I don't know why they brought me here.
The girl is looking at me with her mouth open the slightest bit, lips parting over the white gleam of incisors like she's seconds away from clicking the K of my name. So she recognizes me. Of course she does. I'm the girl on fire. The Mockingjay. I suppose that's why they insisted I see her. It was probably more about her seeing me – like in Eight. Maybe she's important – she certainly looks familiar, though I can't place her. The Capitol must have been holding her for a reason, after all. Maybe she's a rebel sympathizer and I'm meant to convince her to fall in line with one of Coin's plans. Although, if they wanted to instill hope in this ex-prisoner-of-war by putting me in front of her, they seem to have failed. The tender flesh around her eyes is tinged pink, the irises themselves wet and vibrant in that way that people's eyes always get when they cry. Wet and vibrant and blue – all shades of blue, the light all mixed in with the dark in starbursts of color. She stepped towards me when they first guided me in, close enough for me to make out all those details, and it's not fair, it's not fair because those are his eyes, exactly like his eyes, and I'll never see his eyes again and –
I need to leave.
My feet collide clumsily as I step back, bare skin scuffing over the floor – the standard-issue hospital clothes don't come with shoes, and I came straight from my room. I'm turning, already shaking my head because I can't do this, and then my eyes catch on her face again and – it's not just the eyes. I know now why she looks so familiar. The wheat-gold hair, messy and halfway between curls and waves. That particular shape of nose, those faded freckles, the soft cupid's-bow curve of the lips.
It's a cruel trick of the universe, presenting me with this Peeta-lookalike girl just hours after I realized I lost him.
"They're back," Haymitch says. "We're wanted in the hospital." My mouth opens with a flood of questions that he cuts off with, "That's all I know."
And then I'm moving, the gray walls of Thirteen running into a haze around me like a watercolor in the rain, leading Finnick by the hand. Through the buzzing elevator and into the hospital wing, which is alive with frantic energy. Johanna on a gurney, skeletal and oozing blood. Gale on a cot with tweezers buried in his shoulder, extracting a shard of metal. And then there's a woman swathed in billows of bed sheets, calling to Finnick, crashing into him. Annie.
A sickly pale girl watches me from a doorway.
But where – where –
Boggs, looking a little worse for the wear but uninjured, finds Haymitch and me. He tells us about the recently-liberated prisoners. Johanna and Annie, both here, and an extra, the pale girl – they don't know who she is, just that she was being held in the same cells as the victors, so she must have done something pretty bad. Enoboria wasn't found.
Neither was Peeta.
I just stare, because of course Peeta was found. Of course they got him out. They must have.
But Boggs is still talking, saying something about propos, and how we haven't seen Peeta in one since he called for a cease-fire.
"Katniss." He says it so gently. "Katniss, maybe this is for the best. The things we saw in there – well, at least dead he wouldn't be suffering anymore."
"No," I insist, and I push past him, ignoring Haymitch's pleas. They're wrong. Peeta is here. I can tell. I would know if he was dead.
I tear through the hospital. I make a lot of nurses angry by slamming open doors and ripping aside curtains. I call for him, as loudly as I can, and I make such a racket that they bring security swarming down on me. By the time they converge on me, hands raised and voices lowered to placate me, I'm shaking so hard I can feel it behind my ribs. I can't find him. He's not here.
One of them steps forward with her arms out to trap me, and that's when I break down. I scream profanities at them while they fight to contain me, and a deep, hot rage roils in me like liquid lightning. It burns through the fog of pain and drives my limbs in wild, pointless struggling. They promised. They promised they'd get him back, and they didn't. They told me he would be here, but he's gone. Forever.
Hands grasp at me all over my body, pressing me to the floor. I'm screaming at them to get off me before they even bring out the needle.
Another feminine wail rises over my own – some semblance of my name – and one of the guards crumples under a flailing form. A flash of blonde hair distracts me, but before I can turn my head there's a sharp prick in my arm. From the prick spreads a bone-deep burning sensation, immobilizing my muscles wherever it touches, and numbness quickly follows. They wrench me off the floor and towards my room. I get in one last good thrash before the itchy heaviness of sedatives pulls my limbs and mind into stillness.
She looks like Peeta.
Haymitch dragged me from my hospital room when I had barely regained consciousness, only saying that there was something I needed to see, and this is it? This young – whatever she is. Refugee? Traitor to the Capitol? Avox? She hasn't spoken. Whatever she is, she looks like him. And it's not fair. It was cruel enough having those few minutes of hope, even joy, only to have it ripped away again just as quickly. And now this. This lookalike – as if the universe is actively mocking me. Maybe Snow intended it. Maybe that's why she was imprisoned: through no fault of her own except an unfortunate resemblance to Peeta Mellark, so she could be brought back and used to taunt me. Maybe she's just another white rose.
My throat closes like someone has their thumbs jammed into my windpipe, and the doctor takes my silence as permission to ramble.
"We were testing her DNA, to see if she's in any of our records –"
I don't care.
"Trying to find an identity, you know –"
Just let me leave.
"And we – well, we found a match."
Please. I just want to leave.
"A rather surprising… Well, to put it simply –"
I'm so tired.
"That is –"
Haymitch, evidently just as done with the doctor's hemming and hawing as I am, cuts in. "It's Peeta."
Something inside me hurts when he says the words, like a shard of shrapnel tucked neatly between my lungs.
"What is?" I say blankly.
Haymitch points. "Him."
His accusatory finger zeros in on the girl. She hasn't made any move this whole time except to fidget and glance between me and the floor, but now her expression changes. Her eyes – the eyes that look so much like his – flicker rapidly between Haymitch, the doctor and the various nurses in the room. A pink tongue slips nervously along her lips.
I don't understand.
They make me sit down on a stool and they explain it, first in medical jargon and then in layman's terms, and then I do understand. I just don't believe it.
Sex changes are common in the Capitol, they say. It's yet another thing the districts were denied. In the districts, if you were born in a body that didn't match your mind, you just had to make do with what you had. In the Capitol, the solution is a process that takes mere weeks, with a quick procedure here and there. Capitol citizens even do it for fun sometimes, the doctors tell me, since the process is so streamlined, and this sparks a hint of anger in the ashes of my heart. Fun? They do it for fun, when there are people in the districts who go without every year, living and dying in the wrong bodies? Then again, I shouldn't be surprised. It's just like the Capitol to take a necessity away from the districts and make it a luxury for its own citizens.
If the Capitol wanted to effectively render Peeta powerless without rendering him useless to them in the process, this would be a good way to do it. After all, people listen to him because they recognize him. Because they feel like they know him. Peeta Mellark, the baker's boy, the star-crossed-lover, the victor from the poorest district. Golden hair, golden heart and all that. People put up with me, but just like Prim, they genuinely like Peeta – even respect him. If he decided to speak out against the Capitol, he would without a doubt have followers. By giving him a female body, the Capitol could quickly and completely put an end to that. No recognition, no fame, no power. And, unlike with some other techniques they've used on POWs in the past – one of the doctors mentions the word hijacking, and it sends a chill through me for reasons unknown – it wouldn't destroy his mind or memories. He could still be of some use to them, if they needed. At least, that's the explanation the doctors have come up with.
Yes, I understand what they're suggesting. But it can't be true. I allowed myself to hope once already, and it left me all the more open and vulnerable to grief. That cannot be allowed to happen again. So, no. It's not true.
For the first time since I sat down, I look over at the girl. Her eyes were already on me, but they fall the second I turn my head.
She looks like hell. The freckles across her nose and cheeks are faded almost to the point of being invisible and her skin is as pallid as the skin of miners long denied sunlight. The only real color in her face is a touch of red around her nose and eyes and the bluish bruises that arc under each eye – those damn blue eyes that I can't make myself meet directly. She's shivering and jumps slightly at every motion, and one of her hands is locked around the opposite wrist like she's trying to cut off the circulation. She's exhausted. And scared. And she does look remarkably like Peeta. She has the same rectangular jaw, though it has a slightly more tapered, soft shape than his. Her brows are the same ashy blonde, but slimmer, less bushy, and contoured in a way that makes me think a prep team got a hold of her at some point within the past few weeks. There's the same cleft chin, the same nose. If I ignore the shoulder-length hair, feminine jaw and soft, hairless skin, I can almost imagine I'm looking at him. In fact, I don't have to imagine it. I feel it. Looking at her feels like looking at Peeta. And some small part of me wants to believe it, so badly I physically ache, but I know better.
I look back to the doctors. They're already watching me, waiting for my reaction. "That's impossible."
One of them shakes their head. "It's quite possible. If you'd like to see the DNA results, they're right here. DNA doesn't lie; this is Peeta Mellark." He thrusts his clipboard at me, but I leave it alone. I wouldn't be able to read it, anyway.
"You know, there are other ways to determine who someone is," Haymitch says, in a tone of voice that makes it seem like I'm an idiot for not thinking of it first.
"Ask me something."
I startle at the sound of her voice, which is strained and crackling from disuse but still unmistakably familiar. It's decidedly female, but somehow, it's his voice. Maybe half an octave or so higher than his, but still relatively low for a girl. A rough, smoky alto.
She's finally meeting my gaze, and I hers. My guts feel as if they're being stirred with a fork. Looking straight into her eyes like this… there's something much too familiar about it, about all of it, to just call it familiar anymore. I've seen those eyes. I know those eyes. It's impossible. And yet –
"Ask," she pleads again.
I chew on a piece of skin at the edge of my lip, combing through my memory for something, anything the Capitol wouldn't know. Something that was never on TV. Something they couldn't have seen or heard through bugs. But there were so few unobserved moments in Peeta and I's relationship that for a few moments I can't think of one. Privacy is a precious commodity in a victor's life. With two victors together, it's nearly unattainable.
At last I come up with something. "If you are Peeta," I start – and it's the absolute wrong way to start, because she winces and looks to the floor – "Then you'll know what I asked you to do right before Gale was whipped."
She answers immediately. "You asked me to run away with you."
My jaw tightens. She shouldn't know that. And she certainly shouldn't be referring to herself as if she actually is Peeta. This is wrong – except that it isn't. The two halves of me pull and strain against one another, one shouting Liar! and the other whispering, Is it you?
I don't expect her to go on, but she does. "I said I would, but I didn't believe that you would. And I was right."
It's a trick. They must have found out somehow. They must have installed bugs somewhere near where we were walking that day.
But part of me whispers, Peeta, and I quash it with a firm, No. Peeta's dead.
"What was I holding when we – when Peeta and I went on a walk beside the train on the way back to Twelve? After the first games?"
"Flowers. Wildflowers. Little pink and white ones."
I clench my shaking hands, wrack my brains and spit out more questions. About Peeta, about me, about favorite colors and favorite foods, about our nightmares and the plant book and our childhood school.
Every answer kicks my pulse up a notch, and I can't silence the part of me that's thinking, maybe, maybe – maybe it is possible – maybe –
Eventually I run out of things to ask that I'm sure the Capitol wouldn't know. I don't think I could get them past my lips even if I could think of any more, anyway. She stopped trembling and started crying about halfway through the questions, and now she just stands there, watching me, my own emotions reflected back at me through her eyes. A little bit of hope and a lot of hopelessness, impossibly coexisting, wrapped up in a plea.
I can't help it. She looks so much like him, and she sounds so much like him, and she acts so much like he would, and I want so badly for it to be true. I want him back. And if it is true… If I do have him back… If it's possible… Who am I to care what form he came back in?
And then she – he? – finally says my name, and there's something about those two syllables that makes it click.
"Katniss," Peeta says, "Please."
His arms rise, just the slightest bit, like he's about to reach for me, and I don't care anymore. I bolt forward, and I don't care that his shoulders are much slenderer than they should be, and that the cheek rubbing against my temple is flawlessly smooth instead of scratchy with stubble, and that my chest is pressed against the softness of another pair of breasts instead of firm muscle. The only thing I care about is that I have him, and I am never, ever letting him out of my sight again.
I tuck my nose into his neck. He smells right, and it's the final nail in the coffin. I believe.
I believe it, now, but I still can't fully accept it. It's too bizarre, too impossible. I keep expecting someone to jump out and yell, "Gotcha!" But slowly – very slowly – that disbelief is wearing away. Every expression, every habit, every gesture that she – he – makes chips away at my resistance a little more. Because it's him. The way his tongue pokes out, slightly off-center, when he's deep in thought. The way he locks his fingers together or crosses his arms when he doesn't know what else to do with his hands. The way his knee bounces, the way he works his jaw, the slight movement of those impossibly long, pale eyelashes when he blinks. But what really convinces me is his eyes. More specifically, the way they fix on me. I've never found anyone who looks at me in quite the way Peeta does. It used to make me uncomfortable, because I knew I couldn't ever give him what he wanted from me. Now, it gives me – well, maybe not certainty, but hope. Because no one could replicate that look.
And really, apart from being female, his body hasn't changed all that much. I mean, yes, his waist is more pulled in, his hips and thighs are wider and more curved, and his arms and legs aren't as thick as they were. And there are the breasts, obviously. But his height is exactly the same, as well as his stocky build, and his proportions haven't really changed. Long artist's fingers, strong limbs, relatively large hands and feet – though, they're a bit smaller now than they were. One dimple just beside his mouth. Stubby, rectangular fingernails. Scars from the Quell, buffed down to near nonexistence by a full-body-polish – likely something done just before that first and only interview – but still the right shapes, in the right places. To put it simply, he's exactly like he was – except female.
I spend a good hour just staring at him while the doctors run endless tests. They haven't yet decided if this will be public knowledge, or if they'll keep it hush-hush. Prim knows, anyway. They fetched her a while ago, and now she's in the middle of all the action, helping the nurses examine him for "complications or abnormalities." She's the only one of them he'll let touch him. Prim, and me. He flinches from the hands of anyone else.
Eventually, Plutarch barges in and starts talking about how this is really a wonderful opportunity, though "rather unexpected." A nurse escorts him out the door again, but not before he has the nerve to congratulate Peeta on a "successful transition" – he even goes so far as to say he turned out "beautifully." And I mean, I don't exactly disagree. Peeta's new form is not unattractive. He's a little too skinny, but that's due to a poor diet, not his body itself. Even freshly rescued from a torture chamber, it's a good bet that underneath his hospital gown, he's curvier than I am, and definitely prettier. But Plutarch's comment feels wrong. Peeta didn't ask for this. This isn't something to be congratulated about.
Finally, finally, they leave us alone. We sit side-by-side on the hospital bed, not talking. After that first embrace, neither of us has dared touch the other more than a quick tap on the shoulder or a bump of shoulders.
When they first returned, I thought Peeta would be kissing me the moment he saw me. Now he barely meets my eyes. I want to hold him again, just so I know for sure that he's here and that he's not going anywhere, but I don't know if he'd want me to. Different as it is, this new body is still his, and I don't know what new boundaries come with it. So I keep my hands to myself.
Peeta doesn't talk much. In fact, he doesn't talk to anyone, ever. Except for me. It's such a change from hid old amiable, chatty self that it worries me. All he says when I confront him about it is, "Wrong voice."
Johanna visits a couple days after the rescue mission. Turns out, he'll talk to her, too. Quietly, and one word at a time, but still. It's something. Her presence still unnerves me, partly because she's shamelessly crass and I don't quite know how to respond to that, and partly because I half-expect her to attack me again any moment like she did in the arena. I know she was just trying to get the tracker out of my arm, but still. I'm not exactly jumping at the chance to be all buddy-buddy with her. She's nice enough to Peeta, though, and doesn't tiptoe around him like he's made of glass, so I guess she's not all bad.
We're all sitting cross-legged on the bed, backs up against the wall and lunch trays balanced on our laps when she says, "So how's having boobs?"
I choke, Peeta's eyebrows fly towards his hairline and Johanna shrugs.
"What? It's a legitimate question."
There are a few moments of silence, in which I'm sure Peeta is just going to ignore her, and then he swallows a bite of bland hospital food and quietly says, "Bouncy."
I cover my face with my hands while Johanna howls with laughter.
At least he's smiling.
They're beginning to think that it's not just his feminine voice that's discouraging him from speaking. Apparently, he displays very similar behavior to that of abuse victims, and it leads to the various shrinks of Thirteen taking turns interrogating and diagnosing him. They all come to the same conclusion: the Capitol conditioned him to associate speech with pain. If he talked, they would shock him. Just another way to ensure he wouldn't be using that silver tongue of his against them. Johanna, when questioned, confirms this.
I want to march directly to the Capitol and burn the whole thing to the ground. I want to go to Peeta and wrap my arms around him and never let anyone touch him again. Instead, I sit quietly on my stool while Prim braids my hair and Peeta brushes his. It gets into his face constantly, falling out from behind his ears, but he refuses any offers of clips or braids.
I extend a hand, slowly, so he has plenty of time to pull away if he wants, and comb a lock off his forehead. My fingertips graze his skin on the way by, and he surprises me by tilting his head ever-so-slightly into my touch. It's softer than it was before – his skin and hair both – and my own skin cries out for more the second I drop my hand.
My throat burns. My elbow strikes the wall as I writhe, trying to buck him off, but there's something warm and heavy tangled around my limbs, restricting my movements – restraints? It's dark and I don't know where I am and I'm making some horrible noise because he's choking me, he's staring down at me with utter loathing and strangling me like a mutt and I don't understand and I can't breathe, can't breathe, can't breathe can't breathe can't-breathe-can't-breathe-can't-breathe–
Something clamps around my wrists, prying my hands away from my neck even as my fingernails scrabble against the backs of his hands in a pathetic attempt to loosen his grip. A girl's voice is yelling in my ear, and there's a heavy, warm weight on my hips and stomach and two strong thighs along my sides – but that doesn't make any sense, Peeta is the one that's straddling me, strangling me, not a girl – it can't be both – I don't understand what's happening, but I can't breathe and the room is spinning and dark spots spiral across my field of vision –
"Stop it!" the girl yells, frantic. "Stop it, let go! You'll hurt yourself, let go!"
I struggle, crying out weakly, trying to get away from the strange presence and the squeezing hands at once –
Cinnamon. I smell cinnamon.
Oh. It's Peeta. Not the emaciated nightmare-Peeta with sunken, crazed eyes. The real Peeta. The healthy, quiet, long-haired Peeta in my bed.
I stop fighting the restraints – but, no. Not restraints. Just blankets. And there are no hands at my throat except my own. My nails left raw, stinging lines on the soft flesh, and I can feel blood at my fingertips, slippery and warm.
He finally succeeds in pulling my hands away, and I take a deep, rasping breath that's somehow just as painful as the burn of oxygen deprivation. My body flexes hard, trying to curl in on itself, but Peeta is still sitting on top of me and I only manage to twist in place. He slides off of me quickly, and all at once the adrenaline gives way to long, watery wails.
I fight to control my breathing, but my lungs have a mind of their own, and I'm gasping with sharp, irregular sobs when he starts to rock me. I didn't even notice when he started to hold me.
"It's okay," he murmurs in my ear. It's been a couple weeks, now, and I'm still not quite used to his new voice, but it doesn't jar me as it once did. "You're okay. You're safe."
I open my mouth to explain, and it takes me at least a dozen tries before my diaphragm stops jolting quite so quickly and I'm able to spit out, "He ch-changed you – made y-y-you hurt me – m-made you h-hate me – you were th-the-there but you were gone – w-wasn't you ins-s-side – c-couldn't breathe –"
"Oh, Katniss, no," he whispers. "No, it wasn't real. I could never hate you. I'm right here."
Recounting my nightmare only served to redouble the terror of it, and I cling to him as I ride out a fresh wave of sobs. The salty tang of snot and tears slides down the back of my throat and my whole face prickles with heat, and I'm sure I'm leaving a nice big, lovely wet patch on his pajama shirt, but he doesn't seem to care. His hands slide up and down my back in long, soothing strokes, and though it's strange to feel such comparatively little hands rubbing against me, the familiarity of it overrides the strangeness. He's done this a hundred times before – held me, rocked me, soothed me. This is no different.
Since the first night after he was rescued, we've been sharing a room, unwilling to leave each other for a whole eight hours to sleep. First we shared a hospital room, and then, when they deemed us healthy enough to return to the regular residential area, we moved into our own quarters. Before now we kept to opposite sides of the bed, arms and legs touching occasionally, but never intentionally. This is the first time he's held me – really held me – since the Quell, and that was months ago. It's the training center all over again: I didn’t realize until now how starved I've been for human closeness. For the feel of him beside me in the darkness. And it feels so impossibly good, being snuggled up against his warm, solid form under the rumpled mass of blankets, that I know I will not be the first to let go. For all the foreign softness of his breasts, hips and belly, Peeta's as tall and stocky as he ever was, and his form still easily enfolds mine. And really, the softness isn't all that bad. It's actually kind of nice. I wriggle against him, just slightly, basking in the comfort of another feminine body against mine.
Our legs slip together, intertwining almost accidentally, and a cold prosthetic presses against my calf. I smile through the last of my tears, because he always used to kick his feet out from underneath the blankets, no matter how cold it was outside, and they'd always be freezing come morning, flesh and prosthetic alike. This prosthetic is a different one than he had before, cut slimmer to match his other leg.
"I could never hate you," he says again, gently, as my muscles finally begin to unwind against him. "Never. I love you."
He tenses immediately, and the hand that had been stroking my hair goes still. Then he starts to pull back and panic flashes through me, tightening my arms around him without my consent.
"No, please," I gasp. "Don't. Don't go."
He hesitates. My heart thuds behind my ribs. He settles back against the pillow and I sigh my relief into the hollow of his throat.
I fade away an indeterminable amount of time later, carried by the predictable rhythm of his breaths.
We wake, for the first time since the morning before the Quell, tangled together comfortably under the blankets, with my head on his shoulder and his hand in my hair.
I shoulder open the bathroom door, my hands full of pajamas and a towel, and turn around to find Peeta standing before the mirror.
It's floor-length but narrow – only about a foot wide. The bare minimum amount of glass necessary to allow a full view of oneself. Typical of Thirteen. Peeta is staring into it as if it was a screen, or a painting, his gaze intense and unwavering. And he's completely nude.
I catch the briefest glimpse of cream-pale skin streaming with water, wide hips, the smooth dip of a waist and two pink-tipped breasts, and then I shove my face into the bundle of cloth.
"Sorry," I say into my towel. "I didn't – sorry. I'll just. Come back. Later."
I'm already halfway out the door again when he says, "No. It's okay."
I halt, but keep the towel pressed firmly against my eyes.
"I don't care if you see me."
My weight shifts back and forth, and then I drop the towel to my side and turn back around. My eyes find a nick in the wall, a few feet to his right, and stay there. I can still see him in my peripheral vision, though, as a pinkish-pale form topped with a dripping mane of gold. I hold out the towel to him. "Here."
It dangles off my fingers, swaying in the gust of dry air from the vent above our heads. I wait. I've memorized the shape of the scratch in the wall by the time the towel slips over my fingers, vanishing so suddenly that my hand lifts a bit in response, compensating for a weight that isn't there anymore. There's a flutter of movement and the low sound of cloth against skin, and when I chance a quick look he's fumbling with the corners of the towel, trying to figure out how to fix it so it stays. Then he's back to looking at the mirror.
"I'm going to take a shower if you're done," I say uncertainly, and he nods.
I drop my pajamas on the sink counter, moving slowly. He's acting weird, and I'm not sure I want to leave him alone until I know what's going on. At last I say, "Are you okay?"
His jaw works back and forth, like it always does when he's mulling over a problem, and then he spits out, "I don't hate it."
I tilt my head in question and he goes on.
"It's… strange, definitely. New. And I don't know if I like it, exactly. But I don't hate it. And that's the worst part. I want to hate it. I should hate it, because they forced me to… They made me…" He waves his hands over the areas the towel conceals. "And it's not like I had any choice. It's not my body. I shouldn't be getting used to it."
"But…" I prompt, after several seconds of silence.
He shrugs, and the hem of the towel lifts and drops with the motion. "I am. It used to feel wrong all the time. Now… only when I think about it."
"Is that bad? I mean, isn't it better than always feeling wrong?"
"But it's like I'm letting them win," he bursts out, abandoning the mirror to round on me. "They did this so I'd lose my identity, and so that I'd lose you, and – what if it's working?"
"Peeta," I start, but I don't know what to say after that, so I fall silent.
The agitation in his eyes fades to defeat and his palm scrubs over his face in a gesture of frustration so familiar it triggers an ache in my chest. It's only after he takes several shallow breaths that I realize he's trying not to cry. "Look, if –" he starts thickly. "If you'd rather go stay with your mom and Prim, I understand. You don't have to feel obligated to – well, if you can't be with me, the way we were, I understand that too."
"I know it's not the same. I know I'm not the same. And I don't want you to feel like you're stuck with me. For any reason."
"But you didn't change. Not in any way that matters."
"Didn't –? Look at me!" His hand fists in the front of the towel and he yanks, and I jerk my gaze to the floor. He gives a hollow laugh. "See? You can't even look at me. Don't tell me nothing's changed."
Heat shoots through me. I look up.
I was certainly right about him being curvier than I am – but then again, it's not exactly like that's unusual. I'm stick-straight and twig-thin. Even Prim has more shape to her than I do, and she's barely a teenager. Peeta's filled out a bit more, though, after weeks of adequate nutrition, and it's obvious how naturally shapely he is – if any of this can be called natural. While he used to have a light dusting of hair trailing across his chest and down his stomach – I know from that sweltering shirtless night in the Quell – now he's completely hairless everywhere but his head. My eyes flicker over the rosy cleft just between his thighs, and then up past the breasts that rival Johanna's and to his face. Crying has left hints of color at his cheeks, eyes and nose, easing the sun-less pallor of his skin. And I feel almost guilty for thinking it, but he is beautiful.
I wonder if it was deliberate on the Capitol's part. If they altered him intentionally to be desirable, for their own sick amusement, or if this is just how he would have looked anyway, if he had ended up with two X chromosomes at conception instead of one.
He watches me watch him, and though his expression is taut with nerves he makes no move to back away or cover himself. I can feel my pulse in my temples and fingertips when I move forward. I stop within arms' distance and look him in the eyes. I'm mortified, and my whole face – my whole body – is flushed with heat, but determination overrides it.
"You are the same," I say firmly, and he gives his shoulders a little wriggle that I think is meant to be in sarcasm – or else defiance. "You are. You're kind, and generous, and you look for the beauty in things. You're still you."
His throat constricts in a hard swallow, and then his hands shoot out in a flicker of movement, curling around my own. Before I know it, he's yanking my own arms forward, pressing my palms hard against the dip of his waist. I startle, but I don't pull back, and he searches my eyes intently as his fingers press mine into the smooth skin. I don't know what he wants me to do, or what he's looking for, but he doesn't stop until my hands flex under his own. Then he drops his arms, slowly, his fingertips tickling over the backs of my hands and sending a deep shiver up my torso. Ripples of goose bumps follow it, spreading over my flesh – and his. I can feel the skin of his waist pucker under my touch.
"What are you doing?" I try to say, but there's something so tense, so fragile about the moment – like the first film of ice across the lake back in the woods – that it comes out a whisper. Any louder and I fear something might break.
I'm not quite sure how, but we've ended up quite close. Close enough for our lips to bump by accident. And then again, not by accident.
I'm inexplicably nervous at the first cautious brush of lips. Will it feel like those kisses on the beach? Will it be the same?
It is. And it's not. There's Peeta's steadiness, the warmth with unexpected heat behind it, same as always. There's the gentleness of his movements, like he's ready to pull away at the slightest hint of uncertainty from me. The cold strands of long, wet, curly hair sticking to my cheeks and throat, though – the soft slenderness of his torso – those are new. And after spending several nights curled up together, I thought I was used to the feel of our chests pressed together. This is different. Silky and supple, especially with only one layer of clothing between us. The kiss is at once jarringly foreign and agonizingly familiar.
His hands slide up the back of my neck to the base of my skull, slim fingers pushing into my braid, and I realize that my own hands have slipped from his bare waist to the small of his back.
"Hold me," he pleads against my cheek.
"No, really hold me."
I hesitate, my breath catching before it rushes out again against his neck, and then I'm gently driving him back until he bumps against the wall. His skin is still studded with droplets from the shower, and they dampen the front of my shirt and pants. He shudders and finds my lips again, nipping and then sucking. It could be an accident, the way he shifts just slightly until his thigh pushes between my legs, but everything else is definitely intentional. The curling, grasping fingers at the roots of my hair. The light scrape of teeth against my lower lip. The first tentative touches of his tongue, hot and wet and soft. We've never touched tongues before, except for once, very briefly, on the beach. The slick warmth of it turns the backs of my knees soft and pulls breathy sounds up my throat, and it only encourages him. Before long he's eased the muscles of my jaw with relentless laps of his tongue, leaving my mouth open and pliable for him. I may be the one pushing him against the wall, but he's the one in control.
And then he pushes back and his bare thigh slips against the fabric of my pants, rubbing along the juncture of my own thighs, and my breath leaves my lungs in a hard huff that pulls our lips apart. The muscles in my abdomen contract, urging my hips forward and down until the pressure unleashes an aching swell of heat that clenches low in my belly – and am I imagining it, or has his thigh lifted higher, so it's easier for me to reach? His fingers tug at the roots of my hair at the same time that he draws his knee up another inch, and I don't even care about the moan opening at the back of my throat. It feels too good.
And then I do care. I shouldn't be doing this – any of this. Peeta said himself he's just barely getting used to this body. I can't ruin that – can't soil that by letting my own body take charge.
I take a half-step back, ripping myself away from the warmth of his skin. His hands and eyes follow me, trailing after me as I stumble slightly. I feel as if I've slammed to the ground after minutes of free fall. All my limbs are heavy and wooden, like they've fallen asleep, and a fog wraps around my thoughts. The heat in my belly pulses.
"I'm um," I say. "I'm going to –" I jerk a thumb towards the shower, moving in that general direction.
I'm about to slide the fogged glass door shut behind me when I reconsider. I turn back to find his eyes dark and his chest rising and falling in deep, accelerated breaths, and I give him one more incredibly chaste kiss, just so he knows I'm not mad at him.
I am mad at myself, though.
That doesn't stop me from bracing myself against the tiles and tucking one hand between my legs once he's gone.
Once we've pushed past our mutual fear of touching – he, apparently, was just as afraid of disgusting me with his new body as I was of crossing new boundaries – things are better. It's easier when we know that the press of fingers against the back of a hand won't be rejected – and when we can take refuge from nightmares not just in each other's arms, but each other's lips. Some nights it's the only thing that brings him back to reality. When he jolts awake from dreams of cells and cattle prods and can't say a thing for hours. When, in his mind, he's back in the Capitol, underground, bound in chains and in flesh that is and isn't his own. In these times he sinks into his own mind, terrifying me with the blankness in his eyes. Afterwards, it's like he tries to make up for it with frantic action. Pulling me tight against him, mouthing my name against my throat though he can't yet speak properly, nipping at all the skin he can reach. It's all I can do to keep up with him. Once he even thrusts his hands under the hem of my nightshirt to grasp at my bare shoulders – an action for which he apologizes profusely afterwards, though secretly it kindled a familiar tug low in my belly.
I don't understand. I ache at the touch of his hands, even just against my own, and the touch of his lips saps reason from my mind. It's getting to the point where I feel that thing often – the thing I felt on the beach – even just at the sight of him. Which isn't right. It's all the familiar parts of him, sure – his eyes and lips and long, nimble fingers – but that's not all. It's the new things, too. The swell of hips under his gray District 13 uniform, the fraying strap of a bra visible above the neck of his tank top, the sweet softness of long, untamed curls. I've never found myself fixated on these things before. I've never even noticed them. Female bodies never caught my interest. Then again, it's not the body. Not really. It's the person in it.
Johanna has a different interpretation.
"Got yourself a taste for ladies now, do you?" she half-whispers to me one day at lunch when she catches me watching Peeta get up to return his tray. "Good choice. Say, you want a lesson? I could teach you a thing or two."
"Fuck off," I mutter, pushing away from the table and snatching up my own tray.
"Think about it!" she calls after me, cackling when my ears and neck begin to burn.
I do think about it. Not about Johanna's offer, but about what she implied. I think about it that evening, as Peeta and I take turns in the shower. I think about it when we crawl into bed and pull the blankets tight around us. And I think about it hours later, when I wake to a pair of lips dragging along my throat, leaving a path of hot, damp breath from clavicle to jaw.
"Mm?" I murmur. My fingers scrub at the seams of my eyelids. "Nightmare?"
"No," he says softly. He's speaking. That's good. And his body is neither tense as a bowstring nor limp as the blankets, so that's good too. His breathing is deep and heavy, warming my skin, but he's not breathing like he's going to cry. It wasn't a nightmare that woke him. But if not that, then what? I push myself up on my elbows, puzzled.
"What's –?" I start to say, but then he tilts his face towards mine and I realize what he wants. I tip my head into the kiss, still slow and groggy with sleep, and allow him to snuggle closer to me. He's so gentle about it that I'm about to fall back asleep mid-kiss – that is, until our legs get a little too tangled and suddenly his thigh is pressed between my legs again. I'm more prepared, this time, and resist the urge to press back against it. I try to discreetly wriggle away, but the movement only generates more pressure and I have to bite the inside of my cheek against the ripples of pleasure. My mind is still half-asleep, but my body is wide awake and buzzing.
He noticed me trying to pull away. Of course he did. "No?" he whispers, the word curling with disappointment.
I pause. "No what?"
"If – I thought –" He trips over his words and his chin dips to his chest as if in embarrassment. "I'm – sorry. You probably don't want me like this." He laughs to cover it up, but he doesn't quite succeed in hiding the hurt in his voice, and it hits me like a knife to the chest.
"Want?" I echo dryly. I'm not exactly sure what he means by want, but I have some idea. Johanna's words come back to me, taunting me.
He swallows and nods. "That's okay." He kisses my forehead, then my nose, and then disentangles our legs and starts to lie back against the pillow. "Don't worry about it."
I don't let him get far, though. The moment his head touches the pillow I'm tugging at his arm, pulling him onto his side again to face me. I struggle with what to say. How do I tell him? How can I make him understand? In the end, I don't say anything. I just catch his chin with one crooked finger and kiss him, and when he kisses back – readily, but without the slow heat from before – I seek out his hands under the covers and guide them under my nightshirt, pressing his palms to the skin of my waist.
His head draws back and his eyes glint at me in the semi-darkness, curious, reflecting the slight glow of the safety light embedded in the wall. "Katniss?"
I do want you, I think, but the words won't come out of my mouth. I'd probably butcher it, anyway. So instead of talking, I take a deep, bracing breath, nudge my lips against his until he kisses me again, and rock my hips experimentally against his thigh. His whole body goes taut, and my own muscles respond in kind. My heart squeezes hard and fast behind my ribs. Was I wrong? Did I misinterpret this whole thing? He's not moving. What if he pushes me away, or –?
He leaps into motion so quickly I give a squeak of surprise, tugging me close to him and using his grip on my waist to grind my center against the cotton-covered flesh of his thigh. I let out a low, "Ah," before I can stop myself, and then he's kissing me again and heat unfurls between my thighs where his leg nudges insistently against me. The motion becomes rhythmic, his leg pressing firmly into the crotch of my nightclothes again and again until I'm panting. It's not enough to ignite much more than a muted ripple of pleasure, but that alone leaves me squirming and aching and wanting.
His hands slide up my waist and pull my nightshirt up with them, baring my midriff to the warm, close air under the sheets. "Can I touch you?" he asks softly.
I deliberate for only a moment before exhaling, "Yes." I'm afraid that if we stop, the spell will be broken and we'll fall back into the stiff, polite, distanced rut from before – and plus, the warm pulse in my core demands action. It demands –
To be filled, I realize with a heavy blush, before realizing just as quickly that filling isn't exactly something he can do anymore. But then, there's more than one way to – to –
I glance down at his fingers, which creep up my skin like he's trying to tickle me. Fingers. Soft and slender and nimble. My traitorous mind turns to fingers, and filling, and a bolt of shaky arousal sends me grinding down against his thigh with renewed vigor even as I turn my burning face into his throat.
His hands slip yet further, knuckles just barely grazing the undersides of my small breasts, and then he stops. Yes, I urge silently. Please. It's okay. But he doesn't. Instead his fingers gather up the material of my shirt and he gives it a little tug, eyebrows lifting.
He allowed himself to be vulnerable before me. It's only fair. I struggle a bit to peel the shirt from my torso, and the clinging fabric pops with sparks of static electricity under the blankets. I finally free myself, and then, aided by the temporary bravery of adrenaline, I shove my pajama pants down my hips and kick them off too. The motion disturbs the blankets for an instant, letting a cold rush of air into our little bubble of warmth, and my skin prickles with gooseflesh. The sheets drag across my nipples as Peeta tries to re-center the bedding, leaving them pebbled and painfully sensitive. There's a moment more of fabric crackling with static and the mattress bobbing, and then he's back beside me – as naked as I am. He fits himself against me once more, with a tenderness that contrasts sharply with the hungry way his eyes comb over my body, and resumes pressing his thigh between my legs. It's different without cloth to separate us. He's as warm as his ovens back home, just like always, and there's an immediacy of skin-on-skin that has the opposite effect of satisfying me. I crave. And when one slim-fingered hand comes up to flutter wonderingly across the peak of one breast, the craving only worsens.
My top leg lifts in a spasm of restless motion and curls over Peeta's. The shift in position opens me to him, spreading the lips of my sex just slightly. Just enough. Now, when Peeta hikes his leg up to nestle comfortably between my own, warm skin rubs directly against my most sensitive flesh. My quick inhale shudders back out as a moan and my hips jerk against him, quickly turning the skin of his upper thigh slick with my arousal. Part of me is embarrassed. I'm all but grinding against him, fingers tangled in his hair and elbows braced against his shoulders to keep him in place, and my quiet moans are much too frequent. But it's not enough to make me stop. Every thrust of my hips sends warm waves of pleasure lapping through me, and occasionally, when I get the angle just right, my clit catches deliciously against his skin and it's so good I can actually feel myself growing wetter.
His hands, meanwhile, have taken to shyly mapping my breasts. His fingers ghost over my skin, so lightly I can barely feel it. He slides the very tips of his fingers around my nipples, over the shape of my modest but plump breasts, and back again. As he gains confidence, his touches become caresses, and then strokes. Cupping, gently squeezing, tugging. It's at once pleasurable and relaxing, and I melt into his attentions with a sigh. He repositions us as he massages me, rolling until my back is pressed into the mattress and his solid warmth settles over me. His new position gives him more leverage, and allows my knees to fall apart, and he gives a hum of approval as I continue to grind against him.
His head dips, the tips of his hair tickling the delicate skin of my chest and ribs, and I'm just wondering what he's doing when his lips part around the tip of my left breast. I jerk, my own lips parting at the feel of his mouth, hot and wet and velvety. His tongue traces the hardened peak, and it's slicker and softer even than his lips, and I can't help the way my back arches up into him. One of his hands goes to my spine, rubbing circles that both soothe me and keep me arched against him, and the other plucks at my right breast. Every tweak of his fingers and flick of his tongue sends another wave of pleasure through my breasts and straight to the ache between my thighs. And then he begins to suck, hesitantly at first and then with increasing urgency, and rolling my hips against his thigh isn't enough anymore. My clit is throbbing between my folds, my heartbeat taking up residence there, and it won't be neglected any longer.
"Peeta," I say weakly, and he looks up at me. It's such an unexpectedly erotic sight – his eyes peering up at me amongst a mane of sheet-tousled curls, even as his tongue slips between his lips to dab at my breast – that I cringe in mixed mortification and longing, feet kicking restlessly. "I…" I drop my face into his hair and force myself to get it out. "I need… Will you touch me?"
He releases my breast with a kiss. The stuffy air under the blankets feels cold as ice on the damp skin. "You'll have to show me how." I lift my head in time to see a mischievous glint come into his eye. "Experimenting with myself hasn't exactly been top priority."
My mouth drops open and he chuckles at my reaction. Then the teasing edge is gone, and his eyes are earnest when he says, "You could teach me. If you want."
It takes me a moment to understand what he means, and then I blink in surprise. But then, I shouldn't really be surprised. I've been selfish. Thinking only of my own pleasure, never considering how starved for release Peeta must be, too. I suppose I thought he wouldn't want me touching him in this body.
"Please," he adds. "I don't know how to – well, anything, really."
For seconds that feel like years there's no noise except our quick, deep breaths and the low hiss of blankets sliding together. And then –
"Okay," I say, and I take his hand and guide it past our stomachs to where our legs are tangled together. "Okay."
I curl our fingers towards me first. I tell myself that it's so that he can practice – learn the motions on my flesh before trying it on himself – but it's more likely that I just need something, anything to touch me so badly I can't stand it. I drag our fingers past the coarse curls that guard the most private part of my body and slide them, almost too eagerly, into my slit. Peeta's forehead falls against my shoulder when our fingers are engulfed in the hot, silky fluids, and he moans for the first time tonight in response to my own groan. His moans are lower than mine. Rougher. I direct our fingers straight to my clit, not patient enough to put it off any longer, and manipulate the pads of Peeta's fingers over the little nubbin. My abdomen clenches, hips rising on their own to increase the pressure, and I moan again at the acute spark of pleasure.
It's different – better – touching myself without ever really touching myself. His fingers are the ones that stroke up and down through my lips. Mine just guide him. His fingers aren't as scrawny as mine, and less calloused, and the pure knowledge that it's Peeta touching me, Peeta making me feel like this, is enough to pull yet another moan from me. Any shame that might have stopped me before is gone, washed away with every stroke of that little epicenter of pleasure.
"Does this feel good?" he says suddenly. I give a broken laugh. He sounds so eager, so anxious to get it right. Sweet boy.
"Yes," I breathe, "yes." Except now, I want something different. "Here. Like this."
I twist our wrists, replacing his fingers with his thumb and tucking our fingers towards my core. He fumbles, uncertain, and then allows me to slide our forefingers in to the second knuckle. I clench immediately, latching on to the welcome intruder with slippery walls. Peeta shudders and goes in for an unfocused and sloppy kiss. He's trembling, his legs twice as restless as mine, and it's just as I slip our fingers out a centimeter and then back in, a little deeper, that I realize there is something I can do. Our hands are busy, and even if my mind was clear enough for me to touch both of us at once, I'm still not exactly sure where his boundaries are. He hasn't given me explicit permission to touch him yet, so I won't. But he's obviously just as aroused as I am, and I can at least help with that a little.
"Roll," I instruct in a whisper, and we flop ungracefully onto our sides, still thoroughly entangled. I nudge at his thighs with a knee. "Lift up your leg."
He's still for a moment, except for the incessant circles he kneads over my clit. He's getting better at it by the second, it seems, no longer needing me to guide the motion. His eyes find mine. Then he parts his thighs. Hesitance in his motions but utter trust in his gaze.
The moment I ease my knee between his legs and bring my thigh up, his hand stops moving and all the air rushes out of his lungs.
"Okay?" I ask. My thigh is just barely grazing the outer lips of his sex – my face and then my body burns when I realize that moisture is rubbing off on my skin – and I'm ready to pull away and apologize at the slightest shake of his head, but he's not shaking his head. He's swiveling his hips, even using his own legs to pull mine closer, until I feel hot, slick flesh against the skin of my thigh and his moan stirs the escaped strands of hair by my ear. "Okay?" I ask again, faintly.
His first answer is the twitch of his hips. His second is a fervent nod. "Is this," he says suddenly, even as he thrusts himself against my leg again with a little wriggle of satisfaction. "Is this what you felt, when I…?"
He must have found a particularly good angle, because I can feel him tense against me and his back bows. The motion pushes our breasts together. "Oh."
I don't know what it is, but there's something almost thrilling about this – about holding Peeta close, feeling his chest rise and fall with his breaths, nuzzling my nose into his cheek even as he grinds himself against my leg with a quiet groan. I feel powerful. And wanted. And safe. Safe in our little cave of bedding, where it's warm and soft and where I don't have to wonder if Peeta is even alive. I don't have to lie awake rolling my pearl across my lips, praying to whoever's listening that Peeta be spared from the Capitol's wrath. I don't have to constantly fear that my next move will be the one that gets him killed. He's right here with me. Alive and healthy and knotting the fingers of one hand into my braid to pull me even closer.
All at once he seems to remember that his other hand is still tucked between my legs. His thumb begins to grind down on my clit again, and the pleasure is so sharp and unexpected that I feel it in waves between my hips and down into my quivering thighs. At the same time he resumes the slow thrusting of our fingers. And it's amazing, all of it, but somehow still not quite enough, and I'm slipping my middle finger in beside our forefingers on the next thrust before I stop to think about it. That does the trick. With Peeta's thumb dutifully attending to my clit and three of our fingers inside me – filling me, stretching my walls in a way that's wonderful – I know I won't last much longer. And there's one more thing I want to show him.
I curl our fingers forward, pressing into my front wall, rubbing until I find the spot that has me writhing and pouring my moans into his hair. His fingers are exquisite, and I'm sweating and twitching under his touch and the encouragement he murmurs in my ear sends a fresh wave of heat through me.
"D-don't stop," I plead, and he complies with a short moan of his own. His hips undulate against my thigh in a rhythmic series of wet slaps, and the pleasure seeps through my belly and up my spine, spreading from the movements of our fingers.
I come quickly after that, and he takes in every moan and spasm with a look in his eyes that's nothing short of wonder.
"Always wanted to see that," he half-whispers once I go limp, and I huff out a laugh.
"Romantic," I tease breathlessly, and he grins.
When the throbbing dies down to a manageable level and the blood ceases to roar quite so loudly in my ears, I extract our hands from between my legs and pant my exhaustion into the pillow. I'm heavy all over, and I could allow myself to fall asleep right here and now, except I'm not done until he is. And, if the way he's pushing back against my thigh is any indication, he's nowhere near done.
I'm about to re-position us so he can more effectively pleasure himself against my thigh, but he stops me. He's back to being shy, his eyes downcast and a corner of his bottom lip between his teeth.
"If you want," he starts, and then glances up at me to check my expression. "Could you touch me like that?"
I go still and my already racing heartbeat kicks up a notch. "Are you sure?"
I watch him for a moment, absorbing the certainty in his eyes, and then I nod. "Tell me," I say emphatically, "If anything's… not okay, or…" I shrug, unable to voice exactly what I'm thinking, but he nods back like he understands.
I'm nervous, though really I have little reason to be. My fingers give a little tremor as I slide my hand back between us, this time reaching for him. I know if I pause, even for a moment, I might lose my nerve, so I slip the tips of my fingers down his stomach and between his thighs with careful haste and seek out the soft hollow. There are no curls to hinder my fingers – the Capitol stripped him of that – so it takes minimal effort to find his slit and press my forefinger between the fleshy lips. All the time I keep my eyes on his face, tense, scanning for any signs of discomfort. He closed his eyes the moment my hand started moving downwards, masking whatever emotions might be hiding there, but the lids are smooth and his brow unwrinkled. He's not wincing or screwing his eyes shut against anything, it seems, merely closing them to focus on his other senses. He twitches the moment my finger parts his lips, and I go still, but he makes no move to pull away. Instead, he brings his arms up to clasp his hands at the back of my neck and nuzzles his face into my hair. A hot burst of breath warms my scalp, damp against my skin, and I let out a breath of my own and begin to move again. The pad of my finger drags through hot, silky fluid, rubbing across delicate skin, and it's like touching myself and not like it at all. Peeta makes a little noise in the back of his throat and squirms against me, and he seems so very vulnerable. Open. Trusting – trusting me to know what to do. But I'm terrified that I don't.
I find his clit almost by accident, my finger brushing past the nubbin of flesh and eliciting a sharp moan from him. I pause, then gently circle it again, and the hungry movement of his hips eases my nerves a little. This, at least, is something I can get right. I push down with a little more certainty.
He's incredibly sensitive. He jerks and gasps at every tiny touch, and he doesn't try to hide it. He just clings to me like I'm his lifeline, like he'll drown if he lets go, and rains eager kisses over my neck and jaw. I try to imagine what it must be like for him – how new everything must be. And that's when I fully realize just how much he's trusting me. With his body, but not just that. With everything he is. The realization tightens my left arm around him, snugging him against me, and the hand buried between us goes to work with fresh determination. I will make this as good for him as I possibly can.
It takes some creative flexibility, but I manage to angle my hand so that I can continue stroking his clit with my thumb while my forefinger traces further down. He tenses when my finger dips ever so slightly into him, and I pull away at once.
"No?" I ask, but he's already pulling me back, hiking one knee up over my hip and whispering, "Yes. Please."
My thumb resumes its circling. His contented moan sends shivers sweeping across my skin. And then, with utmost care, I push one finger into him. Only one - two might be too much just yet. One seems to do the trick just fine, though, if his reaction is anything to go by.
I'm unsure, and a little clumsy, as I attempt to move both thumb and finger in tandem, but Peeta moans and arches and sighs my name against my skin anyway. I'm still sensitive from before, but already I can feel a warm ache swelling low in my belly, roused by Peeta's high, soft cries and the way his fingers tug gently but insistently at the roots of my braid. He seeks out my lips a moment later and the warmth spreads throughout my body.
He tenses suddenly, trembling, the muscles of his abdomen clenching and curling his back. Moments later I feel him flutter around my finger – a sensation that makes me duck my head in a swirl of arousal and one last thread of embarrassment – and he releases a quiet whine into my mouth. And then, with one last jerk, he goes limp. Fingers loosening and then sliding from my hair to rest against the back of my neck. Lips skidding across my cheek until his head falls to a corner of the pillow.
"Okay?" I whisper again as both of my hands come up to nestle, fingers interlaced, at the hollow of his throat. The fingers of my right hand are slick and warm. One of his hands extracts itself from behind me to settle over my own, and his thumb brushes over my knuckles once, twice, before he answers.
"Mm-hmm," he sighs.
I shiver under the blankets. Sweat cools on our limbs and turns our skin sticky where we're pressed together, but I'm too tired – and too busy mulling over what just happened – to care.
Peeta must have noticed my shiver, because he drags his heavy limbs into motion and tucks the sheets a little tighter around me. His hair is plastered to the bedding with static electricity, and I know it'll be a nightmare to untangle in the morning. Mine didn't fare much better, despite the braid. I remember, then, how all of this started, and force a question out past a yawn.
"Do you believe me now?"
He hums an interrogative.
"That I still want you?"
A little laugh jiggles his shoulders. "Yeah."
He doesn't reply, and the longer the silence stretches, the less a reply seems necessary. I sink into the close, reassuring tangle of limbs that we've become, and the next thing I register is the nasal blare of our alarm and the sudden brightness of daytime lights, heralding the start of another morning.
He combs his hair before we go to breakfast, and for the first time, he pushes the rumpled curls up into a loose ponytail.
Peeta is almost excessively eager to share his new body with me. Most nights I'm awoken by a slender hand on my shoulder or a pair of lips warm on my cheek. That is, until he realizes that neither of us are getting enough sleep, at which point he starts to pull me into the blankets an hour early to accommodate. Ever a gentleman.
Not that I'm complaining. We both admit to each other, in the midst of skimming fingertips and sweet, nipping mouths, that we rather enjoy sharing the same type of body – Peeta because it allows him to feel what I feel, and me because I innately know how to touch him, without having to learn the secrets of any new anatomy. These two factors alone would be enough to drive us into bed early nearly every night, but more than that, there's a very simple yet powerful urge between us: the urge to know that the other is all right. That we're not bleeding out in an arena or tortured halfway across the country. That we're not cold or scared or hungry or in pain. That we survived.
And for Peeta, it's a way to become more comfortable in his own body. It helps him become accustomed to how he feels and moves, and accept the changes rather than resent them.
"It's yours," Peeta says once in the sweat-damp aftermath. "I'm yours. It belongs to you."
"Peeta, no," I reproach, rolling over to face him. "It belongs to you – you belong to you. Don't let them convince you that you don't."
He smiles sadly. "Not yet. It's still not quite mine yet. But it helps if… I can handle it if I know it's yours. I feel better – less trapped – if I can think of it as being for you. Does that make sense?"
He chuckles. "I didn't really expect it to."
We lie there for a moment, catching our breaths, and then I say, "Not instead of."
"If you want to think that way… if it helps… fine. But you shouldn't think of it as mine instead of yours. Maybe… as both. Okay?"
He's quiet for a minute. Considering. "Okay."
They're not exactly sure what caused him to relapse. They just know that one day he was talking, even to the doctors, and the next day he wouldn't make a single sound. He retreated into himself, like he does after nightmares sometimes, but this is worse. He hugs his knees to his chest and curls up like he's trying to protect himself from a blow. He stares at nothing. He trembles and shakes his head violently if anyone gets near him. Even me.
It's normal, they say. Relapses are to be expected. All we can do is wait it out. He'll be all right. Probably.
That's what they said – he'll be all right, probably.
Or maybe not. Maybe whatever it is that set him off was enough to set him back permanently. Maybe he'll never look at me again, only through me. It's a very slim possibility, they said, but it's still a possibility.
I sit in the chair by the bed in the hospital room he hated since day one, and I watch him cower from nonexistent terrors until I feel sick.
Finnick visits with Annie. They look good. Healthy. Happy. They're going to be married soon. I hug Finnick and congratulate them both, and Annie lays a hand on my arm and smiles gently.
"Don't worry about him. He'll be fine," he assures me with a glance at Peeta's unresponsive form. I've heard it so many times, out of so many mouths, that I just nod absently without even really registering it. Then she goes on. "This happened before. In the Capitol. They –"
She interrupts herself to put her hands over her ears, and it takes a few moments before Finnick can call her back. By then the thought is lost, and we move on to other topics of conversation. But her half-finished comment wasn't entirely for nothing. At least I know that this isn't the first time it's happened. If he came back before, surely he'll come back again. And Annie knows more about Peeta's time in the Capitol more than anyone, except maybe Johanna. If anyone can predict the outcome of this, she can.
They stay another few minutes, the three of us hovering near the door while Peeta leans against the corner, one leg dangling off the bed and the other tucked underneath him, eyes drifting unseeingly across the ceiling.
"Oh," Annie says over her shoulder just before they slip out. "You should sing. If the birds stopped to listen, so will he."
Mountain airs, lullabies, ballads. Everything I can remember. I sing until my throat goes dry and my voice starts to strain.
It's only when I give up for the day, leaning back in my chair with a discouraged sigh, that I notice his eyes. He's looking at me – really looking at me, not just through me. I sit upright so fast my head spins.
He doesn't move. Maybe I imagined it. Or maybe he's just staring into space, and I happen to occupy the space he's staring into. But, no – I lean forward, and back again, and his eyes track me.
I lift a hand, tentatively, waiting for him to flinch away or start shaking again. "Peeta?"
My fingers twitch as they move closer and closer to his skin, until at last my hand finds his cheek. My heart throbs in my throat, because what if this makes it worse, somehow? What if this scares him?
He blinks, twice, and his gaze loses a little bit of its haziness. And then he presses his cheek into my palm.
It takes another week for him to re-emerge. I sing as often as I can, since it seems like the most reliable way to get his attention and pull him, slowly but steadily, out of his own head. He still balks at nothing and goes blank every so often, and he's still as silent as a stone, but at least he seems to have a better grasp of what's going on around him.
At Finnick's suggestion, I place myself close enough to Peeta for him to touch me if he wanted to – but after that first time, I keep my hands to myself, waiting for him to come to me instead. And he does, eventually. He presses himself tightly to my side and lets his head fall heavily on my shoulder, and it's there that he listens.
I know I have him back when, very faintly, he starts humming along.
We're in the Command Center. Coin summoned us just after breakfast, and she now stares us down across the table. I don't like the way she's looking at Peeta. Not pitying or admiring or disapproving, like nearly everyone else does, just observing. Appraising. Calculating. Only now, when Peeta speaks for the first time since entering the room, does her expression shift, eyebrows lifting almost imperceptibly.
"I bed your pardon?" Coin says evenly, and Peeta's hand crushes mine under the table. If there's anything the Capitol conditioned him to fear more than speaking against authority figures, it's authority figures speaking to him.
"You can't put her out there on her own," he asserts despite the tightness in his voice.
"She won't be alone," Coin counters coolly. "She'll be part of Squad 451, led by Boggs. Soldier Hawthorne has also been assigned to Squad 451. In fact, the squad contains several of the same people that volunteered for the rescue mission that was organized for you, if you may remember."
"Then send me with her," is Peeta's immediate response.
"Peeta," I say, but he just gives his head a hard shake, flicking the tips of his ponytail against my cheek.
"Don't, Katniss. You can't stop me."
"But I can," Coin says, and sets her interlaced fingers on the tabletop. "I can't allow you to join the Star Squad, Mr. Mellark. What would we tell the country? For every person that believed us about your – predicament, there'd be another five who thought it was a hoax."
"Then don't tell them. Say I'm still here, in Thirteen. Recovering. Leave the details vague. Send me with Katniss under an alias. I'll just be another member of the squad, there to shoot at things and –" His eyes harden. "– look pretty for the camera. Make me her official guard or something."
He runs out of steam, resolutely holding Coin's gaze but pale and shaking and grinding my fingers to a pulp after such a long string of words.
I turn my back to Coin to meet his eyes – Are you sure? – and he rubs his thumb over the back of my hand and nods with a set jaw. Yes.
We turn to face Coin together. Her nails flutter against the edge of the table in crisp staccato. "Fine. If Mr. Mellark can complete basic training."
My face tightens into a scowl. It's a fabricated delay; she wasn't concerned about training when it was just me. She'll probably find some other excuse to keep him in Thirteen even after he goes through Basic, and then another once he's gotten past that, and then another. But Peeta nods in acquiescence and echoes, "Fine."
The rumble reaches us through the soles of our feet, more of a distant tremor than a sound. Too prolonged to be a faulty pod going off, and too nasal to be thunder. Boggs calls out the order to find cover and we vanish into the debris like rabbits into a warren.
An armored truck, boxy and set low on eight enormous wheels, comes weaving laboriously through chunks of rubble. The District Thirteen insignia is spray-painted on each side, and Jackson unclips her radio to mutter a quick confirmation to base. Then she stands. "It's ours," she says, and as the truck comes closer we come creeping from our hiding places. I keep my bowstring at half-draw, anyway. If two arenas have taught me anything, it's to trust no one and nothing. Everything is a threat until proven otherwise – and even then, watch your back.
The truck stops across the road and a rat-faced soldier drops from where he had been clinging to the side. He swings around the back, where two heavy doors split open with a low clunk, and another soldier jumps to the road. All I can see of them is the silhouette of their boots between the wheels, and then they emerge from behind the truck and all the tension leaves my limbs and bowstring both. I'm not stupid enough to let his name pass my lips, but it rises in my throat all the same, a cry of relief that tastes like ash when I swallow it back.
He's here, I rejoice, and then, with a tremor of dread, He's here.
Here, with the smoke and shattered glass and the boom of hovercrafts overhead and Leeg's small, muffled sobs in the night as she mourns for her dead sister. How could I have ever allowed Peeta to come here? I suppose I thought he never would. That Coin would find some way to keep him in Thirteen. I agreed to his plan, but I never truly believed he'd get the chance to enact it.
The rat-faced soldier walks Peeta across the river of pulverized asphalt that was a road, before a pod blew upon our arrival, and they halt before Boggs.
"Sir," Peeta says. If I wasn't listening intently for it, I'd miss the faint edge of tension in his voice. He's hiding it well, but it's there. "Soldier Sasha Abrahams reporting for duty."
"At ease, Soldier," Boggs says, unruffled. If he recognizes Peeta from the rescue mission, he doesn't show it. I wonder, suddenly, if he knows. If he's at all aware of who's standing in front of him.
"Do we have a new squad member, sir?" Jackson asks sharply. Her posture is just as on-edge as her tone of voice. She doesn't approve.
"We do, Lieutenant," says Boggs. "Soldier Abrahams has been assigned as Soldier Everdeen's personal guard for the duration of our time in the city."
"Why were we not informed of this?" Jackson demands, her words as cold and blunt as the gun on her hip.
"It was a last-minute executive decision," is all Boggs will say. His tone makes it clear that the topic is closed, and Jackson shuts her mouth with a scowl. He turns his attention back to Peeta. And, oh, yes, he knows. I can tell by the way he stands. Boggs is the Commander here. He calls the shots. He addresses the squad with an assured authority and a calm eye. But when speaking to me or Finnick, I've noticed, his stance is almost imperceptibly different. Maybe he holds a bit of respect for us Victors. Or maybe he just pities us. Either way, he's facing Peeta the same way now, ever-so-subtly studying him even as he briefs him on our position and objective.
And, true to his word, Peeta takes up his post by my side immediately after Boggs dismisses him. He offers a hand, introduces himself to me as "Sasha," and squeezes my fingers so tightly that I know he missed me. Something in me buckles and I very nearly step forward to wrap my arms around his neck, but I can't. I want to take his hand in both of mine and press it to my cheek and tell him what an idiot he is for coming here, and I want to drop kisses over every part of his face and tell him that he's safe, that I'll take care of him. But I can't. The squad is watching us, and a brusque handshake is all we can do.
For now, anyway.
At least he stays close. That is one small comfort. He stays close enough for me to listen to his breaths. Close enough for the rough fabric of our tactical vests to brush, once or twice. Close enough that I begin to wonder, after nearly an hour, just how seriously he's taking his role of guardian. It was supposed to be a smokescreen – a reason for him to be here, nothing more – but by the way he keeps so close at my heels, cradling a standard-issue assault rifle across his chest with a firm grip and wary eyes, I get the feeling that it's much more than that. Peeta isn't just playing the part of my guardian for the cameras; he is my guardian. I don't know what else I expected.
The squad tolerates his presence. They don't accept him quite yet – it'll take a few more hours, if not days, for them to decide whether or not they like him – but they tolerate him. Some are friendlier than others. Finnick recognizes him, obviously, but doesn't give any sign of it except a grin and a wink. Jackson and Leeg are distant; Cressida and Pollux are welcoming. Gale is cold and prickly, not bothering to hide his vexation at "Sasha" taking over his role. Everyone else seems mainly unaffected by the change. Their stares are curious, and perhaps a bit wary, but for the most part nonthreatening. Still, I wish they'd stop. My nerves kick up a notch every time I catch someone watching us.
By the time we halt for the day, hunkering down in the hollowed-out carcass of a boutique with iridescent walls, I'm itching for a conversation away from prying eyes.
I pick my way through a slew of rainbow rubble, mumbling something about going to the bathroom, and Boggs nods in acknowledgement.
I'm counting on Peeta to follow me.
He is my guardian, after all.