Peeta slipped in through my open window, slumping down onto my bed and waking me up.

"You okay?" I ask him, taking his hand gently. He only comes when his mother beats him, and I'm not talking about hitting him with a wooden spoon on the backside or across the knuckles. She beats him across the face with a rolling pin and hits him with a birch switch on his back.

His sobs are the only answer I get. I crawl up to him, gently wrapping my arms around him. Peeta never cries. He comes here to avoid her, he comes so he doesn't have to sleep in his own bed to wake up to a crack across the temple. But he never comes here to cry.

"I'm-I'm sorry, Katniss." He manages. I silence him with a kiss on his cheek.

"Don't blame yourself. It's not your fault."

"I burned some bread." He tells me.

"That happens sometimes."

"She doesn't know that." My sorrow turns to seething rage.

"Where?" I demand, unbuttoning his shirt to give myself a better view.

"Rolling pin to my face, belt to my back." He says tiredly, so used to relating his injuries in a way no 16 year old should be. I lay him down on his stomach, lighting a candle to see if I can do anything for him. First his face, which isn't too bad considering some that he's showed up with. But I gasp when I see his back. Ugly red welts with deep purple bruising underneath.

"Peeta..." I cry as a tear hits his skin. I lay next to him, knowing what he needs most in these moments is gestures of love, whether or not I actually say the words. He wraps his arm around me, and I kiss his bruised face, careful to not apply pressure to the sensitive area.

"I'll get a cream to help the swelling go down." I tell him, not giving him a chance to discourage me. This is sort of our routine, he comes and he tells me what happened. I hug him and get a remedy from my mother's stash in the next room.

My father caught us lying closely in bed once, and after lighting a candle and seeing the angry skin covering Peeta's chest, told us to be good and left us alone. He and I get along much better than my mother and I. She has never seen Peeta here, and my father never told her. Prim found him once, telling him how much the Everdeens care about him and disappearing with tears in her eyes to leave him in my care. Everyone in D-12 knows Peeta has been in love with me for years, and I had been taken in by his sweet charm and gentle nature.

The first time I took care of him was after he'd run from his own home, coming to my house for lack of a better place to go. He'd settled himself beneath my window, intent on waiting for me to wake up in the morning, but his heavy footsteps had roused me and I'd looked out to see what made them. Upon finding him, I drew him up and inside my room, just hugging him until he stopped shaking.

I returned with a tube of ointment, finding Peeta in the exact same position I'd left him in. I started applying the medicine to his back, gently to avoid hurting him. He flinched a couple times when I'd gone over a couple particularly bad ones.

"That feels better, thank you." I shook my head, although I knew he couldn't see it. He always thanks me, no matter if I give him medicine or not. He thanks me for letting him in. He thanks me for letting him stay, he thanks me for hugging him. Because he doesn't think he deserves it. I let the cream soak into his flesh as I extinguish the candle and toss the tube under my bed so I can put it away tomorrow before my mother misses it.

Then I curl up with Peeta and do something I've never done before.

I kiss his lips.

Just for a second. Just a tiny little kiss. But his eyes are open wide and he looks at me questioningly. His eyes are filled with love and something else - hope maybe?

"I love you Katniss." He tells me as he's said dozens of times before. It helps him to hear the words, to know I'm here with him. I nestle myself closer, pressing my lips to his throat before settling in to sleep. When I finally hear his breathing even out, I whisper back, "I think I love you too." It could be my imagination, but I believe I felt his heartbeat quicken, and his sigh into my hair. It's probably hearing the words in his subconscious. Hearing the words nobody has ever told him before.

I wake up the next morning with Peeta's heavy arm draped across my back. His breathing tells me he's awake. I roll over to look at his face, to make sure he feels better.

"Good morning." I whisper.

"Yes, it is." He says back, beaming down on me. I frown.

"You okay?"

He nods. He's a whole lot happier than he usually is when he wakes up beside me. Maybe it's because I kissed him. I lean up to do it again, knowing he liked it. This time a little longer, showing him how much I care about him. When I pull back, he's smiling again.

"I love you." He says. Then it clicks, why he's so much more happy than usual.

"You were awake." I accused. He grins without an ounce of shame and nods.

"Will you say it again, please?" He beseeches me. "Just once?" I smile, unable to deny him. If there was any doubt last night, it had evaporated in the light of day. "I love you, Peeta." Tears come to his eyes.

"You've never heard that, have you?" I ask gently. The tears spill down his cheeks as he shakes his head. His lips keep twitching up and down, as if he doesn't know if he should be joyful or heartbroken that it took this long for someone to love him. I stand, knowing my father will be up soon, shove my feet into my boots and watch as Peeta does the same. He pulls his shirt back on and we disappear out the window. This isn't unusual for me to leave before my father wakes. He won't know if Peeta was here or not. I draw him through the meadow towards the gaps in the fence, where he pauses.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah. I'll follow you anywhere." He tells me, stepping through behind me. We walk rapidly towards the lake. He's never been outside the district lines, he has no idea where I'm leading him. But he follows me anyway, because he trusts me with his life. We finally get there and despite the natural beauty around us, Peeta's eyes focus on my face.

"You've never heard someone tell you they love you." I say again.

"No, never. Unless my dad... Before he died." Peeta was 2 or 3 when his father died in the terrible sickness that went through our district.

"I-I..." I am at a loss for words, so I wrap my arms gently around him instead. We stayed that way for such a long time, just holding each other, listening to the birds singing, feeling the sun warm our shoulders and heads.

I finally speak.

"We could leave."

He pulls away to look at me cautiously.

"It's okay, you can say anything out here." I assure him. "You and me. We could leave the district. We both have three years left for the Games. I have more slips in there than I can count."

He nods.

"I don't know how many will say my name this year either." I frown, quickly calculating in my head. 12,13,14,15,16. Five slips. One for each year.

"Wouldn't you have five?" I ask, confused.

He shook his head.

"I've taken plenty of tesserae myself. My mother's way of ensuring I have just as much chance of getting reaped as anyone in the seam. And she gets a profit from it, too." I gape at him.

"Peet-Peeta-" he shakes his head again.

"It's okay. You love me. That's what matters now."

I sputter for a few more seconds before a question pops into my mind and I ask it without really thinking.

"How did you survive before? Why did you wake up every day and live pretending everything was okay?"

"Why did I not kill myself a long time ago?" I nod, realizing how rude the question was.

"I'm a hopeful person. I guess I was hoping I could get the love of a certain girl to keep me going eventually." I squeeze my eyes shut, tears leaking down my face.

"We're leaving District 12." I tell him. "Your family will be fine running the bakery, mine will survive without me. Dad will be able to take even better care of them with one less mouth to feed. And they won't risk trouble for my poaching." He smiles at me.

"You would run away, for me? To help me?" I smile back, pecking his lips.

"I love you, why wouldn't I?"

We formulate a plan. We'll go back as if nothing happened. Act normally. Then when night is falling, we'll meet at the meadow. I'll have arranged a "wild dog attack," making it look like we were attacked and killed, dragged off by the dogs. If we make it look convincing enough, the absence of two children, one a seam, the other the youngest of the merchant family who doesn't want him, will not trouble the peacekeepers.

I'll make sure to bring a few basic medicines for patching us up against whatever might meet us in the open woods. I put on my mother's silver locket, in case we meet someone and need to barter for anything. He'll smuggle some bread to keep us going, and two flasks filled with water until we reach the lake. We'll rest when we get to the concrete house deep in the heart of the forest. Even if the peacekeepers do care enough to search the woods, that's a long hike, and it would take nearly the whole day to reach us. Which, by the time the realize we're gone, we'll have left that area.

The plan seems as solid as it could get.

That evening, once my sister and mother are occupied with her schooling in the next room, I silently pack up my belongings, stuffing a burlap bag with my spare set of clothes, wearing my jacket, and wrapping the three medicine bottles up in my spare shirt. I leave a note on my bed, after rolling up my blanket to take that as well.

Safe. Burn this. K

Vague enough that the peacekeepers will disregard it if they manage to read it. With enough information that my family will not report me missing. Once Peeta is discovered missing, they'll know all they need to.

At dusk, I crawl through my window, barely missing my father as he opened my door. I hit the dirt, squirming away from sight.

"Katniss?" He says softly. The rustle of paper tells me he's seen my note. The ripping noise and gulp of water tells me nobody else will read it. He leans out the window. "Goodbye. You've made your father proud." He tells me. I don't move, a silent tear leaking out of my eye when he didn't wait for a response. He knows I'm here. He knows I don't intend to wait. He knows I'm leaving for Peeta. He's proud.

When I'm sure nobody will observe me, I dart towards the meadow, catching sight of Peeta's form waiting, hunched in the grass. Nobody else would have noticed, only me, since I was looking for him. He has his blanket from his bed, and a sack which I assume holds break, the water and clothes.

"Ready?" I say almost silently. He stands, nodding. He's scared. I don't blame him, I am too. We slip through the fence and into the woods. Our dog scene has us convinced, and with my father's cooperation, the peacekeepers will accept it. There's enough blood for two people to have lost the fight. We reach the tree where I conceal my bow, and I grab it and all the arrows, wrapping the oilcloth up and shoving it into my bag. We continue on quietly, Peeta's heavy footfalls being the only sound. It scared off the animals so we could have no fear of attack. I didn't mention it.

By the first streaks of morning light, we had reached the concrete house, fatigued from not sleeping the whole night, and weary from the endless walking.

"Should we catch a few hours' sleep here?" He suggests. I ponder this. We're nearly exhausted, Peeta could probably drop any minute, not used to the terrain and spending yesterday working hard in the bakery.

"We'll rest. You sleep, I'll keep an ear out in case we need to run."

"Katniss, you need sleep too. I won't sleep until you've rested a little." I shook my head.

"I'm fine. I'll sing to you, just take an hour to rest and then we'll switch." Without giving him a chance to argue, I croon a lullaby softly. Peeta smiles. He loves my voice, he's always said that's what drew him to me in the first place. He rests his head on my lap, and I cover us with our blankets. He drops asleep right away. I smile and continue to sing, watching him sleep content and almost free.

When the song is over, I fall quiet, listening intently for any unnatural sounds. Peeta's quiet breathing calm my nerves, and I rest without actually sleeping.

About an hour and a half later, I wake him up, having let him sleep as long as I dared.

"Sleep for awhile, Kat. We walked fast for so long, they won't be able to even get here that quickly, if they're even coming." I concur, too tired to protest. We swap positions, so that I'm laying on his lap and he's sitting against the wall. His fingers find their way into my hair, gently undoing the braid and untangling the strands. I fall asleep quickly.

It feels like seconds later when Peeta shakes me awake.

"Katniss, wake up!" I sit up straight, arming myself with my bow.

"What?" I whisper.

"There was something howling just outside." He says quietly. We hear a low whine, and Peeta's hand grips my leg tightly. I realize he's never seen a live wild animal. He's afraid of them.

"I'll shoot it for our dinner."

"Be careful, I know you hunt, but it still... Terrifies me." He admits sheepishly.

"They used to scare me too, but I got used to it, having a hunter with me to protect me if they were a problem." I assure him. He nods, releasing me and watching me timidly as I go outside.

"Stay here." I tell him, although I don't really think he'll follow me. I track the wild dog, shoot it through the eye and drag it back to clean it. Wild dog isn't the best meat, but it's hearty and will keep us going.

"We'll have to cook this when it gets dark, we can't risk a fire now." I tell him, snapping my fingers as I recall, "I forgot to get a flint from the Hob."

He grins. "I work in a bakery with ovens. I can start a fire without a flint." I smile back, knowing he likes being useful.

"Excellent. Do you have anything to eat with you?"

He rummages through his bag, pulling out a round, hearty looking loaf of raisin nut bread. I smile softly.

"That's the bread you gave me when my dad was injured."

He looks back at me.

"You remember that? We were 8."

"Yeah, I do. That's when I first really noticed you, you saved my whole family by yourself. That's when I went back into the meadow to catch small animals and gather herbs and edible plants. Like my dad taught me. I hadn't learned to hunt yet." He looked shyly at me.

"I think that's a little bit of an exaggeration. All four of you would not have died without me."

I nod vigorously.

"It's true. The bread fed us for two days and you gave me courage to get food myself." Color rose in his cheeks.

"Your mother is wrong, Peeta. I hope you know that." He started shaking his head, but I gripped his shoulders, heedless of my dog-bloodied hands. "She was wrong. You're a very important and useful person. I love you." I don't know what else to say really. He looks like he wants to cry.

"I'm going to spend every minute for the rest of my life showing you how wonderful I think you are." If he wanted to cry before, he simply can't help himself now, and a steady stream of tears wash down his face as I hold him close. Neither of us moves for awhile, until his sniffles cease and I think he's pulled himself together a little.

"I swear, I've cried more in the last couple of days than I have in the last couple of years." He laughs quietly.

"It's okay, don't feel bad about crying. It helps sometimes." I tell him, squeezing his hands once more before finishing my work with our dinner.

"And sorry... About the blood..." I giggle at his now red hands and the red stains on his shirt. He shrugs and laughs as well, watching as I pack away the good meat in my oilcloth and bury the rest to hide evidence of people staying here. We both eat some bread and drink a little water, stopping by the lake on our way away from D-12. We wash up a little, drinking as much as we could and refilling our flasks, not knowing when we'd find water again.

"Where are we going?" He finally asked me.

"Away." Is all I can tell him. He nods, accepting my answer. We won't know until we get there. We missed the reaping by about a month, and the rain season will be several weeks after that. After that is snow season, which will definitely be hard. We will need some kind of shelter and steady food and water source.

But that's about two months away, and if we keep our current pace, we could get out of Panem before that. I think back to the maps they show us in school.

They never said what was beyond the Panem border. Was it more land? Or water, like in D-4? Or was it the end of the planet?

"We'll keep going for awhile until we're several days away, then we can start looking for a place to settle down for the rain and snow. We'll need some kind of house, plus fresh water and food." I explain. He nods.

"And we need to get out of the open, so a hovercraft doesn't find us." I say casually, not wanting to scare him, but also make sure he knows what might happen.

"Hovercraft? Do they do that?" I nod.

"Like in the arena, when they take the body? Except not as gentle." A shiver rolls down both of our spines as we think of being snatched off the ground by a giant claw.

"We should get moving." I finally tell him. "It would be good to sleep tonight so we can get back on a good schedule. Soon we'll be far enough away that a fire won't be a problem."

We continue our trek away from where we once called home.