"It's getting chilly," Peeta says. We're on the roof, sitting side by side, my head on his shoulder. It's been dark for at least an hour. Here in the Capitol, the temperature drops severely at nighttime, like the glorious watercolor sunsets are leaching the heat from the earth.
But I know what he's implying - that we should head in, go to bed, get some sleep - and my chest feels tight and strained for the first time since I woke up this morning. Today was as close to perfect as a day can be when you spend it knowing it's one of your last. I'm not ready for this to end.
"I'm okay," I lie, and he knows I'm lying - I think he must always know, by now - because he says "Okay" and then shrugs his arm out of his jacket sleeve, wrapping it around my back so that we're both in the jacket, huddled together like the night we spent atop the Cornucopia.
I sit up and shift back, our shoulders pressed firmly together. It is warmer, sitting so close like this. I remember all the times I touched him in the cave last year - he always felt so hot I thought it must have been the fever. But it turns out he's always warm, like there's a little oven inside of him that never shuts off.
"Do you think we could've still been friends, if all this had never happened?" he says abruptly.
"I don't know. Sure," I answer, uncomfortable. What does he want me to say? The truth is, for the better part of five years I avoided Peeta Mellark every chance I got, hating the hot, shameful feeling that swept over me when we met eyes in the lunchroom or brushed past one another in the hallway. Because there was no way I could ever, ever repay him for what he gave me. The odds of striking up a friendship were never in our favor. "Why?"
"Just thinking out loud," he responds. He's silent for a moment. "I guess not, right? You would've married Gale, and I would've ended up married to, I don't know, Delly or something."
You still might, I think, and something sinks from my chest to my stomach. I’m being unfair, though. I should be happy to think of Peeta alive, loving someone, growing old with them. Isn't that the point of all this? Isn't that why Haymitch and I agreed to save him?
"I've never wanted to marry. Anyone," I say. "You know that."
"I do," he agrees. His hand is in my lap, and I can feel his thumb running back and forth on my thigh. Peeta sighs and tilts his head, gently resting his cheek on my hair. "I'm so sorry you'll never get to live that life, Katniss."
"What are you apologizing for?" I say, bristling, pulling away from him. I don't understand where this is going. I don't understand why he's upsetting the delicate peace we've managed to create, here on the roof. "I just told you, I didn't - I don't even want that life."
"No, I don't - wait," he pleads, reaching for my hand. "I don't mean marriage, exactly. I just mean...whatever life you would have wanted, if the Capitol hadn't been there to screw it up. Whatever you would have chosen."
"Oh." I've always resisted this kind of thinking. What good does it do, to dwell on the impossible? Years ago, I could have sat around wishing that my father hadn't died - at first, I did. But when Prim's clothes started to hang on her tiny body and my mother laid in bed all day, I realized that wishing wasn't going to make anything better. I had to do something.
I squeeze his hand anyway, try to sound comforting, because I can sense that he thinks about this a lot more than I do. "I'm sorry for you, too.” He squeezes back. “At least I volunteered for it. You never got a choice."
"You didn't have a choice," he says quietly, looking down at our hands, entwined between us.
I don't say anything, because he's right. What was the alternative? Sending Prim into the Games? No. There was no alternative. The moment Prim's name was chosen at the Reaping, all my possible futures narrowed down to one.
Peeta’s eyes are turned down, and lights from the moving billboards down below play against his pale eyelashes. It’s not the first time I’ve been fascinated by his eyelashes – they’re longer than any girl’s I’ve seen, except maybe Effie’s fake ones. But it might be the last, I think sadly.
He sighs. "It's stupid, but...you know how some people think that there are all these other universes, just like ours, only there's one little thing that went different?"
I don't know - your mind rarely wanders to other universes when your little sister is growing hungry and weak right in front of you - but I nod anyway. "Sometimes it makes me feel better, to imagine that there's another me out there somewhere who's doing okay. Like if my name never got picked." He flips my hand over gently, almost shy, and begins to trace a pattern on my palm with his fingertip. "Or I worked up the nerve to talk to you."
He sounds hopeful, but all I can think is: in another universe, Prim could have died of starvation. Gale could have been whipped to death. Peeta could have died from blood poisoning, or tracker jacker venom, or bled to death... It's terrifying, this thought that there are more Prims, Gales and Peetas, in places where I can't reach them, all dead, dying and worse.
That's the difference between Peeta and I: he finds the best in everything, while I can only imagine the worst.
"I don't care about what could have happened," I say sharply. "I care about what did happen. What is."
Peeta looks hurt, and for a moment I feel guilty. He was only trying to share his feelings with me, and maybe if I had more than a week to live I'd work on being able to do that with him, too. But he knows me now; knows I don't live in what ifs and maybes. I live in yes and no. True and false. Life and death.
"C'mere," he whispers, and suddenly he's pulling me into his lap, wrapping his arms around me, and I'm letting him. I'm overwhelmed, the weight of today, of tomorrow, of the things that should have but will never happen, all falling on me at once. I slip my arms around his back and press my face into his shoulder, hoping he won't notice that I'm crying.
But I hear a sniffle and realize that he's crying, too, and I cling to him even tighter.
We stay that way for a while, wrapped around one another on the roof, listening to the strange beeps and slams of traffic below, to the sound of each other mourning the things we never knew we wanted until it was too late.
When we slip back down the stairs to the twelfth floor, there is no one waiting for us, and it's a relief. I can hear the low hum of the television in the common room and the soft clink of ice in a tumbler. Haymitch is awake, of course.
"Do you want to say goodnight?" Peeta whispers. I stare down the hallway, and shake my head.
"No. He doesn't want to see us right now." I take Peeta's hand and he follows me to my bedroom.
Until last night we'd never actually gone to bed together - on the train he would simply show up, sometimes while I was still awake but mostly when I'd already drifted off to sleep, and slip under the sheets beside me. Tonight we brush our teeth side by side, take turns spitting into the sink, splash water on our faces. In a way, it feels more intimate than most of the kisses we've shared over the last few months.
As Peeta strips down to his shorts I avert my eyes, but can't help noticing how much he's filled out since the last time I saw him almost-naked, in the arena. Then he'd been starving for days, his skin sallow and sagging slightly in the way it does when you lose too much weight too fast. I can't bear to see him like that again; I hope there is game in the Quell arena.
I slip into my nightgown in the bathroom. It's thin and forest green and impossibly soft. Cinna made it for me.
Peeta is already beneath the covers when I return, but he left the bedside lamp on for me. I slide in beside him, turn off the light, burrow my head into the pillow as I curl into him. His arms fold around me immediately. "Goodnight, Katniss," he murmurs into my hair.
"Goodnight." I close my eyes and try to let Peeta's steady breathing lull me to sleep.
I can’t sleep. All the emotions that I'd shrugged off for our picnic in the sun have rushed back, crawling around inside my head. Dread. Guilt. Fear. Worry for Prim and my mother and Gale. There's residual happiness from my day spent with Peeta, and, as always, confusion about what it meant. What it means.
"Peeta," I say. In the silence it sounds louder than I expected. His eyes flutter open, questioning. Here in the dark they're deep blue, almost black.
I'm not sure what to say; I just can't be alone with my thoughts anymore. "I had a good day," I whisper.
He smiles, a slow, sleepy smile, and as I look at him something flips over in my stomach. "Me too," he says softly, reaching out to brush a strand of hair from my face. His hand trails down my cheek and comes to rest on my neck.
It hits me very suddenly that this moment will never happen again. Tomorrow night he'll lay beside me, touch me - but we'll be in a new context, a different day behind us, a more frightening one waiting before us. And there will be even less time to breathe, and see, and feel.
Before I can convince myself it's a terrible idea, I lean in and kiss Peeta. There's a long moment of stillness. But then he kisses back, his fingers flexing on the back of my neck, moving up to tangle in my hair.
It's the first time in a long time that we’ve kissed when we're away from the cameras. It only takes a moment to realize I'm feeling it again: that warm desire I first felt in the cave, that need for more kissing, more touching. And this time we’re alone. If I let it, my body can finally have what it wants tonight.
Peeta breaks away first, pulling back slightly. The tips of our noses are still touching, just barely, and I turn my head a fraction to rub mine against his. Deep in my mind I know this is called an eskimo kiss, but I can't remember why, or who taught me.
"What are you doing?" he whispers, so softly that I wonder if he thinks he's dreaming, and doesn't want to wake himself up.
I don't know what I'm doing. Something I should have done all along? Something I'll regret for the rest of my (admittedly brief) life? "Does it matter?"
"It does to me," he answers, eyes searching my face. "I don't want you to kiss me because you feel sorry for me, or something."
"I don't feel sorry for you." My voice trails off. How do I explain what I don't really understand myself? "What you said earlier, about the other universes. It made me realize that...there's just this one, for us." I swallow. "And that means we've only got one chance…for things."
Peeta is silent for what feels like forever, looking thoughtful. Finally he speaks.
“So you don’t want to die a virgin.”
A flush creeps up my cheeks, and I’m glad he can’t see it in the dark. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t part of it. All my life I’ve thought that I had no time for boys, for love, for sex. That part of my life could come later, if I even wanted it to. Now that I have time for nothing at all, I can’t help but wonder if that was a mistake.
I reach up to cover his hand where it rests on my shoulder, and slip my fingers between his. “Is that so wrong?”
“No,” he breathes, and leans in to kiss me again.
My hips press into Peeta’s, the green nightgown riding up over my thighs. It's like my body knows what to do, even if my mind can't keep up. He makes a noise low in his throat and rolls me onto my back, shifting himself over me, his stomach resting against mine.
For the first time I can feel how hard he is, pressed up against the inside of my thigh, only the thin fabric of his shorts between us. A sudden rush of desire curls up between my legs, the intensity so startling that my knees tighten around him reflexively, fingers digging into his back.
I'm not really sure what to do while he's kissing my neck, my collarbone, so I run my hands down his back, coming to rest just above his shorts. I play with the waistband, dipping my fingers an inch below it, afraid to go any further. Peeta drags his lips down to my shoulder and then pulls away slightly, resting his forehead on the pillow next to me. He's breathing heavily; I can feel it, all the way down to my toes.
"You want to do this?" he asks me, pulling his head back up to look at me. I can tell that he's trying to be serious but there's so much underlying his words: giddiness, disbelief, caution.
I'm nodding before I can even think about what that means. But my chest arches up into him as he kisses me again, running his hand up under my nightgown to cup his hand around my breast. I've always trusted my body's instincts, and right now it's telling me to wrap myself around him, feel him, taste his skin, let him into mine.
"You feel amazing," he tells me, brushing his thumb over my nipple, which is incredibly sensitive now. I can't stop the little moan that escapes my throat. Peeta hears it, must be encouraged, because he squeezes my breast gently, rubbing his fingers over my nipple in little circles, and oh, it feels so good.
"Can I take this off?" he whispers. It takes a long moment for me to realize he means the green nightgown. When I’d slipped it on it had felt so luxurious, but now it just feels tangled and restrictive.
"Yeah," I say, and prop myself up against the backboard of the bed, lifting my arms so he can pull it over my head. Peeta stops for a long moment, balanced on his knees between my legs, and just stares at me. I feel a blush creep into my cheeks. After all I've endured at the hands of my prep team I should be used to a little nudity, but this is very, very different.
"Stop looking," I murmur, leaning forward to wrap my arms around him and pull him back for another long kiss. Our chests are pressed up against one another, nothing in between, and it feels strange, but in a pleasant way.
Peeta backs up a little and pulls down on my hips, shifting me so that my head is resting on the pillows, elevated just a little. He bends his head down and licks around my nipple in a slow, hot circle, his hand coming up to palm my other breast in the same, teasingly slow motion. I'd thought his fingers felt good, but his tongue is another thing entirely.
How does he know how to make me feel like this? The answer enters my head before I can stop it, becomes all I can think about, even as his hand begins to wander lower down my side. "Have you done this before?" I ask abruptly.
Peeta stops and sits back. I immediately regret it, longing to have his mouth back on my skin. "I've done things," he says vaguely. "I've never had sex." It hits me again that that's what we're about to do right now, what we are doing. I’m having sex, with Peeta. "Why, have you?"
"No," I say defensively. "I'm too 'pure', remember?" That I've never had sex should be obvious. My first kiss was with Peeta in that cave. Everything I know about kissing, and now sex, I've learned from him.
He smiles at me like I'm being ridiculous. Maybe I am. "You're not too pure," he says. "You're perfect." And he kisses the spot between my breasts, over my heart, then looks up at me. "Is this still okay?"
I give him a small smile back. "Yes," I answer, and sigh as he lowers his mouth to my breast again.
I start to become very aware of my lower body, the heat pulsing between my thighs. I slip my hand down there, and am surprised by how sticky and wet I am. I move my fingers experimentally, shivering a little when I brush past the sensitive little nub in the middle.
Peeta notices me touching myself and he moves his hand down to my underwear, eyes questioning. I nod, tilt my hips so he can slide the soft fabric off of me. I’m completely naked now. And it’s scary, until I see how Peeta is looking at me: like he’s stumbled on buried treasure, like I’m the one thing he’s wanted in his whole life.
His fingers take over where my own were just moving, and he studies my face intently, looking for a hint, a reaction. To be honest, it doesn't feel as great as I'd expected, and I shift around, trying to bring his fingers closer to the spot I want. He can tell he's not getting the same reaction and he touches my hand hesitantly. "Do you want to show me?"
Do I? I'm embarrassed, but I guess I do, because I take his hand and guide his fingers over me, brushing over the slick wetness before moving them up to that sensitive spot again. I move our fingers together in slow circles until he settles on the rhythm, and let my hands fall away to clutch the sheets beneath us because this feels better than anything, ever.
But it's like each time one hunger is sated, a new one reveals itself. I'm hyper-aware of the ache deep in my core: it's that of a space begging to be filled. My hips move gently up and down, in time with the steady rhythm of Peeta's fingers, and somehow he knows what I'm asking for. He slips a finger inside me. I gasp, nodding, and he adds a second.
His fingers move inside me and on me in tandem. It's harder than ever to control the little noises I'm making. But Peeta seems to take his cues from them, repeating the things that make me moan the loudest, or doing them faster.
It feels good, but it's still not exactly what I want. I rub my foot along Peeta's calf, to get his attention. "Peeta."
"Mm?" He stills his hands.
"You should -" I swallow, suddenly shy. "You should take off your shorts."
I don't need to tell him twice. He tries to pull them off so quickly that he loses balance on his good leg and falls over on his side, the shorts caught on his knees. I laugh and feel immediately guilty, covering my hands with my mouth. He pulls the shorts the rest of the way off, looking embarrassed and a little hurt.
"Peeta." I reach out for him. "Come here."
Still looking flustered, he moves up the bed to lay next to me. I've seen a man’s penis before - there's no way around it when your mother treats sick patients on your kitchen table - but never aroused. Never like this.
I run my fingers down the side of his cock and he closes his eyes, his mouth opening just slightly. His skin is softer than I expected. I wrap my hand around him, squeeze gently, and he groans a little.
"Do you want me to...?" I trail off, unsure. All this time he's been focused on me, and I haven't done a single thing for him in return. It's so typical of us, and I feel ashamed. Selfish. Peeta would fetch me the moon if he could, and I'd forget about it before he even made it back to Earth.
He meets my eyes. "Honestly," he says, "I just really want to be inside you right now."
A thrill shoots up my spine. This is what I want, too - him, inside me. I kiss him in answer, a deep one, my tongue pushing past his lips. "Okay," I murmur, settling onto my back, pulling him over me.
Peeta takes a moment to adjust his balance, resting most of his weight on his hands. His hips lower to mine and I feel him press tentatively against me. This is real, this is happening.
"Wait," I say suddenly.
In a way, it wouldn't really matter if I got pregnant. If everything goes according to plan, Peeta will be the one to walk away from the arena, not me. But I don't know if I can go through with this if there's even the slightest possibility of that happening. "We need - do you have protection?" I ask desperately, knowing that most likely, he does not. I'm not sure what I'll do if he says no.
But Peeta nods and looks away, seemingly embarrassed.
"When Effie saw that we were sharing a room again, she um, gave me some condoms. And a lecture," he adds, rolling off of me to reach down to the floor for his pants. He pulls a shiny foil square from the pocket. "It was weird."
I can't help but laugh, and he laughs too as he rips open the packet carefully and rolls on the condom. He climbs back over me and presses his forehead to mine, smiling. "I'm really happy right now," he whispers. "No matter what."
I close my eyes, suddenly sobered. "Me too," I breathe.
"I'm going to...go into you now," he continues quietly, kissing my nose, then my lips. "But tell me if I'm hurting you, okay?" I don't answer. "Katniss?"
"Okay," I say. I open my eyes again, meeting his, and smile, hoping that he can't see that I'm scared. And if he can, that he can also see that I trust him.
Peeta enters me very slowly. I press my lips together and squeeze his shoulders where my hands rest. It does hurt, but not unbearably. Mostly it feels strange, foreign in a way that his fingers didn't, but also better - more satisfying.
He stops, and takes a deep breath. He eyes are a little unfocused, directed somewhere over my head. "I'm okay," I say softly. "You can keep going."
Peeta drops a kiss onto my forehead. "I just need a second," he says, and laughs a little. "This is...wow."
He gathers himself, and pushes further into me. There's a brief, sharp pain and I cry out a little, but tell him to keep going. Soon he's buried inside me, all the way in, deeper under my skin than I thought was possible.
We're still for a long moment. The only sound I hear is Peeta breathing, and his heartbeat, pounding in his chest.
I nod. “I’m okay.”
“Good. You feel amazing,” he blurts out again, and I can’t help but smile.
He starts to move in me - slowly, in and out. I try to move my hips to match his but we can't seem to get the timing right, and we bump together awkwardly.
"It's okay," he whispers. "We'll get better at this."
I can tell the exact moment when his face falls and he realizes he's forgotten himself. Because he’s wrong. We won't get better – this is it for us. I wrap my arms tighter around his neck, even more desperate to keep him deep inside me for as long as we're able.
I stop trying to match his movements and focus on the rest of him instead, kissing his neck, his chin, running my hands through his hair and down his back and over his stomach. His cock slides in and out of me in a steady rhythm. I think I’m beginning to understand why people go crazy for this – for the desperate anticipation as he slips out, the delicious burn as he pushes back in. I tilt my hips up, draw in a sharp breath. It feels like he's disappearing into me even deeper, if that's possible.
Eventually Peeta’s hips start to move differently, his thrusts growing faster. His expression is of intense concentration. I can tell that he's going to come soon, and a wave of desire washes over me.
"I'm gonna come," he chokes out, confirming my thoughts. He's thrusting hard now, and it's somewhat uncomfortable, but also exciting. I pull his head down to mine roughly and kiss him, hard. He groans into my mouth as he orgasms, his body jerking for just a second or two until he lets himself collapse onto me.
He's heavy, but it feels nice to have him on top of me, for a little while at least. I run my fingers lightly up and down his back, waiting for him to collect himself again.
Eventually he turns his head and kisses my cheek as he gently pulls out of me, rolling onto the bed beside me. Our hands find each other in the space between us, tangling together. I miss him already, wishing, however implausible, that he could just stay inside me until we fall asleep.
Peeta takes a breath to speak, and I brace myself for what is sure to come: another declaration of love that I can't return, more sweet words that melt me and freeze me at the same time. But he surprises me - just another surprise in a night full of them, I suppose - and says, "You didn't come yet."
I was so wrapped up in him that I nearly forgot, but he's right. The thrumming heat between my legs flares up again. "That's true," I murmur.
"Do you want me inside you again?" he asks. He’s already half-hard again. Part of me does, but I also feel sore, and the new feeling of him filling me up is so distracting I'm not sure I'll even be able to come when he's in me.
"Kind of, but I kind of just want you to use your hands again," I say, feeling inexplicably shy again.
"Okay," he says easily, and picks back up where he left off earlier, slipping his fingers back to the spot where all my desire seems to spiral out from. His other hand strokes my knee, and he presses slow kisses along the inside of my thigh. I'm already close and it doesn't take long for the orgasm to build in me, curling from my toes all the way to tips of my fingers, exploding in one brilliant moment where my whole body seizes up in pleasure. I feel like I climbed up a mountain and fell off of it, all at the same time.
Peeta kisses my stomach, right above my bellybutton, and rests his cheek there for a few seconds before scooting up beside me. My head feels fuzzy; suddenly, all I want to do is sleep. His arms slide around me, warm and slightly damp with our sweat.
Peeta's smiling so hard that I feel my own smile stretching across my face of its own accord. "That felt good, right?" he asks.
My limbs feel loose and heavy. I nod, not trusting the words that might come out of my mouth if I try to speak. Because if Peeta asked me to rip out my heart right now and hand it to him, I think I'd say yes.
In a way, I already have. I've given myself over, I think, and feel none of the panic I thought I would.
"You look so beautiful," he says quietly, pushing stray hairs back from my face. "I changed my mind. I want to live in this moment forever."
"Okay," I agree easily, and Peeta looks so delighted that I have to laugh.
"Nothing. You," I say. "You look so pleased with yourself."
"I am pleased with myself." He grins. "Got to give you something to remember me by, right?"
The smile drops off my face. All my life, there’s always been something to remind me that no matter how good you feel at any given moment, it won’t last. It can’t last. And this is no exception.
Peeta reaches up to touch my cheek. "Oh, Katniss," he sighs, "I didn't mean it like that. It's just a joke. It's a saying."
It is just a saying. But it doesn't change the fact that in a matter of days, one of us will be nothing but a memory to the other.
Peeta curls himself around my side, one arm across my middle, the other fiddling with my braid on the pillow. We’re quiet for a long time. I think he’s fallen asleep until he says, very quietly, “It'll be okay." And then, "I love you." And then, “I’m never letting you go.”
I turn my head away. “You’ll have to,” I answer faintly.
My dream that night isn’t of the arena, like every other night.
It’s of another Katniss. A Katniss whose father never died, whose mother never disappeared within herself, whose sister was never reaped. She still loves to hunt, and still hates the mangy orange cat who wakes her in the morning, yowling for food. But there's a lightness in her that I haven't felt for years; I don't think I'll ever feel it again.
There’s a boy in the dream, too, who bakes her biscuits for breakfast and sets snares that trap rabbits for her dinner. And she never questions loving him with her whole heart, not even once.