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There's splatters of blood on my cellar floor and Peeta Mellark is shackled to a pipe in the corner, breathing hard and half out of his mind.

Peeta licks his split lips and bows his head, shuddering all over and trying to catch his breath.

I think I'm going to have to hit him again. When I step forward, he breathes harder, faster, and I can see his body tense, in the lines of his broad shoulders and in the way his bound hands clench. When I backhand him across the cheek, the only sound he makes is a rushed exhalation, but his head snaps to the side and stays there, eyes closed. It takes a few more hits to get him backed up against the wall--he's so strong again, now that he's had some time to heal--but eventually he's pressed against the corner, arms at an uncomfortable angle, shackles cutting into his wrists.

Eyes downcast, blood across his lips, trembling, he tries to find his voice. It takes him a long time, panting as hard as he is, shaking like he's about to burst, straining against his bonds.

"I asked for this," Peeta asks, voice low, "Real or not real?"

"Real," I say.

++

It's hard to believe, but all this started innocently enough on a clear spring day otherwise like another other:

"Sometimes I miss the shackles," Peeta says, and I freeze. It's a simple sentence but a complex thought, and I have no idea what it means. Peeta's looking out the kitchen window when he says it, lost in the vast blueness there, and he lets his eyes glance away from the sky only when I've been quiet for a full minute.

"Katniss?" he asks.

I'm already headed towards the door.

++

We've been living together for some months now. There seemed to be no reason not to.

++

We do this sometimes, or I do. I guess Peeta never walks out on me if I remind him, but sometimes his eyes cloud over with secret shiny memories and the confusion makes him mute. I'll lose him for a few seconds or a few minutes, so is that any different from when I walk out of the house and climb up a tree for a few hours?

Maybe it wouldn't be if I didn't leave for a half day at a time--or a few days at a time--a week, once or twice.

He's always waiting for me to return.

++

Usually, there are cheese buns.

I can measure how worried about me he's been by how stale the ones in the back row are, tellingly from the first batch of however many.

Sometimes there will be a cake, and the more upset Peeta is, the more he concentrates, the harder he resists being pulled into nightmares, the more delicate the work is.

There will be cookies, most frosted green, and at least three different kinds of bread, and I can't even guess what else there will be from his forays into cooking full meals instead of just baking.

If it hurts them that I hardly eat the food he makes while I'm away, he doesn't show it--but that doesn't necessarily mean anything. He gives the food away to others, eventually. We do not waste.

++

I'm not gone too long this time but when I get back I don't speak. One moment I'm gone and the next I'm a shadow behind the door that he doesn't see, and the next I'm shoving him backwards, into his stupid kitchen, pining him against his stupid, stupid oven.

"You don't need the shackles," I tell him, fiercely, "You're not theirs anymore. You're not his." I've caught up his hands and I'm pushing him back too hard, too hard, and I should stop. I really should. Instead, I hold his wrists tight against the oven, and I push myself at him, too, like I'm trying to block his exit, as if he's trying to escape.

"Katniss, Katniss, Katniss," he murmurs, all in a soft rush, "I just meant--"

"You're mine," I say fiercely, and I kiss his mouth because he's probably going to protest, say something reasonable, and I hate when the boy that's been hijacked once and then hijacked back sounds more reasonable than me.

Instead he wilts--melts?--towards me, seeming to lose several inches in height as he goes from standing straight to leaning into the kiss. His wrists are unresisting and he's not as thin as he was when he first got back and he's always been strong and he can free himself if he tries, but he just makes a small noise into my mouth that to my ears sounds wounded.

What.

I break off suddenly and take a step back, then a few more. His eyes seek mine and don't leave once they find their mark.

"Don't leave again," Peeta says, and it's powerful exactly because he doesn't sound like he's begging, "please."

Warily, I stay on my side of the room.

"Are you going to try and talk to me about it?" I ask, and I sound so weary and suspicious to even my own ears.

"No," Peeta promises, standing up, spreading his hands open like people who've never lived in the woods and never tried it do to try and calm an animal, "Not if you don't want me to."

"Good," I say firmly, and I let him give me a cookie before I drag him outside to help me carry home a deer too big for me to bring in without ruining.

++

Lying next to each other that night our breath mingles together like silent secrets we share. I feel the hunger for him and his safety that drew me out of the woods again, but then that other one, too. Peeta has taught me more of hunger than I ever thought there was to know, and I am starving while the kitchen is filled with meals for me. I climb atop him and his breath slows, artificially restrained even as he waits. Peeta is very patient for me, but I have no patience for myself. I claw his clothes off as quickly and inelegantly as possible and he never protests. He's hard before my own clothes are off but even when I lower myself onto him, he never rushes. The timing and the pacing is all down to me, and I--

I have no patience for either of us.

I want this fast and rough and now. Soon, Peeta's breath matches my pace but it doesn't escape my notice that he doesn't moan brokenly until I'm holding him down, his arms shoved over his head as I support my weight on his wrists and ride him hard. His eyes close and I can't tell how he feels and I don't want to lose him so I kiss him again. When I finally let his mouth go there are no questions for me, just my name spilling out from his lips, again and again, breathless and wanting.

I ride him to my completion and the climax hits me so hard that I arch up and cry out loudly, my nails digging into his wrists hard enough to break skin.

Peeta's breath catches and he's even louder than I am when he comes.

Afterwards, when it's time for sleep, I huddle into his armpit and quietly panic about how good that was. Sleepily, he keeps his arms around me and they are as strong and sturdy as ever, but my mind is racing too fast to appreciate it.

++

It's five more days before I break and talk about it.

"But why?" I blurt out. I'm plaiting together daisies to make a crown and now I've ruined them. I clutch at the wrinkled flowers even harder and stare at Peeta, demanding an answer.

He looks up from his paper, perplexed. There's a piece of charcoal in his hand and he glances around at the beautiful spring day like it might offer some kind of clue. The sunshine, the soft grass, the few flowers in bloom since we're far away from the desolation of town, a hike of several hours--none of it helps Peeta decipher my meaning. I try not to scowl, and give him a chance to realize the obvious.

"Why...?" he tries.

"The shackles!" I all but yell at him. "Why would you want to be reminded? Why would I want to be reminded? Do you think I miss thinking you were going to kill me?"

I've gone too far and the hurt registers on his face immediately. Of that particular incident, he wants to remember even less than I do, I'm sure. His eyes drop to spare me his wounded gaze--Peeta is considerate as ever--and eventually I glance away, too.
He studies some trees for a while.

"It's not that," he says, finally, "I would never want you to--I'm sorry that you even have to remember that, that it happened, that it exists as something to remember. But I don't want you to forget it, either--"

"So you're punishing me?" I demand, "Forcing that memory? Reminding me?"

"No!" he cries out, and he throws down his sketchbook, "I would never punish you! I don't want to hurt you, Katniss, ever again! And that's why you can't forget that maybe I will, without wanting to--"

"Shut up," I say sharply, "Shut up, Peeta, shut up, I don't want to even talk about it--"

I shove him down, onto the grass. He goes down, unresisting, and I pin him there with the blade of my forearm against his throat, panting.

No one moves.

"Sorry," I say, finally, and I slide off him. I lie down on the grass, next to him but not touching, and we both stare into the sky for some time.

When Peeta speaks again, his voice is soft, quiet, almost lost against the life humming in the background, birds chirping and a steam rushing nearby with fish that jump out of the water, sound rippling out towards us like rings in water.

"But that's not what I'm thinking about when I say I miss the shackles."

We go back to staring into the sky, willing it to have the conversation for us.

"What," I say hopelessly, after finally giving up, "Are you thinking of?"

"The first time you kissed me," Peeta says simply, easily, "To bring me back."

"At the Capitol?" I sigh, "Peeta, why? Of all kisses, why that one?"

"Because it feels like the first real kiss, in a way," he says, "That you ever gave me. Because it reminds me of the shackles..." I raise my eyebrow, and even though we're not looking at each other, he can feel my skepticism, because he stops.

"How could it?" I ask.

"Because it hurt," he says with a sigh, "It hurt to come back from that. I liked the shackles because I could make them hurt, I could remind myself where I was, remind myself that it would hurt to come out of the shiny fog, but that I should."

"You liked the shackles because you could hurt yourself?" I say, incredulous and judgmental all at once.

"Yes," Peeta says, and, finally, I've found an edge of annoyance.

"Well it's not like you needed to," I retort, "Plenty of people were willing to hurt you. Us. Many still are, I'm sure."

But many of those people are dead, and part of me is on fire still because I feel viciously glad that they will hurt us no more. There's a wave of regret after that, too, because many of the dead were our friends. Will it always be like this, feel like this--fierce joy and then an ocean of loss?

"No doubt," Peeta admits, "But it's different, somehow--when the pain is caused by me. Or you."

"Me?"

"Of course you," he says softly, and he turns his head to look at me. I resist for a moment, but then I turn towards him, too. "Katniss," he murmurs, "I needed you to bring me back. I need you to hold me so hard it hurts."

Involuntarily, I think of a few nights ago, my nails digging into his wrists, and I fight down a blush. That isn't what he means.

Or is it?

"But why," I ask again, this time in a whisper.

"Because it's real. Because I'm very lucky, and you holding me close is real while you chasing me away isn't." There's no hesitation to Peeta, no embarrassment, not ever, when he talks about me.

"Is that what I do in your nightmares?" I ask softly, "Chase you away?"

"Sometimes," he says, and he closes his eyes, willing it away, "You always want me to run. Sometimes you catch me and kill me, but mostly you--chase me off an edge, or into a pit of poison, or some other...it...varies. A lot of the time you slit my throat, or bite into it until I bleed to death." He clears his throat. This is hard for him. "But mostly it's just that feeling that you hate me, that you want me gone, and killing me is just the easiest way to do that."

I don't know what to say to that, so I pretend it didn't happen and rewind our conversation.

"So if you had shackles," I ask, "You would wear them?"

"Sometimes," Peeta says.

"To hurt yourself?" I press.

"A little," he says, then--"Yes."

"Would you want me to hurt you?"

Hesitation.

"Yes." It sounds firm. There's no a little added even though I wait.

"Would it help?" I ask, finally.

"Yes," Peeta says, no hesitation this time, "As long as you--just don't leave me like that for long without telling me, like you do sometimes, I'd--" he breaks off. "Just--"

"I think I understand that part," I say.

"You could--" he stops, seems to be rethinking whatever he was going to say. "You're good at bringing me back."

When the fog rolls over him and Peeta can't tell what's a nightmare and what's not I usually leave him alone, so I have no idea what he means by that.

"I've done that once," I say. "Maybe twice. That's not enough times to base an opinion on."

"You do it all the time," Peeta says earnestly, "Each time you understand, or hold my hand afterwards. That teaches me to associate you with good things, every time, no matter what. Just. Be nice sometimes."

I laugh at that. I hate that I do, but I can't stop myself. This is all so--wrong.

"Be nice while I hurt you?" I say, loud and mocking.

"Yes," Peeta says,"yes, yes." And then he hits me hard with: "please."

I toss my crumpled daisy crown at him.

"Don't hold your breath."

++

Where does a person even get a pair of shackles these days?

++

Why haven't I spent my time learning how to metalsmith, or something?

++

I am not going to go into town to get some. People will gossip. It's not like I can go anywhere in what was District 12 unnoticed. I do not, when dressed, look that different than I did on camera. It feels like forever or no time at all, but it really hasn't been that long. A year, perhaps, since I've been back.

I am certainly not going to ask Haymitch for advice.

++

"Effie sent me a package," Haymitch is telling me some days later, and I silently damn Effie in my head, and then Peeta, too, because I know this is his fault, "That I'm supposed to give to you without Peeta seeing. And for some reason she sent me a matching package from the same store. I can't imagine why."

"Words cannot express how much I do not want to know about you and Effie," I tell him.

Haymitch grunts in dissatisfaction and shoves a package into my arms.

"Out of my sight," he orders, "And don't make a mess for me to clean up, because I won't."

We sulk off to our respective houses.

++

This is so ridiculous.

++

I'm pretty sure Peeta could break these.

++

After I try to break the shackles myself and then entertain myself by otherwise actively trying to destroy them, I decide that they are stronger than their simple, elegant design suggests.

++

Peeta is setting down a tin of muffins down when I walk in and toss the shackles on the table in front of him. He freezes.

"Hey," I try.

He sits down, puts his wrists in front of him on the table, and looks up at me.

"What?" I ask, incredulous, "Now?"

"When would be a good time?" Peeta asks, gaze unwavering.

I don't have an answer for that, so I shrug and put him in shackles. He takes a shaky breath and then flexes his fingers, rolling his wrists, like he's making sure that the shackles are really on.

I take a seat across from him, avoiding his eyes. Peeta stays silent, gazing at me again. For something to do, I pick up a muffin. It's still warm. I hold it for some time, just as an excuse to not do anything else. Peeta isn't doing anything, either, though I left a long enough chain between his wrists--it's adjustable--that he has some freedom.

This is so awkward.

Nervously, I nibble at my muffin. Crumbles go everywhere. I set it down. I pick at it. I pull out a blueberry baked into the soft flour. I roll it between my fingers. I eye Peeta's hands across the table. He is resting them, palms down, against the wood. He's so still--I don't like it--

I put a muffin in front of him.

"What am I supposed to do," I finally ask.

To pacify me, Peeta brings up his muffin and takes a bite out of it.

"I don't know," he says, vaguely, "Whatever you want?"

"I mean, am I supposed to do anything?" I'm looking down at my fingernails, at the muffin, glancing towards the walls. Anywhere but at Peeta.

Peeta cocks his head to the side.

"Not if you don't want to."

There's this upset that's been creeping up on me that finally bursts forth--

"What is it that I'm supposed to want to do, then?" I snap.

His gaze stays soft.

"Nothing," he says, "Nothing at all, if you don't want to. You got these, you put them on me. That's enough. More than enough."

Desperation is crawling all over my skin, like the fire ants that were never there. Peeta, so quiet, so kind, so steady, and in chains--why could he possibly want this for? For a brief flash, hot and loud and gone in an instant, I suddenly hate him--how can he ask this of me?

And then it occurs to me that I don't actually know what's asking.

I struggle to find the basic words.

"What," I fight my way to asking, "Do you want me to do?"

"I don't want you to be uncomfortable," Peeta says, and I could scream--but then he shifts in his seat, maybe a little nervously. He clears his throat. "I just thought..."

"Yes?" I ask, and my tone clearly implies that he didn't think at all.

"...you could, maybe...recondition me to...associate the pain with..." he bites his lip, unsure like he hardly ever is.

"More hijacking," I say, flatly. I don't say no, but it hangs in the air between us just the same, present as an actual living breathing thing could be.

"I think it might be a kind of therapy, yes," Peeta acknowledges, "But doesn't it make some sense? If each time I think you're going to kill me, then you don't--if you bring me back from nightmares with a kiss, then maybe...I won't be afraid of the nightmares anymore."

When he phrases it that way, it's harder to refuse. His arms, his warmth, his soft whispers, haven't those comforted me time and time again, and brought me out of bad dreams? Even before the rebellion, even before we were tossed into the Quarter Quell, long before I was the Mockingjay, hasn't Peeta been comforting me? Drowning my dreams? And if my waking hours were so much worse, it wasn't really his fault.

Peeta's leaning forward now, hands palm up, wrists together, like he's offering himself up. I'm certain that's what he's actually doing, too, even if he doesn't know it in this moment, in this gesture.

"Teach me, Katniss," he says, voice quiet, head inclined towards me, "Teach me that no matter what you do to me, no matter what I think you're doing to me, you love me."

I can hardly breathe with the weight of the responsibility that places on me. I feel it pressing down on my chest, out to suffocate my frantic beating heart.

Peeta takes my hand in his.

I swallow hard.

"Peeta..." I say, still obviously unsure.

He presses the palm of my hand to his heart, folding his hands over it.

The simple gesture defeats me.

"Okay," I whisper, "Okay."

++

 

That's the end of the discussion there, and Peeta lets me flee to the woods without a word of compliant or a reproachful look. He's still shackled by the time I get back, awkwardly going about preparing dinner. He smiles at me when I come through the door, raises his wrists up as he arches an eyebrow.

"A little help, sweetheart?" he asks, and his smile is so beautiful and so innocent that I can almost pretend, for a second, that nothing bad has ever happened to us. It makes me ache.

"Sorry," I say, and I can't smile back because I can't pretend while my fingers slide over his wrists to find the keyhole, and then I feel the raised scars, the burns. We're pretending at being people. We're fire mutts, both of us, and that's all we can ever be now.

Peeta doesn't say a word, but a small, unhappy sound escapes him as takes me into his arms, holds me against his chest, once his hands are free. Maybe I'm wrong and Peeta could be something else, could pretend, if my own unhappiness didn't remind him. He sees it too easily, is the trouble, while the scars on my skin don't bother him. It's like he doesn't see them--but if his burns remind me of what happened, then every smile I don't give him reminds him.

He only stops holding me for long enough to take the meat pie out of the oven when it's done.

++

That night I can't sleep. I lie next to Peeta and stay still, waiting for him to drift off. When he does I count his every breath, dreading the next because it might be his last for some reason. I'm awake for what feels like hours, and the stupidest thing is that I miss him. I miss him and he's right here.

But is he dreaming? And what happens, in his dreams? Does he relive his hallucinations? Am I trying to kill him, behind his eyelids? Or does he still dream of losing me? Either way I know he dreams of me every night--or so he says, and there doesn't seem to be much of a point in disbelieving Peeta about that kind of thing now.

I miss him, I miss him. I hate when he's gone, somewhere in his head.

I bite my lip and nudge him. He hardly moves--he's so big, built again like the wrestler he used to be, all broad torso and muscular thighs. I tug at his arm, and finally he begins to stir. He shifts, slightly, towards me, and I slip to the side, pulling him half on top of me.

My fingers find his lips and hush him before he can speak. I feel like we're hiding in the dark from every bad thing that wants to find us, to drag us back to where nightmares are real. But I don't need words as I tug at the hem of his shirt, and when he arches up to take it off, I slide under him properly. I want to hide under the bulk of his body, nearly fit and trim as it was when he was training for the Quell.

(What does he do all day, when I hunt in the woods?)

I want Peeta over me, shielding me from whatever is in the darkness, even though I know the only darkness that can hurt me now is the one within me. I want him to make him feel safe.

And he wants me to do the same for him someday, I know, with the shackles.

We keep asking for impossible things from each other.

I slip my arms around his neck and arch up against him, asking for what I want right now without words. This he can give me, even if I never feel really safe again.

When he kisses me slow and soft and deep, I still feel the question in his lips. So I answer. I kiss back harder, I pull at the hem of his undershorts. He eases the kiss--Peeta never breaks a kiss off--and sits up. His fingers find the side of my face, gently, and then travel down the side of my neck. My skin erupts into goose bumps and his hand travels down further, until he finds the edge of my flimsy shirt. He pushes it up, gently, making the soft material bunch under my breasts, and then he lowers his head and kisses a line down to my navel, impossibly slow. His fingers hook into my underwear and softly brush my thighs as he slides them down, and then the underwear off. The line of kisses continues where he left off, and he lingers at my navel. Then he kisses a line down to the crease in my thigh, and I squirm uselessly because I know what he's doing--

He kisses down my thigh, lips warm and hushed and tender. His kisses pool in the hollow at the back of my knee, then trail down my calf. A kiss to my ankle and then he switches to the other, lingering there and then kissing upwards this time. When he kisses up my hip without going anywhere near between my legs, I make a small half strangled sound and dig my fingers into his shoulders.

I feel his smile against the skin of my hip.

Bastard.

I wind my fingers in his hair and pull, but I don't roughly yank. I arch up, instead, hips off the bed, pushing myself towards his face.

He kisses the inside of my thigh, wet and warm, but still doesn't--

"Peeta," I moan, and it's nearly cheating because I can all but feel the desperate rush of want that whips through him at the sound of his name from my lips, in that tone. His tongue's inside me and lapping soft but fast at my clitoris, and I cry out and shove his head down. I want more, I want the pressure of his tongue on me, I want him to drive every coherent word, every clear thought out of me. It's been weeks since we've done this; he's so careful with me, almost always waiting for me to ask, but I like this. I like how my entire body tenses and thrashes around, unlike anything I've ever known. I like the intensity writ in Peeta's brows, the utter focus of his hot tongue. I like that I can claw at his shoulders and his hands clutch at my hips harder, and he drinks from me as if he'll die if he doesn't.

I buck up against his face, breath hitching, and it's Peeta who moans and shudders. I'm holding his hair again and moving my hips faster, and I want, I want--

The world explodes into white hot stardust when I bolt upright, clutching at Peeta's skull, my body frozen in glorious tension. It seems to go on for a long time, and I know I'm making some kind of noise with my head thrown back but I can't really hear it. When it's finally over, my body goes limp all at once and I collapse bonelessly back onto the bed.

Peeta tongues me slowly, delicately, through the aftershocks. When he sits back up, his mouth is glistening wet and his eyes are gleaming, but I know he'll lie down at my side obediently and go to sleep without a single protest at my word. As I do nothing but catch my breath, he watches me, all quiet intensity. He brings up a hand and draws it across his face, wiping his mouth on the back of his wrist, the back of his hand, looking at me the whole while.

"You're beautiful," he says simply, and he moves to lie down next to me.

I catch his arm. He gives me a quick, questioning look. I sit up again, but guide him over me and then lie back down.

When he kisses me, I can taste myself on his lips, and in the far reaches of his mouth.

Peeta loves to kiss.

It must be that mouth of his.

I bring a leg up to his hip, and he slides a hand down to meet it. I break the kiss off and we lock eyes while he--gently, of course, and slowly, steadily--slides inside me. I move against him and his eyes slip closed, like it's too much, somehow. I let him set the pace this time, and his strokes are long and smooth and deep. He moans quietly, a furrow appearing between his brows, and he bites his lips.

When I start to make little involuntary noises again, he opens his eyes suddenly and the intensity of his gaze hits me so hard it's difficult to breathe. I use my legs to pull him in closer, but he keeps control of his rhythm. It gets more difficult for him as I writhe, and when I bite my tongue and clench around him, he gasps.

But it's not until I'm starting to see stars again and crying out from my second climax of the night that he lets himself finally go, thrusting fast and shuddering all over. It's like we're racing to the top of a cliff together and I throw myself off first, but I fall so long and hard that he catches up--

Unlike how I hardly ever say his, Peeta's cries at orgasm are almost always my name.

We shiver together and then he pulls out, and by the time he's cleaned up I'm already asleep.

++

I do not have nightmares that night.

++

Maybe we can comfort each other after all.

Maybe.

++

The morning brings breakfast in the form of oatmeal with more blueberries, sweetened with honey, sprinkled with seeds. Peeta prepares it, of course. There's also tea.

I don't think I've even brewed my own tea in months.

I bring in our meat. That is my contribution to meal time.

One of the infuriatingly sweet things Peeta does every day is pack a lunch for me in a sack, just in case I want something to eat while I'm gone for the day. He must do this before breakfast, because it's always on the counter by the time I come down. It's always a good lunch, too--cheese and meat and apple slices, or berries, maybe nuts and roots, bread or a pastry. Some days I don't take it, even if I'm going to be gone for hours.

I plop down extra sugar cubes in my tea just to watch Peeta notice and catalogue this possible preference change for future breakfasts. He's standing in a square of sunlight, smiling at me, looking absolutely capable and comfortable in the kitchen even though he's wearing an apron, blond hair catching the light and throwing it back.

The kitchen? His kitchen. My house, but his kitchen.

My house. Is it still?

He sits down across from me and I take a breath.

Now or never.

"How do I make the nightmares stop?" I ask, "What do you want, with the shackles?"

Peeta picks up his unsweetened tea and takes a thoughtful sip.

"It's more that I want to learn that the nightmares...don't have to end badly," he says. "I don't know if they'll ever go away."

"How do I make them not end badly?" I ask, clutching at my spoon like it's a weapon.

"You take charge of them," he says.

"And how do I do that?" I ask, and I can hear myself getting a little snappish. This is hard! This conversation is hard!

"You'd have to interrupt one..." Peeta answers, trailing off. His gaze, too, slips away, and his lips part soundlessly as he stares off into the distance.

It scares me, a little. It scares me more as it goes on. No matter how together he looks, something's still broken and not fixed yet. And maybe it will never be, but maybe we can glue it back together and the cracks won't matter.

"How?" I whisper, finally.

Life comes back into his face slowly, and his eyes find mine again.

"You'll have to hurt me," he says carefully. "To put me in a--delirious state."

He expects me to protest. He thinks, with reason, that I'm going to walk out. Be gone for days or weeks while he slowly goes out of his head--but still, he asks for this, knowing how it might cost him.

So instead of walking away, I take another breath.

"Hurt you how?"

His eyes light up in surprise, but it's a good kind of confusion.

++

The conversation happens in bits and pieces:

"Make sure I'm restrained," Peeta tells me very seriously over our half eaten oatmeal that day, "Don't let me hurt you."

"I won't," I say.

"I couldn't bear it," he says, but he means it utterly.

"I know," I say.

But we both know, I think, that in any moment of danger, I instinctively take care of myself.

++

I sneak back into the house early to find him smearing paint onto a canvas.

"Physically, how much should I hurt you?"

He doesn't even jump, maybe because, as he admitted to me once, he hears my voice all the time--even when I'm not there.

"Bruise me," he says, not looking up from his painting, brush in hand, "Hit me with something, I think. Blows to the body. Make me out of breath." A pause, while his strong hand does something graceful and delicate in blue. "Make me bleed a little."

"You want me to cut you?" I ask.

"Not a lot," Peeta says thoughtfully, "I don't think. Maybe some."

I slip away silently as I came.

++

I'm watching him make another breakfast a few days later, chin in my hand. He really is healing up well, and filling out some--but then, he's nearly twenty, now, a good time for being big and blond and handsome.

It startles me a moment later to realize that I've somehow stopped noticing his scars.

"Should I stay away from your face?" I ask, and he knows that all my out of nowhere questions now are all about one thing.

"Oh," he says, and he puts down the hot pan he's holding to scramble eggs, "No."

++

Hushed, at night, in the dark, the moonlight spilling in through the windows too faint to matter much--

"But what do I do," I whispered, distressed, as I kiss my way down his neck, down his chest, soft but frantic, "to bring you back?"

"This," Peeta murmurs throatily, "This, this, this. This and talk to me, just--"

I silence him with a kiss, desperate for him to stop speaking, suddenly.

It's not until much later, when he's breathing fast and I can't answer, that the rest of it escapes him.

"Just love me, love me," he says, the words leaving him in a rush, but they sound like a prayer.

++

Yet for another week, I do nothing--or I do nothing about the shackles. I do all of our usual things. I leave Peeta, standing tall and smiling, every morning. I came home in the evening to someone more distracted, more distant, who is still trying very hard.

Sometimes he has to stay very still and force himself to breathe deep and slow, and he trembles at things only he sees.

When that happens, I don't get my Peeta back until late, late at night.

But he never asks for anything more.

++

Another night, in the dark, his body over mine and my hands digging into his broad shoulders like he can anchor me here, like we never have to leave.

"Break me," he whispers to me, shuddering as he moves inside me, "Break me, Katniss, and put me back together with your own hands."

I arch up, I cry out.

++

Days pass.

++

Sometimes I can hardly believe Peeta's patience, and then I remember that he apparently wanted to talk to me for eleven years but didn't manage. What was he waiting for?

++

One day I ask.

"Something worth mentioning to you," he says, stirring a soup on the stove.

It's like I only let him exist in the kitchen or in the bedroom, but he looks so ridiculously charming in that apron. I know he can fight, if not hunt, I know he can speechify and make plans and sway crowds, so maybe right now I just want to know that he can do these normal things. Make meals. Paint pictures I never ask to see while when I'm not around. Kiss me in the dark.

"For eleven years?" I ask, dubiously.

"Well, I was a baker's son," he says lightly, taking care to not linger on his now dead family, "What did I have to say to you, so serious and dangerous, that wouldn't sound completely frivolous?"

"I don't know," I say, "You were always a good person. That would have counted for something."

"Not good enough," he says, and I don't know what he means. That he tossed the bread out to me that day, instead of giving it to me? That he was hijacked and tried to kill me? That he didn't understand that I meant to murder President Coin?

Neither of us has much appetite after that.

++

Moonbeams and half lights and Peeta sliding slick and wet inside me.

"But what can I do to you?" I gasp out, legs locked around his hips.

He's looking right at me, those blue eyes on mine, unwavering.

"Whatever you need to," he tells me as I shudder against him, as I fall apart, "to break me."

++

A kiss on my shoulder when he thinks I'm asleep; part promise, part wish.

"I trust you, Katniss."

++

Then one day, I come down for breakfast and don't take my seat. There's my lunch, already prepared for me. There's our tea, set on the table.

"Peeta," I say.

He turns towards me, smiling, until he catches sight of the shackles in my hand. He nods, but it's a question.

I nod back.

"Now?" he says.

"Yes."

He turns, tweaks a dial on the stove to turn it off--very responsible--and then walks towards me without any hesitation. Fluidly, he drops to his knees in front of me. This is unexpected, and for some reason it makes my cheeks burn. He holds up his wrists.

I'm unnerved. This is unnerving. His blue eyes on mine are not helping.

He's offering himself up again, palms up, wrists towards me. I study them. I can see the green veins just under the surface, and I can't help but think, in a flash, that I would never present myself this way. It's so vulnerable, just giving up your wrists like that, so that someone with a knife could just slash into you and kill you without any effort. All that blood, so close to the surface.

His skin erupts into goose bumps when I touch him, tracing the path of his veins. When I put the shackles on him, he has to suppress a shiver. It's more powerful than last time, because we have a plan, because I know what he's asking for and he knows I'm going to give it to him.

"Up," I say, because I cannot bear to have him so raw and so willing on his knees before me. The chain between his wrists is a lot shorter this time, or maybe this is hard for him like it is for me even right now, because he doesn't get up as smoothly. There's his leg, of course, but he's gotten so used to it by now.

I expected him to be talking by this point, but Peeta's silent, still watching me, like that takes all of his focus.

"Downstairs?" I say. It's a question. Is it okay that it's a question? I don't feel up to commands yet.

Peeta nods, and once we're going down the stairs, in the dark, him before me, I can feel how nervous he is. There's a wariness to his every movement that he's clearly trying to keep hidden, but it's difficult to walk down stairs to a dark place with someone you might not trust all the time behind you, and I assume that doubles when your hands are securely bound. But when we reach the bottom and I flip on a single light, keeping it low, Peeta turns to me and I can feel how much he wants this, too. He looks nervous, yeah, but for every anxious glance away his eyes can't hide, there's a current of deep desire, disquieting in its force, when he looks at me steadily.

"To the corner," I say, because I've set up a metal hook on a pipe over here.

No hesitation--he goes--but when I hook his wrists in he shivers.

"Okay?" I ask. I'm not sure why I'm asking. I'm not sure what I'm asking.

"Okay," he says, nodding too quickly. He gives a sharp exhale, trying to calm himself, and he doesn't quite manage to smile at me.

"Ready?" I ask, and I don't even know what I mean. I'm stalling.

Another deep breath, and then Peeta closes his eyes as if he's shutting me out, or orienting himself with all his other senses. When he opens them again, he nods.

There's nothing to do but begin.

I've never been much for the hand to hand stuff. Blunt weapons for up close have never been of any use to me. I'm a hunter: I shoot to kill, not to intimidate or maim. So if the swing of the baton I use is inexpert, that's why. If I swing with my arms instead of following through with my hips, Peeta understands. Or I hope he does. I am clumsy with love: I cannot hurt him.

And I'm so terribly nervous.

How can I hurt someone who has been actually tortured? The experts at the Capitol knew so much more about the human body than I do.

Peeta endures my reluctance graciously, even though we both know I'm not giving him what he asked for, what I implicitly promised. He even makes a little noise, in the back of his throat, at one of my more solid hits to his mid section, shifting his body after the blow. His hands strain against the manacles for a moment as he does, and--

The manacles.

In a frenzy of embarrassment, desperate to make something work, to prove myself capable, I lunge forward and grab the short chain between his wrists, twisting hard, and I shove him again the concrete wall as I drive my tongue between his lips. It's not a kiss; it's an invasion. I rushed him against the wall so fast that I did knock the breath out of him, and now I don't let him catch it. He's taller than me so I can't shove with full strength if I'm also mouth to mouth with him, unbalanced and on tiptoe, but I am doing my best. Peeta moans loud and distressed into my mouth, fingers flexing uselessly against the metal sinking into his wrists. I break off from his mouth to grab the chains more securely, and I lower my center of gravity and sink my weight into pulling down. I angle myself so that I'm driving into his chest with my shoulder, and I knock the wind out of him again.

I'm panting--this is difficult--and Peeta gives a grunt of pain that startles me into loosening my grip. I'm about to retreat, to apologize, to try and not burst into tears at what a failure this is--I can't do this why did you make me do this why did you ASK this of me, how could you--when my body actually registers what's going on. Peeta's breathing hard, yes, but his erection is digging into my hip, and I think there's a shallow, involuntary thrust against me when I dig my nails into his hands in my confusion.

Does he like it?

Does he want pain with his pleasure, love with his nightmares, mixed together like colors for one of his paintings?

Does he not only want me to hurt him, but to like it?

And if he does, how twisted is that, how sick, how...

I bit my lip and, on tiptoe again, bury my face awkwardly in his neck. I don't understand and don't want to understand and something about the great fit bulk of him against me, so strong and yet so willing, so yielding to me--it's--I--

There's a small part of me that likes something about this, I think, and that scares me most of all. What are be playing at, what are we doing, what have we become?

"Katniss..." Peeta breathes, strained, but under that strain it's gentle, so gentle, like warm summer rain falling misty velvet soft over flowers. His breath stirs my hair with just that tenderness.

"Are you," I whisper, "is this...?" I don't have the words to ask what I mean. Or maybe I do, and I just can't bring myself to ask is this what you want? Or should it be is this what you need?

Peeta shifts, awkwardly, urging me up for another kiss--a steady, grounding one that doesn't taste of desperation. It's his way of letting me know that, yes, this is...this is what we're here to do.

But when his breath skirts my ear, what he says is,

"...is that all you've got?"

I elbow him in the ribs indignantly before I realize what he's doing. He's trying to put me at ease even now. Of course Peeta would be helping me out.

"Wipe that grin off your face," I say, in a distinctly superior tone, "Or--"

"Make me," Peeta says, quick and casual and--

I slap him across the face, hard. It surprises him, and catches him. He makes one of those soft little noises again, in the back of his throat, and when his eyes turn back to mine, they're blazing.

"Good," he says, simply, and he's not making fun of me this time.

I backhand him then, sending his head turning in the opposite direction. I take a step back. He isn't smiling anymore and neither am I.

"If this works--" he says, shortly, "I might say some awful things to you and sound like I mean them."

"Say what you want," I answer blithely, as if I'm indifferent. I'm not really, of course, but he's warned me of this before.

"Don't stop," he says, "Even if I ask you to."

"Why not?"

"In my dreams," Peeta sighs, "I ask you to stop all the time--and you never do--so if we're trying to make...reality seem like a dream..."

"I can't stop, no matter how you beg me to," I finish, biting my lip. "No matter how much you scream. But what if it's too much? How can you ask me to really stop?" How do I know when to stop?

"I think if I'm too far gone to really know what's going on, I'm not going to remember how to back out of an agreement I don't understand," Peeta muses, "But how about if...the word 'stop' doesn't mean stop, but something else means stop, really stop, instead?"

"You came up with that too easily," I say, accusingly.

He almost smiles. "Pick the word."

I think about it for a moment. Something meaningful, I think, but--short.

"Pearl," I say, after a silence.

Peeta nods.

"The word is pearl," he says, more to himself than me, "The word is pearl. Pearl is the word."

"Will you remember that?" I ask.

Peeta tilts his head to the side.

"I trust you to not kill me if I don't, Katniss."

"Fine," I say, thinking again of how I would never put myself in his position, "Should we resume?"

"Please," Peeta says.

I have something I've been holding back so far that I think can get the mood back to a more dangerous place, if that's what we need. It has to do with one of the nightmares Peeta's told me about, so this is going to have some power, I think.

I wish I could hide my face.

Instead, I take a step back, showing him my profile. I take the knife out slowly, letting the dim light from the top of the stairs glint off the edge.
I can practically feel Peeta's pupils dilate out in--fear, or something like it--as his shaky intake of breath fills the room.

"Let's get you out of that apron," I say, and I take a slow step forward, trying for menace.

Peeta doesn't shrink back, but it's a near thing.

I keep the knife well away from his skin at first. This is mostly from my benefit--I can feel that my hands are going to shake if I get too close. But I pull the string around his waist taunt, and hold it there, string digging into his side a little, before flicking my wrist and cutting through it. I slide the knife under the string that goes around his neck, still well away from skin, pulling the string away from his body, gliding down towards his chest, where the string meets the body of the apron. Again, I wish he couldn't see my face--I wish it was darker, or...maybe if he was blindfolded?

It's something to keep in mind for the future.

I steel myself and edge the knife back up, close to his neck now. I lay the flat of the blade against the skin there, watch with interest as his pulse flutters against the metal. Then I turn the knife quickly, cut through the string, and take two steps back.

The apron falls to the floor.

Peeta's breathing has quickened.

"I'll let you keep the shirt for now," I say, magnanimously, and feeling ridiculous. Really, it's that as I tuck the knife back into my belt, I can feel my hands trembling. I do not trust my grip right now, not even remotely. But Peeta, glassy eyed, doesn't have to know that.

I know he dreams of me as some kind of mutt, cutting his throat open, bleeding him to death, or savaging him like an animal, drinking his spilled blood after breaking his neck.

He's not really looking at me anymore--he's starting to go into that bad place inside his head, I think. That scares me, so it's back to the baton. Peeta's tuning it out, tuning all of it out, which makes me want to scream, give up, storm out. How much practice has he had at this?

When I angle my swing left to hit up under his rib, catching his liver, he stiffens and then all the breath goes out of him at once. He goes limp, legs going out from under him, no breath left even to shout, all of his weight on his already raw and abused wrists.

I cringe, almost bringing my hands to my mouth, but he doesn't notice.

No animal handles a blow to the liver very well.

He's dazed for a long moment, and his breath comes back ragged, pained. I can hardly make out his whisper:

"...hurts..."

It does. So what I do next is cruel: I kick him in almost the same spot. It's slower, and it's my flesh on his, so it isn't as hard--but he almost retches from the pain.

I think I'm going to be sick. I can see myself vomiting before he does.

His shoulders must be in so much pain right now, too. He's hardly back on his feet to take some of the weight off his wrists when I move towards him again, and this time he shrinks back. His eyes are wide, now, and I can see the sheen of sweat on his face. The expression's fearful, but it's still his. Damn him. I'm so furious I could shake--why is this so hard?

What can I do to bring him there, to the place he is trying to go? What sets off his confusion, the venom laced fog in his eyes? It's always seemed random to me. What can I do, what can I do? I think as furiously as I can, and I reach out to touch his lips.

Trembling, shaken, already on the verge of confusion, Peeta doesn't resist my soft touch. He moves into it, slightly--

And that's when I know. The realization hits me and I freeze. Can I do it?

I look into his pleading blue eyes and step back, and then again.

A third step. Another.

A fifth.

"Katniss?" Peeta says, voice trembling. "Katniss?"

I shake my head and retreat further.

Even on our best days, Peeta hates being alone, not knowing where I am. Nothing makes him question reality like isolation--is that what they did to him, most of the time? Locked him away in a solitary cell, alone but for a daily torture session?

A weekly one?

Can they torture you just with machines, in the Capitol, so that you are always alone?

"Katniss!" he yells after me. "What are you--come back! No!" His voice gets more desperate, and he makes a lost, choking sound l when I reach the stairs and turn my back to him. "NO!"

Turned away from him, my expression collapses. My hands are balled into fists and stiff at my sides.

"Katniss!" he yells. "Please!"

Tears sting at the corner of my eyes.

"You deserve this!" I yell back, before my voice betrays my tears, just for something to scream, and I run the rest of the way up the stairs.

I slam the door shut.

++

I'm halfway across the house and I still hear Peeta's howl.

It's pain and rage and fear, and you can hear the betrayal in it.

++

I station myself on the other side of the room, watching the door, and I let myself hyperventilate. Quietly. It wouldn't do to have Peeta hear me, I guess, but I doubt he could manage it over the sound of his own ravings. I would run away if I could, but I don't want to go far in case--in case what? In case of sudden silence, I suppose, in case his heart just stops.

What if he manages to free himself? Would he turn on himself, bash his head against the wall until he died, or would he come after me? Peeta could break down that door any day. I make sure I have a route to flee in case that happens.

Mostly I pace in front of the basement door, trying to remind myself to breathe and trying not to cry. This is--therapy. That's what he said, anyway.

Therapy.

Who are we to play head doctor?

I'm going to need a head doctor after this.

++

Peeta rages for a long time, shouting all kinds of things. I try not to listen. It's just noise; it just means he's alive.

When he finally quiets, it's all I can do to not throw the door open to make sure he isn't dead. Instead, I wait a moment, count my heartbeats. Then I ease the door open very slowly and from as far away as I can--if he's silent and seething behind it, I need to be able to run away. Cautiously, I peer around the edge--nothing.

Slowly, I go down the stairs.

He's still there, in the corner, tucked in on himself as much as he can. His wrists are mangled and the blood from the wounds has run down his arms, pooled in the hollows of his collarbone. He's cut his face open, too, from scraping against the wall, I think, and bruised himself in his panic. There is a cut in his forehead that I think must be from banging against the restraints.

But worst of all is the way he cringes away when he sees me, and then I know the expression isn't his at all. He's there, right where he wanted me to take him.

Who knows what he sees, when he looks at me now?

Through lowered eyes, he watches my feet take steps closer, and his breath hitches.

His blond lashes are dark with blood when he looks up at me.

I reach out, and he jerks away as if I've burned him. Gently, I press my hand against his heart. The sob this wrenches out of him is almost enough to break me.

"Why are you doing this?" he asks, in broken whispers, "why?"

"You asked for this, Peeta," I tell him, softly, as I take my hand away.

He shakes his head, quickly, and it seems to hurt him because he winces.

"No," he says, "No, no, no, why would I, how could I, stop, please, please, whoever you are, please--"

I cock my hip back and slug him in the mouth. It's not as hard as I can punch and I sort of miss and hit his nose, too, even if I split his lip, but it hurts him plenty. His head snaps back, and hits the wall behind him with a sickening thud, but he recovers lightening fast and spits at me--

I break off him and we both stand there, panting, as I wipe the blood and spittle from my cheek. I'm scared and I'm furious and--

"Stay away!" Peeta is screaming, "Mutt! Monster! Whatever you are! I'll fight you, I'll bite you, I'll use my teeth, I'll drown you in my own blood if I have to!"

"Shut up," I yell back at him, "Shut up, Peeta, shut up!" Hearing him scream at me is even more unnerving than I expected, and I'm shuddering all over. I want this to end. I want this to have never started. He doesn't stay quiet, so I swarm at him, blindly, and yes, he tries to bite my hand. I find his throat and press and without even intending to, exactly, I'm choking him and I'm choking him and is that my hand squeezing, how can it be--

I break off and throw my arms around him with a cry, burying my face in his chest. He struggles, trying to kick at me, but I put his arms in such a bad place--

"What are you doing," he bites out, after he stops struggling, "You can't--"

I hug him tighter, push my face into his chest more. I'm trying not to cry, but I'm shuddering with dry sobs anyway.

"Stop it!" Peeta yells, and then he gives a wordless shout of pure frustration, "Stop that! You can't--you can't--"

But I can, I can cry into my broken boyfriend all I want, because that's all I can do.

He jerks away again, trying to throw me off, but I hold tight.

Minutes pass and he starts shuddering against me, and he's whispering something I can't hear until I quiet myself--

"I can't, I can't, I can't--"

As in, he can't, instead of me. Whatever that means.

Finally, like he's wrenching it out of somewhere deep, as if every syllable hurts--

"Katniss?" he asks. It's bewildered, not tender, but it brings me back to myself.

I take a few steps back, and I wipe at my eyes hastily. Peeta's looking at me with absolute distrust, but at the same time there's a--curiosity, maybe? He's more confused than ever.

"I don't know what your new game is," he says, "But I don't like one bit." He waits, summoning something up, and spits out, "Mutt."

"Is that what you think I am? A monster?" I ask. I take the knife from my belt again, hold it up to the light with one hands, caressing the blade for show.

Peeta's tense and silent.

"Let's get you out of that shirt," I say, simply.

The statement alone, in the dark--in this darkness--is ominous enough. The brandished knife is basically overkill.

Peeta, much to my surprise, doesn't jerk back. He eyes me--then the knife--then me--and, yes, he's breathing very hard and shoving himself as far away as he can, but slowly, like he has to think about it, like it's not instinctive.

I reach out with the sharp edge of the knife, and carefully trace the line of his jaw, gently push the tip in until he tilts his head up. It leaves a delicate line of blood, thin and red.

Peeta's breathing even harder, trying to look down even though he can't move his head.

I place two fingers under his chin, forcing his head to stay up as I drop the knife down.

"Stay there, sweetheart," I tell him, and I caress his cheek.

Peeta bites back a whine, and he's shuddering with the effort of not moving, sweating with the strain of the tension. I notice then that even as much as he is dreading this, in his terror, he's hard again. It doesn't make his terror any less true. I think it makes it worse.

I stroke the flat of the knife's blade down his neck, and he screws his eyes shut and bites into his lip. I think he's resolved to not make another sound. Is that a challenge?

I flip the knife over and hold the sharp side of the blade to his neck, not for show, but angled up, just where I would cut if I wanted him to bleed out, like I was draining prey. It's how he's always told me it happens in his dreams.

Blood runs down from his lips. His eyes are open again, and now wet.

Does he think he is going to die?

I dig the knife in, drawing a little bit of blood.

Peeta shudders, convulses, bites into himself more savagely. Blood trickles from his lips as tears start to flow down his cheeks.

In one swift motion, switch my grip on the knife and I yank down--

Peeta cries out, lost and hopeless--

And his shirt, split down the middle, falls to the floor.

Now the sobs start, now he closes his eyes again.

"Stop, stop, stop," he's gasping, choking on the words, unable to breathe as he hyperventilates, "stopstopstop--"

His chest and torso are a mess, bruises blooming all up one side and creeping across the other, skin scraped in places. I can't stand to look at him and I can't stand to hear him and I want to run away forever and forget this happened.

Instead I wrap myself around him again, ignoring his tears, his cries, his protests. My trembling fingers stroke the small of his back, slick with sweat.

I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I mouth against his skin.

"stopstopstop," he's still staying, and it seems to go on for minutes as I tune him out.

This is a disaster.

I need to let him go; I need to run away--

"Stop," Peeta gasps, like he's dying, "Stop, don't hold me, don't hold me, just kill me, please--"

I pull out of my own despair to listen to him a little, but the litany of kill me kill me kill me please is nearly the worst thing I can think of. Desperate, I arch up and I mash my lips to his.

It's sloppy and bloody and we're both crying now and gasping for air and neither of us can breathe.

"Stop," he says again, when I pull away, and he's begging now in earnest for the first time since I left, "Stop, don't, I can't, please, not so cruel," he babbles, "don't, don't."

I pull away, but I don't leave. I just watch him. He's twisting in his shackles, crying wildly, shuddering. I can do nothing but stare. Minutes or hours pass before he begins to exhaust himself.

When the sobs subside, he's still trembling.

I step forward and I slap him once more. Again. Again. He shakes at each blow.

I stop. I can go no further, and neither can he, cornered as he is.

Eyes downcast, his lashes, still dark and thick with blood, quiver.

Blood across his broken lips, he attempts to speak. Forever passes as he tries to breathe, as he tries to not shake apart, as he ruins his wrists on the manacles.

His voice trembles when he finds it.

"I asked for this," Peeta asks, in a whisper, "Real or not real?"

There we go.

"Real," I say, my own voice raw.

Peeta closes his eyes and shudders, shudders, shudders.

"Pearl," he whispers, despairing, like he has no idea if it will work or not, "Pearl."

I don't hesitate, even though I probably should. I'm pressed against him in an instant and kissing him deep and soft and desperate as my hand yanks the key from around my neck and fumbles at the manacles. Peeta makes a choked sound into my mouth and falls against me when his hands are free, unable to stand. We sink down to the floor together and I can't stop kissing him even though he's still crying, even though he still can't breathe. I touch him tenderly and I touch him too hard because I need him right now more than I need air. When I break away from his mouth it's only to turn, swift but clumsy, and drag his pants off. I want him more than I have ever wanted anything visceral in my life. Never have I felt so starved, even when I was about to die.

Peeta sobs out in pain or relief, I can't tell which, when I mount him.

I ride him desperate and hard on the concrete floor, sliding on the slippery puddle of his own blood and tears and sweat. Peeta makes wounded sounds the whole time, and I cling to him and do the same. I'm banging my knees on that floor to bruises, and I can't stop. I hear the cries of a dying animal join in the chorus of Peeta's soft sounds and it takes me minutes to realize it's me. I grit my teeth and clench my thighs and shove myself against him, again and again and again, like he can never be too deep inside me, like I can never have enough, like I need to take him inside myself where he can't be hurt. Peeta's lost and I can't tell if he's here or not here and he's not letting me see his eyes and I want, I want--

"Katniss!" he yells out, "Katniss!"

And he arches up and his bloody lips fall open in a silent cry as he comes.

I shudder and feel like I'm going to die, explode, become a star, and then he twists underneath me and I climax so hard that even the pain gets wiped out in the white-hot eruption behind my eyes and in my entire being. I know I'm shouting something out but I can't stop, this, this is so much and too much and just going on and on--

I collapse down onto Peeta all at once when it's over.

He makes a soft noise of complaint, and, panting, I lever myself up onto trembling arms, palms pressed against the concrete, and push myself off him. I crawl against his side, my head on his bruised shoulder, but he doesn't complain.

Silence, save our harsh breaths.

Minutes pass.

"You shouted my name," Peeta croaks.

"Oh," I say, "Good?"

"Yeah." He lifts his head up slightly, tries to look around, winces. “It was.” He breathes like his ribs hurt. "Do you think," he says slowly, "Do you think you could get us into bed?"

No. I can't move. I'm exhausted. I feel dead.

"Okay," I say, and I stagger onto my feet. I wince and almost fall over; my calves are sore and pulled tight. "Ow," I say, "What."

"From curling your toes, I think," Peeta offers from his place on the ground. He shakes himself, pushes himself to one knee and almost slips on the blood. "Um."

"We have bandages," I say, trying to grab him by the arm, "I think."

We stumble upright, eventually.

"I got some a few weeks ago," Peeta coughs out, "Just in case."

"Oh," I say again, half dragging us to the stairs.

"I also froze some goat cheese apple tarts for this occasion," he adds. "I can heat them up later."

"I hate you," I groan, "And how you plan for everything."

"Do you?" he asks, and there's a serious, alarmed note in his voice--

I let us go and we sag on the stairs.

"No," I say, taking his face in my hands, making him look at me, "I love you."

Peeta lets out a shaky breath.

"Okay."

"Okay," I say.

We somehow make it upstairs. Fuzzily, I push him into the bathroom instead. I wash out his wounds; he points out the bandages. I wrap his wrists. We collapse into bed.

Later, his fingers playing in my hair, as I'm about to drift off--

"You did that for me, even though you didn't want to," he whispers. "Real or not real?"

"I would do anything for you," I answer back sleepily, and it nags at me that I've said something wrong or I haven't said something right, but I'm so tired.

"Real," is the last thing I hear, Peeta's voice soft against my ear, as I fall asleep.

Real.