Five Years Later
If I'm not careful, the spray can is going to squirt me in the fucking face. I'm crushing it in my fist, my finger anchored on the nozzle. All it would take is a break in my concentration, a moment of panic to make me to aim the can the wrong way. Just a few reflexive millimeters of pressure for the paint to spritz me blind. And then if the embarrassment doesn't kill me, the can's toxic ingredients will at least send me to the emergency room.
My pulse sky-rockets. I have to get it together before she wakes up or this will be a total failure. Standing in our room, I loosen my death-grip on the spray can. I step back as quietly as possible and scrutinize the wall across from our bed. The letters I've painted there look ridiculous. The words are all wrong. My fingers had shaken so bad that the handwriting looks like it belongs to a first-grader.
Who the hell do I think I am? I'm an artist, not a romantic. I can't even find a worthy way to ask her. The question is unoriginal, popped from the cork of every guy's mouth from here to Timbuktu. It's unworthy of my girl.
My mind wanders to Tall Gale and how he must have asked her. He probably did a better job than I will. His head is so much closer to Heaven, so I have no doubt he was able to pull the right sentimental speech from the clouds.
I roll my eyes. Whatever, dammit. She didn't choose Tall Gale. She chose me.
Her foggy sigh rises from beneath the covers. It's a red flag. She's a deep sleeper, but she always gets up around this time. I've gotta fix this quick. I run into the hallway, rip open the closet, pull out a spare sheet, and then ransack the apartment for pushpins. Returning to the room, I cover my epic stupidity of an idea with the sheet. I'll just tell her—
I don't have to turn around to know that she's sitting up, holding the patchwork quilt she spent a year making to her chest. Her hair is falling over her shoulder, tangled and messy. She's blinking. In short, she's irresistible.
"What are you doing?" she asks.
I hang my head. "Nothing."
"That nothing smells like spray paint."
Oh. Yeah. That.
Of course, she's going to smell it right away. She probably sees it, too. For the first time, I notice the remnants of the fumes swimming in the beam of light from the window. We have a big room but not much furniture, so I didn't have to move shit out of the spray can's radius. The immediate space near the wall is mostly consumed by plants.
Is my lame romantic gesture killing the fucking plants?
"Um." I scratch my head. "What spray paint? I don't smell anyth—"
"Peeta Mellark. Look at me."
Dammit. She used to call me by my full name all the time when we were strangers. She only uses it now when she knows I'm bullshitting her.
Bracing my hands on my hips, I twist around. Naked Katniss shoulders. Hidden breasts. Bed hair. Narrowed eyes. Yup, I'm officially toast. And officially turned on. The feeling unravels the knots in my joints and pumps me full of a different kind of adrenaline. My girlfriend's hot all the time, but she's nostalgically hot when she flashes her former Amish scowl. Stern and strong-willed and skeptical.
Five years ago, I first met that scowl. It used to piss me off so much that I fantasized about her constantly. Her and her little apron, her long skirt and stockings. Clothes that were purer than any thought I'd had since puberty. Clothes that hid all the passion in her. Rip-able clothes.
My mood shifts from stupid to molten in 0.5 Katniss seconds. Other parts of me shift, too.
When I step toward her, she holds up her hand. "Do not come any closer. Answer me. What's going on?"
I ignore her and swagger across the floor while peeling off my t-shirt. "I was redecorating."
"You know it."
"Peeta Mellark doesn't redecorate a thing in this apartment."
Right again. Washing the dishes is as much redecorating as I ever do here. Katniss is the one who's brightened our apartment with color and framed my paintings. She's the one who sewed new curtains for the windows and bought flea-market pottery. She's the one who found a used shelf for my records and her books.
The only decoration I give a crap about is the sight of her bare ass prancing from the bathroom to the bedroom, giving me the green light to pounce. That's my kind of knickknack.
It's time to get sly. I crawl across the quilt, my eyes predatory on her as I knock a small pillow out of the way, making my intentions clear. Like a good girl, she gets my drift. She scoots away from me until her back hits the headboard, but her eyes burn a trail across my torso, her lips brightening with a pink hue that makes her look pure as ever, like that first night she stepped into my cabin at the Everdeen farm, intent on bringing me food, and I cornered her up against the wall just to see what it would do to her.
I hadn't expected the incident to blow my mind, but it had, being that close, smelling the woods and inexperience on her, seeing the girlish arousal she fought tooth and nail to hide. The words I spray-painted on the wall are making me nostalgic for those days. All the ways I pushed her demure buttons, collapsing that barricade of righteousness and bringing out the hot curiosity in her. Like then, I want to catch her off guard and spread her blush everywhere like a watercolor. The very thought of it gets me worked up.
I nuzzle her neck. "I was working on an intervention piece."
"Another lie," she says.
"You're hiding something."
"So are you," I say and pull the quilt from her body, exposing her breasts.
The mattress squeaks. It always does. The more it squeaks, the more I know I've got her right where I want her. The chain around my neck falls forward, and her fingers catch it, pulling me down. Hanging from the chain is something else I'd planned to give her this morning, even though she's seen it a thousand times, but I steer us in a different direction. I hover over her and kiss her plush mouth while she cradles the chain's keepsake in her palm.
The tip of my tongue juts out to trace her lips, and they tremble in response, which does me in fast. Hungrily, I fit my lips to hers, my tongue gliding over her teeth briefly before descending into the hollow of her mouth. I kiss and kiss and kiss her. Ensconced between those warm thighs, I glide my hand down, swipe aside her panties and cup her, humming in appreciation at the way her breath stalls.
Her legs fall open even while she rasps, "Peeta...I demand...that you...I..." As my fingers methodically trace every part of her, she bows off the mattress. "I'm...warning you...I will not..."
"You will," I insist.
"Peeta, tell...tell me this instant..."
"Tell you what I'm going to do with this?" I tease, gyrating the heel of my hand against her.
She growls in frustration. "That is not what I—"
"Let me break it down for you, step by step," I murmur. "First, my thumb is going to brush that sweet fleshy pebble of yours, lightly, again and again. Then once you're sobbing from it, I'm going to add pressure and massage it in small, slow circles, getting it nice and glistening and aching for more. I'll keep you constantly on the edge of an orgasm and pitching into the headboard because you, stubborn girl, can't stay still."
I chuckle when she clenches her teeth and wiggles her hips, attempting to restrain herself. I go in for the kill. "So that by the time my finger slides into you, all I'll have to do is keep it there, stiff and pressed up against that spot near your spine. I won't have to move at all, 'cause just the feel of my finger, immobile and filling you will make you convulse until you pass out."
And then I'm going to fix the wall. And then I'll find a better way to ask her.
Katniss slumps into the bed. After a few more attempts, she gives up fighting. I start to do what I said while fastening my mouth to her neck, certain that I've won.
Until, with a cry of regret, her palms shove against my chest. I roll over and topple onto the floor. I land with a heavy thud and jerk upright just as her legs sprint past me. Shit! Sneaky little minx!
I stumble to my feet. "Katniss, stop—"
She yanks on the sheet. The pins jet to the other side of the room. And she freezes. She stares. "Oh..."
The most uninspiring question known to man stains the green-painted wall in black letters.
Will you marry me?
Jesus. I don't even have a sweet anecdote ready to make up for this, nothing that ends with, "And that's when I knew I wanted you. Always." I don't have anything like that prepared because I don't prepare, not even for this. Because I'm a seismic asshole.
My palms begin to sweat again as I imagine the wildflowers Tall Gale probably picked for her. The crisp shirt and pastoral smirk he must have worn. His hokey Amish suspenders. His polished buggy, the wheels scrubbed free of dirt.
I alternate between wiping my hands on my jeans and tearing them through my hair. Katniss doesn't speak. She stands there wearing nothing but her white cotton panties—I love her in those—and gapes at the words. She twitches, hands rising halfway to her naked chest. She shuffles to the bed and grabs a throw blanket, wrapping it around herself. I almost smile. Even when she's in shock, she manages to "dignify" herself.
She points at the mess on the wall. Her finger trembles like my whole heart. "What sort of art intervention is this?" she asks.
"The personal kind?" I suggest.
"I see," she says, tipping her head to look at me.
My feet find a way to function. They carry me to her. My shadow touches hers on the floor.
I may as well get it over with. I take the hand that isn't grasping a blanket to her body and discover her fingers are as moist as my own. I swallow the bowling ball in my throat. Okay, maybe I do have one anecdote to save the day. "Remember when you got drunk—"
She rolls her eyes. She hates when I bring up that night. It was the only time she ever got wasted. It happened last year, on Prim's nineteenth birthday. Katniss was missing her sister like crazy. Prim had spent her rumspringa visiting us in the city regularly over two years, but when it came time to choose, she decided to commit to the Amish church instead of moving in with us. Prim. Of all people.
It was a hard choice for her, but as much as she loved modern life, she learned to love her heritage more. She agonized over telling Katniss. I will never forget the masterful way Katniss hid her disappointment and spoke words of encouragement to her sister.
Katniss let go of that life, but the pain never goes away. So the night Prim turned nineteen, Katniss was depressed. I wasn't there. I was stuck driving one-hundred and forty miles, each way, to deliver a wedding cake, when it should have been Rye's responsibility, since he's the one who screwed up the order. But Rye had to go to class and Sam was traveling, so I had to do the dirty work. And on the way back into the city, I hit massive traffic. Of all nights.
Finnick and Annie kept Katniss company. They gave her a drink. And then another. One sappy pop-folk record later, Katniss was slurring about harvest season and fireflies. It turns out, she's a sentimental drunk, a trait she associates with weakness. So yeah, she hates this story. But there's something she was too blubbery to realize back then. It's all I've got.
My thumbs graze her knuckles. We study our bare feet.
"You felt so guilty for being miserable," I say. "All worried that if I came home and saw you wasted, I would translate it as a Katniss-doesn't-want-to-be-here-with-me-miserable. So you did something to make up for it? Do you remember?"
Katniss looks away. I take her chin and swing her face toward mine. "You baked me pumpernickel bread."
I once told her that nothing felt more like home than my father's pumpernickel. Katniss tried to follow his old recipe. She can cook, but drunk does not go with cook...or bake. I would have thrown a fucking fit at her for using the oven while plastered if our sober friends hadn't been there to help. But Finnick and Annie know jack about baking.
The next day, still ripe from her hangover, Katniss set the loaf on the table. The bread tasted like chalk. I pretended to smile and Mmmmm.
She burst into tears. She's the one person I suck at lying to.
"That was awful," she recalls.
"No, it was great," I tell her. "The bread tasted a lot better after I put it back in the oven and burned it. Never has there been a recorded moment in history when burned bread tasted better than fresh bread. And what did you say when we ate that crazy toast?"
"I asked you for a tissue."
"After that. After the nose-blowing."
"I said that you gave me hope."
"That things can be better. No matter how messed up you think they've turned out." I cradle her face. "I know the bread was supposed to be some sort of apology for missing the life you gave up, but that's one apology I'll never need from you. There you were, trying to make me feel better on the day that you were hurting. The least I could do was give you hope in return."
This close to her, I smell autumn and sleep. "I didn't come to any big realization that day. Or this morning. All I know is, if this is how we try to take care of each other, we're doing okay. And I don't want to stop doing okay with you. I want to get even better at okay. Okay?"
A small sound comes out of her. A squeak or something. I'm not sure.
"So I was thinking that if you marry me, we could make okay an official thing. We'll have full access to it."
"I'll never leave you. This home, here with me, it's real. It's yours. If you're going to miss where you came from, I want you to know why you're missing it. I want you to feel right about what you chose."
It happens. The gears shift into warp speed, her expression hardening into a rock. "This always felt right, Peeta."
Uh-oh. She's frowning. I'm babbling. I should have cut the mic on myself during one of the okays.
"This'll feel more right," I emphasize. "You won't have to doubt."
She steps back. "I never have before."
I step forward. I don't like the look she's giving me. It's the look of imminent retreat. What did I do now?
Another step back. Another step forward.
Me: "Say yes."
Her: "I won't, Peeta Mellark."
She marches out of the room. Her answer strikes me between the eyes. Then in my gut. Then in the nuts. Then in the worst spot, the spot I felt on one fall morning, years ago, when we had to say goodbye on her farm. I didn't know that feeling could come back to haunt me. Not until I won't, Peeta Mellark. A hit and run.
Last time she rejected me, after I begged her to come to the city, I was devastated. I'm devastated now for all of an instant. I'm broken.
I'm pissed. I stalk down the hall, down the stairs, and find her in the bakery. The shop is closed, the shades drawn because it's a local holiday. Katniss usually comes down here to stuff her face after giving me a moral earful. She's making a beeline for the stockroom, where we store plastic containers full of leftover cheese buns and supersized pretzels.
I grab the blanket-dress and yank on it, forcing her to face me. "What the hell? That can't be your answer."
"I will not say yes to your guilt," she argues.
"You do not owe me this! You don't have to marry me to convince yourself that I'm yours, or to thank me!"
"You told me what you wanted to do for me. Not why you wanted me. No, it's all about repaying me!" Her voice catches. "I made my choice. I'm happy. When are you going to believe that?"
Fuck. She's right. She's so right.
I slide my arms around her. She's stiff, but we stay like that for a long time, until both of us deflate into each other. It's not like baking me that pumpernickel bread hadn't been justified. Because sometimes I am afraid that she regrets her choice. My dad died six years ago. He left me without warning. So I've never stopped expecting people to slip through my fingers.
There are times when I get brutally paranoid about whether our home can replace the roots Katniss left behind. Especially when it comes to things that unsettle her, little details and big ones. City noise, car alarms, sirens, and neighbors hollering at each other at 2 am. Zoos, because she says they're cruel and unnatural. Her every move being monitored in cyber space and by public cameras, which are a far freaking cry from the private lives of the Amish. Hell, anyone can criticize these things, not just an Amish person, but like an irrational idiot, I took it personally when she wrinkled her nose at them.
I've had to mollify her a few times when she came across modern impressions of her culture. A reality TV show. A little girl who showed up at our door for Halloween dressed as Katniss's former self, kapp and all. But when she stumbled across Weird Al's cover, "Amish Paradise,"on YouTube—I have no freaking clue how she got there, but anyway, the title misled her—forget it. Her pacifist nature went out the window, and for a second I was kinda afraid our iPad would follow.
That's not what bothers her the most, though. It's homelessness. Commuters tend to bypass beggars, pretending not to see them, not really giving a shit. To Katniss, who comes from a place where everyone helps one another, she finds this "inexcusable" and hasn't ignored a beggar once since moving in with me. One day, she came home battling tears after being stopped for money by a needy mother and her children.
"It's like being shunned. It's worse than that," Katniss had whimpered, curling into my arms on the couch.
She even brought a homeless woman to our place on Christmas Eve, cleaned her up, made her dinner, and sent her off with the rosemary loaf I'd baked. I didn't think it was possible, but I fell for Katniss even more that day.
And when I'm able to curb my paranoia, I remind myself that she isn't the type to wither from the crap side of this world. Her culture isn't perfect either. Besides, this is reality, plenty people live with it, and she's the strongest person I know. She can take it.
And there're enough things she likes about living in a metropolis, like movie theaters and subways and libraries. Caramel-mocha-whatever-the-fuck-it's-called hot chocolate. Cathedrals and her quilting club. Ice-skating rinks. (I fell on my ass twice that day while she and Annie cracked up.)
She also loves music. The other day, I walked in on her shaking her girly boxers to an old Springsteen tune. I'd been outside working on my bike, and when I saw her, my jaw hit the floor. Things got really interesting when "I'm on Fire" came on the record player, and she began to sing along and sway her body in a way that made me drop the wrench I'd been holding. Needless to say, seconds later she ended up with my greasy fingerprints all over her thighs.
Even though she still handwrites notes for everything, including inviting my brothers or Finnick over—it's more thoughtful and lasts longer, she says—she does like phones now that she knows how to use them.
Her second weekend with me during her rumspringa, my phone had rung in the living room, and I caught her staring at it in embarrassment and slight panic, not knowing what to do. The sight melted my heart. I gave her a crash course on landlines and my cell, and then I got an idea. I'd acted like I needed to grab something from the bakery, but instead I snuck outside. Leaning against a wall across the street, one hand thrust into my pocket and one foot propped up on he brick facade, I watched the light in our apartment and dialed our number. Her voice came out uncertain when she answered.
"Hello? Um, good evening. This is the...Mellark residence. How can I help you?"
My lips slanted into a grin. "So formal," I mused. "It's your home, too, you know."
She gasped. "Peeta? Where—"
"Get in bed," I instructed in a husky tone.
She complied, clinging to the receiver as I introduced her to more creative, vocal ways to enjoy phones that night.
And she loves our apartment, where she cooks with me and we talk for hours out on the fire escape. And this bakery, with its surplus of cheese buns and the flour fights we get into with my brothers.
And me. For some spectacular and crazy reason, she loves me. Even after five years, I could pinch myself.
Gazing down at her now, at the earnest gray of her eyes and the creases of longing between her brows, I'm stunned that I ever had an iota of doubt. She loves being here as much as I loved being at her farm. Neither place can ever be pried from our minds, but they shouldn't be. They're who we are. They brought us together. They won't split us apart. It would take a hell of a lot more than that.
I do believe what I said earlier, how things can be better even when they look bleak. I can make this moment better. I once promised myself that making her happy would always be my job—that and accepting it when she says she is happy. I need to trust that. I need to show her I trust that.
I've been quiet too long, so I speak into her hair. "Does this mean you hate the spray paint?"
She exhales on my skin. "It was wonderful."
That's what I need to move forward. There's still time. There's still a yes dancing inside her, waiting to be coaxed from her mouth. And I can't wait to earn it. I do love a challenge.
I rub my nose against hers. "Let's go for a ride."
I'm calm I'm as calm as a sunset. My emotions have settled since he pressed my body against his. Returning alone to our room to get ready after eating a large breakfast of my favorite chocolate chip waffles—oh, he's certainly doing his best to woo me—I blush at the words on the wall. Yes. That is what I wanted to say the moment I saw his sloppy Peeta handwriting. I fell in love with the question. I fell so deep that I'm still trying to climb my way to the surface.
When he first stole my heart...when was that? It could have been when he drew my picture as a truce between us, or when he asked me to dance in his cabin, or when he gathered wheat with me in the fields, or when he swept me into the windstorm of his motorcycle, or when he told me I had choices, or when I heard him upstairs in my family's shower and I envisioned forbidden things. Or when those forbidden things became real. When we rode to the top of a hill and he lowered me onto a blanket.
Yes is what I wanted to tell him, but then his speech took a downturn. It sounded too much like the reasons I almost married Gale. Unreal reasons. Reasonable reasons. I wasn't ready for marriage when I accepted Gale's proposal. I wasn't ready when I met Peeta, the foul-mouthed and deviant boy from the city, who invaded my compact world. I wasn't ready during rumspringa. I wasn't even ready when I chose Peeta over my Amish life.
I'm ready now. But Peeta Mellark still thinks he's second best to what I gave up. Have I not loved him enough? If I haven't proven just how much he means to me by now, how will I do it as a wife?
Combing through the closet, I choose a long, flowy skirt and a snug, worn t-shirt. I strap on a pair of boots and a fitted jacket that Peeta said was "rock and roll" when I bought it.
He is waiting outside, leaning against his motorcycle and swinging a set of keys around his finger, when I meet him on the sidewalk. My wardrobe choice is not lost on him. His eyes rake over the clothes. I know that look.
He pulls me close and speaks against my lips. "I can't decide if it's the city girl or farm girl in this outfit that drives me wild."
"You're a rogue," I declare.
"Take a compliment, baby."
"From you? I'll always take one."
"Good. Take it and put it somewhere nice and soft."
"You cannot seduce me into saying yes."
He squints. "What makes you think I'm going to do that?"
Because he's done it before, used his words and body to corrupt my resolve. I nearly lost the battle this morning, with his fingers and honeyed words threatening to detour me. I will not let him this time. Not about this.
I give him a look of my own, and he laughs. "Careful," he warns. "I just might try it. I just might convince you."
"Convince me, then. Only use a different method."
"Get on the bike before I throw you over my shoulder."
I secure my helmet and settle myself on the seat, wrapping my arms around his waist from behind and feeling him flex beneath his shirt. I relish holding him like this while we fly through the streets, too fast for anyone to catch us. Removed from everything. Riding the wind.
I assume we're going to the place we always do, a meadow surrounded by forest. It's close to a public farm, my second job outside of the archery range where I teach urbanites to hit a bull's-eye. Peeta calls me the Mozart of archery. I picked up my instrument, without any training, and after a few attempts, I knew what to do, how to claim my target. It happened one day, out of nowhere. I cannot explain how this was possible.
But rather than riding out to that meadow, Peeta rattles me by taking a different route without asking if I'll allow it. It's a route that I recognize, despite it being years. Each maple tree and curve in the road is the same. We pass well-tended barns, covered horse buggies that I duck from although I'm wearing a helmet and no one can see my face...and finally knolls of gold and green. Cornstalks and wheat fields. Their scent is so distinct, rich and familiar as my own reflection, permeating my memory. A thousand vivid moments pass through me, winding around my heart.
When I see my childhood home, my father's farm, my arms tighten around Peeta for support. He covers my hands and squeezes them. We've flown back in time. The house, the porch, the garden in front, the tractors parked close to the hay bales, the stacks of firewood, the trees in the backdrop. Nothing has changed.
I'm shocked and terrified and sad and elated. And furious.
We speed past the property and pull into that secret spot within a curtain of shrubbery, where Peeta used to conceal his motorcycle. I hop from the bike and tear off my helmet before he has a chance to explain himself.
"Did you bring me here to test me?" I accuse, my voice acidic and my words too impulsive for my own good.
Peeta whips off his own helmet, revealing his blond, windswept hair. "Test you?"
"Well, there's no other reason to be here."
"Come on, Katniss." He patiently sets the helmet on one of the handlebars. "That sounds like something an asshole would do. Not a guy who loves every last inch of you."
"My father could have heard the engine roaring!"
"He'd be more likely to hear you having a post-Amish fit."
I huff, but my voice cracks with longing and confusion. "They could catch us here—"
"It's harvest time. They're in the fields," he points out, then climbs off the bike and extends his hand. "Just come on. A few minutes trespassing on your old stomping ground won't send you to the slammer. And if the cows catch us, we'll bribe them."
"Or I can sweet talk our way out of it. I speak Moo, you know."
I try not to laugh and instead point at him. "Don't make fun. While we're here, there will be no cow jokes, no naughty quotes about plowing the field, no Tall Gale impressions—"
"Katniss," he sighs. "You know me better than that. I was trying to lighten your mood and relax you."
I sag. "I know."
He takes my fingers and laces them with his. My chest flares with nerves, and I keep touching the beauty mark behind my ear and swallowing apple-sized lumps down my throat. But at the same time, the nearer we get to the cabin, the longer I hold Peeta's hand, the more I calm down. The more sure my footsteps become.
The cabin is the same too. The log walls and white curtains in the window, the chimney poking from the roof. As we sneak inside, it smells of pine and burnt wood, as though someone spends frequent time here, perhaps waiting for a special visit. A secret one. The possibility lifts my spirits.
That could be why not one stitch of furniture has been moved or replaced. The fire stove, the rocker, the wool blanket and faded quilt. They're all here. As is Peeta's mural painting on the wall. I trace the lines of color that map out our hill. It's overwhelming, how much I remember in spite of all that has changed, how much we've grown together.
His arms wind around me from behind, his words warm in my ear. "I brought you here to remind you that I lived here, too. This is where we started. Where we met and kissed. You should miss it. I do, too."
"Being with you is all I want," I whisper. "I go where you go."
"Same here," he says softly. "Do you want to leave them a message?"
Prim is nineteen now. She must have a beau. Perhaps she's engaged.
Maybe Papa has more gray hairs in his beard, but the lines in his face have multiplied from smiling. Maybe it's been a good harvest this season.
I nod gratefully. Peeta has come prepared, pulling a brush and three small tubes of paint from the inside pocket of his jacket. We paint little pictures around the image of our hill. A glass jar with a lightning bug inside for Prim, to remind her of the evening when she and I danced through the fields. An arrow for Papa, because he gave me his blessing to embrace my passion. And a sunset, to let them both know we're okay.
"You think they'll find this?" I ask.
"I do. I bet we can come here sometimes," Peeta says. "Break the law once a year and paint more stuff."
To communicate with my family. And perhaps they will communicate back. I would like that.
I'm also ready to leave. With him. Always him.
I hope he knows that. I hope so much. But as much as this visit has affirmed that he does, I cannot help fretting. Perhaps I'm simply stubborn, but I need more convincing before I answer his proposal.
We leave the cabin and the farm behind until next year, when we'll have more messages to paint, more to say. As I sensed he would, Peeta takes me to our hill. The place where we shared another significant first. We spread out a blanket. I curl into him and stare up at the branches of a tree swathed in gold and red leaves, but within seconds, he rolls on top of me, tucking himself between my thighs and filling my mind with his familiar scent—wood chips, leather, and sweet spices. His chest drags across my breasts, provoking a fire in my fingers and toes.
He kisses me, the tilt of his head, the thrust of his tongue, and the taste of his eager mouth causing me to arch my back. I like kissing him. I have the stamina to do it non-stop for an incalculable amount of time. Just kissing.
Peeta has other ideas. His palms sneak beneath the tail of my shirt, en route to my bra. So many reactions spiral together. The sudden presence of a pulse. My knees rising. And heat. Everywhere heat. Any more of this, and he'll have me writhing and sputtering and agreeing to whatever he asks of me. It's difficult, but I manage to twist away.
He doesn't care. His lips prowl across my neck, and I die very loudly. He knows too much about my skin.
"Convinced?" he murmurs.
"No," I moan.
"I'll make you say yes."
"You will not."
He groans and tumbles onto his back, leaving me cold. I know he loves me—that is not the point. Our trip to the cabin should have settled it for me, but I want to be absolutely certain the question is coming from a secure place inside him.
I feel him debating something. He nods to himself and pulls out a sketch pad. I understand. We pause to come up for air. I've forgotten my bow, so I take a walk down the hill, where there's a small woodland. I lose myself in memories, my first sight of Peeta in his aviators. My rigid brows reflected in his lenses. And when I return, I find him waiting.
No. Not just waiting. Kneeling.
He holds up the sketch pad. Drawn on the page is a rough impression of my old Amish kapp. The one the he plucked from my head that first night, bent on antagonizing me. The ties are double-knotted. I press my fist against my mouth to hide my smile.
He flips to the next page. Another rough but lovely sketch, the pen strokes quick and graceful, made by a practiced swipe of the hand. The profile of a girl bending over and picking wheat from a field.
The next page, a poetry book purchased during one of our rides away from the farm. The next, a thunderstorm splitting a tree branch. Our night together in the cabin. The next, a girl standing at a window in her nightgown and holding a glass of water. I must have been gone a while because the sketches keep coming. The church I go to in the city. The urban garden that I planted on our roof. Two dancing bodies.
"This is you," Peeta says. "This is what I want."
He sets the pad down, stands, and removes his chain from around his neck. Hanging from it is a ring that belonged to his father. It wasn't until a year after I came to live with him that Peeta was ready to wear it. Since then, he has never taken it off.
"I didn't tell you the whole story," he admits. "What you don't know is that my father bought this ring for someone he loved when he was young. She was his for a while. He said she was the one. It didn't work, but he kept the ring to remember her, and then he gave it to me. Said that I should save it for the girl who inspires me."
He slips the ring on my finger. With the chain attached, the ring is a bit tight, but it will fit nicely on its own. He uses the chain to tug me against him, then clasps the back of my thighs and hoists me off the ground. I gasp, my legs circling his waist.
"You're the one, Katniss. You say what you mean. You never lie. You're passionate about your choices. You know what matters to you, and you hold onto it like no one else I've ever known. You don't love someone lightly, and I'm honored that you saw something in me worth giving your heart to. How could I ever doubt that? Every single thing you do inspires me. I want to marry you because you're my sweetheart. That's all." He swallows. "Do you feel like saying yes yet?"
Tears have gathered beneath my lashes. I long to shout my answer. "If this happens, I want to do it—"
"Wherever you want. I'll marry you in a church. I'll marry you on a tractor. I'll marry you in a fucking chicken coop—"
I rest my pinky against his mouth. "Don't curse."
He bites that pinky. "You like it when I curse."
"I was going to say that it should happen here."
"Brace yourself, sweetheart. More than vows are going to happen on this hill. I'm going to keep you up all night. Just say the word. I'm dying."
I think of my sister and father, absent from all of this. The ache is definite, but at least we can tell them about it. We can paint them a sign in the cabin.
I frame Peeta's face and shrug. "Sure. Why not?"
We stare in shock, and then we laugh, alternating between that and kissing as he twirls me around. He breaks away, his voice thick, his words rushed. "I need to get you home so I can rip into you."
The request drizzles down my spine. "Okay."
Peeta sets me down. He detaches the chain from the ring while it's still on my finger—yes, it fits perfectly now. He slips the chain back over his head, then quickly gathers our stuff and packs up the bike. I stare at him. Orange light warms his dark clothes, his blond curls graze the back of his shirt, and his profile is happy.
There's more. His jeans. They stretch over his thighs as he starts the engine, the hard seat vibrating between his thighs.
Nature changes my mind. As he looks away to collect our helmets, I lift my skirt and yank my knickers down my legs, kicking them to the side. I march toward him.
He glances up as I reach the motorcycle. He holds out my helmet. "Here—"
I knock it out of his hand. It hits the ground and rolls across the grass. I climb onto the bike, straddle his waist, and kiss him.
Peeta can always be counted on to react swiftly. Growling from the back of his throat, he kisses me back, opening his mouth and flicking his tongue between my lips while his free hand dives into my hair, properly ruining what was left of my braid.
My hips grind into him. I make my own request. "Rip into me now."
Now. Here. Right here.
Peeta makes a harsh noise and tosses his own helmet over his shoulder. "I won't stop once I've started," he warns silkily.
I nod. My hands scrap into his hair, my lips pulling at his, knobs of pleasure winding through me. We disregard pacing. The breeze could be responsible, the way it teases the hem of my skirt, inviting Peeta to bunch it in his fist and slide it up my limbs. Or it could be the ring. Or it doesn't matter. It becomes too much, the friction, the wanting. We're going to be in tatters by the time this is over.
His hands slip beneath the skirt, and he curses when he discovers what I've removed. He wants to trace the wetness, but that's not enough. I unzip his jeans, loosening them from around his waist. He hasn't said anything, and he's letting me have control, both of which are unusual for him.
I like it. I like making him speechless. I want to exhaust him with speechlessness.
Peeta raises himself off the seat, enough for me to inch down the waistband, exposing his skin and the green ink embedded there, a tattoo of my name. He is ready for me. Everything important has been freed. We don't bother with the rest of our clothes. They stay on, rustling, wrinkling. His chest hitches as he admires the way my skirt tangles around my hips.
Cupping my backside, Peeta guides me up and over him, and I sink onto his lap, filling myself with his body. He watches me with that wicked gaze. Don't break eye contact with me.
When he has my full attention, he wets his lips and takes over. Clasping my rear, he rocks me back and forth, and I'm lost to another world. Our mouths graze, our breaths tighten into quick little lashes that we can hear over the bike's constant roar. The vibrations change the depth and flow of our movements. It's a strong sensation. Solid and hard and raving like a mad thing, bringing out the wild in us.
I'm nearly there when he utters, "More."
Urging me backward, he lays me flush against the seat and looms over my body. Still upright, he holds my thighs apart and keeps going, his hips bobbing between them, hitting me from a more direct angle. He slides in and out fully, the head of his arousal spreading and tormenting me with each measured pass. My legs swing up and ride his waist, the heels of my boots snagging on his belt.
And yet, he demands, "More."
And oh, there is only one Peeta, and he's mine. Selfish girl that I am, I am no longer good. I have stolen him from everyone else. I take and take and take. I give, too. I hear myself giving it to Peeta. Soon enough, I'm thrashing and whining, unable to continue, but he doesn't accept that.
"Give me more, baby," he pants.
He falls forward, his weight on me, and quickens his thrusts. My limbs give out and fall limply to the sides. With every rounded thump of his pelvis, his hands squeeze and twist the handlebars. Each time he does that, the engine revs.
The pleasure tapers to a point. Now...yes...now. All of a sudden, he slides in and pauses right at that very point. He goes absolutely still and stares down at me, his eyes a bright, hard blue. The pressure, the shape and size of him propped against that special spot in me, heightens everything. My body seizes up and then explodes. I grip his shoulder, arching off the bike, pitching myself into his chest and crying out.
"Long and slow," he encourages. "That's it, Katniss. Keep coming. That's it."
It lasts and lasts. His lids flutter, his mouth falls open, and he joins me with a pained shout. We seal ourselves to each other and unravel, our moans overlapping and racing across the landscape.
When we resurface, we cling to each other, grappling for breath. That was...that was...ohh.
Head resting on my shoulder, his raises his arm weakly and turns off the engine, mumbling something against my skin that sounds like holy shit. I laugh.
He lifts his head and smiles. "You're going to be a cute wife."
"I love you, too," I say.
I'm still in awe that it can feel this way, that once—not too long ago—I nearly choose a placid relationship over this one. Being with Peeta was once a risk, but it's the best one I ever took. Choosing him meant choosing hope.
We're fickle and impulsively reluctant to leave now. It's oddly warm today, and there really is no other place to be, and I don't want to let go of this moment yet. We unroll the blanket once more, fading into a midday rest.
By the time we wake, it's late afternoon. The sun is already setting. I enjoy autumn's early hour dusk, but I'm probably the only one in the world who does. Well...except for Peeta.
We feast on the bread and goat cheese that he packed, grinning at one another in between bites. And then we make love again, this time on the grass, naked with our limbs entwined, each of us attempting to dominate the other with our weight and fluid thrusts. My muscles tighten, gathering at the center where our bodies meet. The blanket cloaks us in a bundle of movement and anxious noises. Sweat beads on our foreheads.
As I quiver beneath him, above him, and beneath him again, my mind rekindles the memory of our first time, when his calculated, deep, forbidden rhythm spread me wide. When the vault of his body dangled me over a precipice. That morning, when I changed forever, to the tireless sounds of our bliss. Just me and my rebel boy.
Afterward, Peeta raises himself on his elbow and holds up my knickers. "Mind if I keep these?"
I grin, my fingers roaming over the dandelion tattoo on his back. "We live in the same apartment. It's not as though you're stealing them away."
"Yeah, it is. I'll hide them. My secret. The panties you wore when you said yes."
"Only if I get to keep the ring."
He kisses my lips gently. "Always, Amish girl."
"Always," I agree.
"Hold on." He stands, bringing me with him. "I know how this ends. Come here."
Peeta reaches for my hips and sways with me under the darkening sky, open and boundless and everywhere. I realize now what I'd already known back on the farm. It's not about wanting one home over the other. It's about wanting each other. In our own way, we've been doing that from the beginning. He and I are made to exist between worlds, like on this hill, and to thrive here. Someday, I'd like us to build a house on this spot. And I already know what directions the windows will face.
As the sun sets on us, he begins to murmur a lazy version of our song, and I grin against his shoulder. I wouldn't mind if it ended like this every time, with him singing that he belongs with me, and I belong with him.
It's enough. I'm convinced.