It's a luxury, if anything is anymore, and it's also a necessity, though I don't let that lessen it for me. It never has. When you've dreamt of the smell of someone's hair for ten years, spent hours lying awake before dawn just trying to imagine what it would feel like to gently undo it from its long braid and comb it out with your fingers, just that one image alone, consuming—would it be soft? Thick? Lush? What would it feel like wound around your fingers tightly? What about the soft feathers of down at the nape?—time is relative. I was grateful from the first moment I spoke, buried under layers of blessed protective mud and leaves, from the riverbank of our first Games, and witnessed the flood of relief, fear, and determination that flashed across those storm-grey eyes. I'll be okay, I thought, and the surge of comfort would have made me weak at the knees if I hadn't already been. The pain, the terror of what I was sure would be a quiet death alone, trapped in that hell, vanished at that stubborn look of awareness.

I never had reservations about admitting to myself or anyone else that of the two of us, Katniss is the bravest and most determined. What I wanted most in the world, lying on my back each day watching the light dawn and wane and flicker through the green leaves above as I tried to remain as still as I could, was just that presence—her presence. I didn't want to die alone. It was more than I could hope for, all that came after. There's not a day I wake that I don't feel lucky, for every little moment I've had with her besides that. Katniss would scoff at the notion of true love, because she has no room for that type of sentimentality. Katniss had one true love alone, and when she was lost, that was all. The world, for a long time, went quiet for her. Only very recently, only after her admission of love in the face of all my confusion and heartache, just once, do I know I have made it further than I'd even dreamt. I see something new in her casual glances, sometimes. A question. Or maybe an answer. As far as matters of the heart go, I've learned to let her go her own way, a concession that feels more like a demand, since even if I stepped in her way, she'd shy away, avert her eyes and her answers. It's okay. It's a luxury, and it's also a necessity.

Katniss and I have returned, as much as you can call it that. With so few of us here, in such a different physical and political climate, having endured all we have and suffered all we must, having bowed to the whims of loss and death and fought our way back, increment by increment, here we are, inasmuch as we can be anywhere, I suppose. We are not the same. Katniss' long braid has been singed to her shoulders, and out of convenience she mostly just ties it with a hank of rawhide in a loose ponytail until it gets longer. I have a feeling braids remind her of Prim, now, too. She averts her eyes from the very few…very few…children with Prim's light coloring that we ever encounter, however much or little they look like her sister. The final scars from the fire she fiercely refused to let the Capitol's magic medicine remove, as though she could carry them as a form of penance, all her life. Or maybe they remind her that she survived against the odds. I don't know. She's mute much of the time about a lot of it. One side of her throat—the right—and her shoulder and arm are all new pink skin growth that will never quite line up with the old. Unlike other parts of her, it refuses the fine, downy growth of dark hair that sprouts on her limbs. She…as I am…is more easily startled by loud noises, constantly wary. Her eyes flick about, rarely ever able to settle on only one thing or person at once. She has days where she can't get out of bed and won't see anyone; just remains remote and mute, monosyllabic to let us know she's alive, as Greasy Sae's best offerings, left on trays, remain at her door. I've seen her like this only once. She curls in a tight ball, her eyes blank on the wall. At these times, I know her mind plays pictures she doesn't want to see against that wall like a screen.

The doctors from the Capitol have medicine that will make them go, but after the amount of medication that went forcibly into Katniss following the second Games, it's a point of pride and disgust that she refuses it. Katniss is brave that way, too. It's all that can be done to make sure she keeps in regular contact with her doctor, and that only because she fears getting airlifted out and placed in another hospital far away. She did, after all, choose to come back. Lying in the dark one night, wrapped in my arms, her face turned away, she asks me a rhetorical question, and it is this: "Where would I go, Peeta?" she asks. "My mother is gone. Gale is gone. Pr…" She stops. I stroke that magnificent hair, so lovely at any length, tenderly play with the ragged ends. I know what she's thinking about. She doesn't have to say anything else. This is the necessity—that out of everyone in the world to whom we could speak about these horrors, only each other can really understand. No one, no one who hadn't been there with us could be made to know.

Sometimes, I'm ashamed to admit, on the worst days, the days my fists clench and my muscles ache from the strain of shaking and being taut for hours on end, I give in and take one of their magic pills. It takes about an hour. Then a flat blankness, an uncaring sort of indifference, replaces my pain and fear. It's a feeling I dislike, and I take them only in my darkest moments, and only during the day, when Katniss is usually off in the woods alone, hunting or swimming or sitting and hiding, consoled by the familiarity even as she weeps for what's been lost. There's no mistaking her red eyes when she comes out, however hard she tries to hide them. Some days she goes in for 12 or 14 hours at a time yet comes out with no game, no plants. I wouldn't expect her to be hunting that entire time, but I keep hoping she'll come out with something. Those days, I think that she might just curl up and sleep in there, cradled in the green of home.

I resent it, just a little, as much as I try not to. My home…everything I considered a home…is gone. My family is gone, in a more final way than Katniss', though it hurts no more, I think. I am changed, too; how could any of us not be? Like Katniss, I have scars that were not there only a few years ago. I've carelessly let my hair grow long and it hangs over my eyes. The stump where my leg ends pains me on dreary days, or when I've been in motion for long hours, as the prosthetic scratches and rubs and needs regular adjustment. The Capitol, with all its medical technology, could not bring back what they took. They could not make me myself again—only I can do that, if I ever manage. I don't get the fits of depression that take Katniss, but the hallucinations still hit, whenever I smell a certain hint of something I might not even be able to place, if the light hits Katniss a certain way or if she moves too fast. My heart breaks a little for this; I never before and never want to, would never choose to, be vicious towards her, not even in my heart. But it's not always me. She knows. It's a reflection of the care she makes a concerted effort not to show that she never anymore holds it against me. She talks me down, when she's around to see it coming. "Peeta, Peeta," she says my name, softly. Her eyes grow lighter, her brow furrowed with concern, and she holds both hands out to me.

Once, when a particularly terrible vision came of me lying in the cave, our cave, bleeding to death while Katniss, holding the medicine that would save my life, waved it above me, laughing and snarling, calling down insults and taunts, stabbing at my gaping, bleeding wound with the toes of her boots as I howled in pain, I close my eyes and begin to shake my head so hard it hurts. "No, no, NO!" I scream into the empty kitchen. Katniss is not there, but then she is, suddenly, her slight frame wrapping around my shaking, sobbing form, her face buried deep in the hollow of my shoulder, and I feel it: the gentlest of kisses on my jaw as she whispers in my ear, "Not real, not real, not real….Peeta, Peeta." I sag. When I give over my full weight to her, she holds me there in the shifting shafts of sunlight, and we cry together. Necessity. I used to need her. I do need her. But I have suspected for a long time that she now needs me too. I don't want her to need me only because the others in her life have gone, yet I am powerless in the face of her own need. When we're apart, we cope with life, live the lives we are still very lucky to have. We are both far older than 18, really. My hallucinations come, and I clench my fists together, repeat my mantras over and over in my head, and paint. I paint and paint and paint, walls, canvasses, my own skin sometimes if the whim hits me. I paint the Games, I paint the war, I paint Katniss. I paint my dreams. And she hunts. We make a way. We have to. But it's easier, not to be alone.

The dreams take us both. Katniss' doctor says it would be worse to try to avoid them, to take something to suppress them, that they are a sign of healing, of moving beyond. "It's easy for him to say," Katniss snarls after one unsatisfying phone conversation. Uncommonly for her, she puts her face in both her hands. I'm over her house that morning, baking her bread and flipping eggs. Katniss forgets to eat often now, and I dislike when I can see the sharp angles of hips emerging. I leave my food and go to her, reaching out a tentative hand to touch that one scarred arm. She flinches, and then, because I cannot help myself, I take her fully into my arms. She doesn't resist, whether because she has no resistance left or because she wants it, needs it, I do not know. But it is a luxury, so I take it, and so does she. I rock her in the kitchen and whisper to her hair. It's a strange new feeling; it just being us. Of course, the usual suspects abound…Haymitch can be counted on to drop by and check on us several times a week, Greasy Sae, like me, makes sure that Katniss especially continues to eat when she slips into her funks. Many from the town have come back with us. But our overseers are gone. Some nights when she slips so silently into my bed, I have to remember that there are no more cameras, no more eyes, that it can for the first time be just she and I, a rare phoenix rising from so many ashes.

Because of the dreams, she sleeps here more and more, now. Her stubborn independence used to dictate that she insisted on sleeping alone many nights, but she would awake screaming so loudly I could hear her two houses down. I would find her sitting on her steps in the dark, alone, rocking back and forth and whispering, sometimes to herself or her sister, sometimes to Finnick or her mother. I could never catch anything other than snippets.

One particularly bad night, I find her this way in the snow, wearing only a long tunic, barefoot and shivering in the cold, one icy tear snaking down her cheek. Without asking, I scoop her up into my arms and carry her inside my own house. The room I've chosen for my own has a fireplace. I lie her down on a blanket in front of the smoldering embers and rub her hands and feet vigorously as the dreamy, pained, dead look slowly drains from her eyes. Goosebumps cover her whole skin, and I try to avert my eyes as the tips of her breasts push up against the thin tunic fabric. I feel my cheeks go pink and I twitch, just once, inadvertently, inside my pajama pants. This isn't the first time Katniss had gotten this literal rise out of me…not by a long shot…and I know it won't be the last. Even without the close proximity we now commonly found ourselves in, even as a young teenager before all had unfolded, I used to lie awake at night thinking about her skin, her luminous eyes, that long, dark hair, lips coming closer and whispering my name, and my hands and hormones would make decisions of their own accord and tug my aching erection gently free of its confines, finding a familiar rhythm until I had to turn my face quickly into my pillow to release the soft sounds that poured out as my breathing quickened and thick, sticky molten fluid exploded across my belly. Now, I've more control of myself, at least…I'm terrified, mostly, of frightening her away. I remember teasing Katniss so long ago about her purity, how nettled she became at the suggestion. There have been times we've barely maintained friendship; as badly as I want her—and I do—I won't risk it. The hard-won care and intimacy that's come between us has developed on her terms. Only after more than two years has she cautiously begun to offer up more of her trust to me.

"Why?" she asks me, lying back on the soft blanket as her frozen skin slowly thaws under my ministrations.

"Why, what?" I ask back, preoccupied.

"Why?" she repeats, then mumbles, looking away, "I'm so broken."

We haven't kissed in many months, in all the months of recovery and homecoming and readjustment, in all the months we'd laid together, her back to my chest, curled in each other's warmth and safety, chasing away the nightmares. But my willpower isn't endless. And so, I tilt downward cautiously, my blue eyes chasing those grey ones I love, and I graze her ear so softly with my lips as I whisper, "Me, too."

She turns sharply so that her face is only an inch from mine. I see many conflicting emotions playing there in the emberlight. Fear, confusion, misery…and something else, too. I'm not imagining it. Katniss' face is so expressive it's hard to project anything onto it, for which I'm grateful. What I see is a type of pleading, a need. I reach up and slowly stroke her hair with my left hand as I balance on the other, leaning in. I burrow my fingers into it, wind strands around my hand the way I used to dream of, and she bites her lip, then parts them. I see it there, again…the need. She looks younger. Her body is tense, from the dreams, from the Games, from what? What else lurks for her? I've been an open book all along; there's nothing she could ask me that I wouldn't tell her, nothing I can think of. She remains enigmatic. But in that moment of utmost vulnerability, I can no longer help myself. I chase the flicker of need, of heat, by lowering my parted lips to hers. She makes a sound like a whisper or a sigh and lies back down, reaching up for me, pulling me down to her. Her soft, pliant tongue laps out for only a moment, shyly, tentatively poking at my lower lip, and that growling, surging leap of lust howls inside my head like a muttation, strong and demanding. I quake inwardly at the thought that it may, also like a muttation, surge free if I let it, wild and untamable.

"Katniss," I whisper into her mouth.

"Peeta," she whispers back, and I let myself, just for a few moments, lose my resolve, and just be a teenager, something I've heard about, I think wryly, in passing, but never actually experienced. Our legs twine together, her soft bare calves below the tunic winding into my worn, loose pants, and for a fleeting second, I wonder what it would be like if I too were barelegged. Skin on skin. I whimper, so quietly I think she didn't hear it, but Katniss' hunter's ears miss nothing now, and her hands slide up the rasping blonde stubble of my cheeks, cupping my face gently in her hands as that insistent tongue peeks again, a little less shyly. I meet it with mine, stroking softly, trying desperately not to let my body take and take and take. I am the Boy on Fire tonight…or we both are, our skin glowing a delicate orange-red in the almost-darkness of the embers. I tremble as I feel her press up into me as the kisses deepen, become more languid, our open mouths teasing and testing and working together. She slips her tongue into mine more fully, and when I meet it, she makes a tiny sound inside my mouth. My hands are tangled deep in that dark hair, and it feels silky and thick and smells like woodsmoke and snowflakes and Katniss.

One of her legs slips between mine, and I jump. She draws back a little, panting, but only with her mouth. Her body has moved, involuntarily I guess, up against mine: she has pushed herself off the ground and we are pressed frankly together from chest to legs. She hasn't yet noticed, but this strong, long, roving thigh is too close. She pushes my hair from my eyes. "What?" she asks, sounding insecure, and I see the uncertainty there, as the shades begin to close, protecting her own potential embarrassment, which she would not allow. "Hey, hey," I whisper, taking her mouth again, unable to help myself. The reason I jumped is, of course, because she lingers perilously close now to discovering my erection, which is aching and twitching and throbbing worse than it has since that night on the beach in our second Games, the second night I felt the true force of her desire. This is only the third. My balls feel like they're filled with liquid lead. Even the contact between my cock and the fabric of my pants rubs so tantalizingly, I want to buck myself up against it, just to have something stroke me there. I almost lose my mind picturing Katniss unclothed across these blankets, reaching up for me…

I try to shift but it's clear that unless I lift myself off and away from her, there's nowhere to go. I sigh inwardly. Oh, how much fun, being a boy. I lean down and trail little kisses across her cheeks and forehead and chin. But Katniss being Katniss, she won't be misled. "What?" she asks again, a note of suspicion in her voice. I have to remind myself that, as far as I know, Katniss is treading unknown ground when we touch each other like this, that she might not even know. "Um…" I start, awkwardly, "Katniss, I…I'm not always in control of my body," I let out in a rush. "And I'm sorry, I don't want you to feel bad or like I'm taking advantage of you or anything, I just can't…you're so beautiful, and you feel so good, you can't imagine…I just can't…help myself," I finish lamely. My cheeks are scarlet, I can feel it. My disgruntled erection doesn't seem to notice, and remains. But I can see dawning understanding rising in Katniss' eyes and I think, at least, thank god, she knows what I mean and I don't have to give any further anatomy lessons. "That's all?" she asks, quizzically. "All?" I say, and I laugh a little, despite myself. "Isn't that enough?"

I'm shocked when she pulls me down again, with a little smile playing around her mouth. I resist a little, a protest forming in my mouth, but before it can make it out, she shifts her thigh deliberately again and I feel the smooth, firm flesh of it pressed into my ache. I exhale sharply, involuntarily, and she suppresses what almost looks like a smirk. "Katniss, I don't…" I protest, "I don't want to not….want to…stop." So articulate, my inner voice sneers. "It's okay," she whispers, but I squirm uncomfortably. I love her so much. I don't want her to do anything she'd regret. I don't want to hurt her, god, please don't let me hurt her. But then, her eyes are fierce, and she locks them onto my own, and her voice is soft and hard all at once. "It's okay," she whispers reassuringly, and she uses the leverage of her own leg, a gentle left hand, and my surprise to turn me over and off of her. I breathe out. Good, I think, okay, better this way, disappointing, but…

Then Katniss swings one of those strong legs over me and suddenly, I'm prone, and she's straddling me, before I have a moment to think or pray or thank the heavens for the richest luxury I never could have imagined. She smiles. "Better?" she asks, playfully. I haven't heard that tone of play in her voice in…I don't even remember. Ages. Before the war, before Prim, before. That tone alone reassures me, because it's one of healing. It is her own eyes I see watching me, and they are not unaware, but keen and bright and focused. She studies me, like she might study unfamiliar game. "Life's going to move on," she says softly. "Peeta, I…I want to feel things, good things, with you, right now. I think I can. Okay?" That flicker, again. She says it like it's the first time she's telling herself, too, questioningly. There's only one answer. "Okay," I sigh, and she leans down and nips my earlobe experimentally, then sucks it gently into her mouth, tonguing it and catching it between her teeth, never hard. My breathing feels ragged and uneven. I need her to anchor me to this Earth. My hands beg, and I release them to stroke, down the back of her neck, through those delicate wisps of hair, over her sharp shoulderblades, down her back, only the thin fabric of her tunic and underwear between us, until they settle at her waist. It's so small they can almost wrap around it entirely. She begins trailing light kisses along my jawbone and down my neck as her other hand cups my cheek, her thumb stroking over and over the stubble there.

I feel the tension, the constant tension, begin to drain from me, impossible to hold, except that which gathers in my groin and will not be ignored. She is magnificent in the slanting moonlight through the window. She licks tentatively along my collarbone, dipping her tongue into the hollows, and I whimper. She likes this, I can tell, and continues up my throat, arched back for her access, until she meets my lips again. "You taste good," she murmurs through them, "Like spices and honey." "Oh, Katniss, please," I beg, not knowing what I'm begging for. She smiles, a half-smile, and reaches down to tug at the hem of my undershirt. I try to halt her again, involuntarily, it almost seems, but she pushes my hand away, lifts it, kisses the palm. "I want to feel you," she says. I don't resist as she tugs it up and over my head. For a moment, she simply lies down, her head on my bare chest, inhaling the scent of my body. I can smell her hair and I lean down, plant desperate kisses in its sweetness. Her fingers come up curiously, stroking through the fine blonde hair that covers my body. Her fingers catch on a nipple and my arms, which have wrapped themselves around her and pulled her in close, tighten involuntarily. She notices, and tentatively reaches out again, brushing callused tips over the most sensitive places on my chest.

Before I have time to register what is happening, she turns her head and places a kiss on the tip of the left one, and I sigh. Then I gasp as I feel her hot mouth encircling it, drawing it in, suckling gently. The sensation spreads like hot liquid through my chest, up into my throat, closing it, and down and down. I've never felt this before. She can't feel my erection from where she perches just above my hips, but it's hard as stone. The only thing I can think is, if her mouth feels so good there…what would it feel like wrapped around my cock? I shiver. I want it…I want her…so bad. All of her. I want us to consume each other here in this spot, all night, all the next night, all every night. I feel a surge of possessiveness over her that I can't help. Mine, I think.

And then the capacity to form thoughts is gone, wiped clean like a blackboard, in the face of what comes next. Katniss leans up and kisses me, fiercely, pulling my head close to hers, her teeth nipping my lower lip aggressively, sucking it out. It's all I can do to match her. This is Katniss' night, her plans. Perhaps she thinks this will help us heal. Insofar as it's making all my fears and bad memories dissipate, she's right. I feel stronger just for her closeness. I feel more myself. I can't imagine that I ever thought this girl was out to hurt me. She's gentle even in her fierceness. It's hard for her to admit to love, but I feel it in the insistent way she's touching me now, wrapping herself in me and the warmth and the sensation. Katniss rarely does things she doesn't want to do.

As her mouth slides down, trailing those kisses down my chest, she moves to my belly, tracing the line of hair down its hard surface with her mouth, and I groan. I can't help it. When she takes the hem of my pajama pants and begins to ease them down, I don't have it in me to protest. "Yes," I whisper. I'm reveling in every single second, promising myself I must remember them forever. How did this night begin? I don't even remember. I can see Katniss' wide eyes in the moonlight as I spring free, finally. I think she's surprised. I feel a little panicked, self-conscious. All of me lies bare, and she is watching, watching in a way that I never thought she would, both for lack of interest and for her general discomfort with nudity. The first thing she does after easing down the rest of my clothes is begin to slowly work her fingers into the clasps holding my prosthetic leg in place. She's seen me do this many, many times and her nimble fingers accomplish it with ease. I let her do it, but I blush. She seems to sense my discomfort and looks up to me. "I want the real Peeta," she says, by way of explanation, "Not the Capitol creation." The stump of my leg seems more apparent than ever, and I feel vulnerable. Her gentle fingers caress the sensitive, sore skin where the leg ends, just below the knee. Then, as if trying to help me be at ease, she kisses her fingertips and touches it, then reaches up just to the bed above us and draws down a spare blanket. Shaking it over us, she continues easing down my body, her lips just inches from my skin. When she lifts herself backwards and over my throbbing cock, it just grazes the soft inside of her thigh under her tunic before bouncing free. I feel better with the blanket over us, safer, more intimate, somehow, with her, but there's only one thing that will stem this ache, and either she has to do it soon or I do, because it's been ages already and my breath is coming in short pants.

But then one of those strong little hands closes around my shaft, and I push up into it before I can think, arching my back and pressing my palms hard against the floor. My eyes close. All I can feel is this one thing, this one little hand, gripping me, not hard. It's still tentative, but she moves it up to the crown slowly, slick with the steady drip that's been coming since she kissed me. She runs her thumb over the slit, eliciting a hiss from me. She's quizzical. "Peeta," she murmurs to me, "Why…?" I know what she wants to know, but I can barely get out the words. "Because I want you so badly," I whisper helplessly. I risk a glance. A slow, gratified smile creeps onto the corners of her mouth.

"Tell me," she says, "Tell me what feels good. Tell me what it feels like." I've never been asked this before, but I've touched myself enough times to know the answer to at least the first question.

"Grip a little harder," I get out, and she responds instantly. I groan. She watches my face and body to register whether that's good or not, then moves a little more confidently. She slides her hand up and down, adding a little twist at the crown before returning. I moan her name with abandon. I'm hers. I can't even imagine how we got here, but here I am, my beautiful love's hands on me. She moves a little faster, and the hand that's not working me, so lightly, moves to cup my balls, rolling them and weighing them as though trying to figure them out. The ache is both soothed and ignited again.

"Katniss…" I plead, "I won't last…long…" She doesn't seem to take heed of this, and I realize she's concentrating on what she's doing, on giving me pleasure. I wonder about her own pleasure, want to give her something back, but it's clear she's most comfortable….unsurprisingly…being in charge of this foray. I'm not in a position to complain. She rubs her palm in small circles over the wetness at the tip.

"How does it feel?" she asks me quietly.

"Better than anything. Please, don't stop, please," I beg breathlessly. She nods and leans down to kiss my hipbone as she strokes. It's more than I can bear, that feathery touch of her soft lips as she works me, and I begin to gasp as I feel myself twitch in her hand. I'm too pent-up. A thick, hot jet flushes out of me and over my stomach before I can even warn her. I come for a long time, arched into the air, whispering her name. Small explosions happen in my stomach as the ache leaves me. She slows but doesn't stop touching me, and I realize in amazement that I don't think she wants to stop. But after a little while, she scootches up next to me and gazes up.

"Okay?" she asks. I laugh a breathless laugh to her, my own semen still drying slowly on my belly, and immediately cup her cheek and lean over, kissing her, so tenderly. I feel the lithe relaxed state of her body, miraculously, the nightmares gone, the worries gone. Somehow, she's had a release too, of another kind.

"Thank you, Katniss…." I can barely get the words out because they don't seem adequate. She mulls this over and then smiles with teeth, "It was kind of fun," she admits. I didn't expect this. "You didn't have to, it would have been fine," I make myself say.

"I wanted to," she answers.

"What about you?" I ask. She laughs and in response, takes my hand and again, to my shock, brings it down languidly and presses my fingers, before I can stop her, between her legs, against the thin cotton of her underwear. The flesh there is piping hot and the fabric is soaked. I don't know much about women, not in this way, but I know what I'm feeling, and I groan, already, after five minutes, wanting more, wanting to try out all we have yet to go, if she's willing. "Katniss!" I exclaim. "Well, I can't help it!" she laughs, and it sounds so free and unhindered I think, god, is this what happens afterwards? Is this what I can do? What we can do, together?

"Do you ever think of me…like…like that, when you're alone?" I sound all of thirteen in my immaturity, but I can't bring myself to put too fine a point on it. She knows what I mean, anyways. "Sometimes," she admits, "More lately, now that we have privacy." My hand closes lightly around that hot wetness, my fingers itching to slip under the cotton, find what lies beneath, wrench sounds from her. She makes a soft, satisfied sound at my touch. "Katniss, can I…can I touch you like that?" I ask, sounding so uncertain and young to myself. "Let's rest a little right now, okay?" she replies, but for the first time, she does something new, and sits up, reaches down, gathers the ends of her own tunic, and pulls it over her head. Then there is nothing but her slim, bare body, the rounded breasts and hips that began to fill out again, making her look more like a woman, after the Games. She looks strong, her flat belly leading down to the hem of those sodden underwear. She keeps them on, though, I suspect because she doubts my—or her own—self-control. I respect her boundaries, though I whisper, "Oh, Katniss, you have no idea the effect…" as she lies down, her back against my chest. Already I feel the stirrings of another erection, a hazard of being 18 and lying in a quiet, warm room with a beautiful naked girl, I suppose. It can't be helped. I encircle her with my arms, letting the remnants of my sticky release stay where they fell. Apparently, she doesn't mind, and she presses firmly back into me, her entire body molding to mine. This is the first time we've slept together without clothing between us, and it's the most intimate feeling in the world. I gather the blanket protectively around her, careful where I place my hands. I don't want to offend her, though those small, round breasts with their pink tips entice me, make me feel hot all over.

I feel her going, drifting off to sleep, a sleep that I know from experience will likely be far more restful than her last attempt. Before she goes over the edge into darkness, I can't help myself but whisper, "You love me. Real or not real?" This is only the second time I've ever asked. But I can almost feel her smile in the dark.

She clasps my hand against her breastbone and whispers, "So real, Peeta," before she sleeps. I say a silent prayer of thanks for the luxury, the necessity, and the love, most of all.