Katniss stood upstairs in front of her bedroom window, staring out into the darkened Victor's Village, watching as a blanket of white slowly covered the ground.
It was a heavy snowfall too, considering how early it was in the year.
Once, that would have worried Katniss, because a bad storm this soon probably meant that a hard winter would follow.
Then again, winters had always been hard in District 12. They were even harder in the Seam.
Winter meant biting cold in drafty houses and coughs and fevers that lurked just around the corner, ready to claim the youngest and most vulnerable. Winters meant long days with empty bellies too, because nothing grew, and new shipments from the Capitol depended on whether or not the trains could make it down the tracks. Without the trains, people had no choice but to make due with whatever they had left in their pantries, which, in the Seam, often meant nothing at all.
The Everdeens had usually fared a little better than most - Katniss had made sure of that. Remembering what her father had done when he'd been alive, she'd started preparing months beforehand, canning everything she could, drying meat and herbs, and gathering firewood one bundle at a time.
But it hadn't always been enough, and the harshest winters made it almost impossible to hunt for fresh meat.
The worst winter, by far, had come when Katniss was thirteen.
The days had been cold, the sort of cold that cut right through to the bone no matter how many layers she wore, and the nights had been even colder, the snow piling up outside in three-foot drifts. Hunting had been out of the question because it had been too dangerous to stay outside that long, and trapping hadn't yielded much better results, partly because Katniss had still been learning then, and about half the time, her snares had failed. Plus, even when they'd worked, the weather meant that she couldn't check the lines often.
During one particularly bad storm that winter, she'd been shut inside for three days before the snow had let up enough for her to make the trip. When she'd finally gotten out to the forest, she found a raccoon in the snare she'd set in an old, dry creek bed. The raccoon had probably suffered for quite a while because the snow around it had been soaked through with red. At first, Katniss had thought the blood was just from the injury the wire had caused, but then she'd set about freeing its body. That was when she'd realized…the raccoon had started chewing on its own leg in a final, terrible bid for freedom.
At the time, she'd never thought she would understand that sort of desperation.
But she did now. Now that she was a Victor.
It wasn't what she'd expected when she won. She should have felt free. She'd never have to worry about the winter - or any season - ever again. Her house in the Victor's Village had thick, insulated walls, fireplaces, and central heat. The cabinets alone were stocked with enough food to last them for months, and she had more money than she knew what to do with.
She'd always equated that sort of abundance with freedom, because she'd been a slave to wants and needs for years.
But she didn't feel free.
The house with its insulated walls, fireplaces, and central heat? It wasn't hers, not really. It was the Capital's. The food…it was shipped in from all over the Districts and was more exotic than anything she'd ever seen in her life, a constant reminder of the Capitol's generosity. The money filling her pockets…it had the Capitol's seal on one side and President Snow's portrait on the other. (Panem's currency had looked like that for longer than she'd been alive, but she'd never been as aware of it as she was now, and the coins seemed heavier in her hand because of it.)
Every minute of every day, she felt a little more claustrophobic, like the walls were closing in around her, like there was a noose looped around her neck, tightening inch by inch, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
It felt like she was that raccoon, caught in the Capital's snare, and she was ready to start chewing on her leg out of sheer desperation.
But she couldn't because everyone she cared about, every single person she loved, was caught in the trap right along with her. And if she looked like anything less than a deliriously happy, grateful, obedient Victor, then they would be the ones to suffer for it.
Katniss leaned forward, resting her hands on the windowsill in front of her, her fingertips digging into the wood, squeezing until they started to hurt. For a moment, she wanted nothing more than to rip that windowsill from its frame and start tearing down the wall piece by piece.
The wall of her house. The wall of her gilded prison.
But she closed her eyes instead and forced her hands to relax. Even if she had the strength to do as much damage as she wanted to, it wouldn't change anything.
The real walls were the ones nobody could see.
She swallowed hard and opened her eyes again, finding that the blanket of white outside had grown thicker. It coated almost everything now, standing out vividly in the darkness and casting the harsh lines of the Victor's Village into stark relief, like one of the charcoal drawings in Peeta's sketchbook.
Her gaze moved automatically up the street to his house.
Golden light was shining from one of the windows downstairs…the kitchen window, she guessed.
Maybe he was baking.
He said that helped when he couldn't sleep.
She envied him for that…envied the fact that he could bake or draw and find some kind of solace when she was cut off from her own refuge now. She couldn't risk visiting the forest anymore even when there wasn't any snow covering the ground.
It was too dangerous.
Her fingers started to dig into the wood of the windowsill again, and she let go of it this time, pushing herself away from the window to pace around her bed. The floor creaked faintly with the movement, and she winced. It was the middle of the night, and both Prim and her mom were asleep. She didn't want to wake them. She kept them awake often enough as it was.
She couldn't seem to sit still, though, couldn't seem to stop moving now that she'd started, so she turned on her heel and started for the door of her room, opening it as quietly as she could and slipping out into the hallway and down the stairs.
The curtains were still open on the first floor, and the snow outside seemed to bathe everything in a soft, white glow. It gave her enough light to see by, so Katniss didn't bother turning on any of the nearby lamps. She just kept going, kept moving, her feet carrying her through the house like they had a will of their own. She walked around the kitchen with its chrome appliances and stone countertops. ("The stone is imported directly from Two," Effie had boasted when she'd first given them a tour of the house.) Past the entry way with its rich, wood paneling. ("Imported from District Seven, of course.") And into the living room, with its plush furniture and handmade rugs. ("Imported from District Eight. Isn't the fabric just lovely?")
Katniss hated it. She hated all of it…more than she'd ever hated their tiny house in the Seam with its drafty windows and leaky roof. That house had been theirs, at least. The Capitol had given it to her parents, assigned it to them when they'd gotten married at the Justice Building, but they had made it their own. The porch…the original had rotted, and they'd had no money to buy new lumber, but her father had managed to rebuild it over the course of a year, carefully smuggling in wood from the forest, one log at a time. The curtains…her mother had patched them together from some of her old dresses with neat, tiny stitches and clever embroidery to hide the damage that moths had done. And the small herb garden in the back…Katniss had gathered the seeds for it herself, and she and Prim had spent hours there together, weeding and harvesting and watering.
But all of that was gone now, taken from her like so many other things in her life, until almost all that was left was what the Capital wanted her to have.
What would they take next?
Her chest tightened at the thought, a foreign pressure around her lungs that made it hard to breathe. Swallowing against the sudden dryness in her throat, Katniss sat down on one of the window seats at the front of the living room. Turning sideways, she pulled her legs up so that her feet rested on the seat with her, then she wrapped her arms around her knees.
Her gaze moved back to the window, to the ever-growing sea of white outside. The only break in it seemed to be the golden light shining from Peeta's kitchen window. She had a better view from here. It looked even brighter, filling the misty air around his house and spilling out into the snow.
She hadn't talked to Peeta much lately…not since the Victory Tour. She hadn't planned it that way. But the truce they'd come to, the tentative friendship they'd begun, she wasn't sure it had survived their engagement. Peeta hadn't seemed angry on the trip back to Twelve, not like he had before, when he'd learned about her act in the arena. But he'd grown quiet again…distant, and she hadn't wanted to push him for more. He was being pushed enough already.
She let him have his space because she'd wanted space of her own, and soon enough, after the wedding, they wouldn't even have that.
She wondered, not for the first time, if she shouldn't have suggested the engagement at all. It hadn't done any good, had it? Snow wasn't convinced, and the situation in the Districts wasn't any better.
All it had really done was give the Capitol something else to put on display.
There was a part of her, though, that didn't regret it. She didn't want it, but she didn't regret it either, because she knew that it would have happened anyway. There was only one possible ending for the "Star-Crossed Lovers" of District Twelve that the people of the Capitol would accept.
Getting engaged at the end of the Victory Tour hadn't changed the outcome. They'd just pushed up the time-table.
But at least it was a choice that they had made.
They couldn't stop it from happening, but they could choose when it happened.
Katniss drew a sharp breath in realization, blinking hard.
They could choose when it happened.
The wedding…it didn't have to happen in the Capitol. It could happen in Twelve. It could be…it could be theirs.
She exhaled slowly, the glass pane of the window fogging up with the warmth of her breath.
Her chest ached again, this time with longing and something that felt a little bit like hope.
Maybe, just maybe, she could have something that was actually hers, something the Capitol hadn't given her. Maybe…she could have Peeta. The Capitol hadn't given him to her, not really. The Games might have been what pushed them together, but there'd been something between them long before that, starting with a burnt loaf of bread and a handful of dandelions.
The Capitol hadn't done that. Peeta had.
And no matter what the Capitol made them do…Peeta wasn't pretending, she knew that much. Even when he was playing things up for the cameras, everything he said and did…there was real feeling behind it.
Katniss couldn't say that she felt the same. She didn't know what she felt. In the arena, all she'd known was that she couldn't let him die. Was that love? She wasn't sure. Maybe she never would be.
But whatever her feelings were about The Boy with the Bread, she felt them in spite of the Capitol, not because of them.
Her hands tightened around her knees for a moment before she swung her legs back over the window seat and stood. She walked straight to the entryway where her father's jacket hung on a hook, and she reached for it, the supple leather filling her palm. She hadn't bothered changing into her sleep clothes earlier, knowing there would be no point. She was glad of that now as she as slid her arms into the jacket's sleeves, pulling the jacket around the loose, red sweater she wore and tugging her braid out from underneath the collar. Her boots were nearby - the new boots Cinna had sent her for the winter, the ones with black, pristine leather and thick, rubber soles. She rolled up the legs of her jeans, then slid her sock-covered feet into those boots, wiggling her toes into the padded softness of the material inside. She unrolled the jeans and tucked the ends into the tops of the boots, wanting to keep the hems from getting wet if the snow was deep enough.
She knew she'd made the right choice when she opened the front door. The snow was five inches deep already, and it showed no signs of stopping any time soon. It wasn't a blizzard - the air was quiet and still, and large snowflakes were falling softly as far as the eye could see - but the visibility was poor. The snowfall was thick enough that she could just make out the hazy boundaries of the Victor's Village in the distance, but it didn't really matter how bad the storm was.
She didn't have far to go.
She stepped out onto the porch, the snow crunching under her boots as she reached back to shut the door softly behind her, and then she started walking. The skin of her cheeks and nose tingled in the sudden cold, and her breath turned into a cloud of mist, but she just pulled her father's jacket a little more tightly around her, burying her hands in the pockets to keep them warm.
It didn't take her long to reach Peeta's house, even with the snow to slow her down, and she was grateful for that really, because it didn't give her much time to think…to change her mind.
Drawing her right hand from her pocket, she stretched out her arm and knocked on the door.
She heard Peeta before she saw him - she could make out the sound of his heavy footsteps before the door swung open and they were face to face.
Her first thought was that he looked tired. He was dressed in a gray, long-sleeve t-shirt and faded blue sweatpants, and his blond hair was sticking up at odd angles, like he'd run his hands through it. There were dark circles under his eyes, and his face was pale and drawn…at least until he saw her and his weary expression quickly morphed into concern.
"Katniss! What is it? Are you okay? Is something wrong?"
Katniss grimaced faintly, feeling suddenly guilty. She hadn't considered how it might look - showing up on his doorstep in the middle of the night during a snowstorm.
"No," she said quickly. "Nothing's wrong. I just…couldn't sleep, and I saw your light on…" The words caught in her throat under the weight of Peeta's stare, but she forced herself to keep going. "I hoped we could talk."
Peeta's eyebrows rose faintly, and he glanced between her and the snow and back again, but if he wondered why their conversation couldn't wait, he decided not question it out loud.
"Sure," he told her instead, opening the door a little wider. "Come in."
He stepped back so that she could walk past him, and she did, making sure to wipe off the snow on her boots as she went.
She'd been in Peeta's house before - mostly for the "post-Victory" segments they had filmed for the Capitol - but she looked around anyway. It was relatively dark now, aside from the light spilling into the room from the direction of the kitchen…and there was a fire in the fireplace too, she realized. Her eyes lingered on it for a moment before she managed to tear her gaze away.
She took off her father's jacket, hanging it on the nearby coat rack before Peeta led her into the living room. Once there, she claimed a seat on the couch while Peeta chose the chair opposite her, his hair glinting gold in the firelight.
"So, you couldn't sleep?" Peeta asked after a moment.
Katniss shook her head. "No."
"Was it the Games or the wedding?"
"The wedding," she admitted, because it was true in a way, and it was simpler to blame her restlessness on that. She just wasn't sure how to put the rest of her thoughts into words.
Peeta smiled sadly. "It was the wedding for me too."
He sighed, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees, and for a minute, the only sound in the room was the soft crackling of the burning wood in the fireplace.
It made things worse, somehow. That silence. The nerves that had been steadily building since she'd left her house seemed to choke her, and the fragments of speech that had been flitting around in her mind - some vague ideas about how she could ask Peeta what she needed to - disappeared completely. The words just came tumbling out.
"I think we should have a toasting."
The declaration seemed to hang in the air, and she watched as Peeta blinked, caught off-guard. His brow furrowed a little as he tried to figure out what she meant.
"Okay," he answered slowly, uncertainly. "I guess we could, if you want to, after the wedding in the Capitol-"
"No." Katniss swallowed hard. She'd gotten this far. She just needed to say the rest. "No, I mean now. Before the wedding in the Capitol. I think we should have a toasting now…if…if you agree."
Peeta didn't answer for a long moment. He stared at her instead, and Katniss tried not to fidget under his gaze. A dozen emotions were flickering across his face, each one too quick for her to follow.
"I don't understand," he said at last, his voice quiet. "What brought this up?"
Katniss drew a deep breath. She'd never been very good with words…not like Peeta was, and if ever she'd needed proof, this was it.
"The Capitol," she explained, "they take everything. They make every decision for us. I guess…I just…I want something that's ours. Our choice. We could take that back from them before we don't have the chance anymore."
Peeta stared at her for another moment before he leaned back in his chair and shook his head. "I don't want to have a toasting with you if it's just a way to spite Snow."
"No," Katniss insisted. "That's not what I mean. It's not…it wouldn't just be about that."
"Then what would it be about?"
"It would be for us."
"But you don't love me."
His blunt words made her wince.
"Maybe not…not like you want me to," she admitted. "But…I…I care about you. I do. And…we're in this together. We won't…there can't be anyone else."
She felt a sharp pang in her chest as she thought about Gale. She couldn't really say what she felt for him either, but she knew without a doubt that whatever might have happened between them before couldn't happen now. It was too dangerous for everyone involved, and she couldn't deny that things had changed since the Games.
There'd been a time when she'd thought that nobody would ever know her better than Gale did.
But the girl who'd left for the arena wasn't the same one who'd come back.
Peeta's brow furrowed again. "So, you want to have a toasting with me because I'm all you've got?"
"Yes. No, I mean…" She grimaced, twisting her hands in her lap. "We're in this together," she repeated. "We're friends. Partners. That's like a marriage already, isn't it? Why not make promises to each other too? I know it's not what you wanted, but…"
Her own words finally registered in her ears, and she abruptly fell silent, her throat suddenly tight.
It wasn't what he wanted.
Peeta loved her. He really did.
He given up so much already…she couldn't ask this of him too. She couldn't ask him to have a toasting with her so that she could feel like she was in control again.
It wasn't fair. It wasn't right.
Why had she ever thought that it was?
"Never mind," she said hoarsely, quickly pushing herself up from the couch. "This was a bad idea. Forget it, okay? I'll just…I'll just go."
Her throat was burning now and so were her eyes. She blinked hard, curling her hands into fists as she started for the door.
She'd gotten about halfway there when Peeta's voice stopped her.
She did, turning around to face him, though she couldn't quite meet his gaze. She didn't have to worry - Peeta wasn't looking at her. He had turned to stare at the fire instead. The flickering light from it danced over his features, his blue eyes dark and sad, but as she watched, his expression shifted, the sadness turning into something else, something both harder and softer at once.
He drew a deep breath and stood as well, closing the distance between them again.
"You're right," he said. "This isn't what I wanted. But…none of this is what I wanted. I know it's not what you wanted either. The Capitol…they don't care about that. Even if you hadn't suggested the engagement at the end of the Victory Tour, Snow would have pushed for it eventually…probably sooner rather than later. That's part of why I agreed to it. I figured that it was better if we got to make that choice at least. And…maybe it's better if we make this one too. On our own terms."
Katniss finally forced herself to meet his gaze at last. "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying…you're not the only one who's tired of having your every move controlled by the Capitol. I'm saying…let's do it. Let's have a toasting."
"You're sure? I don't want-"
The words rang with the same emotion she'd heard when he'd told her "Always," that night on the train, and she wasn't sure how to answer that…whether to thank him for agreeing or apologize for hurting him again, even if she hadn't meant to.
"Okay," she said at last. "Okay."
They stared at each other for a long time in uneasy silence.
They were engaged now. They'd been engaged already, Katniss supposed, but it felt real this time. This time…they were choosing to tie their lives together, not to satisfy the Capitol, but because they wanted it. Maybe it wasn't a choice that they would have made under any other circumstances, but it was still their choice.
"Do you want to tell anyone?" Peeta asked eventually. "Your mom…Prim? Haymitch?"
Katniss thought for a moment
Her mom…her mom hadn't thought that she was old enough to date, let alone marry. She'd grudgingly accepted their engagement in the Capitol once Katniss had explained the reasons for it, but Katniss knew how unhappy she was that it had happened at all. If Katniss told her what she and Peeta were planning to do now, she'd try to talk them out of it. Maybe even try to stop them.
Not that Katniss would let her. It wasn't her place to complain about the decisions Katniss made. Her mom had given up that right a long time ago.
Prim…Prim would support her, she knew. If things were different, Katniss would have wanted her sister to be there with her.
But…there was a chance that Capitol would be angry if they found out what she and Peeta had done. She didn't think that would happen - Snow wanted her to convince him, after all. If the Victory Tour and the proposal hadn't been enough, maybe this would be. And really, in the end, they would be doing just what the Capitol wanted them to: getting married. They'd still have the public ceremony, with all the glitz and glamour that the Capitol demanded, so the crowds wouldn't be missing anything. Besides, if news ever did get out about their toasting, Peeta could probably spin it into some great, romantic gesture that the citizens of the Capitol would swoon over.
But just the same, if the worst happened, Prim would be safer if she'd had nothing to do with it.
Haymitch…they'd have to tell him after, but Katniss didn't really feel like dealing with him now. He'd probably say something about how he was glad that she was finally accepting the inevitable, and maybe he'd mock her for not doing it sooner.
"No," she said at last. "None of them should know. Not yet." She paused. "What about you? Is there anyone you want to tell? Your dad? Your brothers?"
She didn't bring up his mother. It went without saying that she wouldn't be told.
Peeta gave her a sad smile and then shook his head. "No. No one."
It didn't seem right…the idea that someone like Peeta didn't have his family around him. She couldn't offer Peeta very much - couldn't give him what he really wanted from her - but she could do something about that, at least. She could make sure that he wasn't alone.
Peeta cleared his throat uneasily. "If we're not going to invite anyone, do you…do you want to have the toasting tonight?"
The question washed over Katniss like cold water from the lake where her father had taught her to swim. The toasting…she had thought about if. She hadn't really thought about when.
But she'd said now, hadn't she? There wasn't a reason to wait…and it was probably better that they didn't. Snow had known about Gale. About that kiss. Who knew what the Capitol was watching? If they had a toasting tonight, the Capitol wouldn't have any time to stop them.
"I think we should."
Her voice sounded hoarse.
Peeta released a shaky breath of his own. "Okay." He glanced in the direction of the kitchen. "I…I was just about to bake some bread. If you want, I could…I could make it ours."
Katniss couldn't seem to speak this time, so she nodded instead.
Peeta smiled that same, sad smile. "It will take a few minutes to finish the dough, and then it has to bake. So, it'll be done in probably a little under an hour or so. Do you…do you want anything in the meantime? I have some hot chocolate. And some cheese buns."
Any other time, she would have said yes, but right now, her stomach felt like it was tying itself in knots.
She summoned up a weak smile in return and managed to force out a response this time. "No, thank you."
"Alright." Peeta hesitated a moment, then squared his shoulders. "I guess I better get started."
He gave her one last look before turning and heading for the kitchen.
She stood there for a minute or two, feeling uncertain. Should she offer to help? She didn't know the first thing about baking, but this had been her idea. It didn't feel right to leave all the work to him.
Then again, Peeta loved to bake, and maybe he needed the time by himself before…before. She'd had some time to think about it all already. But he hadn't.
Giving the kitchen one last glance, she made her way back over to the couch and sat down.
She spent her wait staring at the fire and listening to the sounds coming from the kitchen: the rattle of metal pans and cabinet doors, the scrape of a cutting board, the clink of measuring cups, the creak of the oven door's hinges…Peeta's footsteps.
Eventually, his footsteps seemed to move farther away, and she realized that he'd gone upstairs. She could hear his heavy tread on the second floor for a few minutes, and then on the stairs again. When his footsteps drew closer, she turned to see him walking back into the living room.
She blinked in surprise.
Gone were the sweatpants and gray long-sleeve top, and in their place, he was wearing a pair of black slacks and a white button down shirt that he'd left untucked. He had combed his hair too, though it wasn't slicked down like it had been at the Reaping or in the Capitol.
"You changed clothes."
Peeta gave a faintly sheepish shrug. "Yeah. I got flour on the other ones, and…it just seemed like the thing to do."
Feeling suddenly self-conscious, Katniss touched the hem of her own red sweater and the coarse fabric of her jeans.
"If you want," she offered, "I could go home and-"
Peeta was already shaking his head.
"No, that's okay. You don't have to. Not unless you want to. It's still snowing, though, so you'd have to walk through it. Besides, you look nice already."
Katniss hoped that the red-orange glow of the fire would hide the faint blush she could feel staining her cheeks. She wasn't used to that kind of compliment, not even after hearing them so often the during the tour. She'd always felt like those sorts of comments had more to do Cinna's clothing designs than any anything to do with her. Either that, or she'd believed that the people complimenting her had done it just because she was a Victor.
But Peeta…she knew that he meant every word.
"I just have a few more things to get," Peeta added, "and then I'll be right back."
Katniss nodded and watched him leave, though after a minute, her eyes flickered over to the downstairs bathroom. Even if she wasn't going to change her clothes, she could at least make sure that she looked her best.
Standing once more, she quickly made her way there, then turned on the light and shut the door behind her. She stopped to stare at her reflection in the mirror, trying to see whatever it was that Peeta saw, but she just couldn't. Her face was pale, her mouth drawn into an unhappy line, and under her eyes, there were dark circles that seemed to have become a permanent fixture after months without enough sleep. Her hair had gotten wet from the falling snow, and though it had dried in the heat from the fire, it was starting to frizz now, small tendrils escaping her braid and curling around her face.
Scowling faintly, she turned on the tap from the sink and splashed some warm water on her face, hoping to get rid of the paleness. When that was done, she undid her braid and quickly ran her fingers through her hair until it looked a little smoother, then she re-braided it and tied off the end.
Knowing that was all she could do for now, she gave the hem of her sweater a few quick tugs, trying to smooth out the fabric too, then she reached for the door with one hand and switched off the light with the other.
She was waiting on the couch again when Peeta returned, bringing the scent of freshly baked bread with him. There was another scent as well, something sweeter with a touch of cinnamon, and it took her a moment to recognize it.
He'd added raisins to the bread.
For a moment, Katniss was eleven again, huddled against a tree in the pouring rain, hunger and desperation making her feel hollow. Until Peeta. Until he'd given her that bread.
Peeta must have caught the expression on her face because he paused, looking uncertain.
"I made it raisin and nut. I hope that's okay. I should have asked. I just thought…"
"It is okay," Katniss insisted quickly. "It's perfect."
And it was. She suddenly couldn't imagine toasting with any other bread.
Peeta gave her a relieved smile and set the bread down on the coffee table in front of them. It was a small loaf of bread with a perfect golden-brown crust, and it was nestled in a blue cloth napkin and a wicker basket…the kind of basket she remembered seeing in the bakery when she'd gone there to trade. Peeta had brought a knife as well so that he could slice the bread, along with some wooden skewers for toasting.
There was a long silence as they both stared at the bread in front of them.
It felt real now, Katniss thought - the weight of what they were about to do.
Maybe Peeta was thinking the same thing, or maybe he just knew her that well, because when he spoke a moment later, his was voice hesitant.
She looked over to find him watching her, his blue eyes shining in the light of the fire.
"You're sure about this? This is what you want?"
Katniss didn't answer. Her gaze dropped to her lap, her hands curling a little, her fingers tightening.
Was it what she wanted? Beyond necessity, beyond the desire to make this choice for herself, did she really want this?
She could call the whole thing off now. She could. Peeta would let her. He would understand, and they would be married eventually either way. That wouldn't change.
But maybe…maybe something would be different. If they married in the Capitol but not before, their marriage would be…empty. It wouldn't mean anything, not really. They would go through with it, sure, but just because it was the only thing they could do if they wanted to protect the people they cared about. If they married now…it wouldn't be about protecting anyone. It would be…it would be about them.
And that mattered. Katniss couldn't quite say why, but it did.
Almost unconsciously, she drew a deep breath and released it slowly, the way she did when she was about to release the string of her bow and she wanted to steady her aim. Then, she met Peeta's gaze once more.
Peeta watched her for a moment longer, but her answer - and whatever else he had seen in her eyes - must have been enough for him because he didn't ask again. He reached for the bread and picked up the knife he'd set beside it, cutting off the end first. He cut another, thicker slice next, one a little closer towards the middle of the bread, and the scent of cinnamon and raisin filled the air even more strongly, a faint wisp of steam rising from the still-warm loaf.
Peeta paused, glancing over at the fire that was already burning.
"There's another fireplace upstairs, if you want to use that," he offered.
Katniss shook her head. "This one's okay."
Peeta gave a small shrug of agreement, though he frowned faintly. "It's tradition to start a fire together."
She thought about the unrest they'd seen during their Victory Tour…about the simmering rebellion spurred on by a handful of berries.
"I think we started a different kind of fire instead."
Her voice was a little wry, and Peeta glanced at her in surprise, but then he must have realized what she was talking about.
He snorted softly. "Yeah, I guess we did."
He set down the knife he'd used, then lifted the slice of bread from the wicker basket and stood, holding out his free hand in silent invitation.
Katniss reached up to grasp it, letting him help her to her feet, his fingers warm and steady around her own. With her own free hand, she picked up the wooden skewers that Peeta had brought, clutching them as they walked the few short steps needed to reach the fireplace.
They knelt in front of the hearth a moment later, still holding hands. Gentle heat radiated out from the flickering flames, soaking into the surrounding stonework, and Katniss found herself relaxing a little, some of the tension in her muscles fading away.
A new sort of uncertainty took its place as she set the skewers down between them.
Toastings didn't have any set vows. The formal vows, the ones where they pledged loyalty to each other - and to the Capitol as the law required - were said at the Justice Building. But most couples said a few words to each other at the toasting too, making promises or declarations before they broke bread together.
Katniss hadn't thought about that before. She hadn't thought about what she might say.
Her feelings…she couldn't name them, and even if she could, this toasting…it wasn't about love. Not really. This was…desperation. Determination. Rebellion.
This was their choice.
She drew her eyes away from the fire in front of her and looked over at Peeta, wondering if he could find the words even when she couldn't.
Her breath caught in her throat.
Peeta was staring at her again, gazing at her like he had in that cave in the arena, as if nothing else mattered as long as she was there with him. For a moment, she thought he might make that his declaration, and her stomach clenched even as something light and warm fluttered faintly in her chest.
Peeta didn't voice any of his feelings aloud, though. He just tightened his grip on her hand for an instant, then stretched out his other arm, holding out the bread.
"Together?" he asked softly.
He'd asked her the same thing in the arena when the Gamemakers had tried to force them to decide which one of them would live and which one of them would die.
But they had made their own choice then too, hadn't they?
And this time…this time, it wasn't a part of their last words. This time it was a promise.
Katniss tightened her own hold on Peeta's hand, then reached out to take her half of the bread.