"Peeta," I say one night, turning in the strong arms that have soothed me for what must have been the thousandth time. We are face to face now. His eyes were closed, but he opens them to meet mine in answer. I know that he wasn't asleep. Only minutes ago, he was murmuring comfort in my ear, his breath warm on my neck.
"Better?" he asks. With his fingertips, he tucks some stray hair behind my ear. His fingers linger on my jaw for just a moment. The pleasure of that small touch only strengthens my resolve.
I nod into his shoulder. "Tell me you love me," I say.
I ask this of him often; it has almost become a ritual. And just as he always honors my request, sending a flood of warmth and reassurance through my ragged body and even more ragged mind, I always say nothing in reply. I don't think I understand how to love Peeta. I haven't loved – really loved – many people, and none of those feelings summoned the hunger that Peeta's presence causes more and more often. The hunger that I first felt on the beach in the Quell. The hunger I am feeling now.
"I love you," he replies, just as I knew he would. It seems to be therapy for him as well as for me, driving out the Capitol's poison.
I swallow the lump in my throat. "Will you show me how to love you, Peeta?" I ask. Actions have always been my forte, not words and feelings.
His lips curve into one of his gentle smiles. "If I could have made you love me, Katniss, don't you think I would have tried it long ago?"
"No," I say immediately, abruptly. "You would never do such a thing." Perhaps I sound too forceful, but I am passionate about defending him. He seems to understand this. "Besides… that's not exactly what I meant."
Peeta's brows furrow, but then I see understanding in his eyes. "Katniss?" he says softly.
I lay my hand on his neck, threading my fingers into the hair at his nape, as I search my brain for the old-fashioned expression for what I want to do. What I want to do is have sex with him, but I want to tell him with the right words. Then I remember. "Peeta, I want to make love to you. I want you to show me how."
My eyes have fallen in embarrassment, so I see the movement of his Adam's apple as he swallows. I meet his gaze again. I want to know what he's thinking, and I don't have to wait for long.
He sits up and pulls me up with him. "You can start by taking off my shirt," he says.
Keeping my eyes steady on his, I lift his t-shirt up from the bottom and pull it over his head. "Okay," I say, angry with my shaky voice for betraying my trepidation. He is quiet, studying my face with such love that it makes my chest ache. "Peeta?" I prompt him. "What next?"
"Just… look at my body. Touch me. Do what feels right," he says.
I allow myself to lower my gaze to his bare chest. What I see is beautiful: muscled arms, a strong chest, and a network of scars that testify to everything he – everything that we – have endured. I reach forward and trace one of the scars with my fingers. I almost look at his face to gauge his reaction, but his sharp intake of breath tells me all I need to know. I lean forward and press my lips to his shoulder, trailing my nose up his neck before kissing him. As we kiss, I run my hands down his arms and trace my fingers over his. In a moment of daring, I touch his chest and glide my thumb lightly over one of his nipples. The moan he makes against my mouth is a reward better than any house in the Victor's Village. I want to hear more of that.
"Now what, Peeta?" I whisper, barely separating our lips. If I keep taking this in steps, keep calmly waiting for his instructions along the way, I won't lose my nerve.
"Don't you want me to touch you?" he asks.
"I want to love you," I say. My cheeks are burning. "I want to make you feel good."
He smiles. I don't know how he manages to make every smile sweeter than the last. "Looking at you and touching you would make me feel good," he says. "Didn't it make you feel good to touch me just now?"
"Yes," I admit. "And hearing you." I know that I'm the girl who was on fire, but my face feels much, much too hot.
"Then let me see you, Katniss. Let me touch you." He kisses me softly, touching my bottom lip with his tongue. "Let me hear you." I nod and reach to take off my shirt, but he lays a hand on mine. "Let me do it."
Facing Peeta in the dim light of my bedroom, I am surprised that I don't feel self-conscious at all. Knowing what beauty I find in his scars, I am not ashamed of my own. As well as I know that the sky is blue, I know that Peeta finds me beautiful. He is the only person I care about pleasing. He is the only person I never have to try to please.
I let him see me. He raises his hands to my breasts, and I let him touch me. When his talented, gentle fingers move over my skin, when I press myself into his palms, I let him hear me. "Peeta… oh…" I sigh.
"Yes," he whispers.
As if we're thinking the same thing, we rise up on our knees and press our bodies together as we kiss. The feel of my breasts against his solid chest is heavenly. The pressure of his arousal against me, rather than being scary or uncomfortable, is thrilling. With all the current zipping through my body, I might as well be the lightning tree. I find that I no longer care about the proper way of doing things. I don't care about the methodology. My skin, my limbs, my insides, my entire body craves his. I slide my hands down his back and around his sides to push down his pants. We break apart for a moment to get rid of every scrap of clothing that separates us, and then there is nothing against my skin but Peeta's skin, and my whole body is singing.
My head hits the pillow, and Peeta's mouth is at my ear, kissing the lobe and whispering how he loves me, how he wants me. I begin to reach for the part of him that I feel against my hip, but he stops me.
"You first," he says. He stops my protest with a kiss. "You first," he insists. "That's what I want." His hand is warm as it travels down between my breasts and over my belly and lower still. I feel him tracing me, learning me with his fingertips. "Talk to me," he whispers. "Tell me what feels good."
"Everything feels good," I reply. I am too embarrassed to tell him that I don't know what feels good. There are some things I never bothered to do, and learning my own body was one of those things.
Peeta has always been intuitive, and he seems to understand that he's on his own, that this particular arena is unknown to both of us. He begins to move down my body, and I freeze.
"What are you doing?" I ask. I think I know, but I'm afraid it might be true.
He kisses the underside of my breast and then kisses the nipple. It's unimaginably nice. "I want to look at you," he says.
Scars are one thing. This is quite another. I cross my legs, trapping and stilling the hand he already has down there. "No."
He returns to my lips and kisses them. "You trust me," he whispers. "Real or not real?"
"Real," I say. "But-"
"I don't want to make you uncomfortable," he says gently. "I want to learn how to make you feel good. Please." I can't refuse Peeta anything. I unlock my legs and nod. He kisses me again. "If you really don't want me to keep going or if you don't like what I'm doing, you tell me, okay?" I nod again.
He makes his way down slowly with kisses and sweet words. And then there he is, looking at the most private part of me. He opens me a little with his thumbs, and I am so embarrassed, I turn my head into the pillow and squeeze my eyes shut.
But then Peeta touches me in a way that makes me gasp. My eyes fly open as I turn my head to look at him. "Did I hurt you?" he asks at the very moment I beg him not to stop. He smiles and slides his fingertip gently over the nub he has found, then circles it. "This feels good?"
"Good… so good," I sigh. I am lifting my hips to meet his hand, my awkwardness melting away under the heat of what he has found inside me. "Can you press a little har… yes… yes, just like that… oh, Peeta…" I expect to see amusement when I look at his face, but what I see there is awe.
"Let me try something," he says, and the sound of protest at the loss of his fingers has barely left my mouth when he lets his thumb resume what he was doing, while his finger slips inside me. I feel my mouth go slack. "Do you like this?" he asks.
"Mmm" is the only reply I can muster.
Without stopping the magic his hand is working, he kisses his way back up to my mouth. I can't concentrate enough to return his kiss. I grip his shoulder with one hand and the back of his head with the other, holding him to me. It seems like a long time passes. "Sorry," I say. "Is this boring for you?"
"Not even a little bit," he replies. "This is amazing." Our eyes lock, and I know he's telling me the truth. Of course he is. He's Peeta. "You're so warm and soft," he murmurs to me. "I can't wait to be inside you."
It's a little shocking to hear this kind of talk from Peeta. At school we would have called it dirty talk. But in this moment when it's just us, when the words are spoken by Peeta and his hands and mouth are on my skin, they are the most beautiful and loving words I've ever heard. The very opposite of dirty. They make my insides throb with longing for him.
I don't trust myself to reply in kind, knowing how awful I am with words. Even if I wanted to, I don't think I could. Putting words together has suddenly become quite impossible. Something wonderful is building inside me, building and building until I don't know what to do with it.
"Let go, Katniss," Peeta says, and when I do, waves of pleasure roll through me.
I hear myself crying out, and when I return to my body, I am trembling in Peeta's arms. He holds my face in both hands and kisses me in a way that makes my toes curl. He is passionate, demanding, insistent. This is a Peeta who belongs only to me.
Just as I belong only to him.
That thought gives me the words to say. I raise my knees to cradle his hips as our eyes meet. "Make me yours," I say. It is both a demand and a plea. I know from the dark fire in his eyes that my words were the right ones. But then he hesitates, and I think I know why. "You don't need to worry. My mother taught me long ago what herbs to take to prevent… to make sure nothing happens."
His gaze never leaves mine as he reaches down to join us. He pushes into me slowly, carefully, and I wince at the discomfort. There is no pain or resistance, and I conclude that that part of me must have been torn away at some point during our many ordeals. I know that in time this will feel good for me. I know by the transported expression on Peeta's face that it feels good for him. That is all I care about.
"Are you okay?" he asks.
"More than okay," I tell him. "You?"
He smiles. "More than okay."
He begins to move in me, his face a mask of focus and restraint, and I move my hips to meet his. I watch him in what can only be called wonder. He is making love to me. I am making love to him.
"Does this feel good for you?" he asks.
"Yes," I say, and it's true. The discomfort is fading into something nice, but even if it weren't, Peeta's pleasure magnifies my own.
"I can't… I won't… I'm going to…" His tone is apologetic.
I understand now why he kept insisting "You first." He knew that our first time wouldn't be great for me, and he wanted me to experience the climax that he's going to get now. Oh, Peeta, I think. As if sharing this with you wouldn't have been enough.
I reach up to touch his cheek and say the words that he said to me. "Let go, Peeta."
He shudders above me, and I feel warmth spreading inside me. When his head falls to rest on my shoulder, I slide my fingers into his thick hair. Lovemaking is an apt term. I feel love as a palpable presence between us and around us. As is usually the case with me, I find my moments of truth in action. Tonight I have found the truth about what I feel.
"I've never been happier than I am right now," I hear myself saying. Did I think it or say it aloud? I must have said it aloud because Peeta lifts his head to look at me.
"You love me," he murmurs almost in disbelief. A shadow of doubt crosses his face. "Real or not real?"
I smile up at him, the boy with the bread, the man who is everything to me now – friend, counselor, lover. "Real," I tell him. I reach for him, drawing him down to kiss me. "Real, real, real," I say between kisses. I whisper it to his lips, in his ear, against his skin. His love has always been my refuge, and now my love will be his.
"Mine," I whisper, tugging him even closer to me. I'll never be a woman of words.
"Always," he replies.
* * *
The next morning, I smile before I even open my eyes. I had thought that Peeta would be long gone – he often leaves as early as four in the morning to start baking – but I find myself still in his arms. His heart beats just under my ear, my arm is resting on his stomach, and one of my legs is draped over his. When I tighten my arm to pull myself closer, I hear his voice, scratchy and lovely with sleep: "Morning."
"Peeta," I mumble, loving the feel of his warm skin beneath my lips. I turn my head up to kiss his jaw. I slide my toes down over his leg until I reach his foot, and my hand goes up his chest and shoulder until my fingers are buried in his hair. He makes a contented sound and tightens the arm that is holding my waist. I feel quite possessive about his body now that I have made love to it, made love to him. There are so many places I still haven't touched or kissed, and I feel giddy at the thought of learning him.
"I sometimes felt foolish for hoping I could ever have this," he says.
"Love?" I ask, surprised. Peeta never should have worried about finding love. He was born to create beautiful things and to love. If it hadn't been me, it would have been some other lucky woman.
"Your love," he says.
I twist in his arms until I'm propped up on my elbow, looking down at his face. "If fate hadn't thrown us in the arena together and damaged us beyond repair, you would have found someone better… a nice girl who deserves you, who would have been gentle with your heart instead of breaking it and stomping on the pieces." I lower my face into his neck and close my eyes, inhaling the scent of him.
We are quiet for several minutes, and I wonder if he's fallen asleep again. But he suddenly rolls me back against the pillows and strokes my cheek until I have the courage to meet his eyes.
"You listen to me, Katniss Everdeen," he says. "I don't want you because we're both broken or because circumstances have left us nothing but each other. I don't want a girl who would be gentle with my heart, as you put it. I have always wanted you. Only you. You couldn't have broken my heart or stomped on it or even dented it if I hadn't made the decision to give it to you. Is that clear?"
I swallow the lump in my throat and nod. He leans forward to kiss me, but I stop him by laying my fingers on his lips. "I want to make sure you know," I say slowly, trying to put the words together, "that I'm not with you because I think that way – that we're too messed up for anyone else. That isn't what I meant at all."
He kisses my fingers and raises my palm to his lips as well. "I know that, sweetheart," he says gently.
I've been called "sweetheart" before by Haymitch and even by Peeta, but never the way Peeta just said it. It sends butterflies skittering all over my body. It gives me goosebumps.
"I want you," I whisper, sighing as his weight and warmth settle over me. "I'm here because I want you."
He smiles. "I'm all yours."
"What I said on the train after the Games… when I told you it was all an act… that wasn't true." He looks up from kissing my neck, his eyes very blue, waiting for me to go on. "I was confused. I didn't know what I felt, not really. Most of it was an act, it's true." The shame washes through me all over again, as if we're standing on that train, holding hands, and I'm watching his sweet smile disappear behind a wall of pain. "But I've always cared about you. And there was one kiss in the cave that was real. The one we had to stop because my head started bleeding. I meant that kiss, Peeta." I feel my eyes burning, but I refuse to cry. I don't want to be forgiven out of pity. "When we were in the Game, I thought you were acting, too. I had no idea what those kisses meant to you. I didn't know I was hurting you. I-"
"Shhh," he says. "I know all that. And it's behind us now. No more regrets, okay?"
I give a half-hearted laugh. "You have nothing to regret. I have so much."
"Nothing to regret?" He smiles sadly. "Oh, Katniss. I tried to kill you. I said the most terrible things to you and about you."
"That doesn't count. It wasn't your fault."
He takes my face in his hands. "Neither was anything you regret. So stop it. We're here now, together, and we love each other. The rest of it doesn't matter anymore. Let the bad things go, for both our sakes. Can you try?"
I nod. "I love you, Peeta," I say, and I feel the tears finally escaping my eyes. "So much. I'm going to… to take care of your heart from now on. I promise."
Why, why can't I put words together the way Peeta can? At least they sound good to him; he's covering my mouth, my cheeks, and my throat with kisses. He's whispering so softly that I can't hear most of what he says, but occasionally a word falls near my ears: beautiful, love, Katniss. I am too overwhelmed to do anything more than lie there, arch my body closer to his, and sigh my happiness into his hair, into his mouth.
He runs a hand down my side and then back up, covering my breast with it. "I wish I could touch all of you at once," he says, and I laugh. He smiles.
"I think you've touched every part of me there is," I tell him. "It's not fair."
"What's not fair?"
I take a deep breath. "There are parts of you I haven't gotten to touch yet."
Peeta stills above me and drags his gaze to mine. "What would you like to touch, Katniss?" he asks.
I push one hand against his chest, noticing how fast and hard his heart is pounding. "Lie down." He lies back on the bed, and I crawl over him. "Can I touch your leg? The one they…" I trail off with the realization that this might be too personal, too painful for him.
But Peeta's eyes are clear and steady as he says, "I'd like that." Before I move away, he puts his hand on my arm. "It's not pretty." I see the shadow of self-conscious doubt on his face. He looks vulnerable, almost afraid.
I run my hand down his thigh and pull his leg up so that it bends at the knee. I place a kiss there and look up at him over the length of his strong, solid body, carefully avoiding the part of him I am most curious about – the part I'll be touching next. "Peeta, you are beautiful," I say quietly. I run my fingers gently over the folded skin where his leg ends and the artificial leg begins. "Does it ever hurt?"
"Not anymore. But sometimes I feel like it's still there. It's very strange."
"Like Prim," I murmur. Not quite a phantom limb, but certainly a missing piece of my soul.
He sits up and cups my face in his hands. "There are no words for how much I love you," he says, shaking his head.
We meet each other halfway for a hungry kiss that almost makes me forget my purpose. Eventually, I push him back and try to look stern. "You lie down. I'm not finished yet."
"Sorry, sorry!" he says in mock apology, his hands in the air.
I leave one more kiss on his knee before trailing my mouth slowly up his thigh. His body tenses under my hands and my lips, and it makes me feel powerful. I sit up and lay my fingertips gingerly on that part of him I've never really seen before now. He is hard – for me – but I am surprised at the softness of his skin there, like velvet or silk or some other fine material that Cinna might use. If it were fabric or anything else, I would probably press it to my cheek. It's that soft and lovely. But this isn't fabric; underneath that soft skin is the hardness that makes him a man. I tighten my fingers and thumb around him, and he sucks in a breath.
"Sorry!" Horrified, I pull my hand away from him.
"No, Katniss, no… that felt good." He exhales. "That felt really good."
I feel my face flush. "Oh…" I suddenly feel as shy and silly as a little girl in school.
"Please don't stop," he says, and with that, my awkward moment vanishes as quickly as it hit me.
I explore and learn the feel of him, driven more by curiosity than his pleasure, I'll admit. This time. To Peeta's credit, he seems to know this, and he watches me patiently, now and then voicing his encouragement when I do something he likes. After a few minutes of this, I lean forward, hardly thinking, and kiss him there. I love the feel of that soft skin against my lips, and I open them around him.
Peeta's hand reaches for mine and grasps it tightly. I kiss my way up his body, allowing my full weight to rest on him as I go.
"I love you," I whisper when my lips are over his. "I love everything about you."
He rolls us over and slides his hand down between us. He looks at me in surprise and wonder. "You're… you're already ready."
I have no idea what he means, but I do know that I'm ready for the wholeness of having his body inside mine. "Please, Peeta," I murmur.
It's not as uncomfortable this time; in fact, the hints of pleasure that I felt last night are now the dominant sensation. Peeta moves in me with more certainty, his eyes focused on my face. My arms are hooked under his, my hands clinging to his shoulders.
"Good?" he asks.
"So good," I manage to reply.
Some time later, he says, "I'm getting close. Are you – can you – do you need more?"
I am lost in the pleasure of loving him, but I know that I'm not close to that edge. "It's okay. I don't have to… you know."
Peeta slows his movements and kisses me. "I want you to."
He holds onto me and turns us so that I'm on top. It takes me a moment to adjust to the new position, to find a rhythm. At this angle, it feels like he's touching an entirely new part of me. Then Peeta slides his hand down and begins to stroke the little nub he found last night.
I very quickly find that I'm not only near the edge of that wonderful cliff, but hanging on by my fingernails. "Peeta…" I gasp. I let go and allow myself to drown in what I'm feeling.
Peeta finishes just after I do, and I fall over his chest, breathless and happy. He kisses the top of my head. "Wow," he says. I can hear the smile in his voice.
"I don't know how I'm going to get anything done ever again," I tell him. "All I want to do is stay in this bed with you."
He laughs, his chest shaking me with him. "Why don't we start with a shower and try to move on from there?" he suggests.
It's as good a plan as any, and my heart warms at the realization that life will be good from now on. It can never be perfect or free from pain, but it can and will be good.