"I mean, it's not that I don't want to have sex with you," Peeta mumbles, shifting until his leg brushes mine as we sit on the edge of Prim's – no, my – bed. The last hour or so has been chaotic, to say the least.
After Haymitch's news that we were finally getting some financial assistance for Prim's medications, and then stumbling into the apartment to find Johanna and Gale fabricating a second bedroom for Prim so that I can finally have some privacy, I was almost unwilling to sit down and talk when Peeta suggested it. But I couldn't deny that this talk was going to happen eventually. Especially not when the condoms Johanna gave me are in both of our hands, our fingers each rubbing the packaging to distract from the awkwardness we feel with the slip of the lubed latex inside.
"I do. I know that seems fast, but let's be honest here, you're beautiful and I've been interested since you walked into Posi+ive that first day. But it's just – I don't know if I'm ready. Are you ready? Are we ready for the risks... It's such a big thing-"
"It doesn't have to be," I interrupt quietly, my fingers stilling as Peeta stiffens abruptly. I know my words have surprised him, they've surprised me as well, but we both know this doesn't have to be as big of a deal as he's making it. Yes, there are definite risks to sleeping together, but if we're safe and we take precautions, shouldn't it be okay?
"Katniss," Peeta sighs after a moment when I don't say anything more. The air is tense with our discussion – should we have sex? Should we risk my contracting HIV from him? Are we ready for this? "I'm not ready." Peeta stalls my thoughts and finally turns to me, his hand lifting to turn my face towards him. "I'm not comfortable with it. That doesn't mean never, but I can't right now. I mean, I'm good with my meds, I'm on schedule with them and my last viral load was undetectable, but that doesn't mean I'm better I'm just... Is it weird that my nightmares lately are of you getting infected because of me?"
"Peeta, that's ridiculous," I state lowly, my voice cracking as his eyes close tightly. "I'm sorry – that wasn't the right thing to say. But you have to understand where I'm – "
"I know it's not totally logical, but I'm nervous! I don't want to screw up whatever it is we have going here by just treating this like it's not a big deal. It is a big deal, to me." Moving to stand, he pulls away and turns to face my closet, his hands on his hips. I watch him move stiffly from one foot to the other and I chew on my lip anxiously.
"Peeta," I pause and move to stand behind him, my hand coming to rest on his shoulder. "I'm okay if we wait. But I'm worried that what you're saying is the worst thing that could possibly happen would be for me to contract HIV from you and... That goes against everything that I've been learning since Prim told me she had it. Do you really believe me contracting HIV is the worst possibility?"
"You don't understand," he sighs and turns to me, his palms coming to rest on my arms. "It wouldn't be just that you got infected. It'd be that you got it from me. That I was the one who did it and you would be sick because of me."
"Because of us." My eyes meet his as I say it, my voice strong and belying the nerves running under my skin. "It would be because of a risk we both took, Peeta. There's two of us here, remember?"
I watch as he closes his eyes and shakes his head, his body losing tension with every breath.
"I'm just not ready to take that risk yet. I'm not there. But I still want you. I do. With every fibre of my being, I want you." When he looks at me again, I can see the swirling anxiety within him, the stress and the fight he's having with his decisions, with his reality of being HIV positive and wanting to be with me. I know in the way he looks at me that there's more than just the physical want between us, there's the pull of something more, something deeper.
"How can I help?" I watch as he blinks once, twice, before his lips settle on mine in a soft kiss, a tentative kiss, the moment almost broken.
"Just be here," Peeta murmurs in between brushing his lips against mine. I smile and return the affection, my fingers dropping the condom and sliding through his hair.
"Peeta," I pause after a few minutes, pulling back slightly. He stops my words by kissing me again and I laugh at his playful interruption before starting again. "Can we please-" Another kiss. "Can we talk to-" A longer kiss. Breathless. "-someone about this?" My final words seem to make him pause and he pulls back before I lead him back to the center of the bed with me.
"What do you mean?" he asks carefully. I can't ignore the way his emotions look a little sheltered, as though he's unsure of what I want when just moments ago the sexual tension had been nearly thick enough to cut.
"I mean is there like a counsellor or something we can talk to? Or maybe... You've mentioned before how you are with your diagnosis – like when you freaked out at your old job? Have you ever talked to someone about that?" I worry my lip with my teeth when I finish, my hands sliding to hold his in mine.
I know my question is intrusive, like maybe I'm pushing his boundaries just a little, but I can't help it. I want him to know that I hear how he talks about his own relationship with HIV and how he still sometimes reacts as though he's a monster inside because of it. I want him to know that I'm not running scared because of it and that yes, I do want to have sex and make love and do all of the things that couples do and... woah. I have to stop myself there as my thoughts get ahead of me and I clam up at the fear of how fast my mind is moving with this relationship.
"Yeah, I mean-" Peeta thankfully breaks into my consciousness with his hesitating words. "There's Effie, or Haymitch. They do some formal counselling. Or maybe Annie could help, she has a background in this and she knows a lot-"
"For you?" I interject, meeting his eyes with my own.
"I could talk to Haymitch some more. I think he kind of gave up on me a while ago though," he laughs awkwardly, his voice slightly higher than normal. My mind flashes back to the looks Haymitch had given me at Safe Booty and again just today when Peeta had come to see if everything was alright. It starts to makes sense, maybe, that Peeta had confided in Haymitch much more than I had realized and there were probably some things that neither of them were telling me.
"I think you could probably still talk to him about it." I force my smile and wrap my arms around his shoulders until our faces are almost touching. "And I'll talk more to Annie, if that makes it better."
"Yeah. That might help. But I can't promise-"
"It's okay. This, um, relationship part is new for us both and there's no denying we have other things we're thinking about. We'll figure it out as we go," I finish for him and shift until I'm sitting with my whole body wrapped around him. I can feel his face burrowed into my shoulder, our bodies holding close to each other and finding comfort that once seemed so distant.
I knew this was going to be hard – I never really shied away from that – but maybe I hadn't realized just how hard this relationship and intimacy thing could be. With Peeta being positive and my negative status, adding on our own personal hang-ups, we both needed to be open with each other before we could even think about the complicated side of having sex.
Despite knowing the mountain we had to climb before us, my eyes still catch sight of the foil packages Johanna gave me and I can't help but smile. Eventually we will get there; it just might take us a bit longer.
"Hey Peeta?" I whisper a little while later, my body melting under the touch of his fingers as they glide over my skin.
"Mhmm?" Smiling, I reach until my lips are beside his ear, my words light.
"Since we're not ready for sex, do you think we could still, um, explore?" When I pull away from him his grin is lopsided, his head nodding slowly.
"I think that can definitely be arranged in the meantime." Lunging towards me we fall together against the pillows and become a mess of limbs and hushed sighs.
I wake up to the heavy squeak of a door opening, a voice hushing another and footsteps stumbling. When my mind fully comes to, my body awakening in Peeta's arms, I still and wait for the intruder to come through the door.
I'm ready to pounce.
"Ow! Dammit!" Prim's voice rings out and I sit up abruptly, jerking Peeta into a wakened confused state with my movement. Before I know it I'm climbing over him to get to the door and stumbling into the hallway in his t-shirt, my body half bare from our explorations after our talk.
"Prim!" I squeal, my face flaming. I pull the shirt down on my hips just realizing what I'm wearing and how I'm nearly naked in front of Prim and her friend Rue from the centre. The shock courses through me; surprise and embarrassment mixing and making my cheeks burn.
"Well, this is super awkward Katniss," Prim says lowly, motioning with her hand first towards me and then towards Peeta who is now stumbling up behind me clad in only his boxers.
"What the-" Peeta grumbles, rubbing his eyes. The four of us stand frozen, our eyes all averted as the moment seizes.
"Well, hey there Mr Goodlooking," Rue jokes and whistles a cat-call, breaking the tense moment with a laugh.
"Can you put some pants on, please?" Prim asks after a second and I don't wait before dashing back into the room to pull on some sweatpants. Peeta follows behind me dazedly, his arm outreached for his shirt that I trade him for a sweater he pulls from a drawer.
"What's she doing home?" he asks and I frown, shaking my head.
"No idea – your guess is as good as mine. Come on," I take him by the hand once we're clothed and lead us towards the kitchen where Prim is putting together some tea and Rue is freely sitting on the counter with a cheeky smile on her face.
"Sorry to interrupt your love fest," Prim says facing away from us, her hands busy at the stove. I know my sister and in that moment I'm not sure which of us is more embarrassed.
"It wasn't-" I start.
"It was just sleeping," Peeta finishes and walks into the kitchen with a new-found confidence as he leans against the cupboards. I watch as Rue slips him a sly smile, her gaze unabashedly sliding up his frame.
"Rue!" Prim jerks her arm into her friend who laughs and slips off the counter to pull some mugs down.
"Sorry, but Peeta, I didn't know you were so fit. You can't blame me for looking!" She laughs heartily, handing each of us a mug. I try to recall what I know about the girl, apart from her beautiful dark skin and her bright smile. Prim had told me once she had described herself as a 'lifer', that she'd been diagnosed at birth after her mother passed it on unwittingly to her during the pregnancy. At the time, I had almost been glad Prim had befriended someone who knew the ropes, until I'd realized how sad that fact was and I kicked myself for even thinking it.
Now I was just glad she had someone she could talk to.
"Finnick is sick," Prim starts, pulling all of our attention back to her as she pours hot water in our cups.
"Wait, what?" I look to Peeta whose face pales at the comment.
"He was having a hard time breathing and was all woozy. Annie thinks it might be the flu still so she cancelled everything and put us all in the van to come home. I think maybe she took him to the ER or something tonight."
"The flu?" Peeta asks, interrupting as he sets his mug down. I watch him carefully as he tenses, his hands clasped together tightly.
"Yeah, she didn't say much but it's weird given the symptoms and all the-" Prim starts, the wheels practically visible as they turn in her brain.
"I need to go." Peeta quickly steps around us until he's heading towards my room, disappearing and reappearing with his stuff.
"Where are you going? Peeta, it's 2am!" I hiss as he pulls on his shoes. He looks up at me and I catch sight of the fear in his eyes as he looks at me.
"Finnick and I, we're really close Katniss. If he's sick I need to see him," he answers as he double knots his laces.
"I'm worried – the last time I saw him he said it was just allergies but if Finn is... I don't want to overreach here, I just need to talk to him. Come with? I know it's late but you can crash at mine after. Looks like Prim and Rue are going to be up all night anyways," Peeta motions back towards the kitchen where Prim and Rue are already talking animatedly as though they'll never sleep. I chew my lip for a second, debating whether I should go or not, but the decision in the end is easy. Go with Peeta? Then spend the night at his place? Sure. Hands down.
"Let me get something else to wear." I disappear back into the room and quickly pull on more public appropriate clothes, a pair of jeans and an easy t-shirt. Heading back out into the main room I turn to Prim and give her a look that begs her not to ask what she's thinking. "Did you know that this was happening?" I motion towards the new bedroom, my eyebrows raised.
"Maybe..." Prim responds, a sly smile on her lips.
"Oh…" I pause, understanding that Prim had been part of the master plan to give me some privacy. Inside I feel a rush of affection for her, the smile coming to my lips with ease. "Thank you for that."
"You deserve the big girl room for once. Trust me on this. I've been asking you to move in there for weeks you just haven't listened to me!" Prim responds and I step towards her, pulling her in for a tight hug. "I think Peeta is chomping at the bit to go," she whispers into my ear, patting my back and then pushing me away. "I'll see you later. See ya Peeta!"
I turn to find Peeta holding my shoes and looking at me with a smile that knows just how touched I am by my sister's actions.
"Have a good night guys, try not to overdose on cookies or something," Peeta laughs and guides me through the door and out into the dark night of the city.
AN: So DUN DUN DUUUUUUUN - I'm going away for about 10 days so just a heads up. I'm trying to nail down chapter 25 before I post 20 so it might be a few days after I get back before that's posted. Sorry in advance, but thank you all for being so awesome for so long.