Showers have become guilty pleasures for Katniss. Since the origin of the phrase, she decides, it has not found a suitable example until now. Though it has been over six months since her return to the district, every time she steps onto the linoleum tiles and twists the knob to turn on the shower, she feels like she is betraying the memories of those they lost.
She knows that if she admitted as much to Peeta, he would tell her her guilt is for naught.
As with many things she disagrees with him about, she feels the weight of contrition trickle onto her skin as the showerhead sprays water over her body. Before her life as a tribute, she had never been treated to the luxury so routinely and so freely, and now it seems such an exorbitant price to pay for so frivolous an indulgence. But just as fleetingly, the liquid dribbles down and washes away the day's dirt and troubles, sloughing off a layer of skin to reveal a new version of herself.
She sighs, and acquiesces to Peeta’s voice inside her head. Besides, she does her best thinking while she is in the shower. Or it at least provides a pleasant distraction. For instance, earlier tonight, she decided to jump in the shower to keep her mind off wondering why Peeta wasn't home yet, late as it was. Peeta had been occupied in the past several weeks, helping rebuild the district. He had even decided to resurrect his family’s bakery with the help of others who’ve returned to 12.
Katniss is in the midst of lathering shampoo into her hair when she catches herself, and wonders when it was that she began to call this house a home.
It happened around midsummer.
When shipments arrived for Katniss and Peeta, it would not be unusual for them to receive bottles of liquor to pass on to Haymitch. But this time, amongst the painting supplies and blank parchment Peeta unpacked, an envelope bearing Hazelle Hawthorne's name slipped to the floor. With an unreadable expression on his face, Peeta handed the letter to Katniss, as she tried to keep her own eyes from widening when she recognized Gale's slanting, uneven scrawl. She quickly pocketed the letter, meaning to deliver it to Hazelle, who had just returned from 13, first thing tomorrow.
The two worked on the memory book the rest of the night in silence––the letter in her pocket weighing heavily between them, a reminder that not all ghosts belonged to the dead.
As the evening grew later, and they each yawned twice, Peeta announced that he would head home, and began collecting his things. Katniss sat at the foot of the sofa and watched him pack each paintbrush in its container. His hands were purposed, his eyes focused, and his jaw was set in a straight line. Though Katniss had a terrible knack for reading people, it didn’t take a whole lot of deduction to figure out what was bothering him.
"Gale was wrong, you know.” This caused him to look up, his eyes darker in the darkling room. “About me choosing between the two of you, whoever I can't survive without.”
He cast her a strange look. “I overheard you two talking that night… at Tigris’s…” she confessed.
His expression seemed to soften at her apologetic tone.
"I can survive just fine, Peeta. I've been doing it for years, for as long as I can remember. But I––we can’t get better if we stay like this.” She gestured to the spot she was rooted to with her arm, but she hoped she was able to intimate something more. It occurred to her that she has been going through the motions of life but not really living. They both have. She now knew there was no healing in stasis. “I want to live."
After several moments standing still, Peeta noiselessly dropped the objects in his hands. He kept his gaze on the remaining paints on the ground. He made no other movement, letting his arms dangle uselessly at his sides. And yet he did not make a move to leave.
He raised his head. He replied with the tiniest hint of hope in his voice. ”Yeah?”
"Will you stay?"
“Yeah." She thought she could hear his heart add in a whisper, Always.
And he so did.
Katniss steps out of the shower and wraps a towel around her body, tucking in the end at her front, in the valley between her breasts. She anxiously breathes in the steam from her shower, while drying her hair with a second towel.
She listens for sounds of life in the house, but hears nothing. She tries not to let her concern turn into worry.
When her feet land on the bathmat, she catches part of her reflection in the mirror over the sink and wipes it with her palm. She futilely erases the condensation that had gathered, only to be fogged over again. In the small area that she can see of herself, she notices many changes since she first returned to 12. Her ribs no longer protrude from her sides, hair has grown over thinned patches, and her skin has healed into shiny scars. But much like her obscured reflection, she feels the greatest change in her are the invisible ones. She feels more at ease––a feeling she might even venture to call peace––in her skin as well as her house, especially since Peeta has moved in.
It is then that her ears detect the sound of the front door closing and into the house, followed by footsteps dashing up the stairs. She gives her hair one last wring with her towel before depositing it on the rack. She opens the bathroom door, and moves into the bedroom, just as Peeta appears––slightly out of breath––at the open bedroom door. She does not ignore the tiny lurch in her chest as she finally sets eyes on him.
“Hi,” she greets, slightly out of breath herself, as if she were the one who just raced up the steps.
“Katniss. I’m sorry I’m late,” he says contritely, walking towards her, not bothering to turn on the lights. He continues to explain, “Some of the guys in town wanted to––“
“It’s okay,” she interrupts, a smile playing on her lips, as she glances up at him. “You’re home now.” She reaches up to brush some of his hair, that had perhaps been ruffled on his way here, down. Her hand slides to the back of his head as she stretches on tiptoes to lightly press her lips against his. Then, without warning, she wraps both arms around his shoulders and pulls him in for a deeper kiss.
When she pulls back, Peeta returns her with a grin, happy to be apparently forgiven for a transgression he did not commit. He also returns her with a kiss of his own, his hands reaching for her terry-clothed waist. He looks down at her curiously––partly reeling from the shock of Katniss’s sudden display of affection, though she won’t hear him complain––studying her face in the dim light streaming into the bedroom from the bathroom light she left on. Finally, as if suddenly just remembering, he gives her the greeting he didn’t when he first entered the room, “Hi.”
She answers, amused and (always) amazed at his playfulness, “Hi.”
Neither of them speak a word for several moments, and instead, they hold each other in the dark. Peeta can feel her fingers grazing the back of his neck, absently playing with the hair above his nape. Katniss moves to bring a hand to rest on his chest. She can feel his heart beating reassuringly under her palm. All of the sudden and gradually, a familiar desire comes over her. It is a feeling she has taught herself to squelch for the past few months––actually, for as long as she has felt close to Peeta––waiting for an illusive sign for that even more elusive perfect moment. But feeling her heart beat inside her own chest, quickening without her consent, and yet she ventures onward.
Her eyes travel up Peeta’s face, over his chin, his mouth, until she finds the courage to lock eyes with him. She opens her mouth to say something––to appeal, to request, to seek––but, as usual, she is at a loss for words. She almost lets out a laugh at how silly she feels. She worries her bottom lip, searching for the right word before she speaks it. And when she does, she says it shyly, almost at a whisper, “Now.”
Peeta tilts his head slightly in confusion. The contented smile on his face is replaced by widened eyes and eyebrows that almost disappear into his recently trimmed hairline, as Peeta slowly and finally arrives at her meaning. Katniss is silently thankful for his astuteness. “Are you sure?” he inquires.
She nods her confirmation and a smile graces her face. It is his turn to launch himself at her this time, fully encircling his arms around her waist, lifting her slightly off the ground. She wraps her arms around his neck and shoulders, as they bring their faces together for a kiss. Almost immediately, their mouths open and their teeth clash, as the kiss becomes more and more heated. They do not bother to pace themselves, even as both of them know where this will lead.
She walks them forward, until the backs of his knees hit the bed. She stops kissing him for a moment, partly to catch her breath. She pushes him gently to sit at the edge of the bed. She holds his gaze as his eyes follow her as she kneels between his legs. Without looking, she unties the double-knots of his boots and removes them. She undoes his belt and trousers. He wordlessly lifts his hips to allow her to slip his pants off him. She sees him swallow, as she rests her hands on his thighs.
She knows he thinks they are about to repeat one of their more intimate encounters. Katniss feels a bit guilty now, but she knows it must be this way. Peeta grabs her head unexpectedly and leans forward to capture her lips in an intense kiss, but she withdraws before he can deepen it. She plants a chaste kiss on his lips in apology.
Her hands moves from his thighs to his right leg, where she unfastens Peeta’s prosthetic with delicate fingers. She’s seen him do it dozens of times, she can almost do it simply by touch. One hand returns to caress his thigh to soothe him, for she sees the panic begin to rise in his eyes. She stops what she is doing and reaches up to cradle his face in her hands. Her thumbs brush his cheekbones gently, wordlessly asking for permission. After a few moments, he nods his assent. When she places the artificial leg on the ground at the foot of the bed, she draws him in for a reassuring kiss.
It is her turn to bare herself now. She guides his hands to the towel that has stayed knotted at her chest. She nods her assent. When the towel pools on the ground, he takes her in hungrily. Though he is familiar with the feel of her skin underneath the covers of clandestine nights, he’s never seen her fully bare before.
Resisting the urge to cover herself, Katniss reminds herself of who she’s with and steps into Peeta’s waiting embrace. Katniss leans toward him, and together, they move their bodies onto the bed––lips, hands, and skin meeting in the process.
Their souls have been connected for so long now, it seems fitting that their bodies be joined as well. Since his return to District 12 and to himself, they slowly built up intimate moments––heated kisses in the dark, experimental touches under the covers––to find themselves here. But there was an unspoken agreement between them that they would not come together in weakness, seeking diversion or mask from pain. Instead, they are here to strengthen the bond they already shared, and stoke it with heat that can only come from a girl on fire and her baker.
He used to touch her as if he was afraid she would break, but now, he touches her with a frantic hunger as if he would break if he didn't. In the times he'd shared her bed, he'd long suspected that she keeps an internal temperature higher than most people's. Each kiss he now plants on her skin radiates with heat, sets his lips aflame, and he finally comes to grasp the aptness of her former title.
He settles her onto her back, while he takes a place above her, between her bent knees, her feet planted onto the mattress. He carefully balances himself without his prosthetic to keep him steady. He braces himself, placing a hand on her hip, while she helps steady him with a hand on his arm.
Once he thinks he's found his bearings, he loses them again at the sight of her thighs spread beneath him, eager to receive. He teases her entrance with the tip of his hardness, which elicits a whimper from her. It takes every cell of his being not to drive himself deep into her at that moment, but he thinks momentarily and wickedly that that can wait. Their movements are still awkward, as he fails to enter her twice. Even when she guides him toward her center, slick as she is already, the angle is still not quite right. They laugh softly, nervous but easily, at their attempt to navigate this strange yet exciting new facet of their togetherness.
When he finally slips insider her, he feels her like a furnace, a hearth, that strangely reminds him of the familiar comfort of a roaring oven. As with everything they do, they do together: she meets his grinding pelvis by arching her back, ignited by the rhythm he is creating. When she reaches between their connected bodies, it is nearly enough to drive him to the edge. He drops his head down to her shoulder as she brings her other hand to cradle the back of his head, alternating between gripping and toying with his hair. He exhales her name, chanting it over and over next to her ear; his breath, hot and maddening, is punctuated by his quickening thrusts.
She thinks she is wrong before, about her solely living and breathing for this boy, because every fiber of her being is now being undone by him. As if beckoned by his voice, she comes, crying out his name––the last syllable of which is lost between something resembling a moan and a sigh. Moved by her ecstasy, he follows her, calling out in one final burst. Still reeling from her own release, she clenches her muscles to urge the last drop from him. They unfurl the remainder of their pleasure together, listening to the sound of their hearts beat in time with the cicadas that have returned to the district.
While still inside her, he lifts his head from her shoulder to look at her, supporting his weight on his arms so that he hovers above her. With her hair splayed around her head like a dark halo and her skin glistening, he thinks she couldn't look more lovely. She reaches out her hand to brush the thin layer of perspiration from his brow. He smiles and kisses her lips lightly in gratitude.
They disentangle so that he can lie next to her, on his side, his arm bent at the elbow tucked under his head. She shifts to her side, facing him as well. Peeta reaches over to cover both their bodies with the thin sheet. He lets his hand linger on her skin, caressing her shoulder lightly.
Peeta breaks the silence with a soft murmur, his fingertips traveling, reverent at every inch, to touch her cheek, “You love me.” Though he still asks the question anyway––it’s become something of a security blanket for them both––they both sense the wonder in his voice at his declaration. ”Real or not real?"
On impulse, she stills his hand with one of hers, and presses a kiss against his palm. It is the same gesture her father bestowed on her mother, and once many lifetimes ago, by this same boy in a dark cave on her. This room is engulfed in a rather different darkness, pierced by waxing moonbeams that seep through the open window. She gazes deep into his eyes, impossibly blue in the wan moonlight, and the love she sees reflected in them tugs at her heartstrings. She thinks he couldn't look more lovely and with a drowsy smile, she answers unequivocally, "Real," before giving in to the heaviness of sleep, the gentle weight of his hand never leaving her cheek.
Long ago, on the roof of a distant memory, he roused her from a light doze to witness a sunset they both thought would be one of their last. He does the same a few hours later, when the sky turns a particular shade of orange, to welcome their first sunrise, together.