Chapter 7- Stolen Heartbeats
I wake up to the crash of water against rock. A glance outside tells me I’m up much too early, and I fist my hands in my pillow as I stifle a yawn. I blink groggily, not sure how to feel about it.
There is something delightful about lonely, crisp mornings, when the air is cold and sour and the sun hides from the moon. But I do not want to be lonely right now. I’ve had quite enough of it from last night, and I know from experience that too much time with myself is a ticking time-bomb.
So I pick myself up from the holds of my mattress and rub the sleep from my eyes, savouring the freshly awakened sense of touch as my toes graze the floor. Who should I see? But I’m humouring myself with that question because I know that the answer is Peeta.
He could still be sleeping, but then again, he is a baker’s boy, and plenty used to waking up at the crack of dawn. I make my way outside and hesitate briefly outside his door, pondering if this qualifies as crossing the lines between us. But the thought of going back to my empty room is unbearable, so I knock very lightly, and despite hearing no reply, go in.
He’s still asleep. Slowly, I put the door to and tread softly to his bedside, my gaze flitting over his eyelids, as if by sheer will I can get him to wake. I’m starting to lose hope and feel more than a little silly when he suddenly smiles mischievously and his eyes leisurely open, revealing a turquoise to rival the ocean’s.
“Hey,” he murmurs, grinning. He blinks a couple times, clearly still half-asleep, before focusing on me. “Are you ok?”
“Yeah,” I breathe, feeling a tentative smile creep up onto my face. “I didn’t mean to wake you up.”
“It’s fine,” he says. “There are much worse ways to wake.” I can’t tell if he’s serious or if he’s teasing me, so I give a tight smile and let my eyes trail over the inviting bed sheets. He must understand, because he shifts over slightly and pats the space next to him welcomingly, but still leaving me the option.
Without hesitation, I climb in.
I love the warmth of Peeta in the morning. His arms curl round me like a cradle, his chest against my back, his heartbeat thudding against my spine. He wraps the sheets around me, though his body is plenty warm, and I rest my hand lightly over his, where it lies on my stomach. The natural, boyish scent of him envelopes me, and I find myself inhaling a little deeper than normal.
“Couldn’t sleep?” he asks quietly.
“Sort of,” I murmur, feeling more comfortable than I have in forever. It’s cliché, but the feel of him really does make me feel like I was in pain, and now I’m better. Like…the world was dark and fogged up, and then somebody switched on a light.
If I could stay in Peeta’s arms forever, I would.
When I next open my eyes, the room is flooded with sunlight and an ocean breeze tickles my bare arm.
He still sleeps with the windows open.
A sort of wonder blossoms through me, as though I am a flower that has just begun to feel rain. I turn my head slightly to face him, his sleeping face just inches from mine, and smile as a strand of golden hair blows across my cheek.
Something warm flutters inside my chest as I watch him. Something warm and as deep as the sea.
Gently, I edge myself away from him and roll off the bed.
In my room, I dress, and then languidly make my way downstairs. I hear a kettle go off in the kitchen, and when I enter, Annie is standing at the counter, stirring a teabag into the steaming water.
“Good morning.” She says, turning when she hears me come in.
“Morning.” I reply with a surprisingly effortless smile, and I run my hand through the mess of my hair.
I don’t braid it anymore.
“How long will the trek be?” I ask tentatively, hoping she doesn’t misinterpret my question as a lack of enthusiasm. She takes a deep breath and considers it for a moment.
“It shouldn’t be too long.” She replies chirpily. “It’s quite gentle.” I smile in response and eye my clothing. I’m wearing a thin tank top, and shorts with a faded pattern on them that I never have any need for in 12. It’s odd, but not unpleasant.
Around my wrist though, I remember to wear a subtle leather bracelet I found before we left 12, one that must’ve been my Father’s.
Annie offers me a cup of chamomile tea, and we are sipping from our cups quietly when Peeta appears at the foot of the stairs.
“Morning,” he says with a smile, and accepts the cup Annie gives him. They engage in small talk for a while, and I spread my scarred legs across the couch, letting the slight breeze caress them in soothing strokes.
I’m not willing to let anything ruin my mood today.
“Well, if Katniss agrees, we can leave as early as possible?” I hear Annie say, and I give a nod in the affirmative.
The hike is hot. Sweat sticks to me in every possible area, and my clothes cling to my form like a second skin. I lift my hand to swipe back the drops on my forehead and squint into the sunshine ahead of me.
The trek is level, worn down by so many feet that it resembles a path. Thankfully, the trees provide a little cover - they are not so much like the ones in the Quarter Quell that I feel uncomfortable, and for that I am grateful, because I do not want Peeta getting any flashbacks. We walk for the morning, and despite it being flat, we go slowly, the air stifling us like a gag.
It’s warm enough that Peeta actually ends up getting a bottle and pouring water all over himself.
“Peeta!” I gasp, but a round of astonished giggles prevents me from sincerely chastising him. He turns around with a large smirk, and closes his eyes dramatically.
“It feels sooo good.” He promises me as he drops his head back in melodramatic pleasure, and I stifle a laugh.
“Whatever you say.”
He opens one eye and regards me with a roguish grin.
“I’ll prove it to you.” He says slyly, reaching for another of his numerous water bottles. I catch on a little too late, and I feel my eyes widen as he approaches me.
“Don’t you dare.”
I turn to sprint just as he splashes the contents of it towards me, and despite my last-ditch attempt at ducking, end up getting soaked.
“Peeta!” I shriek. He descends into a round of giggles so hard that he has to bend over, clutching onto his knees for support. I struggle to keep a straight face, despite my annoyance, and every time he risks a glance at my expression he only ends up laughing harder. When I look up at Annie, I see her chuckling behind her hand too, and I mock-scowl.
“It does feel nice though, doesn’t it?” He teases me after he’s calmed down. I pretend to shrug indifferently, though of course it does.
When we reach the clearing, I hear myself suck in a loud breath and my eyes go round.
It’s stunning. Not in the way the Capitol was the first time I saw it, all glitter and glamour in every inch of the city. No, mankind can sculpt and build and manipulate all he wants, but nothing we attempt can ever really compare to that of nature.
In the center of the mess of trees and undergrowth is a huge, round rock pool. It glistens in the sunbeams like a million diamonds, and the water is so clear that I can easily see the bountiful array of shells and seaweeds lurking beneath it’s depths. Flowers of all designs and colours line up along the edges of the pool; sky corn blues, soft pollen yellows, shocks of magnolia pink, all competing for my eye’s attention. But my gaze is already lost between the slight parting in the trees, through which I can see a long stretch of golden sand, as smooth as dust, reaching down to greet the sea.
The sky behind is bright, luminous and glowing, and the clouds fat and pearlescent as they lie in slumber across the heavens. My eyes are stuck to the feast of beauty that is lain out before them, and it takes me quite a few minutes before I can tear them away again.
“Come on,” Annie says, gesturing for us to follow her with a smile, and she goes and sits by the rock pools edge, removing her sandals. Peeta and I don’t hesitate to copy, more than happy to oblige.
We all sit there is companionable silence, occasionally sharing a joke as we eat our lunch and dip our toes into the lukewarm water. This is easier, I think to myself. Here, out in the sun and with my cheeks aching from smiling, it is easier to pretend that I am okay. Normal, even. Here I can get lost in distractions.
Yet even so, part of me is disappointed, depressed that this is not the escape I thought it would be, a break from the endless staring out the window, crying in the bathroom, the dull repetition that was my life in 12.
And it’s then that I realise that it’s not really a break from my everyday life that I need, but rather a break from feeling sad.
But, as far as my days go, these ones aren’t bad.
We spend the next part of a week in a similar fashion. Laidback and pleasant, we go swimming in the ocean, where the fish dance teasingly round our ankles, and paddle through rock pools in search of crabs. We make fires and roast marshmallows, and we wake early enough to see the sunrise, sipping our peppermint tea as night changes into day.
I stay close to Annie, and though neither of us says it, we both harbor a compassion for the other, a sort of quiet promise to keep each other company in our grief.
And though I don’t admit it, not even to myself, I watch as Peeta, with whom I start to experience more of those little stirrings, gets freckles below the burning gaze of the sun.
On the last night we go to a nearby little pub, whose front opens directly out onto the beach, and apparently brews the best beer in all of 4, according to Annie. By the time we arrive the sun has begun to set, and this evening it’s rays are soft and romantic, filmy layers of roses and red wine and burnt gold. The locals are dancing on the beach, their movements lazy and carefree, and over in the corner a band playing unfamiliar instruments pluck at their strings in a syncopated fashion. An old man with wrinkled skin the colour of coffee and a beard as white as the sea foam sings for us, a throaty, drawn out tune with an accent so rich I can barely make out a single word.
The total effect is intoxicating.
I feel my face pull up into a foreign smile, and I let Annie lead us over to the bar, where she orders breadsticks and beers (which she promises are really weak) and a dish of this weird red-ish looking dip. Then we go and claim a table outside, and watch the show.
I take a breadstick and dip it into the strange sauce, choking a little as I swallow. It’s spicy - really spicy, and I laugh at Peeta’s expression when he takes his first bite. The beer is smooth and tastes mildly of the ocean, its fruitiness washing down the fire in my mouth.
Peeta catches my eye across the table.
“Want to dance?” he asks, and the fire is back.
I roll my eyes as I take his hand and let him lead me out onto the dance floor.
The air is thick between us. He puts both his hands on my waist, and I clasp mine behind his neck. It’s a simple, relaxed dance, not unlike the ones we learnt in the Capitol, but with less formality. We take small steps back and forth, and occasionally Peeta lifts his arm to spin me round in time with the locals. Out of the corner of my eye I see Annie dancing with an old man with whiskers, one of the sailors she must be familiar with.
It’s enchanting to me, the whole thing. In 12, everyone stays locked away in their homes, nurturing their grief in privacy, silently trying to piece back together the mess of our district. But here, here the people play music and sing and dance to slow tempos, healing together as a community, each baby step laced with sunsets and quiet conversation. No pain is easy, but here they manage it in a way that seems to make it more bearable.
“You okay?” Peeta murmurs, his lips close to my ear. I nod and look up at him, locking gaze with those eyes that seem to have darkened with the amber light of evening, now a blue so deep one could drown within them.
“Are you?” I breathe, and he smiles crookedly, nodding down at me. We are so close now that if I tilted my head a couple centimeters forward, I would be able to rest my head on his chest and hear his heartbeat. My gaze keeps drifting to meet his, almost involuntarily, and each time it’s like a shock has sparked through my stomach. I’m new to this. I’m new with all of this, and I’m not sure if it excites me or terrifies me. Either way, the way Peeta’s eyes linger on me, dragging lazily across my sunburnt skin, and the way his body moves so close to mine, is making me feel alive.
I suck in a shaky breath, and will my cheeks to stop tingling, my eyes to stay where they should.
Eventually Peeta releases his hold on me as the sun sinks beneath the furthest waves and the musicians run out of music. I look up and deftly train my eyes on only Annie, forcing a smile onto my face as she gestures that it’s time to leave.
We walk over to her as she picks up her bag. She tells us that we can get home by walking along the beach for a while, so we pick our way through the damp sand in our bare feet, the waves chasing our sun-kissed toes. Annie and Peeta make light conversation, and soon we are immersed in the darkness of twilight. By the time we arrive at the Victor’s Village, my legs are done in and my body exhausted. We hastily bid goodnight, and afterwards, I lay in bed silently, staring up at the ceiling as I wait for Peeta.
The room, as always, is stained in shades of black and violet and grey, and I try to calm down, to blend in with the darkness out of habit. The time before sleep is the time to feel sad, to succumb to the inevitability of the emotion.
But tonight, even though I throw up warning signs in my head, even though I try to hide it beneath the familiar covers, my ear-splitting grin ends up lighting the whole place up.