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I Know You

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When the train makes a brief stop for fuel, we’re allowed to go outside for some fresh air. There’s no longer any need to guard us. Peeta and I walk down along the track, hand in hand, and I can’t find anything to say now that we’re alone. He stops to gather a bunch of wildflowers for me. When he presents them, I work hard to look pleased. Because he can’t know that the pink-and-white flowers are the tops of wild onions and only remind me of the hours I’ve spent gathering them with Gale.

Gale. The idea of seeing Gale in a matter of hours makes my stomach churn. But why? I can’t quite frame it in my mind. I only know that I feel like I’ve been lying to someone who trusts me. Or more accurately, to two people. I’ve been getting away with it up to this point because of the Games. But there will be no Games to hide behind back home.


Wanting to get back to the illusions of the train, I almost cringe as I move around Peeta to make my way back.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” Peeta asks, placing a firm but gentle hand on my arm to stop my progress.

I can’t explain the guilt or sadness that’s slowly choking me, so I keep my eyes down and try to shrug him off. “Nothing.”

But he doesn’t let go. When his hand slides from my upper arm, to grip my hand, I’m forced to lift my eyes to his. I have no idea what he could be thinking as, he smiles gently at me as I scowl up at him. I even feel my face change from a look of irritation to confusion when I try to tug my hand from his, and his smile widens a little bit. He chuckles.

“Come with me.” He says. Still holding my hand he tugs me back to the train. As he pulls me up the ramp and past Effie and Haymitch in the dining car, my fingers twitch again with the thought of pulling my hand free.

Peeta gives me another squeeze, with what I think is supposed to be reassurance as he leads me farther into the train than I have been before.

“Peeta, where-” I start, just as he pushes a door open that leads to what must be the last compartment of the train. The room we walk into is large and spacious. What makes it beautiful and unlike any of the other cars, is the large glass dome that makes up the walls and roof.

Still holding my hand, Peeta pulls me over to the couch that; apart from the door we entered through, edges the entire dome.

“Sit with me.” He says, giving my hand a little tug.

“Peeta, I-” But he cuts me off again.

“Katniss. Sit.” He says it firmly, yet softly. And despite myself, I find my body complying.

Now sitting, I’m turned to face him as we both sit on the couch and I wait for him to start talking. But he doesn’t. For a long moment we just sit there in silence. It doesn’t take long for the silence to get to me, and I raise my eyes to his. I feel heat erupt in my cheeks and down my neck as I realize that he’s been watching me this entire time. And he’s still smiling.

“You remember, in the cave, when I told you about the first time I saw you?” He asks when I don’t look away.

I nod.

“I was 5 years old Katniss.” He says. And the way he says it makes me think that he’s really trying to tell me something else. Something that should be obvious.

I stare blankly at him.

“That’s 11 years Katniss.” He says, as though looking for a reaction. “11 years that I’ve been watching you. 11 years that I’ve been in love with you.”

I scowl at him. Is he trying to make me feel guilty?

This time it’s Peeta’s turn to blush, but he surprises me by laughing softly as well.

“Sorry, I know that makes you uncomfortable. But what I’m trying to say, Katniss, is that I know you.”

Now I’m very confused, and my face must show it, because his smile retreats to no more than a quirk of his lips, and his eyes, while still smiling, are a touch sad.

“I know what you did for us Katniss. I know that a lot of it was for the cameras.”

I can’t properly describe or express the emotions that flood me at his words. Inexplicably, I feel tears prick my eyes, and duck my head.

I understand that I changed in that arena. Prior to the reaping, I knew exactly who I was. I was Katniss Everdeen: a hunter, a mother and sister to sweet little Prim. I had a best friend and hunting partner in Gale Hawthorne. I was the sole provider for my family, and many of the residents of District 12 relied on me and my bow. I was largely alone, and I liked it that way. I didn’t need or want anyone’s help. Gale often described me as cold or emotionless. He told me once that Prim was the only person in the world that I cared about, and the only place he ever saw me smile was in the woods. I never thought much about what he said at the time, because he was right. Prim was my number one priority, and the woods were the only place I felt safe… content even.

That was before. I didn’t realize it then, but what little naivety I had left, was taken from me the moment I stepped foot on that reaping stage.

Now, after the Games, I've effectively come out the other side, and I feel as though I've been changed down to the very core of who I was.

On the other side of the Hunger Games, I am still Katniss Everdeen. I am still a hunter, mother and sister to Prim, and main provider for my family. But I almost feel as though too much has changed. I've changed. And I don't know how to merge the before and after. I am a Victor of the Games. I'm a killer. I've been hunted... I'm no longer alone... While Gale is still very important to me, I can no longer claim him as one of the people who know me best in the world. I don't feel numb anymore. I don't want to be cold or heartless. And while Prim is still my number one concern, she's no longer the only person I care about, or want to protect and provide for.

It’s odd to think that it took going through the Hunger Games to wake me up, and force me to live, where in the past, I was content to simply survive.

It all comes back to Pieta. And I don't know how to reconcile that. The thought of loosing him in the arena choked me, and made my blood feel like ice in my veins. I don't know what that means, but I think, if I lost him, in any form, a piece of me would die. And that terrifies me more than any mutation they could send after me. After everything we've been through; I don't know if he even realizes it, but Peeta has become my best friend, and the person I trust most in the world, second to Prim.

I don't realize that tears have been racing down my cheeks until I feel Peeta's thumb gently brush them away from where he's lifted my head so he can see my face clearly.

"I'm sorry." I whisper, unable to stem the tears that I can't seem to stop.

"Hey, come here." He says, his eyes no longer sad, but slightly smiling again. The hand that was under my chin slides to the back of my neck, causing a shiver to race from the top of my head all the way down my spine. With the slightest pressure, he pulls me forward, and despite myself, I move without reservation to lay my head in the crook of his neck. His arms come around me to hold me against his chest, and I can feel a tremor under my skin until he raises a hand to stroke the back of my head and play with my braid.

Peeta doesn't wait for me to get a hold if myself before he starts talking again. And I think that he really must know me, because even I know that, if given the chance, I would run at the earliest opportunity to escape the embarrassment.

"Katniss, I need you to listen to me, okay? It's important. No matter what I say, or how badly you want to run, I need you to stay and hear me out, okay? Can you do that for me?"

Reluctantly I pull back to look at him. It occurs to me just how much I trust this boy, because, despite the slight trepidation I feel at agreeing; I know that he would never hurt me.

"Okay."

"Promise me." He demands, starting intently into my eyes.

I don't feel the need to look away as I nod. "I promise."

He nods slightly, and his little smile is back.

From where his arms are still around my back and waist he gives me a sudden tug forward and twists around so that I somehow end up sitting across his lap. The move is so unexpected that I can't help the little squeak that escapes me. The chuckle that shakes me as I'm pressed against him causes my face to heat again. When I meet his eyes, they're laughing again, and his smile is wider. Playful.

"I thought we were talking." I say, and I can feel that my scowl is less than the situation would usually call for.

He chuckles again, lifting one hand to the back of my head, encouraging me to rest my head once again on his shoulder, as the other rests across my legs. It strikes me that, had any other person other than Peeta or Prim tried to get this close to me I would have, at best, run from the room, and at worst, broken their arm.

I feel more than hear Peeta take a deep breath as he continues to play with my braid.

"Actually, I'm going to be doing the talking, and you're just going to listen for a bit. I have a lot I want to say, and I don't want you to feel pressured to say anything. The reason we're sitting like this, other than because I want to hold you, is because I know that what I'm going to say is probably going to make you uncomfortable, and I want you to be able to hide but still listen to me." He takes another deep breath as though to fortify his next words, and as soon as he speaks I understand his nerves, as they make me tense. "We're also sitting like this so that, if this talk goes wrong, I'll have gotten to hold you at least once without it being for the cameras."

Inexplicably, my face finds the curve between his neck and shoulder once again and I breathe him in as I try to understand the flash of fear that shocked my heart at the thought of never being this close to him again.

His hand continues to stroke my hair and fiddle with my braid.

"I love you Katniss. You know that. But more importantly; I know you. I know that Prim is the most important person in your world. I know that you feel you can never forgive your mother for abandoning you and Prim and giving up so completely when your dad died. I know that you had to grow up too fast, and that you still have nightmares about your dad's death. I know that the woods are your favorite place to be, and that there's still a part of you that's sad that Prim doesn't like adventure. You're favorite season is spring. You say that you shoot your game through the eye to preserve the pelt, but it's really because you don't want the animal to suffer, and you like the challenge. You have two main fears; anything happening to Prim, and turning into your mother. Everything you do is to provide for and protect Prim, and you don't ever want open yourself up to anyone, in the fear that they'll be taken from you and you'll lose yourself just like your mother did. To most people you come off as cold or distant, but you're not. Your life hasn't been easy, and so you don't trust easily. But the other side of that coin is that your judgment of people is amazingly accurate. I've never seen anything like it; the way you draw people in. You don't see it, but you have this amazing talent for attracting the good, and warning off the bad. And you have no idea you're doing it."

At some point during his speech, I had lifted my head to look at him in wonder. How could he possibly know all of that? He must have felt my stare, because he turns to look at me with this expression of what I think might be wonder or incredulity. Both options make me uncomfortable, so I duck my head to once again hide my red face. He chuckles again, and I feel him brush a kiss against my forehead.

"I may not know every little facet of you, but I know the core of you Katniss. I know the heart of you. To be brutally honest, there's a large part of me that's thankful that I got reaped with you."

I can't help but sit up suddenly to stare at him, silently demanding that he explain himself immediately.

He meets my eyes without flinching.

"What we went through Katniss; that changes a person. On a core level, we're different from the people we were even on that first train."

This time it's my turn to look at him in wonder. Was I not thinking this exact same thing earlier? And I'm struck with the realization that my worry about Peeta's understanding my confusion was never really the issue; but the consequences that came with that understanding. The relief that came with the realization that not only did Peeta understand, but he was still here, with me, allowed some of the nerves to leech out of me. Relaxing slightly, I allowed myself to cuddle closer, and even wrapped my arms around his waist with my head back on his shoulder. I no longer felt the need to hide from him.

Peeta tightened his hold on me in a strong hug for a moment, and it was a shocking revelation to realise that, for the first time since my dad died, I felt safe in the presence of another person.

"You see; if I didn't go through the Games with you, I would never be able to understand you the way I do now. I understand why the sight of yellow, purple, or white flowers makes you flinch. I understand why, every time you're reminded of my leg you unconsciously reach for me. I know why any sudden noise makes your heart race. Why you occasionally fiddle with your left ear as though to make sure it's still working, just like I sometimes reach down to scratch my fake leg. And when you stare off into space and start to shake, I know that it's because you're caught in a waking nightmare. I know, because I have them too, and I see a lot of the same things...If I hadn’t gone through those trials with you...I wouldn’t know you as well as I do. As well as I always have."

Peeta's arms tighten around me again for just a short moment. A brief squeeze, and then he goes back to playing with my hair. I wonder if he finds it comforting or if he does it to distract himself.

"What I'm really trying to say with all this, is that...I know you Katniss. I feel like I've always known you. I know that you didn't like me, let alone trust me, when we first got on this train-"

"That's not true." I interrupt before I actually make the conscious decision to speak.

Peeta turns his head to look at me where I still rest on his shoulder.

"What?"

My eyes connect with his without my having to lift my head.

"I may not have known you, but I knew you. You were the 'boy with the bread'. You saved not only my life, but Prim's and my mother's as well. You provided for my family when I couldn't and nobody else would. You took a beating for me. And the next day, when I caught your eye and turned away; I saw a dandelion and it reminded of everything my father had taught me about hunting and survival. I would be dead twice over if it wasn't for you. So while I didn't know you or understand your motives, I didn't completely distrust you. And I didn't dislike you...you just, confused me."

It must have been the relaxed atmosphere he had created in the room with his earlier confessions, or maybe it was the comfort I felt in being so close to him, but even I was surprised by everything I said, and the truth of it all.

I think I must have stunned Peeta as much as myself, because all he said was: "huh." Before falling silent.

We sat like that for a quiet moment, just letting our words hang in the air around us.

"You know, looking back, I should have seen that." He says eventually. He smiles down at me, and his eyes almost look lighter. I feel myself relax even more as I realize that the look is happiness. I made him happy with my revelation. I smile, nudging his neck slightly with my nose, to which he responds with another kiss to my head where I can feel his smile.

"So, we've established that you didn't hate me on the train. I think our next big miss communication was the interview."

I nod and retract my arms from around him, starting to pull away.

"Hey, none of that." He says, one arm wrapping around my shoulders, and one around my hips, firmly securing me in place against him.

"Katniss, listen, I know I embarrassed-"

"It felt like a betrayal." I interrupt again, this time softly.

I'm still stiff in his arms, so when he pulls me up to look at me, I'm grateful for the distance. As he holds me at almost arm’s length.

"What?" He asks, brows furrowed.

"It felt like a betrayal." I say again, continuing softly. "First you were mad at me for my 11, and wouldn't speak to me. Then you went to Haymitch and asked to be coached separately. I didn't understand why. When I asked, the only thing they told me was that 'this sort of thing happens at this stage in the game. After all, there can only be one victor'. I didn't want to believe that my boy with the bread was preparing to kill me."

I find that I have to stop for a moment and clear my throat. The thought that I might have lost Peeta to the Games was still a painful one.

"And then you did your interview, and said that you had had a crush on me since we were kids. It felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. The only reasons for you to say such a thing, that I could think of, was either you meant it, or you were trying to make me look weak. I was furious and hurt that you might have meant it. Not because you felt that way; but because you told the Capitol before me. If it was real, you had just taken something that I would consider private and special, and handed it over to the shallow Capital to play with. And if it was real, I couldn't understand why you wouldn't tell me first, why you couldn't tell me what you were going to say. That's why I didn't want to believe you. I wanted to believe that you said what you did to make me look weak and vulnerable in front of the other tributes. I didn't mind that angle as much because, for a moment, I thought that I could use it to my advantage; let them think I was weak...but then I realized that wouldn't work because of my 11. No matter how I looked at it, I couldn't find your angle, and I couldn't figure out why you insisted on doing it alone, why you wouldn't talk to me. I pushed you because the anger was easier to deal with than the thought that I was losing my boy with the bread. That the Games had taken you from me before we had even entered the arena."

The look on Peeta's face is one of complete surprise. It's not until I get uncomfortable with his lack of response and try to move off of his lap that he seems to jolt back to himself. "Fuck me..." Peeta mumbles, running the hand that was gripping my hip firmly, through his hair, giving it a hard frustrated tug. "So much for knowing you, huh?" He says it dismissively, but it's obvious my revelation has really shaken him and taken some of the confidence that had allowed us to start this conversation. Inexplicably, I feel an overwhelming need to reassure him.

Still sitting stiffly on his lap with one of his arms wrapped tightly around my shoulders, securing me in place, I speak up.

"You do know me Peeta." At the sound of my voice, his eye come back into focus and lock on mine. "You knew that I wouldn't like what you were going to say, and so you made sure I wouldn't stop you, or do something foolish like try to use that angle myself in an effort to help you." Cautiously I raise a hand to his face, placing it softly on his cheek, making sure that I have his full attention. "You couldn't have known how I would react Peeta... because you didn't know what you meant to me."

I am completely unprepared for his reaction to my words. One second Peeta's starting at me with this look of surprise, and maybe a little wonder, and the next, his lips are on mine.

The suddenness of his action causes me to freeze for a moment, but as soon as my brain catches up to what's happening, I relax into him. This kiss is nothing like any that we've shared before. This kiss is hunger, and passion. His hands are on my face, holding me in place, and when his tongue sweeps across my bottom lip, the sensation is enough to make me moan and open for him, my hands slide into his hair. Our tongues meet for the first time and we both sigh at the feel of the other. We stay locked together for as long as we can before the need for air forces us apart.

“I’m sorry.” Peeta pants, resting his forehead against mine while we both catch our breath. “I didn’t mean to attack you like that.”

The little grin he’s sporting tells me he’s not sorry at all, but neither am I so I’ll let it go, and I tell him so.

Peeta laughs, and his grin widens.

We take another minute to calm down, and I find myself enjoying the feeling of simply being able to sit and enjoy this moment with him.

After another minute, Peeta sighs.

“I brought you in here because I knew we needed to talk. I could see you struggling with going home. With everything I know about you, I don’t really know how you feel, obviously.” He says with a roll of his eyes. “I don’t truly know how you feel about me. I know that, in the arena you were playing a part for the cameras. You were doing what you had to to keep us both alive.” When I don’t respond, Peeta nods to himself. “But…” He’s incredibly tense underneath me, and if I didn’t feel the shuddering breath, I would have thought he had stopped breathing. “But there were moments…a kiss or two, touches, whispers…they felt different. They felt real. Like you were actually there with me, and not just doing it for the Capitol.”

There’s a long beat of silence. I should really stop being surprised by Peeta’s insight where my actions and motivations are concerned.

I think that my lack of a reaction should be confirmation enough. He’s right. There were moments where I kissed him just because I wanted to. Moments where, just for a second, it was just me and Peeta.

“Katniss?” Peeta prompts, giving my head a little nudge with a shrug of his shoulder.

I guess an actual answer is needed.

So, because I can, and I want to, I move my face to brush against his neck and place a light kiss just under his jaw causing him to suck in a sudden breath.

“You’re right.” I whisper. I can’t put my finger on it, but this moment feels special. Private. “There were moments. They were real.”

The breath Peeta releases is a combination of a laugh and a dry sob. Both arms surround me, and he squeezes me to him with enough strength that it would hurt if it were anyone other than Peeta. Peeta would never hurt me. Instead his strength makes me feel safe, and protected, and…loved.

“Thank you.” He whispers into my hair, pressing a long kiss to my forehead.

We continue to sit in the quiet of the train car for a moment as the land outside rushes by and Peeta once again collects his words.

“I can’t tell you how worried I was to ask you that. Or, well, I was worried you would tell me that I was just high with fever at the time and that I had imagined it all.” He finally says with a forced laugh.

I nuzzle into his shoulder a little. I think I may easily become dependent on the feel of his arms around me. “It wouldn’t have mattered Peeta.” I say, still rubbing my face into him. At this point, I have no idea what has come over me, and am simply enjoying the sensation.

“Why do you say that?” He asks, undoing the band at the bottom of my braid and combing it out with one hand while the other has dropped to draw patterns on my hip.

“Because, even if I had lied and told you that it was all for the cameras; you always know when I’m lying. You would have known either way.” I thought that was obvious. Peeta chuckles and nods. “That’s true. You are a horrible liar.” My annoyed response is on the tip of my tongue…and then Peeta’s large hand is massaging my scalp where my braid usually sits and anything I might have said completely escapes me.

I’m vaguely aware of the little moan that escapes my throat as my entire body sags.

My boneless body shakes with the force of Peeta’s laugh.

“I think I’m going to have to add this to my arsenal of ‘How to tame Katniss’ tricks.”

Eyes now closed, I think I grunt at him.

“You still with me?” He asks, still massaging my head.

I grunt again.

“I want to talk, are going to stay awake for me?”

I brush his neck with my nose again to acknowledge him, but otherwise make no move or sound.

This is the most relaxed I’ve ever been without being unconscious.

“I want…” My interest peeks when he hesitates, and my eyes open when his hand in my hair stops rubbing. “I want to talk about Gale, and what’s going to happen when we get back.”

My eyes remain open as I think over his words and his fingers go back to combing through my hair.

“I don’t know.” I say honestly with a little shrug, my body still relaxed. Peeta’s hand stills for a second before continuing.

“Okay, let’s start with Gale.” He says, and can hear a tightness in his voice.

“Ya, Gale’s not going to be happy.” I say, feeling a little of the previous tension return.

“Why do you say that?” Peeta asks, and even though I think he knows why, I know that he wants me to answer him anyway.

“Because of me, and because of you.” I say with another little shrug, because it’s obvious. When I don’t continue, Peeta’s hand stops, and I know that he won’t continue until I do. I sigh and his hand continues.

“Gales knows me well too. He’ll have been watching the games, obviously, and will have thought, like Haymitch and you, that it was all an act. Gale has no idea about our history or how special you’ve been to me since the day you saved my life. He knows that I never wanted a relationship. I always said that I would never fall in love. Never get married. Never have children. Gale knows how guarded I am. So, as soon as we get off this train, I think he’ll expect everything to go back to the way they were before.” The thought makes me so deeply sad that I have to bite my lip in an effort to hold back the tears. Because nothing will ever be as it was. The past is over. And, as hard as it was…for what it was, it was simpler.

“But nothing’s ever going to be the same ever again. It can’t be.” Peeta says, as though agreeing and echoing my thoughts.

“No, it can’t.” I whisper. “And that’s something Gale won’t just accept. He won’t understand why I’m not the same person was. Why I want to talk to Cinna and Effie even though they’re ‘products of the Capitol’. He won’t understand why I bother to force Haymitch over to my or your house for at least one real meal a week. And he really won’t understand why I want to spend time with you, when, to him, it was all a lie to keep us alive in the Games.”

I feel Peeta kiss my forehead, and then he just rests his lips there. I can feel the breath from his nose tickle the little hairs at the edge of my scalp as we sit quietly while he thinks.

“And me? What will Gale’s problems with me be?” He asks after a moment, and somehow I know that this isn’t really the question he wants to ask, but answer him anyway.

“Well for one; you’re a Merchant.” I can’t help my smirk even as I say it. Peeta must hear it in my voice because he gives a playful little tug on one of my strands.

“Oh? And I suppose that means I’m soft, have never gone to bed hungry, and wouldn’t know real work or hardship if it came up and bit me.” Peeta says sarcastically. I look up at him just in time to see him roll his eyes.

“Oh, so you’ve already had that conversation.”

The look Peeta shoots me is enough to make me grin. And when he rolls his eyes at me, I don’t fight the light laughter that escapes me.

Feeling a little daring in this light atmosphere, I move my arm that was resting around his waist to place my hand lightly on his chest under the pretense of giving him a little pat of consolation.

Neither of us say anything when my hand remains, sweeping little circles and patterns over his heart, just as his continues to do on my hip.

“What else?” Peeta asks, and I sigh a little.

“Well, he might have a problem with how fast it all happened…” I guess. I mean, I’m not exactly the world’s authority on what goes on in Gale Hawthorn’s head, but he’s been known to be - protective at times. “He may think that you’re using me or leading me on or something.”

“Leading you on?” Peeta’s voice is heavy with confusion.

“I really don’t know. Gale’s so angry a lot of the time, I’m not always sure what’s really bothering him.” I shrug.

Peeta nods, and then his fidgeting turns nervous, and I know that we’re finally getting to the question that he had been wanting to ask for a while.

“Katniss, what, I mean…are you…damn it I don’t know how to ask this!” Peeta fumes at himself, lifting the hand on my hip to tug roughly on his hair again. Using the hand that was resting on his chest, I reach up and gently pull his hand away.

“Just ask me Peeta.”

He takes a deep breath, puffing it out his cheeks.

“What…Shit. Have…God damn it!” This is the first time I’ve ever seen Peeta so at a loss for words. “Okay…Are you and Gale…no, were you two ever…you know, together?”

After how hard that obviously was for him to ask, I am still completely unprepared.

Chapter Text


“Wait, What?” My eyes widen in shock and I jerk up to look at Peeta fully. Any and all relaxation I might have previously felt has vanished.

Peeta’s face is tinged red, just as I can feel the colour leeching from mine.

“I-I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked…” Peeta mumbles looking down.

“No, why would you ask that?” I demand curiously.

Peeta just shrugs, still looking down at my lap.

Calmer now, I reach out with both hands and lift his eyes to mine.

“Peeta, why would you ever think that Gale and I were together?”

When he doesn’t say anything, I furrow my brows in confusion.

“Peeta, you know how I felt about relationships before the games-” Something about what I’ve just said captures his attention because his head jerks up from my hands to fix his eyes intensely on mine. “I’ve known Gale since I was 12 or 13. He’s like a brother to me. Before you, he was my best friend. We hunted together, and we always promised that if anything ever happened to the other, we would take care of each other’s families.” I explain. Then another thought occurs to me, and I withdraw my hands from him and stiffen in his lap.

“Wait, did you-” a scowl deepens my features, and I don’t know what to do with the mixture of hurt and anger swirling in my chest.

“Are you really asking me if I’m currently in a relationship with Gale while I sit here on your lap?”

He doesn’t meet my eyes, but his silence seeks volumes, and I retreat farther.

“You really think that I would let you get this close, let you touch me, and touch you back, if I had Gale waiting for me?”

My eyes start to sting again when Peeta turns his head guiltily. I feel like I’m going to be sick. I push roughly against his chest, anxious to be out of his arms and away from him.

He doesn’t let me go. He still won’t look at me, but Peeta’s arms lock around me, forcing my arms to my sides as I continue to try to get away.

After a few minutes, with Peeta’s arms showing no sign of weakness, I eventually stop struggling. I’ve at least forced the tears away, and am now only allowing myself to feel the anger.

“If you really think so little of me Mellark, it’s a wonder you can stand to look at me. Or is that it; you’ve already got some poor Merchant girl waiting for you on the platform, and are just slumming it with a Seam Rat till you get home.” I spit, lashing out. “You should be careful, you acquaint yourself with filth and your mother won’t let you back in the house.”

I’m holding myself as stiff as possible while still crushed in Peeta’s arms. I can’t stand to look at him.

“Are you finished?” Peeta asks in a low gravelly voice.

“Fuck you Mellark. You just proved you don’t know shit about who I am. Now let me go!” My teeth are clenched and I jerk my arm in an attempt to elbow him in the stomach.

He doesn’t let go, but I take a little pleasure in the grunt of effort it takes to contain me.

“You promised.” Peeta whispers at last, and it’s the soft tone of his voice that gets me to stop for a moment.

“What?” I really don’t want to talk to him.

“You promised. No matter how uncomfortable or how badly you want to run, you promised that you would stay and hear me out.”

I stop struggling completely because he’s right. I promised to stay, but-

“I promised to stay, but sitting with you wasn’t part of the deal. In fact, I don’t have to speak or even look at you. I promised to listen. So let the fuck go of me.”

As soon as I finish speaking Peeta sighs deeply and finally releases me.

I’m out of his lap and across the compartment in the next breath.

I can’t believe Peeta would really think so little of me. Would think me so disloyal. It hurts.

“Katniss…” Peeta calls out to me, but I really don’t want to look at him.

I stare out at the speeding scenery and wrap my arms around myself.

“I said I would listen. So speak.” I snap, still facing the window.

I hear Peeta release a huge sigh.

“I’ve watched you for the past 11 years Katniss, but for the last 4, I’ve had to watch you and Gale.” Peeta starts, and it’s the wrecked tone of his voice in combination with his words that force me to turn my head to the side to hear him better. I still stubbornly refuse to look at him. “I would watch you both sneaking in and out of the woods. You were almost always together when you came to do your trading. Every Sunday afternoon while I was unloading the flour I would see you and Gale walking around town together, and he would laugh at something and you would give him one of your rare smiles…”

I finally turn to face Peeta fully, and his head is in his hands as he speaks to the floor. As though he can feel my eyes on him, he rakes both hands through his hair and pulls, raising his eyes to mine.

“Do you have any idea how jealous I was? To have to watch you with him? To know that he got to see you whenever he wanted? Got to talk to you? See you smile? Hell, I was even jealous that he got to hear you complain about that ratty old cat your sister loves. For 4 years he got to be your closest companion… and I couldn’t even screw up the courage to talk to you.”

As I contemplate his words, I can feel my anger slowly dissipate. My scowl fades, but I stay where I am by the farthest window.

Peeta looks at me like he’s searching for something, but I don’t know whether he finds it or not, because after a long moment he shakes his head and looks back down at the floor between his feet. His elbows rest on his knees, with his hands dangling between them.

“I didn’t mean what you thought, when I asked about you and Gale having a relationship.” Peeta looks at me earnestly, his eyes begging me to believe him. “I never for one second thought that you were currently with him. I know that you would never let someone as close to you as I was, if you were already with someone else. I guess what I was asking was if…if you had any...romantic... feelings for Gale.” He mumbles.

My scowl’s back, and I glare at him. “That’s not much better Peeta.”

Peeta’s shoulders slump and his head drops even further.

In that moment, he looks like a little boy waiting for a beating. And knowing his mother, that’s probably not too far off. But I’m not his mother. And I don’t want to hurt him.

“After all we’ve been through, and all we’ve shared with each other…I don’t understand how you can ask me if I have feelings for someone else.” I say softly. I’m trying not to be harsh or hurtful, but Peeta still seems to flinch from my words.

I take a step or two towards him, but still keep my distance.

“Yes I spent 4 years with Gale, but as my hunting partner. I helped take care of his family, and he helped take care of mine. Outside of hunting and trading, we rarely saw each other. As far as feelings go…I respect Gale for what he’s done and continues to do for his family. I’m grateful for what he’s done for me and mine. And I love him like a brother, he’s family.”

When I finish speaking, Peeta once again raises his head, and his eyes are red, but his face is dry.

At his pathetic visage, I take pity on him and move a few steps closer.

“What do you want Peeta?” I finally ask.

Peeta looks me dead in the eye, and says, with that wrecked tone that’s so unlike his usual timber, “I want you to choose me.”

I don’t know why his answer is so surprising, but the second my shock wears off, I have the striking urge to get my hands on one of those maces from the training center and beat him over the head with it. “Are you kidding me right now?!” I screech, unable to control my temper any longer. “Peeta! Even if Gale did have feelings for me, it wouldn’t matter!” I throw my hands into the air in exasperation when Peeta looks up at me incredulously. How is he not getting this? “You idiot!” I grind my teeth as he just continues to stare at me. “I was with him for 4 years…and you’ve made me feel more for you in 4 weeks than I would if I spent a lifetime with Gale. Choose you?” I shake my head uncomprehending how this isn’t obvious by now. “Peeta, I already have.”

The hopeful look he gives me is really quite sweet, but when he reaches out a hand towards me, I still take a step back and shake my head. “No.”

Peeta’s face crumbles. His head drops back down and his arm drops back to his knees. His whole body has slumped in defeat.

“How could you think that Peeta?” I ask, and his red and blue eyes look up at me. I notice that they appear to be shimmering, and realize he’s fighting back tears. As I said before, I don’t want to hurt him…but I’m confused as to how he can say that he loves me in one breath, then accuse me of being unfaithful in the next.

“What did you think? That after everything we’ve been through together, everything we’ve shared, that I would fall into Gale’s arms the moment we reached the station?” When he looks away again, I know I’m right; that that’s exactly what he thought was going to happen.

“Then why bother?!” I shout suddenly, and his eyes jump to mine in surprise. “If you really thought that I was just using you as some sick substitute for Gale, why bother going along with it?” I don’t understand.

“Because I love you.” Peeta croaks, then clears his throat. “I love you but I thought that you loved him.” He explains. “Before the Games you never gave me a second look. You were always with him. I figured that, even if you were just using me, at least I got to hold you. Touch you. Kiss you at least once.” Peeta takes in a shaky breath then slowly lets it out. He’s no longer staring at me, but the wall across from him.

“I was prepared for it, you know.” He says so softly I have to strain to hear him. Against my better judgment, I move even closer to sit on the couch beside him, making sure to keep a few feet between us. “I was prepared to let you go. I knew that most, if not all, of what you said in the arena and the interview afterward was a lie. It killed me to sit in that interview chair and hold you at my side, and know that you didn’t mean it. To kiss you, and know that you were still fighting for us, and that as soon as we stepped off this train I would have to let you go. That’s really what I brought you here to talk about. I wanted to tell you that I knew it was all an act, and that I was grateful for everything you did to get us out of that arena. I wanted to tell you that I understood that you didn’t have those kinds of feelings for me, but that I hopped you would still allow me to be your friend. Because having any kind of place in your life is more than I ever thought I would get.”

We’re both silent for a long moment. The only sound in the cabin is our shaky breathing.

The moment stretches on, until finally, I can’t help it.

“You’re an idiot.”


Chapter Text

The suddenness of my voice causes Peeta to start. When he eventually processes what I’ve said, he laughs.

It’s enough to break the tension, and I bridge the last few feet between us, molding myself to his side and wrapping my arms around Peeta’s shoulders.

“I’m sorry.” He says.

I nod against his shoulder, then tug him around until he puts his arms around my waist and back, securing me to his chest.

I can feel his deep breathing in my hair, and I once again nuzzle my face into his neck. The thought strikes me that, being in Peeta’s arms is quickly surpassing the woods as my favourite place to be.

“I’m still mad at you.” I whisper in his ear. The rumbling laugh that shakes Peeta’s body is deep, and happy, and I wonder if he can feel my answering smile pressed into his neck.

He pulls back from me and his hands slip from around me to cradle my face. “I love you.” The way he says it is certain, unflinching.

Peeta looks into my eyes, and no longer seems to have any doubt as to where we stand.

It’s kind of ironic that I got to that understanding before he did.

“I know.” I smile back at him. And I don’t have to fear that he’ll be upset or angry that I don’t say it back. Peeta knows me. He understands that while he’s known me for years, he’s only been on my radar for a few weeks. He knows that it’ll take longer than that for me to get to where he is. But he also knows that I’ve let him in. That I’m going to give us a real shot at this relationship thing. And he knows how huge that is for me. Because he knows me.

Slowly, as though checking to make sure I’m okay with it, Peeta moves forward to capture my lips in his. This is our second kiss with no cameras, and I’m starting to realize that maybe Peeta had been holding back because of our audience as well.

The instant his lips touch mine, I feel that now familiar heat in my belly. I enjoy Peeta’s kisses. I moan when he sucks my bottom lip into his mouth, and my arms tighten around his neck when he licks my lips, looking for entrance.

Peeta gives me another tug forward like he did when he first brought me in here, only this time; instead of sitting across his lap, I’m straddling it. With my legs on either side of his, we’re closer than we’ve ever been before, and I love it. His hold on me is tighter, with one hand fisting in my now loose hair, and the other pressing into my lower back so that our stomachs are pressed tight together. I find the sensation of being belly to belly with him oddly intimate.

Maybe it’s a hunter thing. Animals only show their soft underbelly’s when they trust you, when they know you won’t hurt them. I trust Peeta. I don’t think twice about giving him access to my vulnerabilities. And with the feel of Peeta’s chest and stomach pressed so deliciously against mine, all I want is to protect and care for him.

I’m brought abruptly back to focus on Peeta’s lips when he gives a slight tug with the hand in my hair, and I can’t help the loud moan that escapes me. Not willing to be the only one making embarrassing sounds, I fist my own hand in Peeta’s hair, and give it a sharp tug at the same time that I nip at his lower lip.

My actions have the desired effect, and then some.

Peeta’s lips and hands go wild. I’ve never felt this kind of passion before. I never really considered myself to be a passionate person. But Peeta proves me wrong.

I feel a fire erupt in my lower belly. Peeta’s hands are everywhere accept where I think I need them. His large strong hands roam up and down my sides, across my back, and around and over my hips and thighs. Peeta’s mouth is incredible; sucking and nipping and tugging. His tongue swirls, lunges with mine, then sweeps across the top of my mouth, then back out to tickle my lips.

But the best moment, which I am unprepared for, is when both of Peeta’s large hands find my bottom, and squeeze. I’m so unprepared for how good it feels, that I involuntarily rip my lips from his to cry out, throwing my head back. He pauses and I look back at him to see why. I’ve never seen Peeta’s eyes so dark. He must see the pleasure in my face because this wicked grin stretches across his lips.

Peeta watches my face intently as his strong hands give another squeeze and I can’t hold in my whimper as my eyes fall half closed and my mouth drops open. Then he’s not just gripping me, but his hands start massaging my ass. It feels so good. The fire in my belly has now become a liquid heat between my legs, and I have no control as my hips thrust forward. I don’t exactly know what I’m looking for but I know I need something to alleviate this…hunger.

My center finds Peeta. I can feel his hardness between my legs. My eyes flutter open just enough to meet his and I whimper again at the look on his face as I start to rub myself against him.
My arms tighten again around his neck and I press my forehead to his as I continue to move against him. Our eyes are locked, our chests are rubbing against each other as we continue to move together.

The intimacy of this moment surpasses even the passion from seconds before. I know we’re both feeling it. This build up is slow, but powerful. Our eyes don’t leave each other. My hair falls around us slightly, creating a curtain around us and Peeta moves in to kiss my lips. Our eyes remain open as we share sipping kisses, and I can feel tears once again prick at the back of my eyes, just as I can see them swimming in Peeta’s. This moment is special, and it’s ours, and no one will ever be able to take it away from us.

“I will love you.” I whisper, my gaze still locked with his.

Peeta’s eyes crinkle at the edges, and I think I can actually see the happiness in them.

“I know.” He whispers back.

Then he thrusts up against me sharply, bursting the moment and bringing our passion back to the forefront.

I moan and pant as Peeta’s hands move from my ass to grasp my hips. He uses his arms to lift and grind and move me against him. I’m nearly incoherent as he works us both into a frenzy.

My head is thrown back and his lips and teeth have found my throat. We can both feel and hear the sounds we’re making as we climb higher.

“Peeta, oh God, Peeta, something, ah, something’s happening, I don’t…”

Peeta grunts at me. “I know, I know, fuck, just feel it, let it go…” His mouth opens and his teeth clamp around a little spot on my neck just under my ear. He bites and sucks, and I explode.

I’ve never felt anything like it. I’m distantly aware that I cry out, that I repeat Peeta’s name over and over. But I’m lost to the sensation. I feel a flood of moisture between my legs as my whole body seizes and my lower half convulses with what feel like the aftershocks of an electric jolt.

I come back to myself and find that I’m shaking and still whimpering slightly.

I’ve collapsed onto Peeta’s chest and his arms are back around me, holding me tightly to him as we both try to catch our breath.

“Peeta?” I’m surprised by just how shaky my voice still is.

“Ya?” He’s relaxed as he runs his fingers through my hair.

“I’m still irritated with you.”

The sound of Peeta’s laugh fills the compartment.

Chapter Text

Peeta explains that he has to go to the washroom to clean up and I feel heat once again infuse my face. Awkwardly, l move back and allow him to stand.

Peeta surprises me with another soft kiss as he rises, with a promise to be right back.

While he’s gone, I use the time to reflect on the amount of change that not only my life, but my personality seems to have undergone. I am no longer the dead hunk of rock that I was. I’m different. Softer in some ways...harder in others.

I don’t think even I fully understand all the ways I’ve changed. But the differences don’t really bother me...and that, in itself, is different.

When Peeta comes back, there’s no hesitation in him when he reaches for me; sitting down beside me and once again pulling me to straddle his lap.

Round two will have to wait, however, as at that moment Haymitch opens the door.

Peeta’s nuzzling the spot below my ear that he bit earlier as I curl into him, his arms around me. I turn my head to look at Haymitch, then glance at Peeta. He’s also turned his gaze to Haymitch... along with a big stupid grin stretched across his face.

If I had the energy, I’d elbow him and tell him to tone it down. But I don’t, and I figure, I put that smile on his face, and it’s been so long since either of us had any real reason to be relaxed and happy...why not enjoy it.

I shrug at the look Haymitch is shooting me, and put my head back down on Peeta’s chest. Completely unconcerned with Haymitch’s opinion.

I see Haymitch’s eyes then go to Peeta, and can practically hear Peeta’s smile getting wider. He gives me an extra little squeeze as he continues to play with my hair.

The silence stretches and I eventually get bored with the staring and the loaded looks.

“If you’ve got nothing to say, Haymitch, go away.” I mumble, then turn my head to rest the opposite cheek over Peeta’s heart, effectively turning my back on Haymitch. Let Peeta deal with him. Haymitch likes Peeta better anyway.

The only problem with this new position is that Peeta’s no longer playing with my hair, and I was enjoying that. I grunt quietly and nudge him with my head in a not so silent demand.

Peeta chuckles and switches arms so that his left is now around my lower back, and the right is combing through my hair. I let out a little sigh and relax further into him, letting my eyes shut.

“What the fuck is going on here?” Haymitch finally asks. I knew he would find his voice eventually. I don’t bother to acknowledge him.

“Nothing, we’re just having a little quiet time before we get home.” Peeta says completely at ease.

“No, I mean what the fuck is all this?!” Haymitch asks again. From his voice I have to assume that he’s gesturing to Peeta and I.

“Oh, you mean this?” As he says it, Peeta moves his hand up and starts massaging my scalp. As if on que my entire body goes lax and the squeaky whimper like sound that comes out of me would be embarrassing if I could drum up the energy to care.

“What the fuck was that?” Haymitch’s voice is loud and incredulous and wakes me a little from my daze.

“I’ve tamed the beast.” Peeta says, and I hear the laughter in his voice.

So I pound him with one of my fists that’s curled against his chest. I didn’t have to move much, and he grunted with the force, so I’m pleased with the effort.

“Ow!” He says, moving to rub the spot. But that requires moving one of his hands. And I like where his hands are. So I rub the spot where my fist landed for him. He sighs and kisses my head, and I smile.

“Okay, not tamed, more like…soothed?” He says as though asking if that’s better, and I roll my eyes behind my closed lids.

My fist tightens again and I raise it to again thump him on the chest, but he chuckles and grabs my hand before I can do him any damage. He kisses my curled knuckles then places my hand back on his chest, encouraging my fingers to unfurl.

“Enough of the cutesy crap!” Haymitch snaps at us, forcing our attention. I flip my head again, this time to face Haymitch, and Peeta automatically switches his arms to continue fiddling with my hair.

“Are ether of you going to tell me what the hell is really going on here? Is she drunk?” Haymitch demands of Peeta, pointing at me.

I glare angrily at our mentor and Peeta removes his hand from my hair, making my scowl deepen.

“Excuse me?” I nearly growl, sitting up from my relaxed position. I don’t want to get off of Peeta, but if Haymitch continues to antagonize us, I will.

Instead of the regret or even fear I was going for, Haymitch seems to relax when faced with my hostility. His shoulders release their stiff posture, and he takes a few steps into the room, taking a seat in one of the plush chairs in front of us.

“Nothing’s going on Haymitch. Katniss and I were just talking. Sorting some stuff out before we get home.” Peeta volunteers.

“Oh ya?” Haymitch asks as he digs his flask out of his inside jacket pocket. “What kind of stuff.” As if he can’t guess. Haymitch tries to play it off as though completely disinterested, but I can see how sharp his eyes are as he watches us, and I bet Peeta can see it too.

I’m still glaring at the drunk in front of us as I reluctantly allow Peeta to pull me back into his arms. I curl myself back into Peeta’s chest like I was before we were interrupted but I don’t relax my gaze. Peeta’s hand goes back to running through my hair.

“Oh relax sweetheart. You look like an angry kitten with that scowl and all curled up like that.” Haymitch needles. My expression darkens and he looks like he’s fighting back a smile. I’m angry that he’s trying to embarrass me about wanting to be close to Peeta. I make to move from my spot astride Peeta, but he stops me. The arm Peeta has around my lower back tightens.

“Easy, he’s just trying to get a rise out of you.” I don’t relax my body or my glare. “And we both know how much I like you where you are.” He whispers in my ear. My cheeks flush and reluctantly, l relax back into him, burrowing my face in his shoulder.

“We were talking about the arena, and what we might expect when we reach 12.” Peeta says easily, picking up the conversation with Haymitch.

“Oh, that reminds me sweetheart,” Haymitch directs at me, and I turn my face to look at him. “Your mother may have had an opinion or two about your and the boy’s relationship.”

I suppose the reason I never knew Haymitch’s super power was popping people’s happy bubble is because before now, I’ve never had a happy bubble to pop.

No longer able to relax, I swing my leg over Peeta so that I’m sitting beside him on the couch.

“What are you talking about?” I demand. Not near as comfortable in this new position, I lean against Peeta and he winds an arm around me, securing me to his side. My arms are crossed waiting for Haymitch’s reply.

“Well…” Haymitch takes another swig from his flask. “Apparently, when the cameras came around to do the family and friends interviews during the final 8, your mother mentioned something along the lines of you being too young to have a boyfriend, or be in a relationship, or whatever.” Haymitch waves it off.

She. Said. What?

I am livid. I’m thankful Peeta knows me so well, because as soon as he lifts his arm from around me, I’m up. I need to move.

Haymitch continues to drink and Peeta watches me with soft eyes as I stew silently, pacing back and forth.

They both look at me as though waiting for something...

I don’t think I disappoint.

“How can you be so calm?!” I shout at Peeta. He doesn’t flinch. Cause he knows me. He knows I’m not actually yelling at him.

“Can you believe her?! How DARE she! My mother! The living dead! She’s not coherent enough to make sure her children are fed, or clean herself, but put a camera in her face, and all of a sudden she has a fucking opinion!” I’m seething. I can’t control my anger as I pace and rant. “She has no right! If it had been left to her I wouldn’t be alive to have any kind of relationship! You saved my life!” I yell, pointing at Peeta suddenly.

I vaguely note the surprise on Haymitch’s face, either at my continued outburst or what I’m saying, I don’t know or care.

“You have more of a right to weigh in on my choices than she does! I kept myself alive! Hell, I kept all of us alive! I took care of Prim! How can she-I don’t-” I turn from my pacing to face Peeta directly.

“I don’t understand.” I say at a loss, whether to him or myself, I’m not sure. “I don’t get it Peeta. When I was younger than Prim I was old enough to scrounge in garbage bins to try and feed her and Prim. I was old enough to hunt and gather in the woods alone, again for her and Prim. I was old enough to fend off and dodge Peacekeepers when they wanted to ‘ease my way’, but I’m not old enough to fall in love?” I ask him.

I don’t know what I’m looking for, but when he just continues to look at me sadly, I look to Haymitch.

“I’m old enough to give my life for someone else. I’m old enough to kill children. I’m old enough to be hunted. Old enough to fight for my life. Old enough to pretend at love... But I’m not old enough to experience something real?” It finally occurs to me all that I’ve said, and my eyes narrow in thought.

I then lift my head and look first to Peeta, then Haymitch, then back to Peeta again.

I shake my head decisively.

“Fuck that.”

Peeta grins at me and raises a hand, beckoning me to join him on the couch.

“My mother can say whatever she want’s, but she gave up the right to tell me what to do when dad died.”

“I’m sorry Kat.” Peeta whispers, kissing my forehead. He then pulls back with a smile. “If it’s any consolation, I wasn’t going to listen to her.”

I actually laugh, and duck my head under his chin, hugging Peeta around the waist.

“Well shit sweetheart, if I had known you you’d react like that, I would have waited to tell you on the platform.”

“Shut up Haymitch.” I mumble, not bothering to move. I hear him huff out a laugh.

“Seriously though you two,” Haymitch’s tone makes us both turn to look at him. “You’re really gonna give the whole relationship thing a shot?” Peeta and I both nod.

Haymitch’s reaction isn’t exactly encouraging.

“Okay.” He nods, leaning forward in his seat. “I’m happy for you kids, I really am. For what’s coming next, you’re going to need each other.” Haymitch sighs, and Peeta and I both tense sitting flush against each other. “You know this already sweetheart, but I’ve got an update. Listen here boy; Snow isn’t happy with either of you. Your bit with the berries, forcing the Gamemakers to crown two victors…You two need to keep your noses clean. It’ll be better for all involved if you stick together, so trying to make something real out of this mess may actually allow you to keep your sanity.”

“What does that mean for our families Haymitch? Is Snow going to go after them?” Peeta asks gripping one of my hands tightly. Haymitch shrugs. “I don’t know, but I wouldn’t put it past him. He’s done it in the past. It’s definitely not beyond his capabilities to arrange an accident or two.”

“What do we do Haymitch?” I ask.

Haymitch stares at both Peeta and I for a moment, thinking.

“We prepare for the inevitable rather than wait to do damage control.” Haymitch nods, and I get the feeling he’s thinking out loud.

I’m suddenly reminded of our hug before I was allowed to see Peeta in our last interview with Caesar.

“Wait, Haymitch, should we really be talking about this in here?” I ask, and he waves me off.

“Don’t worry about it sweetheart. The trains can’t support any kind of transmitter, a little gift from a fellow victor.”

I nod and look to Peeta to see him looking between Haymitch and I.

“You mean they’ve been listening or watching us the entire time? I knew the suite was bugged. Where else?” Haymitch nods this time. “The entire Capitol is wired top to bottom. They hear and usually see everything. The trains are relatively safe, but you shouldn’t relax too much until we get back to 12 and the Cameras leave. You’ll also have to be careful when you get your houses in the village. Snow’ll have had one or both bugged to within an inch of its moulding. Try to hold off on saying anything to personal or rebellious until I hear back from my contact in the capitol as to where the cameras and listening devices are. We can disable the eyes easily enough, but you don’t want to completely obscure all of the ears. You’re better to disable or muffle the ones in the rooms you use the most, or are the most private.”

It’s daunting, and disturbing that this is what our lives have become, but both Peeta and I nod in understanding and Haymitch continues.

“Now your families, that’s trickier. Show’s a big fan of staging ‘accidents’. Now sweetheart, you’re a little better off than the boy here, even though it’s going to be you he’s gunning for. You see, since you volunteered for her, and especially after her interview, all of Panem loves your sister. Snow won’t want to go after her until it’s absolutely necessary. He knows that loosing Prim would break you, and he doesn’t want you broken. He wants to use you. So the only people you really have to worry about are your mother and your cousins.”

I’m confused.

“You have cousins?” Peeta asks me, looking as bewildered as I feel.

“What cousins?” I ask Haymitch.

He looks bemused. “You know, that tall, dark haired, good looking kid you were always seen with. Glen or something. I always thought he was your brother, with you two looking so alike and always together.”

I don’t have to look. I can literally feel the grin that slowly stretches Peeta’s face.

Still looking in Haymitch’s direction, I refuse to acknowledge him when Peeta nudges me in the shoulder.

“Oh right,” He says, chuckling. “Your cousin Glen. I remember now.”

I roll my eyes and turn to him. “Are we gonna have a problem here?” I ask raising an eyebrow.

Peeta grins widely and leans back against the couch, stretching his arms across the back.

“No, no problem at all.” He says smugly.

I turn back to Haymitch and try to ignore the preening beside me.

“Although you have to admit; having your ‘cousin that looks like your brother’ as my only competition? That’s some kind of luck.” I turn to glare at him, and the idiot just keeps smiling at me. “Tell me Katniss, were you and Glen ever kissing cousins?” He says it playfully, leaning toward me and wrapping his arms around me slowly. I’m stiff as a board and lean away from him with my arms crossed tightly across my chest, glaring at the wall. His arms encircle me anyway and he easily picks me up and pulls me closer until I am once again sitting across his lap.

I don’t relax one iota, and Peeta chuckles.

“It’s a little funny.” He insists.

“I don’t like you right now.” I grumble, and Peeta’s chuckle becomes a full on belly laugh.

“Did I miss something?” Haymitch asks, looking between us.

“Gale,” I say, emphasising his name. “Is not my cousin. Or my brother. He’s one of my best friends. We go hunting and trade together. That’s why you always saw us together, because you would have seen us trading in town or at the Hob.” Peeta gives a little snort and I shoot him a quick glare then turn back to Haymitch. “And Peeta’s an idiot, and jealous, and thinks that Gale has feelings for me.” I finish with a roll of my eyes.

“That so.” Haymitch says at length, looking at Peeta over my shoulder. I think I feel Peeta nod behind me.

“Well you had better keep an eye on that sweetheart. If Snow got even a whiff that someone was trying to come between his ‘star-crossed lovers’, he wouldn’t hesitate to put that person in the ground.”

The thought of Snow going after Gale sends a shiver down my spine. “I will, but I’m telling you, there’s nothing there. Gale and I are just friends. Hunting partners. That’s it.” I say with a huff. I am really starting to get sick of this conversation.

Chapter Text

“What about my family Haymitch? You said they’d be the easier target?” Peeta asks, bringing the seriousness of the conversation back into focus.

Haymitch sighs and rubs the back of his head before taking a swig from his flask. “Ya.” He says regretfully, and I stop pretending to resist Peeta and instead put my arms around his shoulders.

“I’m sorry kid, it’s just the way it is. The girl’s family made an impression, and while the interviews with your dad and brothers went well, your mother…well, she could have been a little sunnier.”

Peeta’s head drops. I use my position on his lap to pull his forehead to rest on my shoulder and run my fingers through his blond curls.

“What did she say?” I ask out of morbid curiosity.

A little known fact in District 12: Mrs. Mellark is a witch. How she ever manage to get her claws into a sweet and kind man like Mr. Mellark, I’ve never been able to figure out. The idea that she may have said something rude, or even cruel doesn’t surprise me; what does, is the idea that she said something in front of the capitol cameras. Mrs. Mellark is all about status and social standing. As the bakers’ wife, she considers all but a few in 12 beneath her. It’s why Gale and I always waited to make sure that she was away from the bakery before going to trade. As far as Mrs. Mellark is concerned, anyone from the Seam is pure filth and not to be associated with. When Peeta told me what she had said about me winning the Hunger Games over him; I wasn’t sure whether to be more shocked by her actually saying something nice(ish) about a ‘Seam Rat’, or that she was just as cruel to her own child as she was to everyone else.

“I hate your mother.”

I have no idea that I’ve spoken out loud until I feel Peeta shaking with laughter against me.

Haymitch huffs a chuckle of his own. “Trust me sweetheart, the feeling is mutual.”

I continue running my fingers through Peeta’s hair and regard Haymitch with mild curiosity.

“She started out okay; talking about how happy she was that Peeta had made it so far in the games, how clever he was to disguise himself because, and I’m quoting here: ‘Peeta’s not a fighter. He’s always been soft. It’s better that he hides himself away while the real warriors fight amongst themselves and kill each other off.’”

I can’t properly express just how much I hate that woman.

“Is she out of her mind?!” I yell. “Was she even watching?! Peeta is one of the bravest and strongest people I’ve ever known! He is every inch the warrior of any other victor! What, just because he was able to use his brain over having to rely on brute strength he isn’t a fighter?! Screw her! I’d like to put her in an arena and see how long she lasts!”

I’m breathing heavy when I finish, and I can still feel my blood boiling. How dare she say such a thing. I have a burning urge to introduce her to one of my arrows and see what she’s really made of.

Both Haymitch and Peeta are silent around me but I’m not calming down.

“Well? What else did that vicious witch say?” I snap.

“Not sure I should really tell you now.” Haymitch says leaning back and relaxing in his chair.

I narrow my eyes at him, and he shrugs.

“Alright, well, as you can imagine, those comments didn’t sit very well with the viewing public either, so they moved on to ask about you. More specifically; her thoughts on your relationship.”

Peeta groans beside me, and I just shake my head. Nothing good could have come from that conversation.

Haymitch nods, confirming that it is as bad as we think it is.

“Yep. The old crone couldn’t seem to help herself. I think in her mind she actually pulled it off. I don’t think she realized that she called you Seam trash and filth a few times. Or that everyone clearly got what she was saying when she said, and this is another quote: ‘People like the Seam girl don’t belong in town. They’re wild things. A match between my son and her would be difficult for both of them.
No, she’d be better off with her own kind.’ I can tell you, she was not happy when the interviewer cut her short.”

I huff a laugh. “I can imagine.”

“How can you laugh about that?”

It’s the first thing Peeta has said in a while, and I realise how tense he is beneath me.

“Peeta it’s-”

“She’s painting you out to be some wild savage! After everything you’ve done! Everything you continue to do! For your family, the people of 12, hell, even her! How can she think those things, let alone say them? It’s because of you that we’re even alive! She has no idea! No right!” It’s rare for Peeta to get so visibly upset. And while his words and defence mean a lot, it’s unnecessary.

“Peeta.” I try to pull his face to mine, hopping to distract him from the rage and tension I can feel building in him. “Stop. Your mother is a witch. No one takes anything she says seriously. Don’t worry about it.”

His eyes are still narrowed. Jaw still clenched. He won’t look at me, just fumes angrily at the wall.

“Peeta.” I say firmly, finally forcing his eyes to mine. “Stop.”

He blinks at me, coming back to himself.

“Breath.”

He takes a deep breath, letting it out slowly. Calmer, Peeta leans forward and presses his forehead to mine. Eyes closed.

“They can’t take you away from me. I won’t let them separate us. Not now that I finally have you.” Peeta whispers fiercely. I’m not completely sure whether he’s actually talking to me or to himself, but the ferocity of the pledge causes a shiver to race down my spine and settle between my legs. I feel my heart constrict with a strange combination of determination and elation on top of the tingling desire I had never known until today.

“No Peeta.” I say, and I surprise myself with the calm certainty I feel. His eyes open to stare into mine.

“We won’t let them separate us.” I hadn’t noticed how dark his eyes had gotten until they lightened at my words.

This intimate moment of solidity is shattered when Haymitch lets out a huge breath, reminding us of his presence, and our heads separate, turning to look at him.

“Well hell you two, make sure you invite me to the Toasting.” Haymitch says, standing from his chair with a groan. “We’ll talk more about this letter. It’ll hold for a while yet. We’re almost at the station. I suggest you do what ya gotta do, say what ya gotta say, and enjoy what little peace you have left.”

With that, Haymitch stands and variably stagers through the door leading to the rest of the train.

“I bet you he’s filling both of his flasks with as much of the Capitol’s good stuff as they can take.” Peeta says lightly as soon as the door closes.

“And sticking a few down his pants.” I grin.

“We should probably check our bags before we get off to make sure he’s not using us to smuggle the stuff out.” Peeta chuckles.

I start to laugh along, until the truth of Peeta’s words sober me.

I don’t want to ruin the moment, so I do my best to smile and shrug.

“Let him.”

Peeta’s smile dims and turns a little sad. “Ya.” And kisses me lightly.

We know how lucky we are to have each other to act as a healing balm against the trauma caused by the Hunger Games.

Peeta leans back into the couch, spreads his arms across the back, and I move off his lap to curl into his side. Snuggling a little closer when his arm comes around to hold me against him.

We sit for a little while in the comfortable stillness that settles around us, and I soak it in. This quiet. This easy happiness. It won’t last. Soon the questions, the opinions…the Capitol…they will focus on us once again, and I can feel myself tensing with the anxiety of it all.

“What’s going to happen when we get off this train?” I ask Peeta, breaking the silence. “Paint me a picture.”

“Hmm.” Peeta humms, thinking. His fingers once again find my hair, and I feel the tension leech out of me.

“Well, when the train stops, and the doors open there’ll be a huge crowd waiting and cheering. It will look like half or more of 12 will be there to welcome you home. And it won’t be because Snow made them. They’ll all be standing there, waving flowers and calling your name because you won. You survived. And because of you, they and their children will have full bellies for a full year. Some for the first time in they’re lives.”

“What’s all this ‘me’ business?” I ask looking up at him. “They’ll be cheering for you too.”

Peeta shrugs. “My story, my rules.”

I shake my head at him, but let him continue.

“Our mothers will be there, of course.” He says, and I think he can sense my eye roll, because I can feel him grinning. “Both of them will be crying. Yours because you made it back alive…mine - because
I made it back alive.” I surprise myself when I snort with laughter at his tone and I wack him in the stomach, causing him to grunt, then laugh out loud.

Trying to be serious, he continues: “Gale will be there, probably with little Prim on his shoulders. And the moment he sees you he’ll drop little Prim and race up to you, declaring his undying love and ask you to marry him. You then, in front of everyone, break his nose in two places when he tries to kiss you and declare your undying love for me. You and I then gather up Prim and my brothers and head down to the Bakery to see my dad and enjoy fresh cheese buns right from the oven.”

I’m staring at Peeta incredulously. I have been ever since he said Gale’s name.

He’s grinning at the wall across from him, apparently still lost in his own little world.

I start laughing at the glazed look in his eye, and that seems to wake him up.

He looks down at me, smiling sheepishly. “Sorry, guess that was more my story, than yours.”

I openly laugh at him. Reveling in the warmth that spreads through my chest every time he looks at me.

“You know this theory of yours that Gale’s in love with me is ridiculous right?” I admonish, grinning at him.

In the back of my mind, I wonder at the ability this boy has to make me smile. To make me happy. Whereas before, I could never been known to smile outside of the woods unless it was at Prim.

Peeta chuckles and shakes his head, and I know that he’s laughing at my supposed naivety. “We’ll see.”

Chapter Text

The train pulls into the station, and I’m not completely surprised that Peeta was right about the crowd.

It looks like all of 12 has come to welcome us home.

Peeta and I stand side by side in front of the doors that will let us onto the platform. We’re holding hands. Standing close. And it’s not just because I find the roaring of the crowd intimidating. We both know that as soon as these doors open we’re going to be forced apart. His family and friends on one side, mine on the other. It’s no one’s doing, really. It just is.

“I love you.” He says, still looking forward, giving my hand a light squeeze.

I know that I can’t let him go when I know that his fear of losing me is still gnawing away at him.

I release his hand and he looks at me with a closed off expression. I step closer and lean up on my toes, my hands smoothing the sides of his head to tangle in his hair.

“I know.” I say confidently, looking him in the eyes.

His expression opens, and I can suddenly read him again. He’s afraid. Afraid of going back to the way things were. Afraid that people won’t understand or accept that the Peeta that’s come back, is not the same Peeta that left. Afraid to face his mother and her venom. Afraid of himself and his reactions. And on top of all that, he’s still afraid of losing me.

I pull his face to mine and kiss him. Hard and deep. I try to convey all of the passion and emotion I feel for this boy.

I think I’m successful when I reluctantly pull away and he opens glazed eyes and stares at me for a moment, unresponsive.

I continue to stare at him and he eventually blinks, bringing me into focus.

His beautiful blue eyes, which remind me so much of a clear summer sky, appear lit from within, and he smiles at me. Happy.

“You know, after a kiss like that, if I didn’t know better, I would say you love me.” Peeta says with a grin, his eyes dancing.

I smirk as I take his hand again and turn back to face the doors just as they open to the roaring crowd.

“Who says you know better?” I ask loud enough to be heard clearly over the din.

Peeta laughs, then freezes as he absorbs what I said. I laugh to myself, and give a tug on his hand to pull him forward into the chaos.

***

It takes Peeta a few moments to get his bearings after my little tease.

I honestly don’t think it was a tease. These feelings I have for my Boy with the Bread; I’ve never felt anything like them before. They’re strong, and they’re real, and they’re new. I don’t know if what I feel for Peeta is love. I know that I would give my life for his. I know that his happiness is my priority. I hold him as family. He’s my best friend. And while that’s all well and good…I also want him. To my embarrassment, my body seems to crave his. It heats up every time he touches me. Even now when we’re both surrounded by our separate families and friends, I want to feel his arms around me. Not because I’m scared, or lonely, or sad. Just because I want to feel him by my side. My hand in his. His strong arm bracing my shoulders.

I shiver and my face heats as I remember the little bit of ‘non-talking’ we got up to earlier.

This is not something I should be thinking about while my mother is crying happy tears into my shoulder.

My mother lets go of me and I drop to one knee as Prim rushes into my arms.

“You did it!” She cries into my Capitol ear, and I don’t realize I’m crying until I release a strange half laugh, half sob, as I grip her tighter.

“I promised I would, didn’t I?”

I reluctantly pull back from her and hold her by the shoulders to get a better look at her.

She looks good. Healthy. In fact she looks better fed than when I left.

Her blond braids shine like spun gold in the bright sunlight, and her eyes are clear and happy, even as tears run down her cheeks.

“You look so good Prim.” I smile wetly. “Have the Hawthorns been taking good care of you?” I ask. My knee is starting to ache from the gravel but I ignore it. Being able to look Prim in the eye is more important.

Prim’s eyes sparkle and a grin splits her face.

“Oh Katniss! You’ll never guess!” She says excitedly, then leans in as though to tell me a secret. “It was Mr. Mellark!” She whispers excitedly.

What?

Prim nods excitedly as though I asked the question out loud. Mind, I’m so confused I might have.

“Ya! I mean, Gale stopped by every week or so to drop off a couple of squirrels or even a pheasant, but other than that, we really didn’t see him much. It was Mr. Mellark! The Baker! Peeta’s father!” Prim’s eyes are alight. “Every few days Mr. Mellark would send either Bannock or Rye to bring us a few big loafs of bread! And on Sundays I would go to the Bakery and trade him some of Lady’s milk and cheese, and one of the brothers would give me some extra cookies or even a cupcake!” Prim is nearly bouncing as she tells me all of this.

Tears are still making their way down my face unchecked as I turn my head to look at the group surrounding Peeta. I see his two brothers, Bannock and Rye with their arms around Peeta’s shoulders as he laughs and talks with a girl I recognize as Delly Cartwright, and a sandy haired boy I’ve seen around, but don’t know the name of. I also spot Mrs. Mellark standing a few paces away from her sons with her arms crossed and an ill disguised look of contempt on her face as she regards her sons, and all those around her.

But I don’t see Mr. Mellark anywhere. Peeta must have been right, and Mrs. Mellark made him stay behind at the Bakery.

Even though everyone who could actually afford to buy from the bakery was here at the station. And all of the other shops and businesses in town were closed.

For a moment, I wondered why Mr. Mellark didn’t just close for a few hours despite his wife’s orders. Or if they couldn’t close, why not leave the witch behind to mind the shop. I then internally shook my head. Mrs. Mellark had to be here, else everyone in 12 would be able to publicly voice that she was a terrible person and mother, rather than just privately. As for Mr. Mellark…well, it was probably just easier to go along with the witch, rather than fight it and have to live with her. I feel bad for Mr. Mellark that divorce isn’t allowed in the outer districts like it is in the Capitol and Districts 1-4.

As though he feels my eyes, Peeta looks over at me and our eyes lock.

He must see my tears, because his eyes question me with a look of worry.

I bite the corner of my lip and smile slightly, giving my head a little shake. I then look to Rye and Bannock on either side of him and my eyes swell, twin tears falling down my cheeks.

Peeta’s eyes widen, and he starts to make a move like he’s going to come to me, but I shake my head again and turn my attention back to Prim. I smile a little ruefully to myself. I guess we’re not quite as good at the non-verbal communication yet as I though.

When I turn back to Prim, she has the widest smile I’ve ever seen stretching her face.

“So it’s true then?” She asks, starting to bounce again. I’m starting to wonder if the cookies and cupcakes are such a good idea after all.

“Is what true?” I ask, stroking the little fly-away hairs from around her face. For a while I feared I would never see her again, so I soak up the sight of my little duck.

“You and Peeta!” She giggles, blushing when a couple people turn to look at her.

I smile and laugh with her. “It’s more true than anything you saw on camera.” I tweak her nose.

Prim gives a little squeal and throws herself into my arms, causing me to laugh more fully, wrapping my arms tightly around her again.

“Hey Catnip.” A quiet, familiar voice interrupts our moment and I reluctantly release Prim and wipe hurriedly at my eyes, trying to erase my tears, embarrassed. The old Katniss didn’t show emotion, and I’m anxious about Gale’s reaction to this new me.

I stand from my kneeling position to face him with a smile.

I missed Gale. I missed the familiarity of him.

Gale reminds me of the woods. Of long easy days spent hunting and gathering. Of honing my skill with the bow and sitting on the top of a hill overlooking District 12. Imagining what we would do if we lived somewhere else.

Gale surprises me when Prim steps away and picks me up and swings me around in celebration. We’ve never really ever done anything more than shake hands before, or tended to the other’s wound if we got hurt out in the woods. So this large display of affection takes me off guard. I chuckle slightly as he drops me back to my feet and I sway, dizzy from his antics.

“Hi Gale.” I smile.

Gale looks at me a little oddly, and I think it might be because, like he once said; I don’t really smile.

The dazed look Gale has in his eye as he continues to just stare at me makes me a little uncomfortable, and I take a little step back from him just to put some distance between us.

It occurs to me that I can feel a slight tingling on the back of my neck, and have for the last few minutes.

Turning my head, my eyes catch Peeta’s. He’s looking at me intently.

I raise my eyebrows at him in question, and his eyes dart to Gale, then back to me. He slowly smiles at me, raising an eyebrow of his own. But I notice, even though he’s smiling, there’s a tightness around his eyes. I don’t like what I’m reading in his face.

I cock one brow in return, as though asking if he’s really getting his back up over a hug.

Peeta’s smile turns real, and he lowers his eyes for a moment as though in apology, and his stiff shoulders relax. He looks back at me with a crooked grin and a light blush dusting his cheeks.

I guess our silent communication isn’t so bad after all.

The exchange takes only seconds, but when I turn back to Gale, I see his eyes darting between Peeta and I with an unreadable expression on his face. I chance a quick glance back a Peeta and see him locked in a three way embrace with his brothers, all while others continue to slap him on the back and offer their congratulations.

The sight warms me, and I feel a happy grin spread across my face. No matter what we have, or will go through because of those berries in the arena; giving Peeta the chance to have that moment with his brothers makes it all worth it.

“So it’s true then.” Gale says, forcing my attention back to him.

“What’s true?” I ask for the second time today to the same question.

“You and the Baker’s son.” He says, and the tone of his voice surprises me.

My back bristles. I know that tone. That’s the voice Gale gets whenever he starts ranting about the Capitol, and the Seam vs. the Merchants. It’s anger with underlying hostility, and I don’t understand why he’s aiming it at me over my relationship with Peeta.

“His name is Peeta.” I correct clearly.

Gale huffs and shakes his head at me derisively. “Never thought you’d fall for it Catnip. I never thought you’d do their bidding - let the Capitol change you into one of them.” He mocks me, sneering.

My eyes narrow, but instead of feeling the rage that his words should inspire; I pity Gale.

This is where Gale and I have always differed. I don’t hate the Capitol as blindly and completely as Gale does. I never have. I hate Snow. I hate the Gamemakers. I hate the Hunger Games. But the silly people of the Capitol who don’t seem to know any better? …No.

When I got to the Capitol, I realized that I had been right all along. The people of the Capitol are not all cruel and heartless and bloodthirsty. They’re just naïve. They have no idea what it’s really like out in the Districts, how people live, how they suffer, because President Snow doesn’t want them to know. And most of them don’t ask, because it never occurs to them that the whole world isn’t just like theirs. That doesn’t make them evil. That doesn’t mean they should be put to death. It just makes them like the children they remind me of. Ignorant and uncaring of the world around them, happy as long as they have food and drink and all the pretty colours they drape themselves in.

“I’m no Capitol puppet, if that’s what you’re saying.” I ground out.

I’m so glad that Prim went off to talk to Peeta as soon as Gale came over, I don’t need her to hear any of this.

“Ha!” Gale barks. It’s a hard, harsh sound. “Then how do you explain being all over the Merchant?” He asks scornfully.

“I know you Katniss.” Gale hisses, moving closer to get in my face.

I don’t move back. The moment I backup he’ll take it as a sign of weakness, as quarter. My feet stay planted and I just glare back.

“You never would have acted the way you did in the arena unless you had a real reason.” His eyes narrow on mine while my face gives nothing away. “What was it, huh? Did the pretty boy convince you to do it for the cameras? Huh? Tell you the sponsors would love it?” I don’t know if it’s my lack of reaction or simply his anger that makes him say what comes next.

Gale’s voice drops to a whisper and he bends slightly to look me right in the eyes, searching. “I know the Capitol doesn’t play everything the cameras capture…tell me, how much did it really take to get that huge dinner in the cave? How much did you have to give them? Huh? How much did you show?”

My eyes widen in incredulity and hurt that someone I had considered as my best friend would say such a thing to me.

Gale must read something else into my reaction because he smirks nastily and takes a step back, sliding his hands into his pockets.

“Wow, that much?” His smirk turns sinister. “Lucky Capitol. I’d have paid to have seen that.”

My teeth and fists are clenched. My heart is racing and my ears are ringing.

I’ve seen Gale get nasty and mean like this before. This is Gale lashing out when he’s hurt or scared.

But I don’t care.

Gale was my friend. He was family. And he just called me a Capitol whore.

I don’t consciously make the decision. Nor do I realize what’s happened until I feel the pain radiating up my arm.

I’m barely aware of Effie’s scandalized screech of “Katniss!”

My hand is on fire and the red haze recedes. Gale’s on the ground, blood gushing from his nose, down his face and neck, soaking the collar of his shirt.

I feel a strong body brace against my back. We stand overlapping, his right shoulder against my left, and I don’t have to turn to see who it is.

Gale looks up at me, stunned, then starts to laugh, still holding a firm hand to the nose that I’ve most likely broken.

“Nice shot Catnip!” Gale gurgles. “They haven’t completely taken your fire yet then have they!”

I notice that the crowd surrounding us has gone quiet and still.

I hold myself tight and tall, Peeta standing behind me. Silent support.

“Mother.” I don’t have to raise my voice for the quiet spectators. “Please take Gale to get cleaned up. I think he may have started celebrating early, and has had a bit too much to drink.” My voice is steady, and strong, but I’m fairly certain that everyone can hear the anger lacing my words.

Mother quickly moves to help Gale to his feet, and to his credit, he doesn’t fight her. Hazel, Gale’s mother, quickly comes forward with tears in her eyes.

She unflinchingly pulls me into a warm huge. “I’m so sorry dear.” Hazel warbles. “He’s hurting, but he’ll get over it. I’ll have a talk with him.” I don’t understand why Gale would be hurting, and I hate that she’s apologizing and making excuses for him. I bite my tongue and muster a nod back at her. She reaches up and places her hands on either side of my face. Just holding me. “You did so good out there dearest. I’m so proud of you.” She whispers fiercely, looking into my eyes.

She then releases me and takes a step back. She looks over and above my shoulder. “Thank you Peeta. For everything you did to help our girl in that terrible place.”

I don’t hear him respond, so I’m guessing he either nods or smiles, because sweet Hazel gives him a trembling smile in return.

She then seems to look at the two of us together, and nods.

“Welcome home you two.”

Together, Peeta and I say: “Thank you Hazel.” “Thank you ma’am.”

Hazel waves Rory, Vick, and Posy forward.

I bend to give all of them hugs, and they all apologize for whatever Gale said to make me go off on him. I assure them all that it’ll be alright and that I’ll see them soon.

With a final sad smile, Hazel turns and leads her brood off after my mother and Gale.

The departure of the Hawthorns seems to ease the atmosphere, and people go back to socializing.

I’m once again thankful that this is 12 and not the capitol. These are my people. They know me, and respect me enough to give me a moment to regroup.

I feel hands gently lift and prod my painful hand. I look down and find Prim inspecting my hand with a practiced eye. I’m reminded of all the times she’s helped mother with her patients.

“How’s it look Healer Everdeen?” I try to joke, but I’m still too tightly wound and it comes off strained and tense.

Her prodding in certain places stings sharply but I don’t let it show. Prim nods to herself, coming to a conclusion.

“It was a good hit.” Prim says, looking up at me and smirking slightly.

Peeta, who still stands braced behind me tries to cover his surprised laugh with a cough, and fails miserably. Prim giggles at Peeta’s reaction.

“You’ll be fine.” Prim tells me. “You just need to put some ice on it as soon as possible to keep the swelling down.”

I smile down at her. “Thanks little duck.”

“What did Gale say?” Prim asks. From the look on her face I can see she knows that I’m not going to tell her, but she’s still curious. “You’ve never socked Gale before, even when I really thought he deserved it.”

I smile wider and Peeta chuckles behind me. “Sorry little duck. It wasn’t for little ears.” Prim makes a face at me, and I reach out and run a hand over her golden hair. “If it makes you feel any better, it wasn’t for grownup ears either.”

Prim’s eyes widen. “That bad?” she asks innocently.

I reply with a look that says that that’s all she’s getting out of me. Instead of digging deeper, Prim nods and lets it drop.

“Okay, well, I’m gonna head home; I need to make sure mom doesn’t fix Gale up too quick.” Prim grins at us. “I’ll see you later Peeta!” She calls over her shoulder, walking away.

When Prim is out of sight, I finally turn around to look up at Peeta.

He lifts my injured hand up and places a gentle kiss to my damaged knuckles.

“Well, even if it’s not in two places, his nose is definitely broken.”

The absurdity of Peeta’s statement forces a cleansing, surprised laugh from my throat.

Peeta smiles warmly and I step forward into his arms, pressing my forehead to his collarbone. Peeta’s arms come around me to hold me tight and I take a large breath, letting it out slowly.

Calm, I take a little step back without completely removing myself from his arms.

I open my mouth to tell him what Gale said, but he shakes his head.

“Let’s wait till we’re alone.” Peeta says. “I don’t want us to have an audience for that conversation.” He says it with a wry smile, but I know he’s serious.

I nod. “Okay.”

Peeta’s smile morphs into my favorite crooked grin, and he turns slightly, placing a comforting arm around my back, keeping me close to his side. “Come on, I want you to officially meet my brothers.”

Chapter Text

I have no idea why, but the prospect of officially meeting the other two Mellark brothers makes my stomach flip with apprehension.

Maybe it’s because of the spectacle I just made of myself. Maybe it’s because these two boys are two of the most important people in Peeta’s life. Maybe it’s because I want them to like me, and I’ve been told repeatedly that I’m an…acquired taste.

Actually, that’s putting it nicely, but that’s what I’m going with.

I also have to thank these boys for everything they did for Prim and my mother while I was gone.

I stow my nerves and walk at Peeta’s side towards Bannock and Rye Mellark.

Bannock is the oldest of the Mellark boys at 20 years old. All of the Mellark boys look remarkably like younger versions of Mr. Mellark, with a few varying differences.

Bannock’s face is more angular than his brother’s, with a longer jaw line leading to a strong chin. His eyes and hair are also slightly darker. Bannock’s eyes are closer to the sky at sunset, almost a light twilight blue. His hair is closer to the colour of summer honey, rather than Peeta’s sunbeam blond.

Rye on the other hand has the same square jaw as his father and little brother. He’s, I believe, 18 years old, and is the thickest set of the boys. While Bannock is broad shouldered, he’s also the tallest, giving him a more tapered, even musculature. Rye is the shortest of the three, thus giving him a stockier look. Rye is solid bulky muscle. His hair is lighter than Peeta’s; almost strikingly so, it’s almost white. His eyes are a softer, more normal, shade of blue than either of his brothers. And though not as dramatic as theirs, Rye’s eyes always seemed to be laughing, making them sparkle and shine. Though his size and physique should make him intimidating, Rye is all happiness and life.

I then compare Peeta to his brothers. And while I consider that I may be a little bias, there is no comparison in my mind. I love Peeta’s face. Square jaw, high cheekbones, pert nose. His eyes that forever remind me of the bright, clear blue sky on a perfect summers day. His curly blond hair that I love to run my fingers through, and makes me think of warm sunlight heating my skin on that same perfect day. Peeta is also just the right height for me, and considering my modest height of 5’6”, I would guess Peeta to stand around 5’10” if not 6 foot. His broad shoulders and strong arms, belie the artistry his gentle hands are capable of. I find his muscled chest, which leads to a tapered waist, very attractive. Even now, I crave the contact of his arms and to be pressed against said chest.

Looking at the three of them standing together, I’m struck by just how beautiful they all are. This, on top of them being the genuinely good and sweet people that I suspect them to be, I can’t understand why they haven’t been swept up yet.

I’m clued in to the most probable reason when my eyes catch a slight movement over Bannock’s shoulder as Peeta and I approach, and my eyes flick to see Mrs. Mellark’s red splotchy face fuming as she takes in the scene.

I’ll never understand the contempt this woman seems to carry for her family. And I know that I wont ever try to understand. To my mind, there’s nothing these boys could have done to warrant her obvious hatred.

As we continue to move closer to Peeta’s brothers, my eyes remain locked on Mrs. Mellark, just as hers stay locked on me.

There’s a look in her eye, one I’ve seen before... She’s trying to stare me down. She’s challenging me.

I’m reminded of a day in the woods a couple years ago. I was hunting alone, and shot down a large goose. When I went to retrieve my kill, I found an adolescent wild cat had beat me to it. He stared me down just like Mrs. Mellark is doing now. And just like now, I don’t back down. Back then, when that cat hissed and growled at me, I pulled my boot knife and yelled right back.

This time; when Ms. Mellark glares, I glare right back. She sneers, and I lift my head in challenge.

This woman is not a natural predator. Not like I am.

Something behind me draws her attention, and I realize she’s looking at Peeta.

Seeing the sneer that twists her face at the sight of him, I decided that absolutely no good can come from engaging this witch here, in front of all these people.

I watch her eyes quickly shift to all those around us.

Then she takes a step forward. I tense. Her eyes once again narrow on mine. She takes another few steps, and I move directly into her path. I can see her jaw clench, and the already blotchy red of her face deepens dramatically.

“I can’t say I’m surprised you won...” The pleasant tone of her voice does nothing to disguise her sneer. “I expected nothing less from someone so…used to the wild.” She tries to smile to mask the true meaning of her words; but all I see is a bearing of teeth.

I smirk slightly...I can’t help but take that as a kind of compliment.

“What can I say, Mrs. Mellark, I guess you were right...” I grit my teeth slightly when I remember what she told Peeta right after the Reaping. “Us ‘wild things’ are survivors.”

I try to temper my smirk into a benign smile as Mrs. Mellark’s face turns a deep red.

“My son is n-!”

“Is a survivor, you’re absolutely right.” I cut her off and nod as though agreeing with her.

Her ruddy face takes a turn from red to almost purple. “Filthy animal,” she whispers harshly, so quietly under her breath that I’m sure that the Mellark boys and I are the only ones to hear her.

I feel Peeta tense beside me, but grip his forearm before he can finish taking a step towards her.

Instead, I close the distance between us until I’m looking straight down into her flinty dark blue eyes, and whisper, so as to avoid the cameras: “You know what they say about us ‘wild things’, Mrs Mellark?” I ask, still smiling pleasantly down at her. “One important thing you should always remember?” I lose the smile and harden the congenial expression on my face. “It’s not safe to provoke them.” I warn.

Ms. Mellark’s hands fist at her sides. Her eyes dart to the side and behind me and her mouth flaps open, “Peeta M-!”

Before she can finish his last name I step to the side and back into her line of sight.

“Especially by going after their family.” I nearly growl, forcing her eyes back to mine. “You ever hurt anyone I care about again, and you will not like what happens.” For a moment, I feel as though I’m including more than just Peeta’s mother in that threat, but I shake it off. “I know about you Mrs. Mellark.” I whisper, so that only she can hear me. “I know all about what you’ve done to your children, how you’ve abused them. I know how badly you treat your husband.”

If looks could kill, Mrs. Mellark would have me buried so deep in the earth even the Mine elevators wouldn’t be able to reach me.

My eyes narrow further as her impotent rage grows.

“And I’ll tell you something else, Mrs. Mellark.” I growl. “I’m not the only one who knows.” Mrs. Mellark’s eyes widen to almost take up the majority of her face, and I take a great deal of satisfaction when she rears back as though I’ve slapped her.

“Filthy savage!” She spits at me. With a huff and toss of her head, Mrs. Mellark flounces away from the rest of the gathered Welcome party and heads, I assume, back to town.

“You okay there tiger?” Peeta asks, running a hand over my braid softly. I can easily hear the laughter in his voice as his ministrations calm me.

I refuse to take my eyes off of the wicked witch until she’s around the corner and out of sight.

I sigh. “I hate your mother Peeta.” I murmur quietly.

I turn quickly when all three Mellark brothers erupt into boisterous laughter.

I blush deeply. I had been so focused on Mrs. Mellark, that I’d completely forgotten that I was supposed to be making a good impression on Peeta’s brothers.

“I have to say, that was awesome!” Rye announces animatedly, and I can’t help but smile at his enthusiasm.

I’m instantly warmed by this bear of a boy.

“Seriously! Have you ever seem mom actually back down like that?!” Rye screeches at his brothers with a wide grin, despite Bannock trying to reign him in.

Bannock looks at me apologetically, as Rye just continues to rave, unimpeded.

“Really; you’re terrifying!” Rye’s grinning at me. ...I think he means it as a compliment. “I mean, we all knew you were incredible with a bow from buying your squirrels and rabbits for so long, but to actually get to see you in action in the games, you were amazing! The way you blew up all that food! You should have heard everyone watching here in 12! We were all cheering so loud! And, ya I know Peeta was dying at the time, and that sucked! But still! You were really awesome!”

I think Rye’s done…Or, I hope he’s done.

His mouth is still open, and he’s breathing heavily after his apparent word vomit, but thankfully the sound has stopped.

I look up at Peeta with wide eyes, only to find him pinching the bridge of his nose with the hand that isn’t resting on my hip, and shaking his head.

“Sister, if I didn’t think you would gut me for it, I’d hug you!”

Something about Rye’s happiness makes me feel playful…like a cat with a mouse.

I smile wickedly, and lean forward like I’m going to tell him a secret. “You don’t need to worry...” I mock whisper. I widen my grin, while narrowing my eye. “I left my hunting and skinning knives in my other jacket.”

I hear Peeta attempt to stifle his laugh behind me.

Poor Rye’s eyes are the size of Capital serving plates.

“I’d still be careful though Rye.” Peeta says in all seriousness. “I can’t tell you how many times she’s accidentally stabbed me.”

I actually blush, and turn and whack Peeta on the arm. “That was only once, and I forgot that I had it in my hand.”

Peeta laughs and pulls me into him. “You’re thinking of the hunting knife in the arena. But you’re forgetting the spear, arrow, axe, and stick from training.”

I feel my face go beat red, and I cross my arms and frown to try and mask it. He’s right, I had forgotten. There were a few instances during the training centre that my concentration had been a little lacking, and poor Peeta had born the brunt of it. What made it worse was that, most of the time, those accidents were caused because I was watching or thinking about Peeta, and not concentrating on what I was working on.

“You survived, didn’t you.” I grumble.

Peeta hums, bending to whisper in my ear. “I couldn’t have, without you.” His lips brush my cheek and I smile.

“Hey little bro,” Rye pipes up. He seems to have recovered from our baiting, as a big goofy grin is stretched across his face. “Didn’t I tell you; it’s always the quiet ones…” Rye needles, wiggling his eyebrows.

Both Peeta and I turn to look at him.

Peeta shakes his head, and slowly let’s me go; playing up the tension.

I focus my eyes on Rye like I would a rabbit under my arrow, and the grin is instantly wiped from his face.

I school my features into my ‘signature scowl’, and take a few steps towards him.

My eyes come level with his chin, but my having to look up slightly seems to work in my favor, as he gulps audibly. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Bannock looking worriedly between Rye and I and Peeta.

“You.” I growl, fisting the front of his shirt and getting right in his face. “I’ve got just one thing to say to you.” I hold my glare for another moment, then give his shirt a little tug, forcing him down to my level... and kiss his cheek.

Rye’s shaking and pale when I pull away.

“Thank you.” I say sincerely.

It’s clear that I may have broken something inside Rye, as he remains frozen.

I ignore Peeta’s giggling behind me, and turn to Bannock.

He’s grinning at me. Confidently, Bannock takes a step forward and encircles me in his arms.

His embrace feels different from Peeta’s; but it’s not unwelcome. He’s comforting, and warm.

“Welcome to the family Ms. Everdeen.” He says, pulling back.

What is it about these damn Mellark boy’s that they can get under my skin so easily. And why are they always smiling?

“Thank you.” I say with feeling. I stretch on my toes, and Bannock does me the favor of bending slightly so that I can reach. I kiss his stubbly cheek, just as I did Rye’s, and drop back to the ground.

“Prim told me what your dad, and I suspect you and Rye, did for her and my mother.” I don’t know how to convey just how much their actions mean to me.

Bannock, this big, huge man, blushes and smiles coyly. His eyes flick to the ground, then back to me. “You’re family now Ms. Everdeen. You have been ever since Peeta told us that you would be coming home in the Justice Building before you both got on that train.”

I shouldn’t be surprised. Really, I shouldn’t. This is Peeta after all.

I swing around to face Peeta with a narrowed gaze, and arms crossed.

He’s obviously been listening in, because his eyes are wide, like he’d been caught red-handed.

“You what?” I demand.

Peeta smiles at me, a little sheepish, rubbing the back of his head.

He must notice my face or eyes soften, because his hangdog expression melts into a full boyish grin, and he reaches forward quickly to grab one of my still folded arms, pulling me towards him.

I try to feign reluctance, but his grin only widens, and he pulls me fully into his arms, spinning me back to lean against him with my arms criss-crossed in front of me.

With my arms now pinned; it’s a reflection of just how much I trust this boy; that, rather than tensing or breaking free of his hold; I relax into him.

Before the Hunger Games; I would have lost it had anyone tried to hold me in such a vulnerable position. As it is, the back of my head falls to rest on his shoulder, and I huff in exasperation.

“You know I love you, you know now that I would do anything to make sure that you came home. Do anything to keep you alive.” He murmurs in my ear, his breath on my neck causing me to melt further into him. “Just like you would do for me.” He tries to say it confidently, but I hear the little quiver in his voice.

“’Would do?’” I mock scoff, “How do you think you’re standing here right now?” I try to grumble, try to pass it off as joking, but the tenderness I feel for him comes through, and he squeezes me tighter, arms falling to wrap around my waist. I can feel his grin against my ear.

Breaking us out of our bubble, Peeta rests his chin on the top of my head.

“You okay there Rye?” Peeta’s mocking is clear.

Rye shakes himself, almost like a wet dog, and stares at me wide-eyed.

“Fuck me, sister; you are terrifying aren’t you.” Rye murmurs. I’m not sure if he meant to say that out loud, but it sends Peeta and Bannock into hysterics.

As Peeta continues to reconnect with his brothers, Haymitch finally come to collect us.

Peeta sends Rye and Bannock home, while Haymitch and Effie escort us to the Victor’s Village where Peeta and I are told to pick any house we want.

He must see something in the way Peeta and I glace at each other, because Haymitch barks out a surprised laugh.

“Don’t even think it you two.” He teases. “You’ll pick separate houses.”

Peeta and I both blush slightly at being so easily read. I glance at Effie, and her lips are pursed as though fighting a smile.

“Where’s your house Haymitch?” Peeta asks.

Haymitch points to the third house on the right.

It stands out slightly from all of the others.

Not because of any specific signs of life or upkeep, but because of its state of disrepair. If any house on this row looks like it could be haunted, it’s Haymitch’s. But then, looking at its sole resident, one could argue that it is.

After some discussion, Peeta and I decide that he would take the second house on the left, while I take the one beside Haymitch, directly across from him.

We chose these for two reasons: 1, because, according to Effie the sunrise floods the master bedrooms of all of the houses on the left side of the street, and Peeta loved the idea of waking up to the sun every morning. And 2, neither Peeta or I want to leave Haymitch alone to his own devices.

Peeta and I talked about it on the train. Unlike us, Haymitch is largely alone. I can’t imagine what that must have been like; to have been trapped, alone and isolated, in a large empty house that you’re forced into as a reward for killing other children. No one to talk to, and the only escape to be found is at the bottom of a bottle or the end of a needle.

Peeta and I understand how close we came to sharing a similar fate. We know how lucky we are. It’s in large part because of Haymitch that we both made it out of that arena alive. So we’re going to return the favor. It’s past time someone looked out for Haymitch for once, and Peeta and I are both committed to doing just that... just like he did for us in the arena.

After picking our houses, Effie informs us that the days activities aren’t quite over yet. Not only are we scheduled to attend a celebration lunch/dinner with Mayor Undersea and his family; we are then to be filmed as we pack up our old homes and “officially” move into the Victors Village.

After that, it would be a busy week of interviews, personal tours of District 12, and settling back into our “normal lives”... All on camera.

I was exhausted and fed up with it all long before Effie finished laying it all out for us.

Gritting my teeth, I look away and find myself locking eyes with Peeta. His jaw is just as tight as mine, but at the same time, I can read his eyes... He’s just as frustrated as I am, but his eyes beg me to wait; to hold my temper until we’re alone.

Reluctantly, I nod. And take a deep breath.

That’s one of the amazing things about Peeta and I, I’m starting to realize...

We know each other.

Chapter Text

After picking our new houses, Effie rushed off to ensure everything for tonight’s dinner was held to her standards, and thankfully took the cameras with her; giving Peeta and I a short break. After all, the Capital, or more accurately, President Snow, wouldn’t want to focus too much on the outright lack of living conditions here in 12. Oh sure; there would be the standard ‘Look how generous the Capitol is, rescuing our beloved tributes from abject poverty’ shot. But those were usually restricted to a quick shot of the old hovel, followed by an in-depth tour of the new Capital ‘awarded’ mansion.

Haymitch then shooed Peeta and I off. Apparently we were scheduled to spend a little time with our families, as well as move whatever belongings we wanted to take with us into the new house, and then head over to the Mayor’s house for 7:00pm “sharp! I’m looking at you Katniss!”.

I roll my eyes as Peeta chuckles at Effie’s scolding.

In sync, Peeta and I turn and make our way out of the Victor’s Village.

I jump slightly when Peeta’s hand reaches for me, but when his large hand entwines with mine, I look up at him and smile. My stomach gives a little flutter at the tender look he’s giving me. I can’t help my blush, and duck my head, bumping his shoulder with mine.

We continue walking in science for a bit, until Peeta’s voice breaks the quiet.

“Were you really thinking of us back there with Haymitch?” He asks.

“What?” I look up at him, confused.

Peeta’s face actually flushes pink, and now I’m incredibly curious, especially when he rubs the back of his head, which he only does when he’s nervous.

“Back there, with the houses – when Haymitch said, well... we’re you really thinking about us?” His thumb is making nervous circles on the back of my hand, and even though he refuses to look at me, I can still see the colour suffusing his neck. “About us...living together?”

Now it’s my turn to flush, and I loosen my grip on his hand to let go. But he doesn’t let me. I look up at Peeta’s profile, and I can see that his jaw has clenched, just as his grip on my hand tightens to the point of it being uncomfortable.

It takes me a moment to understand his reaction; he is scared. And hadn’t he told me that one of his biggest fears was losing me? That I would run?

I realize that he took my releasing his hand as trying to get away from him, rather than bracing myself for a potentially uncomfortable conversation.

Armed with this knowledge, I smile slightly and re-grip his hand.

“Hey,” I call to get his attention, at the same time pulling him to a stop.

When he does stop and look at me, I reach up to touch his still tense jaw. “I’m not going anywhere.” I tell him firmly.

He releases a breath I didn’t realize he was holding and relaxes into my touch. When he ducks his head to capture my lips with his, I smile against him and wind my arms around his neck.

“Thanks.” Peeta says when he pulls away, resting his forehead against mine.

“You’re welcome.” I smile back at him.

Seeing my smile, he chuckles lightly and pulls away, shaking his head. “Come on.” He says, giving my hand a little tug.

I nod and we fall back into step.

Quiet hangs between us as we continue to make our way to town. It’s just a as were about to enter the town limits that I break the silence.

“And to answer your question...yes.” His head whips around, and his eyes are wide. The look in his eyes tells me that I have nothing to be worried about. I have no doubt in what I say next.

“I was thinking...wanting... to live with you.” I say it softly, but I see the instant my words register.

His eyes are huge, his pupils dilated. His eyebrows disappear into the long hair that curls over his forehead, and his mouth opens wide.

I’m thoroughly enjoying his completely stunned look, and I can’t help but grin widely at the fact that I seem to have been able to stun him completely silent.

“Really?” Peeta raps, his voice tight.

Okay, so not completely silent.

I nod, then turn my head to look forward along our path as we continue walking.

“Ya, really.” I smile wistfully. “To be honest, I’m dreading the move.” I shoot a glance at him out of the corner of my eye, to find Peeta watching me attentively.

“And while a part of it is having to go back to living with my mother, as well as living in a place that’s Capitol owned and monitored...Most of it has to do with you.”

“With me?” Peeta asked. I nod.

I flick my eyes to his once again, only to dart away quickly.

“I know this’ll sound crazy but...I’m scared.” Peeta’s hand grips mine, but he doesn’t say anything, letting me continue in my own time.

“I’m scared of what will happen when you’re out of my sight. I still have this lingering, nagging fear that something’s going to happen to you, or that you’ll be taken away from me. Even at the crowded train station, I kept having to look over to make sure you were still there...I don’t know, I can’t explain it...I guess a part of me is still in the games…still in the arena… and I’m just waiting for the next trial or mutt to attack.”

I sigh and lower my eyes to the ground.

“I also want to live with you because I’m selfish.”

Peeta’s hand once again squeezes mine gently.

“What do you mean?” He murmurs.

“I’m selfish because I want you with me at night... because I don’t want to face my nightmares alone.” I shake my head at myself.

“I have them too.” Peeta whispers.

I nod.

“So ya, when they said to pick a house, those were my first thoughts. The moment Effie said I could pick any one I wanted, my first thought was that I wanted the one with you in it.” I pull Peeta to a stop so I can see his face.

“Not just because I have this irrational need to know where you are at all times, but... to keep you safe. And... because you make me feel safe; which is something I haven’t felt since my dad died. And I’m so afraid to loose that. And I’ll miss it... I’ll miss you, even though you’re just across the street.”

“Hey,” Peeta whispers, bending to press his forehead to mine. “I get it.” I take a deep breath with him, moving my hands to the sides of his head, and carding my fingers through his hair.

“I have the same fears, the same nightmares...I’m actually terrified of going to sleep without you there.”

I open my eyes to stare into his.

“Almost all of my nightmares are about loosing you. When I had them on the train; if you weren’t already with me, all I had to do was check your room. I won't be able to do that anymore. Now, it won’t be as simple as walking down the hall, or looking around the corner. And I’m afraid. I’m so afraid that I really will wake up one day, and you won’t be there.” When he says it Peeta’s voice breaks, and his eyes well even as they turn a little frantic; sweeping my face as though making sure that I really am standing in front of him.

“I’m not going anywhere.” I try to sooth him. He’s still holding me tightly, and I hold on just as tight.

“Promise me.” Peeta demands, his voice still low.

“What.”

“Promise me...If they do ever try to take you away from me... you’ll fight like hell. No matter what. Promise me you’ll fight.”

I feel a surge of resolve and determination and pull my head back from Peeta's; fisting his hair to pull his head up to look me in the eye.

“I swear to you; I won’t let them take me. And if they do, I’ll never stop fighting to get back to you.” I’m fierce in my pledge, and I can see the moment Peeta realizes it.

“I need you to promise me the same.” It’s my turn to demand.

Peeta’s eyes are hard as he says: “I promise, they’ll never take me alive, and if they do, I will never stop fighting to get back to you.”

“Okay.” I nod.

“Okay.” He says.

We seal our pact with a passionate kiss that quickly gets a little out of control, and I’m vaguely aware to be grateful that we’re still basically on the outskirts of town.

With a gasp of breath, Peeta and I both pull away.

I bite my lip and smile as I pull away fully, taking a few steps back, where Peeta continues to watch me.

“Also, I’m not gonna lie. When Effie said to pick a house; I thought about how nice it would be to wake up to you every morning...fall asleep with you every night...the two of us...sharing a bed...” My grin is downright naughty as Peeta’s eyes go huge again and he freezes.

My grin widens. “Well! We should really get going.”

I walk away, and Peeta still hasn’t shaken himself.

I’ve just passed into the town proper, and can see the odd towns-person enjoying the rare District wide day off.

It isn’t until I’ve passed the seamstress shop, that I finally hear Peeta’s unsteady jog coming up behind me. The sound of his uneven gate is unmistakable.

I keep going, pretending not to notice as he gets closer.

We’ve just passed the Butcher’s as he comes up behind me, and my arms and the back of my neck break out in goosebumps. I try to keep myself relaxed, but even thought I know that it’s only Peeta behind me, my entire body tenses. I try to force myself to calm... I expect him to grab my hand.

Peeta then reminds me to ALWAYS trust my instincts.

Instead of taking my hand; Peeta attacks.

Swooping in from behind, He lifts me with one arm, and throws me over his shoulder causing an embarrassing yelp to escape me. He pauses in his gate just slightly to make sure I’m situated, then continues walking.

It’s my turn to be stunned.

He did not just do that.

“Peeta – what are you doing?” My voice is calm and even, even as I’m speaking to the middle of his back.

I’m still too shocked to be mortified…but the shock is quickly wearing off…

No one’s carried me since my father, but even that was while sitting on his shoulders! Not slung over it like a bag of flower!

He doesn’t answer me.

“Peeta!” I demand, starting to wiggle. “What the hell are you doing?! Put me down! People are looking!” My wiggling increases until Peeta once again stuns me into silence and immobility by giving me a swift, playful smack on the ass.

“Stop moving; I don’t want to drop you.” I can hear the grin in his voice.

“Peeta, I swear to God, if you don’t put me down right now, I’m going to hurt you!”

Peeta chuckles, causing a vibration that makes me blush.

I am so, so, very glad that my face is hidden between my hair and Peeta’s strong back. Thus sparing me from the undoubtedly shocked looks from the townsfolk. Not that I hold any hope that they won’t realize that it’s me slung over the baker-boy’s shoulder.

“You will not.” Peeta says, giving the back of my thigh a firm squeeze and rub.

That, combined with the earlier vibration and playful smack, was turning me into a blushing, tingling mess, and I really needed him to put me down before I did or said something even more embarrassing than my current situation.

“Peeta, I’m serious! Put me down!” I huff, using my leverage to prop myself up against Peeta’s lower back.

He’s still chuckling when he finally stops.

“Okay, if I put you down, you promise not to hit me?”

I growl at him.

“I’ll take that as a yes.” He says, and I can still hear the laughter in his voice.

Peeta’s large hands come up and grip my hips, lifting me from his shoulder. And I’ll admit that the way he’s able to lift and hold me with little to no effort causes another wave of tingles.

But instead of my feet touching ground, Peeta pulls me into his chest, just holding me to him.

“Peeta.” I say, pushing slightly at his chest so that I can look at him properly. “What are you doing?” I ask, and I have no idea why my voice is soft, and not aggressive and demanding like moments before.

Peeta just looks at me, smiling slightly, his eyes darting all over my face as though drinking me in, while still holding me up.

“Hey,” I place my hand on his cheek, and that seems to wake him up. “What’s going on with you?”

He shakes his head slightly, as though to himself, and finally allows my feet to touch ground, but doesn’t release me from his tight hold.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to manhandle you like that.” He says ruefully, rubbing one of his large hands up and down my back. “It’s just...I’m happy.” Peeta breathes it as though a revelation.

My eyes widen slightly and my lips lift with a small, soft smile.

Peeta releases me and takes a small step back, then takes both my hands in his.

“I know you don’t like to talk about it, but...When my name got pulled from that bowl,” Peeta shakes his head. “I never expected to be happy again.” Peeta’s stare is deep, and intense. “I mean, there were only two possible outcomes that I could see as I sat in that room in the Justice Building. Outcome 1) I’m dead. Or outcome 2) I’m forced to watch the girl I love get killed.” Peeta’s shining blue eyes go from shining, happy blue; to a deep, stormy, troubled sapphire. “You already know which outcome I was fighting for.” His winsome smile is self-deprecating. “Either way, I was going to loose you...”

I go willingly when Peeta gently pulls me forward and wraps me once again in his arms. And in this moment, I don’t give a shit who might be watching us.

“But now...” I can’t tell if his sigh is of relief or wonder, and I wrap my arms tightly around his waist. “Katniss...I look at my life now...and...despite the scars, and the trauma, and the bits of myself that the Games took from me...I’m happy.”

He pulls back slightly to look at me.

“When I sat in the car on the way to the train that first time, I forced myself to put away any and all dreams or ambitions that I had ever had for my life. The only thing that I was going to allow myself to dream of was a quick and painless death. The only thing I would strive for was to do all that I could to make sure that you made it out of that arena.”

I can feel the tell-tale sting in the back of my eyes, and I glare up at him. He knows how much I hate that he essentially gave up on his life before he even entered the arena.
Peeta chuckles. “I know you don’t like it, but I need you to hear this.” Peeta pauses, then rests his forehead against mine, our eyes locked.

“I love you, Katniss Everdeen.” Peeta smiles. “You make me happy. Happier than I ever allowed myself to dream. You’ve saved my life. You fought for me, even when I wouldn’t fight for myself. You gave me my dreams back. But more than all of that; you’ve given me a chance...you’ve given me you.” His hands come from around me, to cup my face and anchor me to him. “You’ve always been my greatest wish. And even if, for some reason, you someday change your mind, and decide you don’t want to be with me...I will still love you, and stand by your side in any capacity that you let me. I’m so grateful for every moment I get to spend with you.”

I’m overwhelmed. Peeta’s always been the one with the words, but this... I don’t know what to say. I don’t even bother to wipe the tears that continue flow down my cheeks.

“Peeta.” I whisper.

He smiles his beautiful happy grin and wipes my tears away with his thumbs.

“Sorry, I just needed to get that off my chest.” He continues to smile at me.

I can’t take it.

Without warning, I push his hands from my face, and throw my arms around his neck, nearly choking him.

“I love you.”

Peeta’s arms come around me once again, this time holding me impossibly tight.

I don’t even realize that those emotion filled words are mine, until I feel Peeta’s lips on my neck, and hear his whispered “say it again”, in my ear.

I pull back just enough to look him in the eye. And instead of being swamped with fear, or with the feeling of being trapped, or the need to run, that I always expected would come with this confession; all I feel is certainty. And an all-consuming warmth. This is Peeta. My boy with the bread. The boy – no, man – who would do anything for me. Who HAD given up his life for mine. Who would knowingly take a beating to feed my family. This man IS my family.

So I look him directly in the eye, hopping that he can see my honesty, and how much I mean it when I say:

“I love you Peeta Mellark.”

Peeta’s response is immediate and intense. I’ve never experienced anything quite like the passion and urgency that Peeta pours into our kiss. It’s heady and consuming, and I do my best to keep up. If his answering throaty moan is any indication, I think I succeed.

It’s not until a rather loud and exaggerated throat clearing enters my vague consciousness, that I’m brought back to the present, and realize that Peeta and I are just seconds away from loosing ourselves in public!

I am mortified. I quickly disentangle myself from Peeta’s arms, taking a step or two back, and turn to face our would-be audience.

I’m both thankful and embarrassed when I realize our interrupter is none other than Bannock.

It takes me a moment to realize that the reason Peeta actually let me down from his shoulder was because we’d reached the Bakery, above which the Mellark's lived.

Peeta’s arms come back around me from behind, and I can feel the heat radiating from my face, even as Bannock smiles gently at me.

“Sorry Katniss, I didn’t mean startle you.” Bannock’s own blush does nothing to calm mine. “I just thought I should...you know...say something before, you know, someone else did or, um, baby brother got too carried away.” Bannock stuffs his hands in his pockets awkwardly, giving me a shy grin.

I can’t help but smile slightly at Bannock’s obvious embarrassment at catching Peeta and I.

“Thanks Bannock,” Peeta pipes up from over my shoulder. “Katniss and I were just talk and-“

“You attacked her.” Bannock says with a smirk, his embarrassment is obviously for my sake, and not for his little brother. Peeta’s face had better be as red as mine. “I know, we saw.”

My eyes widen. “We?” I ask with dread.

I can see Bannock fighting a smile as he nods his head towards the large show window of the Bakery. The large window that Peeta and I just happen to be standing in front of.

I have never been so embarrassed in my life as I look through the window, and see Mr. Mellark smiling back at me.

I don’t feel the need to say anything as I spin around, and Peeta is smart enough to back up quickly.

Unfortunately for him, though, he’s not quick enough, and I punch him hard in the upper chest.

“Oww!” Peeta cringes while laughing.

I ignore him and turn to Bannock.

“Thanks for interrupting. See you at dinner tonight?”

Bannock grins as he nods. “Absolutely, wouldn’t miss it.”

“Great.” I turn and start walking away.

“Hey wait!” Peeta yells after me, “don’t I get a goodbye?”

I don’t bother to acknowledge him.

“You still love me?” He calls again, and from his tone, I can tell that he’s just needling me. I continue making my way home, ignoring him. Just before I round the corner, I hear Peeta say to Bannock: “That’s not a no.”

Chapter Text

 

P POV

Even as Katniss walked away from me, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.

As much as she may be a little irritated and embarrassed...Katniss loves me.

Katniss Everdeen said that she loves me. Even before that, she said that she wanted to live with me.

And not for the cameras. We weren’t in the games anymore. We had no one else’s feelings or views to consider but our own.

And Katniss wanted, chose, to be with me...I couldn’t get over it.

“You all right there man?” Bannock’s voice and firm hand on my shoulder wake me from my daze.

“She told me she loves me.” My voice is thick, and soft.

“Oh, is that why you attacked her?” I look up to find him grinning at me.

I blush. “I didn’t attack her.” I grumble, turning and opening the door to the Bakery.

“You kind of did, son. We saw everything.” I am so embarrassed that my dad saw Katniss and I. No wonder she punched me. I will definitely have to apologize later.

“She said she loved me.” I explain as dad walks around counter.

“Ah, understandable then.” My dad’s grin is warn, and familiar. His eyes are floating with tears, as he finally wraps me in a firm hug. I’m not ashamed to say that the comfort and relief I feel in my father’s arms brings tears to my own eyes.

“Welcome home son.” My father’s voice is gruff, and almost hard to make out.

“It’s good to be home dad.” I rasp.

“Come here, let me get a look at you.” He pulls me back, and holds me at arms length.

I laugh lightly, whipping at my eyes.

“You look good son.” Dad says approvingly, if not a little confused. “Better than I ever could have imagined with just coming out of the games.” He sakes his head, inspecting me closely. “You’ve even filled out some. You look healthy.”

I chuckle despite myself. “Ya well, you know the Capitol; They like to pamper their human sacrifices. Makes them feel better, I guess.”

Dad’s face turns ashen, and I feel bad for my flippant remark. It’s one thing to make those kinds of comments with Katniss or Haymitch, but anyone who hasn’t experienced the games, will never be able to understand. If we can’t make fun, or laugh, at the horrors we’ve faced; they’ll consume us from the inside out until we’re barely more than puppets. Hollow husks that march to President Snow’s drum. I sometimes fear that just the memory of what Katniss and I went through will slowly eat away at what little remains of who we once were.

“Sorry dad.” I murmur, ducking my head.

“It’s alright son.” He says, clasping my shoulders.

He clears his throat. “And, the ah, the leg?” He looks uncomfortable, but I know it’s more about not wanting to upset me, rather than any real aversion he has to it.

I smile and shake my head at him. Without any reluctance I lift my pant leg to show off my prosthetic. I would never want my family to feel uncomfortable, or like they have to tiptoe around it.

“The best the Capitol has to offer.” I bend down to knock firmly on what should have been my shin bone, and the sound of plastic hitting metal echoes around the room.

My dad’s eyes once again fill with tears, and I grip and squeeze his shoulder.

“Hey, it’s okay dad.” I smile sadly at him. “I’m okay. The choice came down to die, or lose a leg. I chose to lose a leg.”

Dad takes a big sniff, pulling himself together. “You’re right son, you’re right.”

“Just,” I wince slightly, “Don’t bring it up in front of Katniss. She hasn’t really seen the full extent of it yet, and I think she’s thinking it’s worse than it is. She still feels guilty over it.”

Dad chuckles and shakes his head. “That girl is absolutely amazing. You couldn’t have chosen better son.” My dad’s proud expression mirrors my own, and we stand for a moment just grinning at each other.

“So, does that mean we can make fun of you when Katniss isn’t around?”

I was so absorbed in my conversation with dad, I didn’t hear Rye come up the cellar stairs.

I smirk at him. “I dare you to say something about it in front of Katniss.” I taunt.

My grin stretches when Rye’s face actually losses a little colour.

Dad and Bannock laugh at the look on Rye’s face.

“But you’re okay though, little brother?” Bannock asks with a hand on my shoulder. “It doesn't hurt too much? You can walk okay?”

I nod and shrug. “I’m okay. Where the prosthetic and leg meet really starts to ache if I put too much weight on it for too long, and I get this thing called ‘Phantom Limb’, where it feels like my real leg’s still there. But they gave me this stuff to numb and relax the area, and the ‘Phantom Limb’ feeling is slowly going away the more I remind myself that it’s gone.”

I look at my dad and my brothers, and it’s obvious just how uncomfortable they are with everything I’m telling them. I’m willing to leave it there, but Bannock prompts me; “And how are you adjusting to it?”

I smile and shrug again. “Surprisingly well. It’s thrown my balance off a bit, cause its actually a lot lighter than my original, so that makes stairs especially tricky, but I’m getting better. And walking’s okay; if it weren’t for the occasional stab of pain, I would forget it was there.”

The smiles and looks of relief on all of their faces warms me.

“Well that’s all well and good, but can you hoist a bag of flour like you used to?!” Rye grins, lifting a bag over his shoulder, and lifting the atmosphere at the same time. “Cause I’m sick of caring your weight!”

I grin back at him, and narrow my eyes as I come around the counter to pick up two bags and sling them over my shoulder. I take a second or two to make sure I have my balance, just as I did with Katniss.

“Ya right, like you could ever pick up my slack.”

Bannock comes up behind to grab the last bag, and the three of us haul our bags to the milled bins in the back.

It’s so good to be able to joke and laugh with my brothers again. It’s something that, for the longest time, I never thought I would get to do again. As the three of us joke and needle each other, I make a mental note to once again thank Katniss and Haymitch for saving our lives.

***

It’s great spending time with my dad and brothers, but I know I have to voice the inevitable.

“Where’s mom?” I ask eventually. Not from any real want to know, but more out of morbid curiosity.

This, of course, Rye takes as his que.

“Oh my God dad!” Rye shouts, his arms gesturing all around him. “You should have seen it! It was the best thing ever!”

Dad looks from Rye’s barely controlled excitement, to Bannock and I. “Ah. I don’t suppose this will have anything to do with your mother storming in here in a right state long before the rest of you showed up?”

I don’t even bother to pretend to feel the least bit guilty about what happened between mom and Katniss at the station. In fact, I’m not ashamed to say that I was proud, and not just a little turned on by Kat’s fierce protection of me. I mean, it took actual effort not to throw her over my shoulder and find some place the cameras wouldn’t find us…if you know what I mean.

“Let me tell it! Let me tell it! ‘Common Peeta!” I roll my eyes at Bannock as Rye dances back and forth, waving his arm like he’s begging a teacher to use the washroom.

“Ya, wait till you hear this dad. It was pretty cool.” Bannock grins.

“Well out with it boy!” Dad demands, waving me on.

“Katniss and mom had words at the train station.” I explain vaguely with a shrug.

I have to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from grinning at the incredulous looks I’m getting from my brothers.

Dad’s eyes widen slightly. Maybe coming to his own conclusions, maybe waiting for me to go on. Whichever it is, he doesn’t get the chance to say anything when Rye gives a loud shout of “Oh come on!” causing him to jump.

Bannock and I laugh. “Alright Rye, go ahead.” I grin.

“Dad, dad, dad! It was awesome!” Rye’s making exaggerated faces and wild hand gestures.

I wonder what Kat’s reaction would be if I told her that she was Rye’s new personal hero? I chuckle as I imagine her face upon hearing of his hero worship.

“Aw dad! You should have seen it! Mom was there with us when baby-Peet and the lioness that is Katniss Everdeen got off the train. It was nuts! I bet you could hear the crowd from here!” Rye looks at dad expectantly, and dad nods, shooting me a smile. “And it was all going great! Even with mom doing her normal ‘glaring at anything remotely happy’ thing. Now, our little Peenut here,” Rye slaps my shoulder hard enough to send me forward half a step, and I straighten, taking a half-hearted swing at him. “Can’t take his eyes off the eldest Miss. Everdeen. And man, it was so cool! I guess her cousin, did you know that her and that Gale guy that trades with us were related? Weird. I guess he said something to her that wasn’t very nice because she totally KNOCKED HIS ASS OUT!” Rye cheers.

That reminds me; I still have to ask her what he said. We’ll probably have to sit down and talk about the whole Gale situation anyway. That’s not going to be fun for either of us.

“She what?” Dad asks with as much disbelief as I had felt watching said event.

“Ya!” Rye cheers with a huge grin. “And then I blink, and Peets is standing all menacing behind her, looking all fierce and shit! I gotta tell you dad; you have now idea how weird it is to see our baby Peenut angry and looking like he could do some serious damage! It was like: President Snow in a tutu, level of weird! After Kitty-Kat calms down, Peet starts to bring her over, but then her and mom lock eyes.” Rye fairly whispers dramatically.

Dad leans in a little; thoroughly taken in by Rye’s recollection of events.

“Dad, it was almost a little scary.” Rye says reverently, keeping up the whisper. “Mom’s glaring at Katniss like she just dropped a finished five tier wedding cake the day before the wedding. And Katniss? She just glared right back! She didn’t give her an inch! I mean, I was scared and it wasn’t even directed at me! But Katniss; she just lifted her head like she was daring mom to do her worst!” Rye shivers, and he isn’t the only one at the thought of mom’s ‘worst’.

“But that’s not even the coolest part!” Rye snaps us out of our thoughts with his exuberance. “When Katniss doesn’t back down; mom starts to turn on Peety-cake here! And Katniss TOTALLY shuts her down!” Rye slaps me on the shoulder again, this time more gently, and I grin with him.

“Ya,” Bannock pipes up. “Mom tried to start spewing her usual garbage about Peeta and about her, Katniss, being a wild animal or some shit.”

“She called her a wild thing and a filthy animal.” I supply with a scowl.

“Right.” Bannock nods. “And Katni-“

“Do you know what she said dad?!” Rye interrupts excitedly. Bannock glares at him, then rolls his eyes when Rye just continues to bounce on the balls of his feet, forcing dad's attention.

“She said, get how awesome this is! She said ‘It’s not safe going after a “wild thing’s” family!’ Then she says: ‘You ever hurt anyone I care about again, and you will not like what happens.’ HOW FUCKING BADASS IS THAT?!” Rye’s nearly hyperventilating he’s so excited.

“But I wonder what she said after that?” Bannock muses, tilting his head to the side in thought.

We all turn to him.

“After that, remember?” He goes on. “Katniss got in mom’s face and whispered something. That’s when mom called her a ‘filthy savage’ and stormed away.”

I nod and scowl, remembering. “You’re right. I’ll have to ask her.”

“Well…” Dad huffs with a slight smile and wide eyes. “For only being home for a few hours, you’ve certainly got a lot done.”

All four of us chuckle together, and it’s a really wonderful moment for all four of us.

Once again, I reflect on just how lucky I am to be able to be here with them, and to be able to share moments like this with them.

Chapter Text

KPOV

On my walk back to the Seam, I’m relived that the few people I encounter keep their distance. It’s just as I cross the Town/Seam line, that I realize that this is really the first time in weeks that I’ve been completely alone. No Capital, no Snow, no audience. And despite the unease I feel crawling up my spine from Peeta’s absence, I allow myself a deep sigh of relief.

The silence is welcome. It gives me time to think. To reflect.

I think about what I’m going to say to my mother. What I might say to Gale if he’s still there...What I said to Peeta outside the bakery. I meant it. I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t, and Peeta knows that...but what now? What will our lives be like now?

Unlike Peeta, I’ve never allowed myself to really think of the future. I never allowed myself to wonder or dream beyond the Reapings and their Hunger Games.

Now that the Games are over for Peeta and I, I’m terrified of this huge blank slate that lays before me.

Will I still be able to hunt, now that Snow and the Capital most likely know of my going beyond the fence?

Will mom and Prim treat me any different, now that I’m a murderer?

Will Gale still be my best friend and hunting partner? Despite what he said at the station, his obvious anger at me and his apparent spite for my relationship with Peeta?

And what about Peeta and I?

How will we handle this whole new ‘relationship’ thing?

I’ve never been in a romantic relationship, what if I’m terrible at it?

What if I turn out not to be what Peeta wants?

Will we be able to stay together?

Will he continue to work at the bakery, even though neither of us need the money anymore?

If I can’t hunt, am not forced to work in the mines, and have no other real skill to speak of… What do I do now? What is my purpose?

For most of my life my purpose has been to survive and take care of Prim. With my winning of the Hunger Games; I’ve effectively ensured my continued survival, and Prim will never have to go hungry again.

I suppose that means I’ll have to find a new purpose.

I’m disheartened when, following that thought; my mind goes completely blank and silent.

With a scowl I rub my arms roughly.

I guess I could just ask Peeta… He mentioned having life plans and dreams… maybe he imagined something up for me as well?

Who knows.

I try to shrug the thoughts off, only for more sinister ones to take their place.

What about the next reaping?

Having to mentor two new tributes…more like two new sacrifices from 12.

It’s not that I’ve already given up on whoever it is that gets picked…I’m just being realistic. Peeta and I were the anomalies, not the rule.

I worry about Peeta especially. He has such a big, soft heart. I know that he’ll throw his all into trying to help our tributes. That’s just who he is. I can distance myself from them much easier. I just hope not being able to save these kids who are relying on us to get them through, doesn’t finish what the Games started; and strip Peeta of his innate goodness.

And what if our luck really has run out and Prim gets reaped again?

I don’t know the rules well enough. Can you be called if you’ve already been chosen but someone volunteered in your place?

Could I, even as a mentor, volunteer for her again if it came down to it?

I have to hope that Haymitch is right, and that Snow won’t let anything happen to Prim, for now.

And what about Snow?

Is he still going to come after Peeta and I? Or just me?

If so, how might he strike? When?

How do I stop him from coming after those I care about?

Can I stop him? Can I save everyone? Anyone?

Just how mad is he? How furiously will he strike? Is there anything I could do to prevent it?

What if it ever came down to a choice? Snow’s a sadistic bastard like that. What if he made me chose between my family and Peeta? Or between my family and 12? Snow knows my weak points.

I remind myself that Peeta and I need to talk to Haymitch, and far from any potential listening devices, as soon as possible.

That also reminds me that our new houses will most likely be bugged as well. It goes without saying that we’ll have to be extra careful about what we talk about and where.

I contemplate clueing my mom and Prim in on the depth of what’s really going on… and decide against it. My mother, to my knowledge, has never in her life spoken rebelliously about Snow or the capitol. The most rebellious thing I think I’ve ever heard her say was when she criticised the lack of any real medicine or medical supplies here in 12.

And Prim… well, sweet Prim, is also smart Prim. I trust that I’ll be able to tell her the bare bones, and have her be cautious and vigilant without my having to scare her with the gritty details of our current situation.

And the details are gritty.

Peeta and I, but mostly me, made a fool out of the most powerful person in our world. And he’s now got it out for us.

There’s a snide voice in the back of my head that whispers; ‘If a pair of desperate teenagers and some berries can make you the fool, you weren’t much of a figure to begin with.’

As I mentioned before: there’s a huge stretch of the unknown before me, and that terrifies me.

I wrap my arms tightly around myself; craving that familiar comfort. But I know that I left my comfort and reassurance behind at the bakery.

As my mother’s house comes into view, I slow my stride.

I’m not surprised to realize that I really don’t want to go in there.

My mother and I’s relationship was strained, to say the least, before the reaping. Now; with her comments on my relationship with Peeta hanging between us, I don’t know what to say to her. Where to start.

I also don’t know what to do with this…alive, version of her I’ve come back to. She’s not the mother I knew before dad died. I know that she never will be again. But this ‘new’ her is different. Better, but something I’m having a hard time reconciling with the woman who basically left Prim and I for dead.

There’s a dark whisper in my head that remarks that all it took for her to come back to herself was my leaving and imminent death. I can’t help but wonder if I’m one of the reasons she couldn’t at least try, after dad. Maybe I reminded her too much of him? Maybe it was easier after I left for the capitol to focus on Prim?

I don’t know. I can’t explain her actions, just as there’s no way to excuse them.

I stop just feet from the front door of our old house.

I try to put myself in mom’s shoes.

What if Peeta and I were married? What if we had two kids; one, a mini Peeta, one, a mini me.

And then one day Peeta’s gone. Dies. Is killed.

My heart physically wrenches in my chest, causing me to grab for it. My breath leaves my lungs, and no matter how hard I gasp and heave, I can’t get air. My legs threaten to give out from under me, and I actually fall to one knee, there in front of my house.

The pain and shock is something I was wholly unprepared for.

I then force myself to imagine those children.

I never wanted children. Still don’t. Not in this world. Not when, every day, there’s the chance of them going hungry. Not when there’s even the slightest chance that the Games or Snow could take them from Peeta or I.

But I imagine these children. I imagine a little blond haired, blue eyed boy with red cheeks and a big smile as he speed-wobbles towards me. I imagine a taller, waif-like little girl jogging beside him, helping him stay on his feet. She has long dark hair, and the same blue eyes as her brother and father.

And I find myself reaching, in my mind, for them. I have this sudden craving, this need, for them that takes root in my heart… And I know that I want them. This feeling takes me by surprise, and I’m knocked to my other knee as the force of the idea of Peeta and I’s children firmly implants it’s self in my mind.

I remind myself that, in this imagining, Peeta’s not here. He’s gone. Dead.

My glazed eyes, gazing sightlessly at my front door, fill with tears at the thought of him not being there. Of big hearted Peeta not being there to see our children grow up. Of them not getting the chance to know what a great and loving man their father was…

The thought is too painful, and I pull myself out of it. But no matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to erase those two little faces from my imagination. So instead of erasing them, I imagine Peeta with them. I imagine him kneeling in front of our little girl, holding up a dandelion, while our son climbs up Peeta’s back as though climbing a mountain.

The image makes me smile. And cry. And yearn so badly my hands and arms itch to wrap around them.

And in that moment, I hate my mother.

In that moment, I know that I am nothing like her. And I never want to be.

Even though the very thought of losing Peeta brought me to my knees, and the pain that scalded my insides burned so hot it left me almost numb in its wake… I knew I had those kids. And I still wanted them. Especially with so much of Peeta visible in them.

Maybe that makes me harder than my mother.

But I’m definitely stronger.

If ever we lived in a world where it was safe to have children, I’m confident that Peeta and I would make great parents.

Maybe my mother didn’t love me enough.

Maybe she loved my father to the point of forsaking everyone and everything else.

Maybe Prim was too young to know the difference.

Maybe, as I am so much like him, mom just expected me to take care of them like dad did.

But maybe I was eleven years old and needed my mother.

Maybe I was just a little girl, who’s daddy had just been taken from her.

Maybe I was scared when I couldn’t get Prim to stop crying in the middle of the night because she was hungry.

Maybe I was hungry, and scared, and cold, and alone.

Maybe, maybe, maybe…

***

It takes a while before I’m finally able to pull myself to my feet.

I look at the front of the house and brace myself.

Apparently I didn’t need to worry so much about confronting my mother. When I finally force myself through the door, I’m immediately confronted with a still bloody and bruised Gale Hawthorne.

He’s sitting at the kitchen slab, which doubles as my mother’s patient table, with what looks like little white pieces of cloth sticking out of his nose, and his head tilted back.

Gale turns to look at me, and I get a good look at the bruising that runs up under his eyes.

I don’t realize that my eyes are narrowed until Gale smirks at me, and my eyes narrow so thin with my glare, it’s almost hard to see.

“Hey Cat-“

“Don’t!” I snap at him.

Gale’s smirk falls a little, but not enough for my mind.

“Don’t you dare.” I hiss. “My friend, my best friend, my brother, was the only person allowed to use that nickname.”

Gale’s expression twitches, but I can’t read him.

“The person I met at the train station today, is NOT my friend!” I’m experiencing the expression ‘spitting mad’ as my hands fist at my sides; my bruised knuckles giving a slight twinge. “I don’t know who the hell that was, or what the fuck he was thinking; but whoever he was, I don’t ever want to see or speak to him again. Ever. Do you understand me?” I demand.

Gale stares at me long and hard, before giving a little sigh; his shoulders sag.

“Okay Katniss, okay.”

He says that, but I’m not near finished.

“No Gale. What the hell was that?” I don’t know what to say...where to start. “Out of everyone on that platform today; I never imagined my first attacker would be you! How could you say those things to me? Let alone think them!”

“I know Katniss, I’m sorry.” Gale bows his head.

“No Gale. You don’t get to do that. I want to know why.” Before the Games, had Gale said anything like what he did at the station, I would have let it go after he apologized.

I can see Gale’s unprepared for my dogging of the subject.

He sighs, and shakes his head slightly, before leaning it back on the back of his chair, looking at the ceiling.

“I just don’t get it Catnip. I don’t understand.” His head turns, and he looks at me imploringly. “Make me understand.”

I step up to the door frame to lean a shoulder against it, crossing my arms.

“Understand what?” My eyes are still narrowed, but this time in confusion.

Nothing could have prepared me for what he says next.

“Why him? Why the merchant? Katniss...Why not me?”

I’m frozen.

Despite Peeta’s certainty of Gale’s feelings; I had absolutely no idea he felt that way about me.

And as inappropriate as it is, I can’t help the fleeting thought that I wish Peeta were here. He would know what to say.

“Gale, I-“

Gale raises a hand to stop me, and I’ll admit to being a little relived; as I have absolutely no idea what was going to come out of my mouth.

“I just want to know why Katniss. After everything you and I have been through together, all the time we spent together out in the woods...I just don’t get it.” Gale shakes his head again. “I mean, you always said that you were never going to be in a relationship; never get that close to anyone, never fall in love... and then all of a sudden, you’re in front of a Capitol camera and you’re this silly, twirling, girl in love!”

I watch Gale grit his teeth then wince as it sends a sharp spike of pain through his nose.

I sigh and pull away from the door jam, moving into the room and pulling out a chair across from him.

With everything he said to me earlier; I honestly don’t think Gale deserves any kind of explanation from me...but at the same time; he is, was, my friend, and I can understand where he’s coming from.

“It wasn’t like that. Not really.”

Gale gives me a disbelieving look.

I shrug at him.

“It wasn’t. You have to understand, a lot of what you saw on camera was fake. I pretended to be the ‘silly twirling girl’, as you call it, because I needed sponsors, and needed the Capitol to like me. Peeta chose to play the ‘boy in unrequited love’. They were parts to play. What you didn’t see was the real us, behind the cameras. Peeta and I spent weeks together. Fighting, training, learning to survive. No one watching saw how Peeta saved my life a few times before we even entered the arena.”

I look down at the table, fiddling with a random spoon that had been left there.

“As for...Why him?” My voice is soft. “I never told you, or anyone, but...Peeta and I have a past. Leave it to say that: he saved, not only my life, but Prim’s and mom’s too after dad died. He took a beating for it. He saved me, knowing what would happen to him. He took that beating for me. He gave me the strength to keep surviving, and then he reminded me how to keep going. He didn’t know it at the time, but Peeta helped me remember everything my dad taught me about the woods and how to survive.”

Gale huffs.

“Katniss...are you sure you aren’t just, I don’t know, grateful? I mean, maybe you just got caught up in the whole ‘pretend we’re in love’ thing and-“

“No Gale.” I feel sorry for him, but I won’t deny my feelings. “I love him.”

Gale’s silent, and goes back to looking at the ceiling.

“You wanted to know why...” I whisper.

Gale sighs and says: “Ya...but now I’m not so sure I can stomach it.”

Silence stretches between us, where I wait for some type of clue as to what comes next.

Eventually, Gale shakes his head.

“No. I still don’t get it. I don’t believe it. I don’t understand how you can go from years of “never getting married” to “I love him” in just a few weeks. And I don’t understand how you can fall for someone you barely know in four weeks, but not notice the person you’ve spent every other day with for the last four years.”

I can easily hear the frustration and hurt in his voice.

“I’m sorry Gale. I just...never thought of you that way.” I try to say it gently, and I see Gale’s jaw clench.

“Well try!” He yells suddenly. “Try thinking of me that way!” He demands, slamming a fist against the table.

My eyes widen in response, and the hair on the back of my neck stands up; putting me on alert.

“What?”

Gales eyes are narrowed.

“Start thinking about me in ‘that way’! I mean, did you even try?”

Gale’s face switches from angry to pleading in an instant, and he leans towards me over the table.

“Come on Catnip.” He needles. “Think about it. Think about how good we would be together.”

And for a moment I do. I do think about what it might be like if Gale and I were together...

And I shake my head sadly at Gale, and I see his shoulders slump again.

“We wouldn’t work Gale-“

“You don’t know that!”

I close my eyes and take a deep breath, before looking him directly in the eye.

“I do know that Gale. You and I would never work, at least not for long.”

Gale goes to interrupt me again, but I raise my hand to stop him.

“Gale, you and I are like fire.” I explain. “We’re too alike. We would end up burning each other up. You and I just wouldn’t work. I know you don’t want to hear this, but Peeta and I are like air and fire. He calms me. He helps me control or channel my emotion. He makes me feel safe.”

Even with his eyes locked on the table, I can see every word hitting it’s mark; and while I’m not trying to hurt him, I do feel the need to drive the point home.

“Gale, say you and I were together.” Gale lifts his eyes to mine. “What if I told you that I wanted us to have dinner with Haymitch a few times a week?”

Gale’s face contorts, but I can’t tell if it’s disgust or confusion.

“What if I told you that I was looking forward to seeing Effie, or talking to Cinna? Or wanted to share stories about my Prep Team. What would you say to that?”

I can’t tell if the look on Gale’s face is confusion, contempt, or incredulity.

“I would ask why the hell you would want to waste your time on anyone from the Capitol, or what you’re thinking wanting to be anywhere near anyone associated with the Games.” Gale scoffs.

I nod my head.

“Exactly Gale. You’re so angry, and you hate the Capitol blindly. I don’t. I never did. I hate what the people in 12 and the other districts have to suffer. I hate that all of us have to live in fear. I hate the Games. I hate President Snow. But I don’t hate every single Capitol citizen. They’re not all evil; most of them just don’t know any better.”

Gale’s face is closed to me, and I wonder how much of this he’s actually hearing.

“Gale, I’m sorry. But you and I just wouldn’t work as a couple. We may be a lot alike in a lot of ways... but in the important things, we’re just too different.” I duck my head to catch Gale’s eyes. “You are my brother in all but blood... but Peeta and I are partners...a matched pair.”

Gale's expression is closed and unreadable.

After another silent moment has stretched between us, Gale stands from the table with a sigh and turns to leave.

“I’m sorry Gale.” I call after him, just as he opens the door.

“Me too Catnip. Me too.”

And with that, he’s gone.

A count of ten or so, and I hear the exaggerated, loud, footsteps of Prim supposedly coming down from the loft.

She’s not fooling anyone, but I appreciate the effort.

If Prim’s poor acting didn’t give away the fact that she had been listening the whole time; the sorry and embarrassed expressions on her and mom’s faces would have.

I smirk slightly and shake my head, rising from the table.

“You both hear all of that?” I ask pointlessly.

“I’m sorry.” Mom murmurs.

Prim nods. “Ya, we’re sorry. We didn’t mean to listen in!”

I smile for real.

“It’s okay Little Duck. No harm done.”

Prim nods. “I guess it was a long-time-coming, huh?”

I blink at her.

I flick my eyes to mom and see her slightly vague, slightly troubled, expression.

I look back to Prim. “Really?” I ask incredulously. “You knew too?”

Prim actually rolls her eyes at me.

“Katniss, it’s been obvious to nearly everyone for years. I think you’re the only one who never caught on.”

My eyes are wide. I realize this is basically the same thing Peeta was trying to tell me on the train; but coming from Prim gives it, what I thought was just Peeta’s paranoia, more credit.

“But-but,” I sputter. “Haymitch thought he was my brother!” I’m grasping at straws, and I know it.

Prim, very kindly, rolls her eyes at me again. “Katniss, as much as I’m sure Haymitch is a lovely man when he’s sober; he is the district drunk.” She looks at me through her lashes. “Not really the most reliable source.”

While a part of me want’s to scoff at the idea of Haymitch being labelled a ‘lovely man’ in any context. The rest of me is frozen with the idea of everyone in 12 thinking that I was already in a relationship with Gale…while they were watching me fall in love with Peeta…

“Oh.”

Chapter Text

After taking a quick hour to gather all of the belongings we would be taking to the new house; I lead Prim and mom back to the Victor’s village and the house I picked out next to Haymitch.

Unlocking the door with the key Effie gave me earlier, I step into what is now my front foyer for the first time.

And I don’t feel anything.

I’m numb.

No, wait, that’s not true...I’m not numb...I don’t want to be here.

That’s a feeling, isn’t it?

I look up at the high ceilings. The large rooms that flank me on three sides. The wide staircase that extends to my right, and which undoubtedly lead to just as lavish bedrooms.

I take it all in without really seeing it; more just mapping in my mind the doors and windows... means of escape...

I don’t want to be here.

I don’t deserve this... And yet they tell me I do. I’ve earn this monstrous house, they say, for surviving the Games. For winning. I live here now because I’m a victor.

I’m a killer.

Only murderers get to live in this block of houses.

I don’t rightly know what I’m feeling, or how to process it.

I don’t hate myself. I don’t hate everyone who’s ever been in the games. Not even those other Tributes that tried to kill Peeta and I. I can’t find it in me to hate them. They aren’t to blame for trying to kill us; just as Haymitch, Peeta and I aren’t wholly to blame for killing them.

We, so-called “Victors”, were put in a survival situation and we survived.

Now, standing in this so-called “Great Room”, staring at the giant crystal vase full of long stemmed white roses, that sits dead centre on the round wooden table; I’m unable to feel even a flicker of a positive emotion.

I take the flowers for what they are.

A reminder; a taunt.

I may have fooled Panem. I may have manipulated the Capitol. I may have survived the 74th annual Hunger Games...but don’t count on that winning streak to continue.

Snow is watching.

“Katniss?”

Mom’s voice wakes me from my thoughts.

I turn to look at her in question.

“Aren’t you going to take your things upstairs? I had a quick look around and there are more than enough bedrooms for each of us to have our own.” She smiles at me, as though waiting for me to return her excitement.

“Okay.” I mutter, picking up the rucksack at my feet.

I notice her smile dim; though she fights to keep it on her face, and I feel little stirrings of guilt lick at my stomach.

So I do my best to smile; knowing it’s a sickly grimace at best.

“Have you and Prim already picked your rooms?” I ask.

Mom’s shoulders slump. “Yes, and our things are already put away.”

I nod, and slowly head up the stairs.

“Katniss!” Mom calls out to me.

I turn back on the stair to look at her.

“Can’t you at least try to be happy?” She practically begs. “It is a lovely house.”

I can feel the disgust clenching at my stomach for my ignorant mother.

“This ‘lovely house’ was paid for with the blood of children. We have this ‘lovely house’ because I’m a murderer. I’m sorry that I can’t see the bright side of that...and I don’t understand why I’ve ‘earned’ this ‘lovely house’ as a reward for taking those lives.”

I can’t decipher the look on my mother’s face, and quite frankly, I’m too tired to try. I turn and start heading back up the stairs.

“You and Prim enjoy the house mom.”

***

Later, I find myself laying across my new oversized bed staring at the ceiling.

I have very quickly come to the conclusion that being left alone with my thoughts is not a place I like to be; and so now, as I lay here, I’m doing my absolute best not to think of anything.

It’s hard at first with so much racing through my mind. I’m thrilled that I’m able to see Prim again, I’m angry and frustrated with my mother, I feel betrayed and hurt by Gale. I’m worried about Snow’s possible retaliation against me and Peeta. And Peeta...most of all Peeta.

I’m worried about him. I wonder how my big-hearted boy with the bread is handling coming home after our time in the arena. I wonder how we’ll fit, now that we’re together. And what does “together” actually mean for us? How do we move forward? Can something real really come from something as fake and horrible as the games?

All these questions, all leading down dark and twisting paths… if I go down them alone.

I recognize that I don’t have all the answers, and that only Peeta will be able to help me answer most of them.

So I take a deep breath and try to let it all go. All the questions I don’t have answers to, all of the worries about actions I can’t foresee, all of the anger for things I can’t control, all of the fear of what comes next...I just want to rest. Just for a little while.

I want to close my eyes and escape the world for a little while.

But I can’t.

Because it’s daylight. And resting during the day is dangerous.

So I lay here, resting, with my eyes wide open, just breathing. Concentrating on every in and out.

And while I can’t seem to force myself to relax, I do succeed in turning off my brain for a little while.

I stay that way until a loud bang from outside my window has me bolting violently from the bed and pressing myself against the wall.

I cautiously inch my eye around the edge of the window to view the street below.

What I see instantly makes me relax; far more than any deep breathing could.

Peeta, his brothers, and his father have arrived to help Peeta move in.

The bang that had startled me was Rye goofing around, and dropping the box he was carrying. From my vantage point; it looked like the box might contain some pots and maybe a cookie tin or two.

I sigh, and rest my chin on my folded arms against the windowsill. I know that I would be welcome to join the Mellark men outside; but instead, I lean, and watch, and smile, and laugh with them from up here. Peeta’s just gotten back, and I want to give him the chance to spend time with just his dad and brothers.

Besides…I love getting the chance to watch Peeta, uncensored, just being one of the guys.

I find myself giggling when Bannock turns quickly to say something to his father, and ends up whacking Peeta quite forcefully in the side of the head with the rucksack slung on his shoulder. This, of course, starts another argument which somehow involves all three boys.

I’m grinning broadly to myself when I realize that it’s taken them nearly fifteen minutes to get Peeta’s meagre possessions actually into the house. In fact; they don’t even have the front door unlocked yet.

I suddenly get a rather devious idea… and I wonder if a) I will I have enough time, and b) if I should…

I watch the Mellark brothers continue to argue, and bite my lip as I count to five in my head.

The second I hit five; I’m out of the room and down the stairs. For what I want to do, I have to be not only silent, but invisible.

Silence isn’t an issue, especially with the kind of noise the boys are making. No, the hard part is going to be getting to Peeta’s house, across the street, which they are all standing in front of…unseen.

I peek out the thin window that edges my front door. It’s almost impossible. Right now, the three brothers are standing in a circle; effectively covering each other’s backs. All three of them have a clear view of the street. Mr. Mellark isn’t too much of a hurtle, as he hasn’t taken his eyes off his boys the entire time I’ve been watching them.

I’ve got my plan. I’ll backtrack through the house, slip out the back door, head around the side, through Haymitch’s back yard, and around to the far side of his house.

I’ll creep around to the front and chance a glance at Peeta’s house. If I’m lucky; the three of them will still be arguing and thus focused on each other.

Another quick peek around the window frame has me rolling my eyes to find the four of them in the exact same argument.

I’m just about to put my little plan into action when the sound of Rye whining, and the resulting loud laughter, reaches me through the door.

I freeze.

Now that I’m here and can clearly hear their bickering on the other side of the door; I’m second guessing my admittedly silly idea.

I huff a sigh.

What the hell is wrong with me? Didn’t I just tell myself to leave him alone? To give him some much needed family time? What the hell am I doing here? Do I really have so little self-control where Peeta’s concerned, that I can’t even stay away from him for a few hours?

I fist my hands at myself, and grit my teeth. I won’t crowd him. I won’t be that girl.

With a final shake of my head, I turn away from the front door and head towards the kitchen.

Just as I do, however, the Mellark boy’s voices escalate. They’ve now moved from laughing and bickering to blaming.

“What do you mean you don’t have it?!” I hear Peeta demand. Curious by the anger in his tone, I creep back to the door and open the little window just slightly to hear them more clearly.

“I don’t have it!” Rye argues back. “You never gave it to me! I asked to hold it, and you said ‘Rye I will never give you a key to my house, I’d wake up one morning bald or with a pig running around my kitchen.’ Which I still say is stupid. I mean, who in 12, other than maybe the butcher, has a spare pig to use in a prank? You eat pig. Not play with it… It’s delicious.”

I peek through the window again just in time to Rye rolling his eyes at a red Peeta, and Bannock turning his head to try and hide the laughter that shakes his shoulders.

“Alright,” Peeta says tightly, and I smile a little at his obvious frustration with his unhelpful family. That’s including Mr. Mellark, who appears to be just standing back and taking it all in. “You’ve got this great memory; if I didn’t give it to you, and I don’t have it. Where is it?”

Still watching, I see Rye’s face go a little red. And when he opens his mouth, even I can tell that he’s lying.

“I-I, it’s like I said…you wouldn’t give it to me, so you gave it to…” I grin to myself as I watch Rye’s eyes dart from Bannock to Mr. Mellark, as though trying to decide who to pin it on. “To Bannock!”

I bite my lower lip as I watch Bannock’s huge shoulders stop shaking with his silent laughter, and turn to face his smaller brother.

I can’t see Bannock’s face with his back now to me. But by the expression on Rye’s, I’m guessing it’s not good.

“Rye, you little liar! I was taking the bran back down to the cellar after you brought it up instead of the barley like you were told!”

I can see Peeta’s jaw clenching from here, and giggle silently to myself.

“Katniss?”

I spin, still crouched by the open window, to see Prim coming out from the kitchen. I wave her over, putting a finger to my lips for her to be quiet.

“What are we doing?” She whispers when she reaches me, and I take her hand, pulling her down beside me, pointing to the window.

With both of us now kneeling on the floor, we rise just enough to see what’s happening in the middle of the street.

Rye seems to cower back a little as Bannock yells at him. And despite the humour I’m feeling at Rye’s expense; I would not want to be in his shoes right now.

“What going on?” Prim whispers softly when she realizes that ‘what we’re doing’ is spying on the new neighbours.

I shoot her a little grin. “Apparently one of them forgot or lost the new house key, and now they can’t get in. Peeta and Bannock are blaming Rye.”

Prim giggles softly and together we turn back to the window.

“Re-really?” Rye stutters, his eyes darting, looking for an out. “Did I do that? I don’t remember doing that. Yes, you must be wrong about that, because that doesn’t sound anything like me…”

“He’s stalling.” Prim whispers beside me. “He’s not thinking fast enough.” She giggles.

Suddenly, Rye’s eyes light up. “I know!” He shouts, pointing his finger in the air. “The counter!” He says it as though a revelation, and I think I see where he’s going to try and go with this.

“Yes! Yes, see, I remember perfectly now!” Rye grins. Neither Peeta nor Bannock look amused as they cross their large arms over their equally large chests; their muscles flexing. Prim giggles again, while I grin, biting my lip. Somehow, I don’t see Rye talking his way out of this one.

“What happened was: I asked to hold the key, you said no and put it in your pocket. Then Bannock came back upstairs and…and…” Rye stutters. I share a glance with Prim, and we grin together. “And, well…you pulled something out of your pocket, and the key fell out, and then you picked it up and put it on the counter and asked Bannock to look after it, but if he doesn’t have it, he must not have heard you, so it must still be sitting on the counter back at the bakery.”

All but Mr. Mellark, who’s covering his soft laughter with his hand, is staring at Rye with wide eyes.

I have to admit that I’m a little impressed. His explanation is plausible… If not for his panicked, speedy delivery, I might even be inclined to believe him.

“I wonder if that’s how Peeta learned to be so good with words.” Prim whispers beside me. “He had to talk his way out of trouble and be believable?”

It’s a good thought, and one I had never considered. Maybe growing up with his witch-bitch of a mother had given him something other than pain and fear after all.

Rye, apparently seeing his advantage, nods eagerly. “Ya, ya. That’s what must have happened. So, see? It’s no one’s fault really. Honest mistake on both your parts.” Here, Rye does his best to grin innocently.

Bannock turns his head again to hide his smile at his brother’s antics. Peeta, still with his arms crossed, narrows his blue eyes at his brother, pursing his lips.

“That’s what happened is it?” Peeta hums.

I grin wider to myself. It’s obvious Peeta’s not having any of it.

Rye tries to press his advantage. “Ya, see, you were still in a daze over your Love-Kat, that’s why you probably don’t remember!”

The grin is instantly whipped from my face, even as Prim giggles loudly beside me.

What did he just call me?

I’m gonna kill him.

I’m slightly mollified when Peeta’s irritated expression morphs into a dangerous, cunning grin.

“What did you call her?” Peeta asks, his grin widening.

If he laughs I’m gonna kill him. Then I’m gonna kill his idiot brother.

But Rye must be reading something else in Peeta’s expression, because he quickly loses his confident grin.

“I-I, um..” He sputters.

Peeta’s grin turns predatory; and I’m a little embarrassed when I feel that tingling in my lower belly again, while sitting on the floor with my sister.

“I’m gonna tell her you called her that.” Peeta threatens. I’m not sure whether to laugh, or be offended that Peeta’s effectively using my wrath to threaten his brother.

When I see Rye’s eyes go wide with fear, I decide to laugh, and Prim joins me as we snicker together.

“Tell me where the fucking key is Rye.” Peeta demands. I bite my lip in worry when I see him surreptitiously massage his bad leg. Now that I think about it, this is probably the longest he’s put solid weight on it. It must really be bugging him for him to take the chance of drawing attention to it. “Tell me what you did with it, or I tell Katniss about that stupid name.”

“I-I.” Rye’s eyes dart from Peeta, to Bannock, to Mr. Mellark a few times, before his shoulders finally drop. “I don’t know.” He mumbles, barely loud enough for Prim and I to hear. “I lost it.”

Peeta’s jaw tightens, and he leans down subtly again to massage his leg. Even from my distance, I can see the pain is getting worse by the tightening of his eyes.

I think nothing of standing from the window, and opening the front door, careful not to hit Prim who’s scurried up after me.

When I open the door to revel Prim and I standing there; three pairs of surprised eyes look back at us.

I wonder if Mr. Mellark knew that I had been spying on them from the beginning.

“Everything okay?” I ask. I try to ask it in general terms, but my eyes give me away; flicking to Peeta’s leg and back to his eyes quickly.

I’m not fooled for a second when Peeta smiles at me, eyes soft, and says, “Everything’s fine.”

I narrow my eyes at him, and when his only response is a deeper smile, I turn my glare to the person whose fault it is.

I watch as Rye’s Adams apple bobs, and he takes a quick step behind Peeta.

“Prim?” I ask gently, turning to her. “Can you please run up and get my pin and wire for me? It should me in my pack on the bed.”

With a bright smile and a nod, Prim races up the stairs. I can hear her feet thundering to my room, a brief pause, and then more thunder as she hurries back, holding up a skinny leather pouch.

I give her a warm smile as I take it. “Thanks.”

My smile quickly drops, however, as I stalk out the door towards the Mellark men. My scowl is firmly in place, and I’m vaguely aware of Prim following me out. Shutting the door behind her.

I mutter angrily as I walk past them, just loud enough for them to hear. I hiss about stupid boys, and stupid brothers, and having no consideration for their brother’s injury, or that he might be in pain, and if said stupid brother ever tried to pull any kind of stunt on me or Prim I would take him out into the woods and leave him there. Let him make his way back on his own, if he could. See how he liked being stranded.

My muttering has taken me to Peeta’s front door. I can feel that they’ve all followed me, and I crouch down so that I’m eye-level with the door lock.

“This may take a minute. It’s been a while.” I mutter.

And it does.

It takes a full minute and a half for me to pick the lock and open the door.

Turning the nob, and pushing the door open, I rise from my crouched position and turn back to confront the three stooges in front of me.

I’m vaguely aware of Prim happy rocking on the balls of her feet beside me.

I valiantly fight off the stubborn smile that is trying to take over my face at the sight of them.

Mr. Mellark has stayed back a bit with the same happy, internally laughing expression that seems to be his natural disposition when dealing with his sons. So I turn my ire on the three lined up directly in front of me.

These three huge men, who easily dwarf me by at least a foot, are lined up before me; shoulders slightly slouched. Their expressions vary.

Bannock, to my left, has a sweetly sheepish look, with head and eyes lowered and a small smile.

Rye, in the middle, is fairly cringing, shifting his weight from foot to foot. His eyes flit everywhere but at me.

And Peeta, closest to me on my right, has a similarly sheepish expression as Bannock, with the difference being the look he’s giving me from under his eye lashes.

It’s one of my favourites.

Despite his slightly hangdog expression, his eyes are soft, and warm. I’ll never get tired of Peeta’s ability to tell me that he loves me with just a look. With that look.

I feel my put-on irritation melt slightly, and sigh.

“Who lost the key?” I ask, despite having a strong idea.

Both Peeta and Bannock look at Rye.

Rye cringes further.

“Go.” I sigh, shaking my head and motion to the open door.

Prim’s the first through the door, apparently excited to look around a house that is an exact mirror of our own.

Rye’s next, rushing past me while hugging the box of kitchen stuff he had dropped earlier with a rushed, “Thanks Kat-nap!”

“One more stupid name Rye, and I’ll hang you like a flag from the top of this house!” Peeta yells over my shoulder after him before I can unclench my teeth. He then turns back to me with a sheepish smile. “Sorry.”

I roll my eyes again.

“Thanks Katniss.” Bannock interrupts with his standard smile. “I wasn’t looking forward to having to backtrack all the way back to the bakery looking for that stupid key.”

I smile at him, and shrug. “Bannock, how did you turn out to be the normal one?” I smirk.

“Hey!” Peeta pipes up from beside me. Both Bannock and I ignore him.

“You learn pretty quickly that it’s easier to just go along with their stupidity, Miss. Everdeen.”

Bannock and I grin at each other at Peeta’s indignant, “I’m standing right here!”

“It’s the only way to keep your sanity.” He says as he passes me, taking the large duffle bag he once again has slung over his shoulder.

Mr. Mellark is the next up the stairs, and I can hear him chuckling under his breath.

“It’s wonderful to officially see you again Miss. Everdeen.” He says with laughter dancing in his blue eyes, so like his son’s.

I blush heavily, remembering earlier at the bakery, when he saw Peeta and I together through the front window.

I throw a quick glare at Peeta, who just smiles and grins in return, completely unrepentant.

I roll my eyes at him, and Mr. Mellark chuckles, bringing my attention back to him.

I’m slightly uncomfortable when Mr. Mellark takes a step forward, and takes both of my hands in his.

“I also want to thank you, my dear, for all that you did in that terrible place, for my son. For all you did to bring my boy home to me. I’ll never be able to express what your bravery and strength mean to us. But please know; by doing what you did, you saved my family.”

My throat clogs with emotion, and I can’t speak.

I shake my head, lowering my eyes to where he still holds both my hands.

Peeta places one of his strong hands on my shoulder, giving me a reassuring squeeze, and I find I can breathe again.

“I didn’t.” I whisper just loud enough to hear, looking up at him through my lashes. “I didn’t save your family.”

Mr. Mellark’s eyes lose their twinkle, and, still holding my hands, he takes a step closer, bowing his head slightly.

If anyone were to look at us, it would look like a warm, family moment.

What it really is, is the opportunity to speak quietly enough so as to avoid any microphones.

“What do you mean my dear?” Mr. Mellark asks, and I’m grateful for Peeta’s presence bracing my side.

“Haymitch says President Snow is angry. At Peeta and I, because of the berries, but mostly at me for forcing the gamemakers to name two victors. Haymitch says there’s a strong chance that Snow will come after us, Peeta and I, to set an example.”

I’m slightly embarrassed by the tremor in my voice, but feel only reassurance when Mr. Mellark squeezes my shaking hands in his large steady ones.

I feel Peeta stiffen with me at Mr. Mellark’s next words. “Well it was bound to happen eventually, my dear.” And he smiles, his eyes tight.

“What?” Out of all the possible reactions, Mr. Mellark’s almost flippant remark is not what I was expecting.

Mr. Mellark’s face softens with compassion.

“Miss. Everdeen. Katniss. President Snow and his regime are not easy to please. If it wouldn’t so adversely affect him, he would have all the districts and their people wiped out, leaving only the Capitol. But he and the Capitol need us. Every single one of the districts. And that has always been his biggest weakness. That is the reason he’s angry with you Miss. Everdeen. Not the berries themselves, but the power you commanded while wielding them.”

I try to shake my head at his words, but he just grips my hands tighter.

“I saw it Katniss. I stood in that town square with everyone else from 12 as you pulled out those berries to share with my son…And do you know what I saw on the face of every single person around me?”

Mr. Mellark gives my hands a little tug.

“Hope, Miss. Everdeen. From the Mayor’s office, to the last house on the edge of the Seam. You gave them hope. Some of them for the first time in their lives. You pulled out those berries, and you forced the Capitol’s hand. You made them change the rules for you. And when they tried to push back, tried to make you play their game, you refused.”

Mr. Mellark shakes his head slightly in disbelief.

“In all my years, I’ve never seen anything like it. You didn’t just save my son in that arena, Katniss. You didn’t just win the Hunger Games. You beat the Hunger Games. And by doing so, you beat the Gamemakers, the Capitol, and President Snow.”

Mr. Mellark’s chest puffs up, his face glowing. The look of pride on his face is one I’ve scarcely encountered, and I’m unable to look away.

“And if that wasn’t enough, Miss. Everdeen, you didn’t do it for power, or pride, or to prove that you could… You did it for love. And that’s something I think we all root for.”

I’m not sure whether my expression shows my intimidation or fear. I’m feeling both at the moment. Mr. Mellark’s expression softens.

“You see Katniss, President Snow isn’t angry with you... He’s afraid of you, and the power you wield.”

“But I don’t want it.” I find myself whispering. “I just want everyone to be left alone.” The desperation is clear in my voice.

Mr. Mellark’s expression turns commiserating, and he raises a hand to my cheek.

“I know my dear. And sadly, that’s exactly why you hold the influence you do.”

Peeta’s hand, that had remained gripping my shoulder this whole time, turns and pulls me in to a hug against his chest.

I try to calm my shaking, controlling my breathing to match Peeta’s strong and steady pace.

Mr. Mellark lays a gentle hand on my shoulder, and I turn my face from Peeta’s chest to look at him. His face is full of compassion.

“I’m sorry my dear. It is an unfair burden to put on anyone; especially one so young, who has experienced so much. But no matter what happens, rest assured, you have saved my family. And no matter what Snow may throw at you, at us, we will all stand by you. Whatever comes next, it will not be yours alone to bear.”

With one final pat on my shoulder, Mr. Mellark heads through the still open door, leaving Peeta and I to hold each other in silence.

We’re quiet for a long moment, just breathing together.

“You okay?” Peeta eventually asks, stroking my braid.

“No.” I croak, my voice still tight.

“We’ll get through this Katniss. Together.”

I’m thankful that he doesn’t promise.

“Okay.” I’ll hold on to his words like the thickest life-line.

We’re quiet for another long moment, just holding each other. Giving and receiving comfort.

There’s a sudden crash from inside, followed by Prim’s; “Rye did it!”

We can clearly hear Bannock and Mr. Mellark’s laughter over Prim and Rye’s arguing.

I grin to myself, rubbing my forehead into Peeta’s chest.

“Here, let’s sit down.” I say, breaking away and giving his arm a little tug.

I feel bad for just now remembering about his leg.

Peeta grunts as he sits on the top step of his concrete stoop, stretching his bad leg out in front of him with another groan.

I sit down beside him, leaning into his side, and we both sigh when he wraps an arm around me, squeezing me tight.

“So, How did you know we lost the key?” Peeta asks eventually, his tone light.

I smirk and point up to my open bedroom window.

“Let’s just say that quiet is not a Mellark superpower.”

Peeta blushes.

“You heard all that?”

“Really only the last little bit. I came in just as you realised you were locked out and it was Rye’s fault.”

Peeta chuckled, biting his lower lip.

“So…you heard what Rye said?”

I scowl. “Yes, and if he ever calls me something that stupid again, I will kill him.”

Peeta’s eyes seem to dance.

“I will be more than happy to tell him.” He grins.

I smirk. “I’m sure you will.”

We smile together.

“How’s your leg?” I ask softly.

Peeta lets out a large sigh, bending slightly to massage just above his knee where I can just see the outline of his Capitol prosthetic through his pants where it’s wrapped around the end of his limb.

It’s a mixture of morbid curiosity and worry that has me reaching out to rest my fingers against his wounded limb.

He jerks slightly, and I snap my hand back.

“Sorry.” I mumble, turning slightly away.

“No, hey.” Peeta reaches for the hand I now have curled against my chest, and brings it to rest solidly on his strong thigh. “You just surprised me is all.” He says, coaxing my hand to unfurl and relax.

“May I?” I ask this time, twitching my fingers against his leg.

“Katniss, you never have to ask permission to touch me.” I can hear the smile in his voice, and turn my attention back to my wandering fingers.

Peeta leans back on his hands, seemingly happy to let me explore.

I trail my fingertips over his upper thigh, encountering a thick strap that seems to buckle at the side.

I then move to the actual limb itself.

I feel around the edge of where the apparent cup, and his amputation join just above where his knee should be.

I never realized just how much of his leg he lost.

My breath hitches. “I’m sorry.” I choke out.

Peeta rises from his relaxed position and again, wraps an arm around me.

“Katniss, we’ve talked about this.” He sighs, and I can tell he’s getting exasperated with me. “If you hadn’t used that tourniquet, I wouldn’t be here for you to feel guilty over. So stop apologising. I’m fine.” He stresses with his usual patience.

I don’t say anything, going back to my exploring.

Peeta goes back to leaning back on his hands.

Eventually, after exploring the metal and plastic that now make up the majority of his leg, my fingers move back up to his real leg.

It’s then that I realise just how soar he must be. The muscles in his thigh are rock solid. Tight and bunched and straining.

I sit up more fully in order to use both hands. I don’t bother to ask for permission as I start massaging his leg.

As I do, Peeta lets out a long loud moan, his arms releasing him to lay flat across the stoop.

I start light then go a bit deeper as the muscles slowly start to relax under my touch.

“My god, Kat. That feels so good.” Peeta practically whimpers behind me.

I smile to myself. Glad that there’s something I can do to ease his discomfort from a wound that I effectively caused.

I move closer to the edge of the prosthetic and press down on a particularly hard knot.

I’m embarrassed and more than a little flushed by the downright decadent sound that comes from Peeta’s mouth. I focus on that spot, slowly going deeper, bit by bit, as Peeta continues to turn to jelly under my massaging. I have to force myself not to rub my thighs together, and fight down the persistent tingling in my lower belly.

Instead I focus on Peeta and easing his pain.

After a while, I’ve located and massaged away most of the knots in his abused leg. I’m content to just sit here, rubbing him, while he relaxes with his eyes closed. If it weren’t for his fingers playing with the edge of my shirt, I would think that he was sleeping.

But Peeta and I’s relaxation is not to last, and is broken suddenly and violently.

Well, as violent as neon pink and green swirls can be.

“Oh good! You’re both here!” The chirpy lilt of Effie’s capitol accent douses our happy little moment like a bucket of ice water.

“And where are your families? Hello!” She calls into the house over Peeta and I’s heads. “Ah there you all are!” She claps her hands with such enthusiasm, that I have to assume that everyone inside has come to investigate the sudden noise.

Peeta and I rise, reluctantly, from the stoop and lead the others onto the street to meet Effie.

“Oh how wonderful! Hello, I’m Effie Trinket! It’s so wonderful to finally get to meet you all in person! Your interviews were just so lovely!” Effie seamlessly darts from Mr. Mellark to Rye then to Bannock.

“And you must be the ever so lovely Primrose!” Effie fairly sings, taking both of Prim’s hands in hers as though long lost friends. “Oh, but my dear, you are so lovely.” Effie smiles widely. “It’s no wonder your sister loves you so. I absolutely loved your interview my dear! So sweet, so heartfelt! You’re a star, my dear! A bright beautiful star in the hearts of everyone in the Capitol!”

Prim’s eyes remind me of a startled rabbit.

“Is it time for the cameras already Effie?” Peeta seamlessly pipes up, coming to Prim’s rescue.

“Oh yes! How silly of me! Yes, yes; come along you two!” Effie waves her hands at two black figures quickly scuttling up the street.

Peeta and I both turn to see two camera men scurry forward.

“Now then, as always, we’ll go Lady’s first. Katniss, this is camera one. He will follow you and your family to your old home, take a couple of pictures, and then film you all the way from there as you make your way here. We’ll then cut to a full tour of your new home!” As she says the words ‘new home’, she’s nearly vibrating in her excitement. “But of course, I’ll be with you, so not to worry.” She then waves me off, and turns to Peeta.

“Peeta dear, you’ll have camera two.” She motions to the other camera man who’s already moving and shifting as though already recording. Then again, it wouldn’t surprise me if he was.

“It’ll be the exact same for you dear,” Effie goes on. “You’ll all go, get a quick shot of your previous home, and then it’s back here for the grand tour!”

Peeta shifts slightly, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Uh, Effie…is it okay if my mom isn’t in it?” Effie’s smile visibly dims, and Peeta hurries on, obviously embarrassed.

“I’m not saying she won’t be, for sure, but, well…after the incident at the station, I’m not sure if she’ll be up to it.”

I grit my teeth at Mrs. Mellark further embarrassing Peeta in this way, but then lower my eyes and admit to myself that her current mood is mostly my fault.

“Peeta I’m-“

“Not to worry dear!” Effie interrupts me with her naturally bubbly smile back in place. “If your mother feels up to it, the more the merrier! If not, well… and I mean this in the kindest way, of course, but, well… the camera doesn’t love her dear, if you know what I mean.”

Peeta’s eyes go wide, and then everyone’s shocked expressions turn to me, as a sudden bark of laughter erupts from my throat, and continues till my jaw hurts. I’m just as surprised as they are.

Prim is giggling at my side, and Effie herself raises a delicate hand to hide her own grin.

“Yes, well, now that that’s settled,” Effie clears her throat, patting down her hair and suit. “We really must get going. We’re on a schedule you know!” She sings.

Peeta and I share a smile, and the thought flits through my mind about what Peeta and I will do with ourselves when we’re no longer on said dreaded schedule.

“Prim, can you run in and get mom please?” I ask, and with a nod and smile, she runs back through our door, not bothering to shut it behind her.

“Now Peeta dear, I know you won’t mind my not accompanying you there and back. It’s just a bit of a scheduling problem, you see. They’ve never had two Victors to celebrate, so shortcuts must be made.” Effie’s smile is blinding, as she places a light hand on his shoulder. “You needn’t worry dear.” She says. And I think Effie is taking Peeta’s continued shock over the comment about his mother, as a lack of nerve. “The camera has his objectives, and I just know I can trust you!” She shoots me a little look over her shoulder before turning back to Peeta. “Unlike some, I know that I don’t need to be there to remind you to smile and work with the camera.”

I roll my eyes, just as my mother and Prim arrive with the rest of us.

“Oh good, you’re all here!” Effie claps her hands again before starting down the road out of the Victors Village, the camera man following obediently behind.

“Come along Katniss!” She calls over her shoulder, waving us forward without missing a step on her incredibly high, spiked heels. “We must keep on schedule!”

“See you later.” I smile to Peeta, who seems to have finally recovered.

“Ya.” He nods with my favourite soft-smile look.

“Katniss!” Effie shouts. Her mounting frustration clear in her voice.

I roll my eyes again at Peeta, who chuckles, and hold my hand out for Prim to take.

The two of us set off after Effie with mom right behind.

We’re just about to turn the corner into town when a voice drifts to us on the wind.

As Rye appears to have no concept of volume, his question is easily heard over the distance.

“Dude…did she just call mom ugly?”

Prim has to hold on to me, as her laughter weakens her.

Chapter Text

I flop down heavily on my bed and release a heavy sigh.

It’s finally over.

This week has been a new level of hell.

It feels as though ever since we stepped off that damn train, there has been a camera in my face.

I’ve just gotten back from said train station with Peeta and Haymitch as we said goodbye to Effie, who’s headed back to the Capitol.

I really do think I’ll miss her… Despite her incessant, interfering, meddling, obsessive schedule keeping. I definitely won’t, however, be missing the cameras or Capitol presence she comes with.

This week was just as Effie had promised it would be: interviews, tours, and scripted ‘unscripted’ moments.

And the worst part of it all was having to do it beside Peeta, but not actually with Peeta.

I largely blame my mother for her interview comments.

With so many people around, and our dreaded schedules jam-packed, we haven’t had a single moment to ourselves.

And it’s not from lack of trying.

We even tried to sneak a few minutes with Peeta’s brothers acting as a distraction, and Prim as lookout. Our family happy do their best to run interference for us.

I wasn’t aware that it’s now universal law: No one gets between Effie and her schedule.

As an added bonus; my mother was determined that her opinions on my and Peeta’s relationship be heard.

It happened the night we officially moved into the new house.

Effie struck up a conversation with my mother during the house tour; applauding my mother for not enforcing her silly ‘no relationships’ rule.

Effie’s words, not mine.

To which my mother replied by quickly informing Effie that she had lifted no such ban. And as far as my mother was concerned, I was too young to be in a serious relationship. Case closed.

My teeth are still sore from all the grinding I did upon overhearing their conversation.

Prim, ever my champion, came to our defence. Telling mother, in no uncertain terms, that, in her opinion, after everything Peeta and I have been through; we deserve any and all happiness we can get.

I smile, even now, thinking about her fierce defence of my right to be in love.

I’m also not completely surprised that some of her arguments were similar to the ones I had on the train when Haymitch first told me of my mother’s interfering.

The only seconds together Peeta and I were able to steal were few and far between. Short brushes of fingertips as we passed one another, locking my ankle around his under the dinner tables; where we were almost always seated across from one another, and on that first night; at the ‘ball’ at Mayor Undersee’s mansion; Peeta and I were graciously ‘allowed’ to hold each other for a few dances.

But for the next little while, all of that is over and done with, and I feel the tension and anger leach out of me at the thought.

The cameras are officially gone, Effie’s on her way home to the Capitol, Peeta and I are free from our babysitters, and tonight, we’re having an impromptu informal dinner with just our families.

Well, family and friends, I suppose… I accidentally invited Gale.

I’ve spoken to Gale a few times since our discussion at my mother’s house, and it’s been better. I’ve learned that, as long as I don’t bring up Peeta, he can stay civil.

I don’t know how that’s going to work tonight though, and I told him as such. I told Gale that he and his family were more than welcome, but that Peeta and his family would be there as well. I told him that, if he came, he had better not start anything.

I haven’t yet had a chance to talk to Peeta about the whole ‘Gale’ thing yet, and I’m hoping we’ll get the chance soon.

I want his opinion.

He’s so much better at the people side of things than I am.

Gale said that his mom had just gotten a large load of laundry in and was under a deadline, so she couldn’t make it; but he would think about it. He promised that, if he did, he would be on his best behaviour.

It saddens me that I took his word with a grain of salt.

I did, thankfully, get the chance to tell Peeta that Gale might show up tonight. He just nodded at me, but I could tell by the slight tightening of his jaw that he was already preparing himself for trouble.

So now I lay here as dinner quickly approaches, waiting to be able to go across to Peeta’s.

We decided to have dinner over at his house. Peeta told mom that he didn’t think it was fair for her to cook the main dish, and have to clean up after, when it was his family making the mess. He also said that he didn’t want to take the chance of giving his brothers free access to our house.

The real reason has more to do with security.

Haymitch heard back from his friend in the Capitol about two days after we got back to 12.

Turns out, my house is fairly littered with microphones. No cameras, just bugs. And while they’re not too hard to muffle or obscure, blocking every one would be too suspicious, and could easily tip our hand.

Peeta’s, for whatever reason, wasn’t nearly as bad. He averaged about two to three mic’s per room, excluding the bathrooms, with a few well hidden cameras outside and around his property. We were told that, while the camera’s couldn’t pick up sound, they were motion activated and highly sensitive. If the wind blew too hard, the cameras would catch it. The microphones, being few and far between, were easy enough to neutralise and make it look like simple accidents or misplacements. The cameras, however, were here to stay.

We decided that tonight should be potluck, so while we were bringing the meat, Peeta was fixing some sides and greens, and then Mr. Mellark was bringing, surprise, surprise, dessert.

I still don’t get why Peeta’s opted to live alone in that big house.

After the terrors we’ve faced, I doubt I could handle it. Living alone.

Earlier in the week, after Peeta had arrived back for the ‘grand tour’ of his Victor’s house, Effie had asked why he was alone, and where his brothers and father were. Peeta answered, for the camera, that; the Bakery was too successful for them to move so far out of Town. He then explained that he didn’t like the idea of his parent’s living all on their own, and felt that it was best that his brother’s stay to keep them company.

Trust me; I’ve added it to the list in my head of ‘Things to Talk to Peeta About’.

Thinking of Effie’s conversation with Peeta reminds me of the scene tonight, and saying goodbye to her on the train.

I had made a sarcastic, offhand comment about the cameras staying longer, which Effie, ironically, overheard, and took seriously.

“Not to worry my dear!” She sang. “The victory Tour is but a few weeks away, and I and all of Panem’s eyes will be riveted upon you once again!”

My stomach drops, and I think I’m going to be sick for a moment.

I had almost forgotten.

How could I forget?

The Victory tour…the other Districts…their families…

All watching me.

Hating me.

Because I’m alive, and their children aren’t.

Because I killed a few of those children.

Oh god…Rue.

What do I say?

How do I face them?

I’m broken from my thoughts by Peeta’s shaky hand on my shoulder.

“You’re right Effie. How could we forget?” Peeta’s voice is steady, even as his lips tremble. “We’re looking forward to it.”

Peeta is an excellent liar, and I’m grateful for it.

Effie claps her hands twice. “Wonderful! Isn’t it all just so exciting?”

“Absolutely.”

“Sure is.”

Peeta and I reply at the same time.

“Oh, I’m going to miss you both!” She says, giving us both dainty hugs.

“We’ll miss you too Effie.” Peeta answers for both of us.

“See you soon!” She calls, stepping up into the train car. “Be good!”

Peeta and I wave.

“I’m looking at you Katniss!”

I roll my eyes with a grin, as Peeta laughs.

***

By now, I’ve had a quick shower to wash off all of the makeup and glitter my prep team so seem to love, and changed into a simple, comfortable, outfit of loose black pants and a dark green long sleeve shirt.

As much as I love Cinna and every piece of clothing he creates with me in mind, this is the most me. And it’s such a relief to feel like myself again after so long.

I Listen as mother moves around in the kitchen below, presumably getting the main dish for tonight’s dinner ready and in a pan to take over. Mother decided on roasted pheasant tonight, as a special celebration treat.

I smile to myself as I remember Prim’s earlier comment that it’s going to be weird to cook and eat something that I didn’t shoot.

***

“Katniss!” The sudden call of my name wakes me with a start.

I must have dosed off.

“Katniss! Come on!”

It’s Prim calling me from the bottom of the stairs. It must be time for dinner. And thank goodness too; with the smell of the pheasant wafting through the house, my stomach is threatening to claw its way from inside me to get to the food.

I’m down the stairs before I’ve even given myself a onceover to make sure I’m presentable.

Then I remember: the cameras are gone, and it’s just family and friends tonight. Neither of which will care what I look like.

I wrap an arm around Prim’s small shoulders, just as my stomach releases a loud growl.

***

When Peeta answers his door, it’s clear that we’re the first to arrive.

He smiles at us, and waves us in, closing the door behind us.

“Thank you Mrs. Everdeen, this looks and smells amazing.” Peeta says graciously, motioning to the pan in my mother’s hands.

“You’re very welcome Peeta. It’s the least I can do, with you opening your house to us tonight.” Mom says formally.

Peeta smiles easily, and takes the warm roasting pan from her hands.

“Not at all! Come on in.” Peeta stands to the side and motions with his free hand for us to make our way to the kitchen.

I let mom lead the way with Prim bouncing happily behind her, and wait for them to disappear behind the kitchen wall.

As soon as she’s out of sight, I turn on Peeta.

Without a word of greeting, I stand on my toes, grip the hair at the back of his head in one fist, dig my nails into his shoulder with the other, and fairly slam my lips to his, causing our teeth to knock together with the force.

The pan that holds our dinner is crushed between us uncomfortably, but I ignore it in favour of his lips. In favour of feeling him under my fingertips. Of being able to touch him freely.

I think I actually growl at him when Peeta takes my lower lip between his teeth giving it a firm nibble.

He groans back, and my grip on him tightens further.

Peeta deepens our kiss, just as there’s a clattering of pans or dishes from the kitchen which startles us out of our passionate haze.

Peeta and I pull from each other, panting heavily. His face is flushed, lips dark red, eyes nearly midnight blue.

I wonder if I look the same, as he scans me up and down, licking his swollen lips, looking at me with such a look of hunger that my breath starts to come to me in heavy pants.

“We should go. Take that bird into mom.” I whisper huskily, trying to bring myself back under control, but at the same time, not really wanting too.

Peeta’s smirk is dark and confident, and it, paired with his hungry, knowing eyes, makes me shiver. He moves the oven warm dish to one hand and wraps his other large, strong arm around me, palming my ass cheek and hauling me against his chest almost roughly.

“I’m not done with you yet.” He hums huskily.

“Peeta, mom want’s to kn- Oh!” Prim interrupts us with an embarrassed little squeak before we can get carried away again, and Peeta and I reluctantly pull away from each other, blushing brightly.

Peeta clears his throat; neck and ears red. “Uh, right. Sorry Prim.” He says, releasing me.

“I love you.” He whispers in my ear as he passes me, giving my ass a firm smack when he’s sure my sister isn’t looking.

I jump, making an embarrassing chirping laughing sound, and swipe at him as we laugh down the hall and into the kitchen.

***

Mom, Prim, Peeta and I are standing and sitting around the large dining room table which has been decked out for tonight’s dinner.

Mom’s pheasant sits on a domed warming plate in the centre surrounded by asparagus, carrots, corn, beets, toasted garlic bread, cold tomato with goat cheese, and strawberries in vinegar and some kind of creamy cheese. There are at least three different kinds of salads; one with seeds and cranberries, one with nuts and raspberries, and one with some kind of uncooked noodle and baby oranges.

Mom and Prim’s jaws fairly dropped when they saw the amount of food weighing down the table.

I myself am amazed by the effort Peeta has gone to to create such a feast.

Making sure mother and Prim are distracted by the huge spread, I take Peeta’s hand, and pull him out of the dining room and into the far corner of the kitchen.

“What’s all that about?” I ask, motioning to the dining room with my head.

Peeta shrugs and smiles at me, but the expression is self-deprecating rather than innocent or playful, like I was expecting.

“What do you mean? Don’t you like it?” His eyes are oddly vulnerable, and it takes me a moment to get an idea of what may be bothering him.

I lean up on my toes and press a long drugging kiss to his lips. I suck and nibble his lower lip slowly, taking the moment to really saver and feel him. My arms are wrapped around his shoulders as much as they can reach, but it’s more to hold him, than hold onto him.

I feel him sigh and relax into me. I didn’t realize just how tense he was until his arms relax around my waist to rest on my hips.

“I love you.” I whisper against his lips and rest my forehead against his.

He sighs and hums, and lets his head fall to my shoulder, nuzzling my neck until I give a little squeal and try to shrug him away. I feel his grin press into my skin, as his arms tighten around me, holding me closer.

“I missed you.” He whispers against me, and I shiver.

My arms tighten more securely around his shoulders. “I missed you so much Effie started saying Haymitch made better company than I did.”

Peeta’s shoulders shake as he laughs against me.

“So, are you going to tell me why you went to so much trouble for tonight’s dinner?” I ask gently, running my fingers through his hair.

Peeta shrugs and I run a hand up and down his slumped back.

I realize that this position can’t be comfortable for him, and pull away just slightly, turning us so my back is to the counter. I pull his arms from around me, and Peeta raises his head. I ignore his curious eyes and pull myself up and backwards to sit on the counter.

Peeta’s eyes warm and dance as I pull him back into my arms. His head once again goes to my shoulder as I pull his strong upper body flush with mine, his arms are again around my back as I cradle him between my legs, and his mouth and breath tickle my neck as I run my fingers through his sunshine blond hair.

“I guess I…I wanted to impress you…” He whispers in my ear. “Or maybe I wanted to impress your mother… show her that I can provide for you? Show her that she has no reason to oppose me-our relationship? That I can make you happy. Maybe prove to myself that I can make you happy…” He trails off in thought.

I shake my head at my silly boy.

Gently but firmly, I fist Peeta’s hair, and bring his eyes to mine.

“Peeta.” I say firmly, making sure I have his undivided attention.

“Tonight, will I eat food you’ve prepared?”

He nods.

“Then you provide for me. Will I be safe in your home?”

“Yes.” He whispers.

My hands trail down to his cheeks till I’m holding his face in my palms.

“Then you shelter me.” I nod decisively. “If I have a nightmare, can I come to you?”

“Always.” He says resolutely.

“Then you protect me.” Our gaze is soft, warm, and locked on each other. “Am I free to come and go from you as I please?”

Peeta’s eyebrows twitch a little indignantly, causing me to smile. “Of course.”

“Then you honour me. Will you listen and try to understand my thoughts or point of view, even when you don’t agree with them?”

“You know I will. I do.” He says with feeling.

“Then you respect me. Will you be my strength? Will you stand at my side as my equal? Will you take me just as I am without wanting to change me?”

“Without a second’s hesitation.” He says with conviction, his voice rough.

“Then you love me. And Peeta, at the end of the day, that’s all I want.”

Peeta’s eyes are dark as they dance between mine.

“You do make me happy.” I whisper, pulling him in for another kiss. This one softer and more tender.

Peeta and I are once again startled from our stolen moment, thankfully though, not by Prim this time.

“Don’t worry everyone! The party’s here!” Rye calls, slamming the front door open and making Peeta and I jump.

Hurriedly, Peeta backs up and I jump down from the counter.

The sound of the Mellarks coming down the hall reminds me of a pack of wild dogs crashing through the brush. There’s not a single light tread amongst them.

I shoot Peeta a look of incredulity at the amount of noise they’re making just walking the twenty or so feet from the front door to the kitchen.

Peeta shrugs at me a little sheepishly. “We’re males?” He offers hopefully as a way of explanation.

I roll my eyes at him. “I’ve shot wild pigs that are quieter than you Mellarks.” I mutter playfully under my breath.

Peeta laughs and pulls me into his side with an arm around my waist.

“I don’t know whether to be insulted at coming out on the losing end of a comparison with a pig, proud of you for having shot one, or jealous of the meal it undoubtedly made.”

“Hello!” Rye sings, literally sliding into the kitchen, closely followed by Bannock and Mr. Mellark.

I smile. “Hi Mr. Mellark. Hi Bannock.” I shoot Rye a playful glare and am quite satisfied when his smile turns tentative and he takes a little step back.

Peeta chuckles, giving me a little squeeze. I think he gets a kick out of the way I enjoy toying with his brother like a cat with a mouse.

“What, no mom?” Peeta asks casually, flicking his eyes from the kitchen doorway to his dad.

Mr. Mellark shifts a little awkwardly. “Ah, no. Sorry son. She said that she wasn’t up to it tonight.”

It’s nice of him to try and cover for her; but he and I both know why she’s not here tonight, and why it’ll be a cold day in hell before she voluntarily endures my company again.

***

Flashback

 

Over the past week, Mrs. Mellark has been lapping up the spotlight. Enjoying every opportunity for an interview, comment, or opinion.

Now, ordinarily, I really wouldn’t care. So long as she’s away from Peeta and I, I don’t care what she does.

Ordinarily.

Turns out; I care a great deal when she’s using her spotlight to badmouth Peeta or our relationship.

As you can probably guess…her voicing her opinions didn’t last long.

It was that first night, the ‘Welcome Home Victor(s)’ ball at the Mayor’s mansion. The night was actually quite fun; getting to dance with both Peeta and Prim, laugh with Gale, terrorise Rye and Bannock, and feed Rory, Vick, and Posy. It was all going really well…until Effie came to get us. It was time for Peeta and I to make our rounds for the Capitol.

At first it was all pretty standard; ‘How do you like being home?’ ‘What does your family think of your new houses?’ ‘What are you going to do now that you want for nothing?’

The questions, though painfully trite, were fast and easy to answer.

That was, until we approached a rather disgruntled looking interviewer with bright green…everything. His expression, coupled with his…colouring, made him look like he had swallowed a slug and was about to throw it back up.

“Katniss! Peeta!” He was trying to be jovial, but it wasn’t fooling anyone. “Come, come! Now, you two! Capitol sweethearts, the Lovers from District 12, and, my personal favourite; the Hunger Games’ Star-crossed Lovers!” Peeta and I are forced to smile and titter like idiots for this sycophant, and I find myself hating the Capitol just a little bit more.

“Tell me! And you absolutely must be honest! We’ve just heard the most disturbing, most wicked, most scandalizing rumour!” The interviewer gasps at us, gasps into the camera, then gasps at us again.

I guess it’s too much to hope for him to choke in the middle of all that stupid gasping.

“Well you’ll have to tell us what it is before we can say if the rumour is true or not.” Peeta offers laughingly, all smiles and engaging charm.

Peeta gives my waist a little squeeze, holding me tighter to his side.

It’s like he knows how close I am to reaching out to swipe at the interviewer to see if the green is paint or tattoo. I wonder if he glows in the dark.

Peeta wiggles his fingers at my waist and I flinch away from his tickling. It worked though, and I suddenly remember the role I’m supposed to be playing. Peeta’s fingers dance under my ribs again, and this time, instead of flinching away, I curve my body into his, swatting playfully at his teasing fingers, and giggle girlishly.

I hate myself a little for actually being capable of such a sound.

Peeta grin’s down at me, and the interviewer is giggling along with me, nearly swooning into the camera.

“I knew it!” Greenie boasts. “I knew such a silly lie could never be true! You two are so obviously in love!” He swoons again.

Peeta and I are pretending to laugh along with his antics.

“What rumour?” Peeta prompts, still chuckling. “You still haven’t told us.”

The interviewer’s eyes get wide and he leans in.

For a moment, I take the opportunity to bask in the irony of someone gossiping to us…about us.

“Well,” Greenie whispers to us into his microphone. “I heard from a very reliable source; that the ‘Star-crossed Lovers of District 12’ is all just an act, and none of it was real…”

I feel Peeta’s entire body freeze against my own.

Then, to my complete shock, Peeta starts laughing. Booming, barking laughs that hurt my ears and sets me on edge.

My mind races, trying desperately to think of how I’m supposed to handle this. How would a normal person react to a rumour about their relationship being called fake…

I smirk internally when I realize that the normal reaction is right in my wheelhouse.

Anger. And I can do anger way better than Peeta.

Speaking of; his insane laughter is bordering on creepy now.

I smack him on the chest in admonishment and to get his attention.

“Peeta! How can you laugh about something like that?!” The scowl on my face feels so good after the last hour of forced smiling.

I turn said scowl on Greenie and watch him take a small step back.

“Who told you that?” I demand. And for some unknown reason, Peeta’s still giggling behind me. “Who told you such a stupid thing?”

“Uh, uh, uh.”

Apparently I’ve scared Greenie into a loop.

Peeta’s still going as he pulls me into his chest and wraps his arms firmly around my chest.

I try to imagine what we must look like to those who will be watching this so-called ‘live’ interview. Me in my flowing gold party dress, a Cinna original of course, and Peeta in his dark blue suite with gold shimmer, holding me, hugging me from behind as I scowl and Peeta laughs.

I think this is probably the most real we’ve ever been in an interview.

I would say this is the most real ever on camera; but then I remember the cave and our talks in the arena. And parts of those were so real.

“Easy tiger, give the poor guy a chance to speak.” I can still hear the easy smile in his voice, but there’s an edge there too.

I release a breath and relax into Peeta’s chest.

“You’re right, I’m sorry.” I say grudgingly for the camera. “Can you please tell us who your ‘reliable source’ is?” I try for sweet, but I stubbornly refuse to give up my scowl, so I don’t think it quite works.

At the very least though, Greenie seems much more confident with Peeta’s strong arms caging me in.

“Uh, Mrs-Mrs. Mellark may have said something to that effect.” Greenie finally gives up.

Peeta and I’s positions reverse.

This time, it’s my turn to laugh.

Peeta has gone still and stiff behind me.

I try to tapper down my sardonic laughter for Peeta’s sake, and rub his forearms in commiseration.

“My mother said that. Really?” To Greenie and the rest of Panem, I imagine Peeta’s voice sounds remarkably calm. But I can hear the anger and edge of hurt he’s hiding.

I reach up to his shoulders to give him my best backwards hug, squeezing his arms tighter around me.

With Greenie looking expectantly between Peeta and I, I take it upon myself to answer him.

“Oh is that all Gr-um, is that what this is all about?” I try to wave him off playfully while at the same time narrowly avoiding calling him Greenie.

I do my best to smile and laugh and channel Peeta’s natural affability. It seems to work, as the interviewer draws closer with a happy smile.

“That’s your ‘reliable source’?” I pretend to laugh again. “I’m sure you must remember Mrs. Mellark’s interview during the final eight of our Games.” As I say this, I curl my hands around Peeta’s biceps giving him a little squeeze of apology.

The interviewer nods eagerly, and I make a motion with my hand as though to say ‘well there you go’.

“I would think it would be obvious that she’s not exactly my biggest fan.”

Greenie makes an over the top scandalized expression, and he’s so flamboyant, that I really do chuckle at him.

I manage to smile sweetly and snuggle back into Peeta’s still stiff embrace.

“It’s really no big deal. I understand. No one’s good enough for her son.” I smirk and lean forward as though sharing a secret. “Not even a victor of the Hunger Games.”

Greenie pulls back, and I swear, even across the three feet separating us, I can actually feel him vibrating with his internal squeal of joy.

I feel Peeta’s body slowly starting to relax behind me, and tilt my head back and to the side in an effort to see his face.

The skin around his eyes is still taught with tension, but he’s loosened his jaw for a strained smile.

“Oh that’s terrible!” Greenie simpers. “Peeta, what has it been like not having your family approve of our beautiful Katniss?”

Peeta shakes his head, and I smile when I realize his smirk is much more genuine.

“Trust me Vert, the rest of my family loves Katniss.” Greenie has a name? When did that happen? Where was I? Peeta winks at ‘Vert’ with a roguish smirk. “Almost as much as I do.”

I feel my face go red with a very real blush, and whack him on one of the arms I’ve still got a hold of.

Peeta chuckles and presses a kiss to the side of my head.

Green-I mean, Vert, swoons.

Peeta turns back to our captive audience and shrugs. “It’s really just my mother. And I figure; if Katniss can go against her own mother for me, then going against mine is the least I can do. At the end of the day, we just want to be together. And we’ll do whatever we need to to make that happen.”

I turn my head again and nuzzle the underside of his jaw with my nose, and Peeta tightens his arms around me in a strong hug.

I hear a little sniffle, and turn my head to see Vert dabbing his eyes with a yellow and white striped handkerchief.

“That’s beautiful! You’re both so beautiful! I just-I can’t…”

My eyes go wide as I watch Vert be overcome and unable to pull himself together.

I breathe a sigh of relief when Effie hurries over to usher us away to the next interview.

“Yes, well, they can’t all be Caesar Flickerman, I suppose.” Effie huffs indignantly as soon as we’re out of earshot. “But show a little self-restraint and decorum, honestly! I mean, I never! Bursting into tears like that! I mean really!”

“Hey Effie?” Effie and I both look to Peeta curiously.

“Would it be okay if Katniss and I were done with the interviews for tonight?”

My wide eyes shoot to Effie’s. But where hers are surprised, mine are hopeful.

“It’s just,” Peeta continues, pushing his advantage. “They’ve gotten their story, and enough pictures and video of us together…can we just…take a break? Just for tonight?”

Effie’s waffling, I can see it. And I think Peeta sees it too.

“Please Effie, my leg’s really starting to bother me.”

Even though I’m almost positive that he’s only trying to get out of anymore interviews, I immediately shift to his left side and wind one arm up his back in a bid to support him.

Peeta dutifully drapes his arm around my shoulders.

Effie looks between us, conflicted…Peeta feigns massaging his thigh.

“Yes, yes, fine!” Effie gives in with a huff of exasperation. She waves her hands at us and scurries off, I assume, to tell the rest of our interviews that we were done for the night.

“Come on.” Peeta whispers into my ear, and leads me by the hand over to the end of one of the almost empty buffet tables.

We stay quiet until we reach a relatively empty and quiet spot.

When we reach the table, Peeta leans back against it, and takes both my hands in his.

“I’m sorry.” Peeta whispers.

I look up at him confused.

Peeta shakes his head at me and turns his eyes back to the party around us.

“I’m sorry for my mother. I’m sorry that you have to put up with her bullshit. I’m sorry for the way she treats you, and the things she says. I’m-“

I put my whole hand entirely over Peeta’s mouth, and he turns back to look at me. His eyes are relieved yet a touch sad.

“Peeta. Your mother is a witch. Everyone knows that.”

Peeta huffs out a surprised laugh and I remove my hand with a small smile.

He wraps his arms around my waist until the front of my thighs are pressed against his.

“I just…I worry sometimes. I worry that at some point it’s going to get to be too much.”

I look up at him, confused, and he shrugs.

“My mother, my brothers, the pressure Snow and his regime are putting on us…on you…I just worry that at some point it’s going to get to be too much. That someday I’m going to wake up and you won’t be there. That you’ll choose to go. Choose someone with less… baggage? Drama? …I don’t know…”

I can clearly feel my shock reflected on my face, and Peeta tries to shrug it off. “I know it’s stupid, but…”

My eyes narrow. Because, even though he says it; the doubt in his voice clearly says otherwise.

“You’re right.” I fairly bark at him. My glare is the first real one I’ve directed at him since he told me to let him die in the arena.

Peeta’s head flinches away, and he refuses to meet my glare.

“That is incredibly stupid.” I growl at him.

He still refuses to meet my eyes, but his shoulders have released their tension, and there’s a tiny quirking of the corner of his lips.

I don’t like this. I feel like he’s playing with me. And I don’t like these games.

I reach up to grip Peeta’s jaw, and yank his gaze to me. He looks surprised by my rough handling.

I make sure his eyes are locked on mine. My glare still angry.

“That is probably one of the stupidest things you’ve ever said to me Peeta Mellark.” I hiss.

Peeta’s eyes go wide, and I think he’s just realized that I’m actually angry, and not just playing.

“If that’s what you really think; that I’m some-some…fair-weather…whatever! Then you don’t actually know me at all! So is that it? Is that what you think?” Peeta’s stare is unblinking and visibly worried. “Well? What’s it going to be?”

“I know you.” He whispers, his eyes quickly flicking back and forth between mine.

I nod once. “Good.” I card my fingers through his soft hair to grip the strands at the back of his head and kiss him fiercely. I’m clearly still irritated with him.

I release his lips just a suddenly and take a small step back.

“Now, go sit down and I’ll bring us a plate of food.” I try to soften my voice, but it comes out clipped, and very clearly an order.

Peeta, good humour restored, gives me one of his dopey grins.

“Yes dear.”

I scowl at him, and the idiot has the nerve to chuckle at me.

He walks away, and I continue to watch him until he finds and sits at a table with Haymitch and Bannock.

Confident in Peeta’s safety, I turn my mind to another matter that needs my immediate attention.

It’s time to go hunting. And as long as no one interrupts…I can’t help but think how satisfying it’s going to be when I capture her.

My eyes narrow in concentration and flit from face to face around me.

But I know better. My pray is undoubtedly smarter than that. She won’t risk encroaching upon my territory while I’m in it.

No… She’ll be somewhere else…somewhere…

I look up to the overhanging balcony of the Mayor’s mansion… and there she is. Her greedy entitled claw clenched around the crystal stem of her pink drink.

I feel my breathing even and calm. My eyes focus intently.

She twists her head to the side, looking away from my position and I make my move. I do my best to melt back into the darkness and blend into the scenery, despite my gold dress. I make my way around the impromptu dance floor and up the back stairs.

I take great satisfaction in the surprise and disgust that pinches my query’s face when she turns to find me standing directly behind her. She’s startled, but unafraid. I grin, showing my teeth.

“You are a stupid woman.” I tell her calmly.

“Why you-” Mrs. Mellark snarls at me. I feel a fissure of satisfaction. My personal snarl is much more impressive. “How dare you-“

I take a few quick steps into her personal space.

“I warned you.” I growl. “I warned you about going after my famil-“

“My son is not your family!” Mrs. Mellark yells, interrupting me. Her face is a deep, blotchy red.

My hackles rise. “He’s much more my family than yours.”

Mrs. Mellark scoffs, adopting a haughty expression. “Oh please. You expect me, or anyone, to believe for one second that you could actually love that boy?”

My anger chokes me and my nails are close to drawing blood as they dig into my palms.

The bitch in front of me apparently takes my simmering rage as silent agreement.

“Exactly. Whatever could a girl like you see in my pathetic excuse for a son?”

It’s taking all of my self-restraint not to cut this evil woman down.

Mrs. Mellark’s voice softens unexpectedly, as though spouting her venom to a friend.

“You may not believe this, Miss. Everdeen, but it’s not entirely you I object to. If you must know, I’m against this whole charade for both yours and Peeta’s sake.”

I stare at her, incredulous. Mrs. Mellark nods as though imparting a great wisdom, even as I see her eyes flash with malice.

“Really now, think about it. What could you possibly want that mistake for? What does that boy actually have to offer you? You don’t need him to provide for you; you have more money and food than a person like you knows what to do with. You also clearly don’t need his protection; you’ll always be the more bloodthirsty of the two. And it couldn’t be his name or status that you’re after, as, as much as it pains me to say; the Everdeen name pulls just as much, if not more, respect than his…So really Miss. Everdeen, tell me: what on earth could my useless, spineless, lump of a son have to offer someone like you?”

I don’t think before I act.

Without me making the conscious decision, my right arm lashes out, nails bared.

The next thing I know Mrs. Mellark is on the ground at my feet, shrieking, with four bloody gashes stretching from her left ear to her chin.

My eyes dart franticly around to see if anyone has noticed our confrontation, and sure enough there are a few party guests looking around for the source of Mrs. Mellark’s sudden cry and subsequent noises of distress.

Feeling inexplicably guilty and not knowing what else to do, I put one hand over Mrs. Mellark’s mouth to muffle her wailing, and hook my other arm under one of her shoulders, heaving her off the ground.

I’m surprised when she doesn’t fight me, and allows me to help her through the doors and inside the mansion.

“Sit.” I command when we reach the closest available table and chair.

She does, and I grab one of the white linen napkins off the table and dunk it into a pitcher of what I’m hoping is water. I sit in the chair beside her then wring out the napkin, fold it, and carefully press it to Mrs. Mellark’s bloody and enflamed cheek.

“Savage little bitch!” Mrs. Mellark shrieks at me, slapping my hand away and holding the wet cloth herself.

I lean back in my chair and consider her coldly.

“You know, Mrs. Mellark. On that point you are right.” I nod.

Her ice cold eyes focus on me.

“I suppose I am a little savage. A little wild. And maybe I can be a little more animal than human at times... But you know? I’m proud of it. My savagery kept me safe growing up alone. My wildness kept me alive. So tell me, Mrs. Mellark, what does it say about you that this ‘savage bitch’ is a better person than you are?”

“How dare you! You-“

I raise my hand calmly, and to my surprise, she silences immediately.

“No Mrs. Mellark. I stood and listened as you slung your poison outside. Now it’s my turn to speak.”

She opens her mouth again, but I shake my head.

“No. Just listen. I’ll be brief. Firstly, you should know that I do not, and never will, believe a single word that comes out of your mouth. Your opinions and thoughts matter less than dirt to me. To me, and without a doubt the rest of the district, you are a vile, hateful, spiteful excuse for a woman. To that effect; I can’t, for the life of me, figure out how you managed to ensnare and keep a sweet, kind, happy man like Mr. Mellark. You definitely don’t deserve him or your sons. Despite that though; those boys, unbelievably, love you. Now, you and I both know what a waste of time and effort that is on their parts. In truth, I’d be surprised if you’ve ever loved anyone but yourself.”

Mrs. Mellarks eyes are angry and hateful. I can’t tell if I imagine the flash of sorrow that flutters over her expression or not. It’s gone in the next blink.

I wave away the words hanging between us.

“But that’s not really what I want to talk to about.”

I take a deep breath, and make sure that her gaze is locked solidly with mine.

“Mrs. Mellark, every single word out of your mouth outside was an outright lie. You say that Peeta has nothing to offer someone like me, but you couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, Peeta is one of the most important people in my life. And trust me when I say that it’s a very select few that I actually need. He is warm, and kind, and giving. He’s sweet, and optimistic, and open. He’s sunshine and light. He is very clearly my complete opposite in almost every way, and I’ve very quickly come to need every part of him to fill in my missing pieces. While I’m the fighter, Peeta’s the mediator. Together, we’re a whole.”

Her eyes have become distant again, and I shrug.

“Fine. You’re not listening and you don’t care. Fine. But listen to this. I shouldn’t have scratched you, and I’ll have someone bring something from the Capitol that will make sure you don’t scar. Despite that though, I hope you remember tonight. Your words and actions tonight might have hurt my family. Consider this a physical warning against doing it again. Please understand Mrs. Mellark; I’m not sorry that I hit you. You deserve it and so much more. I’m more sorry that I may have hurt or embarrassed Peeta, Bannock, Rye, or Mr. Mellark when they find out. Rest assured, that I will never repeat what you said on the balcony. Consider yourself lucky.”

I stand from my chair and look down on her, resting one hand still on the table.

“They deserve so much better than you.” I whisper, and shake my head in disbelief.

I turn from the table, only to come face to face with Haymitch and Mr. Mellark.

I feel my face go flame red, and lower my eyes in shame.

“And what have we here sweetheart?” Haymitch says so casually that I have a moment of hope that they just walked up, and didn’t hear what was said between the wounded Mrs. Mellark and I.

“I-I, um…” I look to Mr. Mellark, and that hope goes out the window. He heard.

I lower my eyes again. “I…I attacked Mrs. Mellark.” I whisper shamefully.

I reluctantly lift my eyes to Mr. Mellark’s sad, worried eyes. “I’m so sorry. I-I didn’t mean to..”

Mr. Mellark surprises me by taking the few steps around the table and embracing me lightly.

“I understand Katniss.” He tells me, then pulls back with a forced smile. “Why don’t you head back to the party. I bet Peeta’s waiting for you.”

I nod dejectedly.

I leave Mr. and Mrs. Mellark sitting at the table with Haymitch by my side.

“How much did you hear?” I ask. When Haymitch pulls an Avox aside to request the cream I promised Mrs. Mellark for her face, I have my answer.

“Wheat and I were just coming up the main staircase when we heard the yell. He said he’d recognise his wife’s volume anywhere.” Haymitch explains.

I nod.

“So all of it then.” I say regretfully.

Haymitch and I have just reached the backdoor leading back to the party, and I look around for Peeta’s blond head. I find him sitting at a table with Bannock while they laugh at Rye trying to get Prim to dance with him.

“If it’s any consolation,” Haymitch hums at my side as we watch the four of them laughing. “I think your defence of the boy meant a lot to Wheat. I wouldn’t worry too much about any potential burning bridges.”

I nod. “I meant what I said Haymitch. They- he, deserves better than her.”

“I know sweetheart. And for what it’s worth; I think he’d agree with you.”

I smile just slightly, and head off to finally take Peeta his plate of food from the buffet.

***

Since that day, my interactions with Mrs. Mellark have been few and far between.

To the best of my knowledge, Peeta still has no idea about my confrontation with his mother. The cream that was supplied for her scratches worked it’s magic; ensuring not a trace remained by the next morning.

More relieving than that though, came a few days after, when Mr. Mellark was able to take me aside and assure me that he held no hard feelings towards me; saying that he could understand, to an extent, my instinctive need to protect his son. Especially after everything we’ve been through.

I’ll admit that I was a little taken aback and irritated at his implication that the only reason I lashed out the way I did was out of some overactive fight or flight response. I actually thought about insisting that I probably would have reacted exactly the same if it had happened before the Games… but I didn’t think admitting that I have no qualms on attacking his wife would be the way to win his favour.

Then again, you never know…

Chapter Text

“Well, I hope you’re all ready to eat!” Peeta says with a big grin, and motions for his family to join mine in the dining room.

Peeta goes to follow them, and I put my hand on his shoulder, making him turn to me.

“You go ahead, I’m going to get the water.”

Predictably, he starts to turn back to me, but I roll my eyes at him playfully.

“After the spread you put out, I think I can get the water Peeta.”

Unexpectedly, Peeta whips an arm around my waist, hauling me roughly against his chest. Despite his quick actions, his touch and expression are gentle.

With my face looking up to his, Peeta bends just enough to rest his forehead to mine.

I wrap my arms around his neck and smile into his blue eyes; feeling my emotion for this boy swell in my chest.

My eyes flutter closed as I bask in his warmth and strength for a moment; even as I can still feel his eyes on me.

I give his face a little bump and nuzzle with my own, and Peeta chuckles with a happy little huff.

He pulls back to kiss my still closed eyelids and then my forehead.

Reluctantly, we pull a part. I reach up to caress his cheek, then run my fingers through the hair above his ear.

“I really did miss you.” I’m not even aware I’ve said it till his face widens in a happy little grin.

“I really missed you too.”

Peeta then surprises me again by swooping in unexpectedly for a deep impromptu kiss.

I embarrass myself with my little squeak of surprise, and he chuckles against me.

With my lips still pressing and moving with his; the hand that was carding through his hair gives his ear a light flick.

He pulls back from me laughing deep in his chest. I can’t remember the last time I heard such a happy sound.

“Go. Start carving the bird. I’ll be right there.” I demand playfully.

Peeta’s eyes widen dramatically. “Really? You’re actually trusting me to carve up your game?”

I drop my face into my classic scowl.

“No.”

Peeta’s lips are twitching at the corners, struggling to keep his ‘serious’ expression.

“It’s from the Capitol. My game is off limits until I teach you how to butcher and dress it properly.”

With a sheepish grin, Peeta dips his head to steal one more kiss.

“This is about the rabbit you snared in the arena, isn’t it.”

I raise an eyebrow at him, and he shrugs.

“I told you I had never actually prepared rabbit before!” He practically whines at me.

I’m fighting my own smile now as I watch this nearly fully grown man avert his eye like a little boy in trouble.

“You didn’t skin it Peeta.” I deadpan, and grin when his shoulders drop in resignation. “It still had all its fur when you put it on the spit.”

“I know.” He mutters.

“The smell of burning fur was revolting.”

Peeta signs. “I know.”

“And then you ate it.”

He nods wordlessly, still not looking at me.

“And tried to convince me to eat it.”

He gives a little shrug.

“And when I pointed out the smell, what did you say?”

Peeta heaves a huge sigh and throws his head back, clenching his eyes shut as though trying to block out the memory.

“I said… ‘I know. The rabbits here must be a different breed or a mutt of some kind. It tastes completely different from the ones in 12.’

The first time he said it in the arena, I was too disgusted to fully appreciate the hilarity of the situation.

This time; I have no such qualms. Just picturing his guileless face as he said it the first time has me laughing so hard my throat and jaw start to ache.

“I told you! I’d never prepped any kind of wild game before! By the time it got to me for cooking, it had already been dressed!” The more he whines, the more ridiculous he sounds, the more I laugh.

I think it takes me nearly a full minute to get myself back under control.

“Are you finished?” Peeta asks frankly, his lips once again twitching.

That, of course, sets me off again.

Peeta throw his arms up in the air in defeat, and turns from me in mock offence. I’m still giggling with both hands over my mouth as he walks away from me; finally headed towards the dining room.

“Hey Peeta?” I call, still with the odd chuckle. Peeta stops just in the doorway and turns his smiling, blushing face towards me.

“Mom made sure that this one was already plucked and cooked before we brought it over. Even if it is a Capitol mutt, I think it should taste okay.” My grin grows even larger when he pretends to glower at me.

“Weren’t you supposed to be doing or getting something?” He prompts, waving a hand at the cupboards behind me. “You know, something other than making fun of the merchant kid?” He teases, his eyes twinkling.

“You’re right. I do.” I grin cheekily at him. “But remind me of this later so I can pick it back up.”

Peeta chuckles good-naturedly with a little shake of his head. “Yes ma’am.” He says, with a little roll of his eyes.

I make a little shooing motion with my hand. “Go, carve the bird.”

Peeta’s still chuckling as he fairly saunters into the dining room.

“What was Katniss laughing at Peeta?” I hear Prim ask in the other room.

“Ya, what’s so funny?” Bannock prompts.

“Nothing.” Peeta hums quickly. “I was tickling her.”

“I’ll tell you in a minute!” I interject loudly over him at the same time

Rye’s laugh interrupts Peeta’s cursing. “Dude! She was laughing at you!” Rye roars gleefully. “What did you do!?”

With a chuckle and a happy little smile I spin on my heel to face the cupboards behind me in search of a water pitcher.

As I do, I notice something moving outside the window out of the corner of my eye.

My heart leaps into double time as I turn my head fully to face the back windows. The unconscious smile that’s warmed my face so far this evening quickly melts away as my eyes focus on the dark spectre that’s staring back at me.

The look in his silver eyes reminds me of watching a storm creeping ever closer across the lake in the woods. Dark clouds, foreboding winds, flashing sliver lightning.

A detached voice in the back of my head wonders if I’ll still be standing after it catches me. Or maybe I’ll get really lucky and it’ll dissipate before it reaches me.

For what seems an endless moment we just stare at each other. And I’m left to wonder… How did we come to this? How did we get here? We two, who always swore to look out for each other. For each other’s families.

He breaks contact with me suddenly and without blinking.

One moment his silver eyes are locked with mine, and the next, his short, straight, black hair is quickly moving away. Back into the woods I’m assuming he came from.

I’m moving before I’ve even given my body permission to do so.

“Gale wait.” I call to his retreating form as I hurry after him through the sliding glass door.

I feel remorse slice through me at his slumped shoulders, and the defeated expression on his face when he finally turns to me.

“I’m sorry,” I choke out. “I didn’t-” I have no idea what to say to him. The air seems too charged. Too thick with silence. “Why don’t…Why don’t you come in?” I offer feebly, and we both know his answer before my words finish forming.

Gale raises his hand to stop me, and the two of us stand there. Once again silently staring.

Finally, Gale sighs, breaking the silence and straightening his stance.

“I wasn’t going to come tonight.” He says, his voice rough. “I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t want to see you two together. It was hard enough having to watch it on screen.” I remain silent, and Gale runs a frustrated hand through his hair. “But then I convinced myself… I told myself that if I went, if I came tonight, I would find the truth. I convinced myself that I would come tonight, and I would see you two together, and I would finally see that it was all just an act. I-I had this image in my head of him reaching for your hand, and you flinching away, before remembering your part and letting him touch you.”

He takes a deep breath, squeezing his eyes shut for a moment, then once again piercing me with his gaze.

“But that’s not what happened.” He says, defeated. “I saw you. Tonight, through the window. I watched how you were… when you were alone…when you thought no one was paying attention… I saw you with him. I saw-“

His voice breaks, and I feel my eyes tear for him.

“I saw your feeling. Heard you laugh. Saw-saw your smile…You’ve never once smiled that way at me. Hell, I’ve never even seen you smile that way in the woods; where I always thought you were happiest…” Gale trails off with a confused shake of his head, like he’s trying to put pieces together that were never meant to fit.

With another baffled shake of his head, Gale seems to give up. The look he gives me is one of such confusion and sadness. “I just don’t get it Catnip. I don’t understand. You’re so different. How can you be so different? You’re different with him…And I don’t know who this new person is.”

Gale heaves a great sigh. “It’s like…” He trails off, like he doesn’t want to say what comes next. But Gale’s never really been one to mince words.

“It’s like… my Catnip died in that arena. Like she never came home…” He whispers.

I feel cornered. Trapped.

I’ve got my back against the cornucopia, and the tribute mutts are racing towards me. Zeroing in. I have no protection. No weapon. My vision’s closing in, and I’ve no way to escape.

“Maybe she didn’t…” I hear myself whisper into the ensuing silence.

Gale stands across from me. Old, and familiar. His stance and body are strong…but his face says defeat. His eyes are a crushing mixture of sadness and loss.

Here we stand, not six feet between us, as the silence stretches. We can hear the muffled voices of everyone else inside, as well as the clanking of utensils and dishes through the still open back door.

Out here, I’m intensely aware of the first strands of the Grasshopper and Cicada cricket’s songs, and the ruffle of wind through the trees.

“Gale I…I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry.”

Gale barks out that same hard-harsh laugh I heard on the train platform.

“Ya…me either.” He sighs, and turns to leave.

“Gale?” I call after he’s a few more feet from me.

He turns to look back in question.

“Why-Prim told me…”

Gale turns completely to face me, and I draw a shuddering breath.

“Why did you only check on Prim and mom once a week?” I didn’t want to ask that question. I didn’t want to voice my confusion. I felt like, after everything that I was, and am, putting him through, I don’t deserve to ask. I should just be grateful that he did as much as he did.

But at the same time; we had a deal to look after each other’s families if one of us was reaped… and I was. So, I needed to know. Why didn’t he hold up his end of the bargain?

I’m surprised, and not the least bit relieved when Gale answers me with absolutely no resentment or anger.

He shrugs slightly, and my mood is buoyed considerably when his expression remains light and open.

“Right after your training score came out, the fence got turned back on. I guess the Capitol or whoever figured out that you must have learned to hunt and shoot from somewhere. I was lucky enough to be inside the fence when it happened. After that, with our bows and that on the other side, I made due with what I could. I tried making a bow, but it didn’t really turn out, so I managed a couple of spears. Squirrels, a rabbit or two, a couple geese, and even a pheasant got over or through the fence. I took your mom and Prim what I could spare…but Prim,” Gale smiles at me, and it’s probably the first real smile sent my way since I got back. “Prim had found out about the fence. I guess she realized how little there was to go around… She told me not to worry so much about them…she said that Vick, Rory, and Posy needed it more.” Here, Gale’s smile turns a little indulgent, and his words are a little self-deprecating. “I told her that it was fine; that you and I had made a deal to look after each other’s family. I told her that you were counting on me to look after her. That’s when she told me about the Mellarks. How they had been helping out, and taking turns checking on her and your mom.”

Gale takes an unconscious step back, fisting his hands in his hair. “I was so angry.” Gale murmurs to himself, looking down and shaking his head. “I can’t remember the last time I have been that angry.” He says clearly, looking me in the eye.

Maybe it’s naive of me, but I don’t understand.

“Why?” I whisper, wrapping my arms around myself.

Gale takes a moment to look up at the sky, thinking.

“You know…” He says after a moment, “I don’t know.”

Together, we share a soft, self-deprecating, laugh.

It’s nice, and serves to break some of the tension between us.

Gale huffs, and rubs the back of his head. “I guess I felt…replaced? I don’t know. After that, I kind of just came, dropped off my kill, and left. Looking back; I may have over-reacted. I guess I let my anger get the better of me.”

I arch an eyebrow at him. “You let your anger get the better of you? You? No…” I rib, smirking slightly.

Gale barks out another surprised laugh, and this time, it’s much less harsh.

“Ya…” Gale takes a deep breath, and looks me in the eye. “Katniss…for what it’s worth, I am sorry for what I said. At the station.”

“Gale-“

“But that doesn’t mean that I’m not still angry. I am. And it doesn’t mean that I’ve given up on you either. I haven’t. I won’t.”

“Gale, what? You can’t-“

“Can’t what? Can’t want you? Can’t pursue you?” He challenges, his voice growing in strength.

“Yes! All of that! I don’t want you to want me Gale, and I definitely don’t want you to pursue me. I choose Peeta. Why are you pushing this? Why can’t we just go back to being friends? Best friends? Gale, for the last four years you’ve been my brother. My kin. Why can’t you just accept that and be happy for me? Why can’t you be happy that I’m happy and leave it at that?”

“Because I can’t just let you go. Not to him. Not to anyone who isn’t me. I don’t want to. You’re right; we were partners for four years Katniss. But never did I think of you as a sister. For four years I waited and hoped that you would change your mind about being in a relationship, about having a life. And then all of a sudden, this nobody merchant comes along, and you just magically forget all of your relationship fears and hang-ups? I don’t think so. It doesn’t work that way-“

“How would you know?” I snap, cutting him off. “How would you know what it’s like? If you really loved me, you wouldn’t be able to say that! That is exactly what it’s like!” I yell, my fists balled at my side. “I love Peeta! You know how I know? Because he makes me feel safe! He makes me feel strong! He makes me feel like I could take on the world and win! No, my fears and ‘relationship-hang ups’ as you call them, didn’t miraculously disappear overnight! I still wonder! I still worry! But when I look at Peeta, or he takes my hand, that fear fades, and instead, I no longer feel like it’s insurmountable. I feel like, together, we can do anything. You just proved that you don’t really love me Gale. If you did, you’d know that. You’d feel it.”

Gale’s eyes take on a hard glint.

“Just because I may not feel exactly the same way you do for your precious baker, doesn’t mean that I don’t love you. Not everyone loves the same way Katniss.” Gale grits out.

I nod stiffly. “I know, and you’re right.”

Gale relaxes slightly as I concede his point.

“But that’s the love I want.” I tell him firmly.

Gale clenches his jaw at me, and his eyes flick back to the house then back to me.

“We’ll see.” He almost growls, before spinning on his heel and slipping into the encroaching darkness.

I shiver at his parting words. If I didn’t know better, I’d say they sounded almost…threatening.

Suddenly, I’m aware of a familiar tingling on the back of my neck, and turn sharply to the back door.

There, silhouetted by the kitchen light, is Peeta. I can feel his eyes on me, but the light from behind him obscures his expression.

“Peeta…”

His name slips from my lips, and I take a few steps towards him.

“I told you.” He says, and there’s an odd note in his voice that I can’t identify.

“Told me?” I have no idea how much of that he heard.

A little stiffly, Peeta comes down the three wooden steps leading from the house, and comes to stand before me.

His face is still hidden in shadow.

“That he loved you.” He states.

I lower my eyes to Peeta’s chest, and nod slightly.

“Maybe.” I concede.

But then I shake my head and look back up into his face, where his beautiful blue eyes manage to peer from the darkness.

“But his love isn’t the love I want.”

Without warning Peeta’s lips are on mine, and though he surprises me; with my next breath, my hands are fisted in his hair, holding his mouth to mine as he devours me.

And just as suddenly as it happened, he stops. Nearly ripping himself away, Peeta’s large hands grip my face and press our foreheads together.

“When everyone leaves; you and I are going to talk about what Gale said to you at the station.” Peeta quietly demands, and again, that odd nameless tone is strangling his voice.

Wordlessly, I nod, pressing myself against his tall body, and wrapping my arms more securely around his waist.

Chapter Text

Chapter 14:

When Peeta and I finally enter the room, we join his and my family at the table.

“Sorry for that everyone,” Peeta hums with a smile as I sink into the seat beside his. “Katniss got lost in the kitchen.”

I kick one of the legs of his chair just as Peeta goes to sit down, causing him to grip the table in fear of falling.

The others chuckle as Peeta glares playfully at me.

I pour him and myself a glass of water.

“I see you carved the bird.” I say pointedly.

I grin when Peeta’s face goes red.

“Right! Everyone dig in!” Peeta goes on hurriedly, and we all start shovelling piles of food onto our plates. Well, all aside from mother; who takes dainty little spoonfuls from every dish, sampling them all. I take a deep breath and let it out slowly as I make note of it. I decide to see it as a small step towards her accepting Peeta. Even if she’s still not willing to acknowledge his standing in my life; at the very least, she must be able to see him as a more than competent provider.

I know that was Peeta’s main purpose with this large spread of food served in the warm and comfortable furnishings of his large dining room. I understand his purpose and appreciate the effort he’s gone too. I just hope, if anything comes of this dinner, it’s that my mother will come to the same conclusion. If only for Peeta’s sake.

When everyone’s settled with their food and have complimented both my mother and Peeta at least twice on a delicious feast, Rye takes a deep breath and claps one large paw on Peeta’s shoulder, to his left, and Bannock’s, to his right.

“Well Bann, would you look at this!” Rye trumpets with a large grin splitting his face as he removes his right hand and motions to the table. “Our little Peet, actually having a real sit-down dinner with the lovely Miss. Everdeen.” He shakes his head in mock amazement. With a roll of his eyes, Peeta shrugs off Rye’s hand.

Even though I’ve clued in that he’s trying to make a joke at Peeta’s expense, I’m not sure where he’s going with this. I mean, we’ve had dinner together almost every night for the past month.

I commiserate with Peeta when Bannock decides to play along in giving his brother a hard time.

Bannock nods sagely. “I know Rye, I know. It’s quite amazing. I mean, how many years have we watched poor little Peeta stare at Miss. Everdeen across the school yard? Or sigh with longing as he watched her walk home…” Bannock trails off dramatically.

I’ve never seen Peeta’s face quite so red, and I bite my lip in an effort to hide my smile, even as Mr. Mellark, mom, and Prim start snickering around the table.

Rye clutches at his chest, slumping back in his chair dramatically. “Oh the heartbreak! The yearning! I thought for sure his unrequited love would end him before his time!”

My face is flushed now, but I can no longer suppress my own laughter at his brother’s going’s-on.

Peeta groans, and let’s his head fall with a bang onto the table. I feel a little bad that Peeta can probably feel my shaking laughter through my hand as I rub his back in sympathy.

“Come on now boys,” Wheat Mellark chides with a chuckle. “Give your brother a break. Approaching a strong, independent young woman, such as Katniss here, would be intimidating for anyone. And doubly so if the young man just happens to be in love.” He ribs.

My face is now just as red as Peeta’s, who’s lifted his head to glare at his brothers.

“Ya, correct me if I’m wrong, Rye, but didn’t you nearly wet yourself upon meeting Kat for the first time?” Peeta jabs.

Rye’s eyes go wide with an innocence I doubt he’s ever possessed.

“Why are you mad at me?” Rye asks, voice high and playing at indignant. “I’m just remarking on how pleased I am for my little brother! It took a lot of courage to finally speak up and tell the girl you’ve been in love with since you were practically a toddler, how you feel!” Rye’s innocent look is usurped by the huge grin that splits his face. “I mean, I for one never thought I’d be here!”

“That’s me as well Rye,” Bannock picks up, all serious. “Who could have predicted that all it would take for little brother to confess himself would be the threat of iminant death?”

Rye nods sagely at Bannock. “Yes, without a doubt, I don’t know which was more life threatening; the girl or the games.

Peeta chuckles, and shoots me an adoring look. “Actually, I think the Games might have been less terrifying than expressing my feelings…” He says leadingly.

I groan and cover my face. “I apologized for that.” I grumble.

“What, what happened? What’d she do?” Rye asks excitedly.

Peeta’s still laughing to himself as he points his fork at Rye, and I get the feeling he’s enjoying getting to tattle on me like this. “Katniss had no idea what I was going to say during my interview-“

I scoff. “Interview? I had no idea you any feelings for me at all.”

Peeta turns his fork at me, but doesn’t turn away from his captive audience. “My story. Shh.”

I roll my eyes and lean back in my chair, crossing my arms.

“When it was over, as you can imagine, Katniss was a little upset.”

I scoff again, even as my face starts to turn beat red. Peeta again, ignores me.

“The second the elevator doors opened onto our floor, Katniss grabbed me by the collar and threw me against the wall. I don't know that I've ever seen anyone glowing with rage before her. But in that dress, her eyes sparking with fury...” Peeta actually sighs a little bit, clearly replaying the memory.

“Dude, that sounds so hot.” Rye mutters, and I scowl angrily at him.

Rye's dreamy voice seems to bring him back, and Peeta again gestures to Rye with this fork, and nods. “I’m not gonna lie, for a second there it was; and I’ve daydreamed about it repeatedly.”

“Peeta!” Both mom and I gasp at the same time, while everyone else chuckles.

Though, now that he mentions it…thinking about it that way...

Peeta shoots me a little knowing grin as my blush deepens, before turning back to his audience.

“Unfortunately, Katniss really was furious with me, and I wasn’t dreaming. She slammed me up against the wall with her forearm against my throat, cutting off my air-“

“Still hot.” Rye whispers.

“And glared at me. I mean, full on ‘I’m going to kill you where you stand’, kind of angry.”

I think back to that moment. He's right. Upto that point, it had been a long time since I had been that angry. I turn to look at Peeta, contemplating, as he goes on to tell his rapt audience about his 'close in counter with my formidable temper', as he put it. I smile and shake my head at his antics as he tells them about my storming off after it was all over: “Leaving a trail of fire and singed hearts in her wake.”

I huff, crossing my arms over my chest, and rolling my eyes. "You are so dramatic. The vase was an accident, and it barley left a scar." As the others laugh, they don't notice my hand slip under the table to rest on Peeta’s thigh, giving him a slight squeeze in apology.

"Ooh! Katniss, I want to hear about your entrance into the Capitol!” Prim pipes up excitedly. "When you and Peeta came out in your costumes, mom and I screamed! We were so scared that something had happened! That maybe the Games had started already or something!"

I reach for Prim, to my right, and run my hand over her golden head. Recognising the very real fear she's trying to mask with her enthusiasm.

"We did too." Bannock pipes up, diverting our attention. "I nearly swallowed my toung when I saw you both come out of that tunnel covered in flames."

"But," Prim’s voice is still a bit shaky, but her real smile is back. "Then you were waving to the crowds and the cameras and holding hands!" Prim bursts and I blush. Glad, and a little embarrassed, that she had found her enthusiasm once again.

"Ya, the hand holding was Peeta’s idea." I tell her.

Peeta jolts beside me. "What? No it wasn't, Cinna told us too, remember?" He says, and I can't believe he actually managed to get that out with a straight face.

I turn to look at him incredulously. "Peeta, did you honestly think I believed, for one moment, that you could pick out Cinna's voice above all that noise when I couldn't?"

Peeta has the grace to look slightly sheepish for a moment, before shrugging and turning back to his plate.

"What can I say; I saw an opportunity and I took it." He's smirks a little smugly. "I got you to hold my hand didn't I?" He is looking far too pleased with himself.

I raise an eye brow at him. "That was before I found out what an idiot you could be."

Peeta grins and slides an arm around my stiff shoulders, pulling my uncooperative body into his side.

"Katniss, if I had had any idea that you liked me even a little, I would have done more than hold your hand in that chariot."

"And I would have pushed you out of it."

"No you wouldn't, you had a crush on me."

"A crush?! Who ever said I had a crush on you?"

His smirk is smug, and I know he's baiting me. "You did. On the train home, you said that you had liked me ever since that day with the bread."

I feel my face redden and I gape like a fish out of water. "Wha- no I didn't! I said that I had noticed you since that day!" My arms are still tight across my chest. So, to underline my, admittedly feigned, indignation; I uncross, then cross them again for emphasis. "In no way does noticing someone equal a crush."

Everyone around the table, except my mother, is laughing at us. It's a good, light, family moment, and I'm grateful for it...that is, until Prim open's her mouth.

"Katniss is right Peeta..." Her tone and expression are devious. "I really don't think she had a crush on you back then." I don't trust it. Whatever she's up to, will not be good for me. I can feel it.

"Prim..." I warn. To which she completely ignores me.

"She didn't have a crush on you until you started wrestling." Prim's grin is so proud.

I groan and cover my already red face with both hands while Bannock and Rye whoop with laughter.

"Really?" Peeta's voice is low and deep in my ear, causing me to shiver. Slowly, his hand slides down the back of my body; from my shoulder to my hip, and I lower my hands from my face to see his hooded expression. Voice still pitched so no one but me can hear him, Peeta gives my hip a little squeeze.

"We'll add that to our list of things to talk about." His voice has a growl to it I've never heard, and I shiver again, leaning heavily against him.

"Dude!" Rye's boisterous roar kills the moment, and Peeta and I are both forcefully brought back to the present. "Can you believe that?!" Rye howls. "Here, your dream girl had a crush on you since you were both, what, 14?! And neither of you had any idea!" I scowl. The idiot is getting far too much enjoyment out of this. "Man, that must suck!" Rye's elbows land on the table to perch his chin on his fists as he grins across the table at us.

I'm obviously not as threatening as I thought, if he's still this bold. I'll have to step it up.

"Oh that's nothing!" Prim pipes up again, still grinning. I glare at her so hard I give myself a headache.

"Prim don't you d-" I'm cut off by one of Peeta’s large hands coming up to cover my mouth.

"Katniss, don't interrupt your wonderfully intelligent sister. Please Prim, go ahead." Peeta offers graciously with a nod of his head. Both of his hands are currently in use; with one holding me tightly to his side, for his own protection if he's smart, and the other still over my mouth.

Near my teeth.

Peeta must feel my jaw move, because his hand flinches to where it's more cupping my mouth than sealing it.

"Ah ah." He whispers, once again leaning down to whisper in my ear. "You bite me, and I'll bite you back." He growls low.

I shiver, my wide eyes shooting to his now darker ones. And I realise that we're both thinking of the moment he bit me on the train as I writhed on his lap.

I swollow thickly, as I surreptitiously rub my thighs together under the table. Peeta's eyes dart down at my movement then flash back to mine. His expression is dark and hungry, with a promise of ‘later’.

"Ya Prim, this I've got to hear." Bannock goads my sister. Thankfully bringing Peeta and I back to the surface.

Peeta leans back in his chair, removing the hand around my mouth, and moving the other from my hip to rest on the back of my chair.

He's looking entirely too smug and relaxed.

"Okay, fine." I tell him, my voice even, drawing everyone's attention. "Just remember; you have two older brothers who apparently love to watch you suffer. I'm sure what they could tell me is much worse than anything you'll get out of Prim."

I can see Peeta going over my words. Flicking his eyes from me to Prim, then to his brothers, then back to me. I look over, and Bannock is doing his best to come off as innocent as possible, while Rye's not bothering to hide his excitement at the prospect of humiliating his brother.

Peeta's eyes dart around one more time, before nodding. "Worth it."

I roll my eyes and heave a huge sigh. "Fine. Go ahead." I wave Prim on.

If it weren't for the fact that Prim was about to rat me out, I would have said that her grin was infectious. But as she was, it wasn't, and I was not impressed by how eager she appeared to be to feed me to the wolves, as it were.

"Well, you all remember how, during the summer, Katniss always did her trading with the bakery on Thursdays, when she knew that-" I clear my throat abruptly to cut her off and give a little shake of my head. Prim may know that I used to go on Thursdays because I knew that Mrs. Mellark would be out having tea or whatever with a cousin, but the rest of the Mellark didn't need to know that.

Prim's eyes widened a little in understanding and she gave me a little nod back.

"When-when she had time." She picks up clumsily and clears her throat. "But then all of a sudden, she switched to Sundays for no apparent reason...?" Prim asks leadingly. I run my hands roughly over my face and let out a harsh breath, before letting my hands fall limply into my lap.

Peeta shrugs. "I always thought it was so that she could spend more time with Gale. That, and it made more sense during the school year." He says guilelessly.

I smile a little to myself and shake my head. The boy had no idea.

Prim’s expression is victorious.

"Nope." She chirps. "One Sunday we were walking back from dropping off some herbs to one of mom's patents. We had just rounded the bakery when Katniss stops dead."

I feel my face fairly explode with heat as all three Mellark boys turn too look at me, and Wheat is already chuckling knowingly.

Prim is in her element as she continues her story to a rapt audience.

"She stopped so suddenly, I actually ran into her!" Prim giggles. "I called her name and tried to get her attention, but she just made this kind of grunting sound." I shake my head and once again cover my face. I can't believe I'm letting her tell this story.

"Finally I realised that she was looking at something. But when I looked, all I saw was a white truck backed up to the back of the bakery."

Both Bannock and Rye are now snickering and elbowing each other, while Peeta has this odd look on his face...like he's seeing me for the first time.

I don't know what to make of it, and so duck my head to avoid his wondering gaze.

"I had just turned back, ready to start pulling her along, when she made another kind of winey-grunting sound. I followed her eyes again; and this time, watched as a shirtless Peeta easily hauled two huge bags of flour over his shoulders, walked back into the bakery."

Wheat, Bannock, and Rye are all laughing openly now, along with Prim, while my mother seems a little embarrassed for me.

My eyes are on Peeta though; who hasn't taken his now hungry gaze off me. He quirks an eyebrow at me, as though asking if what Prim's saying is true. When I give a little shrug with a shy smile, the grin that stretches across his face is so wide and so bright; I'm convinced it lights up the already brightly lit room.

When he swoops in for a tender, sweet kiss, I'm ready for him. Our lips part and meet, and meet again in soft sipping kisses.

"Wait, wait! Cut that out!" Prim interrupts. "I haven't even gotten to the best part yet!" She trills, and reluctantly, I turn my attention back.

"Right, so, I'm still not exactly sure what's just happened, or why Katniss was making those sounds," Prim goes on. "So, when I see Peeta come back out of the bakery, I watch her. And wouldn't you know it; she didn't take her eyes off him." Prim leans across the table to whisper conspiringly. "I swear, the only other time I've ever seen her so focused was the one time she took me hunting and almost took down this huge buck!"

"Almost?" Peeta somehow manages to ask through his preening.

I snort and turn slightly away from him. "Prim yelled for it to run before I could get a shot off." I've decided that the delicious meal in front of me is more important than the conversation going on around me, and pretend to drown them out. "And stop gloating or whatever that is you're doing." I grumble at him. "It's unattractive."

Peeta laughs deeply and bends to kiss my cheek. "I think we both know that you don't find me unattractive."

I grunt, not bothering to acknowledge him, and again focus on my food.

Chapter Text

Chapter 15

 

"So!" Rye says, rubbing his hands together gleefully. "We've covered your grand entrances, what happened after that?"

Peeta and I look at each other and shrug.

"Training?" I ask.

Peeta looks to think it over, and nods. "Ya, I guess." He then explains to the table: "We started in the Training Centre the next day. I think it takes up the entire bottom floor of the Tribute Building. It's huge; with different stations set up to train you in anything that might help you survive in the arena. We spent about a week down there before our training evaluations and scores came out."

"Was the Training Centre where Katniss kept trying to kill you before you entered the arena?" Bannock asked, oh-so helpfully.

"I did not try to kill him." I protest indignantly.

Rye points at Peeta while looking at me curiously. "He said you tried to stab him a bunch of times."

I turn my glare on Peeta, who shrugs. "What? You have to admit, there were a few close calls."

I turn back to my food, grumbling, "If they had been close calls you wouldn't be sitting here. I don't miss more than once."

"Katniss, you didn't tell me you almost killed Peeta." Prim’s happy chirp is a touch at odds with her words. Enough to make me wonder if casual conversation about death and dismemberment have really become so natural in our house.

"I did not try to kill him!" I groan. "There was only one real close call, and it was an accident." I concede. "And," my voice goes soft as I remember the incident in question. "It was an accident." I whisper, looking up at Peeta beseechingly.

Peeta reaches over to squeeze my hand with a soft, sad smile. "I know."

 

 

Flashback

 

I don't know what it is about today, but for some reason it all seems to have hit me suddenly. The Games, leaving 12, never seeing my sister again, being forced to kill... kill children... Peeta...

I don't know if I'll actually be able to do it, when the time comes...be able to take a person s life. I want to say no. I want to say that I would never be capable of such a thing. But I know myself. I know my nature. I will do whatever it takes to survive. For Prim. To get back to Prim...

For some reason; today it all seems to have really hit me.

And I'm angry.

I'm angry at the world; the injustice of it all.

I'm angry at Snow for being the hateful, evil worm he is.

I'm angry at the GameMakers for creating and capitalizing our torment and deaths.

I'm angry at the citizens of the Capitol for taking pleasure in our fear and pain.

I'm angry that the odds were never in our favour.

I'm angry.

And sad.

And scared.

I don't want to become a killer...

...I don't want to die...

I want to run, but there's no escape.

I'm in the Training Centre, as I have been for the last four days.

Before leaving 12's suite, Haymitch once again reminded us to take it easy; to not show our hand.

But today of all days; I need an outlet.

So, as soon as the elevator doors open, I'm off. I'm looking for anything to take my mind off of where I am and what I'm doing.

I almost heave a sigh of relief when I spot the Cross Country Running simulator.

I need to run. I need to escape for a little while...even if it's only from my own thoughts.

I feel a brief twinge of guilt for having left Peeta on his own without a word. But when I stepped out of my room this morning and met his eyes; I got the impression that maybe he understood where my head was without me having to tell him.

At any rate, that's another thing I just can't think about right now.

So I run.

I don't know how far or how long, but I run.

I run until the screaming in my head stops.

And then I run until every other thought and whisper and regret stops too.

I keep running.

I don't stop until my legs threaten to give out from under me.

But almost as soon as I stop running, it all comes rushing back. And I realize; running from my problems isn't going to help.

I need to fight.

On shaky, tired legs, I make my way over to a station I've been keeping my eye on, but avoiding.

Spear Grappling.

It's not that I'm particularly interested or adept with the spear. But they remind me of Gale, of home. And there's nowhere I would rather be right now.

The only spear I've ever held before was a crude, but effective, flint and stick one Gale had made for us to hunt wild pig.

It was nothing compared to the cold chrome and steel dart I now held in my hand as I stepped into the simulator. 

Distantly, I wondered if the shape, material, and quality would really effect my accuracy. Maybe, if I'm truly terrible, Haymitch won't go completely apocalyptic on me for disregarding his instructions.

I heft the modern spear in my hand. Feeling the cold metal of the shaft in my palm. The new weight pulling on my arm.

I don't like it.

A new sudden wave of homesickness threatens to swallow me whole, and I'm second guessing myself. Questioning doing this thing that so reminds me of home.

I miss my woods.

I miss the wind in the trees. The smell of the earth and moss beneath my feet. The texture and familiarity of my old wooden bow on my fingertips.

This emblem I hold in my hand is a perfect representation of the Capitol.

Cold - in its unfeeling, Beautiful - if only aesthetically, and Deadly - especially when welded by a skilled hand. This is a tool made solely for killing, and it does it's job well.

Giving my head a little shake, I pull myself from my thoughts.

With a determined press of the button, I start the simulation.

One after another, Sim after faceless Sim falls under my arm of chrome and steal.

I know I'm not the fastest or the most accurate. I try to stick mostly to basic throws and lunges.

But for the ones I miss or fail to finish off to simulators satisfaction; I find myself channelling my fury, uncertainty, and pain into my spear tip. Under which each opponent inevitably disintegrates into a shower of holographic pixels.

I m finally brought to a stop by the rapid triple beep of the simulator. This training session is over.

My breathing is rapid. My heart is in my throat. Every single inch of me is tired and aching.

I was aiming for numb. Instead I just feel hollow.

With unseeing eyes I breath, and allow my spear to drop from its ready position and hang heavy at my side.

"Katniss?"

Vaguely, I think I hear my name being called. But it's distant, and for the first time since I stepped foot on that damnable train, my mind is pleasantly blank.

I don't want to think. I don't want to remember where I am or why. I don't want to remember why I was brought here, and what I'll be forced to do.

But what I want rarely seems to matter, and reality doesn't like to be ignored.

"Katniss?"

The sudden appearance of a hand on my shoulder causes my already frayed nerves and strained instincts to react without conscious thought.

I have no idea that my body has so much as twitched; until wide pools of frightened blue break through the haze that had helped to numb my mind.

I blink furiously a few times, trying to erase the vision of a terrified Peeta.

Only to fully come back to myself and realize: I wasn t imagining it.

The reality of Peeta s fear didn t come as some stray impression.

His fear was real.

And caused by the spear tip I had pressed to the underside of his jaw.

On instinct; I had rounded on a perceived threat, not caring if it was friend or foe.

For an untenable moment, we both stood there, frozen. The spear s tip pressed firmly enough to Peeta s skin as to force his head sharply up, less it pierce his skull.

Both of us barely breathing as I continued to stare into Peeta s wide questioning, fearful eyes.

Then slow, sudden movement forced my attention away from Peeta s expression.

I watched, with dawning horror, as a drop, then two, bright red pearls of blood slipped down the spear s point from where I still had it pressed into Peeta s chin.

P-Peeta? I croaked. My voice is so tight and scared, that I hardly recognise it.

I watch as Peeta s eyes soften, their familiar warmth retuning.

I can feel myself starting to crumble as Peeta s expression is filled with understanding.

Slowly, he raises his hand to lower the deadly blade from his throat.

It s okay. He sooths gently. His calm helping to bring me back from whatever brink I had been racing towards. Absently, he uses the back of his sleeve to wipe away to blood I spilt.

Peeta holds my gaze as he takes a deep breath and unconsciously, I copy him. His large hands are loosely resting on my shoulders as he does it again, and again I follow, slowly relaxing.

I m so focused on copying his breathing, I barely notice as his hands slide down my arms to my clenched fists.

I only look down when the shocking clang of the metal spear impacting with concrete breaks the stillness around us, as Peeta finally manages to unfurl my death grip, forcing me to drop the weapon.

Peeta …” I whimper weakly.

I can see the turmoil and pain in his expression as my voice trembles.

I ve scared myself. Badly.

Come on, Peeta coaxes softly, laying a strong, comforting hand on my lower back, leading me to the elevators. We re done for the day.

I can feel my body beginning to tremble, and don t stop myself from leaning, just slightly, into Peeta s hand.

 As the elevator doors close behind us, one thought races through my head.

‘What if it’s not the GameMakers who’ll make me a killer? …What if I already am one?’

 

End of Flashback

 

 

“What? What happened?” Prim asks beseechingly, looking between Peeta and I.

I lower my eyes to Peeta’s chest and he presses a long kiss to my forehead.

“Nothing. It was an accident. Just a bad day.” Peeta’s eyes are stormy. Even as he shrugs and smiles, his words and demeanor somehow warn to leave the subject alone.

“Aww common!” Rye whines, bringing a real smile to both mine and Peeta’s faces.

He points accusingly at his brother.

“You said that there were a few times that she tried to kill you! You can’t just lead us on like that!” It takes some considerable willpower not to drop my jaw as Rye huffs back in his seat with an actual pout.

I have never, in my life, seen anyone other than my sister or Posy pout to such an extent…and Rye’s jutting lip and scowl combination had them beat by far.

I can feel Peeta’s eyes on me, and turn to meet his amused expression…only to turn back to look at Rye with a kind of morbid fascination.

“Well…” Peeta’s leading tone has my gaze snapping back to him. “I suppose I could tell you about when Katniss tried to gouge my eyes out with a stick…”

I roll my eyes. “Now you’re just being dramatic. I did not try to ‘gouge your eyes out’.”

Peeta raised an eyebrow at me. “Really? You’re telling me you don’t remember the Fire Making Station?”

My eyes widen with sudden understanding, and I feel my face go red as I turn away, pretending to ignore him.

Peeta chuckles giving my shoulders a little squeeze with the arm he has around me.

“That’s what I thought…You know…I still don’t know why you attacked me.”

I knew very well why I attacked him. But there was no chance in hell I was going to tell him at the dinner table. So I kept my head averted, and my body stiffly turned slightly away from his.

“I didn’t attack you. I took your stick…stop whining.” I muttered.

But by the grinning around the table; most of which was aimed at my sullen disposition, I could tell that no one believed me.

 

 

Flashback: PPOV

 

Another day in the Training Center, another day pretending we re less while trying to learn more. These days are especially crucial to me. If I can t protect Katniss, I at least have to be able to help her. So I focus. I study, I learn, I memorise, and I repeat. I soak up as much information and knowledge as the trainers can give me, and then I practise.

Sometimes Katniss and I do the stations together, sometimes she ll wander off, do her own thing for a bit, but she always seems to make her way over to me before training is over for the day.

I try not to read too much onto it. I doubt she does it on purpose, or that it s because she actually wants to be near me but I have to admit, every time she silently appears back at my side, curious as to whatever it is I m doing, my heart speeds up a little and all the tension I ve unconsciously been holding since she left my side disappears.

This is just such a time.

Today s been a long day.

Katniss seemed a little more agitated this morning than usual, separating from me almost as soon as the elevator doors opened.

I try not to take it personally. I know being cooped up in this cold environment; surrounded by concrete and steal, rather than open sky, trees and grass must be almost unbearable for someone as naturally free as Katniss. I chose to think that her irritability is due to her confinement, rather than her just wanting nothing to do with me.

I hope.

Subtly, at least I hope so, I keep a close eye on Katniss as she moves from station to station.

I watch the subtle changes in her demeanor and posture as she works off her excess energy.

She truly is the most beautiful, most fascination creature I have ever seen.

Her movements are quick and lithe. Her every step is nearly silent. Her gaze is sharp, focused, assessing.

There is something inherently predatory about Katniss Everdeen.

And yet I know her to be capable of such softness. Such care.

I m at the fire making station when I feel the familiar easing of my body; as though I can sense her on a molecular level.

I don t start in surprise at her sudden appearances anymore, and that in its self feels like a small victory. It s a result of us actually spending time together. Of really getting to know each other.

I turn to where I can feel her at my side, and sure enough, she s looking around my arm at the tinder pile I m readying in my hands.

What do you think? I ask with a smile, surprising her and causing her eyes to snap up to mine. Think I can get it in one go?

Katniss s lips twitch in what I ve come to realise is the closest she comes to a smile, away from Prim.

Have you even managed it once yet? She snarks back at me, followed by another, longer, almost-smile.

I can t help the probable goofy grin that stretches my face.

Of course! I boast mockingly. Who do you think lights the ovens back home?

It s now Katniss s turn to mock as she raises an eyebrow at me.

Really, and you do that with tinder and friction every morning?

I m still grinning like an fool. I can feel it.

Well, no, with matches. I shrug. But how hard can it be? Just call me Lord of the Flame. I wink at her, not really sure what to make of it when Katniss s cheeks go slightly pink.

Common . I motion with my head over to the designated fire pit. It ll be easier to mock me from over there, and you can tell me all the ways I m doing it wrong.

I m still smiling as I laugh at my more than likely immanent failure, even as I lead us to the fire pit.

Katniss doesn t say anything as we settle across from each other and I prepare the notch in the hearth board with a knife, and set my stick and the knotted bundle of tinder beside it.

Distantly, the thought occurs to me that I hope Katniss never finds out that up to this point, I ve actually been practising this in a minor effort to impress her.

I take a calm breath in a useless effort to push aside the nerves Katniss s presence causes, then get to work.

I know that starting a fire this way can take five minutes or more, so I don t worry as a little over a minute passes with nothing happening.

At the two minute mark, my hearth-board has blackened and my rough hands are warm.

I know this is going to work and I m already quite proud of my merchant-self. My eyes flick up to see if Katniss is watching, then widen a little. Katniss s expression is one I don t think I ve ever seen before. Eyes dark, jaw clenched, hands fisted against her thighs as she focuses solely on my hands and their movement.

Watching her carefully, I start adding more pressure, then more speed. I make sure I continue my long, smooth strokes and float my hands like the instructor taught me.

As my pressure increases, I watch Katniss slowly inch towards me on her knees, ducking my eyes when I think she s going to catch me watching her.

I start to feel a little heat from the bottom of my stick and I know it wont be long now before it starts to smoke.

I ve just brought my hands to the top of the stick to make another circuit, when suddenly; Katniss s hand lashes out, ripping the stick up and out of my hands.

Woah!

The movement was so violent and sudden that I threw myself backwards, landing hard on my ass, narrowly avoiding losing an eye via my - now Katniss s - stick.

Here, I had been so focused on getting smoke, on proving to Katniss that I could do it, that I had apparently missed her sudden mood change.

I look up at her, stunned and weary, as she continues to kneel beside my nearly smoking hearth board with said stick in her hand.

I don t say anything. I m not angry or frustrated. I m more curious and a little cautious.

Katniss s face is beet red, and she s looking at the stick in her hand like she doesn t understand how it got there.

I-I Sorry. Katniss stutters. I-I didn t mean to …” From the obvious embarrassment on her face, and the softness of her voice, I take it that she didn t actually mean to nearly impale me, and I carefully sit back up, returning to my place beside the fire pit.

I, uh, I just noticed that the, uh, the notch at the bottom wasn t deep enough. I-I didn t want you to keep trying when it wasn t going to work. Katniss shrugs.

This, right here, is one of the things I love most about Katniss Everdeen. She s one of the most honest, real, and straightforward people I have ever met.

And because of those virtues; she is also, hands down, one of the worst liars I ve ever met.

Her eyes flick to mine, and away again; I think she s checking to see if I ve bought her little fib. It must be obvious that I don t, because her face stays red and her eyes once again dart away from mine.

I watch as her jaw tightens and she pulls her shoulders back, and I can t help but smile. I can physically feel my heart expanding as I watch Katniss s stubbornness kick in.

Resolutely ignoring me, Katniss picks up my hearth board and the knife I had been using and digs a much deeper notch than I had originally.

There. She says mulishly, putting the board back down where I had been working on it. I do my best not to grin at her, as I m still not sure what actually set her off, and patently hold my had out for the stick she s still holding.

I wait, tramping down on my amusement, as Katniss just looks at my outstretched hand for a moment; obviously not understanding my meaning.

Should I get another stick too? I ask, and wince slightly at the obvious amusement in my voice.

Katniss s embarrassment turns into a scowl as she slaps stuck into waiting hand before getting up and walking away.

My amusement turns to disappointment, until I realize that she s not actually leaving me. A happy contented feeling fills me as I watch Katniss perch herself on a artificial log just a few feet away. She pretends to be engrossed in what the other Tributes are doing at the other stations around the Centre, but I can clearly see and feel her watching me out of the corner of her eye.

 

End Flashback

 

 

KPOV

 

Prim, my mother, and Wheat where all chuckling in such a way that makes me think they have a pretty good idea as to what set me off when I ripped the stick from Peeta’s hand.

Peeta, Bannock, and Rye, while clearly entertained by the story, don’t appear to have any idea.

“So why did you attack, Katniss?” Bannock asked with what looks like genuine curiosity.

My arms remain crossed, my face red, and my chin stubborn.

“I told Peeta; the notch wasn’t deep enough.” I reply firmly. “That was the reason. Nothing more. Peeta’s reading too much into it.”

Peeta pulls my stiff body into his with the strong arm he still has wrapped around my shoulder.

“We both know I’m not reading too much into things sweetheart…” Peeta whispers in my ear, causing me to relax slightly against him. “I’m really curious about what actually set you off.”

The timber of his voice and the once again unvoiced reiteration of later has me sinking into his side.

But only a little.

And only because my muscles are tired from being so tense because of this stupid conversation.