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Under My Skin

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“Peeta,” I yelp as he playfully splashes me. “Stop.”

“Get in here,” he demands, pointing to the water his whole body is immersed in.

“No,” I refuse, laying on my back, maybe a little teasingly. “I just dried off.”

Today was a particularly sunny day, with the bright light from outside our windows rousing us from bed even before our usual wake up time. I know the people of Twelve will be disappointed they can’t get their bread and pastries today–especially seeing that Sunday is the most popular day at the Mellark Bakery–but I just couldn’t pass up a lazy day at the lake with Peeta.

Still though, I didn’t get as much sleep as I’ve grown accustomed to and after hours of swimming in the lake—and, jokingly, teaching Peeta to find katniss roots—I’m lethargic. My exhausted body is perfectly happy to lay in the grass with the sun beating down on me, either darkening or burning my skin.

But Peeta, it would seem, has other plans.

“Don’t you dare,” I hiss as his cacophonous footsteps approach. Even without the noise he still makes when he moves, the sound of dripping water would have given him away.

Not listening to me and definitely not heeding my warning—either he’s grown fearless in the four years since the war or I’ve lost my bite and grown soft on him—Peeta reaches down and grabs me up by the waist, easily hoisting me up into his arms.

“Did you say you dared me?”

“Peeta,” I try to command, as a last ditch effort, before bracing myself for what I know is coming.

Like clockwork, just as I have my eyes shut and sucked in a breath, Peeta tosses me in the deepest part of the lake before jumping back in himself.

I easily push my head above the surface just as he creates a massive splash of water with his impact.

“You’re going to drain the lake,” I complain as his hands find themselves on my hips, pulling me in closer. I go without resistance, but remain annoyed he just tossed me back in the water.

His lips find residence on my cheek, trailing lower and lower, underneath my jaw and down my neck, a non-verbal apology.

“Is all this water really good for your prosthetic?” I murmur after a long moment, some of the irritation fading from my body as he kisses down my shoulder softly.

“My leg is waterproof, Katniss,” he reminds, chuckling a little.

“Oh yeah,” I try to respond but his lips trail down to my chest, pushing me up higher against him, and speaking becomes difficult. “Generous of them,” is all I can manage.

He lets out a real laugh this time. “Can always depend on the generosity of the Capitol, can’t we?” He quips just as I capture his lips with my own.

I don’t know if in the last three years that we’ve been together I’ve become a better kisser—I’ve definitely become more experienced—and I can’t say for certain if our kisses feel any different now to him, but I do know for a fact that Peeta has grown leaps and bounds with time. His lips, which were always soft and warm, now move with expertise, now hold a confidence I didn’t realize was missing all that time we were putting on a show. Kissing Peeta now is another kind of experience and one I never knew I needed, one I never thought to ask for, before I had it.

Of course, I get some credit here. I am the one who’s lips have given him the practice, who’s tongue has freely wrestled with his, the one who he’s gained all his expertise from.

As we pull apart for air, my face lolling down into his shoulder, burrowing there, I hear a peculiar sound. One I don’t cognitively recognize at first but my sense memory captures instantly. It’s a sound that makes my stomach twist and lurch before I can comprehend exactly why.

Peeta tenses too, rather abruptly. I feel his hands grip my thighs tighter to him, almost wrapping me around him, as if to keep me protected from whatever is buzzing above us.

The buzzing only gets stronger—so much stronger, in only a matter of seconds—and I have to consciously force myself to breathe as it hits me where that sound is coming from.

Tracker jackers. A whole lot of them.

Someone, somewhere, must have knocked over a nest. Someone must have been both unlucky and careless and somehow expelled an entire hive by mistake.

That’s what I tell myself, at least. That this was purely a mistake. That this isn’t an attack, set out to hurt us, to endanger us for deadly entertainment labeled a game.

Because unleashing a whole hive of tracker jackers on us, while we’re out alone, secluded, in the middle of the woods, is the exact kind of thing the Gamemakers would do.

“Katniss,” Peeta whispers, his voice close to my ear now. I can tell instantly that he’s petrified.

Of course he’s petrified. Tracker jacker venom is exactly what he was injected with, over and over again, in an attempt to destroy his memory, his mind, the very essence of his being.

“Katniss?” He says again, a little louder and a little rougher. But I’m still too shocked to move. I’m useless, completely frozen in place while the horrible creatures, that are deadly in large quantities—just ask Glimmer—finally come into view, circulating above us.

“We need to run,” he urges, and I don’t have to look at him to know his blue eyes are desperate.

Nodding blankly, I don’t take my eyes off of the venomous creatures flying over our heads. Somehow, a very sore, exhausted part of my brain wakes back up and I feel myself go into survival mode.

A mode in which I had wished to never transition into again.

My legs unwrap from Peeta’s waist and I interlock our fingers, squeezing his hand as tightly as I can. I swim to the edge of the lake, towing him behind me, and climb onto the grass just as I hear the buzzing grow closer.

Peeta is only inches, if even that, behind me, and we both grab our shirts and pants from the blanket we set out and dress ourselves while moving through the trees. Our soaked skin makes this more challenging but not altogether impossible, and soon I feel Peeta’s hand yanking on mine, propelling me forward.

I know he’s even more afraid than I am when I realize he’s running ahead of me, dragging me behind him. Peeta is by far a slower runner than I am. The idea that there’s enough fear in him to compensate for a naturally slower gait and a fake leg makes my heart ache.

I hear the tracker jackers still getting closer though, no matter how fast we move. It’s not a surprising, really, as when these creatures were designed, they were made to lock in on a target and chase it down until it died. After all, they were made to be a weapon in the first war.

And they were used as one in both.

I feel myself let out a loud sigh of relief as the sound of the wasps begins to fade away, as we come closer and closer to the edge of the woods.

Still, it isn’t enough. It’s never enough.

Peeta’s prosthetic does better than I cynically imagined but in the end, it gives out just as I knew it would and he goes tumbling face-first down into the dirt and branches. I didn’t see it but I can tell by the way his leg, his only real leg, is scraped up, that it must have gotten caught on the fallen branches strewed across the ground.

“Peeta!” I scream, louder than I intend to. Louder than I know I should.

I kneel down beside him, adrenaline still pumping through my veins like red, hot blood, and I yank and tug at his arm, trying to force him to stand and run again, as my wail evidently alerted a few stray wasps that hadn’t entirely disappeared yet.

“Peeta,” I cry out now, desperation taking over my entire being. “We have to move.” I try to push him to stand, to move forward, but he’s shaking his head with a sad, defeated expression.

“Katniss, just run,” he orders firmly, his voice surprisingly strong. “Leave me here, I’ll be okay.”

I give him an incredulous look, so shocked by his statement that I completely ignore the small growing buzz flying closer and closer by the second. “Peeta, I’m not leaving you!” I exclaim, as if the thought is outright offensive. Because to me, it is. “You can’t honestly think I’m going to abandon you-”

“Katniss, please!” He snaps now, his eyes getting desolate. “Please, just go! I’ll be home as soon as I can-”

“No! You’re coming with me!” I demand furiously. Just as I am preparing to quickly stand and drag him by force out of these woods, his baby blue eyes widen fiercely and he envelopes me into his arms, shoving my body underneath his.

It all happens in a matter of seconds. Peeta holds me down the way he used to hold his opponents down in a wrestling match, paralyzing me into place, and I can’t move to escape, to try and run and drag him with me.

I don’t understand what he’s doing though, what his true intent may be, until I feel through him, through his body that is sheltering mine, the vibrations of the tracker jackers’ stingers.

I don’t know how many times he gets stung but it’s not enough to kill him—especially not him, who has such a high tolerance after the abuse he was subjected to—but enough to hurt him. Enough to have an effect.

Enough that only seconds after the creatures fly away, he flings himself upwards, attempting to get as far away from me as humanly possible. Attempting to put as much distance between us as his distorting mind will allow.

“Peeta!” I cry out again, plainly reaching for him. It doesn’t click in my head what could be happening. It doesn’t seem even real anymore, after four years home without a single episode, after three years of bliss together, that he could ever again become that dark, twisted shell of a person he was in Thirteen.

“Stay away from me!” He hisses and I recoil instinctively into a tree trunk behind me. His stumbles backward and snaps a branch with his prosthetic leg. The sound is enough to set him off and he practically snarls down towards the ground.

I don’t know what he’s seeing, what terrifying hallucination is taking over his psyche. I can’t even imagine where his mind is right now, but I know that’s horrifying.

“Peeta, it’s okay,” I try again, but my voice is breaking and I must have started crying at some point and my eyes are wide and displaying just how blatantly unnerved I feel and I know I’m of no comfort right now. Still, I can’t stop myself from saying, “it’s just a tree branch, Peeta. Nothing is going to hurt you out here, I swear.”

“Except you,” he states, so blankly, so matter-of-fact, that I visibly flinch as he turns the gaze of his cold, dark eyes on me.

The sweet blue sky that live inside his irises are long gone and in their place is a blackened night and I haven’t seen it in so long, I actually forgot what it looked like.

“Peeta,” I whisper now, knowing it’s fruitless to say anything, to try and get through. But I just can’t leave him here, alone, when he’s been hurt, when he’s still suffering from what Snow did to him to destroy me.

His hands shake and he clutches the roots of the tree beside him to the point of pain. As if the wood can keep him in place. As if the wood can stop him from reacting to the venom like his every impulse is surely screaming to.

“Go away,” he spats at me, his teeth clenching together so tight I’m afraid he’ll chip them. “Would you just go!”

“No!” I yell stubbornly. My legs suddenly find a way to work and the shock must be wearing off because I find myself manically crawling through the dirt and leaves towards Peeta, where he’s practically locked himself against a tree.

“You’re a stupid mutt,” he snarls as I come closer—closer enough to touch. “A mutt created by the Capitol to trick me. Don’t touch me!”

I ignore his words and lay my hand on his forearm. “Peeta, please-stop!” I order desperately as he swings his arm in my direction. “Listen to me, please! This isn’t real! I swear, this is just a bunch of lies the Capitol told you!”

“The only lies that I’ve been told were from you, sweetheart,” he practically spits at me. “And I’m tired of your lies. In fact, I think I’m tired of you altogether-” He cuts himself off, one of his hands flying up from the branch and smacking him in the face. “Run!” He abruptly exclaims in a different voice. A voice that gives me hope. Hope that he can mentally fight this off. “Katniss, go!”

“No!” I refuse still, my jaw clenching and my eyes locking in on his furiously. “I won’t leave you here!”

He squeezes his eyes shut at my words, and when he reopens them, my every hope he would be able to pull himself out of this evaporates. “I hate you! I absolutely hate you! Why won’t you ever leave?”

“Because I love you,” I hoarsely shout, not caring that he’s in no position to listen to me. “I love you, Peeta. I love you and I’m not going to leave you.”

I never say these things, even now. Even after the years since the war, I rarely offer sentiments. In words at least. Peeta knows I love him. I know I love him. But there’s little need for me to proclaim it every single day and night.

Until now, until right now in these woods, with Peeta and all that he is nearly evaporated, do I wish I had showered him in verbal sentiments over and over again. No matter how unnatural words as opposed to actions are to me, I should have forced myself to speak up more, to say how I feel, to overdose him in it until he’s tired of hearing my voice.

Maybe if I had been more vocal, he wouldn’t still be so fast to believe the worst. Maybe then he wouldn’t be susceptible to these dark thoughts when the venom enters his system.

I shake that idea off as soon as it comes. This isn’t my fault and it definitely isn’t his. The tracker jacker venom isn’t something we could have seen coming and it isn’t permanent, I force myself to remember. This will wear off.

I just have to make sure Peeta doesn’t hurt himself before that happens.

“Peeta,” I whisper now, seeing his eyes squeezing shut again. I don’t dare to let myself hope again he’s fighting the hallucinations off. Cautiously, like I’m about to pet a tiger, I lean my hand in to touch his cheek.

He doesn’t relax into it but he doesn’t snap at me either and I take it as progress.

At least, I do until he opens his eyes.

They’re still black as coal and my heart sinks at the realization. But before I can think to do anything else, his mouth opens again, his voice now slow and quiet and pleading. “You’re the worst thing that ever happened to me. I loved you so much and you cost me everything.”

I feel myself let out an involuntary sob at that, my chest heaving before I can swallow it down. Because it’s true. If it weren’t for me, if I’d just eaten those stupid berries myself, he wouldn’t have been tortured and hijacked. Millions of people wouldn’t be dead from the war. Finnick would be playing with his son right now, probably teaching him to swim or fish or tie a knot.

Prim would still be alive.

As if reading my mind, his next sentiment matches my line of thinking. “You destroyed me, just like you destroy everyone. My family is dead because of you. You killed them. You killed millions of people and laughed about it. You even killed your little sister.”

And I know he’s not in his right mind, but his words still ring true to me and all I can say, while trying to suppress the overflow of tears gathering behind my lids is, “I know.”

“But it never meant anything to you, did it? No matter who you hurt or how much pain you inflicted, it never mattered to you.”

I shake my head automatically, not even registering that I’m about as good as arguing with a wall here. “That’s not true. I do care. I’ve always cared.”

“Liar,” he hisses again but it’s under his breath, through clenched teeth and I can’t respond to it. “You never cared about anyone besides yourself.”

“Not real, Peeta!” I frantically try to get through to him. “Not real, not real, not real!”

He acts as if I hadn’t spoken. “I always, always loved you. So much.” He says it, not as a compliment or endearment, but as a dark fact, as a burden to bear. As if it were a heavy load he was forced to carry. “Did that mean anything you? Did I mean anything to you? Or was I just second best to him?”

“Peeta,” I whimper out desperately, wiping my eyes with one hand and reaching out to grip his palm with my other. “You mean everything to me. You’re my whole world.”

Something flickers in his eyes and he snaps like the branches beneath our feet. “Liar!” He screams again, and shoves my hand off his. “You’re a mutt! You’re a liar! You’re not going to kill me like you did everyone else!”

“Not real!” I scream on the top of my lungs, giving up every other defense I have, just for the insane hope of getting through to him.

I remember how I got him to cooperate, to see reason, to fight, in the middle of the war. How I kissed him desperately, knowing I rationally should kill him, knowing there was a likely chance he’d kill me for even trying to save him, but how I did it anyway, in the face of all that.

It was different then. He wasn’t freshly full of venom. He was already beginning to overcome his hijacking on his own. He was already starting to fight his way back to me.

But that doesn’t mean the same methods couldn’t be repurposed here. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t work again, under different circumstances.

Somehow, in the seconds I considered this method, my eyes had traveled to his lips and my plan was foiled before it could be put into action.

“Don’t you dare,” he threatens, his voice dripping with fury. Even more deadly than I heard only a moment ago. “You’re not going manipulate me like you always do, mutt.”

Before I can gather my bearings or even process what he’s implying, he forces both his hands to let go of the roots he’s managed to maintain an iron tight grip on. His hands come flying at me, knocking me back against the forest floor, knocking the wind out of me painfully.

I feel my shoulder blade take the impact and fight back a wince, just as two large hands wrap themselves around my throat.

They squeeze tight, effectively cutting off my air supply, giving me the same horrible sensation I still remember from his rescue. The horrible day I still sometimes have nightmares about.

This whole entire thing is a nightmare come to life. Just as much as it was back in Thirteen four years ago.

I stare up at him, my vision swirling, my eyes stuck on his. And, in spite of how angry I should be—at Snow or Coin or the Capitol or just life in general—I find myself uncharacteristically hoping. Not hoping that he won’t kill me. But rather hoping that when he comes back to his senses, he is able to forgive himself for this. That he is able to forgive himself for all of it.

I stare into his eyes, because if this is my end, I want the last thing I see to be the person I love, even if he isn’t himself. I want him to somehow retain the memory of me right now, at this moment. So he can know that I’m not angry with him, that I don’t hate him. That I love him. In spite of every reason anyone has tried to create for me not to.

I’m so focused on his eyes that I don’t even notice that his grip is weakening. I don’t even register his stance changing. All I see, all I register, is his eyes suddenly changing from black to blue and then black again. It’s haunting to see up close, like a demon is stuck inside of him and he’s having to fight it off from the inside out.

“Peeta,” I whisper hoarsely, reaching my hand up to cup his cheek as his irises become a blue ocean again.

But his body language remains stiff, even as he clumsily pulls himself upwards and off of me. He trips backwards once again, and I watch in a frozen stupor as his eyes change once more to ebony.

“Go!” He shouts abruptly, his features wild and downcast and tormented. “Katniss, go!”

And I don’t know if it’s the fact that he’s seemingly fighting off the darkness now or if the tracker jacker venom may be growing weaker inside him or if it’s just the plain fact that he sounds like my Peeta again, but I listen this time. I roll over gracelessly and cough and sputter and grapple for a breath before finding my footing and blindly racing out of the trees. Blindly leaving Peeta behind, hoping he’ll be able to find his way back to me.

Hoping that he’ll come back to me at all.

X.

I crash onto the couch as soon as I step foot into the living room, lying down on my stomach, burrowing my face into the cushions beneath me.

I mindlessly ran from the woods, tripping and falling and unable to catch my breath, my heart racing a thousand beats per second. I didn’t stop when Thom waved at me or when Haymitch barked to ask what I was up to now. I didn’t even stop to lock the front door.

I wasn’t worried about Peeta coming home to harm me. He was in enough control in the woods to hold himself against the tree, to stop himself from strangling me, to yell at me to run. If he was going to chase me down and hurt me, he would have done so in the woods when I refused to leave.

No, I wasn’t worried about Peeta coming home to harm me. I was worried he wouldn’t come home at all. I was worried that this is going to push him to the edge, that he won’t trust himself, that he will insist he has to go back to the Capitol for hospitalization. I was worried that this will cost me him and our life together and everything we’ve worked so hard to build.

I squeeze my eyes shut to hold in my tears, terrified that the tracker jackers are going to cost me him, even after all this time. That what Snow did to take Peeta from me will finally succeed, even after his death.

Me and Peeta don’t see eye to eye on this topic. This topic is one of the few things we can’t agree on.

Peeta still gets flashback, on a fairly regular basis. He still grips the back of a chair or clutches a wall, hides in the back of the bakery when a customer triggers some atrocious memory by mistake. He still has insomnia some nights and still paints his nightmares.

Some of those paintings consist of things I never could stand to know. Some of his paintings, so haunting and gut-wrenching, display things that have brought me to tears more than once.

I was looking at them one morning over a year ago when I blurted out the worst possible thing I could have.

“What would happen if you ever were hijacked again? If you ever became the way you were in Thirteen again?”

I honestly expected him to say that Dr. Aurelius has warned him that there is a possibility of that happening and that he has a plan in place and he would have to go to the Capitol again and just about a million things I don’t want to hear but I as much as expected.

But instead he caught me entirely off-guard and simply said, “I’d leave. Go out to the woods and probably never come back.”

It’s only now that I realize his wording, that I realize I left him out in the exact place he specified disappearing and I feel my blood run cold as I process this.

I don’t know what I intend to do, as I stand up off the couch. I don’t know if I intend to go to Haymitch and see if he’s too drunk to be of any help, to go maybe to Delly or Thom or anyone in the district who cares for Peeta, or if I even intended to just go searching for him myself in the woods, but in the end it all becomes irrelevant.

Because as soon as I stand, frantically trying to stop my shaking and figure out how I planned to find him, Peeta walks in through the front door.

His eyes are blue again and they’ve lost the cloudy look that have always appeared in his episodes. I don’t know why I forgot that until now.

Probably because I black out the things that really hurt me. The things that hurt my heart too much to fully process.

Peeta, the sweetest boy I’ve ever known, being tortured and destroyed to pay for my acts of rebellion is at the top of that list.

I just stare at him, taking him in now, here, alive, relatively unharmed aside from some scratches. His eyes are clear but they’re so sad and so desolate and I open my mouth to speak. To say just about anything that’ll convey to him that I’m not angry with him, not in the least. That I just don’t want him to leave, that I can’t take losing him again.

But all that comes out are choking noises and I don’t know if it’s the cries I fought off or if it’s because his hands were wrapped around my throat not long ago, or if it’s just plainly that I don’t put my feelings into words well. By any stretch of the imagination.

Either way, it doesn’t seem to matter. Peeta just shakes his head slowly, the skin around his eyes already wet and swollen and pink and before I can utter another sound, he’s walking forward towards me and falling down onto his knees, wrapping his arms around my waist. His face buries itself into my stomach and suddenly, the most painful, the most wretched sobs fill the room and if I wasn’t right here with him, if I couldn’t physically see Peeta, the cries would almost be unrecognizable as him.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

I try to resist it, I try to hold it back, I do everything I can to fight it, knowing it’ll only make him feel that much worse, but in the end it’s a lost effort and it’s all I can do to raise my head up to the ceiling just as the tears come pouring from my own eyes. If they’re out of shock or fear or pain–or a combination of all three–I don’t know, but I do everything I can to hide them from Peeta.

It becomes just one more thing I fail at, as he somehow instinctively notices and squeezes me tighter to him, clutches me like Prim used to clutch her baby blanket.

“Please forgive me, Katniss. Please, please, please forgive me.”

I open my mouth to say there’s nothing to forgive but once again, the words won’t form. All that comes out is a simple sob, quiet but strong, and I feel Peeta squeeze me again.

“I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

X.

“Roll over for me,” Peeta whispers softly, his hand as tender as his voice, stroking my hair back attentively.

I do what he asks, rolling onto my stomach, but still manage to say, “this isn’t necessary.”

He ignores me, his eyes no longer wet but still swollen and bloodshot from the hours he cried. Lifting up my shirt—technically his shirt originally, but we repurposed it as my sleep attire months ago—he slides a cold cloth onto my back, holding it in place for a long moment of time.

There’s now a particularly large bruise already forming on my back from where he knocked me to the forest floor. I couldn’t care less. I got worse bruises than that from hunting on a regular basis.

But the look in Peeta’s eyes when he saw the mark, almost–but not quite–rivaled the look in his eyes when he stood upright and saw my neck. I hadn’t even seen at it yet, I hadn’t even given any thought to checking for red handprints, but when Peeta stood upwards, when he’d calmed down enough to look me in the eye, his gaze flew there instantly and words can’t convey how awful he must have felt.

If there were a way to verbally say how wretched and sick he felt inside, Peeta would be the first one to do it.

Telling him it wasn’t his fault didn’t work. Telling him he couldn’t have known about the tracker jackers nearby, he couldn’t have known what would happen, did absolutely nothing to convince him that he shouldn’t feel responsible. Especially not when I’m speaking in a hoarse tone of voice.

Of course, I knew he’d feel this way. I would feel this way. But somehow I just can’t stop trying to alleviate his remorse, no matter how useless it may be to attempt. Somehow I just can’t stop trying to remove that tragically sad look from his eyes.

As soon as he lets go of the cold cloth, I spin around in the bed and snuggle myself tight into him.

He takes me into his arms willing, wrapping his every limb around mine, burying his face in my hair. His lips press repeated kisses to my forehead, his hands rubbing up and down my spine, massaging my back.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispers, probably for the twentieth time.

“Peeta,” I all but groan, leaning my head back slightly to peer up into his heartbroken eyes. “Stop. There’s nothing you could have done.”

He looks like he wishes to argue but nothing comes out of his mouth. Instead he rubs my back again and squeezes me tighter. I shut my eyes against him, breathing him in, a part of me finally relaxing for the first time in hours.

Even after he returned home, even after his breakdown, I remained cautious at first. The last thing I wanted was to let my guard down too soon and have the venom—that is surely still working it’s way out of his bloodstream—cause him to snap again, to lash out at me or attack.

Just like the last thing I wanted was to make him feel worse, make him feel remorse for something that was done to him, something he didn’t ask for and he’d worked so hard and made so much progress in controlling.

But when he’d noticed the tears I’d tried to hold in, down in the living room, the remorse was inevitable.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” He whispers now, moving my hair aside carefully, pressing his lips gently to the red marks where his hands had left their imprint.

This isn’t the first time he’s asked though and despite the fact that I rather enjoy his lips on my neck typically, I can’t help but respond with ire. “Peeta, I already told you my neck and back are just fine. Please stop worrying,” I say tensely, my voice tired and worn thin.

He says nothing in response, instead placing more kisses against my throat and collarbone. I let out a sigh I didn’t even know I was holding in and reach out to stroke the back of his head, massaging where his skull and neck met, where his blonde curls touch his skin.

“You scared me,” I whisper finally, the words easier now that I can’t see his eyes and he can’t see mine.

“I know,” is all he can say.

“Not physically,” I immediately correct before he can take that and internalize it. “I don’t mean you scared me physically. You… you…” Speaking becomes a challenge all over again, the syllables not wanting to form intelligibly on my lips. But when he pulls back and looks me deep in the eye, his gaze full of love and sorrow, I force myself to just say how I feel. “I was scared I was going to lose you,” I whisper, leaving whether I meant lose him physically or mentally up in the air.

Still, he doesn’t seem surprised by the confession, whatever way he took it. “I know.”

I have to bite my lip to keep an awful choking sob inside, as one is doing it’s best to escape from the back of my throat. Almost as a distraction I bury my face into his chest again, shutting my eyes, and I allow myself to be thankful that Peeta’s still here and he’s my Peeta again.

When he doesn’t fill the silence though, I realize I have to or else the tension in the room will continue to linger. “I was so scared,” I admit, so quietly it’s almost inaudible.

“I know, baby.”

I scrub my face against his cotton-made shirt before rubbing my nose with the neckline of my own sleepwear, just as something hits to me. Peeta’s words in the woods, even while hijacked, still sting inside my head. Not the cruel things he said, because even though I know they’re true, I also know he doesn’t truly believe any of them himself. He doesn’t think I murdered his family or am an evil person who laughs at the misery of others, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, he doesn’t think I’m in any way responsible for Prim’s death.

But originally, his hijacking was predicated upon his insecurity and uncertainty in our relationship and in my feelings for him. In the last three years I know I’ve made my feelings clear. At least, in my mind I have.

But a quietly violent voice whispers, and I ache deep inside as it questions, what if I haven’t expressed how I feel enough to him? What if he truly still feels unsure of my love for him?

“Peeta?”

“Yeah?”

“I just… I want you to know-” His finger presses against my lips now and he’s shaking his head, his eyes forlorn.

“Katniss, if this is about anything I said, just don’t. Okay, I meant none of it. I hate that those words even-”

“Peeta, you mean everything to me,” I blurt out then, clumsily cutting him off. “You’re the only thing that really matters to me an-and,” I stop myself then, having spoken too fast, rushed my words and now am stuttering. There’s so many things I want to say, so many things I want him to know. So many they all become jumbled up and confused in my head, and it’s all I can do to say the simplest, plainest thing that comes to my mind. No matter how unnatural it feels for me. No matter how painful it is to rip down your walls and to physically have to force away an armor you spent years of your young life building up. It’s so hard and so painful and I don’t even recognize my own voice when I speak again, when I force myself to spit out how I actually feel. How, until today, I told myself he knew I felt. “I love you so much,” I try to say but it comes out choked and raw. “I love you and you were never second best. To anyone. You’re everything to me and I don’t know-I don’t know how to convey this right or say the right thing-”

He cuts me off—finally—then and moves his fingers against my cheek comfortingly. “You’ve conveyed it perfectly,” he promises, his lips moving then to press lightly against mine, in a grateful but simple and sweet gesture. “I know you love me, Katniss,” he assures again as he pulls back and breaks our kiss. “I’ve known it for a long time.”

As his finger traces the outline of my mouth, I whisper, almost to myself, “So have I.”

He gives me a smile, that is full of guilt and devastation, but still somehow warm and hopeful and kind. “Oh, have you?” I know he’s feeling better when he teases me.

But my reply isn’t sarcastic or cunning or anything but simple and small. Just like me in general.

“Longer than I could ever admit.”