It's routine now, this sleeping arrangement we have. It started off with self-conscious uncertainty, both of us wanting it and neither of us willing to ask the other. When your mind is a mess and your body is textured with scars, rejection is a pain that feels too unbearable. But constant nightmares are unbearable, too. We fell asleep in her living room after working on the book for hours into the late night and early morning, our heads propped on opposite ends of the sofa, our legs making a warm tangle in the middle. A nightmare woke her; I held her. We went to her bedroom, she reached for me, and I slid in beside her, drawing her body against mine in a way that was immediately familiar. I still had paint and flour on my clothes. Her hair smelled like the woods.
I haven't spent another night alone since then.
We've gotten closer in other ways, too. Sometimes our hands meet, and she lingers for a moment and smiles before she pulls it away. There have been a few kisses – brief, shy ones in the kitchen as we put away the dishes, or in the morning when she first opens her eyes, stretches, and then curls closer to me, pressing her nose into my neck. She likes it when I rub my fingers up and down her arm.
It's a slow process of discovery for her and remembering for me, and it's not without tension. When my body sometimes responds to hers without my permission, she either ignores it or hushes my apologies by mumbling, "It's okay." We are floating somewhere undefined, picking at the invisible seam that separates friends from lovers. It will be like the sleeping arrangement, I think. It won't happen until an innocent circumstance in the hazy hours makes us forget ourselves. Or until one of us decides to take a chance.
Tonight, I brush my fingers back and forth over the arm she has resting on my chest, using the light pressure of my fingernails, just the way she likes. She makes a happy sound, a little breath of air that warms my neck. I lift her hand and bring it to my mouth to kiss her palm.
"On the beach in the Quell… you wanted me," I say quietly. Her stillness in my arms suddenly seems even more pronounced, somehow. "Real or not real?"
"Real," she whispers after a few seconds of silence.
I lay her hand back down, resume stroking her arm. The Capitol had footage of that kiss. From multiple camera angles. And they had used it to great effect. Only in the past few weeks have I been able to separate the shiny claws and gnashing teeth of their manufactured Katniss-Monster from the snatches of real memory. Arms around my neck, fingers threading through my hair, quiet sighs of encouragement.
"Has there been a time since then?" I ask. This question hangs between us even longer than the previous one. I stare up at the ceiling and remind myself to breathe.
"No," she says at last. Just before my heart can shrivel in on itself and retreat to some hidden place where I'll never find it again, she goes on. "But we… we haven't kissed like that since then."
"Do you want to?"
No pause this time. "I do want to."
I shift her smoothly from my shoulder to the pillow, brushing her hair back with my fingertips. Her eyes are wide and locked on mine. I kiss her – really kiss her – and her lips open under mine as her hand reaches for my neck and holds me to her.
"I feel it," she says when we finally separate, both of us taking short, quick breaths. "I feel it," she says again. She smiles when she draws my mouth back down to hers.
One of her hands slides under the loose neck of my t-shirt, rubbing my back, while the other slips up into my sleeve and grips my shoulder.
"Want me to take it off?" I ask against her lips.
In answer, she does it herself, tugging it over my head. Her fingers find and trace my scars as we pause and watch each other's faces. A smile tugs at her lips each time I inhale sharply or exhale shakily. I can't help smiling back at her. And why shouldn't I smile? I am happier than I ever thought I could be again.
"What are you thinking?" she asks me. Her fingers have found their way back into my hair.
I tell her the truth. "I want to make love to you," I say. I don't feel embarrassed or fearful, which surprises me. "Maybe not tonight, but someday."
Our mouths meet again in a soft, deep kiss, and I feel goosebumps on my arms when Katniss leans her knee against my hip. She trails her lips, feather-light, to my ear, and my breath is shallow against her shoulder.
"Tonight," she whispers.
My head snaps up more suddenly than I intend. I'm about to ask her if she's sure, but I know Katniss. She wouldn't have said it unless she meant it. Her shirt has ridden up a little, and I lay one hand on her waist. A little sound escapes her, and her eyes are dark. She answers my unspoken question with a nod, and I slide my hand up under her shirt to cup her bare breast, brushing my thumb over the most sensitive part of it. Her head sinks deeper into the pillow as she pushes herself into my hand.
"Peeta," she murmurs.
I push her shirt up with my free hand and lower my mouth to her other breast, letting her gasps and sighs serve as my guide. She sits up a little, and we pull off her shirt. Her olive skin is beautiful in the low light. It's beautiful in every light. I return my mouth to hers, allowing a little more of my body to move over her. Her breasts push against my chest with every breath she takes, and I can feel her heart pounding against mine, matching its erratic beat.
It's impossible to keep track of whose hands are where, so my hips jerk when I suddenly feel her hand cupping me over my boxers. I groan and lower my forehead to her shoulder, unable to concentrate on anything else as I struggle to hold it together. I put my hand over hers and draw it back up to my chest.
"I want to hold on," I explain softly, kissing her shoulder. "I want us to have this together."
Though I once teased her for being pure, Katniss isn't stupid, and I know that she understands what I'm telling her.
"Let me see you," she says.
I shift slightly to take off my boxers, commanding myself not to be prudish under her gaze. Her eyes travel down from my face, and I can't read her expression as she looks at me. She meets my eyes again as she reaches down to slip off her sleep shorts and underwear.
"I love you," I tell her. I can't help myself.
She reaches for me, and I settle my body back over hers. Just the feel of her under me, naked, is almost too much. I lower my head to kiss her breasts again, her little sounds of satisfaction turning me on more than I would have imagined. I stroke my fingertips in random patterns over her hip and down to her thigh.
"Peeta," she breathes. "Please."
My fingers move at last to find her, and when I do, she cries out and arches up into my hand. I explore her gently, awkwardly, kissing her lips and neck and shoulders and breasts as I learn how to please her. She is so soft inside – so warm. I love the slick, velvety feel of her. Curious, I raise my fingers to my mouth and taste her. It isn't what I expected. It's mostly tasteless, but there is a hint of sweetness to it.
"Please," she says again. She's been repeating this, along with my name, over and over, begging for release. I want more than anything to give it to her.
I kiss her stomach and continue lower. I find the spot where my fingers have been, and I kiss her there, caressing the small bit of flesh as I would her tongue. It doesn't take long after that for her body to contract around my fingers as I hear my name cried out in a way I had only ever dreamed of hearing. When I return to her mouth, she holds on to me tightly and takes control of our kiss, securing my body to hers with both her arms and her legs.
"Katniss," I whisper against her lips. If she wants to stop, she only has to say the word, though my aching body may never forgive me.
She smoothes back the damp hair on my forehead. "I want this, Peeta." She smiles at me, slides her nose next to mine. "I want you."
I reach between us and carefully guide myself in, keeping my eyes on her face for any signs of discomfort or pain. Apart from a brief wince, she seems fine. Pregnancy isn't a concern because both of our medical regimens include birth control. Dr. Aurelius was firm on that. My head falls to her shoulder when my hips meet hers, and I take a minute to try to bring my body and my breathing under better control. When I raise my head again, Katniss smiles at me. She touches my face, and I close my eyes, breathing deeply. My body is screaming at me to move, but rushing this moment is the last thing I want to do.
"I'm sorry if I hurt you," I say.
"I've been hurt a lot, Peeta. Nothing about this hurts." She gives me a soft kiss, and I've never known her hands to be as gentle as they are now, stroking my back.
"I love you," I tell her again. "More than anything."
She presses her hips to mine. "Show me."
I kiss her with years' worth of unrequited hunger as I brace myself on my forearms and move in her. Once I've established something of a steady rhythm, she begins to move along with me. As we find ourselves too overcome to focus on our kiss, our mouths separate and simply hover near each other. I hear myself saying her name, and I hear her saying mine. I don't last long.
I roll onto my side, and Katniss turns to face me. She is smiling. She has smiled more tonight than all of our days back in District 12 put together. We lean in to kiss, and I lose my fingers in her dark, wild hair.
"You love me. Real or not real?" I whisper.
And, yes, it is finally real.