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Before Dawn

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Chapter 15- Warm Water and Pale Lips

What do you know of love?

The way it curves, sweeps, tumbles through our lives with no forewarning whatsoever; halting the world in its place, washing away the people we were before to coat us in perfumes and light and the most delicious fear. And the world glows.

If you know anything of it at all, you will know that a fresh- morning lover is the best.

My lover’s hair is straw coloured and roughly mussed in the slants of sun that spill onto us, falling across his neck and face in fluffy waves. His skin is raw from sleep and touches, and his cheeks are pink.

I breathe, and the air tastes like it’s drugged.

I lean over and skim my sour lips over the line of his arm, up from his elbow to his shoulder, barely touching. I’ve had plenty of time to imagine all the ways in which I want to touch him, and intend to savour each.

Mine. What did I do to receive a gift so precious?

My lips meet the nape of his neck, just starting to navigate their way through golden strands, when he turns around with a sleepy, but mischievous glint in his eyes. He’s been awake the whole time.

“Hello,” he breathes, smiling so brightly and sweetly up at me I can’t help answering with a shy smile of my own.

“Hi.”

We stare at each other for a while, until I start to notice the remains of his insecurities crawl back into his gaze.

“How do you feel?” he whispers quietly, softly.

I feel the world. I can hear the ladybirds padding their way up the slope of a leaf; I can taste the honey rising through the black stem of a bumblebee’s tongue. I can feel the air particles dancing on my flushed cheeks, the dust motes settling in between my legs. I can feel the taste of the stars sliding down my moist tongue, grazing my taste buds like a match on a matchbox, and I can feel the sun exploding and imploding and rolling like a delighted child in my chest.

I can feel your breath on my skin, and the uncertainty that still- still- twists its way up through your mind and out into the space between us, and I want to banish it.

I want to make you feel me.

I roll over so that I am laying half on top of him, and the feel of our skin on our skin causes a quiet thrumming to run through both of us. I capture his eyes, and hold them, with all their curiosity and fear and love as I press a kiss to the hollow of his throat. And then the point of his shoulder. Right on his sternum.

I sit up and scurry down, so that I can reach his stomach. The skin above his diaphragm. Round his bellybutton. A rib.

His breath starts coming quicker when I start to mark my territory on his lower abdomen, along the path of bronze hair. A blush stains his pale torso like spilt wine on a tablecloth, but still he doesn’t say a word.

Let me show you how I feel.

I know little of the mechanics of how to please a man, but more than he probably suspects.

And I intend to put it to good use.

He whispers my name, finally, as my mouth takes claim of his inner thigh- a question, shy and burnt raw- and then I claim the rest of him and his back arches and his voice breaks into a gasp, and the blush reaches its destination and serves a far more useful purpose than just making him look pretty, and I have every intention to remove the connotations of innocence from my name in his mind.

“Oh, god,” he moans, and his hands fist themselves in my hair, trembling as I experiment. I watch his stomach rise and fall rapidly as he pants, and I can practically feel the blood pounding in his capillaries.

I know I mess up the rhythm at one point, a stutter of inexperienced lips, and I can’t quite figure out how to use my tongue exactly, but he really doesn’t seem to care, and then my name begins to fall from his gasping mouth like a prayer slotted between desperate breaths, and I look up to watch him and his startlingly blue eyes flicker down to meet mine, and then it’s as if something in him snaps and his face twists as if pained, and his mouth falls open and his eyes screw shut, and his back is arching and moans fall loud and strangled from him- and “Ohhhhhh,”-and I taste the evidence of his pleasure in my mouth.

And I clamber back up and wipe my mouth on the back of my hand and trail my fingertips down the side of his ruddy cheeks, cradling his jaw in my palm and staring into those dark, glistening eyes, which stare back at me as his pants subside.

“That’s how I feel.” I say, smiling, and I watch the sun rise in his eyes.


 

We make love the whole day. And those two words are so beautiful, ringing over and over again in my mind, because they encapsulate it so perfectly. Make love. We come together and hold and touch and caress, bare, naked, and make love. We create magic between us, fairy dust and honeyed water and zips of electricity. Fire crackling between our skin cells. Love. My heart feels like its entire damp surface has been coated in icing sugar.

And Peeta’s must too, because I’ve never seen him so happy. Never seen his love unrestrained. And I want to tell him to never chain it down, lock it away, or wrap it in a heavy filter ever again. Because something so bright should not be hidden. Especially with so many shadows around.

So that night, after neither of us can pick our exhausted, bruised and loved up bodies off the mattress, and his fingertips circle round in my palm like a coffee stirrer, when he tilts his head and looks at me with starlight eyes, and whispers into my hair:

“You love me. Real…or not real?”

I tell him,

 

 

 

“Real.”

 

 


 

“…Katniss?”

“Hmm? Sorry?”

“Why are you calling me?”

…”

“Oh my god.”

“Johnanna, don-”

“You did it! You totally did it! I can’t believe this.”

“Urgh.”

“My little virgins. Growing up oh-so-quickly.”


 

When I look into the mirror the next morning, I find myself face to face with a stranger.

The Katniss Everdeen I know has sharp edges, haunted, distrustful eyes the colour of a blunt blade and sunken in cheeks. She has ghosts quivering at the edges of her shoulders, her hands, and lips raw from anxiety. She has red streaks for waterlines and shadows contouring her eyes, grey pillows of insomnia. The Katniss Everdeen I know is in every sense of the word, starved.

This is not the woman standing opposite me now.

Her eyes are bright, dancing even in the dim light with happy memories and emotion so vibrant it’s like looking at a naked flame. Her cheeks are high and embellished with spots of red, tap dancing across the bone and the bridge of her nose. Her lips are round and plump and in full bloom, and her every movement seems to glow in the small room, traces of her form lingering like the burnt image of a sparkler. Her hair is rough, and her nightgown has slipped off one shoulder to reveal a short stretch of tight, shiny olive skin and the beginning of her collarbone. Her dusky nipples press up against the white fabric and the corners of her lips keep twitching like they might explode into a 100-watt, toothy grin any second now.

“Nice to meet you,” I whisper, and give her a small welcoming smile.

 

His lips are at my ear, just brushing against the shell as I hold the phone to the other. His large hands find my waist and his chest bumps briefly into my spine. He nuzzles his face against my hair.

“Oh, Annie, that’s amazing,” I gush into the phone, attempting a scowl even though my free hand is already reaching up and twisting into his curls to draw him closer. His teeth find my earlobe; presses down softly.

“Of course we’ll come. Yeah, yeah- oh, it’s no bother at all, not at all.”

He draws the teardrop-shaped flesh between his lips and suckles on it with his tongue.

“Ok, ok. Yeah, see you soon. Ok, take care.”

I put the phone down and twist round to face him, clasping his previously occupied hands in my own and scowling up at him.

“You,” I say, pinning him with a pointed stare. “Are in the mood for trouble.”

“I’m always in the mood for trouble,” he says with a grin and presses me up against the desk as his mouth latches onto my neck, a palm reaching up to cup my jaw. His hips push into mine eagerly.

“We said we’d bring lunch to Haymitch,” I say warningly, even as my heart speeds up.

“Hmm,” he moans against my jugular.

“And I thought you wanted to work on that painting.”

“So did I.”

“And…and…we literally had sex like an hour and a half ago.”

And then his sweet lips are on mine, and the concept that I could ever resist him is just an illusion I still paint for myself, so I sigh into him and pull him closer, pressing on his shoulder blades with my palms.

“Oh, c’mon then,” I gasp into his collarbone when our lips finally disconnect, and his answering smile could set a thousand girls on fire.

 


 

I can’t stop smiling. It’s like it’s been sown into my flushed cheeks, constantly present, constantly glowing. I know I am, because when I visit Haymitch he gives me a strange look, like the presence of a happy soul is so unfamiliar to him that he can barely recognize it through his glassy eyes, and when I occasionally make the trip into town people catch my gaze and give me mixed looks of wistful gratitude. I’m in love.

I’m in love. And it’s amazing. It’s everything anybody could have dreamed of and more. It makes me feel like an exploding star, expanding and curling my glowing strands up into the black space. It makes me feel like my insides are colliding off each other and the inside of my skin, and it makes me feel like diamonds are embedded into my blood vessels. Like tiny flowers and grasses are blossoming out of my pores. Like that sour feeling one gets behind their eyeballs before they’re about to cry, except it’s all over my body, all over my heart, and it feels so good. It’s like my heart is being wrung, and satin is lining my lungs. I can’t quite breathe, and yet all of a sudden I can taste everything in the air. It’s like the dust motes have flavour, and the sunshine is soft.

It’s like…it’s like being reborn.

The emotion is so big sometimes I want to cry. When I tell Peeta this, he tells me he wants to bottle up all those tears like a wine-maker, and store them away. Wash them over the ground so the grass sparkles and smells like pine and kill. Get drunk off them like Haymitch. Drown in them.

I tell him he’s crazy. And then I pull off his clothes and drown in him.

It tugs deep in my stomach even now, as I think about it. I’m walking back from the woods, two squirrels and a rabbit slung round my shoulder, the afternoon sun rusting and peeking out at me from behind the clusters of trees. My skin is sweaty and rubicund, and my fingers smell of blood but I still feel warm as I remember the feel of his skin on mine. The taste of his collarbone and shell of his ear, the look in his eyes as kissed my breastbone and my shoulder, the way he whispered my name, voice strained and breathy just before he went over the edge. It feels like the sun is in my stomach now, warm and yellowy and melting, and the smile on my cheeks aches wonderfully.

I skip the last few steps to our house, and ease open the door.

There’s no one in the kitchen. I walk down the corridor, checking the lounge as well. Normally at this time Peeta is cooking. We’ve developed a bit of a routine.

But the surfaces are gleaming and blank as a poker face. I set my hunting bag down and put away my bow and arrows. Then I quickly climb the stairs two at a time in my sock-cladden feet.

“Peeta?” I call out, rounding the curve. My fingers leave the wooden banister as I draw nearer to our bedroom.

Nothing is obviously wrong when I enter, besides the silence. And then I see him, curled up in a little corner beside the bed and the wall.

“Peeta,” I whisper, the smile finally taking flight off my lips, and I fall to my knees in front of him, palms spread out.

I see now that he is shaking, tiny and terrifyingly unnatural tremors rocketing through his body. His golden head is buried between his knees, and he rocks back and forth, too quiet, as if trying to rid himself of whatever is clutching him. My stomach lurches.

“Peeta?” I whisper again, the fear audible even to myself. “Peeta, what’s wrong?”

It’s been months since he’s had any triggering. Months. I thought he was getting better.

My fingertips are just barely brushing the fibers of his sleeve when he speaks.

“Stay away from me.”

He pronounces each word deliberately, venom soaked vowels. I swallow thickly, blinking back the sudden dampness in my eyes.

His voice sounds wet and strangled, like he’s been crying.

“Peeta-” I breathe, but he cuts through me.

“Leave me alone. Just-”

He grinds his teeth and exhales forcefully.

“…get out.”

The tears are running freely down my cheeks now, and the saliva tastes bitter in my mouth as my fingers quiver uncertainly. I need to touch him, to hold him in my arms, to prise apart the bone gate of his ribcage and tear away whatever’s hurting him. I need him to need me.

And he needs me to leave.

I grasp my scalp with my hands, nails digging deep into the skin and holding my hair so tight it hurts, and then I wet my lips and try to breathe.

I know better than to leave people in pain alone.

“Peeta,” I say again, reaching and running the pads of my fingers along the length of his bicep, and then he’s suddenly on his feet and pushing me into the iron frame of the bed. His hands are rough and too strong, contrasting jarringly with the soft memories of his gentle skin just moments ago, and they connect with me in my stomach, making me double over and gag. My hip hits the metal edge and I cry out in shock, the explosion of pain rattling down my side.

“LEAVE ME ALONE!” he screams, voice cracking in a way that oddly reminds me of a child having a temper tantrum, and clambers past me, tearing the door open. I gasp for air as I hear it slam against the adjacent wall.

Tears stream down my face, too hot and clogging up my vision, and I start to hyperventilate into my palm, my heart beating too hard, the world colliding in a confusion of white heat and pain and anger. I bring my shaking hand up to my face and I bite down gently on the familiar flesh, trying to ground myself.

“Oh my god,” I whisper into my palm, eyes swiveling.

Tentatively, I roll to the side, trying to sit up. My heart stops beating in my eye sockets, sinking to my throat, and the ringing in my ears starts to slowly fade. I gasp and stifle a moan as a new wave of pain temporarily drowns me. A door slams somewhere downstairs.

Oh my god oh my god oh my god. Everything hurts. The breath becomes clogged up in my throat, and I start gagging, clawing at the carpet to try and get some leverage. My heart feels like the blood is being squeezed out of it.

Minutes, hours pass. I lie there for too long, crying silently into my arm and the floor, trying to keep my hold on sane. It feels like someone has taken their fist and punched the fragile glass wall of happiness I’d so carefully manufactured. Everything’s wrong.

Carefully, I pick myself up off the floor. A sense of desperation is rising in my throat like bile. I need to get out of this room.

I need to find him.

Swallowing my fears, I stand and cross the room, my footsteps quieter than the dead. My fingers ghost over the brass surface of the doorknob.

And then I ease it to the side and tug the door open.

Across the landing. Downstairs. My heart beats frantically beneath my collarbone, blocking the path from my esophagus to my lungs. Killing me quietly. I pad my way into the lounge.

I know the episode has passed when my eyes find him this time. He is curled up in on himself again, but this time on his side, half underneath the sofa, broken glass surrounding him. His form, his limbs are looser though, and he sniffs quietly as I approach.

I fall to my knees, expressionless, reading him. One of his hands is curled tightly around a shard of glass, holding onto it as if for dear life, trembling only slightly, and his eyes are red and glassy. He blinks, swallowing hard, and a tear rolls down the side of his face as he stares adamantly at a spot on the ceiling, never removing his gaze.

I reach for his hand. Pull it towards me, and he doesn’t fight it. Doesn’t refuse, even as I roll it over in my hand and slowly prise his fingers, one by one, off of the glass. Opening it like a flower.

I take the glass and put it to the side. Then I rub my thumb, once, over the skin on the back of his hand.

“C’mon.” I say. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”

He doesn’t look at me as I help him up, hands around his ribcage, under his shoulders, trying to carry his weight for him. Not as I move him, gently but firmly towards the staircase, upwards, one of his arms slung round my shoulders and both of mine wrapped tightly around his middle, as though I know he is about to break into a million different pieces. Stay with me, I think. Peeta Mellark, you fight for me.

I sit him on the edge of the toilet seat in his favourite of the upstairs bathrooms, the one with pearlescent pink seashells glowing from the tiles and a smooth, creamy-white bathtub that curves down from the wall like the sea foam of a wave into a hollow deep enough to kneel in. The floor is blue and glassy, cool to touch.

I walk over to the bathtub and start to run the water, making sure to test the temperature until it’s just right. The whole time Peeta sits silently behind me, a stony case cementing in the internal turmoil of emotion from seeping out. My heart aches for him, but I ignore it, not so differently from the way I used to ignore the aches of my stomach.

A funny thing about pain- you get used to it. Familiarity can make even hell feel like home.

I push the thought from my mind and focus instead on the thick, heady smell of bubble bath and whipped cream soaps.

Tonight is about eviction.

When the tub is full I pull him to his feet, a hand on his chest at all times to stop him from falling forward. Collapsing like a house of cards at my feet. I reach for his shirt, grabbing a handful of soft, stretchable material in my fist, and slowly peel it upwards. Revealing a spillage of white-pink skin. Floral.

His shoulders are bare. He breathes in deeply, quickly, like he’s afraid of something. Of being naked. But it’s just me, and I am the warm water that wants to lap over his collarbone, his navel. That wants to bathe him clean in my love, work my gentle way into every nook.

But I can’t do that with his clothes on.

His buckle. I fumble with it, the metal and leather click-clicking until it comes undone. I pull it towards me from one end, and his hips are tugged forward towards my face. I lean in and press a ghostly kiss beneath his belly-button. His breathing hitches.

Then down. His jeans and pants fall to the floor, and I guide his hand to my shoulder so he can keep his balance while I ease his feet out of the trouser legs. I push the material away and then make quick work of his socks.

And then he’s bare, the only part of him left hidden being his gaze. His head still hangs forward.

Are you, are you, coming to the tree…

I shake my head violently to clear it and then take his hand.

He steps into the bath, mouth parting and teeth grinding as he adjusts to the temperature. I roll up my sleeves and reach for the shampoo, kneeling on the cold hard floor and leaning over the white edges to massage the pink goo into his curls. It’s easier to be brave when I can’t see his expression.

I roll him back, slowly encouraging him to lie down, to trust me, so that I can wash it out. He does, with a shakey sigh, and I rub my fingers into his scalp, savouring the feel of his wet hair. So beautiful.

And then his eyes are on me- finally- crown jewel blue, and they stare right into me, searching. I feel like he’s throwing a grapple hook up into my soul, searching for something to dig into and hang from. I feel like I’m knocking spare crenels into my castle walls.

“Why are you doing this?” he whispers after a moment, voice broken and worn thin.

“Because I love you.” I say simply.

I can see this pains him, this answer, and his eyebrows knit together as he sucks in a sharp breath.

“You shouldn’t.” He says after a minute.

“You can’t tell me what I should and shouldn’t love.”

“You don’t owe me anything.” He exhales, voice strained and desperate and knotted in his throat. I meet his gaze.

“Peeta,” I say, pronouncing each syllable to make it impossible for him to misunderstand me. “I’m not doing this because I think I owe you, even though I do. I’m doing this because I’m selfish. And what I want right now, right down to the core of my bones, is to love you. And to make you feel my love. To the very best of my ability.”

He reaches up then, fingertips hesitant and fluttery, even as they brush against the edges of my skin. I lower my cheek into the embrace of his hand.

“I love you, too.” He whispers, voice breaking and eyes glassy, reddening at the corners, and then I lean down and kiss his upside down mouth, breathing in his soft bottom lip. And he kisses me back, slowly, until I have to draw back because the position is making my back ache.

I taste salt on my lips, and when I look down the tears are running loose and his face is struggling to not contort. His lips tremble slightly.

“You shouldn’t stay with me,” he says, even as his fingers dip into my inky hair and taste the feel of the nape of my neck hungrily. I cup his jawline, pitter-pattering the pads of my fingers up his cheekbone like rain.

“I have a monster trapped inside of me.”

“Don’t we all,” I murmur, and lean in for another kiss.