I stood mindlessly in the shower long past when the water had started to cool. I didn't know if it was because the hot water had run out (I knew nothing about how our indoor plumbing worked other than it did) or if my body had just grown accustomed to it over time. I had never spent this much time in the bath. Pure water had always been a luxury, and even now in its abundance I felt too guilty to allow myself to lavish in a long shower. But I was determined not to step out until I came up with some way to fix my relationship with Peeta.
For the last month there had been a tension, a distance that laid between us like never before. It almost felt worse than when he pulled away from me after his hijacking or his relapse. We were both fully aware of what sat between us and yet we had failed to address it. Me because I couldn't explain it even to myself, Peeta because I think he feared the answer. Despite the still tepid temperature of the water I felt my insides go cold as I fell back into that pivotal moment.
He had asked me to marry him.
I don't think he had planned to. The proposal seemed to jump out of his mouth as if he could no longer contain it. The setting had been intimate and fun and messy and everything that I loved about our relationship.
I closed my eyes and pressed my forehead to the smooth stone of the shower wall. I could still feel the frozen panic that consumed me at the question. I imagined my face had reacted like it would have if I was sure I was about to be tortured. A look Peeta knew very well. The happy and enamored shine in his eyes had vanished immediately. I still remembered how limp my hand felt when he dropped it, how quickly and gracefully he picked himself off the floor, how he couldn't bring himself to look at me as he simply left the kitchen and walked out the backdoor.
Despite how loving that terrible night had ended the incident continued to plague us. As soon as he realized I was awake he pulled away and stated that he had things he needed to do at the bakery that day. He didn't come to our bed that night. He phoned to let me know, but the conversation was brief and one sided. It was the first time I had to try to fall asleep without him since the Capitol. Even during our worst fights or our most intense spells I would always wake up in the middle of the night with his arm around me, holding me even on the few nights we had gone to bed mad. I was too terrified to sleep without him near. My mind kept racing and playing the scene over and over again, and each time I stood paralyzed and unable to change the outcome.
It wasn't until mid-morning the next day that he came home from sleeping in his office in the bakery. His eyes were just as heavy as mine. He had apologized cordially for being gone longer than anticipated. I wanted to tell him he had nothing to be sorry for. That I was the one who needed to apologize. I hated the way he was punishing himself, like he should have known better than to ask. Yet despite staying up all night yearning for him to come back I still hardly said a word. I couldn't find any. I had nodded my head and agreed with him even though there was nothing agreeable about the situation. We smiled at each other painfully and shared the worst kiss we ever had before he returned to work and I wandered the woods for hours without ever raising my bow.
We never spoke of the incident again yet it was always on both of our lips. Our routine and relationship continued, but awkwardly as his unrequited question loomed. The next day Peeta cracked a joke and I laughed at it a little too hard in a desperate hope to return to normality. He mimicked me playfully which caused me to tease him back. Our skirmish ended in a short but happy kiss, but when we pulled apart we didn't know what to say. A week later he came home to a candlelit dinner I had spent hours preparing. I melted at the smile he gave upon finding my romantic initiative. We ate and laughed and even ended the evening with a sweet dance around the living room. Our kiss at the end of the song was the first one since the incident that was true, and my chest stirred with longing and hope that all would be okay. But it ended quickly and without an encore. A month later a distance still remained between the two of us.
We hadn't made love since before that day. On top of everything else I felt my nerves twist with desire as I ached urgently for his touch. I had tried desperately to get him interested by doing all the little things I knew got him going. I rubbed his back, kissed his neck, curled and tugged his hair gently around my fingers as we kissed. Yet despite sensing his physical arousal he would always politely turn away, claiming fatigue or failing to comment on my advances all together. Lately I had given up trying. The pain I felt from his gentle rejections was crushing, but worst of all I knew my rebuff had hurt him a million times more.
Eventually I went to Haymitch for advice, anxiety gripping my chest as I drowned in the idea of losing Peeta.
"I just don't know what to say to him," I expressed miserably after I told him what all had happened. Haymitch had shot me a dirty and sarcastic look and drained the last of his flask before speaking.
"Yes. You say yes, sweetheart."
I hung my head, knowing he was right. If I had any ounce of sanity in me that moment should have been one of the happiest in my life. I should have screamed and thrown myself back on top of him until he laughed and kissed me and carried me back to our bedroom. That's what Peeta would have wanted. And the most frustrating part of it all was that I honestly wanted nothing more than to have done just that.
Peeta was my life. He was my only reason for a happy present and a hopeful future. And while I would be thrilled to just spend the rest of our lives living together as we were, I completely understood why he wanted to make it official. It wasn't about the piece of paper or the formality of a license. We had been raised in a time when the only thing about your future you really got to choose was who you married. Love and family were all you could hope for to make you happy. And while Peeta's house had not been warm and loving growing up, I knew all he wanted was a chance to have that traditional happiness.
I loved Peeta infinitely more than I disliked the idea of the Capitol having to make our union "binding". For years we had been referred to by the newcomers of the District as a married couple, and I never once felt the inclination to correct them. I didn't even mind some of the little kids in town calling me "Mrs. Mellark", in fact I responded to the name without even thinking about it. It was so second nature that even some people I had known my whole life seemed to forget we weren't actually married. When I finally stopped to think about it, it was almost strange he had waited this long to ask.
But when he did ask in that simple, genuine, beautiful way that was so him it made me want to cry just thinking about it, I couldn't say yes. Even now, when I would give anything to have Peeta completely back, that simple word terrified me. For a whole month I had tried to reason with myself, had tried to find "the answer within" and all of that other psycho-babble crap I'd learned from years of therapy, and still I couldn't give a reason why I was so petrified by the idea of marrying him.
My heart sank past my feet as I thought about him never asking me again. Or how even if I somehow found some sanity and ran towards him yelling yes he still might not take me.
I quickly turned the water off and walked onto the damp floor. My head grew dizzy from the heat and I felt a sweat break out over my clean skin. I grabbed a hand towel and wiped the condensation off the mirror. My naked body stared back at me, broken, scarred and thin as ever. I traced the ugliest and most vibrant burn that fell right between my breasts, and as disfiguring as it was I could only think about how Peeta's lips would run along it, kissing and nipping the damaged skin to where my chest would grow so light the only thing keeping me from floating away was my desire for him.
My breast began to swell as I imagined him standing right behind me, his large hands cupping my chest as he placed hot, steaming kisses along my neck. I let my fingers slowly fall down my stomach, following an invisible path forged by the water droplets running down my body. Peeta's thick, textured hands always seemed to know where to touch me. His arm would slide lightly across my waist, pulling me towards him for intimacy and protection as my knees shook in veritable pleasure. The other hand would dip down slowly, inching its way between my thighs until his fingers reached my slick folds. My heart would leap out of my chest as he circled tight, pressured patterns against my center with one hand, the other kneading and tweaking my breast. Yet somehow it was always the way he kissed my name into my neck with his deep, hungry breath coating my skin that would cause me to fall apart in his arms. He would tighten his hold on me as I collapsed against him, panting his name as wave after wave of ecstasy erupted from my core. His lips would kiss and whisper words of love into my ear as I recovered the ground beneath me. What would bring me back to full attention was feeling his length pressed against my back, stiff and eager but patient as always…
My eyes popped open and I was faced once again with my reflection. I had slipped my hand between my legs, desperate to mimic the patterns Peeta crafted so skillfully. I pulled it back quickly, a hard flush deepening my colored cheeks at settling for the cheap imitation when the real thing was just down the hall.
I couldn't take it anymore.
Without another thought I threw the towel around my body as I prepared to burst out of the bathroom. I stopped only to slip on my hunting boots, fully intent on rushing through the backyard and the woods to find both him and a way to make things right.
I was therefore shocked by the scene I found in the kitchen. Peeta stood hunching over the island, muttering to himself as he worked to arrange a variety of freshly picked wildflowers that grew by our fence. He was cursing himself and the spackle that covered his hands and therefore the stems as he hastily tried to clean the bouquet. My lungs clenched as I saw that though the damage of the wall was all but gone, his shirt and hands were covered in paint and spackle. I thought about how messy my kills were when I was upset, and how usually Peeta could walk away from his paintings without wasting a drop.
He perked up his head as he realized I stood in the doorway. His posture immediately straightened up as he saw me, his eyes growing wide as he took me in in my towel and boots.
"Katniss," he breathed, the desirous rasp in his voice prominent for the first time in weeks.
"I'm sorry," I blurted out before I could even think of what else to say.
"No, this was my fault," he said miserably. "You didn't do anything wrong. I had no right to just get upset with you and leave."
"Peeta, you asked me to marry you," I stated with a shake, bringing the true cause of our plight out into the open. His eyebrows raising slightly was the only physical sign of his surprise that I had been the one to bring this up. He shifted his bearing like he needed to steady himself to prepare for the conversation we both desperately needed to have yet had been actively avoided. I waited until his eyes locked on to mine before I continued.
"I love you more than anything in this life, and you asked me to marry you. And I…I just looked at you like I was repulsed or…"
My admission broke as my tears threatened to fall. Peeta immediately cast off his stance and rounded the island to wrap his arms around me. His unconditional love and comfort caused my resolve to snap as I sobbed freely into his chest. I hated that I had done this. That I had rejected him but then eagerly accepted his security over it. It wasn't fair.
"It's okay," he whispered soothingly into my ear. "I understand."
The remark caused a wave of pain to slam against my stomach.
"You can't understand," I expressed sadly. "I don't even understand."
Peeta pulled away slightly, staring at me with knitted eyebrows as he tried to both comprehend my statement and make it all better. A part of me almost wanted to smile as his eyes darted back and forth as he struggled to read me. He always knew me better than I did, cracking easily through a code I didn't even begin to understand. I imagined for the past few weeks he had fought to find a solution for my reaction. Something that explained why I had pulled away, why we had pulled away.
"You've never wanted to get married," he stated, though the certainty in his voice wavered slightly. "Even before the Games and everything it was something you were sure of. I shouldn't have expected that to change."
"Everything else has changed, Peeta," I reminded him, unwilling to take the easy way out and accept his answer. Peeta frowned, unsure more than ever about my meaning.
"Our surroundings and quality of life has changed, but not who we fundamentally are as people," he countered.
"Haven't we though?" I asked quietly, stepping back and taking a deep sigh as I forged on uncomfortably. I knew if I had any chance of understanding myself, any chance of not losing Peeta, I had to confront this head on. And the only way I could ever come close to doing that was with his help.
"I mean even five years ago I never thought that I could ever feel the way that I do about you, or think through things the way I do now. If I was the same person I was back then I'd be a recluse hermit living in the woods, or worse…"
I trailed off, not wanting to think about the likelihood that I wouldn't be alive if it weren't for Peeta and my fundamental changes. The way his hand clenched the back of the kitchen chair as he deliberated those odds did not go unnoticed.
"So what are you trying to say?" he inquired sadly, his eyes going soft.
"That I should have been able to say yes to you," I replied simply. "Because there's a part of me that wants to more than anything."
The bright, elated look that washed over Peeta's face was one of the most wondrous things I had ever seen. His blue eyes lit up in shock like this admission was the last thing he expected to hear. His smile was grand and beautiful and highly contagious, and the only way I wanted it to stop was because his lips were taking mine. But I had to continue. I had to break this perfect moment if we were to ever find clarity.
"But," he gifted to me eventually, helping me along with the conversation he knew we needed to have when I had lost my courage to do so. I smiled at him, and never in my life had I wanted to kiss him more.
"But there's another part stopping me," I said quickly. "I can't explain why or what it even is other than its strong, but I do know that if I don't find some way to address it before I say yes, I'll end up pushing you away. And absolutely no part of me can handle losing you. Not at all."
The quiver in my voice was steadied by the strong smile that remained on Peeta's face. I exhaled in relief, cursing myself for not telling this to him sooner. Peeta would always accept me when I was honest with him, and I had done nothing but prolong his pain by not realizing and voicing this immediately.
"You're not going to lose me, Katniss," he stated simply, pulling me back into his arms. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to get lost in his words, clinging to their comfort like my wet hair clung to his shirt.
"It's just been difficult for me," he continued, securing me tighter as he fought for his words. "The…incident…it brought up a lot of stuff from before. I've been feeling so unstable that I've been afraid to get too close to you. I've been terrified of slipping into another relapse."
I shut my eyes tighter upon hearing him voice this out loud. There was no realer hell for Peeta than his fear of falling back into his hijack state. He still had nightmares where clips of his torture and brainwashing penetrated past his medicine and into his soul. He still slipped into spells in high stress situations where he viewed me as the enemy. He still sometimes needed to be told what was Real, and I had to hold my hands up in the air and approach him slowly as I soothed him back into reality.
Yet in the nearly three years since we had returned to the Capitol there had been no major incidents. Peeta's self-control was astounding, and even in the worst of his spells I could gently pull him back to me. I often felt like he punished himself too hard. I trusted Peeta more than I did myself. There were so many times when he would pull away, fraught with worry of my safety, when I knew he would never hurt me. I knew that I could be there for him and help him to his feet without him feeling like he was a monster or that he was better off alone.
But I always respected his wishes, as much as it pained me to do so. He needed me to stay away, and I would do anything for him no matter how much it hurt.
So instead of refuting his concern like I desperately wanted, I merely nodded my head and told him that I understood. I let him know that I knew he still battled with his own demons, just as I did, but I would always be there for him.
"I love you, Peeta," I whispered, sliding my arms around his neck for a secure hug. "Always."
I only meant the close contact to be brief, to let him know I supported and respected his needs. When he remained silent but continued to hold me close, I instinctively laid my head on his shoulder. I could hear his pulse beating strongly in his neck, and when I kissed the spot gently it was only in the hopes that it would calm him. When his breathing grew deep and hitched I slipped my hand down over his heart simply because it had been too long since I had felt its beats. As his lips took mine and his hands began to run down my body, taking my damp towel with them, I smiled.
Just because I had to respect his need for distance didn't mean I had to remind him of it.
"Katniss," he hissed, pulling me close as his hands scaled down my bare back, hips, and ass. I bit his lip lightly in response, deepening the kiss as my fingers began to tug at his shirt. He pulled his arms away from me just long enough for me to raise the garment above his head. I was allotted a swift moment to admire his strong arms and chest for the first time in what felt like ages before I was engulfed by them. Peeta's hands slipped into my hair and around my waist, kissing me hungrily as I made quick work of his belt and pants. He stepped out of his clothes and groaned again as my hands wrapped around his length. I slid my hand up and down his smooth prick, my insides quivering in excitement in desire as I recalled how good he felt. As his fingers gently slipped between my folds I moaned his name. I couldn't help but think about my fantasy from earlier and how badly I ached for his touch.
Yet at that moment I wanted nothing more than to focus all my love and lust on him. I backed away quickly and dropped to my knees. My mouth stretched around his cock before he could protest. He hissed again and began running his fingers through my damp hair, tangling the layers in his large hands and pulling them pleasurably. I felt myself become dripping wet as his prick grew harder and harder between my lips. My mind slipped into a frenzy as he began to cant his hips in rhythm with my blows.
"Katniss!" he moaned roughly, sliding his hands down to cup my face and tilt it up to look at him. My pause was rewarded with a look of pure lustful desire.
"It's been over a month," he stated quickly, grabbing my hands and pulling me to my feet. "I can't wait another minute."
He claimed my mouth hungrily as he scooped me up in his arms. I responded with fierce abandon as he walked us to the living room couch, crossing my feet as I worked to wiggle off my leather hunting boots.
"No," he commanded with a grin as he lay me against the pillows. "Leave them on."
A joyous and excited laugh burst out of my lips at his request as he kneeled beside me. He ran his hand from the top of my boots over my calves and thighs with his lips trailing behind. I moaned as he brushed his thumb over my swollen clit, kissing and nipping the area gently as he continued his tour. He rose to join me on the couch as he licked and kissed his way past my navel, ghosting past my rib cage up to my heaving breasts. The whimpers in my mouth grew more desperate as he both took one of my nipples in his mouth and aligned his hips against mine, bucking against me gently so he wet his shaft with my dripping folds.
"I love you," I gasped as he slowly pressed his tip at the head of my entrance, pushing his hard cock into me painfully slow.
"I love you, Katniss," he whispered sweetly against my ear. "I've missed you so much."
I moaned loudly in response as he slammed his hips into mine, sheathing himself entirely and pulling me to him so not an inch of space separated us. I pulled his lips to mine and kissed him wildly, groaning into his mouth as he pumped against me swiftly. Minutes later I was crying out as my walls shivered and erupted with ecstasy, bucking against the hand he had slipped in between us as it gently circled my center and intensified my orgasm. My moans were silenced as he slid his tongue into my mouth. He held both my hips tightly against him as he spilled into me, slowing his strokes as we rode out our release together.
I wrapped my arms around him as he collapsed against me. My fingers curled around his sweat soaked locks, smiling as he gently kissed my neck.
"I'm going to have to shower again," I teased after I felt his pulse slow down to normal.
"Mmmm, tomorrow," he moaned contentedly, rolling to the side of the couch and recollecting me in his arms. He snagged the quilt and flung it over us as he nuzzled against the pillow. I thought about suggesting we make our way to our bedroom, but was too glad to be back in his arms to pull myself out of them. I wriggled out of my boots and kicked them to the floor before I curled against him properly. As I laid my head against his chest I could hear his breathing slow into his deep rhythms of sleep.
I shifted out of his comforting hold for a few moments, just long enough to reach for his spare bottle of sleeping pills he kept in the end table. We often dozed on the couch together, and he had wisely stashed some of his medicine there for easy access. I fed him the pill gently before laying back against his chest. I knew he would need the precaution tonight. Right then he smiled happily, and it would be so easy for me to believe he wanted nothing more than to lay with me on this couch forever. At that moment that might be all he thought of, but I know I needed to give him something grater. He deserved so much more than I allowed him to have from me. As I listened to his comforting breaths I wished once again that I had just said yes, that I could say yes. At the very least be able to tell him what stood in our way. I hated that he thought he was doing something wrong or like he wasn't enough.
He was everything.
"Peeta," I called quietly after a determined thought filled my mind.
"Mmm?" he mumbled, turning his head to kiss the top of my hair to let me know he was listening.
"I want to help out at the Children's Day event with you," I stated.
Peeta's eyes popped open as his brow knitted together in concern.
"You don't have to do that, Katniss," he replied quickly. "I know the whole concept bothers you."
"But you want to go," I pressed eagerly. "And that day…it's one of our days. I don't want to spend it away from you. Or any other day."
He stared at me for a moment before releasing a simply sleepy smile that was incredibly irresistible. He pulled me back to him, curling me close as he nuzzled his head against mine.
"I love you, Katniss," he whispered before he succumbed to peaceful slumber.
"I love you too, Peeta," I replied ardently as I watched him sleep deeply. And then before I could stop myself I admitted one last thing aloud.
"I really do want to be your wife."