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Fort, House, Home

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“You ruin everything, Ezra Mellark!”

Willow’s mittened fists pummeled the boy’s chest in frustration, hot tears coursing down her face and instantly sticking to her chapped cheeks in the frozen winter air. At her feet stood the ruins of the snow fort she’d labored to build every morning over the course of the past week, the roof caved in and broken into pieces, filling what was left of the interior with debris.

In her first wave of anger she’d kicked out the walls, a light dusting of snow blowing off the chunks and scattering into the wind. When that wasn’t enough to quell the fire raging inside of her, she turned to the wide-eyed boy whose touch had brought all her illusions crashing down and began launching a long line of invective at him.

He only flinched at her words, his fair and freckled face turning a darker shade of pink the meaner she got, but when he refused to say anything in retaliation, she turned to using her fists. These, too, proved useless against him. Willow was lean and undersized—a scrappy, scrawny sprite of a thing—but the young boy was solid and broad and already built like an athlete. He could have easily stopped her attack or leveled her with one well-timed push, but Ezra neither cried nor fought back, just allowed himself to fall backward into the snow, staring up at her stupidly, like the stupid, stupid boy he was.

“What’s wrong with you anyway?” Willow cried louder, kicking snow at him with the toe of one of her pink suede boots. “Say something! Or are you no good at that either?”

But no sooner had his mouth opened to speak than Willow looked at the wreckage of her snow fort, and the fury overtook her again.

“Why are you always bugging me anyway?” she snarled. “Trying to hang out with me and my friends, getting in the way? I wish you’d never moved here! I hate you and your stupid face!” She kicked more snow at him, but this time her boot scraped the underlying sidewalk, the suede scuffing as it dragged across the harsh pavement.

Willow nearly exploded at the sight of her once-perfect boots, a gift her daddy had sent her for Christmas all the way from his new home in the place he called Denver, now also ruined by stupid Ezra Mellark, but before she could start up again, one of the other kids at the bus stop, her friend Bennett, put his hand on her arm.

“You gotta knock it off,” he said, his bright green eyes boring into her, imploring to the girl behind the kicking, scratching animal raging at the surface, “or you’re gonna get called into Principal Coin’s office. And you know what’ll happen then.”

Bennett was right, she hated to admit it. If she kept at Mellark, she was going to end up in detention—she might anyway. And that was the last thing she needed, to stare at Mr. Latier’s sour face for an hour while her mom sat in the parking lot in their ratty old minivan, waiting to give her a lecture. She didn’t need detention or to get lectured or grounded. Her life was already hard enough.

What she needed was her old life back, for her parents not to be divorced and for her daddy to come back home. She hadn’t seen him in months, not since her birthday and not even for Christmas, and now her mom was going out on dates with other men, like she’d never loved her daddy at all.

In fact, she’d gone out on a date a couple weeks ago with Ezra Mellark’s dad, and when she’d come home later that night, Willow had crept out of bed and peeked into the front room—her mom was leaning against the front door, smiling to herself and brushing three fingers against her lips like there was powdered sugar on them. Her mom had talked to Mr. Mellark on the phone a few times after that, and every time they spoke, it seemed like Ezra tried harder to be her friend, which made Willow tolerate the sight of his stupid face that much less.

When she thought about that secret smile she’d seen her mom make, she didn’t see what there was to smile about. Her daddy didn’t love her mom anymore—that’s what she’d overheard her mom saying on the phone to Aunt Prim the night he’d left with his suitcase—and maybe he didn’t love her anymore either. Maybe he’d never loved either of them at all. What could there be to smile about when your home had fallen apart and your own daddy didn’t love you?

She tore her eyes away from the ruins of her snow fort and watched the cars as they passed by on Dequindre to make herself cool down, staring absentmindedly at the the way the tires churned up the dirty brown slush that had once been snow. There were piles of that muck everywhere, tall, towering stacks of dirt mixed with snow that would linger until April, and that’s how her life felt too, like something pretty had been destroyed, and it would always be that way.

“I’m sorry… it was an accident. I was just trying to help,” she heard Ezra plead, but she refused to look at him, staring instead at the school bus as it crawled its way toward them on the slick road.

“I bet it was an accident too,” she said, every bit as quiet as the boy had been, but where his voice had been filled with candy, hers was filled with venom, “that you killed your mom just by being born.”

She walked away then, headed toward the line of kids forming on the sidewalk, eager to get out of the cold and into the heat of the school bus. From behind her, she could hear that she’d finally hit her mark and that Ezra Mellark had begun to cry.

But it didn’t feel good like she thought it would. Instead, she felt like crying with him.

“And what are you going to say when they open the door?”

With a shaking hand she pressed the doorbell and then looked down at her daughter, watching the girl struggle past her pride. There was no way to know which of them was more to blame for that, Gale or herself. In all honesty, Willow had probably inherited it from the both of them, since she and Gale had shared virtually all the same faults.

“That I’m sorry,” Willow answered in a sullen voice, biting her lip and hanging her head.

“For?” She pressed the palm of her hand more firmly to her daughter’s chest, holding her tightly against her legs—whether it was to support Willow in her shame or to protect herself from what she might see from the man opening the door, she couldn’t be sure.

His gentleness and goodness were terrifying to her, so unlike any guy she’d ever dated. It made her feel naked, like there was nothing she could hide from him—especially not the fear she’d brought to his doorstep that maybe she was failing her own daughter. She hadn’t been enough of a woman to keep her husband from running out on her, and maybe she wasn’t enough of a mom either, to give her daughter the home she needed.

“For being a bully.”

She didn’t have time to prompt Willow to expound on what she’d done wrong when she heard the heavy footsteps approaching to answer the door. She swallowed nervously, trying to control her breathing, even though it was her daughter that was expected to do all the talking. Even in the frigid air, she felt herself growing hot and weak, her knees shaking slightly at the thought of seeing him again. All she could think about was the way his lips had felt on hers when he’d kissed her goodnight… she hadn’t been kissed like that in years—and maybe not ever—like she was something to be savored.

But what kind of person must he think she is now? She felt as culpable for the things her daughter had said as if she had said them herself, and perhaps more so. She’d be less anxious, maybe, if she’d spoken to him directly instead of through Principal Coin and one impossible-to-interpret exchange of texts.

-Can I bring Willow by after school?

-Sure. We’ll be home all night.

As it stood now, she had no idea what he thought about the entire situation, how angry and disappointed he must be not only in her daughter, but in her.

Then the door swung open, and there he was, his startlingly blue eyes (had they been that bright before, or were they only making up for the overcast sky?) peering at her through his black-rimmed glasses. He opened the storm door, his hand splayed wide over the glass to hold it open.

“Katniss,” he said in surprise, like it had been some other penitent parent he’d expected to come groveling at his doorstep.

“Peeta,” she rasped, her eyes falling to his lips for a moment before she remembered her daughter was standing there, probably pissing her pants from the agony of this. She cleared her throat and glanced down at Willow.

When Katniss looked back up at Peeta, he gave her a small smile and then looked down at her daughter, who, aside from the watery blue eyes she’d inherited from her maternal grandmother, was the spitting image of herself. “You must be Willow,” he said, looking at her daughter fondly. “I’ve heard so many good things about you. I’m Peeta.”

At kindness and acceptance where she’d expected only sternness and disapproval, Willow began to cry—deep, gusty sobs that shook her gut and made her chin quake. “I-I-I’m sorry, Peeta,” she wailed, sounding like a goat bleating for its mom.

Peeta’s eyes grew wide at the suddenness of her tears—a man watching Chernobyl in the act of melting down—clearly unaccustomed to dealing with the dramatics of little girls. “Oh no no, come in,” he urged, reaching out and wrapping an arm around Katniss’ shoulders, pulling her and her daughter inside his foyer. He shut the door behind them and squatted down to Willow’s height. “Hey,” he said softly. “You don’t have to cry. It’s going to be okay.”

A movement behind Peeta caught Katniss’ eye. A little boy, the spitting image of his father—freckles, messy blond hair, broad shoulders, and all—stood hovering nervously in the kitchen. Katniss smiled at him and nodded in greeting, and the boy smiled back—a gawky, gap-toothed grin, as friendly as his father’s.

He was as precious as his father too.

By the time Katniss looked back down at her own child, Willow had flopped her hands onto Peeta’s shoulders and was bawling her eyes out onto his t-shirt.

“Peeta, I—” Katniss scrambled for the right words, robbed of rational thought when Peeta looked up at her, the steadiness of his gaze cutting through all her armor. He patted her daughter’s back consolingly, hushing her, with each pat her daughter’s cries growing quieter until they were no more than pitiful whimpers.

“I’m so sorry,” Katniss tried to explain again—to say something worth saying. “She’s had a tough time adjusting to…” she swallowed thickly, not sure how much to admit, “...all the changes.” Willow’s arms made their way around Peeta’s neck, holding onto a man who was, for all intents and purposes, a total stranger to her until two minutes ago. “She misses her father,” she added, unnecessarily, like it wasn’t completely obvious from the way Willow was clutching onto him for dear life.

Peeta nodded in understanding, silently encouraging Katniss to say no more.

“Hey, did you want to talk to Ezra?” he asked Willow encouragingly.

She nodded vociferously into his neck.

“Okay,” he chuckled, gently peeling her off him and holding onto her shoulders to angle her toward his son.

Ezra took a few tentative steps out of the kitchen, wiping his palms onto his pants and smiling nervously, even though he towered over her and could ‘Hulk Smash!!!’ her with a single blow if he wanted. “Hi, Willow. I—uh—I didn’t tell on you,” he said. “I don’t know who did.”

“It’s okay,” Willow sniffled. “I deserved to get in trouble. I—I—” she hiccuped and balled her hand into a fist to knuckle at her runny nose. “I’m sorry for being mean to you. I should have let you help with the snow fort and…” she started crying again, the tears falling so fast they were like twin waterfalls cascading down her face. “I’m sorry what I said about... about your m-m-mom. I d-didn’t mean it.”

Peeta stood up and walked toward the kitchen, squeezing his son’s shoulder as he passed him. Katniss remained in the foyer, mortified over what Willow had said and heartsick that Ezra and Peeta had to hear mention of it again, even like this, by way of apology. She took a quick survey of the vicinity, the framed pictures lining the wall up the stairs, the ones in the family room, on the bookshelves and console table. Most of them were of Ezra and Peeta together, or with a group of blond-haired men who looked so much like Peeta they must be his brothers and father. Only a couple were of Peeta’s deceased wife—and both were from when she’d been pregnant with Ezra.

Katniss thought of her own home, how she’d left up a few pictures of Gale with Willow as a reminder to her daughter—or so she’d hoped—that her father loved her, no matter what happened. “Your mom loved you very much,” she told Ezra, moved by the recognition that the boy might question that. “I’m sure of it. Moms… just do. I loved Willow long before I ever saw her face.”

The vulnerability she saw in Ezra’s eyes, his openness and need to be loved, killed her. But the way his father looked at her when he walked back into the foyer, a fistful of Kleenexes in his hand, was worse. Peeta was looking at her like she was the rising and setting sun—a fiery, beautiful, fleeting thing he wanted so badly, despite all his fears, to touch. Whatever vulnerability she saw in the boy was magnified tenfold in his father.

Peeta handed the tissues to Willow, waiting with his hands open and outstretched while she noisily blew her nose into them to collect them from her.

“Did you kids want to play outside for a little bit, before it gets dark?” he asked, glancing at Katniss. “Maybe the two of you can go build a fort together.”

“You can borrow a pair of my gloves if you want,” Ezra offered, not waiting for Willow to reply before opening the coat closet in the hall and pulling out a plastic storage tub overflowing with scarves and hats and mismatched gloves. “Here,” he said, holding out a fleecy gray pair. “I wore these when I was little. I think they’ll fit you.”

“Thanks,” Willow said, biting her lip and reaching out to take them.

“I’m sorry they’re not pink.” He looked down ruefully at her winter boots. He knew how much she loved the color—she always wore pink, every single day. She probably thought the gloves were ugly, and for a second he worried she’d hate him all over again.

She surprised him by smiling. “That’s okay.” She slipped them on, flexing her fingers to show him how well the gloves fit. “These are perfect.”

“Awesome,” he grinned, looking over at his dad and Mrs. Hawthorne, who were now standing next to each other real close. “We’re gonna go play in the backyard,” he told them, feeling triumphant now that it seemed like Willow might be his friend after all. He tugged at her arm to steer her to the back door. “Come on.”

Proudly, he guided her through the kitchen and out onto the back deck, eager for her to see the kingdom that he’d been dying to share with someone else. There was a tree fort that his dad had built when they’d moved in this past summer, a tall, looming structure built into a stand of pine trees, and a trampoline too—although it was too snowy to use either of them right now.

“You can come over when the snow melts, and we can play on those,” he said. “And I have video games too, if you want to come over on a snowy day.” He didn’t care what she wanted to do, though, as long as she was willing to be his friend—he thought it best not to tell her that and push the limits of her friendship.

Plodding into the waist-deep snow, he began scooping out a space for their snow fort. Willow joined him, the two of them working in companionable silence for several minutes. Ezra shot a glance toward the house, where he could see his dad and Mrs. Hawthorne standing in front of the kitchen window, looking out at them. They were standing close again, like moms and dads did, and he felt that familiar twinge of hope tugging at his stomach that maybe the four of them could be a family. He knew his dad liked Mrs. Hawthorne a lot anyway, because he talked about her all the time.

“Your mom is pretty,” Ezra said. When Willow scowled at him, he panicked, not wanting to upset her. “I didn’t mean that in a bad way, just that I can see why my dad likes her. She seems nice.”

Willow looked toward the house, her expression impossible to read. “She is. But if my mom goes out with your dad, I think mine might never come back home.”

Ezra considered her words, packing the base of the foundation for the fort. “Do you still think he might come home—your dad, I mean?” The thought of that upset him somehow, which only made him feel selfish. It would probably be best for Willow and her mom, but…

Her hands packed the snow tightly as she worked next to him, pressing down firmly on it to compact it. “No,” she exhaled. “I guess he doesn’t love us anymore.”

Relief surged through his veins at the thought of this mysterious Mr. Hawthorne staying far away, but he fought hard to hide it. “Oh, I’m sure he loves you.” Ezra was confident of that. “Like your mom said, parents do.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Willow said bitterly, scooping out an armload of snow from a nearby bank and crushing and shaping it to form the base of one of the walls. “Your dad must love you a lot, though.”

“He does.” Ezra smiled as he thought about all the things he and his dad did together. “We bake cookies and cakes together—he lets me do the frosting—and he takes me to the museum to see dinosaur bones—I’m gonna be a paleontologist—and on the weekends, we stay up real late and watch movies. He’s my best friend.” My only friend, he thought, but chose not to say that out loud. He gulped, feeling a little guilty at the look Willow got on her face as he spoke about his dad. She looked ready to cry, her chin quivering as she fought back the tears welling in her eyes.

“I miss mine.”

Ezra stopped working and plopped his butt down in the snow. He grinned when Willow did too, sitting crisscross applesauce in front of him. Then he laid it all out on the table, the secret hope he’d been carrying with him ever since his dad had asked him who the pretty lady with the braid was, if she was someone’s mommy or a teacher. “You can hang out with me and my dad. And your mom could come too. We could be best friends... if you want.”

Willow looked at him hopefully. “You mean that? After I said all those things?”

Ezra felt himself flushing pink, and he looked away and began building the fort again so that Willow couldn’t read his thoughts. They must be so obvious. He wondered what having a sister would be like. Or a mom. Maybe it could be like this.

“Sure!” he said. “And besides… I know you didn’t mean them.”

A large chunk of snow hit him on the side of the face, but when he whipped his head around in alarm, expecting to see her scowl or to hear her yell at him to shut up, Willow was laughing instead. He scooped up a large chunk of snow, heaving it back at her in retaliation, wondering if being a brother was anything like this.

If so, it was something he could get used to.

“So… this—ah—wasn’t exactly how I imagined seeing you again.”

Peeta grasped the back of his neck, painfully cognizant of the mess all around him as he saw it for the first time through a woman’s eyes. And not just any woman’s eyes, but hers (were they this gray before, or were they only reflecting the color of today’s sky?). She had to think he was an appalling slob, seeing the natural disorder of his life like this. Boxes in the living room from when he’d moved in. Dirty dishes scattered on TV trays in the family room. The carpet covered in sock lint and cat fur (where was Buttercup anyway?). And all the toys. Everywhere he looked, toys. He hadn’t tidied up in a week. It looked like an indigent hobo lived here—or worse, a bachelor.

Which he technically was and had been for seven years, but he didn’t want her getting the wrong idea that it was a lifestyle choice for him.

“I’m sorry about the mess.” He gestured lamely around him to the whirlwind Ezra had left in his wake, and then stooped to pick up a toy dinosaur off the ground—a diplodocus—gripping it by its slender neck.

“Oh, please,” Katniss scoffed. “I’m the one who should be apologizing… for today… I feel so awful... and then barging in on you tonight. It’s the last thing you need, I’m sure, after working all day. I feel… awful. About all of it.”

“No, don’t be sorry, Katniss.” He said her name just because he could, a recent luxury, and his most favorite. “Really. The kids will be fine—better than fine. And I—ah—love seeing you. Anytime, I don’t care when. It’s just that this—” he sighed and put the dinosaur on the hallway table behind him. “Isn’t exactly what I had in mind for a second date.”

He straightened his glasses by pushing up at the hinge on the right side, thinking about how the date he’d had in mind for them had involved a copious amount of carbs and a shared bottle of wine and a dark movie theater where, if he managed to locate exactly where and when he’d left his balls, he’d hoped to rest his hand on her leg. And then later, at the end of the night, maybe he’d pluck up the nerve to caress the side of her breast while they made out in his car again like a couple of horny teenagers. But he could feel the dampness on his shoulder from where her daughter had trustingly pressed her face, and suddenly this didn’t seem so bad either. It was actually kind of perfect, how right it felt, Katniss and Willow being in his home.

“What did you have in mind?” Katniss asked—or might have. She spoke so softly, and to her shoes, that Peeta couldn’t quite be sure.

“Something a little fancier than a grand tour of my foyer.”

He noticed her face was flushed, and he was half-considering whether he’d had that effect on her when he realized she was still wearing her bulky winter coat. “God, I’m sorry… let me take that. I’m a little rusty. I’m not used to having company over, at least since we moved here… not that I had a lot of company before… I mean, platonically, yes…. But I mean female company… not that this… christ, this sounds like the beginning of a bad porno.” He laughed weakly over how tongue-tied she made him. It wasn’t a problem he’d ever had before with the women he’d dated, not even Delly, who he’d always considered to be the love of his life, but who had never consumed him quite like this.

Katniss laughed, unzipping her coat and sliding it off her arms, her right breast and then left jutting toward him through the thin fabric of her shirt. Peeta took her coat from her, trying not to notice that her nipples were hard—the air in the room must feel so much cooler to her than when she’d been wearing her coat. It was nothing more than that, and it certainly had nothing to do with his stupid porn joke (although that fact did nothing to quench his desire to run his hands over their peaks. He wondered what her breasts would feel like in his hands, about their weight and the smoothness of her skin, and what she would taste like on his tongue if she let him suck on them).

He turned his back to her and walked over to the closet so he could covertly adjust himself.

“Your house is nice,” she said to his back as he hung up her coat in the closet. It was impossible to miss the distinction she made between house and home.

“Yeah, it’s alright. But I guess it’s missing a woman’s touch,” he chuckled.

“I didn’t mean that… I just—” she stammered.

“I’m not offended.” He closed the folding door to the closet and walked toward the kitchen. “Come on,” he said over his shoulder, inviting her in.

He went directly to the fridge, pulling out a gallon of milk. Katniss took a seat on a barstool at the island, resting her elbows on the peel-and-stick tile the previous owners had covered it with and that he had yet to replace (note to self: must make that a priority).

“I thought I’d make us some hot chocolate. They can’t last out there for long. Want some too?” He’d already poured enough milk in the saucepan for all four of them, reckoning that if he couldn’t win her over with an outpouring of witty banter, then maybe his favorite recipe could do the trick.

He looked up at her over the rim of his glasses for her answer, and she smiled and shrugged at him. “Sure.”

With the milk warming on the stove, he grabbed a mixing bowl with a spout and a whisk from the cupboards and then a couple bars of milk chocolate from the pantry. Handing her one, they set to work breaking up the thick bars into small pieces. They worked together, their hands inches apart, as they prepped the chocolate for melting.

“I thought you’d be mad at me,” she said after a couple moments, dropping a handful of broken chunks into the mixing bowl.

He frowned, his hands halting mid-snap. “For what?”

Katniss looked over her shoulder, toward the window overlooking the backyard. “You shouldn’t have to get a phone call from the principal informing you that your son’s heart is broken.” She made a frustrated sound in the back of her throat, a strangled, pained noise. “I’m worried I’m letting her down, Peeta.”

It hadn’t been the highlight of his week, that’s for sure, hearing from Alma Coin. But then it brought Katniss here, and now their kids were playing together outside, so he could only consider that it had been for the best. “Her heart is broken too,” he said. “But you didn’t do that.”

She trapped her lower lip between her teeth, and Peeta fought the urge to reach over and tug it free. Instead, he reached over and grabbed a chunk of her chocolate bar, helping her to break it.

“I think she blames me for her father leaving. I don’t know… maybe I blame me.”

“It’s not your fault, what he did.” The asshole.

“No. And if I’m being honest, one of us had to do it first… end it. There was some... dark, twisted sadness between us that only got worse over time. Like we’d let each other give up on our dreams, and then we gave up each other.”

None of that justified cheating, but he didn’t point that out. “You were young when you met him.”

The milk began to bubble in the saucepan, so he turned around, preferring to watch it simmer than to see the pained look on Katniss’ face when she talked about her ex-husband.

“Yeah, um… it was the summer after we graduated high school. And then, within a couple months I found out that I was pregnant… nothing says happily ever after like an unplanned teenage pregnancy, right?”

He smiled ruefully at the milk, flicking off the heat. It was telling she hadn’t said we. She’d said ‘I was pregnant.’ With Delly, it had been we, from the minute they’d seen the matching blue lines to the minute the lines on her heart monitor went flat. Of course they’d been trying for a baby, and had been a good ten years older and entirely committed to each other. But Katniss had deserved to be a we too, to have someone there every step of the way. She still did.

He poured the milk carefully into the mixing bowl, watching it melt the chocolate in channels and gullies.

“But I’d do it all again, if it meant having her,” Katniss added softly.

“Yeah. The same here. And I mean… I know Delly would feel the same way too.” He waited a moment for the milk to soften the chocolate, and then he began to whisk the contents of the bowl, whisking hard enough to try to stir out the bitterness he felt at the admission. Acknowledging that he wouldn’t change the outcome—if it was a choice between having Ezra or not—had taken him years to even think. It still wasn’t something he’d really ever admitted out loud, much less to someone else.

And not just anyone else, but now to her.

He pulled open a narrow cupboard and began to sift through the spice rack, grabbing the salt, cinnamon, and cayenne (his secret, favorite ingredient).

“Were there ever times you felt like you were letting him down too, after you lost her?”

“All the time,” he laughed, mixing in the spices. “It was me, my two older brothers, and my dad trying to raise a baby. Guess how well that went?” He was grabbing mugs from the cupboard when she spoke, and he kicked himself in the ass for that because he’d give anything to see her face when she said it—

“It looks like you did an amazing job to me.”

He spoke past the lump in his throat. “Well, I still feel that way, sometimes, that I’m letting him down. I’m all he’s got, and he deserves a hell of a lot more. Delly and I had wanted a large family… and now it’s just the two of us.” He filled the mugs, one at a time, until all four were brimming with the creamy umber-colored liquid. He slid one her way, and grabbed one for himself before he walked over to the window to check on the kids. They were happier than two pigs in shit, pushing around piles of snow like they were building a wall to protect the world from the Wildlings and White Walkers. Katniss joined him, standing so close their hands brushed together.

It had been a while since he’d held a woman’s hand, and he didn’t think there had even been a time he’d wanted to touch someone more than he did now. So he did it—twined his fingers through hers. She looked at him, surprised, but he only smiled down at her and blew into the steaming liquid in his mug. Her eyes fell to his lips, and christ, he wanted to kiss her, but their kids were ten feet away, and they were framed in a pane of glass.

“He’s a great kid,” she told him, wresting her eyes away and turning her head to look out the window. “So generous and kind.”

“You’re doing a great job too, you know.” He ran his thumb from her wrist to the tip of her thumb in a smooth, comforting line. “I mean, look at that.”

Willow and Ezra were working side-by-side, gabbing away and rolling the snow into balls and chunks, packing and shifting and moving it in tandem.

“They’ll be inseparable now,” she said, a smile in her voice, as she held her mug up to her lips with her left hand and took a small sip.

God, I hope so.

Peeta looked down at Katniss, admiring the renegade wisp of hair that had sprung free from her braid and was framing the delicate lines of her face. He wanted to kiss her, to paint her, to love her.

“Did you want to stay for a while… watch a movie or something with us?” It was a school night, but he had to ask. One way or another, he wanted that movie with her.

“Sure,” she said, and he hated that she sounded so surprised to be asked. Who were the idiots and inbreds that hadn’t treated this woman like a fucking goddess? “We can stay a while.”

You could stay always.

They stood together in companionable silence, gripping each other’s hands and watching their children play together, until the playing devolved into a chaotic snow fight.

“She’s gonna be soaked to the bone,” Katniss grumbled.

“She can borrow some of Ezra’s old pajamas to wear during the movie. He’s got some pretty stellar Minions thermals I think will fit her. But lemme go call them in.” He lifted their intertwined hands and pressed a kiss to the back of hers, dragging his lower lip across her skin.

Reluctantly, he let her go and walked over to the door, yelling out for the kids to come back in for the night.

The kids yelled back, their whining and wheedling loud enough to come from a horde of fifty. “Do we have to?” they cried in unison.

Peeta shot a glance over his shoulder at Katniss and shrugged, not exactly wanting to be bad cop. “What do you say, five more minutes?”

Katniss smiled and left her mug on the table, walking toward him and mouthing, “Make it ten.”

Yup. Works for me.

“Ten more minutes,” he yelled out the door closing it hastily and locking it—why did he lock it?

No sooner had he asked himself that than Katniss reached him, pressing her hands to his chest. She leaned up on her tiptoes and planted a chaste kiss to his lips.

It was perfect agony, her hands on him, her lips on his. Without thinking, he wrapped his arms around her waist, drawing her against his body. His right hand found a free will of its own, roaming down to her ass and kneading her cheek. Katniss groaned into his mouth, winding her hands into his hair to tug him closer as they kissed. He didn’t care if she could feel how achingly hard he was for her because it was so painfully easy, being with her. And he wanted her to know that he was a man who wanted all of her, every part of her she was willing to give.

When she pulled away for air, panting and wild-eyed, Peeta took in the scene before him—Katniss standing in his arms, in his kitchen. The door was closed behind him but all he could see were possibilities for the future. They were as exciting as they were terrifying. The kids behind them, the kids ahead of them—this woman could be the mother of all his children, if she wanted. And he could be the father to all hers.

For the first time since he held his newborn son in his arms, he wasn’t afraid of wanting that. He wanted to give that to her.

He wanted to give her everything.