I awaken in the early morning to the sound of something crackling. Opening my eyes, I can just make out Peeta's silhouette bent over the fireplace in his room as he fuels it with more kindling. It's dark still, and the faint glow of the flames is the only source of light. When he's finished, Peeta makes his way over to the bed, and slips as gently and quietly beside me as he can. It's not until he's huddled next to me that he even sees I've been watching him.
"Didn't mean to wake you," he says.
I shake my head and smile at him. "It's all right."
"It's still snowing outside. I checked," he tells me, his voice hushed, though I don't know why. It's just us in the house tonight.
I do know why he's telling me this, though. He thinks I'm concerned about my mother and sister being able to return home after attending to Annie and the birth of her child. But even I'm surprised by how little I'm worried over them. He made the point yesterday that they would stay there, warm and safe, until it was clear enough for them to make the trek home, and he was right. So there's no point in dwelling on it, for now at least.
Besides, it's so peaceful here with Peeta, underneath the quilt on his bed, the fire now roaring. I can feel his own heat radiating off his body, and I nuzzle myself up next to him, pressing as close to him as humanly possible. I feel so warm and safe myself that I'd rather just dwell on this for now. "It's okay," I tell him, "it'll stop eventually. Let it snow."
He grins, and his blue eyes sparkle with the reflection of the fire. He reaches over and pulls me on him, and I immediately move to rest my head on his chest, sighing at the feeling of his steady arms wrapping around me. I feel him kiss me on the top of my head.
"It is nice like this, isn't it?" he asks me, and I nod as I listen to the sound of his heart beating, quiet and strong. I feel him bring an arm up and lazily begin running it through my hair.
"I'll make us biscuits for breakfast," he tells me. "How does that sound?"
"Sounds good," I say, "but don't feel you have to hurry."
He laughs at this, quietly, gently and continues to caress my hair. "Wouldn't dream of it," he murmurs. I nod, and, feeling more content than I have in a long time, feel myself slip into a tranquil sleep.
When I wake again some time later, the soft light of morning is pouring in. Judging by the angle, I'd say it's somewhere around eight 'o' clock. I can also see through the window that the snow has finally stopped falling. Peeta is still asleep beneath me, both of us still wrapped around each other. I don't want to disturb him, and really, I'm perfectly happy just to lay there and feel his breathing, so I leave him. Eventually, though, he begins to stir. As his eyes flutter open, his face lights up as he looks down at me and smiles. "Morning," he says.
"Morning," I smile back at him. "How'd you sleep?"
"Oh, I slept wonderfully. Couldn't have been better," he tells me with a grin. "Must have been the beautiful lady, who agreed to marry me last night, sleeping beside me. What?" he asks as he sees the frown that's now crossed my face.
I break from his grip to sit up. "I'm not much of a lady."
"Why do you say that?"
I'm not sure how he can even ask. For starters, there's the fact that I'm in bed with him, not a stitch of clothing on. Maybe we're technically engaged now, but we weren't when we started this whole thing. "Isn't it obvious?" I ask, unable to look at him.
I can feel the bed shift as he sits up behind me. He wraps his arms around me and buries his nose into my neck, kissing it softly. "All right," he admits, "maybe we broke a few taboos last night. It was worth it, though."
"Was it?" I ask. "Will it still be worth it if anyone finds out and we're publicly disgraced?"
"Who's going to tell?" he counters. "I'm not. Are you?"
I'm silent a moment before I shake my head. "No..."
"Then what's to worry about? Even if we did conceive a child last night, we'll be married soon anyway," he pulls me closer to him and kisses me on my cheek. "Katniss," he says softly, "you're going to be my wife. I'll protect you-"
"I don't need protecting," I cut in.
"Don't I know it. But I'm going to do it anyway, in whatever way I can. And that includes protecting your darkest secret of the night you couldn't resist the suave charm of the devastatingly handsome soldier from up north. Who, it turns out, was the best thing to ever happen to you."
"When did this happen?"
Peeta laughs and gently pushes me back down to the bed, positioning himself on top of me so that he can give me a deep, lingering kiss. "I love you," he says as he moves to the crook of my neck and I press a kiss into his hair. His lips move downwards, teasing as they pass between my breasts without pause, before he stops just above my bellybutton and looks up at me, conflicted.
"What?" I ask.
"It's just torn between making bread and butter with you here, or making you those biscuits I promised earlier."
"Can't I have both?"
He smirks and raises an eyebrow. "Hungry, are we?"
I can feel myself blush, which seems odd considering the circumstance. Peeta chuckles at the sight of it as he glides back up over me. "We can do that," he says as he takes a breast into his mouth
"Maybe we should just get dressed," I say.
"Maybe," he mutters, but makes no move to stop. His lips are so hot against my skin, sucking on it a little as he works, causing me to shiver the further he drops.
"There's no telling when someone may be back."
"If they find us, they find us."
"You're not thinking straight," I tell him, though in truth I'm not doing so well myself.
"Mmmph." He's not even paying attention anymore. And I quickly forget everything else when Peeta suddenly lifts me up, hooking my legs over his shoulders so that he has better access to me. I gasp and arch my back as soon as I feel his tongue slide inside of me, running up and down the walls as far as it can reach. He takes his time with every stroke he gives, greeting me with an extra long lick every time I buck my hips against him.
Eventually, he withdraws his tongue from inside me, and works it up to that place he found yesterday that gave me so much pleasure, watching my reactions intently. He replaces his tongue with his finger as he shifts himself back up so that he lays beside me, gently rolling me to my side so that I face him. I immediately reach out and hold onto him, my arm wrapped around his lower back. The action pulls me closer to him, and the feeling of our chests against each other is a pleasant one. I meet him in the kiss he leans in to give me, making it so our bodies are flush against each other, with only his arm between us separating us as he works me. I wrap a leg around one of his, which allows me to feel him, hard against me.
It occurs to me that Peeta has been doing everything up until now, giving me pleasure but never seeking out his own from me. So I reach over and take him in my hand. His eyes immediately flutter shut as he lets out a guttural groan and shudders under my touch. Encouraged by this, I begin running my hand up and down the length of it, watching with fascination as he reacts - labored breathing, his eyes only half open as they look almost helplessly at me, hands tangled in my hair. My hands begin to move faster, and this only seems to increase his reaction, causing him to throw his head back and let out a groan. Now it's my turn to move over him, planting teasing kisses across his chest, up his neck, on his jawline, running my free hand through his wheat colored curls.
I'm taken by surprise when he grips my hand, preventing me for working him any further. "No more," he tells me, though it's clear by the look on his face that he wants to continue. But instead he rolls me back over on my back, and, kissing me senseless, pushes into me, filling me up completely. It doesn't hurt like it did yesterday, and I feel my breath hitch in my throat at the sensation. Peeta begins moving in a slow rhythm, rocking gently but steadily against me as he pulls out, then pushes in again. My arms are around his neck as he continues kissing me, each one slow and deliberate and full of passion. Between them, he just looks me in the eyes as he moves in me. I almost feel shy as I gaze back up at him; he's looking so intently at me. I'm even surprised to realize how much noise I'm making, tiny moans and whimpers escaping my lips involuntarily. I'm just beginning to think I may be working towards that release he mentioned yesterday, when Peeta completely surprises me by flipping us over so that I'm now on top of him.
He's leaned himself a little against the wall in this position so that he's half sitting up. I look at him in confusion, but feel his hands slide up my sides and hold me. "Ride me, Katniss," he murmurs.
I know I must look more bewildered than ever, but his head nods down to where we're still connected, and understanding dawns on me. Only I'm not at all sure how to do this. I give him a pleading look, but he only chuckles at me.
"Try it," he says.
So I do. Working carefully, I move myself so that I raise myself off his manhood, then sink back down onto it. I let out a gasp out how deeply he touches inside of me in this position, and have to grab onto the sheet of the bed to steady myself. Peeta is grinning up at me with a knowing look; he raises a hand to stroke my hair out of my face.
After I've taken a moment to gather myself, I try it again, and this time Peeta ends up letting out a groan in unison with my own. I continue, relishing the sensation of him deep inside me, hitting every little spot just right. Faster and faster I go as I work up my courage, while Peeta holds me steady with one hand and begins rubbing on my clitoris with the other, which in turn only causes me to pick up speed. I'm panting now, and our combined moans and whimpers have grown so loud that we would surely be caught if anyone else were in the house with us.
At last, I can feel myself begin to tense. I bare down on him as I feel like I'm bursting, the sensation of myself clamping around him only adding to the shaking that has overcome my body. When at last I feel as if I've returned to earth, I look down, feeling somewhat embarrassed, at Peeta who is only grinning up at me in a daze.
I feel as though my entire body has gone limp as I lean against him for support, so he turns us back over so that he's on top of me again. "That was it," he whispers in my ear, smiling, and gives me a long kiss as he begins to move in me again. I can only stare up into his clear blue eyes at first, trying to steady my breath which turns into a foolish endeavor since it's only become heavy again from his movements inside of me. Eventually I find the strength again to move my arms, so I wrap them around his neck, holding him as close to me as I possibly can. Finally I can feel him reaching his release as well, and with a final kiss he pulls out of me as he lets go.
He settles beside me on the bed as both of us catch our breath; I feel him take my hand into his while we do so, holding it firmly, yet softly; he gives me what I think is meant to be a comforting squeeze. Finally, he turns on his side and pulls me to him, brushing loose strands of hair away from my face before he kisses me. "Did that feel better this time?" he asks, and I notice there's concern in his eyes.
"Yes," I tell him, as I tentatively reach my hand to stroke his face with the back of my hand, returning his gesture by brushing his own mussed curls out of his eyes.
We're silent for a while as we lay there, holding each other, feeling the way we curl together. Peeta presses kisses onto my forehead from time to time, and gently runs a hand up and down my back. It feels good, I won't lie, but all the while something is playing on my mind.
"This is it," I tell him at last. "We can't do this again. It has to be the last time until we're married."
Peeta just looks me in the eyes for a minute before he answers. "Sure," is all he says when he does.
I'm not sure if he understands the gravity of the situation. "I mean it, Peeta," I tell him firmly.
Peeta lets out a sigh. "I know, Katniss," he says in a sober tone. "I know. Let's just enjoy it now while we can, all right?" he asks as he wraps his arms around me tighter.
"Yes," I say, and allow myself to relax a little in his steady embrace. I understand why he feels this way, I really do - once Mama and Prim are home, he'll barely be allowed to touch me again, until we've finally been married. Not too long ago, I would have thought he was being ridiculous, but I understand it now. As wrong as all of this has been, I can't deny that Peeta's touch has had a transforming effect on me.
After a while, Peeta smiles at me. "Come on," he says as he sits up, tugging on my arm to encourage me up as well, "let's go get dressed."
"All right," I say, but as I'm about to slide my legs over the side of the bed, he pulls me back to him, holding me close so that our chests are pressed together, and kisses me. "I just had to feel that one last time," he tells me, smiling against my mouth. I smile back, and, wrapping my own arms around him, kiss him in return. He in turn gives me another kiss, longer this time. "Let's go," he says at last as he turns me loose.
It hits me how cold it is outside the bed. I guess the quilt and our activities were keeping us warmer than I had realized. Peeta is already half-way finished buttoning up a checkered flannel shirt when he notices the way I'm holding my arms around me to keep warm. "Take the blanket," he tells me, nodding down at the quilt.
I do, wrapping it around me, reveling in its warmth and the scent of Peeta on it. I make my way as quickly as I can to my bedroom. It's freezing in here, seeing as how the fire was never lit last night since I spent it with Peeta. I tuck the blanket around myself tighter as I close the door behind me, though I'm not really sure why I do since the only other person in the house right now has spent the last sixteen hours or so with me naked. I smile when I see he left the clothes he tore off of me yesterday neatly folded on the bed this morning.
I find the warmest chemise I can and pull it on, then do the same for a dress and stockings. It's certainly better, but it's still cold in here. I grab the quilt and make my way back to Peeta's room. It's much warmer in here, and as I smooth the quilt out back over his bed, taking care to tuck it in just so, I'm almost tempted just to stay here. But I can hear him working in the kitchen, most likely starting our breakfast. I know Peeta will have started a fire in there as well, so I go to join him.
The kitchen is indeed warm when I enter it. And there he is, just beginning to cut in lard to a bowl of ingredients. He says nothing to me as I enter, but lifts his eyes up to me and flashes a charming smile. I pull a chair over as close to the fireplace as possible, absorbing its warmth, and watch him work.
"How do you have the milk for this?" I ask him. I remember we were out the day before last, and Prim never had time to try and trade with anyone for it.
"Bought it yesterday morning, when I was out," he explains. I nod, and remember how I hadn't seen him at all yesterday morning. It makes sense that he had been out buying supplies, especially if he sensed snow was coming.
When he pulls the biscuits out, golden and lightly toasted, he drags another chair over to join me. He tears off a part of one and pops it in his mouth as he sits, then hands another chunk over. "Try it," he says. I let him feed it to me, and inadvertently let out a small sigh as it all but melts on my tongue.
"They're wonderful," I tell him.
He smiles, looking genuinely flattered. "I'm glad you like it," he says. Then he fixes me with a serious look. "So... how do we go about doing this?"
"Set about this courting business."
I shrug. "The regular way, I guess."
He sits back in his chair, looking a little uncomfortable. "What?" I finally ask when he doesn't say anything.
"I don't really know how you do it here," he admits.
"You don't?" I ask. I'm genuinely surprised - what on earth could be so different about the courting practices in Nebraska that he would have to ask this.
"Well, I hear they're... different here," he says.
I raise an eyebrow at this, but go in to answer. "Well... first of all, you're probably going to have to move out of here." I can see disappointment flash across his face, but he just nods and waits for me to continue. "Second of all, engagements are normally taken very seriously down here. I don't know how folk will react when I break things off with Gale with things the way they are today, but in the past it would have caused one or both parties public disgrace."
"So what you're saying is... this may be risky."
"Oh, it was always going to be risky, Peeta. Just having a Southern girl take up with a Yankee at all will make some talk, or possibly worse."
"I thought we covered this."
I shake my head. "No. Just wait. The way they treat you now will be nothing compared to how they'll react when they find out you're courting me, and even that will be nothing compared to when they find out I've accepted your proposal."
"That's not very encouraging," he says.
I give him a sympathetic look. "Are you sure you still want to go through with this?" I ask, and as I do I realize how genuinely afraid I am he'll say no. But he smiles, and pulls me over to kiss my forehead.
"Of course I am."
I smile, too. "All right. Then to start, wait until I've broken things off with Gale. I would wait a while if I were you. Normally you could start right away, but, well..." I look at him, and he raises his brow in question. So I take a breath and continue.
"I'm afraid if word gets out we were stuck here alone overnight, folk might catch on as to what occurred between us. And then things would be really bad."
"So do I move out before or after this happens?"
I bite my lip as I think about this. "After. No, wait, before. But maybe wait a few days from now before you do. And we need to come up with a good excuse as to why you do."
"This sounds complicated," he says. "So when will I get to see you?"
"You'll be allowed to call on me as often as you like. But we won't be allowed to be alone. Although really, we never should have been alone in the first place. I don't think Mama thinks of you in terms of potential suitors."
"Because I'm a Yankee?" he asks.
I nod. "It's that. But also because..."
He waits to see if I'll continue. "Go on," he says when I don't.
"Because you're so kind, Peeta," I confess. "I don't think she thought you'd ever have it in you to... you know..."
I nod, and feel my cheeks grow hot.
"I wasn't planning it," he blurts out. "You know that, right, Katniss? It just kind of... happened."
"I know, Peeta," I say.
"I would never do anything like that to you. And I would have stopped the minute you told me to."
"I know, Peeta," I repeat firmly, because surely he must know I wouldn't be instructing him on the proper way to ask my hand in marriage if I felt his actions yesterday were at all malicious.
"Sorry," he says, "I just wanted to make sure you knew that. Go on. We're not allowed to be alone anymore? Probably for the better," he grins at me.
"No," I say. "Normally one of the servants would be the one to sit in with us, but since they're all gone now, it will most likely be Prim. Possibly Mama."
"I hope it's Prim," Peeta mutters.
"Me too," I admit, since Prim would be a lot more understanding about this than Mama would. "If it is Prim, we can talk more frankly with each other. If it's Mama, though, then you need to fawn all over me like you're still trying to convince me to marry you. Maybe compliment Mama quite a bit, too. Eventually, you'll have to ask her permission to marry me."
"Right," he says, "that part is the same up north. When should I ask?"
"After about a month," I say. "And you'll have to ask me three times. I'm supposed to refuse you the first two."
"Why is that?" he asks, looking as if he's just bitten into a very sour piece of fruit.
I shrug. "It's the way it is around here. It's supposed to allow the girl to choose a better suitor if he comes along."
"Are you going to do that?"
I roll my eyes, and am just about to tell him no when it dawns on me - I already have. That's exactly what I'm about to do by breaking my engagement with Gale for Peeta. He must realize this at the same time, or at least see that I've realized it, because he reaches out and takes my hand in his.
"Engagements are taken seriously around here," I repeat in a small voice, because this fact is finally beginning to sink in with me. "They're considered almost as important as the marriage itself. We... we have our work cut out for us, Peeta."
I feel him squeeze my hand gently, but as he takes a deep breath to speak, I can see the pain in his eyes. "Do you want to call it off?" he asks in a serious voice, now offering me the same choice I just offered him. "I promise I'll understand if you do."
I take my time in answering him, looking him over carefully. Yes, his arms are comforting and his mouth makes me feel in ways I never before knew it was possible to feel. But I don't think those things were what made me agree to be his wife. I also don't think it's guilt for being physical with him. It's more than that. I don't know what it is, but I'm drawn to him. Maybe I've even been drawn to him from the very beginning.
"No," I tell him at last. He smiles, and I feel his grip on my hand strengthen. This gives me the resolve I need to go on. "So after I finally accept your proposal, we'll be expected to hold a very long engagement. You can finally kiss me then, but only in the most chaste of ways. The wedding itself is supposed to be a big party, only... I don't know how much of a party we'll be able to throw with things the way they are these days."
"I don't mind," he says.
"Neither do I," I admit, because even before the war, the lavishness of wedding parties always felt a smitten too much to me. "But Mama will, and so will some of the others. She'll want to try to throw as big an affair for us as she can."
"Even with me as the bridegroom?"
"Yes. It's not about that. It's about the marriage itself, the fact that I've succeeded in becoming what I've been trained to become my whole life."
"So enthusiastic. You make it sound as though you don't want to do it," Peeta says.
"It's not that," I say, "but... I think Mama was afraid it would never happen at all. For me, at least. Everyone knows Prim will have no problem finding a husband."
Peeta looks as if he's trying to fight a smile. "And why would that be?"
"Because she's a lot better at behaving as a proper lady should than I am, that's why. She's obedient and demure and sweet. Everything a proper gentleman looks for in a wife," I tell him, then give him a look of my own. "Well... most men."
Fortunately, he laughs at this. "Don't worry," he says, "if you're not a proper lady, I'm not a proper gentleman. I'd say we're evenly matched now, wouldn't you?"
"I suppose," I say, giving him a faint smile.
"Okay," he says, "so, what if they come home tonight? How should I act?"
I think about this for a moment. "Normal, I guess. We can't act like anything's happened, obviously."
"Right. So, let me see if I have this all - I can't live here, with you, any longer. But after you've called off your engagement with Mr. Hawthorne, I can begin calling on you freely. And after a few weeks of this, I can ask for your hand in marriage officially."
"The first time," I remind him.
"The first time," he repeats. "Then two more times and we're in the clear."
"Yes, that's right."
Peeta nods, and breaks into an excited grin which I don't think he could help if he wanted to. The sight of it even makes me smile. I remember something he said earlier, though, and curiosity boils up in my mind
"What are the courting customs in Nebraska like?"
He gives a short laugh. "Not too different, but they're nowhere near as extensive," he tells me. Then he fixes me with a kind of a mischievous grin. "We do have this one custom, though... we call it bundling."
"Yes. Bundling. The man and the woman are each bundled in a blanket, and spend the night together in the same bed, talking, but no touching."
I give him a suspicious look. "You're making that up."
"I'm not!" he laughs. "It's supposed to allow the couple to get to know each other better before they're husband and wife." The mischievous grin on his face grows wider. "Think we can talk them into letting us do it?"
"Probably not," I say in complete seriousness. There's no way Mama would ever go for anything like that. "It sounds risky."
"It is," he admits. "More than one baby has been born sooner than it should have, if you know what I mean. It's not really a practice that's used much anymore these days because of it."
"I can imagine," I say, though there's a small part of me that takes comfort in knowing I'm not the only lady who would participate in such activities before a wedding. I think Peeta can tell this, too, because he takes my face in his hands and kisses me.
"It'll be okay," he tells me. "We'll follow your customs here, and I'm sure there won't be a problem."
"I hope so," I mutter as I rise from my seat and go over to take another biscuit. "I suppose there's nothing to do now but start on the day's chores."
"I'll help," he offers.
The urge to tell him I don't need help rises in me, but I force myself to ignore it, and agree. The day's chores don't take long to accomplish now, anyways - mainly, he helps me with the laundry. It turns out it's a good thing I let him help me, too, since Peeta ends up having to take the tub outside to fill with snow that we boil over the fire. "Maybe there will be time for a bath later," he tells me as he hoists the post onto the hearth.
"Probably only time for one, if there is."
"That's fine," he smirks at me, then laughs at the expression I give. "I'm joking, Katniss," he assures me, and walks over to pull me in for a kiss. "Do you blame me for wanting to savor every moment of this time together while I can, though?"
"No," I'm forced to admit, because even I don't want him to let go of his embrace with me.
Later in the day, he's helping me in the kitchen as I prepare supper - putting together a small pie from the meager supply of cans preserves we were able to get from the summer, while I put together the remains of the jerk game from the last time I was able to hunt, when my eyes spot something out the window. "Peeta," I say, and I can hear the urgency in my own voice.
"What is it?" he asks, sounding concerned, and walks over to stand beside me to look at what I see outside. "Is that..?"
I swallow and nod. Because it's my mother and Prim returning home at last, as safe as Peeta assured me they would be. And with them is Gale, giving them a ride as they sit bundled in his sleigh. Something I had not figured into my expectations, though I should have. But I don't think Peeta had thought of this possibility, either, because I can see the apprehension on his face when I look over to him. I should be running to the door, flinging myself the rest of the distance across the snow to greet them. Instead, in the short time we have left, I slip my hand into his, feel him grasp onto it firmly as he entwines his fingers with mine. I return the squeeze, because what is about to happen, I want him to know that I've chosen him.
We hold on to each other until we absolutely must let go. Then, taking a deep breath to steady myself, I move to go greet my family.