I've handled a situation like this. I know what I'm doing.”

 

“You've never handled something like this,” Dad pointed toward me, leaning forward. I watched him, sagging a bit in my seat. I was torn between gratitude for the way he stood up for me and complete shame over how different I really was. I hated being singled out; hated the attention it drew. That was what created the situation to begin with.

 

“Dad,” I said quietly. He looked over at me, his expression softening at the look on my face. He shook his head, pushing his hand back through his thinning hair.

 

“I'm sorry, Peet,” he sat back, letting out a sigh.

 

“It's fine,” I mumbled, dropping my gaze.

 

“I'll speak with his teachers again,” Mr. Gunn said after a moment of silence. “Would that help the situation?”

 

“I'd feel a bit better,” Dad conceded. Mr. Gunn nodded.

 

“If you need help with any of this, or want to set up some tutoring through the school, don't hesitate to come see me,” Mr. Gunn shuffled the papers spread across his desk back into the folder before flipping it closed. He stood, adjusting his coat and gesturing toward the door, effectively dismissing us both. “I'll see you in a month, Twain.”

 

“Thank you,” Dad stood, reaching out to shake the principal's hand before leading me out of the office. I lowered myself into my wheelchair, tucking the paper's I'd been given next to my legs.

 

“You could have brought that in with you,” the school administrator said, leaning forward against her desk with a tight-lipped smile. She hadn't been there when we went in.

 

“Trying t-to, um—get away from it,” I said, turning myself toward the door.

 

“Well,” she said, straightening up and glancing at my father. “If you ever need to leave it here, feel free.”

 

“Thanks,” I said.

 

“Thank you,” my father echoed, opening the door to the office for me. She winked at him before turning back to her work.

 


 

“We'll have to figure out what you've totally missed,” Katniss said, frowning at the syllabus in her hand. We sat side by side on the floor of my room, our backs against the edge of my bed. “When did you leave school? I forget.”

 

“Um—October,” I said, shifting closer to her to look at the page. “I think. I d-don't really remember th-that though.”

 

“That sounds about right,” she said absently, flipping through to another page. “We should probably just start at the beginning of the year, huh...”

 

“Yeah,” I frowned, glancing at the pile of textbooks between us. How on earth would I manage to cram an entire year into a few months when I could barely keep up with the standard pace?

 

“I'm also pretty sure I can guess what's going to be on the actual tests,” Katniss chewed her lip, reaching for the pen I was rolling between my fingers and crossing out a few lines on one of the papers. I looked up at her questioningly. She shrugged. “He didn't even cover that in class. We can skip it.”

 

“This is—um, a lot,” I frowned, watching her flip to the next page.

 

“You'll be fine,” she smirked at me. “It's not as much as it looks like, I promise.” I raised a skeptical eyebrow at her and she laughed quietly. “Look, I'll look through these and I'll underline the parts you really need to know. I think I might still have some of my assignments from this, too. That'll give you a better idea of what to pay attention to than this crap will.”

 

“O-okay,” I said, leaning back against the bed and watching her fiddle with her braid while she looked over the paperwork. There was no way I was going to be able to focus on studying with her. There wasn't a day in the previous couple of weeks we hadn't found ourselves in my bed, at least for a little while. I'd managed to make her come a second time, and I couldn't stop thinking about it.

 

I loved the way she moved under me, and the way her hands felt pulling at me. The look on her face when I pressed against her was so impossibly sexy. Everything about it all was so surreal. I'd never truly imagined getting to have her in my life at all, let alone like that. She and I had become so close, and so intimate, it felt strange to still seem so normal on the outside.

 

Buddy crawled out from under my bed, stretching and yawning before picking his way across the floor between us. He sniffed at the papers on the floor, pawing at them for a moment before lowering himself directly onto the one that Katniss was reading.

 

“Your cat sucks,” she said, laughing when her half-hearted attempts to dislodge him failed. She gave up after a moment, reaching for my English textbook and shifting to sit closer to me. “We'll start with the easy stuff. It's really just reading, and last year Kruegel just combined all of her tests for the exam, so when it gets closer to the actual finals we can use those to study.”

 

“Okay,” I straightened up as Katniss set the book in my lap, leaning against my shoulder and reading over my shoulder.

 

Katniss had always been a very good student. She always had the correct answer when called on by a teacher, and some of the cattier merchant girls who sat around her in class would occasionally complain when she received better grades than they did. The general consensus seemed to be that she either cheated or slept with the teacher, which was what people said whenever a seam girl did exceptionally well. I knew better then, and I certainly knew better after she began tutoring me. She seemed to remember everything in the books, as well as everything that was said in class, and she could rattle off facts without even needing to stop to think about them. I couldn't help but wonder how she managed that, especially before when she was working so hard to feed her family. She had no time to study and got A's. Even at my best, while taking the time to study, I was a solid C student. I couldn't help but be embarrassed by it all.

 

“Hey,” Katniss said, tearing my attention away from the book. “Are you okay?”

 

“Yeah, um,” I rubbed my hand over my eyes. The strain of focusing was starting to make them ache. “Getting a little t-tired, I guess.”

 

“I think we did enough for one day,” she said, lifting the book out of my lap and closing it before tossing it aside. “More than enough, really.” She leaned forward and kissed me.

 

“There's, um, one m-more thing I'd l-like to do,” I said, smiling against her kisses. She chuckled as I hooked my arm around her knees and pulled her into my lap, sliding my hand over her thigh as I kissed her. I wanted to touch her; slip my hand between her thighs and make her come with my fingers the way she'd made me come with her hand. I didn't know how to ask. Even if the thought of screwing it up or scaring her off with it wasn't enough to terrify me, I had no idea what to even say. I still had a hard time believing this was real.

 

Katniss shifted to straddle my lap, combing her fingers through my hair as she opened her mouth against mine. I slipped my hands under the back of her shirt, loving the feel of her warm, soft skin under my palms. She lowered her weight onto me and I moved my hands to her hips, pulling her closer. Even through our clothes I could feel her heat and I thought again of how it would feel against my fingers. The very thought made my hips roll up against hers. She broke away from my mouth, gasping softly before smiling, her eyes half closed. Katniss slid her hand over my neck to cup my jaw in her hand before leaning in to kiss me again. I caught her lower lip between my teeth lightly, drawing a faint whimper from her. I tightened my arms around her waist, smiling to myself as she exhaled against my lips.

 

“Peeta,” she said softly, her hand drifting down my chest. I hummed in response, pressing a kiss to the corner of her mouth before nuzzling against her neck. “You know how you want to talk about new things before we do them?”

 

“Yeah,” I paused, looking over her shoulder. Where was she going with this? What did she want? Her hand slipped between us, and she pressed the heel of her palm against the front of my pants. My breath caught in my throat.

 

“I want to do something new,” she said, laying her cheek against my hair. I pressed my hands against her skin to hide their shaking. My heart hammered in my chest.

 

“Wh-what do you, um—want to d-do?” I said, only barely able to find my voice.

 

“Can I, um,” she hesitated, taking a breath. “Can I see it?” My mind blanked for a moment. She couldn't actually mean what I thought she meant.

 

“Y-you—want t-to see my...?” I asked. Katniss nodded, straightening up a little, squeezing my hard on gently through my pants. She was blushing deeply, her lower lip snagged between her teeth, and the look on her face painfully hesitant. I sucked in a breath. “Okay.”

 

She smiled and kissed me, shimmying her hips back before looking down between us. I dropped my head back against the edge of the bed, staring up at the ceiling as I felt her lift the hem of my shirt to unbutton my pants. I swore quietly as she tugged down the zipper, shifting my hips as she pulled them down a little.

 

I watched her face as she pulled the waistband of my boxers down. Her eyes widened for a moment; her eyebrows twitching up toward her hairline. Her tongue darted out over her lips, and I glanced down as she curled her fingers around my cock, running her thumb up the underside of it so lightly it made me shiver.

 

“Wow,” she said quietly.

 

“Wow?” I asked, and she looked up at me as if she'd somehow forgotten I was sitting here, her blush deepening.

 

“Um—I'm, I'm sorry,” she said, snorting and dropping her head against my shoulder as she started to giggle.

 

“D-don't laugh,” I said, though I couldn't help but join her. I wrapped my arms around her, still painfully aware of the gentle grip she had on me.

 

“No! No,” she said, turning her face against my neck and laughing even harder. “I'm not—it's nice.”

 

“Um, th-thanks,” I chuckled. “I think.” Katniss leaned against me, vibrating with laughter for a moment before she straightened up, red-faced and smiling, and leaned in to kiss me. As her tongue snaked against mine she began moving her hand over me, so slowly and so gently it was excruciating. I reached between us, covering her hand with mine and tightening her grip, guiding her for a few pumps and hoping she would get the idea. She muttered an embarrassed thank you against my lips that I couldn't help but chuckle at. What on earth was she thanking me for?

 

“Is that good?” she asked, resting her forehead against mine. I nodded, barely even able to breathe, let alone find it in me to answer properly. I glanced down between us; the sight of her hand wrapped around me just pushed me even closer and I closed my eyes, moaning softly and looping my arm around her shoulders; pulling her close enough to bury my face against her neck.

 

“A l-little—faster,” I managed, another moan escaping me as she complied.

 

“Like this?” she asked quietly. I nodded, balling my hands into fists and panting against her skin, breathing in the familiar scent of the bakery that clung to her and the hint of woodsmoke that lurked beneath it. My hips bucked up against her hand, my balls tightening, and my moaning muffled against her shoulder as I came. Katniss slowed her hand, turning to kiss my hair as I caught my breath. I straightened up, leaning back against the bed. She flashed me a smile before looking down between us. “Um...”

 

“Oh—um—I'm s-sorry,” I looked down at her hand.

 

“It's fine,” she said as I yanked my shirt off over my head, using it to wipe her hand clean before tossing it aside.

 

“Thank you,” I said, shifting to tug the waistband of my boxers back up.

 

“Don't thank me,” she laughed quietly. I smiled at her for a moment before kissing her.

 

“Um, Kat?” I said, knowing if I didn't take advantage of this feeling and ask her now I never would. “C-can, um. Can I—t-touch you?”

 

“You mean-” she cut herself off, pulling back to look at me. I nodded. She pressed her lips together and nodded.

 

“Okay,” she said softly. I hadn't even thought past her saying yes. I pulled her back to me and kissed her, tracing the waistband of her pants around to the front. My hands trembled so much it took me a moment to get them unbuttoned. Her breathing hitched as I traced the edge of her panties with my fingertip, hesitating. I had no real idea what I was doing, though Rye had told me more than I ever really wanted to know when he and Delly first took this step. I slipped my hand into them, pushing my fingers through her warm, soft curls.

 

Katniss gasped as my fingers found her flesh, sucking the air from my lungs before she pulled away from my mouth. I smoothed my fingertips over her, surprised at just how wet she was; how hot and soft she felt. I listened to her reaction as I touched her, devoting more attention when I hit a spot that dragged a whimper out of her. She tensed when I pressed my middle finger against her opening and I quickly pulled it back, suddenly terrified I'd pushed too far. Katniss draped her arms around my neck, her kisses soft and reassuring as she rocked her hips on my hand, urging me on. I curled my fingers forward and she gasped, her eyes going wide for a moment.

 

“Do that again,” she breathed. I repeated the motion, watching her close her eyes, her brow furrowing. She shifted her hips as I moved my fingers, her tongue clamped between her teeth. “No—I mean—there.” She moved against my hand. How the hell was I supposed to figure out what she wanted if she wouldn't hold still?

 

“Wh-where?” I asked. Katniss let out a sigh and put her hand down the front of her pants to cover my own, pressing her fingers against mine to guide them. I felt a tiny little knot of flesh beneath my fingertips and focused on it.

 

“Oh my god,” Katniss gasped, a shudder rippling over her. Her body lurched against mine, her arms tightening around my neck. I could feel her legs shaking on either side of my hips.

 

“Is th-that good?” I asked quietly. She nodded, squeaking out a soft confirmation.

 

“A lit-little harder,” she breathed, moaning as I pressed my fingers against her, following her instructions. She shuddered, her body tensing against me as her hips rocked against my hand. Katniss cried out, pressing her open mouth against my neck, her voice vibrating against my skin, the sound trailing off into gentle whimpers as her movement slowed and her body relaxed. “Oh my god.”

 

“Good?” I asked, smiling to myself as I pulled my hand away from her. She nodded, nuzzling against my neck.

 

“I'm just gonna stay right here, okay?” she wound her arms around me and sighed, her voice muffled by my skin. I smiled, grabbing my shirt off the floor to wipe my hand clean before wrapping my arms around her. I slouched against the bed, turning my face toward her hair and smiling to myself.

 

Once Katniss left I forced down a small dinner before going to bed. Most of her time at the bakery after school for the next few days went the same way. After she spent a little time in the bakery, she and I would sit in my room and go over some of the lessons I had missed. When she sensed me getting frustrated or tired she cut things short, and we'd spend the rest of the afternoon in each other's arms. More than once, I drifted off before she even left, the effort of focusing for so long having left me completely drained.

 

I opened my eyes to find the room dim. My head hurt worse than usual, and I had no clue whether I had slept through the day or the night. Every thought felt as though it was covered in a fog, and my limbs felt heavy and slow, as if they were being weighted down by something. I was suddenly overcome with nausea and dizziness, and found myself sitting on the floor with no clue as to how I came to be there. The headache had now become centered behind my eye, and it seemed I would need an extra dose of my pain medication.

 

I walked out into the living room, dropping down into the chair by the window. The sun had set, leaving the square bathed in a fading grey light. Relieved to know what time of day it was, I watched the few people still milling around outside as shops closed down for the night, trying to get my racing thoughts under control. I pushed the window open a crack, slouching down into the chair and sucking in a slow, deep breath. The cool air felt good.

 

Something was going on with me. I felt like I was losing snippets of time. My headaches kept getting worse. The morphling wasn't helping them much anymore, and it wasn't even coming close to touching the pain in my wrist. My fingers would tingle painfully when they weren't outright numb, and it was getting harder to hide it. I looked down at my fingers, clenching my hand into a weak, trembling fist as my father climbed the stairs.

 

“Hey,” he said, crossing the room and taking a seat in the chair across from me. “Thought you'd still be asleep.”

 

“I um—j-just got up,” I said, straightening up in my seat.

 

“Feeling any better?”

 

“N-not really,” I looked down at my hands, pulling on my fingers to try to alleviate the pain.

 

“Katniss left a little while ago,” he smirked. “She said you were out cold.”

 

“Th-the studying is t-tiring,” I said. It didn't help that Katniss went out of her way to ensure I was as relaxed as humanly possible before she went home every night.

 

“I bet it is,” Dad said with a barely restrained chuckle. “Things going well with her?”

 

“Yeah,” I nodded, smiling to myself. “B-better than I th-thought they could.”

 

“Are you being respectful?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

 

“Dad,” I groaned, rolling my eyes and looking away.

 

“Well are you?” he chuckled.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Good,” he smirked, shaking his head. “Not that I doubt you would be. I might have failed miserably with the man Rye presents to the world, but even he treats Delly well when it's just the two of them.”

 

“Sh-she wouldn't p-put up with him otherwise,” I said. Dad laughed and nodded.

 

“She'd make his life hell if he didn't treat her well,” he mused. “He's a good boy. And so are you. You just make sure you behave yourself better than he does. Lord knows that boy can't keep it in his pants for more than twenty minutes.”

 

“D-don't want me—ruining your chances with Mrs. Everd-deen?” I smirked.

 

“Shut up,” Dad chuckled. “No, I don't, but that's not why you should behave yourself. It's not the entire reason you should behave yourself, at least.”

 

“She'll g-get tired of me eventually, anyway,” I said softly, biting down on my lip. Yesterday we'd nearly gotten caught. Katniss had laughed it off, though I could see that it bothered her, and what she'd tried to pass off as a joke about going out to the slag heap sounded more like an indictment of something we just couldn't do. It hurt, and though she'd apologized, I was still left feeling upset and hurt. Not just by what she said, but what it highlighted about me. About what I couldn't do that everyone else our age could. She seemed overly reserved this afternoon. That was my fault, I knew. I'd slowed her down, the way I slowed down everyone around me.

 

“What?” Dad frowned. I shook my head, looking away and chewing on my lip. I wished I hadn't said that out loud. “Peeta, talk to me.”

 

“I'm not—I'm different,” I said, shrugging. “From everyone. Sh-she'll get sick of it. Want someone n-normal.” Someone who could keep up with how active she was. She still spent her mornings in the woods, hiked miles outside the District and brought down game before she even started her school day. I couldn't even get through three classes without feeling utterly exhausted. No matter how much she claimed none of that even entered her mind, it had to bother her.

 

“Fuck normal,” Dad said. I looked up at him. His face was completely serious; his voice level and calm. “I hate to break this to you, Peet, but you weren't normal before. You were better than normal, and you still are. I wish this hadn't happened to you, and I sure as hell should have done something long before it came to this. That's my fault, Peeta. But you're still the young man I'm proud of. And you're still my favorite kid.” He paused, smiling as I laughed. “Just don't tell those other two, okay?”

 

“Thanks,” I chuckled. Silence fell between us, and I tugged at my fingers again. The tingling had gotten worse, radiating out from my wrist into every joint in my hand.

 

“What's going on?” he asked. I just shook my head and turned to look out the window again. “Hey.”

 

“What?” I frowned, turning to look at him.

 

“I worry about you,” Dad said, watching me for a moment before sighing. “You're practically a man and I still look at you and see that little boy toddling around the bakery.”

 

“Dad, st-stop,” I smirked, shaking my head and looking away.

 

“It's true,” he chuckled. “You're my baby, and you're stuck with that.”

 

“Dad,” I groaned, rubbing my hand over my eyes.

 

“Sorry,” he grinned, dropping his eyes as the expression faded. “I'm just worried. You don't talk to me about any of this. I have no real idea what's going on with you, Peet. I wish you would open up to me.”

 

“Wh-what do you want me—to say?” I frowned. I couldn't bring myself to look at him. This conversation was taking an uncomfortable turn.

 

“If I knew I wouldn't have to ask, would I?” he said, a faint smirk on his face. “I see you struggling. I see you trying to hide it. I know some things are getting better, but I can tell some things are getting worse. Do you tell Lavender, at least?”

 

“I g-guess,” I mumbled. I didn't, and I knew I didn't. There were things I actively hid; things I probably shouldn't have. If I pushed it away, maybe it would stop happening. My symptoms changed frequently. Why bother worrying everyone over something that would change or pass by in a few weeks?

 

“Peeta,” he said, his gaze too steady. I could feel my resolve crumbling and clenched my teeth, willing him to at least look away from me. “Please.”

 

“I ruined everything,” I said quietly, looking down at the floor. It didn't escape me that it was the first stutter-free sentence I had managed in a long, long time. Dad shifted in his chair, leaning toward me. He looked like someone punched him in the stomach. He opened his mouth to speak, and I shook my head to stop him, chewing my lip and taking a shaky breath. “I s-see how t-tired you are. I know it's b-because of—me. There's t-too much work now and—there's more b-bills. And you d-do it alone. Because I—messed up.”

 

“Peeta-”

 

“And I'm—afraid. To try,” I bit my lip, trying to fight back tears. “School is j-just—it's too much. I can't k-keep up in class. I won't b-be able to—the exams.” I shook my head, rubbing my fingers over the bridge of my nose. “I miss the b-bakery. I miss—drawing. Reading, too. I'm useless.”

 

“You're not useless,” Dad said softly. I shrugged, flicking tears out from under my eyes and looking down at my hands.

 

“At s-some point—Katniss will see it,” I said. “And th-then she'll g-give up. F-find someone—better.”

 

“Peeta,” Dad said. “I know you don't want to hear this, but you can't let any of that stop you from living. You're going to get hurt. Everyone does. Be good to her. Be respectful. She already cares about you, more than I think you realize. Treat her well and things will work out.”

 

“Dad—that-” I pressed my lips together. “That d-didn't work for you.”

 

“You can't love if you don't open yourself up to being hurt. I did,” he sighed. “I opened myself up to that with your mother, and I have plenty of pain to show for it. She left a lot of scars, Peet. But she also gave me the three greatest loves of my life. You. Your brothers. That makes it all worth it. More than worth it, Peeta.

 

“You've already had more than your share of pain, I know,” he continued. “You can't just shut down. You won't ever have anything worth having if you don't open yourself up and risk it.” I looked up at him, unconvinced. “You're going to make mistakes. We're supposed to. That's how life works. You learn and you do better the next time. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I won't let you repeat my mistakes, but I can't stop you from making your own.”

 

“I d-don't want to make mistakes,” I said, frowning down at my hands.

 

“No one does,” Dad said. “Doesn't matter. You will. But you'll be okay.” He shifted forward in his chair, watching me until I looked up at him. “I love you, you know.”

 

“Yeah,” I smirked. “I love you, too.”

 

“Then come here,” he held out his arms, pulling me into a hug when I sat forward. I rested my chin on his shoulder, smiling to myself as I looped my arms around him. He squeezed me tighter and thumped his hand against my shoulder before pulling back. “You should talk to me more.”

 

“Yeah, okay,” I said, shifting to lean back in the chair again. Dad smirked, ruffling my hair as he stood up to go. He paused in the doorway to the kitchen, one hand resting on the frame, and looked back toward me.

 

“Peet?” he said. I dropped my head against the back of the chair as I looked over at him. “She's worth the risk. It would be a mistake to let that go.”

 

“Thanks, D-Dad,” I said, smiling at him.

 

Chapter Text

I used to get up before dawn to help in the bakery. Every day I'd be downstairs with Dad long before Rye woke to help get the cases stocked. I was up for hours before school working, and it really only tired me out during the fall, when wrestling and track kept me after school and Mom still expected me to put in a few hours afterward as well. Getting out of bed seemed to get harder and harder as time went on. Morning classes felt like the worst sort of torture, and I couldn't help but wonder how I managed it to begin with.

 

I dressed carefully before sitting on the edge of my bed and waiting for my dizziness to pass. Buddy stepped onto my lap, pawing at my hand and mewling quietly as I scratched his neck. He'd spent the night curled up on the small of my back, his purring lulling me to sleep. It felt much better than dragging myself out of bed for school.

 

As the dizziness passed, I lifted buddy from my lap and set him aside. I made my way downstairs, glancing through to the storefront where Dad was waiting on customers. Rye was at the ovens, unloading a batch of the day's bread onto the worktable. The work I used to do.

 

“Hey,” he paused, nodding toward the counter against the wall. There was a nearly-demolished loaf of cinnamon bread that he and Dad had clearly spent most of their morning picking at. Rye turned back to the ovens as I crossed the room, pulled up a stool, and sat down.

 

“So,” Dad moved into the kitchen as the bell over the door rang; signaling the exit of the person he'd been waiting on. “Still going to try going without the chair today?” I nodded, picking apart the slice of bread I'd cut for myself. “Are you sure about this?”

 

“Yes,” I said.

 

“Don't just do this to impress anyone,” Dad crossed his arms over his chest, leaning against the worktable. “If you're not ready, you're not ready.”

 

“I have t-to get rid of it eventually,” I said.

 

“You don't have to,” he said. I gave him a look and he chuckled, rubbing his hand through his hair. “You know what I mean. I want you to if you're ready, but don't push it if you're not there yet.”

 

“I want to t-try,” I said. Dad smiled and nodded, watching me for a moment before the bell out front rang again. “Don't be late.” He pointed toward the clock before going back out front. It was getting close to when we'd have to leave. I finished my breakfast and helped Rye with what little I could so we could get out the door faster.

 

I still needed the chair to get to and from school. Dad had dug a cane from some forgotten corner of the basement and cut a few inches from the bottom to be sure it fit. I'd have that to keep myself steady in the halls, but the exhaustion of trying to balance on the path out of town would leave me useless by the time we got there.

 

“See you in a couple of hours,” Rye said, holding open the door for me.

 

“Thanks.” I pushed myself through the door and slowed by the administrative office, staring down at the cane tucked beside my wheelchair and weighing the decision. My morning classes were close together, and I didn't have to deal with the cafeteria. If I was going to try, it was a good day to do it. The office door stood open, and I pushed my chair through.

 

“Good morning, Peeta,” the administrator looked up from her desk and smiled.

 

“Hi,” I said, glancing toward the couple of teachers conversing at the other end of the office. I felt self-conscious enough without more people around than I'd expected. I turned back to her, tapping my palm against the armrest of my chair. “C-could, um—I leave th-this here?”

 

“Of course,” she said. “Giving it a try today? Good for you.”

 

“Th-thanks,” I said, pushing myself to stand and glancing around for somewhere to park it.

 

“I'll take care of it,” she said. “Go on to class.” I nodded, tucking my books under one arm and taking my cane in the other hand before leaving the office. I hoped it would call a little less attention to me. I was wrong. There were just as many stares as I made my way to my first class as there had been before. More, really. People had gotten used to the chair. I should have known the change would draw their eyes.

 

Katniss was already in class when I walked into the room, gripping the handle of my cane tightly. She beamed at me, glancing down at the cane for a moment. Just that look made me feel better about the decision. I made my way down the aisle toward my desk at the back of the room. Merx's foot shot out from under his desk, kicking the cane out from under me. I faltered, catching myself on the back of his chair.

 

“Oh, I'm sorry,” he said, smirking at me.

 

“Fuck you,” I muttered, refusing to even look at him, and continued to the back of the room. Other than a few stares, the day passed without any more fuss about the cane. Merx was apparently satisfied with his sole effort to trip me up, and I hoped that trend continued.

 

After my last class for the day Katniss hung back, waiting for me as I gathered my books. She walked with me toward the front of the school, making vague and amusing threats toward Merx if he kept pushing things. I had no doubt she'd follow through on any of them.

 

“So, are you still going to come over today?” she asked, turning to face me before we reached the offices.

 

“Y-yeah,” I said.

 

“My mom wants you there for dinner,” she said with a brief grimace. “We can just stay at your house if you'd rather, though. I'll tell Prim we won't be there.”

 

“N-no, it's fine,” I chuckled. “I'll see you after sc-school?”

 

“Yeah,” she pecked a kiss against my cheek, reaching out to squeeze my hand before turning around to head to her next class. I smiled to myself and watched her go, waiting until she'd turned the corner before going into the administrative office for my chair. Rye would be waiting out front, and I wanted to get home before the effort I'd put forward that morning caught up with me. Dad had lunch waiting when we got back, thwarting my plan to curl up in bed until Katniss turned up when school let out.

 

“You're still going over to the Everdeens this afternoon, aren't you?” Dad asked, setting a plate with a sandwich on it onto the table in front of me before sitting down with his own.

 

“Yeah,” I said, looking down at the plate. I wasn't hungry, but I also wasn't in the mood to deal with anything my father would have to say about not eating. “K-Katniss is coming here—after school's out to g-get me.”

 

“It's about damn time,” he said.

 

“What?” I frowned at him, picking at the contents of my sandwich.

 

“All the time you two spend together is here,” he smirked. “Don't you think that's a little one-sided?”

 

“Sh-she's here anyway,” I protested. “And it's n-not exactly—easy for me t-to get around.”

 

“You're better at it than you used to be,” he pointed out. “And the only reason your trips to the Seam stopped was the snow. Which is gone. For the year. You're going to start going back for appointments, too. The social visits should go without saying. She's your girlfriend, don't be a jerk.”

 

“I'm not a j-jerk,” I muttered.

 

“No, you're not,” Dad said, smiling to himself. “Which is why you're going to behave yourself. Don't just sneak off somewhere and make out the entire time.”

 

“Wh-what?”

 

“I know what goes on up there,” he said, nodding toward the second floor. “I'm not stupid, Peet.”

 

“Haha, busted,” Rye grinned, dropping down onto the stool next to me and reaching for my plate, tugging it toward himself and taking half of the sandwich.

 

“Watch it; I also know you had Delly in the basement last night,” Dad said. The smile dropped off of Rye's face. I chuckled, folding my arms against the edge of the table. He turned back to me, pointing at Rye. “Behave yourself better than this asshole does, please.”

 

“Excuse me, I am a gentleman,” Rye said around a mouthful of food. “And Dewey and Loretta love me.”

 

“They love you because they're basically family, and they don't know any better,” Dad said to him. “Peet has to do this the normal way.”

 

“Yeah, good luck with Lavender,” Rye snorted.

 

“Mrs. Everdeen,” Dad corrected, giving him a look. “Be respectful.”

 

“Whatever, she's a hardass,” Rye rolled his eyes, frowning at the sandwich and dropping it back down onto the plate. “And she already basically knows everything about you, so good luck tricking her into thinking anything.”

 

“Rye,” Dad scolded, though he didn't bother correcting him.

 

“I d-don't want to—trick her,” I muttered, pushing my hat off my head and running my hand through my hair.

 

“Just be as painfully over the top nice as possible,” Rye said. “Kiss her hand, call her Mama Everdeen, shit like that. Loretta loves it when I do that.”

 

“No she doesn't,” Dad laughed. “She just likes watching you make an ass out of yourself.”

 

“What?” Rye frowned, staring at Dad. The look on his face made us both laugh.

 

“Besides, Lavender isn't going to fall for any of that,” Dad waved his hand. “Believe me.”

 

Rye and I looked at each other, trying not to laugh. He was speaking from experience, and the idea of him making an absolute fool out of himself with some over the top romantic nonsense was too good to let slide. Rye broke into a grin before turning to say something.

 

“Don't start,” Dad cut him off before turning back to me. “She likes you, Peeta. But you're still dating her daughter. You don't get blanket approval for everything that goes along with that.”

 

“He means she's not going to like you getting Katniss to touch your wiener,” Rye said, leaning toward me. He cackled as I shoved him away, nearly knocking him off of the stool.

 

“Where the hell did I go wrong with you?” Dad stared at Rye. The bell over the door out front rang and he hooked his thumb toward the sound. “Go handle that, please.”

 

“Fine, fine,” Rye heaved a sigh, rolling his eyes as he slid off of his stool and trudged toward the front. Dad shook his head and heaved a sigh.

 

“You're having dinner with them, right?” Dad asked. I nodded. “You can take one of those pies when they come out of the oven.”

 

“No,” I said. Dad looked up at me and raised an eyebrow. “I mean—Katniss, um, she likes th-those cookies. The s-snickerdoodles.”

 

“So make her some,” he smiled. Rye called to him from the storefront. “Get started.” He got up from his stool and disappeared out front. I stared after him, dumbstruck by the simple suggestion to just bake. And even more dumbstruck but the fact that it had truly become so foreign to me. I sat for a moment, dredging the recipe up out of my memory. Most of the ingredients were out; shoved aside on the counter to make space for us to have lunch at the worktable. I got up from the table, turning toward the cabinets to get out the rest of what I'd need.

 

I had to track down the recipe from our books before I could start. It felt strange to need it; to know I could make them from memory even when I was a kid. The motions still felt vaguely familiar, but it was like I was recalling someone else's memory. A story that I'd been told or something I'd read in a book. I pushed myself through it, following the recipe to the letter.

 

I could feel Dad watching me and glanced toward him as I rolled the dough between my palms, laying the cookies out one by one on the sheet in front of me. He pushed himself away from the door frame and walked over to the table, a small smile on his face. I looked up as he hooked his finger into the bowl and pulled it toward him, scooping out some of the cookie dough to taste.

 

“Pretty damn good,” he said.

 

“Thanks,” I said, more than a little relieved. The last time I'd done any baking Rye had been on top of things, correcting me, and this time I was on my own. I'd fully expected to completely screw it up.

 

“Now go get her some flowers,” he said, pushing the bowl back towards me.

 

“Wh-what?” I looked up at him, pulling the bowl closer and scooping out the last of the dough.

 

“Go buy Katniss flowers,” Dad repeated. “I'll take care of the rest.”

 

“S-seriously?” I asked.

 

“Rye's going with you,” he said, turning to check the ovens.

 

“I am?” Rye asked from where he stood in the doorway.

 

“Yes,” Dad shot him a look over his shoulder. “You're driving me crazy out there; get the hell out of my hair for a while.”

 

“Fine. We need money,” Rye said.

 

“Get it out of the till,” Dad said. Rye disappeared into the storefront before he even finished the sentence. “And bring me back my fucking change!” He sighed and turned back to me. “Try to keep him on track, please.”

 

“Why are you m-making me g-get her flowers?” I asked, watching Dad turn back toward the table.

 

“Because you're going to be a good boyfriend,” he said, smirking at me. “Whether you like it or not.”

 

“He did it to me, too,” Rye said, walking through the kitchen toward the mudroom. “He'll give up once he realizes Katniss is in it for the long haul.”

 

“Wh—um, you—um,” I stared after Rye before turning back to Dad.

 

“Go,” he said, chuckling to himself.

 

“Th-thanks,” I said, turning to follow Rye. He led the way around the bakery to the square. The florist was near the opposite end and doubled as a green grocer during the growing seasons. He paused in front of the bakery, waiting for me to catch up.

 

“He's cheesy, but it works,” Rye said.

 

“What d-does?” I asked, still hooked on what Rye had said before we even walked out the door. He'd implied he knew something Dad didn't. And that I didn't.

 

“This romantic shit,” he waved his hand through the air before shoving it into his pocket. “It works. The first time I brought Dell flowers she went down on me. So you might have a fun afternoon ahead of you. Y'know, if you haven't gotten there yet.”

 

“Y—wh—Rye, d-dammit,” I chuckled, shaking my head and looking away from him as we walked across the square.

 

“She's not very quiet,” he smirked, glancing toward me. “Might be in your best interest to keep your hands to yourself today. And doesn't she share a bed with her sister? That'd be weird.”

 

“I'm not-” I cut myself off, letting out an exasperated laugh. “What did you, um, mean? B-before we left.”

 

“What?”

 

“You s-said 'once he c-catches on',” I said. “What d-did you mean by—'the long haul'?”

 

“I mean she's not going anywhere, Peet,” he said, laughing as if it were completely obvious. “I think Dad's just playing it safe, but he's got to see it, too.”

 

“S-see what?”

 

“She's all doe-eyed over you,” he said. I gave him a look. “Katniss. Katniss Everdeen. The one who's been trading with Dad for years and literally did not once stand in that kitchen and smile until after she started spending time with you.” I frowned, watching the ground ahead of us. “You know that's a big deal. You remember what she was like. All business. Boring.”

 

“She wasn't b-boring,” I frowned, snapping my head towards him.

 

“Yeah, I was kind of surprised that you were right about her having a personality,” Rye snorted. I just rolled my eyes. “Didn't see that one coming.”

 

“D-don't be an ass,” I said.

 

“Seriously, though,” he said, his smirk shifting to a genuine smile. “You don't have to win her over. You already have. Her mom might be another story. Maybe you should buy the flowers for her.”

 

“Should I?” I asked, pausing outside of the flower shop.

 

“I'm joking,” Rye shot me a look as he pulled open the door, holding it for me after stepping inside himself.

 

“Are you g-getting something for Delly?” I asked, following him into the shop.

 

“Of course,” he said, smirking at me over his shoulder as he moved down a row of potted plants. “It's easier to talk her into stuff when I do.”

 

I shook my head, chuckling and pressing the heel of my palm to my forehead for a moment, trying to ward off the headache I felt creeping in. The florist and his wife stood behind the counter, looking over a pile of paperwork. She looked up, raising her hand to wave and flashing a warm smile. I nodded to her, trying desperately to remember their names. All I could recall was that they had a daughter, a sweet little girl who used to spend most of her visits to the bakery blushing and hiding behind her parents whenever I tried to talk to her.

 

I followed behind Rye as he moved into the shop, falling behind after a moment. A wave of dizziness hit me, bringing the full force of a headache along with it. I paused and took a breath, my vision narrowing and blurring for a moment. I could smell smoke mixed with the heavy perfume of the row of flowers to my right.

 

“Peeta,” Rye had his hands on both of my shoulders, his face inches from mine. He looked terrified. “Peeta, please fucking answer me.”

 

I took a breath, trying to force myself to answer him, though I couldn't quite get my mouth or my brain to cooperate. I stammered for a moment. Rye took a relieved breath, glancing behind me and waving someone off. My head was throbbing; my vision still swimming. Something had happened, and the look on Rye's face was more than enough to tell me that it wasn't good.

 

“You're okay,” he said, though it sounded more like a question.

 

“Wh-wh—what—happened?” I asked. The words felt heavy and slow.

 

“What do you mean what happened?” Rye snapped, leaning to one side and glaring past me. I turned to look behind me and saw the florist's wife—Fremus, that was her name—turning to walk away before losing my balance and nearly collapsing against Rye. He steadied me, turning me to look at him. “You just completely stopped responding. For at least a minute. You were just standing there swaying and clenching your jaw. What the fuck, Peet?”

 

“I don't—I d-don't know-” I cut myself off, suddenly short of breath. The smell of the flowers was overwhelming, the lamps overhead felt too bright, and the edge of panic that had crept into Rye's voice pushed me over the edge. Before I could stop it I'd started to cry, and I covered my face with both hands in a vain attempt to hide it.

 

“Shit. Shit. Okay,” Rye blew out a breath, wrapping his arms around me and pulling me against him. He pressed my face down against his shoulder, his other arm locked tight around my back. “You're okay. You're fine. Okay? You're still breathing, you're still standing; we'll get you home and get you help, okay?”

 

No,” I hissed. “D-don't tell D-Dad. Please.”

 

“Peeta, we have to tell Dad,” Rye pulled back and put his hands on my shoulders again. “You can't just let this go.”

 

“Please,” I forced out, my lip trembling. Rye looked past me again, the fear in his face falling to annoyance.

 

“Seriously, can you please just fuck off?” he snapped. “We're fine.”

 

“S-st-stop yelling,” I pressed my hands over my eyes again. Every breath felt like an effort and I couldn't stop shaking.

 

“Fuck,” Rye said quietly. He carefully pried my hands away from my face. I did my best to avoid eye contact with him, and he did his best to get it from me. “This isn't the first time this has happened, is it?”

 

“I—um,” I closed my eyes, shaking my head. “It's—not. B-but you c-can't tell. P-please, Rye.”

 

“Tell me what it was,” he said. The panic was gone from his voice, replaced with the steady, even tone he always took when Mom got me worked up.

 

“I d—I d-don't know,” I said, my breath coming in gasps. “I've, um. I—fuck. I've-”

 

“Peeta, breathe,” Rye put his hand on my cheek. “You're okay.” I nodded, pressing my eyes closed and forcing myself to take a few slow, deep breaths. “How often does that happen?”

 

“I'm not—sure,” I said carefully. “I th-think I d-don't always know. Um. I've b-been noticing it—more lately. I think—I think K-Katniss has seen it.”

 

“She saw that and didn't tell anyone?” Rye snapped.

 

“I d-don't know wh-what she saw,” I said, shrinking back at how harsh his tone was. “I d-don't—I don't know what it l-looks like—from the outs-side. M-maybe it's d-different—I don't kn-know, Rye.”

 

“Okay,” he rubbed his hands over my upper arms. “I'm sorry, that's okay. Look, I won't say anything but you have to promise me something.”

 

“Wh-what?” I glanced up at him, but I couldn't hold his gaze for more than a moment.

 

You tell someone.”

 

“No,” I shook my head, covering my eyes again.

 

“Peeta, I'm serious,” he pulled my hand away from my face. “You don't have to tell them today, but soon. Whatever that was, it was scary, and scary shit tends to be big shit. Don't let something big slide until it's too late. Please.”

 

“F-fine,” I tugged my hands away from him and dropped them to my sides. “C-can we j-just go? I th-think I need to—lay down.”

 

“Yeah, just, um,” Rye glanced around for a moment before waving me toward the door. “Wait out front for me, okay?”

 

“Okay,” I sighed, turning around and making my way back out front. I leaned against the building, waiting for him to come out and grateful for the shade of the canopy I was standing beneath. The sun was too bright, and my eyes didn't seem to want to adjust to it. The day hadn't been nearly so sunny until that point, and I just hoped that the clouds would return before I had to make the trip all the way to Katniss' house. If not, I'd have a migraine before we even made it halfway.

 

“Alright, come on,” Rye came out a moment later, two bouquets of flowers clutched in his hand. I glanced down at them and smirked. “What, you think I'm going to let you go home empty handed after that? Please.” He rolled his eyes and turned away. I moved to follow him and the direct light from the sun felt like a slap in the face.

 

“Sh-shit, Rye,” I stopped short, covering my eyes with one hand. Even trying to shield them wasn't quite cutting it.

 

“What?”

 

“I c-can't see,” I said quietly. I heard him swear under his breath. “The—s-sun.”

 

“You're fine,” he said, and I felt him beside me, his hand on my shoulder. “We'll just go in the front. Shorter trip that way.”

 

“Th-thanks.” I frowned, letting him lead me back to the bakery.

 

I made my way straight upstairs, stopping in the kitchen to splash water on my face. I leaned over the sink, forcing my breathing to steady and casting a glance toward the row of medicines on the counter beside it. This new symptom would add something to them, I knew. And I didn't want it. I hoped Rye would uphold his promise to keep his mouth shut, though I had no doubt he wouldn't let me forget my end of the bargain.

 

I grabbed a clean dish towel from the counter and soaked it in cool water, wringing it out over the sink before going into my bedroom and pulling the door closed behind me. Buddy was perched in the window. He meowed at me, stepping onto the dresser as I crossed the room to pull the shade closed. He hopped from the dresser to the bed as I sat down, watching me expectantly as I tossed my hat on top of the dresser. As soon as I stretched out on my back he stepped up onto my chest, curling into a ball as I laid the cloth over my eyes. The darkness of the room and the sound of his purring relaxed me enough to sleep for a couple of hours.

 

“Peeta?” Dad lightly knocked on my door before opening it. “You awake?”

 

“Yeah,” I propped myself up on one elbow.

 

“Good,” he nodded. “Put on a nicer shirt and come downstairs. Katniss is here.”

 

I frowned, looking down at the shirt I had on and plucking at it. I sighed, swinging my legs off of the bed and tugging open one of the drawers of my dresser. I rooted around for a moment and pulled out a plaid button down, checking it for holes before pulling off my worn t-shirt and putting on the clean one. Before leaving the room, I snatched my hat from the top of the dresser, pulling it on as I walked down the hall. Buddy chased me to the top of the stairs, stopping short and meowing pitifully when I continued on without him.

 

“Hi,” Katniss smiled at me when I reached the bottom of the stairs.

 

“Hey,” I smiled. She raised her eyebrows, glancing behind her at the bouquet of flowers sitting on the table before turning back to me. “Yeah, th-those are for you.” I reached behind her and picked them up, holding them out and leaning forward to kiss her. She slapped my arm, her cheeks flushing as she accepted them.

 

“Thank you,” she said quietly, dropping her eyes and shaking her head.

 

“I m-made you cookies, too,” I said.

 

“Of course you did,” she chuckled, rolling her eyes and looking everywhere in the kitchen but at me. “Thank you.”

 

“You're welcome,” I smiled and kissed her again.

 

“Nice shirt,” she smirked, flicking at the buttons on the front.

 

“Thanks,” I laughed and swatted her hand away.

 

“Break it up,” Dad said, making both of us jump. We turned to see him standing in the doorway to the storefront, and I couldn't help but wonder how long he'd been standing there. I sighed, giving Katniss an apologetic look. “Have fun, and don't forget what we talked about, please. Behave yourselves.”

 

“Dad,” I groaned.

 

“Go,” he waved us off, turning away to help a customer. Katniss picked up her flowers from the table and I picked up the paper bag of cookies that was sitting behind it before following her outside. I walked beside her, pushing the chair myself until we left the square.

 

“How was going without the chair at school?” Katniss asked.

 

“It was f-fine,” I said. “I w-want to just b-be rid of it c-completely.” I frowned, looking at the houses we passed and trying to remember how far we had to go. It felt strange to be going to her house in this context; without any awful questioning or therapy from her mother waiting for me when we arrived. Just getting to spend time with her there.

 

“I bet you will be,” she said. I turned to look at her, and she leaned down to kiss my cheek. She held her hand down over my shoulder, palm up, and wiggled her fingers. “I want another cookie.” I chuckled, turning my head and kissing her wrist before opening the bag again and taking one out to press into her palm.

 

I followed Katniss through the front door of her house, hanging my sweater beside hers on the hooks by the door. Buttercup bounded across the room, his tail high. He pulled up short as he reached me, sniffing tentatively at the leg of my pants. Immediately, he jerked his head back and hissed before turning tail and running away. Katniss laughed, backhanding my arm lightly.

 

“I think you lost your friend,” she said.

 

“He m-must smell B-Buddy,” I chuckled. Mrs. Everdeen stood up from the couch, smoothing down the front of her dress as she stepped into the kitchen. “Hello, Mrs. Everdeen.”

 

“Hello, Peeta,” she smiled, raising her eyebrows as she caught sight of the flowers in Katniss' hand. “Flowers? They're beautiful. Let's get those in some water before they wilt.” She held her hand out, taking the bouquet from Katniss and walking over to the sink. Katniss sighed and rolled her eyes. “Don't be rude, show your guest to a seat.”

 

“Oh my god,” Katniss muttered, rolling her eyes. She nodded toward the living room. “Come on.” I followed her to sit on the couch, glancing back toward Mrs. Everdeen as we sat down.

 

“Are you going to ask your guest if he'd like anything?” Mrs. Everdeen gave Katniss a pointed look over her shoulder. Katniss just covered her eyes.

 

“I'm f-fine,” I said, biting down on my lip to stop myself from laughing.

 

“I think my guest and I are going to go outside,” Katniss said, and I could tell by the look on her face it was more of a plea than a suggestion.

 

“Okay,” I smirked.

 

“Don't go far,” Mrs. Everdeen said, straightening up in her seat as Katniss led the way toward the back door. “Dinner won't take long.”

 

“Yeah, okay, Mom,” Katniss said, sighing and holding the door open for me as she stepped outside. We sat side by side on the steps, looking out over their backyard. It seemed enormous; sheltered from the houses behind it by a few pine trees, a massive, aging oak in the middle, the goat's pen closer to the house. The Hawthorne's home next-door was the closest house to them, and even that was far off compared to how close everyone lived in town. There was barely enough space between the bakery and the buildings to either side of it to walk between them.

 

“How was, um, how was the rest of sc-school?” I asked, shifting a little closer to her and taking her hand.

 

“Fine. Dumb. The usual,” she shrugged. I chuckled, watching our hands as she wove our fingers together. “How was your afternoon?”

 

“It was, um-” I hesitated, weighing telling her what had happened. Rye didn't actually specify who I had to tell, though I knew good and well burdening Katniss with that wasn't at all fair. “It was okay.”

 

“You seem a little more, I don't know, reserved than you usually do,” she said, leaning against me. “Are you sure you're okay?”

 

“I'm, uh, p-petrified of your m-mother,” I smirked, glancing back toward the house. That wasn't at all a lie. Katniss laughed.

 

“Please don't be, she's just being a pain in the ass. It's annoying,” she huffed. I laughed, leaning closer to kiss her cheek. Katniss turned her mouth to mine, setting her hand on my cheek and kissing me softly. I shifted closer, letting my arm settle around her waist, my fingers working beneath the back of shirt as she leaned into me. I knew it was a bad idea, kissing her like that on her back porch with her mother hovering a few feet away with just a closed door between us. I still met her tongue with mine, flattening my hand against the small of her back.

 

“Hey, break it up over there,” Gale called. I looked up to see him standing on his back porch, leaning over the railing with a smug grin on his face.

 

“Dammit, Gale,” Katniss snapped, turning to look over his shoulder at him.

 

“Hey, buddy,” he said. I raised my hand and waved. “Been a while.”

 

“Don't come over here,” Katniss muttered under her breath, repeating the phrase as she turned back toward me, her eyes pressed closed. I craned to see around her; Gale was already down his steps and halfway across the yard.

 

“Um-”

 

“He's coming over here, isn't he?” Katniss cut me off.

 

“Yes,” I said. She rolled her eyes, turning toward Gale as he walked up to the back steps.

 

“Hey guys,” he said, leaning against the railing. “Heard you were working on ditching the chair. Good for you, buddy.”

 

“Thanks, buddy,” I said, dropping my chin to hide my smirk. I hadn't actually seen Gale since I named the kitten, and I could barely contain my laughter at the nickname. Katniss seemed to catch on and nudged me gently with her elbow.

 

“Is that little Miller shit behaving himself now that Katniss broke his face?” Gale asked, oblivious to the exchange.

 

“S-sort of.”

 

“He kicked Peeta's cane out from under him today,” Katniss said with an annoyed huff. “He's such a jerk.”

 

“Next time he tries that you should shove it up his ass,” Gale said.

 

“G-good idea,” I chuckled. I glanced over at Katniss. “Verne's k-kept his mouth shut, though.”

 

“Good,” she deadpanned.

 

“You know, once you've got that distance issue under control you should come out to the woods,” he said. “It's nice out there. A shitty day in the woods is still better than a good day in the District.”

 

“I'd, um, I'd like t-to,” I said, squeezing Katniss' hand and looking over at her. If I ever got 'that distance issue' under control. Being strong enough to sneak through the fence with her seemed like an impossible goal.

 

“Really?” she asked, a surprised smile on her face. I nodded, and her smile grew a bit wider.

 

“You two are adorable,” Gale chuckled.

 

“Can you go home, please?” Katniss rolled her eyes.

 

“Why? Is this a date? Am I intruding? You're the third wheel with me and Madge all the time; it's only fair that I return the favor,” Gale smirked. I looked over at Katniss, smiling at the exasperation in her expression.

 

“You guys like me being your third wheel,” she said, shifting a little closer to me. “We don't want one.”

 

“Fine,” Gale held his hands up. “Hint taken, I'll leave you two to it. See you, buddy.”

 

“B-bye,” I chuckled.

 

“I'm sorry,” Katniss sighed, shaking her head as Gale walked away. “This place is worse than the bakery. Maybe we can just stick to hanging out there from now on.”

 

“I was t-told that's—rude,” I said, slipping my arm around her waist again as she leaned against me.

 

“Did your dad say that?” she asked. I nodded. “Well, he's wrong.” I laughed to myself, pressing a kiss against her hair as she laid her head on my shoulder. “And no tutoring today.”

 

“G-good,” I smiled to myself. I didn't have the mental energy left to focus on any of that after the events of the afternoon. We sat and talked until Mrs. Everdeen called us in to dinner. I sat beside Katniss, watching her fill both of our plates, slice the meat on hers, and then swap them without a word. I nudged her with my knee under the table, flashing a grateful smile. She nudged back, laughing quietly as she looked down at her plate.

 

“Stop playing footsie. You guys are gross,” Prim snapped, watching us from across the table.

 

“Ignore her,” Katniss said, smirking at Prim. “She's just mad because Rory asked one of the Morgan twins out.”

 

“I am not,” Prim snapped, picking up her fork and stabbing it into her sliced carrots. “And he barely even knows her. It's not fair.”

 

“Ladies, can we not?” Mrs. Everdeen said, sitting down at the table. “And you're far too young to be dating anyway, Primrose, we've already had this discussion.”

 

“Lettie Morgan is two months younger than me, and it isn't stopping her,” Prim snapped.

 

“Well, she takes after her mother,” Mrs. Everdeen muttered, looking down at her plate. Prim just rolled her eyes. I glanced at Katniss, the two of us fighting off laughter before we started to eat.

 

“You know, Rye told me I could visit whenever I wanted and he would teach me how to bake,” Prim said as soon as she was finished eating, shoving her plate away and folding her hands on the table. “He already showed me how to make cupcakes, and taught me how to frost them, and he said I'm better than Katniss and she's been working there for months.”

 

“Prim,” Katniss sighed, looking up toward the ceiling.

 

“I used to maybe hope you would someday, you know,” Prim said, lifting her chin. Katniss snorted, covering her mouth and laughing. “Don't laugh at me. You're the one who ruined him. And I saw what you were doing on the back porch; you guys are gross.”

 

“Prim!” Katniss snapped, cutting off her laughter. I glanced toward Mrs. Everdeen; she was looking at Katniss and me with one eyebrow raised.

 

Kissing him,” Prim leaned forward, pursing her lips and wagging her head. Mrs. Everdeen visibly relaxed.

 

“Okay, that's enough,” Mrs. Everdeen sighed, reaching for the empty plates in front of Katniss and me. “Why don't you two go for a walk. Get out a bit of fresh air. Primrose, I believe you still have homework to finish?”

 

“Katniss hasn't even started hers,” Prim frowned.

 

“And Katniss has a guest,” Mrs. Everdeen said, leveling her gaze at Prim. “Now go do your homework, Primrose.”

 

Fine,” Prim huffed, spilling out of her chair and dragging herself to the living room. Mrs. Everdeen shook her head, sighing as she watched her daughter.

 

“W-would you like some help with the d-dishes?” I offered. Rye and I had been expected to perform that chore.

 

“Thank you, Peeta, but I can manage,” she smiled, picking up the small stack of dishes she'd created as she stood from the table. “You two go on.”

 

“Thanks, Mom,” Katniss stood up from the table and retrieved her sweater from where it hung by the front door. I got up to follow her, pulling on my own sweater as she led the way out the front door. She hooked her arm through mine as we made our way down the steps, taking her time so I wouldn't lose my footing. I'd forgotten how steep their stairs were. “I'm sorry. I don't know what the hell has gotten into Prim lately.”

 

“It's f-fine,” I chuckled. “I'm p-pretty sure sisters are sup-posed to be like that.”

 

“True,” Katniss conceded with a smile.

 

“We n-need to, um, put a stop to th-that unholy alliance with Rye, th-though,” I shoved my hands into the pockets of my sweater, glancing down at where Katniss' hand rested in the crook of my elbow.

 

“Yes. We do,” she said. The complete seriousness in her voice made me laugh, and she joined in a moment later. As we walked, I alternated keeping my eyes on the ground ahead of us and taking in everything around us. The houses seemed so small, and they all seemed nearly identical; variations on the same one or two plans. They looked as tired and weathered as the miners that stopped in to the bakery after their shifts let out.

 

“You know, um, until D-Dad brought me out here,” I said, looking up at the slopes of the foothills in the distance. “I'd n-never even seen the Seam.”

 

“Really?” Katniss looked at me, confusion on her face as she considered the idea. “Well. That makes sense, I guess. It's not like you had any reason to.”

 

“It's, um, d-different than I expected,” I said. “M-mom made it sound like a d-dump.”

 

“I'm sorry, have you even been looking around you?” Katniss scoffed.

 

“It's not that d-different than t-town,” I shrugged. “P-pack everyone closer together—replace the grass with st-stone—g-give the buildings a fresh c-coat of paint.”

 

“I've never really thought about it like that,” Katniss said quietly. “You just seem to have things so much easier there.”

 

“Maybe,” I said. “In s-some ways.”

 

“Not all, though,” she said. “I'm learning that.” She stopped, pulling me to face her and kissing me softly. I smiled against her lips, hooking my arm around her waist and deepening the kiss.

 

“Hey!”

 

I looked up to see someone break away from the boys he'd been walking with and jog toward us from between a row of houses. It took me a moment to place who it was. I knew that I knew him and struggled to place it as he got closer to us. Katniss looked over her shoulder and groaned.

 

“Great,” she muttered.

 

“You in the business of stealin' our women?” he drawled. Asa. That's who it was. Asa Maynard. “How you been, Dough Boy?”

 

“What the fuck did he just call you?” Katniss snapped.

 

“It's, um, a st-stupid nickname—from wrestling,” I chuckled. “Rye's is w-worse.”

 

“No need to get your panties all in a twist, Kitty-Kat. This little fucker's been givin' me hell 'bout my Aunt Mama and Uncle Pappy for years,” Asa nudged Katniss as she stepped back from me. I chuckled, more than a little embarrassed by it. The Maynard's sprawling, communal family seemed fair game for mockery from anyone, and they all took it in stride. Asa was usually the first to toss out a jab. I didn't want her thinking badly of me, though. She folded her arms across her chest and scoffed, looking away from him. Asa just laughed before turning back to me. “What the fuck're we gonna do next season? Yeast Nuts is gone. I hear you ain't comin' back. Who the hell's s'posed to be my competition now?”

 

“Th-there's always M-Merx,” I smirked. Asa threw his head back and laughed.

 

“That little shitdick? Even Kitty can bust him up,” Asa shoved Katniss' shoulder playfully and she cringed, a pained look crossing her face. “You'd best at least show up to watch next season, Mellark.”

 

“I w-will,” I said. Asa glanced over his shoulder as the boys he'd been with yelled to him.

 

“Good. I'll see you,” he punched me in the shoulder before turning around and taking off to catch up with his friends. I chuckled, rubbing my shoulder where he'd hit it; playful but still too hard. It felt good to know that someone didn't feel the need to treat me any differently than they always had.

 

“I didn't know you knew Asa,” Katniss said, raising an eyebrow and glancing in the direction he'd left before turning back to me.

 

“K-kind of,” I shrugged. “You d-didn't know he was on the team?”

 

“I guess I, um, forgot,” she trailed off, looking away as her cheeks flushed. She hooked her arm through mine and turned us around. “Let's go back.” I stopped her, pulling her back to me and kissing her. She let out a surprised little whimper, setting her hand on my cheek and opening her mouth to mine. I wrapped both my arms around her waist, pressing her tight against me as I slid my tongue into her mouth. After a moment she pulled back, gasping quietly and resting her forehead against mine.

 

“N-now let's go back,” I said. She laughed softly and pecked a kiss to my cheek.

 

“Okay.”

Chapter Text

“Okay,” Rye stepped into the kitchen, spinning the keys to the front around his finger. “All locked up. You got it from here?”

 

“If I say no, is that going to stop you from ditching us?” Katniss asked, giving him a look as she covered the last of the dry mixes for tomorrow's bread.

 

“Nope,” he tossed her the keys. She rolled her eyes and snatched them out of midair before tossing them to the table. “Dell's waiting for me.”

 

“Isn't D-Dad over there?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

 

“That would be why she's sneaking out,” he said, giving me a look before ducking into the mudroom for his coat.

 

“Yeah, g-good luck getting p-past them,” I scoffed quietly.

 

“That's her problem, not mine,” Rye called back. I chuckled and shook my head. “Goodnight, kiddos.” The back door slammed a moment later.

 

“I still don't get that,” Katniss pointed in the direction Rye had left.

 

“Get—what?” I smirked.

 

“Delly. And your brother,” she said, moving the containers she'd mixed from the worktable to the counter behind her. “You said it would make sense, if I knew them. And I know them, and it still doesn't.” I just laughed.

 

“Maybe you need t-to see them t-together,” I chuckled.

 

“Whatever,” she rolled her eyes; it just made me laugh a little harder. Her lips curled into a small smile. “Don't laugh at me.”

 

“I'm n-not,” I said, though it just made me laugh a bit harder. I forced myself to stop, pressing my lips together to keep from smiling any wider. “I'm not.”

 

“How's the reading going?” she asked, nodding toward the textbook on the table in front of me. I had spent most of my afternoon catching up on the readings I had missed for our English class.

 

“P-painfully boring,” I said. She laughed.

 

“Sounds about right,” she said. “Hang on, I have to count out the till. We both know Rye didn't bother.” I nodded, watching her disappear into the storefront. It felt strange to see her so at home in the bakery. She had come a long way from struggling to frost cupcakes in just a few months. She knew the routines, the recipes, and a hell of a lot more about bookkeeping than me or either of my brothers ever did. Dad had been teaching her more about the inventory, too. I wouldn't be surprised if he had her taking over our supply orders before long.

 

I listened to the noises from the storefront. I rarely counted down the cash drawer at the end of the night, but I still knew the process. As she worked I listened to her, following her progress in my mind. Emptying the till, printing the daily totals, counting out the petty cash, replacing the drawer. There was a thump, and she swore quietly. I smiled to myself. She'd dropped the ledger. It was a little too tall for the shelf Dad wedged it into and tended to stick. It took a hard pull to dislodge it, and that hard pull usually dumped it onto the floor. A moment later she reappeared, a bag with the day's profits tucked under her arm, the ledger in her hand, and a pencil between her teeth.

 

She sat down at the table across from me, flipping the ledger open and copying the totals from the slip she'd printed. I watched her as she worked; the stray wisps of hair that had fallen from her braid as the day went on, the way her fingers curled around her pencil, the way she sucked her lower lip between her teeth as she counted out the money she'd pulled from the till. She flicked her eyes up to me.

 

“What?” she asked.

 

“What?” I raised my eyebrows, cracking a smile as she looked up at me.

 

“Why are you watching me?” she smiled self-consciously. I shrugged. She let out a quiet laugh and looked down at the ledger again. I got up off of my stool and circled around the table to her, sliding my hand across the small of her back as I moved to stand behind her. She turned her head for a moment, glancing at me over her shoulder before looking back down at her work. I leaned against her back, pushing her hair off of her neck and kissing her there. “What are you doing?”

 

“N-nothing,” I smiled, turning my face to her hair and inhaling.

 

“That tickles,” she hunched up her shoulders, turning her head. I pulled back and waited for her to drop her shoulders, sliding my hands around her waist. Once she relaxed I leaned forward to kiss the side of her neck. “I'm working, you know.”

 

“Mhm,” I smiled against her skin, flattening my hand against her stomach before working up the hem of her shirt with my fingertips. She sighed, tilting her head as I continued kissing her neck.

 

“You're distracting me,” she said.

 

“S-sorry,” I said, smiling against her skin, though I didn't stop. I traced my fingertips over her skin, gently folding her shirt up to her ribs. My kisses shifted to her jaw as my hands moved to cup her breasts. I stopped a few inches short, pressing my hands against the soft, smooth skin just below her bra.

 

“Peeta,” she said, a light nervous chuckle in her voice. “We're in the kitchen.”

 

“And w-we're alone,” I pointed out, nuzzling the hollow beneath her jaw.

 

“What's gotten into you?” Katniss straightened up, leaning back against me.

 

“N-nothing,” I lifted my hands to her breasts, squeezing gently.

 

“What if we get caught?” she turned to look at me. Her cheeks were flushed. I watched her tongue dart out over her lips.

 

“B-by who?” I asked, curling my fingers into the top of her bra.

 

“Your dad could come home,” she glanced down at her chest, taking a slow breath.

 

“Should I st-stop?” I asked, hoping I knew the answer.

 

“No,” she said, a little too quickly. I chuckled to myself as she turned to face me. My hands slid to her back and I shifted to stand between her legs. Katniss pressed her lips to mine, draping her arms around my neck.

 

I never imagined getting so comfortable with her. It was a far cry from the first awkward kisses we'd shared. I'd learned how to move against her mouth, what cues she'd give to deepen the kiss, and she seemed to know the same things from me. She curled her hands around my neck briefly before sliding them down my chest.

 

“How late do you think your Dad will be out?” Katniss asked, kissing me gently and working her fingers under the front of my shirt.

 

“Wh-what?” I looked down as she ran her fingertips under the waistband of my pants. “I d-don't know. Why?”

 

“Just wondering,” she said, unbuttoning my pants as she kissed me again. I set my hands on her arms, kissing her slowly. She unzipped my pants, slipping her hand inside.

 

“Wait,” I slid my hands to her forearms, sucking in a breath as her fingers brushed over me through my boxers.

 

“Should I stop?” she smirked and kissed my jaw.

 

“N-no,” I chuckled. “Smartass. I j-just—don't want to g-get caught.”

 

“We'll hear him, right?” she asked. “If he comes through the door?” I nodded, swallowing hard when she run her fingers over me again, my eyes fluttering closed for a moment. Her fingers hovered at the fly, toying with the fabric. “So, can I?”

 

“Yes,” I tangled my fingers in her hair, pulling her in to kiss me as her fingers slipped into the fly of my boxers, curling around my cock and pulling it out of them. I took a slow, shaky breath as she began to stroke me, bracing one hand on the table behind her. She kept her fingers tight the way I'd showed her I like, picking up speed as my breath quickened.

 

I'd only needed to guide Katniss once. In the couple of times since she had seemed to pick up on exactly what I liked. I pressed my face against her neck as she pumped her hand over me, kissing her skin between quiet moans. Pressure began to build across my stomach, the muscle tensing and fluttering as I got closer. It wasn't as strong as usual or building as high; I was nervous. The act wasn't new but the location was. We were exposed, and it made me nervous. Nerves never did me any favors. Someone could walk in, and even if we did hear them it could be too late; they'd know what was going on even if they didn't see everything. Was it even worth the trouble I would get myself into? I sucked in a breath, that feeling starting to build. My balls tightened and—it was over.

 

"Fuck," I pulled back, looking down between us at the pathetic little dribble on Katniss' hand.

 

“Peeta? Did, um, did I do something wrong?” Katniss asked, glancing down at her hand before looking up at me with concern on her face.

 

“Wh-what? N-no,” I shook my head, snatching a towel from the table behind her and hurriedly cleaning her hand. She took the towel from me and I quickly tucked myself away. “No.”

 

“That just didn't, um, you know,” she frowned. I did my best to avoid eye contact, too utterly mortified to look her in the eye. “It didn't seem like I did a very good job.”

 

“No! N-no,” I shook my head again, taking the towel from her hands and balling it up. “You didn't—it's n-not-” I took a breath and pressed my eyes closed. My vision felt off; I was having a hard time focusing.

 

“-did something wrong I want to know,” Katniss said. I looked up at her, wondering how I'd missed the first part of whatever she had to say. “I want to know what you like.”

 

“It—I—you d-did what I l-like,” I stammered, rubbing my hand over my eyes and blinking them back into focus. My face was burning. The kitchen felt too hot. “That j-just—it happens s-sometimes. I'm s-sorry.”

 

“Hey,” Katniss set her hand on my cheek. Her palm felt cool to the touch. “Are you okay?” I closed my eyes and nodded, leaning into her hand. I felt her lips on mine and opened my mouth to meet her tongue with my own. She shifted to the edge of her stool, pressing her body closer to mine. My arms slipped around her waist easily.

 

“K-Kat,” I said quietly, barely pausing between kisses. “C-can I—for you?”

 

“Yes,” she breathed against my lips with a smile. She tilted her hips toward me as I unbuttoned her pants, brushing my knuckles down the soft curve of her belly before turning my hand and sliding it into her panties. I loved how she felt; how impossibly soft and warm her flesh was under my fingers, her hair softer than my own. Knowing how turned on she was and knowing my touch was what did it for her felt so good. I loved being able to pull those noises out of her with my fingers, even though she still needed to guide me at times.

 

I pulled back to watch her face as I rubbed my fingers over her, searching for that little nub of flesh that I knew would make her moan. She kept her eyes pressed closed, her brow knit together, breathing heavily through her parted lips. They were wet and full and I couldn't hold myself back from kissing her. Katniss gasped against my mouth as I found that spot she loved and focused on it.

 

“You're so b-beautiful,” I murmured, nuzzling against her jaw. Katniss whimpered quietly. “N-next time I want t-to see you. All of you.”

 

“Peeta,” she moaned, rocking her hips against my hand.

 

“I w-want to und-dress you,” I pressed a kiss to the corner of her jaw. She wrapped her arms around me, tilting her head as my lips brushed her ear. She moaned again and it made my head swim. I pressed my fingers against her harder, rubbing tight, quick circles. I didn't know where any of this was coming from, but she was clearly enjoying it. Katniss tensed against me, bearing down on my hand. “You're s-so—sexy.”

 

“Fuck!” Her legs snapped shut around my wrist. She buried her face against my neck, muffling her high, strangled whimpering as she rocked her hips against my fingers. After a few moments she relaxed, pressing a soft kiss against my skin. “Oh my god.”

 

“G-good?” I smiled to myself.

 

Yes,” Katniss gasped. Her enthusiasm made us both laugh. “I, um, I'll be right back.” She kissed me, gently taking hold of my wrist and pulling my hand from her pants.

 

“Okay,” I smiled to myself, watching her dart to the stairs and disappear to the second floor. I picked up the towel from the table and walked over to the sink, washing both it and my hands before wringing it out and hanging it between the two sinks. A headache was beginning, working its way up from the base of my neck. I splashed some water on my face and leaned forward over the sink, forcing myself to breathe slowly and deeply.

 

“Dammit, Dad, cut the shit. I'm home now, okay? I'm not fucking going anywhere,” Rye threw the back door open so hard it hit the wall. I jumped; I hadn't even heard them on the back stairs.

 

“Just get in the fucking house, Rye,” Dad snapped.

 

“Language,” Rye tsked. He stumbled a step into the kitchen as Dad shoved between his shoulders. The two of them stopped short when they saw me.

 

“Where's Katniss?” Dad frowned, looking at the open ledger on the table and the deposit bag next to it.

 

“She's—um, upstairs,” I looked between the two of them. In any other circumstances I'd be more than amused to watch Rye get caught, but not when it was so close a call. If they had come home just a few minutes earlier, they'd have found me wrist-deep in Katniss' underwear. Dad looked me over, his frown deepening briefly.

 

“Did we interrupt something?” he glanced toward the ledger again, and then the stairs before turning back to me.

 

“No,” I said, and it wasn't a lie. I hoped the blush I could feel in my face didn't make him think it was.

 

“I think you two have some things to discuss, so I'll just go upstairs,” Rye said. Dad grabbed him by the back of the shirt before he could make it out of arm's reach. Katniss came down a moment later, hesitating on the bottom step and looking at me with wide eyes before she turned toward my dad.

 

“Should, um,” she gestured toward the ledger on the table. “Should I finish? Or just, um-” She gestured toward the back door.

 

“Go. It's late and you should have already been home,” Dad cut his eyes toward me and I dropped my gaze to the floor, looking up at Katniss nervously.

 

“Okay, um—goodnight then,” she hurried past my father and Rye into the mudroom, returning to the doorway as she pulled on her coat. “See you tomorrow, Peeta.”

 

“Bye,” I said, doing my best to ignore the grin on Rye's face. All three of us stood in tense silence until the back door closed. As soon as we heard Katniss' footsteps on the back steps Dad let go of Rye's shirt and turned toward him. He was angry, though after Mom it was hard to take his temper too seriously.

 

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Dad snapped in Rye's face. “Did you even finish your work, or did you just take off the minute I was out the door?”

 

“I stayed until close!” Rye held up his hands before gesturing to me. “Ask Peet! He was down here the whole time. I locked up, and then I went out.”

 

“Made Katniss do the prep alone? Classy,” Dad pointed toward the ledger on the table. “You obviously didn't count out the fucking till, either.” Rye rolled his eyes and looked away, folding his arms across his chest. “You dropped out of school to work in this bakery, so guess what I fucking expect you to do. Not to mention, dammit, Rye, you're getting her in trouble, too.” Dad pointed out toward the storefront, in the general direction the shoe shop stood across the square. “Delly has a curfew. How the hell was she supposed to be home in fifteen minutes with the two of you halfway to that fucking meadow?”

 

“I'm sorry, Mr. I'm Going to the Cartwright's,” Rye lowered his voice in a goofy imitation of Dad's. “Where the hell were you that you even found us out there?”

 

“Shut your mouth,” Dad pointed in Rye's face. “I'm the parent. You're the little shit who was breaking Delilah's curfew. And your own, for that matter.”

 

“I don't have one,” Rye said, raising his eyebrows. Dad took a breath and paused, blinking at Rye in stunned silence.

 

“You don't?” he asked. Rye snorted, holding back laughter, and shook his head. Dad looked over at me. “Do you?”

 

“Nope,” I smirked, looking toward Rye and twisting my mouth to one side to hold back my own laughter. I couldn't even keep eye contact with him, and the two of us looked down at the floor.

 

“Well, shit,” Dad muttered, running his hand through his hair. “Fine, then. You do now. Seven-thirty.” He pointed at Rye.

 

What?” Rye snapped. “I am eighteen fucking years old. And we don't even close until eight.”

 

“Sucks to be you, doesn't it?” Dad said. “Maybe you should have used some common fucking sense before ruining this for yourself.”

 

“What about him?” Rye pointed toward me.

 

“Peet couldn't fucking sneak anywhere if he wanted to,” Dad rolled his eyes, dropping his hands to his side. I let out a quiet, pained chuckle. “Hey.” I looked up. “Your curfew's ten.”

 

“Okay,” I said. Rye's jaw hit the floor and he stared at Dad in silent disbelief for a moment.

 

“This is bullshit,” he snapped.

 

“Seven,” Dad turned back to him, raising an eyebrow. “Push it a little harder, Rye. See if you like where this ends up for you.”

 

“For how long?” he folded his arms over his chest.

 

“For as long as I want,” Dad said. “Now get the fuck upstairs and stay there.”

 

Fine,” Rye snapped, whirling on his heel and stomping up the stairs. Dad watched the stairs until his door slammed, then let out a sigh, his shoulders sagging. He turned toward me.

 

“Did Katniss get things finished?” he asked. I nodded. He mirrored the gesture and blew out a breath, looking over the kitchen. “Behave yourself, Peeta. Don't turn into that.” He pointed toward the second floor. “God knows I can barely handle one.” I bit back a laugh, looking down at the floor before glancing up at him. If he knew what had gone on, I was apparently off the hook for it. He nodded toward the stairs. “Go on.”

 

“G-goodnight, Dad,” I said, crossing the room to go upstairs for the night.

 

“'Night, Peet,” he gave me a tired smile, waiting until I reached the stairs before sitting down in front of the paperwork Katniss had left on the table.

 

 


 

School was impossible to focus on. As soon as I got out I had an appointment with Dr. Lawrence, and my nerves were running so high I felt ready to vomit. I'd always hated the appointments, but now I had bigger problems to contend with. Rye had sat me down the night before and tried to talk me into telling the doctor about the blackouts I'd been having. I didn't want to. I wanted to wait for them to go away on their own, though even I was starting to question that being a possibility. Just before leaving my last class, I somehow managed to space out through a good chunk of the lecture. Or I'd blacked out again. Saying any of it out loud, to anyone but Rye, just confirmed what was happening. Then there would be no going back on it. Even if they did stop.

 

Katniss walked me to the office to get my wheelchair. She stopped me outside the door, pulling me into a hug and kissing me softly. Throughout the day she'd been trying to find ways to encourage me; squeezing my hand in hers as we walked through the hall, a note slipped into my pocket before we sat down to our last class. She echoed some of the things she'd written before kissing me again and turning to go back to class.

 

“You're going to tell him today, right?” Rye asked as he pushed me home. I didn't answer, just stared at the ground ahead of us. “Please, Peet. I know it sucks to talk to that guy, but try for me? Shit, tell his hot little assistant. She gets all touchy feely when she's worried.”

 

“No, she d-doesn't. You t-trick her into it,” I chuckled, trying to remember all the times we'd been in there for something else and Rye had faked one ailment or another just to get close to her.

 

“Whatever, just tell someone, please,” he said, wiping the smile off my face. I resumed staring at the ground, doing my best to calm myself down as we got home. Dad only gave me a few minutes to collect myself before ushering me to the appointment.

 

Dr. Lawrence's office smelled like antiseptic. It was overpowering even in the waiting room, and carried too many bad memories with it. The first time I sat in that room my feet didn't even reach the floor. I had a towel wrapped around my arm, soaked in blood, my mother panicky and shaking beside me. I'd interrupted her, she'd turned around too fast, the knife in her hand flinging out and slicing across my forearm. It was an accident, she'd sobbed, squeezing my hand too tightly as Dr. Lawrence stitched the cut back together. I looked down at the scar—twisting and white and far smaller than I remembered the cut being—and ran my finger over it as I remembered the other times that I had sat there. The times that weren't accidents. How many dislocated arms had he reset between me and Rye? How many times had he bitten his tongue while she hovered nearby, or my father stared sadly at the floor?

 

“Peeta?” Mrs. Lawrence called from her desk, smiling when my father and I looked up. “Abbie will get you started. On the right.” She nodded toward the hall. I glanced toward Dad before standing up and leading the way toward the exam room. Abbie stood by the door, a hint of pity in her eyes as she gestured for us to go in ahead of her. The door across the hall was closed, though I could hear the murmur of Dr. Lawrence's voice from behind it.

 

I lifted myself up to sit on the edge of the cold, metal examination table, waiting patiently as Abbie checked my vitals. The light she shined in my eyes left me seeing spots. I tried to rub them away as she folded up the back of my shirt to listen to my breathing, rubbing her stethoscope between her palms to warm it.

 

“How is the training going, Abbie?” Dad asked. She flinched, jerking the stethoscope away from my back. She had graduated with Phyl and started working with the doctor almost immediately afterward. I had thought she would be used to Dad by now, with all of the time we spent in there, but she was still just as jumpy as she was when she was just a customer at the bakery. I'd never been able to quite figure out why she was so jumpy around him, considering he was one of the most easygoing people in the district.

 

“It's, um—going well,” she said, dropping her eyes to the clipboard in her hand, her cheeks flushing as she scribbled on the page. “I put in my apprenticeship application last week. So. Fingers crossed.” She glanced up at Dad, flashing him a brief smile before looking back down at the page.

 

“Good for you,” Dad said, making her smile widen for a moment. “I'm sure you'll have no problem with that being accepted.”

 

“Thank you,” she laughed softly, tucking a stray wisp of hair behind her ear. “Um, Dr. Lawrence will be over in a minute or two.” She gestured over her shoulder toward the door, dropping her clipboard in the process. Dad chuckled quietly as she swore under her breath and crouched to pick it up.

 

“Thank you,” Dad nodded. Abbie straightened up and bit her lip, nodding in return before ducking out of the room. I sighed, looking up at the water stain in the corner of the ceiling. The first thing I remembered seeing after I woke up. The antiseptic smell had been tinged coppery then, the room had been spinning around me, and I had forced myself to focus on that one spot as long as I could. It didn't help. I only threw up and blacked out again. Something new came back to me, surfacing out of the blur of memories from that day with too much clarity; the low murmur of Dr. Lawrence's voice as he sat in the corner of the room. My father sitting beside him, hunched forward, head in his hands. A series of broken, quiet noises lurching out of him as his shoulders shook. Dad reached over from where he sat and covered my hand with his. “Hey. You okay?”

 

“Yeah,” I nodded, dropping my gaze to the floor.

 

Dr. Lawrence let himself in a moment later, a thick file under his arm and a clipboard in his hand. He greeted my father and I without truly looking up from the clipboard.

 

“Well,” he pulled the empty chair by the wall closer to the table and sat down, setting the clipboard on his lap and slapping the folder on top of it. “Seems we have quite a bit to discuss. You've had a lot of changes since we last met, according to what Lavender had to say.” I nodded, chewing hard on my lip. His questions made my heart race before he even asked them. “She said your headaches are worsening, is that true?” I nodded. “Can you tell me how they differ from the ones you've had?”

 

“They're, um—more sudden,” I frowned, keeping my eyes on the ground.

 

“Any change in origin? She said that you seem to be rubbing your brow quite a bit,” Dr. Lawrence looked down at the notes and then back up at me.

 

“S-sometimes,” I said. “Th-they usually start the same—but g-get worse here.” I touched the right side of my forehead.

 

“And by the same you still mean your neck? The base of your skull?” he asked as he began to write. I nodded. “Does the morphling alleviate any of that pain?” I took a breath to answer and thought better of lying. I hadn't taken it much, only when the pain I felt got to the point that I struggled to breathe did I even bother. “Peeta.” I looked up at him. “Are you not taking your medications?”

 

“I d-do,” I said.

 

“All of them?” he took off his glasses and laid them down on the open folder in his lap. I nodded again. “Every time you're supposed to take them?” I looked down at the floor. No, I wasn't. He would see through anything I had to say; I wasn't able to keep up with the song and dance of questions and lies the way I could before the injury.

 

“Peeta,” Dad said quietly. I frowned. Dr. Lawrence held up his hand, silencing anything else my father may have had to say.

 

“Which ones aren't you taking and why?” Dr. Lawrence asked.

 

“The—um, m-morphling,” I looked at the floor by his feet. “It—it slows me d-down. I c-can't think. And the d-diazep-pam, too. They m-make me feel sick.”

 

“If you eat a half an hour before taking them, you can stop the nausea before it even hits,” Dr. Lawrence said.

 

“Th-they still just-” I shook my head, reaching up and tugging at the edge of my hat nervously. “Remind me I'm not—okay. And as long as I have t-to take them—I n-never will be.” Dr. Lawrence raised his chin, watching me, waiting for me to continue. “And I know they're—ad-addictive. I d-don't want that. And they're t-too expensive.”

 

“You will feel better if you take them,” Dr. Lawrence said, his voice impossibly patient. “You are experiencing more pain than the strongest men in this District could bear without help. Don't make yourself suffer any more than you already do. If you take what you need, and nothing more, you won't develop any addictions.”

 

“And it's my job to worry about the cost,” Dad chimed in. “If you need it, you get it. No worrying about how.”

 

“Your wrist is getting worse,” Dr. Lawrence said. I nodded. “Is the pain flaring up now?” I looked up at him, puzzled. How did he know? “You've been tugging at your fingers for the past few minutes. May I take a look?”

 

“Yeah,” I nodded, holding out my arm as Dr. Lawrence stood and gingerly took my hand. He examined it carefully, testing my grip and asking me to move my fingers. He felt my forearm up toward my elbow, asking me to point out where the pain stopped. Truthfully, it went all the way into my elbow, and the mild surprise in his face when I told him to stop just past the joint made my stomach flip.

 

“How often does it bother you like this?” he asked, frowning as he tested the reflexes in my hand and forearm.

 

“Um—every d-day,” I said quietly. My heart lodged itself in my throat and I looked away, dropping my hand into my lap when he finished. I couldn't even look at Dad. It felt like a betrayal. Even out of the corner of my eye I could see the shift in his posture. I could easily imagine the guilt in his face.

 

“Okay,” he dropped back down into his chair and picked up his notes again, pushing his glasses up his nose. “When was your last panic attack?”

 

“Um-” I looked over at Dad. He was chewing on his lip, watching me intently. He offered an encouraging nod and a weak smile. I turned back to Dr. Lawrence. “A f-few days ago.”

 

“Do you remember what brought it on?” he asked. I dropped my eyes again, trying to think of any way to rephrase the truth. After years of explaining away injuries and shrugging off fears with that man leveling that same look at me it should have been easy. I couldn't tell him about the blackouts and the lost time; not yet. Not until I knew they wouldn't stop. Maybe they would. “Peeta?”

 

“I, um—I th-think I was j-just overwhelmed,” I frowned, scratching up under the edge of my hat and smoothing it back down. “T-tired, maybe. And I w-was out—at the f-florist with Rye. It m-made it worse.”

 

“Made you feel vulnerable?” Dr. Lawrence offered. I nodded, letting out a sigh. That was exactly what it was, though what caused that vulnerability wasn't something I wanted to share. He made a few notes before continuing. “Have the severity of your attacks changed? Any worse? Any easier on you?” I shook my head to all three questions. “Have you had any suicidal thoughts?”

 

“N-no,” I frowned. I may have wanted to disappear at times, but I had never wanted to kill myself. I didn't want to die.

 

“What about any impulses to harm yourself?” he asked, turning a page in his notes. I shook my head. “And what about the people around you? Any impulse towards hurting them?”

 

“No,” I frowned, looking up at him and then over to Dad. I'd been told more than once that those sorts of thoughts were common after a head injury, but I couldn't even fathom the idea. Dad offered a brief smile.

 

“Can you tell me a bit about how your classes are going?” Dr. Lawrence shifted in his chair, crossing his legs and looking up at me. “Mrs. Everdeen mentioned that you were planning to attempt navigating your day without the wheelchair, how has that been going?”

 

“Classes are, um, fine,” I frowned. “It's getting a little easier to—k-keep up, I think. Even though the d-days are longer. I've b-been using a c-cane once I get to the school—it's t-tiring, but b-better, I think.”

 

“Good,” he nodded. “And you're stuttering less. Your speech has certainly come a long way.” He flipped through a few pages. “We're going to have to adjust a few of your medications, I think. Though we need to discuss the side effects before I can decide exactly how much.” He trailed off, reading through a page of notes before looking up at me. “How have you been sleeping?”

 

“Um—too much or, um, n-not at all,” I frowned. Dr. Lawrence watched me, waiting for me to continue. “I f-feel like I'm either j-just sleeping through everything or c-can't get any rest. I wake up—all the t-time.”

 

“Does anything in particular wake you?” Dr. Lawrence asked.

 

“A lot,” I shrugged. “S-sometimes I g-get too hot. Or I g-get nauseous.” I purposefully left out the nightmares. That would be an entire tangent I didn't want to discuss.

 

“What about your appetite? Have you been eating?” Dr. Lawrence asked. I nodded. “More than you used to?”

 

“Yes,” I said. “I, um—I feel hungry m-more often now. I n-never really did b-before.”

 

“That's excellent,” he nodded, looking down at his notes again. “Are you still having difficulty with bowel movements?” I closed my eyes and sighed.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Have you been using the bisacodyl suppository I prescribed?”

 

“Yes,” I rubbed my hand over my eyes.

 

“Still having difficulty...” he trailed off, his eyes scanning the page in front of him. “We'll try something different there.” He lowered the folder and looked up at me. “Your body does adjust to many of these things. Now in some cases that works in your favor, the way it did with your appetite improving. In others it works against you, as it seems to with the bisacodyl. The sluggishness you described from your morphling and diazepam will subside as your body adjusts to taking the drug. You need to give it a chance, though, and that means suffering through it for a while.”

 

“Okay,” I said quietly, watching the doctor scan through a few more pages.

 

“Now, this is the only area where Mrs. Everdeen's notes fall short,” Dr. Lawrence smirked, glancing over toward my father. “And believe me, I understand not wanting to discuss this with your girlfriend's mother.” Dad chuckled quietly.

 

"Oh god," I muttered under my breath.

 

"Just answer truthfully and quickly, and we'll get it over with, okay?" Dr. Lawrence said. "Your father and I were your age, and we're not so old we've forgotten it." Dad chuckled and I covered my eyes, trying not to think too hard about that. "How frequently do you masturbate?"

 

"I-," I cut myself off, shifting uncomfortably and sighing. Every day? Sometimes twice? There was no way I'd say that out loud. "A c-couple t-times a week."

 

"Are your orgasms consistent?"

 

"Yes," I squeezed out, fully aware that it was a lie. Any other answer would only draw more humiliating questioning than I was already in for. At least last time he asked Dad to leave the room.

 

"Are you producing more or less semen?" he asked, glancing up from his notes briefly.

 

"Oh--my g-god, I- I d-don't know," I stammered. Even after suffering through the same questions at previous appointments they still felt utterly humiliating.

 

"Do you find yourself having intense sexual thoughts or urges at inappropriate times?" Dr. Lawrence asked. I just gaped at him for a moment. That one was new. Dad chuckled.

 

"Trent, he's fifteen," Dad chuckled. "When do you think he stops having intense sexual thoughts? Maybe you should rephrase that one."

 

"Fair enough," Dr. Lawrence smirked. I dropped my head back and stared at the ceiling, willing a hole to open up in the floor beneath me so I could disappear. "Do you feel that any of the sexual thoughts or urges you have might be considered 'abnormal' or 'deviant'. Do any of them feel wrong to you?"

 

"No," I rubbed my hand over my eyes again, willing this to just end. I couldn't remember if there were any more of those questions, and I hoped it was over. Dr. Lawrence was quiet for a few minutes, alternately writing in the folder on his lap and flipping through the pages.

 

"Okay," he sighed. "I want to try changing out the diazepam. We'll try lorazepam instead; it may help with your sleeping issues. And I'm going to give you a higher dose of morphling. It may help your arm, it may not--it's iffy with nerve damage--but it's worth a try." He made a few more notes before shifting in his chair and looking up at me.

 

“Now, Peeta,” Dr. Lawrence set his notes aside and took off his glasses, tucking them into the pocket of his coat. “Is there anything that we haven't covered that you'd like to discuss?”

 

Yes. My blackouts. The headaches and spots in my vision that came with them. How sensitive I was to light afterward. That smell of smoke that always came before a bad one. I clenched my jaw, turning the wording over in my head and trying to find a way to push it out of me and into the open. All I did was shake my head.

 

“Maybe something that we've touched on, but not quite discussed in-depth the way we need to?” he tried. I shook my head again. “Are you sure, Peeta? Our next appointment won't be for another five weeks. Even if you don't think it's a big deal, I'd rather you tell me and let me make that determination for you. I can't help you if I don't know.”

 

“N-nothing,” I said, swallowing back my panic. Are you sure there's nothing else you want to tell me, Peeta? Are you sure you tripped and fell? Even if you think it won't make a difference, I'd rather you tell me. I can't help you if I don't know. His gaze didn't falter. “Nothing.”

 

“Okay,” he stood, letting out a familiar, disappointed sigh and turning to my father and handing him a few sheets of paper. “It's going to take a few days for the approval to come through on his medication change, but I'll get the paperwork filed before the Hall of Justice closes today.”

 

“Thank you, Trent,” Dad took the paperwork from him, looking it over for a moment.

 

“Take your time, you can work out the arrangements for the meds with Nita before you go.” Dr. Lawrence shook my father's hand, keeping hold of it for a moment. “And if anything urgent comes up, you know you don't need to worry about an appointment. Just come by.”

 

“Thank you,” Dad nodded. Dr. Lawrence clapped his hand against my shoulder before leaving the room. I took a slow, deep breath, clenching my hands into fists to try to stop their shaking. Dad set his hand on my shoulder, and I flinched at the contact. “You ready to go?”

 

“P-please,” I said, glancing at his hand before sliding off of the table. Dad gestured for the door and I led the way out, dropping into a chair in the waiting room while he stopped to speak with Mrs. Lawrence. The antiseptic smell hit me hard again, laced with smoke, and I pressed my hand over my eyes, trying to force out the memories it brought with it.

 

“Hey,” Dad stood in front of me, though I could have sworn he had just been standing with Mrs. Lawrence. I looked up at him and he pushed back the edge of my hat, laying his knuckles across my forehead. “You okay?”

 

“Yeah,” I nodded, getting to my feet as he dropped his hand to his side. “C-can we p-please—go?”

 

“Come on,” he set his hand on my back, steering me toward the door.

 

I felt the same tightness in my chest that I used to feel after leaving the doctor's office. Did I say the right thing? Did anything I say upset Dad? What would Mom do if she found out? I took a deep breath, pushing that last thought from my head. She didn't matter anymore. But that didn't take away what she did. Or what it caused. The new symptoms weren't going away; they were getting worse. I couldn't keep hiding them, and even if I could, what if I was just hiding something that would kill me? What if those people Mrs. Everdeen talked about who seemed fine before they dropped dead really weren't? What if they were just trying to hide, too. I wouldn't be any different, it just would have taken longer to get to me. And how could I burden anyone with that when it would only get worse? Why would I put myself through people treating me even more differently during whatever was left of my life?

 

By the time we got back to the bakery I was fighting off tears. I didn't even pause on my way through the back door; I headed straight for the stairs, pulling myself up by the banister. I was near the top before I even heard Dad make it into the kitchen. Buddy greeted me, twining through my feet as I made my way to my bedroom. I reached down to scoop him up, mostly to keep myself from tripping over him. I pushed my bedroom door closed, set Buddy down on the foot of the bed, and dropped down onto my back. It was a struggle just to keep my breathing under control and stop myself from breaking down. I pushed the heels of my palms into my eyes as I heard Dad on the stairs.

 

“Peeta?” he knocked on the door, waiting a moment before opening it. “What's going on?”

 

“N-nothing,” I croaked out.

 

“Peet.” The floorboards creaked as Dad stepped into the room, closing the door behind him. Buddy mewled quietly as Dad sat on the edge of the bed. “What is it?” I shook my head, tensing even further. He set his hand on my shoulder, squeezing gently. “Look at me, Peet.” I lowered my hands, sitting up and looking over at him. The look on his face was all it took for me to lose my fight against the tears. I dropped my forehead against my knees and sobbed. Dad swore quietly and hooked his arm around my shoulders, pulling me closer to him. He rubbed my back, waiting for me to calm down. When he spoke again his voice was quiet and gentle. “Where is this coming from, Peeta?”

 

“I'm sc—scared,” I managed, sucking in a shaking breath.

 

“What's scaring you?” he asked. I didn't know where to start. I shook, pressed my eyes closed, clenched my fists, and fought to get my thoughts in order. “Is there something you needed to tell Dr. Lawrence?”

 

“Wh—why did she d-do it, Dad?” I asked. He took a breath, lifting his hand from my shoulders for a moment. “Wh-what did I d—do?”

 

“Oh god, Peet,” Dad said quietly, shifting to sit beside me on the bed and wrap his arms around me.

 

“D-didn't she e—ever love me?” I curled in tighter on myself as he pulled me to lean against him.

 

“I wish I knew what to say to that,” he said quietly, pulling my hat from my head and smoothing his hand over my hair. “It kills me that I don't.” He cradled the back of my head in his hand, his palm covering my scar. “You have never not been loved in this house.”

 

“I—I alm-most d-died,” I said, my breath hitching in my throat. I swallowed hard. “Everyone s-said—b-but I didn't really—know. It—I r-remember parts now—that I d-didn't before.”

 

“Is that what's scaring you?” Dad asked, pulling back and setting his hands on either side of my head, guiding me to look at him. “What could have happened?” I just bit down on my lip. “You almost died. You could have, for a while there. But you didn't. You're still here, thank god. I don't know what went on in your mother's head that brought it to this but you're safe. You're stable now.”

 

“N-no,” I turned my face away from him and out of his hands.

 

“What do you mean?” he frowned, trying to catch my eye. “What's going on, Biscuit?” The last time he'd called me that I'd been barely conscious, my head bandaged, with a red stain of blood on the pillow under my head. I broke, sobbing into my hands and shying away from him. How could I say any of this to him? How could I put any more guilt on him than I already had? How could he bear it? He swore softly, rubbing his hand over my back and kissing my hair. “It's okay. Whatever it is. It's okay.”

 

“I—I've been having b-blackouts—I think,” I pressed my hand to my forehead, shielding my face from him. The words felt heavy and slow and I struggled to get them out. “It—it's like I j-just—lose a f-few seconds. M-maybe minutes, I d-don't know. I b-blink and I'll m-miss th-things. Like, um, at the f-florist –Rye w-was across the room one m-minute and then h-had his hands on m-my shoulders and I d-don't know how he g—got there.”

 

“Rye saw this happen?” Dad rolled his jaw, looking toward the door.

 

“I m-made him—promise not t-to tell,” I said, lifting my head to look at him. “D-don't get mad at him.”

 

“Why, Peet?” he turned back to me. “Why wouldn't you tell me?”

 

“Wh-what if it's b-bad? Wh-what if this k-k—kills me?” My voice caught in my throat and I dropped my head back down. I couldn't look at him, not with all of this pouring out of me. “I d-don't want to d-die, Dad. P-please-” My throat closed and I struggled to take a breath. “I c-can't-”

 

“Peeta, baby, breathe,” Dad leaned down, resting his chin on my shoulder and putting his arms around me. “I'm not going to let you die. I'm not. This isn't going to take you from me, okay? You're not going anywhere.”

 

“You d-don't—know th-that,” I tensed up, trying to make myself smaller. Trying to disappear. “I c-can't—it's r-real if I s-say it. I c-can't-”

 

“Deep breath, Peet,” Dad said quietly. “It's okay.” I closed my eyes, forcing myself to take a slow, deep breath.

 

“If I s-say it out loud—if he knows, and I t-tell him th-then I c-cant—get away from it,” I said. As soon as the words left my mouth I couldn't hold myself back any longer. I collapsed into tears again, turning toward Dad and reaching out toward him, curling my fingers into the soft cotton of his shirt. He held me as sobs wracked my body, rocking me gently and enveloping me in the warm, comforting smell of the kitchen. Even the harsh antiseptic smell of the doctor's office couldn't change that. He laid his cheek against my hair, his chest heaving for a moment I curled up tighter, turning myself toward him.

 

“It's happening no matter what we do,” he said softly. “But the longer you put it off the more it's going to affect you. You know that. I know you do. We'll get you whatever help you need, Peeta. I promise. But you have to give us the chance to. Can you do that for me?”

 

“Y-yeah,” I nodded, taking a slow, shaky breath. He pulled back, using his thumb to carefully wipe the tears from under my eyes.

 

“Okay. You have to discuss this with Dr. Lawrence,” he said, rubbing his hand over my shoulders. “And with Lavender. When I pick up your new medications I'll set up a time to go in together, okay?”

 

“Wh-what if it's b-bad?” I sucked in a breath, trying to quell the panic I felt rising.

 

“That's even more of a reason to talk about it, don't you think?” he asked. I nodded. “Whatever it is, we'll deal with it. Okay?”

 

“Okay,” I said softly, dropping my forehead to my knees again. Dad pulled me against him again and kissed my hair.

 

“I love you, Biscuit,” he said.

 

“Don't call me that,” I chuckled, wiping under my eyes with the back of my hand.

 

Chapter Text

“Does Twain always go out this much?” I asked as Peeta and I listened to his father's steps recede down the hallway toward the stairs. He'd peeked into the room, smirking at us sitting across from each other on the bed with a mess of textbooks and notes between us, and announced he'd be back in a few hours.

 

“N-not always,” Peeta smiled to himself, looking down at Buddy in his lap. The kitten was flopped on his back, stretched out over Peeta's crossed legs and batting at the curling edge of one of my notebooks. Peeta scratched his stomach and Buddy immediately curled up around his hand and bit at his fingers. Peeta's hands and forearms had become littered with red surface scratches, though it only looked like Buddy had actually drawn blood once or twice.

 

My plan to get him ready for our finals involved going over all of the classwork he'd missed to bring him up to speed so that once it came time to study, we could do that together. Trying to prep him for tests more than two months away was useless. In all honesty, I'd never really needed to bother with studying. I had never had much time to study to begin with, and for the most part if I didn't learn something when it was taught in class, I wasn't going to learn it on my own either. I listened and took notes during class, and that was enough. Writing helped me commit it to memory. That technique wasn't going to work for Peeta; writing too much was still too difficult for him. It seemed to be getting harder. Every few minutes he'd drop his pencil and start rubbing his wrist.

 

Buddy wormed out from under Peeta's hand, apparently bored with the attention, and abandoned us to sit in the window. I watched Peeta tug at his fingers, frowning down at the page of notes in front of him. It was math, his worst subject, and one I wasn't particularly fond of either. He had been struggling to keep up with the class, let alone fill in the gaps in what he had been missing. It didn't help that Capps was an insufferable asshole, and seemed to be even harder on Peeta because of the exceptions that needed to be made for him.

 

I flipped my book closed and started to straighten out the mess between us. Peeta looked up at me as I reached for the book in front of him and stacked it on top of my notebooks.

 

“P-please tell me we're d-done,” he said as I lifted the stack to move it off of the bed.

 

“We're done,” I smirked, dropping the pile to the floor. He sighed in relief and grabbed me by the wrist as he stretched out to lay down. As he pulled me down I pressed myself to his side, hooking my arm around his waist and kissing his jaw.

 

“I hate math,” he said, his eyes fluttering closed. The recent change in his medication had him tiring out far quicker than he usually did. For his sake, I hoped it wasn't a permanent change. He'd never make it through a full school day like that, and that was part of the deal to get him to move up the next year.

 

“Me too,” I said, nuzzling against his his neck. He wrapped his arms around me, letting out a contented sigh. His fingers traced lazy circles over my back and I smiled to myself. We hadn't found any true privacy since that night in the kitchen and that was the first thing on my mind. I loved the bursts of confidence he had shown me on that night as well as the nights leading up to it. I hooked my leg over his, turning my face to kiss his neck. Peeta hummed quietly, his throat vibrating under my lips as his arms tightened around me. All I could think of was what he said to me. He wanted to undress me. Did he mean it? I shifted to kiss him, making it as slow and deep as I could stand. “You're not too tired, are you?”

 

“N-no,” he smirked. I smiled and kissed him again, tugging at the hem of his shirt. He sat up, allowing me to pull it up over his head. I laid back down with him, shifting to straddle his leg. Peeta slipped his hands under my shirt, smoothing them over my skin as he pushed it up.

 

“Do you remember what you said?” I asked between kisses.

 

“Yes,” he smiled, sliding his hands to my breasts. I could feel his cock though his pants and against my thigh. I kissed him again. “C-can I?”

 

“Yes,” I said. He pulled back, looking at me for a moment before mirroring my smile and kissing my neck as he sat up, shifting me with him. He slipped his hands under my shirt, settling them on either side of my waist. He took a slow breath, his expression hesitant and unsure. I kissed him softly. “Peeta, I'm sure. It's okay.”

 

He let out a soft chuckle, pressing his lips to mine as he lifted off my shirt. He smoothed his hands over my shoulders, cupping my breasts briefly before continuing down my sides. The feeling made me shiver. I tugged at his shirt, working the fabric up into my hands before pulling it up over his head. I pressed my lips to his shoulder, leaning forward to press myself against him. His skin was hot against my own, a stark contrast to the cool breeze blowing through the tiny sliver of open window next to the bed. I tucked my arms against my chest and laid my head on his shoulder. He smoothed his hands around to my back, letting them travel over my skin. His fingers slid under the band of my bra. I smiled to myself, turning my head to kiss his jaw and shifting to help him with the hook. He had never managed to get them undone with out my help. Before I'd even reached behind my back he took the strip of fabric in his hands, and it popped open a moment later.

 

“Hey!” he said, straightening up with a smile on his face. “I did it!” I burst into laughter, dropping my forehead against his shoulder. He chuckled. “D-don't laugh at me.”

 

“I'm not,” I said, shaking my head and trying to get my giggles under control.

 

“Yes—you are,” he said, pressing a kiss against my neck. I sat up, smiling at him and kissing him gently. “Those things are t-tricky.” I laughed again, covering my face as he pulled the straps down my arms. After a moment I dropped my hands, letting my bra fall down my forearms before dropping it to the floor. Peeta looked down at me, sliding his hand over my breast, pausing to rub his thumb over my nipple. My breath caught in my throat, and I watched his tongue dart out over his lips as he touched me.

 

Peeta hooked his arm around my waist and turned, laying me down on the bed beside him. I could feel my skin burning and drew my hands up under my chin, covering my breasts with my arms as he looked me over. He smiled, leaning down to kiss me softly and gently curling his fingers around my wrists to move my arms. I let my hands fall to my sides and his kisses traveled down my neck to my chest, his lips barely brushing over my breast as he sat up. He sat back, his tongue darting over his lips as he unbuttoned my pants. I lifted my hips as he pulled them down, watching the look on his face. He swallowed hard, pressing his lips together, and I bent my knees to help him get my pants off of my legs. He smoothed his hands up my thighs, hesitating and looking up at me when his fingers reached my underwear. I bit down on my lip and nodded. Peeta leaned down, planting a soft kiss on my hip that made me shiver, and slowly slipped my panties down my thighs and off of my legs.

 

I kept my thighs pressed together, too aware of the heat between them, my arms instinctively moving to cover my breasts again. Peeta's eyes roamed over me, and he let his hand come to rest on my hip, his thumb rubbing small circles on my skin. He laid back down and kissed me. I reached for the waist of his pants and he pulled back, sucking in a breath.

 

“J-just, um—wait,” he said quietly, flashing a brief smile. I muttered a quiet apology, and he kissed me gently before looking down at me again. He slid his hand up my stomach to my breast, squeezing it gently in his hand, leaning down and brushing his lips and tongue over my nipple. I sucked in a deep breath, settling my hand on his hair and watching him. His hand drifted down my side as his mouth moved to my other nipple, and I felt his fingers ghosting over my hair, tracing where my thighs were pressed together with his fingertips. He pulled back, looking down between us and smoothing his hand across my hips. I shivered, wondering what he was thinking. I'd never felt so vulnerable. Even when he touched me, when he'd worked his fingers over me and made me come, I hadn't felt this vulnerable. I shivered as his hand moved over my skin.

 

“Please?” I asked softly, reaching for the waist of his pants again. Peeta hesitated for a moment and nodded, allowing me to unbutton his pants and push them off of his hips. He helped me pull them down his legs before pressing himself against my side. I could feel his hardon through his boxers, pressing against my hip. He trailed his fingers over my hips, down toward my thighs, while nuzzling his face against my neck. I let my thighs fall apart, knitting my fingers in his hair as he slipped his hand between them. He was still unsure about himself, and his touch was cautious. I spread my legs further, trying to encourage him. His fingers found my clit easily, but I wanted something more. I turned my face toward him, capturing him in a kiss as I reached down and covered his hand with mine, lining my fingers up over his. His breath hitched in his throat as I guided his fingers over me.

 

After he had showed me what it felt like, I had an easier time reaching an orgasm on my own. I knew what to push for, as well as how far to follow the things that felt so good. His fingers still felt better than my own. I moved them over my folds, sliding my tongue against his. Peeta let out a soft moan and I pulled back, taking a breath before sucking his lower lip lightly. I moved our fingers to my entrance. I'd felt this on my own, and now I wanted to feel it with him. He opened his eyes, sucking in a shaky breath. I held his gaze, exhaling against his mouth as I pressed our fingers into me.

 

His hands were larger than mine, his fingers thicker, and my eyes fluttered closed as I adjusted to the fullness of both of our fingers. After a moment I started to move my finger and Peeta followed suit, his eyes still locked on mine while I opened them. He pressed his hips against mine. The heel of his palm pressed against my clit as he worked his finger inside me; the feeling dragged a moan out of me, my eyes all but rolling back at the sensation.

 

“Oh my god,” he muttered, repeating the motion and latching his lips to my neck when I dropped my head back and moaned again. I gasped for breath, moving my finger faster and urged him to do the same. I felt him smile and nip at my skin gently. He curled his finger as he pumped it into me, and the gesture made every muscle in my body tense. My back arched and my knees drew up; I was getting close, and he pushed his finger further into me, grinding the heel of his palm against my clit. I moaned his name, my thighs clamping shut around our hands, my hips bucking as I came.

 

Peeta kissed me as I relaxed, panting against his lips. My thighs fell open and he carefully pulled his finger out of me, rubbing over my folds and kissing the corner of my mouth. I felt warm and boneless, and as I relaxed I felt him moving his hips against me. He was rock hard with only his boxers stopping him from grinding against my bare thigh. I reached down between us and pushed his boxers down with one hand, wrapping my fingers around him and moving my hand with his hips. Peeta moaned, muffling the sound against my shoulder while he pumped into my hand. I shifted to watch him, barely looking away to kiss his jaw. I changed my grip, pressing him against my palm and uncurling my fingers just enough to watch as he came, spilling into my palm and moaning my name softly.

 

“Wow,” he breathed against my skin. I laughed softly, turning onto my side as he kissed me. I laid my head against his pillow and he turned away from me, reaching between the bed and the wall to pull out that disgusting towel.

 

“Oh my god, no,” I immediately rolled away from him and off the bed. “Keep that thing away from me. I'll just go wash my hand in the bathroom.”

 

“It's c-clean,” he protested, smirking at me as I yanked my clothes back on, being careful to keep the hand in question from touching the fabric.

 

“I know, she made me help fold yesterday, remember?” I snapped. “And I don't know that wasn't Rye's. Or your Dad's. Ugh.” I shuddered, turning to yank open the door and leave the room. It wasn't until halfway to the bathroom that I realized I'd been too disgusted to appreciate Peeta stretched out naked across his bed. I sighed, glancing down at Buddy as he darted into the bathroom before I closed the door. “Boys are gross, Buddy. Promise you'll stay cute.” Buddy purred in response, winding between my ankles as I moved to the sink to wash my hands.

 

I looked up into the mirror as I dried my hands, frowning at the tangled mess of my hair. As I worked my fingers through it, smoothing it out before braiding it again, I caught sight of an odd shadow on my neck. I leaned closer to the mirror, but still couldn't quite see in the dim light coming in through the window. Even after all the time I had spent there I couldn't get used to the constant electricity. I flicked on the switch by the door, blinking for a moment as my eyes adjusted, and looked again. There it was, halfway up my neck, too far forward to hide behind my hair. A fucking hickey, right out in the open for his father, Prim, Rye, our nosy friends, and my mother to see. I swore under my breath before slapping the light switch off and stomping back to his bedroom to give him hell.

 

 


 

Somehow the mark on my neck had earned me little more than a frown from my mother when I got home. I'd even made it through almost an entire lunch without a word out of Delly or Madge. Every time Peeta looked at me his eyes dropped to my neck, a hint of a smile curling the corners of his mouth.

 

“So study time is going well, huh?” Madge said, reaching across the table to poke at my neck. Hoping for her to keep her mouth shut was clearly hoping for too much. Delly giggled as I slapped Madge's hand away. “Was that a reward?” She grinned at me before turning to Peeta. He just chuckled, dropping his eyes to the table, his cheeks flushing.

 

“You're an asshole,” I said to Madge, self-consciously rubbing at the side of my neck.

 

“Don't be embarrassed,” she grinned. “Delly has some, too.”

 

“I do not,” Delly huffed, blushing faintly as she glared at Madge.

 

“Oh?” Madge hooked a finger in the front of Delly's shirt, pulling it aside to reveal three or four along the curve of her breast.

 

Madge!” Delly slapped her hand away, her blush deepening as she pulled her shirt back together, buttoning it up to her neck. Madge cackled.

 

“Wanna see mine?” she leaned back, reaching for the waist of her skirt.

 

No,” Delly and I snapped in unison. It just made her laugh harder. I looked over at Peeta; he dropped his eyes to my chest briefly before looking up at me, raising his eyebrows and smiling. I backhanded his thigh under the table.

 

“Ow,” he chuckled, retuning the slap, though much softer than I'd hit him. The bell rang a moment later. Madge blew kisses at us on her way out of the cafeteria with Delly. I just sneered in response, hooking my arm through Peeta's as we walked back to the classroom.

 

He was doing much better in the halls than he had when he first switched to the cane. We moved a bit faster, walking closer to the walls with Peeta on the inside, protecting him from anyone who might bump into him, accidentally or not. The first few days we had been the last in our classroom without fail, and I could tell how relieved he was that was no longer a problem. One less thing singling him out.

 

I doodled idly in the margins of my notebook through class. I'd finished the problem Capps had on the blackboard long ago, but he wouldn't call on me to provide the answer. He never did. Not only was I a girl, I was a girl from the Seam, and those two things added up to a waste of classroom space in his mind. Even after the two incorrect answers he'd gotten out of other students, he wouldn't bother with me. I glanced toward Peeta; he was staring down at his desk, a slack grip on his pencil, clenching his jaw.

 

“Mr. Mellark,” he said, sighing in exasperation. “Perhaps you could enlighten us with an answer.” Peeta didn't even look up. Capps raised an eyebrow, shifting impatiently where he leaned against the edge of his desk at the front of the room. “Mr. Mellark?”

 

I straightened up in my chair, frowning and glancing between Mr. Capps and Peeta. There were a few hushed giggles from around the room. The blank look on Peeta's face had me worried. I drew a breath, ready to say something, and he raised his hand to rub his fingers over his eyes.

 

Mellark,” Capps barked. Peeta jumped, snapping his attention up toward the front of the room. He looked utterly confused. Merx snorted, shaking his head and grinning as he turned back around. “Since you've been staring so intently at your work, I can only assume that you have a bit of mathematical genius to share with the rest of us. So, please. Share.”

 

“I—um, I'm-I'm sorry?” Peeta stammered, shrinking in his seat. Verne was practically falling out of his desk to leer at him, barely containing his laughter.

 

“The problem on the board, Mr. Mellark,” Capps pointed behind him, pushing himself off the edge of the desk to stand. “Do you have the solution or not.”

 

“N-n-no, sir,” Peeta slouched down in his desk, pushing his hat down over his eyes.

 

“Don't know why I bother,” Capps muttered, turning toward the blackboard and picking up a piece of chalk to scrawl the answer. I didn't need to watch; I knew what I had was right. I kept my eyes on Peeta, trying to figure out what was going on. He kept his head down, shifting just enough to glance up at me for a moment before hunching up his shoulders and looking down. His eyes were red. If he wasn't crying yet, he was on the verge. At least it was his last class.

 

Peeta hesitated when class was over, perched at the edge of his seat with his cane in his hand. I got up out of my chair and crossed the room to him. Merx stared me down as we passed each other. He didn't look very intimidating anymore with the permanent lump I'd left in his nose. I walked back to Peeta's desk and slid my hand over his shoulders.

 

“Hey,” I said softly. He looked up at me. His grip on his cane was white knuckled and the hand curled around his books trembled. “What's wrong?” He shook his head, glancing toward the front of the room where Capps sat staring the two of us down. “Okay. Come on.” I hooked my arm under his, helping him to his feet. He was unsteady as we made our way out of the room, moreso than he'd been in a long time.

 

“S-sorry,” he said, leaning against both me and the cane for balance. “I d-d—don't know what—happened.”

 

“You're making me nervous,” I said, setting my hand on his shoulder to steady him as we walked.

 

“Um—how long was, um, C-Capps t-talking to me?” he asked, his voice soft and hesitant.

 

“What do you mean?” I asked, frowning at him. “A few seconds. Did you not even hear him? He called your name three times.”

 

“I d—didn't,” Peeta said, pressing his hand over his face, trying to hide his twitch. We stopped outside the office and I moved in front of him. Something was wrong, I could see it, and he was being evasive. I didn't like it. “I'll see you—in a c-couple hours—right?”

 

“Yeah,” I nodded. I squeezed his hand when he started to move away, pulling him back to me and planting a soft kiss on his cheek. He flashed me a smile and I stood and watched him until he went into the office, frowning at the grip he had on the door frame. Something was wrong.

 

I turned and walked back to class, turning all of it over in my mind. I zoned out of the rest of classes, staring down at my notebook and trying to figure things out. His symptoms were changing. He had been slipping into bouts of vacant staring more often, and he needed things repeated more than he used to. He'd even started rejoining conversations with something said a few moments before, as if nothing else had been said. His medications had been switched recently. The meeting he'd had with Dr. Lawrence and my mother. I felt like something was being kept from me. I was on edge for the rest of the day and all but bolted out of the school as soon as I could.

 

Rye was in the kitchen when I arrived, already at work on the bread for the evening rush. I dropped my books in the mudroom. He ducked out front to help a customer as I went into the kitchen, and that meant Twain was upstairs. I moved to the sink to wash my hands, scrubbing my arms up to the elbows with the gritty brick of soap that sat next to the tap. Rye returned as I was tying on my apron.

 

“Where's Peeta?” I asked.

 

“Upstairs,” he said. “I think he's asleep; he was exhausted on the way home. Dad's taking a nap, too. Just you and me, Catpiss.”

 

“Oh, good,” I sighed. Rye pointed out what he'd already finished, stepping out front again as the bell rang and leaving me to get to work. I preferred the kitchen. Most of the customers that came in and out were fine. They placed their orders, paid, and left. Some were very clearly looking down their noses at me as I bagged their orders. People like Merx's parents. Gilda's too. The customers I really couldn't stand were the ones who just would not stop talking. There was only so long I could force a polite smile and nod before completely losing patience, and it was not nearly as long as they liked to keep talking.

 

Once the cases were stocked and the last batch of cooking set out to cool on the counter, I retrieved a folder of old order forms from beneath the counter by the register. They were long and complicated, and if Twain really expected me to be able to take over that particular task, I had a long way to go in understanding them. Nothing was ordered by any standard weight. It was all in cases, and the size of every case was something Twain had apparently committed to memory. I couldn't find it written down anywhere.

 

After a few minutes I heard a door open upstairs and Peeta's shuffling footsteps in the hall. I looked up as he came downstairs, smiling at him as he reached the bottom. He looked as though he'd just rolled out of bed; his shirt rumpled, eyes bleary. He pulled out the stool beside me and sat down, mumbling a hello as he did.

 

“Feeling any better?” I asked.

 

“I am,” he nodded. “I j-just, um—needed t-to lay down.”

 

“It seemed a little more serious than just needing to lay down,” I said.

 

“What did?” Rye asked, moving into the doorway by the storefront and folding his arms over his chest. Peeta sighed, scratching under the edge of his hat and rolling his jaw as he looked up at his brother. Rye just raised an eyebrow.

 

“I, uh—zoned out at sch-school,” he said, glancing toward me and smoothing his hat back down.

 

“Zoned out or blacked out?” Rye asked, crossing the kitchen to sit down across from us at the worktable. “Was it another one of those things? I thought you were on medicine for that now.”

 

“Another one of what things?” I asked, straightening in my seat and turning toward Peeta. He looked toward Rye and then back to me, taking a hesitant breath.

 

“Hang on, you haven't told her?” he pointed toward me.

 

“Haven't told me what?” I demanded, looking between the two of them. Peeta shook his head, tensing up as he looked at Rye.

 

“Peet, seriously,” Rye said. “Tell her.” I narrowed my eyes at Rye, turning in my chair to face Peeta. He frowned, glaring at Rye before he turned to me.

 

“What is it?” I asked, losing my patience with the entire scenario. Peeta hesitated, dropping his gaze and tugging at his fingers nervously.

 

“Um—I've b-been having these b-blackouts for a while,” he said. His posture sagged as he paused, the muscles around his eye fluttering. “A few seconds just—slip b-by. They've b-been getting worse and—going on f-for longer. I g-get headaches afterward or I g-get dizzy s-sometimes. Dr. Lawrence says they're s-seizures.”

 

“Seizures?” I asked. He nodded. I'd seen seizures before. Mom had patients with them every once in a great while, and what I saw in Peeta was not what I'd seen in them. No muscle spasms, no unconsciousness, nothing as terrifying or shocking as what I'd thought a seizure was.

 

“They put you on meds for it. Why are you still having them?” Rye asked, annoyance creeping into his voice.

 

“It has t-to—build up b-before it works,” Peeta said, glancing at him before turning back to me. Was he having the kind of seizures I was familiar with, too? How had I never even seen any of this? I folded my arms over my chest and looked down at the table, trying to talk myself out of being angry about him holding out on me. Did he not trust me with it? How long had my mother known?

 

“Why are you getting mad?” Rye asked, raising an eyebrow at me. I snapped my head up to look at him but before I could open my mouth to respond the bell out front rang. He rolled his eyes, slumping off of his stool and out to the storefront for the customer.

 

“A-are you getting mad?” Peeta asked quietly. The nervous tone in his voice killed any anger that might have been building.

 

“No, I'm just—confused, I guess,” I shrugged, trying to shake off the tension in my shoulders and turned toward him again. “How long has this been going on?”

 

“I think it's, um, b-been longer than I r-really know,” he said, raising his fingers and pressing them against the side of his face, rubbing the muscles around his eye as they began to twitch. “I d-don't usually realize they're happening.”

 

“Why didn't you tell me?” I said, and the look on his face made me regret not softening my tone. I reached over and took his hand, threading our fingers together. He just shrugged and shook his head. “Peeta, do you not trust me with this stuff?”

 

“I d-didn't want anyone to w-worry for no reason,” he said quietly. I squeezed his hand.

 

“Peeta, have you ever seen someone have a seizure before?” I asked.

 

“I d-didn't even know what they were,” he admitted.

 

“They're terrifying,” I said, studying his face and trying to push the idea of him convulsing on the floor out of my head. “Mom has had a patient like that and it's—it's not like whatever happened to you today.”

 

“D-Dr. Lawrence said there are different kinds,” he said, looking down at our hands. “That, um—the ones I have are minor. B-but could get worse.”

 

“How much worse?” I asked, hoping for an answer other than what was running through my head. Peeta just shrugged in response. That did absolutely nothing to help how nervous I felt about it all. I did my best to keep my imagination from running away with me, and ultimately ended up pushing the subject out of my mind completely to stop it from happening. It wasn't until I got home that night, and Prim had gone to bed, that I allowed myself to revisit any of it.

 

“Mom?”

 

“Hm?” she looked up from the book in her lap, her glasses slipping down her nose.

 

“Peeta told me about his seizures,” I said, tucking my feet up onto the couch.

 

“I'm guessing you have some questions,” she said with a faint smile, setting aside her book and pulling off her glasses.

 

“He had one at school,” I said, chewing on my lip and picking at the blanket over my legs. I couldn't figure out exactly what I wanted to ask. “He probably wouldn't have even told me that's what it was if Rye and I hadn't bothered him about it after school.” I glanced over at Mom; she was watching me with a patient, expectant look on her face. “He told me there are different kinds of seizures, I just—I don't know. I didn't think-” I stopped and shrugged. I wasn't sure how to put it to words.

 

“You're thinking of Mr. Pruitt,” Mom said, pausing and shaking her head. “Wow, I didn't realize you remembered that. You were so young.” Her expression grew distant for a moment. Dad had still been alive. She was thinking it, too. Neither of us would say it. She shifted in her chair and sighed. “He had tonic-clonic seizures. They're far more extreme than what Peeta is experiencing.”

 

“What is Peeta experiencing?” I asked.

 

“It's hard to know for sure,” she said. “We don't have the ability to run any of the tests that could pinpoint it, and I really don't know very much about epilepsy. Dr. Lawrence thinks they're absence seizures, but there's a chance they could be complex partial seizures. Or both.” She paused, smoothing her hair back and letting out a soft, embarrassed laugh. “I really don't know the difference. I'm more than a little embarrassed to admit that.”

 

“How long do you think he's been having them?” I asked.

 

“It's very likely they've been going on since shortly after the accident and we've missed them,” she said with a faint shrug, looking toward the low fire burning beside her. “They don't really look like anything, for the most part. And they're brief. Peeta would have no memory of them, of course, so he would only notice if they happened at a time when he'd realized a few moments had slipped by.”

 

“Are they dangerous?”

 

“They can be,” she admitted. “It's important to get them under control. He can live with them, just like he can live with the injury. It can be controlled, but not necessarily cured.”

 

“So this is just another thing that will stick with him forever,” I said.

 

“Unfortunately.”

 

I sighed, adding this into the list of things Peeta found himself stuck living with. Another thing that witch he had for a mother had saddled him with forever. I'd seen his scars and forced myself not to stare at them or touch them too long to keep him from feeling self-conscious. I'd noticed the way he flinched at loud noises, shied away from certain tones of voice, retreated from conflict before it even came up. What she'd done to him went far beyond his brain injury, and it just made me hate her even more.

 

“Is there anything else you'd like to ask?” Mom said. I snapped my head toward her; I hadn't realized she was watching me.

 

“Is it possible he might have other kinds of seizures?” I asked, chewing the inside of my lip.

 

“He could, in the future,” she said. “Dr. Lawrence explained things to me a bit. They're caused by misdirected brain activity. The type of seizures Mr. Pruitt had were generalized. That means the activity was more, um, widespread. Peeta's is localized, it affects certain functions but not his entire brain. There's the chance it could spread, and his seizures could get worse. That's why controlling them is so important.”

 

I nodded, trying to wrap my head around what she meant. I had looked through some of her books, enough to understand, at least, that the brain worked on electrical impulses and chemicals traveling between nerves. It all had seemed entirely too complicated and delicate for something that our entire lives depended on.

 

“May I ask you a few questions?” Mom said. I turned to look at her, raising my eyebrows. “I've only seen the seizure that Dr. Lawrence induced in the office. At least, that's the only seizure I've actually been aware of as I saw it. What did it look like?”

 

“It didn't look like anything,” I shrugged. “He was just staring down at his desk. He still had his pencil in his hand and he kept clenching his jaw. I was across the room, though. I couldn't really see much.”

 

“And what about afterward? How did he seem?” she furrowed her brow in concentration.

 

“Confused,” I said. “Embarrassed. Unsteady. He had a hard time walking.”

 

“They can be difficult to recover from,” she nodded. “I'm guessing you're not the only person who noticed.” I shook my head and she sighed. “Poor thing. Twain's going to need to bring that up with the principal.” She paused, shaking her head before turning to me. “Is there anything else you want to ask?”

 

“No,” I said, though I really couldn't think of what else to ask.

 

“Okay.” She got up from her chair, leaning over to kiss my hair. “I'm going to get to bed. Don't stay up too late.”

 

“I won't,” I said, looking over my shoulder as she went to her bedroom. I sat until the last of the evening's fire flickered down to embers. Buttercup yawned at me, stretching out as I got up off of the couch and picking himself up from his perch on the back of it to follow me into the bedroom. Prim was long asleep, the lamp still burning beside her and a book face down on her chest. I smiled to myself, lifting the book and marking her page before setting it aside on the nightstand. After changing into my pajamas I turned off the lamp, marveling for what felt like the thousandth time at just what the Mellarks had done for us. This time last year we didn't even have lamp oil. Back then, I had climbed into bed beside Prim and wondered what on earth we were going to eat the next day. In the morning I would be able to send anything Gale and I were able to bring down home with him after our hunt and still be able to have breakfast when I got home. I smiled to myself, lifting the blankets to slide into bed beside Prim. She turned to face me, folding against my chest as I draped my arm around her.

 

 


 

When Gale and I arrived at the bakery on Saturday to trade we found my mother sitting in the kitchen with a mug pressed between her hands. Prim was kneeling on one of the stools, leaning over a recipe book and eying whatever Rye was mixing beside her. I stopped short just inside the kitchen, staring at the scene in front of me. The entire scene felt surreal. Gale stopped beside me and smirked.

 

“Well,” he said. “Isn't this domestic?”

 

“I'm learning how to make muffins,” Prim beamed at us.

 

“Ah, hard at work, huh?” Gale said, folding his arms across his chest and looking over at Rye. “Must be exhausting, hanging out in a kitchen all morning. And to think we only managed to hike, what was it, Catnip, eight miles?” He paused and looked over at me. I just rolled my eyes. “And hauled back a couple dozen things to trade between the two of us. You really got it rough, Mellark.”

 

“Excuse you, Gale Hawthorne, he works hard,” Prim snapped.

 

“Thank you, Primrose,” Rye smirked.

 

“And he doesn't get all filthy and gross. He smells good,” Prim gave Gale a look. “Plus, dead things are disgusting.”

 

“Yeah, Gale Hawthorne,” Rye imitated the look on her face. “Excuse you.” Mom shook her head, laughing silently.

 

“I thought you were supposed to be with Peeta this morning,” I said to Mom, taking off my ga