I wake up to the sound of the phone ringing.
My head feels almost unbearably heavy. I'm curled up in a ball on my side, buried under a mountain of blankets that are covering everything, all the way to the top of my hair. It's making a warm little nest, but the comforting presence of Peeta wrapped tightly around me is missing. I reach out for him, to bury my head in his chest to make the sound go away, but the solid, warm mass that I'm used to is gone. It's then that my mind puts two and two together.
Today is his birthday, and somehow I've managed to sleep in. His first birthday with me as his wife and I've already managed to mess it up. He's already gone to the bakery for the day, completely destroying my plans for the entire morning. Of course, he didn't know about them. He doesn't even know that I know what today is. The thought makes me cringe. I am his wife, after all. It bothers me that everyone just assumes I don't know these things. I may be broken beyond repair, but at least I am trying.
Not well enough, though, apparently.
The phone continues to ring and ring, and I don't want to answer, but I have to because I planned for this call; I know who it is. If I don't pick up, she'll just keep on calling. With a violent push, I throw off the blankets and roll out of bed. I pull one of his shirts on and slowly head downstairs toward the phone, my head throbbing. With the exception of the nausea, the morning after a night of heavy crying feels surprisingly like my limited experience with the morning after a night of heavy drinking: absolutely terrible.
My dreams had been awful. I don't think either Peeta or I slept more than four hours. Since we got married, the nightmares had calmed somewhat, but last night they were back with a vengeance, and I woke sobbing in his arms as he repeated over and over again that it was just a dream. My mind still felt trapped, even though my body was awake. It took him almost an hour to calm me down, and even then, when I finally lost consciousness, it was to that heavy, terrible sleep that brings nothingness, but at a price. When I sleep like that, I usually don't get out of bed, sometimes for days. If I weren't so angry at myself I probably would still be there right now, locked in that place where once happy memories bind me like chains.
But I am up, and furious with myself because this morning I fully intended to be the one who woke first, to rouse him gently, and so slowly, with kisses and sweet words. He's always the one saying the right thing, being so… romantic. I just don't have the sense for things like that, but I wanted to, for him, on his birthday. So for weeks and weeks, every time I thought of something that I would have been embarrassed to say out loud, I've saved it for this morning. I was going to kiss his eyelids and whisper… well, it doesn't even matter because I slept through everything. I slept through his departure, and even past the time I would have normally been out hunting myself. And I had more plans, as the still-ringing phone reminds me.
"Morning, Brainless," Johanna says as soon as I pick up, smacking her lips as she talks. She's probably still eating breakfast, which irks me because it reminds me of how I was supposed to make breakfast for Peeta.
"Hello, Johanna," I answer heavily.
"Put him on the phone already! I've been practicing. I'm pretty certain once he hears my voice, he's gonna leave you for me." This was part of the plan. Not the part where he leaves me, obviously, but the call itself. They're really close, the two of them, and I knew how much hearing her sing to him would make him laugh, so I arranged for her to call right after our breakfast was supposed to be finished. Of course, he probably ate breakfast alone, and left some out for me.
One glance into the kitchen proves that I'm correct. There is a plate of fresh fruit next to some croissants and a two-word note in his neat script. The feelings of guilt make me angry at him, which I know is completely unfair, but I feel it anyway.
"He's not here," I sigh, pinching the bridge of my nose with my fingers, trying to will my headache away.
Johanna does not reply for a moment, and then all but hisses into the phone.
"What do you mean he's not there? Didn't you have a plan? You're telling me after spending most of the night up with Nick so Annie could get some sleep, I woke up early to sing to your husband and he's not there?"
I can't help but remember her face in the Quarter Quell, crusted with blood and contorted with rage, but thoughts like that will just send me back to bed, and so I push them away.
"I slept in. I'm not–"
She interrupts me, "–a very good wife."
I ignore the fact that this was exactly what I was going to say, and instead finish with "–sure what to do."
She sighs like I'm unbelievably dense, "Well, my sleep is lost forever, but you can make it up to him easy enough. He doesn't have any other birthdays with you to compare with at this point."
"Actually he does. Only I didn't know about them."
"Well, you weren't married. There weren't any expectations. Now though, there are." She pauses, and I'm worried she's going to yell again, but instead she just asks, "So what are you doing for him tonight?" Her voice sounds kind of weird, maybe menacing, which I guess makes sense, considering how much I've already messed this up.
"I made him some ink from berries and bark and things that I found in the woods," I say quickly, hoping my gift, at least, shows that I am somewhat thoughtful. "Well, Vick figured out how to make them properly, but I did nearly all of the work myself once he worked it out. And we're having a small surprise party. People from the Capitol are coming and–"
"No no no, you moron. I'm not talking about presents. Well, I am, but not that kind."
Oh. That low voice meant she was being suggestive, not that she wanted to beat me up.
"Did you get something special to wear…?" she asks leadingly, as though I am some sort of idiot child.
No. I didn't. I didn't even think to. "I… shaved my legs…" I say lamely.
I didn't realize there was this level of expectation involved. Of course I want him to feel good, especially on his birthday, but I don't ever plan for the sort of thing she's suggesting. Frankly, just the idea of deciding when and where I am going to kiss Peeta reminds me too much of the days when I thought about it every single moment because I was forced to. What we do now is far beyond kissing, but it is also completely untouched by the memory of cameras, and I don't want to do anything to taint it. Things happen, and they're great, but always very much in the moment, and other than the powerful and surprising feelings of… wanting, I guess you call it, which have been pretty inescapable, I don't make plans. It just happens.
Even more than that, the fact remains that, despite pretty extensive practice, I don't really know what I'm doing when it comes to…it. I don't even know what to call it in my head. "Sex" sounds so clinical. "Making love" is overly romantic. "Intimacy" reminds me of something that my therapist would say. He'd probably also read something in to the fact that I don't have a way to communicate about the physical side of my relationship. Regardless, Peeta and I get by well enough. It feels physically incredible and emotionally intense; sometimes even cathartic, but always generally wonderful, so I guess that means we get by even more than well enough. But we've been doing it for the better part of a year, and especially frequently for the past six months and I still am not quite sure of myself when I consider the cold practicalities of our sexual interactions in the light of day, outside of the walls of our bedroom or the haze of a fantasy. Should I be doing more? Is just letting things progress naturally to what always happens between us not right? Would he want me to wear some kind of costume?
"Okay, so forget about the outfit," Johanna sighs with frustration. "What are you going to do special? Just for him? You know… like…"
"He won't like that," I say, interrupting her. Peeta never wants me to do anything just for him. He won't even finish if I haven't, which happens sometimes. He just holds me and strokes my hair. His self-control is admirable, but it makes me feel bad, because sometimes I get trapped in my head and overthink things. In those situations, I can't feel good no matter how much he tries, but it's not his fault at all. Johanna doesn't know about any of this. We've never even talked like this before. I've never talked like this with anyone, actually. Not even Peeta. When we talk about sex, it's only ever the emotional aspects, or maybe a few shocked statements of amazement at how good it felt. That's it.
"Are you kidding me?" she scoffs. "He's a nineteen-year-old male. He can't not like it."
I'm blushing as I continue, even though she's hundreds of miles away, "I try sometimes… to just touch him, but he won't stop touching me back. And then I get distracted and the next thing I know…"
"Yes!" I burst out. "I don't… should I be doing this differently?"
At this, Johanna sighs unexpectedly, and instead of the unwanted flood of naughty advice I was expecting, all she says is, "Damned if I know. I'd say, just do what you feel okay with. I doubt he has any complaints." The wail of a child fills the background, and Johanna's voice becomes strained, "Alright, look. I gotta go. Call Annie's later, and hopefully I'll be around to sing to ol' Peg-leg."
"I will. Thanks for calling this morning, anyway."
"Any time. Oh… and Katniss?"
"Just because it can get better doesn't mean it isn't great."
And with that, she hangs up, leaving me feeling better and worse all at the same time.
I think about her words all the way through breakfast, and even as I begin the harrowing task of making Peeta a birthday cake. Vick Hawthorne, who helps in the bakery now, showed me how about two weeks ago. He really likes to make things, it doesn't matter what, but he's not necessarily the world's best teacher, especially at the age of fourteen. Being incredibly intelligent, Vick doesn't quite understand how it is possible for a person to not instantly absorb new information. Peeta would have done a much better job, but I didn't want him to suspect anything. Vick has promised to bring cupcakes and some other baked goods to the party tonight for everyone else, but I am Peeta's wife, and I'll be damned if I can't figure out how to make him one stupid cake.
It's nearly lunchtime when I finally finish. The end product is sloppy and pretty ugly, but it tastes better than I figured it would. I don't want to give myself too much credit, though. I think it's probably pretty tough to mess up a simple chocolate cake. I don't even try to write his name in the icing, but I do push one skinny, orange candle in the center before I hide it away in the cupboard. I've just finished cleaning the kitchen, proud of my success at this birthday tradition, at least, when Haymitch bursts through the back door.
"Happy birthday!" he yells, equal parts sarcasm and sincerity, before he realizes that Peeta is not here. He looks at me suspiciously, and I can tell that despite my earlier request, he is not completely sober. He is, however, carrying a bottle of what looks to be the bubbly wine we had in the Capitol during the Victory Tour.
"Where's the kid?" he demands, sitting the bottle heavily on the table. Tied around the neck is a sloppy bow made of twine. My throat feels tight. Even Haymitch managed to do this mostly right. He was supposed to distract Peeta this afternoon while I made the cake and got things ready for the party. I'm not sure how he was planning to do it, but he clearly showed up on time to take care of his end of the bargain.
"He's at the bakery." I say. His face is accusing, but he is silent, waiting for an explanation. "I slept in," I finally admit.
Of course he laughs for an inappropriately long time.
"You're an awful wife, sweetheart."
He's said worse, and so have I, but something about this, maybe the fact that this is the second time I've been told the same thing in one day makes me burst into tears. Perhaps I'm emotional because of how little sleep I've had. Probably, though, it's because lately I have been so worried that what he's said is true. I collapse into the kitchen chair and let myself cry, head in my hands. I'm an awful wife. I don't know how to be a good one. I didn't pay enough attention when I had people around to observe and now I am completely useless. It would be easier if I didn't care about what Peeta thinks, but I do, so much. He deserves so much better than the pathetic cake in the cupboard from a wife who can't even wake up for his birthday. I just want to go back to bed and turn off all the lights and hide from everything.
Haymitch does not know what to do. He knows how to deal with me when I lash out at him, or become catatonic, or even when I go hide in some sort of secret place, but weeping in the kitchen like a normal woman in a situation that does not involve life-or-death consequences is apparently such foreign behavior for me that he is completely taken aback.
"Are you pregnant?" he asks incredulously, voice laced with more than a little concern. It's not such a bizarre thing to wonder, considering how unlike myself I am acting, but the thought still makes my stomach lurch.
I shake my head, still holding it in my hands, trying to pull myself together but mostly failing.
"Do you think we got married too soon?" I ask suddenly, a hiccough punctuating every few words. I knew that I loved Peeta, that I didn't want to be with anyone else, ever. But maybe we should have waited. We were only eighteen.
Waited for what, exactly? A little voice in my head wonders. Till you got better? Cause that's never going to happen. It's more than a little disturbing that the my internal voice talks surprisingly like Haymitch.
The man himself falls heavily into a chair across from me, "Sweetheart, I'm only going to tell you this one time, so listen. Too much happened to the both of you. It was always going to be too soon, or too late, no matter what either of you did. No point in thinking that way." He pats me awkwardly on the head, "But it's only been three months, and this is the most normal problem I've ever heard you have. So no. I don't."
"I ruined his birthday," I say, sniffling, feeling completely humiliated for crying like this in front of him of all people.
He scoffs. "He woke up next to you and went off to a job he loves. I doubt it's ruined. It isn't even half over. Or is the entire party cancelled 'cause of your little nap?"
"I wanted it to be special. The whole day," I mutter, my pain and embarrassment easily transitioning into irritation at how lightly he is taking this. It's an emotion that is easier to deal with.
He laughs, "Yeah, you did. But who for? You didn't ask what he wanted, or even let on that you knew today was his birthday. Kid'd be happy with pretty much anything you did, but once things started going wrong, you managed to make this more about proving you're a good spouse than it is about celebrating him." The chair scrapes against the floor as he stands up.
"You're the one who said I didn't deserve him," I say in a low voice. I lift my head, tears gone, a look of fury in my eyes.
Haymitch can see it, and it makes him grin, as he heads toward the door. "You're taking this whole wife thing pretty seriously for someone who swore she'd never get married."
I throw an apple at him, but he ducks outside at the last moment, laughing to himself.
"You sure he didn't knock you up?" he yells loudly enough for the whole neighborhood to hear as he walks away.
"You're drunk!" I shout.
"See you at the party, sweetheart!" he calls back gleefully, right before tripping over one of his geese and cursing loudly. I slam the door as hard as I can. Serves him right.
He's only been gone about a minute, and I'm still standing by the door, hands squeezed into angry fists, when there is a knock. I yank the handle open, ready to give him a piece of my mind, but it's only Rory. Why I would assume Haymitch would knock is beyond me. Rory looks confused by the somewhat deranged look in my eyes, so I relax a bit and tip my head towards Haymitch's house. The boy gets it pretty quickly.
"I got the stuff you wanted," he says softly, handing me my game bag. "Three squirrels, and a turkey. Also a bunch of berries in there."
Rory's been indispensable lately. We hunt at the same time, though not together like I used to with his brother. We just check up on each other throughout the day. Now that the mines have been abandoned, sinkholes are beginning to open up around the area. With the glaring exception of no more whipping threats, it's actually become more dangerous to hunt than it ever was before. Rory doesn't really have Gale's skill for snares, but he is the best tracker I have ever met, and he can bring something in with almost any weapon. At the end of the day, he usually has almost as much game as I do.
"Thanks," I say. "I owe you one."
He nods, and is about to leave, when he turns and looks at me a bit longer than usual. "You alright, Katniss?" he questions. It's a bit shocking. Rory never asks how anyone is. I think it's because it's the one question he does not want to be asked. The answer would always be the same.
The reason that he is broken brings me back to reality. Even if I am a horrible wife, there are worst things. Much worse things. I wrap my arms around myself and take a deep breath.
"I'll be okay. Thanks. Will we see you tonight?"
He shrugs. Rory really doesn't like crowds. I'm not sure if he ever did. "Might stop by for a bit of turkey. Or maybe some of your cake," he flashes a rare smile.
"Vick told you," I say, voice dull with dread.
"He says you're hopeless," Rory actually chuckles as he opens the door, "but I have faith in you." His words are strangely inspiring.
I spend the rest of the afternoon preparing the game Rory brought with revived energy. I may have messed up this morning, but I can fix it. I know I can. There is a reason I got up this morning that was more than just about me trying to prove that I deserve my husband, and if I stop remembering that, then there's just no point in doing this at all. While the game is cooking, I go about decorating the house, despite having the aesthetic sensibilities of a dead squirrel. I'm standing on a chair, completely tangled in orange streamers, when there is rapid knock at the door. I can hear a chattering voice through the window. There's only one person this could be.
"Come in!" I call out.
Delly rushes inside, a giant smile on her face. "We made it from the station! He didn't see us!" She comes over to me and wraps her arms around my thighs, cheek pressed up against my stomach, almost knocking me off the chair.
"Darling, you're going to break her legs," a bemused voice says, as a tall, dark woman follows her into the house. She's carrying both their bags, and smiles at Delly indulgently. I try to get down from the chair, but the streamers are preventing me from doing so safely.
"Katniss, what are you doing up there?" Delly asks, seeing me struggle.
I shake my arm, trying to unravel the streamers that are wrapped around it. "Decorating," I answer through gritted teeth.
"Oh honey," Delly says. "You need help."
Unlike me, Delly and her somewhat intimidating girlfriend from the Capitol have more than a passing understanding of how a house can be attractively decorated. They hang banners across doorframes and tie unassuming bows to the corners. They fill vases with flowers from our garden and place them in tasteful little nooks, somehow not making anything look too feminine for a man's party. As early guests arrive, they arrange the food I have prepared and others have brought in a way that both makes sense, and looks nice. Peeta's friends (and mine, I suppose) begin to arrive in droves. I basically had to invite the entire district - he gets along with everyone, and there are so few people in Twelve nowadays. The guests are happy to be in our home, and tell me so over and over. I make small talk, despite how uncomfortable it makes me. Across the room, Haymitch laughs at my attempt to be a welcoming host.
Thom and his wife Susie are the last to arrive before the party is scheduled to begin; the time that Peeta comes home every single day without fail. As they look at what Julia and Delly have done with our home, Thom whistles, "Wow, Katniss. Didn't know you had it in ya."
Before I can correct him, Delly is by my side, grinning widely, "I know! Didn't she do a wonderful job?"
At this revelation, Effie appears out of nowhere, pulling a much drunker Haymitch behind her. "You did this, Katniss?" she asks amazed. "I would have never imagined! It's so tasteful! So perfectly artistic, yet sublimely masculine! It completely suits Peeta's personality. You have really honed your eye for beauty over the past year, my dear!" Behind her, Haymitch makes ridiculous sweeping gestures, mocking her every word.
"Don't you think, Haymitch?" she turns around, excitedly.
Caught in the act, he can do nothing but turn his mocking movements into an exaggerated, thoughtful nod, "Oh yeah. Very… sublime… and manly."
Effie pulls him away towards Hazelle, who has managed to keep him from complete and utter destitution since she moved back. I turn to Delly. We exchange confused looks.
"She brought an entire chest full of top-shelf alcohol for him on the train," Julia's confident voice rings out behind me, "but it's locked, and she won't let him have it until she leaves. I believe it's her guarantee that he will play nice. She's quite a bit cleverer than she looks."
Delly and I double over with laughter, and we can barely stop. We're beginning to make a scene. Without asking, Julia grabs one of each our arms and leads us into the living room, sitting me between the two of them on the couch. Delly hands each of us a glass of champagne, which I have discovered is the name of the bubbly wine in the bottle Haymitch brought. His is put away, waiting for Peeta, but Effie brought a whole case for everyone else. Apparently, she was a bit miffed when she found out her old tributes got married privately and without any celebration, so she's decided to make up for it now. The three of us each down a glass, and then take another. I feel a warm fuzzy sort of feeling in my arms and legs. It's much nicer than the one time I got drunk with Haymitch.
"Now, we're dying to know," Delly says conspiratorially, "what are you doing for his birthday?"
Not this again. Is this all people talk about once you're married?
"I don't know. Just… you know… regular stuff. He seems to like that. A lot." I take a deep breath and decide that if people are going to ask, I might as well do the same myself, "What else am I supposed to do?"
Delly smiles encouragingly, "Why don't you start by telling us what "regular stuff" is?" I turn and look to Julia, hoping for some sort of support, but she is giving me a level, clinical stare, waiting for me to continue. When I'm less than forthcoming, she adds, "Perhaps it would be easiest to talk about what body parts you use."
"Hands… and… um… the obvious?" I hope they understand what I mean. I take a large gulp of champagne. It's making it easier to talk about this.
"So masturbation and vaginal intercourse then," Julia translates bluntly. Somehow, I manage to choke on the champagne. Delly looks at me with concern, but Julia seems to want a response
"No, I mean, I touched him. Not myself," I clarify, still clearing my throat. "He's never seen me do that." I mutter.
"The terminology is the same, unfortunately," she says, unabashed.
Delly continues to smile encouragingly. It's a little unnerving, like we're discussing the best way to make a stew.
"So you've never… with your mouth" she begins, unsure of how to continue, and I know that's only because she doesn't want to upset me. I may be uninformed, but I still know what she's getting at.
"He asked me if he could do it to me once, but it seemed too… I wouldn't let him," I finish lamely. It had seemed like he would be too far away, frankly. I was worried that I would get stuck inside my own head without him close by to anchor me.
"LET HIM," they both say with a frightening level of intensity.
After a moment of awkward silence, Delly adds with a nervous laugh, "That is, if you are comfortable, of course."
"Obviously discomfort would completely ruin the experience," Julia continues.
"But if you can manage to work yourself up to being okay…" Delly trails off.
"You will not regret it," Julia finishes firmly.
My head feels just a tiny bit lighter than usual. It must be from the champagne. I feel like maybe it's okay to talk about this. Surprising even myself, I say, "Yeah, but that's not really about him. And he won't let me just do that to him if I don't want him to do it back. I know he won't. And even if he would… I'm not sure how." I'm not sure if they can follow me, since I'm too embarrassed to use specific words to describe what I'm talking about.
"I think you're overestimating his commitment to making certain things are always mutual," Delly shrugs. "As far as how is concerned, it's not that complicated."
"You mean, you've done it before?" I ask, trying not to look at Julia. I hope I'm not getting her in trouble.
Delly laughs, "Yeah, I have. People in Thirteen had a lot of different ideas about what to do with "Reflection" time. There were a few cute boys there, and it was pretty boring if you weren't training to be a soldier."
Julia chimes in, "Although I'm lacking any practical experience, I can tell you from a neurological perspective that there are a few areas in the region that will produce quite satisfying results, if focused on." Looking around, she picks up a breadstick from a nearby plate and holds it up. "Here. For example, if you envision this as the tip and this as the junction with the testicles–"
"Uh, 'Lia," Delly interrupts, tipping her head toward the owner of the plate, who had just recently sat down in the armchair. Poor Vick's jaw is hanging halfway to his knees. He stands awkwardly, and then runs into the kitchen, his olive skin the color of an overripe tomato.
Nonplussed, Julia continues.
"As I was saying…"
Before she can get too far, she is interrupted once again, this time by Posy, who has been peeking out of the front window the entire evening. Vibrating with excitement, the little girl calls out, "He's coming!" The word spreads through the house, and silence falls. Guests begin hiding behind various pieces of furniture, and many of them pile into the kitchen, which is not visible from the front door. I remain on the couch, glass of champagne in my hand.
The door opens slowly and Peeta comes in, covered in flour. "You won't believe the day I've had," he begins wearily, looking at nothing but me, as though I am the one thing that can make the day better. "Vick ran off an hour and a half before he was supposed to, and I had to clean up the mess that he left. No one came by the entire day, so I have a whole bakery full of bread that's going to be stale and useless tomorrow… Wait. Your hair is down. Why is your hair down?"
"Happy birthday, Peeta," I say.
"How did you know it was–?" he gasps in utter amazement, beginning to notice the decorations.
The sudden shout of "SURPRISE!" from our guests shocks him even further, and he trips backward over the door jamb and falls on to the porch.
"I didn't even know you knew it was my birthday," he says into my neck, wrapping his arms around my waist as he stands behind me. The party had gone perfectly. Peeta, who smiled a lot on average days, seemed to be unable to stop. I think he spent at least a half an hour talking one-on-one with every single guest, even Posy. He played three different outdoor games with a group of raucous men who had rebuilt the bakery. He ranted and raved about how charming and delicious my cake was. Overall he seemed almost deliriously thrilled, like a child who had never celebrated his own birthday before. Once the party began to draw to its conclusion, he stayed close to me, looking for every excuse to touch my hand, kiss my forehead, and pull me close. As our guests left, he pulled me even closer.
Our out of town visitors, well, maybe except for Effie, are staying in my old house. It's become sort of a guest home at this point. They always insist on giving us our privacy. The moment they bring it up, I always feel a bit uncomfortable, because I know what it implies. Right now, though, I'm grateful as Peeta's lips brush against my skin and I feel goosebumps rise everywhere. He smells like cinnamon and yeast.
"Give me some credit, Peeta," I huff in response to his earlier comment, trying not to let him sweep me under a wave of sensation.
He chuckles, "You are the best wife ever."
"I'm the only wife you've ever had, and it's only been three months. Don't give me that much credit."
His hands go from my waist to my shoulders, and he turns me around, so he can look into my eyes. "Katniss, I'm serious. This was amazing, all of it. The surprise party… seeing all my friends... those inks that you made… that delicious little cake… the decorations. It's perfect. I can't imagine what could possibly be better."
"Delly and Julia did all the decorating," I admit a little sheepishly.
He grins, "Oh, I know." The fact that he had already figured this out and doesn't mind in the slightest fills me with relief. I don't know why I expected him to care in the first place. He knew exactly what I was like when he married me. Home decorator was not high on the list of my accomplishments.
"Rory brought in all the game and Thom and Susie grew the greens for the salads," I continue, as he leans forward and pushes my hair back so he can kiss the skin behind my ear. I gasp a little.
"How else were you going to have time to bake that wonderful cake?" he mutters in-between kisses.
"Vick taught me how to bake it," I whisper. I need to make him stop doing this, or I'm going to completely forget what it is I'm planning on doing with the rest of the night.
He pulls back and looks at me with laughter in his eyes, "I bet you two both left that lesson a bit… put out."
I'm a little confused, "You don't care that I didn't do all of this by myself?"
He gazes at me with that incredulous, amused look that he gets when he thinks that I just don't get something obvious. "Katniss, I know how hard it is for you to ask for help. The fact that you did is more impressive than if you had done everything single-handedly," he wraps his arms around me and pulls me close, "Thank you so much for everything."
"It's not over yet…" I lean back, and raise my eyebrows, unable to keep a little smirk from creeping onto my face.
Just like that, the atmosphere in the room changes. A sort of electricity thrums through me, starting at every place where our bodies are touching. I can see his pupils dilate, and he clears his throat. "Oh?" he asks, in a gravelly voice, and his arms tighten around my waist. With firm hands, I push him backwards until he is sitting down in the armchair. He looks at me with arousal-tinged curiosity.
"Close your eyes," I tell him.
Ever compliant, he listens. I walk over to the phone, and call Annie's house.
"Odair Residence," Johanna answers in a bored voice after only a few rings. I hope she hasn't been waiting all night for this call.
"Start singing," is all I say. I put the phone up to Peeta's ear, making certain it is secure and his eyes are still closed before I walk across the room toward the light switch, dropping my clothes as I go. By the time I dim the lights, I'm only in my underwear. Johanna is singing "Happy Birthday," so loudly, and so horribly, that I'm pretty certain Peeta can't hear anything else. He's laughing, but I can tell that he's trying to sense where I am in the room, bewildered by this turn of events. I make a complete loop from where I've started, and drop to my knees on the other side of his chair. Johanna's almost finished with the song when I begin undoing his belt.
Peeta is too polite to tell her to stop, or even interrupt, but I can hear his sudden intake of breath.
"Keep your eyes closed, Peeta," I say in a serious voice, pulling down his zipper. I'm still a little warm and fuzzy from the champagne, but I am realizing that this, the idea of doing something only to make him feel good, is actually making me feel very, very good myself. I don't feel nervous. Maybe, in the future, he and I can talk about sex. Not how it makes us feel emotionally, we've talked about that plenty of times, but… more practical matters.
Johanna's raucous laughter is echoing through the room when I pull him out of his shorts. In the brief time it took to undo his pants, he's grown completely hard. I softly run my fingers up and down the length of him, taking my time to really observe in low light of the room. Normally, things are either so frantically passionate or intensely emotional that I don't really have the space to do this. But with his eyes closed, I don't have to worry about how he will react to my inquisitiveness. His skin is so soft, it feels like flower petals covering a stone. Johanna chatters on, oblivious. Or maybe not so oblivious, because Peeta's definitely making muted strangled sounds as he says, "Uh-huh. Yeah. Sure," and tries to pay attention to whatever it is she is talking about.
I can hear her laugh as she says, "Alright, Breadboy, I'll leave you to your evening. Hope it's a memorable one." Her laughter is cut off as she hangs up. A beat later there is a crash, as Peeta drops the phone onto the floor. Then there is a tense silence. I know he is waiting to see what I will do. It's either now or never. Without a word, I lean forward and wrap my lips around the tip of him running my tongue over the head a moment later. He tastes salty. It's a little strange, but not bad. He moans at the contact, and I feel his hips thrust forward just a bit in an instinctual movement.
"Katniss?" he asks weakly, eyes still closed just like I asked. I lean forward and take even more of him into my mouth. He's not exactly small, and my mouth isn't exactly large, so I'm not sure how this is supposed to work, but I'll do my best. "Hey… what… is that your…?" he tries to ask, failing miserably.
I pull away for him for just a moment to say, "Open your eyes."
His blue eyes flash open just in time to see my mouth descend again, taking even more of him than before. He makes a sound that might be some kind of an attempt at words, but it's certainly not in any language I've ever heard. I keep my eyes locked on his as I bob my head up and down slowly. His thighs are trembling underneath me and his hands are gripping the arms of the chair like he is desperately trying to hold himself down.
"This isn't… you're not…"
I open my mouth again to respond, running my tongue up and down the side of him. He whimpers.
"I like this, Peeta," I reassure him, before taking all of him again. It's blatantly obvious that he likes it too.
He gasps and moans while I play. I suckle gently on his tip, and then run my tongue around it in rapid circles. I kiss his thighs while I use my hand to pleasure him. I experiment with different types of pressure and speed. All the while, he's watching me in awe, whispering bits of near nonsense that I can barely hear. His hips are steadily rocking back and forth. The longer I go, the more I see his hands trembling against the armrests, until finally he can't take it, and gently buries his fingers in my hair. He softly but firmly guides my head downwards while his hips thrust upwards, pushing himself into my mouth deeper than I thought it was possible for him to go. It makes me gag a little bit, and somehow, amazingly, he stops all movement completely, grasping the chair again until his knuckles are white.
"I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry," he mutters over and over. "I just… I can't… feels too good."
I take one of his hands and put it back on my head, "Just relax, okay? I can handle it."
"I love you so much," he says with frantic desperation, and then begins to thrust again, but this time he's slower and more deliberate, giving me more time to adjust. His entire body is shaking, and I know it's only going to take a few more moments. I feel his cock begin to twitch in my mouth, and for an instant, I wonder whether it's the wine or the arousal, or what exactly that made me refer to him like that. Either way, it doesn't feel weird. Just… appropriate. He feebly pushes at my shoulder in warning, but I stay put. I feel his body stiffen, then watch as he he throws his head back and gasps out my name, thrusting sharply forward, a gesture I don't think he can even control. At the same time, several surges of hot liquid hit the back of my throat. I swallow instinctively and then stand up to get feeling back into my legs, wiping my mouth with my hand. My knees hurt a bit, but I'm not about to complain.
His body seems to be melting into the chair, completely and utterly sated, a look of shock and wonder fixed on his features. He holds a limp hand out to me, and when I grasp it, he yanks hard and I fall forward into his lap.
"You didn't have to do that," he manages to say, looking into my eyes with so much gentleness and gratitude I can hardly bear it. I smooth his damp hair back from his forehead several times and kiss him softly. For a long moment, we are just quiet. My own body is buzzing with want, but I just let it slowly dissipate as he holds me.
"I know," I finally murmur in response. "I wanted to." Before I realize it, I'm telling him the whole story, "I wanted to wake you up this morning and just… cuddle," the word feels weird in my mouth, but I don't know what else to call it, "but after last night, I didn't wake up until so long after you were gone. There were so many plans I had for the whole day. No one came to the bakery because I told them you'd be closed. Vick thought he was going to be there all by himself. Haymitch was going to do something with you this afternoon, I don't know what. I was going to make you breakfast. But you had to eat all by yourself on your birthday, and–"
"Katniss, I hate my birthday," he interrupts me, sitting up and looking serious instead of spent. I didn't expect this at all. He runs his fingers through my hair distractedly as he continues, "My mother was not nice to me on that day specifically. Not ever. It also didn't help that it was so close to the Reaping. Once Will turned twelve, we stopped even acknowledging it until the day after, when everyone was safe for another year. Even then, it was just dad and my brothers. They'd sneak me a few cookies in the bakery when my mother was still asleep, and sometimes give me a half-used sketchbook or something. That was it. The few memories of my real birthday that I can actually even remember are just of general anxiety, or…" he trails off.
"I'm sorry," I whisper, wrapping my arms around him tightly.
He chuckles softly, "Why are you sorry? This has been the best birthday ever."
"Yeah, well, I want to be a good wife… like I promised."
"But, Katniss, you are, even without any of this," he gently nuzzles my cheek.
I don't want to ruin the moment, because it is his birthday, but I also can't keep this inside any longer. "Not like you. You always know what to do and what to say and how to talk about your feelings, and I don't. On top of that, I hurt you for so long before all of this."
"I lied to you twice, both times pretty significantly, Katniss," he responds matter-of-factly, "Also, there's the instances where I've literally hurt you, almost killed you."
"That was not you." It frustrates me when he talks about the hijacking like this, like its something he could control. I wish we could go a month maybe without him bringing it up. "And I… misled you in the arena too, but you didn't care. You kept coming back to me, even when I was… confused, even in the Quell when you should have just wanted to live, even in the Capitol when your own mind was fighting against you." He tries to interrupt, telling me that we've both been through a lot, but I shake my head angrily. I feel uncomfortable, saying this much at once, but I want to drive the point home somehow, so I repeat to him the phrase that lately has been running through my mind several times a day.
"I could live a thousand lifetimes and never deserve you."
He sits up and gives me a sideways glance, "That has got to be the most ridiculously melodramatic thing I have ever heard you say. What's gotten into you? Have you been watching Plutarch's daytime broadcasts while I'm at the bakery?"
"No," I bite my lip in frustration. He's supposed to be taking this more seriously. It's true, after all.
"Then where on earth are you getting ideas like that?" he keeps trying get me to look him in the eye, but I won't. I don't want to tell him, because I know how he'll react. "Come on, Katniss. You know we have to talk about things like this."
"Haymitch," I mutter at last.
His face grows hard, "Why in the hell is he telling you something like that? Of course you deserve me! I'm a one-legged mental patient! If anyone got the raw end of the deal, it's you."
"He said it a long time ago. Before the Quell, even."
Peeta sighs, "Katniss, things were different then. You can't feel guilty for that all the time, or this… it isn't going to work."
His wording makes my blood run cold. This not work? What does that mean? Does it mean he's going to leave if it gets to be too hard? That he'll give up just like Gale? Just like my mother? I try to stand up, to get away. If that's the way this is, then I have to run.
Sensing my fear, he tightens his arms around my waist, "Sorry. That came out wrong. I'm not going anywhere, Katniss. Ever," he soothes me. " But I don't want you to feel like you constantly have to make up for the past either. I need our life together to be more than a constant atonement for things that happened before."
I try to relax, feeling guilty for even assuming that he would ever leave me. Much as I hate it, it's the crux of the problem, "I feel guilty all the time. Not just about you. I've done so many horrible things. I've failed to protect so many people, and you're one of them."
"The war is over, Katniss. We can't live there anymore. Prim," I tense up at the mention of her name, but he keeps on going, "Prim died doing what she believed was right. I know it was senseless and horrible, but it meant something to her. So did Finnick, and Boggs, and Cinna and everyone else. I wouldn't have been willing to die for you if it didn't mean something to me. We wouldn't letyou protect us. It wouldn't have been right for you to try. You can't protect people so much that you don't allow them to live. And sometimes, that means that they won't always come back."
It's a testament to how far I've come that I'm not screaming and pounding my fists against his chest right now. I don't know what to say. I don't want him to be right, but at the same time, the only person that has tried to protect me in the way he's referring is Peeta himself, and I was prepared multiple times to completely disregard his protection. Thinking about it too much makes my heart feel so heavy, and part of me just wants to run and hide. The world we lived in was so dangerous and horrible, but the things that made it so, the fact that those you love can be lost, have not gone away with the fall of the Capitol. How am I supposed to function in a world like this? A world where I can lose the one person left that I love?
I don't have a choice. It's the only world I've got.
"I don't want to talk about this anymore, Peeta," I say quietly. He begins to argue, but I stop him and continue. "I don't mean forever, but I'm tired, and it's your birthday. I just want the day to end happily. Is that okay?"
Oh Dr. Aurelius, you will be so proud when I tell you about this next week.
Peeta smiles softly and he nods, "Okay." Without warning, he stands, lifting me up as though I weigh next to nothing. I push away against his chest, but he's holding on too tightly, and my push does literally nothing. Instead I stop fighting and scowl at him. He grins widely in response, and leans down to kiss my cheek.
"I do have one birthday request," he says casually, as he carries me up the stairs and kicks the door to our room open with his foot.
"I suppose I can accommodate you this one time," I sigh dramatically as he gently sits me down on the bed. I realize that I'm still only wearing my underwear, and he's completely dressed, although his belt is undone. The way he is looking at me makes my heart race. He looks like he wants to devour me, and I find myself pretty comfortable with the idea.
His eyes are dark and hungry as he speaks.
"Close your eyes."