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Pictures at an Exhibition

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Promenade

Katniss had run out her house in terror - eyes wild, hair wild, thin, wane, waxen, feral -, and Peeta had thought of Annie Cresta; beautiful, mad, Annie as they stared at each other.

He tried to block out the crashing coming from inside, tried to block out the helpless feeling in the pit of his stomach. It wasn't until later, after he spent the day turning his house into the home it never was in the year he spent in it between games, that Greasy Sae had knocked on his door and he realized how bad things had been for Katniss.

Peeta carried her upstairs, careful not to wake her as Prim's cat followed on his heels, Sae bringing up the rear. "She's like her mother when Amos died," she said softly as he tucked Katniss in. "It will be better with you here, though. She actually showered and went out today; she hasn't done that since she's been back and it's been nearly two months."

He brushed the hair off her face, trailed his fingers down the hollowed out curve of her cheek, wanting desperately to believe the old woman, but not really managing it.

 


 

 

Interlude

It took a month to establish the routine his Capitol doctors had been so insistent about. He baked in the morning, joining Greasy Sae at Katniss' for breakfast. She would go hunting afterwards and he would rouse Haymitch, making sure he ate and showered and then they would talk for a while, Haymitch helping him sort the 'real' from the 'not real' as best he could.

Afterwards he would paint and tend his garden, then go for a walk around town and note the changes happening. There was a tent city on one side what used to be the square that housed those who returned to 12. There was talk of a medicine factory being built, but first they had to build houses so they all didn't freeze to death during the winter.

But this time of year the weather was nice. Balmy, Peeta thought as he walked through town, it's balmy .

"And how would you paint that?" His father's voice echoed in his head.

It was a game they had started when he turned nine years old and his mother had decreed that it was time for him to start learning the family business, to start 'pulling his weight' under her roof. But of course he was still a child and one morning he had snuck away to make chalk drawings with Delly.

When his mother found him out she was furious and by the time she had dragged him inside and sent him reeling towards the basement stairs and the ovens and his father there was a brilliant reminder of her displeasure painted across his cheek.

As he listened to the voices of his classmates floating in through the open window, enjoying their Saturday while he worked a great hunk of dough he got more and more despondent. So his father had made up a word game, hoping to cheer him up. It was simple: he would say a word, tell him what it meant, and then they would figure out how to paint it.

'Balmy' was an easy one. Hair that hung in greasy strands; a sheen of sweat on skin; a cotton shirt sagging limply under the weight of the humidity sponged up from the air because all 'balmy' really was, was a nice way of saying hot and sticky and unpleasant.

His father started keeping a dictionary next to the row of cookbooks, and as the bread baked he and Peeta would play their game. And when he got a little older they reversed it. He would ask his son to translate the life that teemed outside the basement window into a tapestry of words, to paint with them instead of the oils spread across the pallet in his bedroom. In the end it was the most useful thing his father ever taught him.

By the time he walked through Katniss' back door for dinner with her and Sae that night his grief was pressing down on his shoulders with such weight that he felt like he was going to be crushed and flattened out on her hardwood floor.

 


 

 

The Gnome

"You know Coin sent you to the Capitol to kill Katniss," Haymitch said, scraping the last of his rabbit stew from the bowl to his mouth.

"Why?" Peeta couldn't even remember what question of his had led to all this, but he was enraptured by Haymitch's narrative even if he was horrified and disgusted at the same time.

Haymitch gave him a look that clearly called him stupid before continuing. "Katniss had - has - enormous influence because she's the Mockingjay. The last thing Coin wanted was Katniss giving her support to someone else once she served the purpose of uniting the districts. After that Coin's only use for her was as a martyr," he finished dispassionately.

A memory surfaced in Peeta's mind, Katniss tearfully saying all she wanted to do was go home when they were in the cave during their first game. He almost asked Haymitch if it was real or not, but he was trying more and more to figure it out on his own. He looked up after a moment, confused as to way Haymitch was watching him so narrowly. "I'm okay," he said hastily. "It's just... all she ever wanted was to go home."

"That's right," he said approvingly. For a drunk he sometimes had a remarkable memory. "But it didn't matter to Coin anymore than it did to Snow." Haymitch stood up and grabbed a bottle of white liquor from the icebox, taking a long, numbing pull on it. "I don't know who in your unit was reporting back to her, but when it became clear Boggs wasn't going to let you hurt Katniss she had to make other plans."

Peeta considered those last few days of the war in the Capitol in a new light, everything from his arrival in Katniss' unit to the bombing outside Snow's mansion that effectively ended the war. His hands started shaking from the effort it took to contain the anger and betrayal he felt. That street with the pods where Boggs died, that had definitely been an attempt on all their lives; if Mitchell hadn't stopped him he would have killed Katniss there.

Mitchell. Peeta shot to his feet, retching into the sink. "Do you think Gale knew what was going to happen to Prim?" he asked once he'd washed the sick out of his mouth.

"No," Haymitch said sadly. "Coin was probably hoping that killing the person Katniss loved most would push her over the edge, that she'd kill herself. It happening at the hands of her best friend was just salt in the wound. Didn't really work out how she wanted in the end though." For all the times Katniss had been difficult and flighty and selfish and just plain thick-headed Haymitch was fiercely proud of her for killing Coin.

"Do you think she'll ever forgive him?"

Haymitch shrugged indifferently. "I doubt it. Why?"

Peeta looked out the window, towards Katniss' house as if the answer would be written on the siding. "Sometimes, I remember things about me and her and I feel and angry and jealous and... possessive, but I don't really know if I should feel that way; if it's really me or something the Capitol did to me."

He thought back to the dinner table at 13, how he had scared Annie by saying he would steal her away from Finnick and implied that he and Katniss had sex during the Victory Tour all because he wanted to make Katniss jealous and Gale angry just like he had been seeing them sitting together and being happy.

"If you hadn't been reaped would you have ever plucked up the courage to talk to her?" Haymitch asked shrewdly.

Peeta looked down at his hands. He had long ago resigned himself to the fact that he would probably watch her marry Gale, that he would end up loving her at a distance the same way his father had loved her mother. It was different then though, when she had never returned his affection for show or otherwise. He really tried to fall for another girl as the years went by, to put Katniss out of his mind, but no matter how many pairs of lips he kissed his heart always got in the way of his head because they weren't hers.

"Whatever you might think she would never let anyone take care of her the way she lets you. Maybe it's not much, but it's more than anyone else since her father died."

But it wasn't him taking care of her later that day. He left Haymitch to his bottle to fritter away the afternoon with his paints, but ended up prostrate on the couch, thinking things over. His dozing led to sleep, and his musing to nightmares. Coin took on new proportions in his imagination, turning into an evil, grotesque imp who slipped in and out of the shadows tormenting people.

He tried to stop himself following the orders she whispered in his ear in that residential street in the Capitol, tried to warn Mitchell and Katniss that it was a trap, but he couldn't and had to watch a different version of himself kill them both. At least until Katniss shook him awake. He might not thrash and scream like she did in her dreams, but his clenched jaw and pleading whimpers were enough to make her feel like her heart was being torn out.

"It's okay, Peeta," she said soothingly, brushing away the wetness on his cheeks. "It was just a nightmare. You're back home. You're safe."

He wanted to tell her it wasn't his safety he was worried about. Instead he let her coax him to dinner, her hand soft and warm and reassuring in his as she led him up the sidewalk to her house.

 


 

 

Interlude

In a different world Peeta would have courted Katniss. Would have brought her cookies and bouquets of wildflowers and sketches of her favourite things. His mother would have hated it, and he wouldn't have cared. Katniss would have worn her mother's pretty blue dress and danced with him in the square on Saturday night when everyone was feeling festive and the fiddlers were playing because they had passed another week without a mine accident.

She would have blushed and known down to her bones that the sweet words he whispered in her ear were meant for her and not an audience of millions. And neither of them would have cared that it would be considered old fashioned in the Capitol because their world was District 12 and that was the way these things were done.

They would have fumbled their way through their first sexual experiences together with nervous laughs and soft lips and uncertain fingers. Their classmates had always thought Katniss was cold and hard, frigid even, but Peeta knew better. She felt too deeply, loved too fiercely to be those things. He knew before she even set foot in the Hunger Games arena that she was the Girl on Fire, and he would have knocked down all those walls she built around herself after her father died so she could burn for him, just him. He would have done things the right way, with ring and her mother's permission, and when he proposed it wouldn't have been on a stage, for show. It would have been real.

Peeta imagined his hand as hers, imagined the warm steam of the shower as her lips on his neck as he thought their wedding night. His hips twitched up, seeking the imagined heat of her as he spilled onto the wet shower floor. It was ritual now, this, before bed every night. It took the edge off his want, kept him from tossing and turning for hours thinking of her, wondering if she was doing the same. But it didn't stop him wondering who she thought about when her fingers sought the space between her legs.

There was a canvas propped up on the easel next to the window. The foreground showed the backs of people's heads, all the people who surrounded him during the Reaping. In the background though was Gale tearing Prim away from Katniss. He didn't know then the whole scene would be prophetic, the only thing he was aware of was the look that passed between two of them, now perfectly rendered in oil, beautiful and tragic.

Maybe this is the only way he could ever compete with Gale Hawthorne. Maybe it was only possible in a world where he had killed the sister Katniss loved more than anything.

 


 

 

The Old Castle

"Where's Katniss?" Peeta asked when he walked into her kitchen for breakfast to see her seat at the table empty.

"Upstairs," Sae answered, stirring a pan of something on the stove. When he started for the stairs she stopped him with a look. "She was crying, Peeta, said she wanted to be left alone," she warned him.

He nodded in acknowledgement, but took the stairs two at a time all the same. Katniss' room was the biggest one in the house, just like his, but unlike him she had done nothing to personalize it aside from a picture of her family on the dresser and her bow propped up in the corner.

He tried to keep his footsteps light as he crossed the floor, but even if he didn't sound like an elephant stomping across her floor Katniss knew he it was him, could have sworn she felt him as soon as he walked through her backdoor. She was curled under the covers facing away from him and for the first time in a long time he remembered how small she actually was. It was easy to forget since her personality made her seem larger than life. He didn't try to coax her out of bed, didn't say anything at all as he sat next to her and rested a gentle hand on her shoulder.

"I hate this house," she grit out, fisting her hands in the sheets like the words clawed at her throat painfully. It wasn't always so bad during the day with Greasy Sae and Peeta coming and going, but when it was quiet and empty after they left everywhere she looked was evidence of her mother and Prim and the house felt like the tomb it really was. And once the ghosts pounced they were loathe to let her go. "All it does is remind me how alone I am."

And she hated sleeping alone. She never really had before the Reaping, and maybe that was why it upset her so much, because sleeping alone was something she had come to associate with impending death. And the nightmares of course, of course there were those too. It had been so tempting since Peeta came back to beg him to sleep next to her every night and keep them at bay. The only reason she didn't was because her boy with the bread had been used enough.

"But you're not," he murmured leaning over to kiss her shoulder and remind her that he was here and he was real.

"Don't," she hissed out like she was in pain. "Why are you even here?"

"Because I love you," he said before he could stop himself.

She looked at him over her shoulder, just a quick flash of tortured gray before she turned away, and he felt the wall go up around her. "You deserve someone better, Peeta. Someone who didn't run away when you were hijacked because it hurt too much thinking I'd never get you back. Someone who didn't kiss her best friend to forget about you. You deserve someone who would have stayed and fought for you the way you would have done for me."

She wasn't trying to be horrible and hurtful, just honest. It still hurt.

And it took him until dinner to come up with a rebuttal.

She still hadn't gotten out of bed, so he took her up a tray of food, a small bouquet of wild violets perched on the side. He sat down on the bed next to her; he doubted she moved an inch since the morning.

"I've loved you for the better part of forever. I don't care if you think I deserve someone else, I want you. It's always been you." He reached out with gentle fingers to knead at her back, working out the knots that were surely there. "I think we both deserve to be happy, and if... if I make you happy, stop pushing me away."

She didn't say anything, but after awhile he felt her relax, felt her breathing deepen and knew she had finally fallen asleep.

 


 

 

Interlude

Katniss dug around in the cabinets under the bathroom sink. Someone on her prep team had filled it with tubes and jars and bottles of products, probably in the vain hope their little Mockingjay would use them so it was easier to get her back to beauty base zero when they needed her on camera. As if that would happen.

What she needed though was something to make her hair grow longer. The fire that had left her skin mottled and scarred had taken most of her braid with it. And she had gotten so much flour in her hair by constantly having to tuck it behind her ears while she helped Peeta bake that she looked like she was going prematurely grey.

Ever since people found out he was back in town they'd been knocking at his back door looking to buy or barter for bread. She'd been doing a brisk trade in game meat too lately. At least until she had twisted her ankle badly while out hunting. The first day she stayed home she had nearly gone crazy, so Peeta asked for her help baking.

Katniss shoved the beauty products back in the cabinet, disgusted, and went downstairs to grab a bottle of oil to massage into her hair, the same way her mother did before her father died and she stopped caring.

It was just annoying having to brush her hair out of her eyes every five minutes. It definitely wasn't because Peeta had mentioned that he liked it long. Definitely not because of that. She simply wasn't that kind of girl.

 


 

 

Dispute Between Children At Play

"When was the last time you were here?" Peeta asked as he followed Katniss through the woods. He knew they were going to a lake, to the lake her father had taught her to swim at when she was little, but that was about it.

"The morning Gale got whipped. I needed someplace to talk to him where I was sure we wouldn't be overheard; it was the only place I could think of."

"Why?"

"I wanted to talk to him about running away."

Peeta frowned. He remembered that morning. She must have talked to Gale before she met him going into town. "Can I ask you something?"

"Hmm?"

"Whenever you needed something you went to him... or Haymitch... why didn't you ever come to me first?"

Katniss shoulders stiffened defensively. She knew the reason, it was ready to fly off her tongue before the thought could even really manifest in her brain. Asking Peeta for something meant more than asking anyone else. Not because she felt she owed him so much - though she did -, but because it meant  more .

"I guess because I'd known him so long," she said evasively. "We spent years looking out for each other while we hunted. I trusted him." And she was still unbearably bitter over that.

Her answer didn't explain away Haymitch, but Peeta decided to keep his mouth shut and not ruin their day since Katniss was taking him someplace special.

By the time they reached their destination the sun was high in the sky and they were both flushed and sweaty; summer had finally turned from 'balmy' to 'scorching'. Peeta deposited their picnic basket in the shade of the little cabin, giving Katniss some privacy as she stripped to her underclothes and got in the water.

When he turned around he nearly choked on his tongue seeing her floating on her back, her clothes clinging to her wet and obscene. The girl still had no idea the effect she could have on him. He had to wait until she ducked underwater to get in just so she wouldn't see the growing problem between his legs. Mercifully, the water was cold enough to cure it.

She popped up behind him like a cork. "Do you remember how to swim?"

"I don't think I'm going to be very good at it without a floatation belt," he deadpanned.

A huge smile lit up her face. It was ridiculous how his memory for the little things pleased her. "I'll help you," she said, reaching out for him.

It took him awhile to get his body to move the way he needed it too, mostly because he kept getting distracted by her. Not her body - though there was that too -, but by her mood. She looked younger here, laughing and carefree; happy like a girl who had never entered an arena or lived through a war.

Ever since her 'bad days' a few weeks before things had changed between them; not in a huge way, just an encouraging way. They talked about their past, and very, very tentatively the future; not 'their future', just 'the future'. But she was opening up to him and that was something. And he'd never deny how much he enjoyed it when she kissed his cheek in greeting and farewell now, or how she held his hand under the table as they ate. It felt like they were getting back some of the things the Capitol had robbed them of along with their innocence.

By the time mid-afternoon rolled around they were starving and spent, but felt lighter than they had in years. Peeta didn't really know how it happened, one minute they were making their way towards shore, and the next his arms were full of Katniss, but with her pressed against him he forgot to take things slow and careful, and so did she.

Before he could stop himself his lips were on hers, and it felt like the homecoming he should have had after his rescue, after returning to 12. It was hungry and demanding and needy and he loved it and her. "I missed you," she whispered when he lips moved to her neck, a long delayed apology for staining her skin purple the first time she welcomed him home. But it was her phrasing that made his heart swell because she said 'I missed you'. Not this, or it, you. She wasn't doing this because she was lonely, or because she owed him something; she was doing it because she wanted him.

"I missed you too," he mumbled against her skin.

And because nothing could ever be perfect for them for long, his artificial foot slipped on the slick bottom of the pond and he tipped backwards, getting a mouthful of pond water in the process. A moment later he felt her hands wrap around his arm and pull him up, the sound of her laughter filling his ears as he broke the surface.

He shook the water away and opened his eyes. The droplets looked like diamonds spinning through the air, refracting in tiny, impossible rainbows of color. Suddenly her laughed turned to a cackle and her hands turned from helpful to threatening. She was trying to push him under, trying to drown him and laughing madly as he struggled to free himself.

But there was something else, something tickling the back of his brain telling him this was all wrong. He heard someone calling his name from far away, a bleated Peeta reaching his ears as if it had been carried in on the wind that swept down from the hills they had hiked to get here. It was gentle and insistent, and he focused on that, as he tried to work out where he was and how he got here.

It wasn't until the voice calling him turned from entreating to pained that he snapped out of his stupor. When he came back to reality Katniss was still in front of him, her expression tight, but her voice even as she said his name over and over again.

He looked down in horror, seeing his hands clamped around her middle so forcefully he could feel the bottom of her ribs digging into the top them. Horror and disgust weren't strong enough words to convey what he felt at the sight. Wet, shaking, bile rising up in his throat he pushed her away. She splashed after him awkwardly until she grained solid ground, but by then he was gone.

Katniss caught a few glimpses of Peeta was they each wove their way through the woods and towards home; just enough to assure her that he hadn't been attacked by wild dogs or gone dangerously off course. She was held up at the fence by a couple of people she knew from her days frequenting the Hob, asking if she had fresh game. She shook them off, but by the time she mounted the steps to Peeta's front door he had barricaded himself inside. "Fine," she huffed, pushing her hair out of her face. "Just... fine!" She stomped back to her house, slamming the door behind her.

As much as she felt like going in the kitchen and breaking plates she went upstairs and took a shower. Katniss frowned at the dusky bruises bookending her sides when she got out, imagining Peeta's reaction if he saw them. The best she could do was hide them, so she pulled a dress out of her closet, identical to the one of her mother's she wore to the reaping except soft yellow in color.

She had a closet full of beautiful dresses Cinna had designed for her, but they were entombed in the special closet downstairs, a shrine to their creator. This dress was payment for a wild turkey. District 13 was in charge of the rebuilding effort and though their policy of giving workers exactly as many calories as they needed a day kept them healthy, it didn't keep them full.

Katniss never thought she'd actually wear the dress, and the trade had been a bad one on her side, but most of them were these days; she didn't need to barter to survive anymore. She slipped it on, unexpectedly enjoying how much more comfortable it was in the heat than her usual pants and shirt. But the real appeal was that Peeta was too much of a gentleman to pull it open and reveal the bruises.

She tried to occupy herself, to settle to something to keep her mind busy, but spent the remainder of the afternoon pacing and chewing her nails to nubs trying to control her fear that now that Peeta was gone he was never coming back. When he didn't amble through her backdoor with Greasy Sae for dinner, she just about crawled out of her skin. Instead, she crawled through Peeta's window.

He was working away at a painting when she found him. "You shouldn't be here," he said, refusing to turn and look at her where she stood in the doorway.

"Peeta," she whined, hating the way her voice sounded but knowing how it would affect him. She walked up behind him and fitted her hands to his shoulders. Even through the fabric of his shirt she could feel how tightly strung his muscles were.

He shrugged her hands off. "I could have killed you today, did you think about that? Please, Katniss...  please, go home," he pleaded with her.

Suddenly, she was furious with him. She had thought about that, but Peeta was the last thing she had left. Prim was dead, her mother might as well be, but even that was bearable as long as she had Peeta. And for him to push her away after everything they'd been through - after the hunger games and the war and everything that he had said to her when she refused to get out of bed - it was just one thing too many. So, she did. Right out his front door and right through hers. A minute later she was back, a bundle of clothes in her hand, her bow hanging off her shoulder, and Buttercup at her heels.

Peeta flew out of his studio with a look of horror plastered across his face. "What are you doing?"

"Moving in," she snapped, pushing him out of her way. "You won't hurt me. I know you won't," she said with finality. She sat down on his bed, looking up at him petulantly, daring him to make her leave. They both knew it was pointless. She smiled triumphantly at the door when he slammed it shut and went back downstairs grumbling about how stubborn she was.


 

 

A Rebellion From Tyranny

Katniss laid in bed listening to the sound of the late summer thunderstorm that woke her fading in the distance. For one horrible minute when she snapped awake she thought she was back in the Quell arena, thought the crack of lightening was forcefield and Peeta was dead again. But there he was next to her, pulling her back down beside him and mumbling nonsense in his sleep. She was so relieved she let a little hysterical giggle escape before she clamped a hand over her mouth so she didn't wake him up.

A crisp breeze gusted in through the open window bearing the scent of rain and fresh green things along with it. She brushed the fringe away from Peeta's forehead as she watched him sleep, thinking things over, wondering if things would have turned out differently if she had thanked him for the bread that day she found the dandelion in the schoolyard.

When Haymitch told her that Snow expected her to marry Peeta she had resented it, and him, even though he was just as much as pawn as she was. In a way it was childish because it suddenly made her want what she couldn't have. Gale had been at the forefront of her mind then, but in a different world would he have been her choice?

They had grown up together, bound by mutual need after the deaths of their fathers. And she assumed there was a fidelity between them, of thought and action. But even before Prim died there were fissures in their relationship, a brutality in him that never felt right to her. She remembered his coldness when he asked if she wanted him to kill Peeta. Peeta, the boy who had thrown himself in front of whip to spare Gale more pain even though he was jealous of him.

Gale burned with a fire kindled from rage and hate, a fire that when combined with hers would have consumed and destroyed her, that would have left her a hollowed out shell. In retrospect Katniss' desire for him had been that it was an act of rebellion, of snubbing her nose at Snow and the Capitol and all of Panem for thinking they could control her.

Peeta rolled over, rubbing sleep out of his eyes before cradling her cheek in his hand and pulling her close for a kiss, a quiet celebration that they were here and alive and together.

Gale was never what she needed. She needed Peeta; needed his steadiness and constancy, needed the way he gave her hope whether it was with a couple of burned loaves of bread, or the way he buoyed her when the currents of life left her battered and bruised. She needed her dandelion in spring to survive.

 


 

 

Ballet Of The Unhatched Chicks

When the first of September rolled around the children of District 12 trooped through Victor's Village, towards the mansions at one end of the green that were to be their temporary school until a proper one could be built. Their district had always been a small one, but it struck some deep, aching cord in both Katniss and Peeta to see the forty or so school-aged children that returned; there had been so many more before the war.

Of course Haymitch groused that he'd never get any sleep with the little miscreants running around, shouting their heads off. Still, it didn't stop him from sitting in front of his living room window with a bottle of white liquor to watch them flit across the green during recess, amused by their childish games.

"Did you ever want kids?" Peeta asked distractedly, most of his attention consumed by sketching the scene on the other side of the glass in soft lead and charcoal.

"No," Haymitch said gruffly, his knuckles going white where they were wrapped around the bottle.

"Sorry, I shouldn't have... it's none of my business," Peeta stuttered, silently chastising himself for bringing up what was clearly a painful topic.

Haymitch took another pull from the bottle, trying to ignore the stab of self-loathing he felt at the topic, trying not to think of Laurel. Not that it worked, it never worked. He could still picture her perfectly. That dark hair that tinted red in the sun, the crooked smile, and her hands, always her hands, delicate and feminine.

She hadn't cried when he was Reaped, not a single tear. She had held his face in those hands he loved, her lips just a hairs breath from his own and made him promise that he'd come back to her a victor. The long, lonely nights in the arena that was what he thought of, that was what made him strong and kept him going.

And he did come back to her, just as he promised. That was when she cried. Right in his kitchen, held tight in his arms. He knew the Capitol was furious with him for the stunt with the forcefield, but he was determined to keep her safe, and that meant keeping her close. He still didn't know how she was lured out of his house in Victor's Village, but four days later her body was found in the Seam. Beaten, bruised, blood trailing across her face in livid streaks to disappear into her hair.

Two days after that his mother and brother were killed when their house burned down. That's when the drinking started. That's when he tried to stop caring about people. And he had, until Peeta and Katniss. He still wasn't sure that was entirely a wise decision, but when Peeta came to him before their first turn in the arena and begged him to keep Katniss alive he had understood why without having to ask.

Things were different for them though. That, at least, was a good thing. "So when are you and your girl going to give Panem a flock of little Mockingjays? Sooner probably than later, sleeping in the same bed every night," Haymitch added, knowing the comment would irritate Peeta; served him right for being nosy.

"It's not like that," Peeta snapped.

There were any number of crass replies Haymitch had to that, but he knew even kind, patient Peeta had his limits. "Doesn't answer my question," he said instead.

"We've never talked about it," he said truthfully. But just because they hadn't talked about it, didn't mean he hadn't thought about it.

Before the reaping he never did, had stamped the thoughts out as soon as they surfaced because Katniss was still unattainable and the closest they'd ever come to a toasting was him throwing her burnt bread in the rain. But when he was dying on that river bank in the first games he had thought about it, played it out like a movie in his head to give him something pleasant to think about as death pulled him under.

But the way his heart and mind wrapped around the idea hadn't been left there. It had stayed with him, followed him home and made him hate his big, empty house because it would never be full of the sounds of her children. The tears he cried on stage when he told Ceasar Flickerman, Katniss was pregnant were real; he was mourning the family he would never have with her.

"Maybe you should talk to her about it," Haymitch said, pulling him out of his reverie.

"Probably," Peeta said as indifferently as he could. The truth was he did want to talk to her about it, but after the incident at the lake how could he? How could he ask her for a family when he had hurt her? He didn't want her or their children to live in fear the way he did growing up.

 


 

 

The Rich Man & The Poor Man

It had been raining for three days. Before the Hunger Games that would have meant rationing out their meager stock of food and thrumming with a subdued panic about impending starvation if it didn't let up soon. But with a well stocked larder and all the fresh bread she could eat Katniss could turn her attention to other kinds of hunger.

Peeta had been mortified at first, waking up with an erection after spending the night with Katniss molded to his body. He tried to hide it, will it away, and on days when she woke up before him, studiously pretended it never existed. Most days she had barely left the house when his pants were around his ankles and his cock was in his hand.

And there were still days like that, but there were days like this too. Days where she pressed closer to him, acting on a curiosity and need that had taken root long before they started living together. Days when his hand slipped beneath the fabric of her underwear and she dripped want over his knuckles as he rutted against the curve of her ass.

He liked that he could disarm her this way, his fierce huntress, liked that he could make her babble a quiet stream of nonsense that somehow conveyed need better than words would have. It didn't matter that her hip bone was digging into his forearm or that the elastic band of her panties was cutting into his wrist. All that mattered was that he could make her arch and keen, make her break and cry out and shudder around him and against him.

The rain pounded against the house, but it felt a million miles away. All that mattered, all that was real, was right there on that bed, an island in a sea of nothingness. Peeta had to stifle a groan in Katniss' neck when she opened up her hips wider, rocked against him to get his fingers deeper. He let the scent of her unfurl in his lungs, let everything about her seep into him as she came.

She came down to the warm weight of his arms, the tickle of his breath against her skin. He felt solid, study, like the breadth of his shoulders and the strength of his arms were just manifestations of the personality that grounded her and made her feel secure for the first time in years. But she still felt an aching absence as his fingers slipped out of her, trailing stickily across her hip.

She rolled over, kissing him in silent thanks, before she asked if she could touch him too. Not that she hadn't before, but it had always been timid and awkward, and she wanted to touch him, really touch him, like he did her. A second later she was tugging his pants down and perching on his thighs.

Katniss looked down at the erection straining up to meet her like it was an interesting puzzle. She trailed a finger up the side of it, making Peeta's breath catch in his throat, his stomach muscles tightening reflexively. "Show me?" She asked quietly, looking up at him through her lashes.

She cocked an eyebrow at him questioningly when he reached out, coating himself in the wetness that still covered his fingers. "It helps," he explained through a shy smile. "Feels better." He guided her hand, setting a steady rhythm, hissing in pleasure when her fingers twirled around the head and smoothed the moisture leaking out of it back down. There were callouses on her fingers, hewn from years of bowstrings rasping across them and she wondered if they hurt him, but if they did he didn't complain.

His eyes went wide when her hand disappeared into her underwear for a moment, coming out wet and shiny, a small jolt of pleasure rocking through her as her fingers glided over her sensitive flesh. It was a practical solution and seemed better than spitting to keep him slick, but it was so erotic he had to bite his lip to keep from coming right then.

Katniss used the steady stream of moans and groans and hissed expletives pouring out of Peeta's mouth as a guide, reveling in the way his fingers dug into her thighs when something felt particularly good. It felt like it took no time at all before he came, back bowed, neck straining, her name tearing past his lips. When he finally came back to reality he had a goofy, euphoric grin breaking across his face, and Katniss couldn't help one turning up her own lips. It was nice to discover that she was good at something other than killing things.

They stumbled to the bathroom to clean up before falling back into bed, letting their bones melt into the soft down. It felt luxurious in the piles of blankets, safe and warm and wanting for nothing. He shifted around, carding his fingers through her hair. "It's getting longer," he commented, gently untangling a stray knot. "What?" He asked when all she did was smile at him.

"Nothing."

Buttercup hopped up on the windowsill, squeezing his nose out where it was cracked open only to pull it back inside a second later, hissing at the rain when it drenched him and then Peeta and Katniss when they laughed at him.

This was the one great benefit to Katniss moving in, this happiness. When Peeta lived here between games the house was cold and lifeless. He spent days not speaking, just painting and baking and trying to forget everything and everyone. Now it was the home he always wanted.

What happened at the lake preyed on his mind still, but his doctor told him it was something he had to live with, that it's not what we can't control that defines us, but how we handle it. And even though Katniss was his source of fear, she was also the cure. She wasn't scared of him, she trusted him completely, despite everything he'd done to her. And having those expectations to rise to made him a better man.

He rolled them over, pinning her under him to kiss her softly, reverentially. He rarely told her he loved her because it made her feel uncomfortable since she couldn't return it, but he tried to say it with the way he touched her. And one day, he hoped, she would say it back to him. But until then, he took solace in the fact that when she kissed him and touched him it felt real.

"I brought you something from the Capitol," he said, pulling away and disentangling himself from her.

"You didn't have to do that."

"I wanted to. Wait here." He pecked a kiss to her cheek and went downstairs to the kitchen. Carefully hidden in the back of the pantry next to a tin of hot chocolate mix - which was a treasure in itself - were six cans of lamb stew, complete with plums.

When his Capitol doctors asked him what he was good at he told them baking and painting. But what he really excelled at, what gave him the most satisfaction, was taking care of Katniss. And her smile at seeing his gift was better than Christmas and his birthday rolled into one.

"It's like being in the cave again," Katniss said, swabbing up the last of the gravy with a piece of bread. "The good parts of it," she added hastily. "Us and the rain and the lamb stew."

"Remind me to omit the half dozen people who were trying to kill us at the time when I tell that story to our kids," he said before he could stop himself.

Katniss visibly started, muscles locking down, eyes going wide. "I don't want kids," she stuttered. "I'd be a terrible mother."

"I watched you with Prim for years, you'd be a wonderful mother," he said flatly, trying to leave no room for argument.

"I completely failed her, Peeta! When I thought you would never recover from the hijacking you know what I did? I ran off to District 2 and then the Capitol-"

"You were upset-" he tried to cut her off.

"I was never coming back!" She yelled. "I was going to kill Snow and then I was going to die! If I had been there to protect her instead of being selfish like my mother she'd still be alive!"

She pushed herself off the bed, pulling on her clothes and collecting her bow from the closet. "I won't do that to another child!" And with that she ran downstairs and out the front door into the storm, leaving him confused and distressed by the sudden turn their morning had taken.

By the time she came home she was soaked to the bone, cold and shaking, but at least no longer crying as she had been the entire time she was away.

"During the Quell, all I wanted was to keep you alive," she said, dripping in front of Peeta where he sat at the kitchen table. "I wanted you to get married and have kids."

He waited patiently for her to finish whatever speech she had prepared for him. It didn't matter. It wouldn't change his answer.

"I wanted you to have everything you deserved in life. I wanted you to be happy. I can't give you that." her voice sounded hollow and dead, but it was the only way she could get the words out.

Peeta stood up slowly, approaching her the same way you'd approach a wounded animal. He took her hands in his and leaned his forehead against her. "I told you once that you were my whole life, that without you I would never be happy again, do you remember that?"

She did. He said while they were sitting on the beach during the Quarter Quell, trying to explain to her why she had to be the one to make it out of the arena and not him.

"You still are everything to me. I don't need anything except you to be happy."

Katniss thought she didn't have any tears left, but she was wrong. They clawed their way up her throat, erupting in sobs as Peeta folded her against his chest. She would never stop owning him; no matter what she did it would never be enough to make up for all the things he had given up for her.

 


 

 

Interlude

Katniss padded downstairs, hair wet from her shower and wrapped in a robe to find Peeta frying up the rabbit she brought home. She crossed the kitchen, carefully wrapped her arms around his waist and pecked a kiss to the back of his neck before sitting at the table.

She picked up a cheese bun from the small pile in the middle of the table, watching him work. No doubt if Haymitch was there he would have something to say rude about domestic they were getting. She never thought this was what her life would be like either, so she couldn't really blame him. And though he never talked about it she sensed that a lot of his grumbling stemmed from bitterness. It made her wonder who he would be, what his life would have been like without the games.

"I talked to Dr. Aurelius today," Peeta said as he set the rabbit down on the table. "He wants me to come back to the Capitol for a few days for some new tests."

It was absurd the stab of panic she felt at the idea; completely irrational the way everything inside her revolted at the idea of him being away from her. Suddenly she found she didn't have any appetite at all. She pushed the food around her plate, trying to reason with herself that her fear that he would never come back was ridiculous.

She flinched away when Peeta touched her hand. She was so lost in her thoughts she forgot he was there for a moment. "It's just routine," he reassured her. "I don't want to go, but it might help and I would never forgive myself if-"

Whatever else he was going to say was cut off by her lips on his.

"I still have to go," he said morosely when she pulled away. "I don't really have a choice; he said he'd send someone to come get me if I didn't come willingly."

"I'll hide you in the woods," she offered, pecking little kisses to his cheeks. It wasn't a bad idea really.

"Tempting." His tone read defeat, and she decided the sooner she accepted his trip as inevitable the better it would be for both of them.

"How long will you be gone?"

"If he can get a hovercraft to get me and bring me back, two days. If I have to take the train, four. He said he'd know soon which one it would be, but I told him there was no way I would go for a few weeks." And mercifully he had seemed to understand that though this trip would not be a big deal to other people, it was ordeal for Peeta and Katniss.

Katniss scowled at the rabbit on her plate like it had personally done her an injustice. "You'd think with everything you've been through because of their rebellion they could spring for the hovercraft."

"Yeah, but I'm not the Mockingjay," he teased.

"I was only the Mockingjay to get you and the others back. Before we knew you were alive I couldn't have cared less about it."

Peeta stared at her. She really had no idea how it affected him on the rare occasions she said something like that, something that hinted at the depth of her feelings for him. More than anything he wanted to ask her if she loved him, or maybe a slightly less loaded question like she when started actually caring for him and not just trying to stay alive as one of the star-crossed lovers from District 12. But the same thing that kept his mouth shut for all those years he loved her kept it shut now.

She flushed in embarrassment catching the way he was watching her, and finally turned her attention to her dinner just because it gave her something to do. She loved the way Peeta looked at her, like she was perfect and everything he ever wanted, but it made her squirm too because Haymitch was right; she could live a hundred years and never deserve him.

 


 

 

The Market At Limoges

When the sun went down the merchant's square came to life. Workers that spent the day constructing the new medicine factory flooded through on their way to their homes, doing their shopping at the small stands that lined the sidewalk, temporary hubs of business until the shops could be constructed.

There was still only a few hundred refugees, but they were alive. The air was filled with the scent of wood smoke from the big steel drums dotted around the square filled with fire, the sounds of people talking and laughing as they warmed their hands and socialized around them mingling with it.

Peeta sat behind his table, watching the whole scene. He had seen paintings like this, in the Capitol, but they had never conveyed the feeling of it. It was vibrant. Usually when someone used vibrant to describe something it had to do with the saturation of color, but that's not really what it means. What it means is full or rich; full of energy, rich with emotion. That was what he saw, that was what filled him up.

So when District 12's last remaining fiddler struck up a tune at the other end of the square he wanted to be part of it, part of the energy that surged through the crowd and drew them in, that made them link hands and dance and swing. He hauled Katniss to her feet, and by the time they took their places across from each other at the end of the dancing lines they were both sporting twin smiles. Like that day at the lake they were happy and young and light and in love as they twirled around.

If there was a hitch in Peeta's step from his artificial leg Katniss could see no trace of it; he still looked as beautiful to her as he did on their first chariot ride through the Capitol. And when he looked at her she felt it right down to her toes. For the first time since their disastrous talk about having a family she really believed that he could be happy with just the two of them, forever.

By the time the music stopped and they stumbled their way home she felt giddy, almost drunk. Buttercup gave an indignant hiss as her back hit the bed and Peeta fell on top of her, but why should she care about some cranky old cat when she had his lips and hands on her, when the weight of him cradled between her legs felt so good?

Their clothes fell to the floor, banking up alongside the bed like flurries of snow. Peeta groaned, low and guttural when his fingers found Katniss wet and wanting. She kissed him hungrily, demanding more of him, and as much as he wanted to kiss down her body and lick her between her thighs until she screamed his name he didn't want to give up her kisses, and she didn't need it anyway.

She burned and writhed underneath him, the fire spreading out from her center to heat her fingers and toes, flushing her body with a warmth that wasn't extinguished when she fell apart around his hand. She needed him; more of him, all of him, forever. It wasn't lust what she was feeling, it was love, and she wanted him to feel it too, wanted him to know she loved him just as much as he loved her.

She reached for him, guiding him towards her entrance, and despite the fact that she had been at the center of every mastabatory fantasy he'd had since he was twelve years old he couldn't help balking. "Are you sure?"

An easy smile tilted up her lips. "I'm sure," she said between gentle kisses. "I want you. Make love to me."

It was what he needed to hear, the only thing that could cut through the sudden cacophony of voices in his head reminding him that just because he knew the mechanics of what they were going to do he didn't really know what to do; it was his first time too, after all. He had to work hard to calm his racing heart and heavy breathes so he didn't hyperventilate himself right out of consciousness as he pushed inside of her for the first time. She stifled a groan in his neck at the sharp pinch and burning ache of stretching around him for the first time, but it was worth it, he was worth it.

"I'm sorry," he murmured, trying to kiss away the pain; knowing it would happen didn't make him feel any better about it.

"It's okay, I just need a minute."

"Anything... anything you need you can have it."

She laughed a little to herself at his words.

"What?"

"Nothing. I'm just glad I'm doing this with you." Peeta had to bite back the reply that so was he, that he had spent a lot of nights before the reaping wondering what her and Gale did all those days they were alone in the woods. "I think you can move now," she said, nudging his hips. He rocked experimentally, moving in increments until he could pull all the way out and push back in without hurting her.

It amazed Katniss how much she could feel; the thin layer of sweat between where her knees were pressed against his hips, the way the muscles of his back bunched and stretched under her hands, even the way his hair tickled her face when he pulled her closer. Somehow though it felt like it was all centered on the push-pull of him inside her, as if all those feelings were flowing down through her to where they were connected.

She felt beautiful and safe and loved under him. And the idea that she could have lived forever never knowing Peeta, never knowing the love he had for her and she for him was more terrifying than the idea of living a life of solitude - never loving or marrying or doing anything that could lead to a child -, ever was.

Still, there was a tincture of Queen Anne's Lace in the bathroom cabinet; just because her mother and Prim were the real healers in the family didn't mean she didn't know how to use herbs too. And though she was ready to spend the rest of her life with Peeta the idea of children was still repellent. 

"Next time," Peeta breathlessly promised her when he finished and she didn't. "Next time will be better."

When she didn't say anything in response he pulled himself away enough to look in her eyes, worried that she was going to tell him there was never going to be a next time, or something even worse. Instead she cradled his face in her hands preciously, and gently pressed her lips to his before leaning back against the pillows.

He cast around looking for a word to describe what he saw in her eyes. They were soft, curious maybe, but open was closer to what he was seeing and his thoughts tendrilled out along that line, finally landing on exposed. Not exposed exactly, vulnerable was what it was, and that was something no one else got to see from the girl on fire.

"You love me. Real or not real?" He whispered, his heart in his throat.

She looked down at his lips, to where the question originated and then back up at his eyes so he knew her answer was sincere. "Real."

He buried his face in her neck, wrapped her up in his arms so tight it was hard to breathe as the tears welled up in his eyes. He didn't have words for what he felt. There weren't words for it.

 


 

 

With The Dead In A Dead Language

Katniss watched the hovercraft disappear with a mixture of intense longing and almost overwhelming panic. It was hard not to think of something going wrong, and as she crossed the meadow to the woods beyond her mind filled with sick images of something happening to Peeta, something that would prevent him from coming home. She forced the thoughts out, replacing them with something better. A small smile crept across her face as she thought about why they were late to meet the hovercraft.

Her eyes were on her feet as she trooped through the dead grass, but her head snapped up, sensing a presence other than her own somewhere off in the trees. There were still packs of wild dogs around, and bigger predators like bears. She silently strung her bow, her steps turning light as she carefully picked her way between the trees.

"You going to shoot me, Catnip?" Called out a voice as she pushed her way through some bowed branches and into a small clearing.

She was so shocked to see Gale on the other side all she could do was stand there, statue still, trying to figure out if she was hallucinating him. It wouldn't be the first time her mind played tricks on her.

His expression turned from forced happiness to something closer to pugnacious.

"Or should I call you Mrs. Mellark now?"

Several things snapped into place at once, puzzle pieces fitting together perfectly. He knew she was living with Peeta, knew that he wasn't here now. The hovercraft must have deposited Gale before waiting to carry Peeta to the Capitol. Either he had been keeping tabs on her himself, or the Capitol had.

"Don't call me 'Catnip'," she snapped. It was a nickname from a different time, when they were different people. "What do you want?" Years of keeping each other alive should have counted for something, but she was too angry to remember that.

Gale looked at his feet, all the arrogance draining out of him. "I wanted to talk to you."

"You could have written a letter."

"There's an exercise in futility; you would have just throw them out."

She couldn't argue that. She probably wouldn't have even opened them before throwing them in the fireplace and burning them to ash. Just like his bombs did to Prim. Katniss felt her stomach clench sickly at the thought. "There's nothing to talk about when you're still designing bombs that kill innocent children," she spit out.

"I think about her, every day," he said, his voice sounding haunted. "I think about how happy she was when we brought her the goat. Prim-"

Katniss' bow string was pulled taught before she could think about it, her arrow pointed directly at Gale's heart. "Do not. Say her name," she grit out through clenched teeth.

He held his hands up in surrender. "Okay," he said, treading as carefully around Katniss and the subject as he would a dangerous and deadly animal. The comparison was more apt than either would admit, with the hate and heat and madness shining in Katniss' eyes. "Okay," he said again, licking his lips nervously, waiting for her to lower the bow or let her shot fly.

An inarticulate noise tore out of the back of her throat, and he stood stock still as her arrow whistled past his ear and she disappeared through the foliage. Killing him wouldn't bring Prim back, wouldn't make her feel better; Gale Hawthorne would just be another name in her kill column.

He knew this wasn't going to be easy, he reminded himself, but he came anyway. He wasn't going to just let her walk away. "You can talk to me, or I'll just follow you around all day, scaring the game off," he said when he caught up with her. "Your choice."

"I don't have anything to say to you, Gale."

"Okay. All you have to do is listen," he amended.

She didn't want to listen to him anymore than she wanted to talk to him, but if it got him to go away she'd play along, just like she used to do back in 13.

He took her silence for the consent that it was. His words were stiff and rehearsed at first, but after a few minutes they came more naturally. And it was better really, that he came here, better than writing a letter. He was never as good with words as Peeta was, but being back in their mountains, back where he had spent so many hours talking to her was so much easier than printing words on paper, especially these words.

He might not have been very eloquent, but by the time he finished he hoped she understood that just because he hadn't loved her since he was five years old it didn't make what he felt any less real or intense. He hoped that she understood how much she meant to him, and how right it was for them to be together.

Somewhere along the line her steps had turned from a stalk to a meander, until she finally stopped, looking up at him with her face pinched in concentration. And he waited for her to say something, breathless, flushed, terrified in a way he hadn't been since they dragged him towards the whipping post.

"What do you want from me, Gale?" She asked wearily, rubbing at her temple the way she did when she was tired or confused.

"You," he said gently, wanting to reach out and touch her, but not daring to do it because he could tell by the look of pity on her face that, that wasn't going to happen.

"I never could compete with his pain." There was bitterness in his voice but it was subdued, almost resigned, and she knew she had to set him free like she had planned to do the day of the reaping for the Quarter Quell. "We could have been happy, you know, before the games and the war; I could have made you happy," he said defensively.

These words were the hardest words she'd ever have to say. Far, far harder than telling Peeta she loved him for real because she hated seeing people in pain and all these words would do was make Gale hurt more, and now that her anger at finding him here was smothered she didn't relish the idea.

"It's not because of Peeta," she mumbled to the ground, refusing to meet his eyes. "Being in the games... the war... it doesn't change who you are, it reveals it, and you and I," she took a deep breath. "We're too different to be happy together. There are lines you're willing to cross that I'm not. And it's not about Peeta or Prim," her voice broke over the name, "it's about me and you. I still don't think you're heartless, but you're a killer in a way I could never be, and I could never love you the way you want me to because of it."

She knew how much her honesty would wound him no matter how gently she said the words, but he had to let her go. Before she could think about it too much she reached up, cupping a hand around the back of his neck, and placed a chaste kiss to his cheek. "Goodbye, Gale."

They both had tears in their eyes as he watched her walk away one last time.

 


 

 

The Hut On Fowl's Legs

Peeta sat in a hallway deep in the bowels of the hospital, waiting. He didn't like being underground, it felt too much like the launch rooms under the arenas, but Mrs. Everdeen practically lived here, throwing herself into her work to drown her grief, or so Dr. Aurelius said.

He knew he should be feeling nervous, but the new treatments left him feeling weak. His muscles felt heavy and useless under the weight of fatigue, his mind muddled with their aftereffects and the morphling they had to give him so he could sleep. He called Katniss after the first nightmare, hoping it would help, and it did until he remembered how easily voices could be manipulated.

She was panic stricken because she couldn't find her pearl , he reminded himself,  they couldn't make that up. It had to be real. She had to be safe .

He pulled a small velvet covered box from his coat pocket, flipping the lid open to reveal a simple band of white gold, the pearl he gave Katniss during the Quarter Quell perched on top. The jeweler wanted to surround it with diamonds, but Peeta had been firm; just the pearl.

Plutarch had turned up after the first day of testing, and that hadn't really helped his mood; if anything it just made things worse. The Gamemaker was still looking for a spectacle, one he hoped to find in Katniss and Peeta and the opening of the new medicine factory in 12. Of course if he knew about the ring he probably would have collapsed in paroxysms of glee.

The meeting hadn't ended well. Peeta liked the idea behind the new Rebuilding Panem propos, but had flatly refused to participate in them as Plutarch claimed the other victors had. If it was so important to have the well-known face of each victor leading the viewers around their home districts then he could ask Haymitch; Peeta and Katniss had already sacrificed enough.

In some ways it felt like they would never escape the Capitol. He had accepted that both he and Katniss occupied a special place in the history of Panem, that it had forever altered the trajectory of their lives, but that didn't mean he was going to let it consume them. He left his reunion with Plutarch feeling like the Capitol was only going to release them when their bones had been picked clean by the ravenous public.

It didn't matter to Plutarch, or any of them really, the toll it took on him and Katniss. They were commodities, propaganda puppets who had no value beyond that, no right to privacy, or a life of their own making. But that stopped now. Their lives were no longer going to be Panem's circus, and Peeta didn't care what he had to do to make that happen. If they chased him back to 12 he'd take Katniss and disappear into the woods, someplace their carrion cameras couldn't find them.

Peeta shoved the ring back in his pocket as he heard footsteps coming down the hall, tried to smooth his hair and clothes and infuse some brightness into his eyes; tried to look like someone every mother would want their daughter to marry.

 


 

 

The Heroes Gate

There was a powdered sugar dusting of snow falling on District 12, hiding the dead grass and glazing the barren trees, turning the town from dessicated to picturesque in a matter of hours. Peeta had gotten home hours earlier than planned and he filled the time baking fancy loaves loaded with nuts and raisins and a even a little cinnamon.

He carelessly tossed a walnut into his mouth. These loaves were identical to the ones he had thrown Katniss in the rain. His mother had been so furious with him because walnuts and raisins and things were expensive; having to throw away two loaves was a blow to her bottom line, hence the rolling pin to the face he took for burning them.

Peeta wondered if she recognized Katniss out in the rain that night. His mother was never a model of gracious femininity, but every time she traded with Katniss she had been especially techy. He knew why obviously, but he hated to think that her bitterness extended so far as to let the daughter of her teenaged rival for his father's affections starve to death on their doorstep. Of course his father had always been more generous with Katniss for exactly the same reason.

When he returned from his first hunger games his parents relationship was more strained than he had ever seen it. Apparently his mother's good graces only extended far enough to say that Katniss was a survivor, but not so far that she was okay with his father sending bread to the Everdeen's every day from the reaping to Peeta's return. Not that she was exactly happy with her son either. After the cameras went away she had hissed that he had completely humiliated her in front of the entire country when he had related what his father told him the first day of school to Katniss in the cave. He didn't know if she ever really forgave him for that, but when the Quarter Quell was announced she had pulled him into a tearful hug, more maternal than she had ever been before.

The sound of the front door closing called him out of his reverie. A smile turned up his lips as he listened to Katniss' footsteps stop, confused, then break into a sprint as she sought to confirm what the calling card scent pouring from the oven announced. By the time she crossed the kitchen to his waiting arms his smile was splitting his face and making his cheeks hurt, but he couldn't seem to get rid of it because they finally,  finally  had the homecoming that they had missed out on too many times before.

"You're going to burn the bread," Katniss mumbled against his lips when the timer went off and he kept kissing her.

"I like it burned," he replied, befuddled by the scent of her skin and taste of her mouth, but he did eventually pull away, setting the fresh loaf to cool on the table while they broke into their coveted stash of hot chocolate mix; it was a special occasion, after all.

He didn't tell her much about the new treatment Dr. Aurelius tried on him, but she could see from the wasted look around his eyes that it hadn't been very successful. She told him how she filled the time while he was gone, putting off mentioning Gale until she couldn't any longer. "Was anyone waiting for you when you arrived?" She asked nervously, picking at her third slice of bread.

"No. I mean, who would be? You didn't think I was getting back until tonight."

"Gale. They dropped him off when they picked you up," she said miserably.

There was a minute of silence so absolute between them Katniss thought she really could hear the snow falling with her reconstructed ear.

"What did he want?" He asked more calmly than he felt.

"Me," she said quietly. Her answer hung there for a moment, settling in the air between them before Peeta pushed himself to his feet and walked out of the room. Before she could do more than stare after him he was back, crouched down in front of her.

He hadn't planned on doing this now, but the fact that she was still here told him everything he needed to know, so what was the point in waiting? Peeta was rarely at a loss for words, but as he looked up into Katniss' questioning grey eyes he found himself tongue tied. "I've," he started, coughed, swallowed thickly and tried again. "I've loved you since I was five years old, Katniss. I loved you even when I was supposed to hate you. Nothing is going to change that. No matter what happens I will always love you and protect you and cherish you." He turned his palm up showing her the ring he had been hiding in it. "You don't have to give me an answer today, but will you marry me?"

Her lips were pinched shut, but there were tears tracking down her cheeks. Her fingers prodded at his hand, and he looked down distractedly. "Put it on my finger, Peeta," she whispered and his eyes snapped up to hers, disbelieving, unsure he hadn't just hallucinated her words. But she nodded at him, small and confident.

His hands shook so badly it took him three tries to get it on, but once he did he sealed it to her skin with a kiss and then wrapped his arms around her and pulled her down to the floor with him, both laughing through their tears.

By the time Katniss found her voice again her chin was propped up on Peeta's chest where he laid on the kitchen floor. She reached out, smoothing a hand across his cheek before he pressed a kiss to her palm. "We still have some bread left," she said.

And really it was all she needed to say.

The first step of the journey that brought them to the point of crouching in front of the fireplace in their living room and feeding each other toasted bread had been taken in front of an entire nation. But this first step of a new journey was just for them.