Two years after the war
The sun has already risen when I leave the house. I’m later than normal, but I’ve been fighting a stomach bug for the past few days that’s slowed me down. I want to get back to the forest and am discouraged I’ll have to wait another day before losing myself in the quiet there. Instead, I’m headed to the bakery, a place I tend to avoid as much as possible because of the sheer number of people I’ll see there. It doesn’t help that most of them are women who fawn over Peeta.
Our relationship is complicated. It has been since the day he threw me that loaf of bread in the rain when we were ten. Before we were reaped, before the Games, and definitely before the war. They’re all over now, all swept away in the aftermath of the revolution and the influence of the Mockingjay, an identity I still resist.
Peeta is mine, and I am his.
Do I love him? Yes, but it’s taken years to admit it to myself. Months and weeks and countless moments passed before I let myself put words to what he means to me. He knew long before I did, but he waited, patient as always, for me to meet him where he was.
Peeta’s always been steady; otherwise, he’d never have survived the hijacking and made his way back to me. He finds solace in his work, kneading bread and frosting cookies and cakes as he did before his world was upended. He doesn’t talk much about his family, but I know he misses them. He honors them in his products and by rebuilding the bakery as an exact replica before it was firebombed. Firebombed because I blew up the arena in the Quarter Quell.
I hate going to the bakery, but it’s not because Peeta’s there. It’s because I hate being confronted with how much people admire him when they’re suspicious of me. Panem loves Peeta, but only District 12 understands who I am and why the boy with the bread came home to help the Mockingjay heal her wings.
As expected, the bakery is busy. Women crowd the counter, and Peeta addresses each of them in turn, smiling and nodding as he takes orders and accepts payment. The women titter around him, and my hackles rise. My predator instincts are on alert, and I glare when his eyes meet mine. He nods for me to cross behind the counter and head to the office in the back where I know he’ll join me when the rush dies. I fume while I wait for that to happen.
“Katniss?” he calls when the store quiets. He stands in the doorway and watches me. “No hunting today?”
“Not unless I can take out some of those old birds.”
He grins at me, and I steel myself. I love his smile and the way his eyes crinkle up at the corners when he does. That blue still strikes me as the most calming color I’ve ever seen other than the evergreen of the woods beyond the fence. His shoulders have broadened since we returned home, and his limp is barely noticeable now that he’s had some corrective surgery here in District 12. He’s become a man in the past few years.
“Don’t tell me you’re jealous,” he teases and crosses the room to kneel beside me. “You know I’m only doing my job, selling bread, cookies, and cakes, to the poor women of the town.”
“Poor women!” I yelp, but he leans in to kiss me before I can protest more.
His mouth slides over mine gently, and his hands cradle my face tenderly. His lips seduce me, and his scent—still cinnamon and dill—soothes my ruffled feathers.
“I’ve only ever had an eye for one type of beauty. It’s my weakness. You’re my weakness.”
He’s right, I know. It’s why Snow took him, why I almost lost him, and why I should trust him now.
“I don’t trust them.”
“But you trust me.” I nod and tug him closer. “But it wouldn’t be bad if I proved my devotion to you more often.”
He coaxes a smile from me and then another kiss and then another until we’re both panting. The sensation warms me, but I can’t quite smash that kernel of doubt that plagues me. The one that reminds me I’m nothing special—only a fatherless girl from District 12 who isn’t particularly pretty.
“Words are your thing,” I remind him plaintively.
“And actions are yours,” he returns. “We’ll have to develop some habits.”
“Rituals. Traditions. Whatever you want to call it,” he answers. “Whatever will help you understand how much you mean to me.”
“Do you think that will help?”
He kisses me again and tugs the zipper down on my shirt so he can take my nipple in his mouth. He sucks and licks until I have to bite my lip to stay quiet. My fingers curl in his blonde hair, and I press against him. Just when I’m about to beg him to close early and take me home, he pulls back and winks.
“I think it’ll help.”
I choose to believe him, and I’m floating as I return home. That night we start creating our rituals—building on the work we’ve already done in the plant book and our book of memories. And Peeta’s right. It changes everything.
Five years after the war
Buttercup stretches in the afternoon light slicing through the window and striping the living room floor. Her purring rumbles through her, and I stop to rub her stomach with my foot. She curls around it and nuzzles her nose against my toes before nipping at them softly. It’s strange that she’s one of the best things in my life when we used to hate each other so much.
I swallow hard at the lump that builds in my throat. I’d trade this mangy feline in for my sister in a heartbeat if that were possible, but that’s never going to be feasible. I won’t have Buttercup forever, and she’s already survived longer than I imagined she would. I suddenly feel guilty for even thinking about bargaining with her presence.
I turn when I hear the door open, and my lips curve into a soft smile. Peeta crosses to me and pulls me into his arms, cradling me against him until our heartbeats match. It’s become our ritual when he returns home from work—finding each other again every day the way we’ve always searched for each other.
He loves me. Everything he’s ever done has shown that (hijacking excepted), and I’m still surprised every day when I realize it’s not an illusion. What he and I have together is real, and it’s lasted the tests of war, murder, torture, death, and the depths of depression.
“How was your day?” I ask against his neck. He smells like cinnamon and dill, the way he always has. It’s comforting at the same time it makes me want to rip his clothes off and taste every inch of his skin.
Peeta lifts my chin and brushes his lips against mine. “My day is always good when I come home to you.”
It’s what he says every evening, and it still makes my heart swell.
“Lamb stew’s on the stove, but it’ll keep,” I whisper as his hands caress my back.
“I’m not hungry for dinner.”
He undresses me slowly, savoring every second and guides me to the couch while carefully stepping over Buttercup. She opens one eye as we cross the room and then flees as Peeta’s shirt hits the floor. His bare chest ripples as he unbuttons his pants and pushes them past his hips. Reclining on the cushions, I lick my lips before he covers me, warming me with his body and making me feel alive.
Slowly but surely, we resurrect each other. I find solace in his arms, and he clings to my promise to accept him as he is. I hate that he still feels his mind is fractured, split into dozens of pieces that don’t always organize themselves in exactly the right way. He works constantly to resist regression into the dark place that’s still convinced I’m a mutt set on killing him when what I really want is to heal our brokenness together.
“Katniss,” he chants as his hips rock against mine. I tell him I love him as he strokes. My legs wrap around his waist, and he twists so I’m riding him. His eyes darken to navy as he watches me, his face pained from the only kind of torture we’ll ever experience again. I don’t have words, so I allow my actions to speak for me. I lavish him with all the passion inside me until I’m on fire, burning brighter than the sun, as we rock toward the finish.
I cry out when it happens, and he joins me. Our voices harmonize the same way our bodies seek and complement the other. One hunger is sated, but then our stomachs rumble.
“Welcome home,” I sigh and kiss the underside of his jaw. “I missed you today.”
“I missed you, too. Sae came in for some cookies. For her granddaughter, I think.”
“I ran into Thom in the meadow when I got back from hunting. He said he’d stop by tomorrow.”
He kisses my forehead and slips out from under me. He covers me with a quilt from the back of the couch and heads to the kitchen.
We pass the evening together, eating and talking, avoiding hard topics and constantly remembering our losses. He smooths out my hair and re-braids it as we chat. I curl his ashy blonde waves around my fingers and trace the raised veins in his hands and arms, admiring the strength there. Kneading dough remains his focus this many years after the war, while his artistic talent has remained latent while our district still struggles to rebuild. His fingers trace my curves, and I’m struck with an idea.
“Why don’t you sketch me tonight?”
He stills at my suggestion, but I can feel his energy. He’s excited by the idea, and I’m grateful I was both able to express it and am eager to make it happen.
We climb the stairs to our room, and he arranges me on the bed before grabbing his pad of paper and charcoals. The sheets are rumpled around me, but I’m comfortable and confident as his eyes devour my form. Several minutes later, he’s started and abandoned at least three attempts when he begins to narrate what he’s doing.
“I love drawing your legs,” he admits. “The way your thigh curves into the hollow behind your knee is gorgeous.”
“Thank you,” I whisper in return. His gift with words lulls me into erotic fantasies as he describes the arc of my neck and the swell of my breasts. I can almost feel him stroking me as his hands caress the paper and bring me to life.
He fills page after page until he tosses his work aside and simply observes me. He hardens as he does, and I’m desperate for him. He doesn’t respond, but he does run his hand across his chest and down to his groin. My eyes widen as he grips himself and tugs several times.
I watch his face, and it’s a work of art. His cheeks pinken, and his lips part with whimpered groans that shoot straight to my core. I want him so much, and it still surprises me that I can both have him and that there’s no threat of us being torn apart. So many lost days, and I don’t want any more of them.
I’m emboldened by him and grateful we’re safe and can explore what feels so new between us, even though it’s existed for years. It takes several more of my pleas before he’s ready to join me in bed.
He gives me what I need, and I return the favor. Buttercup joins us, curling up on Peeta’s feet as our breath calms. I’m content. We nap for a while, but he wakes me with his need. Sometimes he wants to please me; other times he’s desperate for release. No matter what, I’m happy to participate. We share, take, and give in equal parts until we’re finally sated and drift into a deep sleep as the sun rises outside our window.