The damn “Thrift Shop” song was playing for the second time, and she’d only been at the party for 45 minutes. If that was any indication of how her night was going to go, she was ready to grab Gale and escape now.
But Gale was already across the room, talking to three other guys and some blonde girl. His eyes caught hers and he smiled at her, and her mouth curled up at one end as she awkwardly waved in his direction. He looked like he was actually having fun, so she knew she wouldn’t be bothering him. She needed to force her attention elsewhere.
Earlier that evening, she insisted that he go and have fun with his friends. He already introduced her to his group when they arrived, and she had stood uncomfortably at his side the entire time they chatted, but now she just wanted to get away for awhile. Escape to someplace quiet.
Too bad she was at a frat party.
She meandered around the large living room for a bit, then snuck down the hallway, killing some time by studying the various plaques adorning the walls. She contemplated using the bathroom, but then she remembered how gross college-age guys could be.
“Catnip,” Gale purred, stepping behind her to wrap his arm around her middle. He pulled her back against his chest and nuzzled her hair with his nose. “C’mon, don’t you want to spend some time with me?”
She spun around in his arms and smiled up at him. “I want you to have fun with your friends.”
“I want to have fun with my friends and my girlfriend.” He tightened his grip on her as she sighed against his neck, standing on her tippy-toes to even reach him there. He mistook the exhale as a sigh of affection, and he wrapped his hand around her braid, tugging playfully.
“I’m here, aren’t I?” she asked. Wasn’t that enough? She already drove over an hour to visit him at his university, and she agreed (happily, even!) when he practically begged her to attend this party. Did she really have to stick by his side all night, too? Nodding and smiling politely at strangers as they shared inside jokes with her boyfriend was not her idea of a good time.
“I’m fine, Gale,” she insisted. “I’m just exploring.”
“Do you want to leave?” It was at least the third time he’d asked since they arrived.
“No,” she insisted firmly. What she wanted was for him to want to leave. What she really wanted was for him to never even suggest that they spend their rare, precious time together at some college party.
She didn’t have the energy to have another argument, so she forced on a smile. “Go find your friends and relax. I’ll be around. We’ll have our time together later.”
He dropped a gentle kiss on her forehead. “Thanks again for coming here.”
“Of course,” she replied, tight smile still in place.
She watched him head back into the main living area, shaking her head. The Gale she remembered would never want to come to a frat party, but that Gale existed three years of college ago. This Gale would be graduating that spring, earning a shiny, expensive degree that would open all the doors for him. This Gale needed to blow off steam, and he wanted to do it with some pals from his mechanical engineering labs. Because this Gale had friends outside of her; friends he went to bars with, friends he ran student council campaigns for, friends he liked so much he couldn’t even be away from them the one night of the month she made the trip down there to see him.
She strolled into the kitchen, which was decidedly abandoned save for a few guys. Most of the party-goers were raging hard outside, and many of the others were hanging out in the main living area. So she took a seat at the island in the center of the room, and then pulled out her phone to play one of the games preprogrammed on it.
“Yo, Mellark, these candles yours?”
She looked up to find one of the guys near the keg addressing the guy raiding the fridge. He gestured to the three jar candles lit before her.
The one rummaging through the fridge didn’t even bother lifting his head to respond. “Yeah, Thresh, I brought candles. Jackson brought the vodka and I brought the candles, so we’re all set.”
The guy near the keg (or “Thresh” she deduced using her superb detective skills) walked up next to her and examined the candles more closely. “Man Town? Fucking man candles? Are you kidding me?” He looked over at the guy working the keg. “They make candles for men now, dude!”
The guy tapping the keg didn’t seem interested, but the one at the fridge poked his head out and grinned. He had blond hair that fell in waves just over his forehead, and he was kind of cute in that typical all-American, college-guy way. “Yankee Candle finally heard your pleas, man.”
“Shit,” Thresh said, reaching for one. “Imma have to get me some of these.” He sniffed the jar labeled First Down and smiled. “Man, it does smell like football.” He held out the candle to Katniss. “Doesn’t this smell just like fucking football?”
Katniss grimaced as she leaned away from the candle. She couldn’t smell a damn thing thanks to a cold that still had her congested. “Uh, I don’t know. I don’t know what football smells like.”
“Well, here at Capitol University, it smells a lot like tears and failure,” the blond guy said with a smile. He set a couple boxes from Domino’s on the counter, and his eyes met hers. She could only muster up a neutral expression, a step up from her usual scowl for sure, but he continued to grin her way.
“Don’t listen to him,” Thresh said to her. “We’re 3-1 so far. His fancy little college don’t even have a team.”
“C’mon, let’s get this out there,” the other guy interrupted, gesturing to the tapped keg. He and Thresh wheeled it out of the room, and that left her suddenly alone with the happy blond. Not wanting to make eye contact, she turned her attentions back to her phone, dutifully ignoring him as he trifled through the boxes of food.
She snuck a quick peek at him as he opened up a container and sniffed. Then he looked up at her, as if he could feel her eyes on him. She dropped her gaze back to her phone, nervously flipping her braid from one shoulder to the other as she did it.
“Whoa, hey!” she heard suddenly, and then the blond guy was right next to her, grabbing her hair and beating his hand against the ends. “Jesus, careful!” She was about to protest when the smell of singed hair met her nostrils. So her nose worked after all.
The mortification over it hit her not long after the smell did. Did she really just catch her hair on fire? On that stupid man candle?
“You okay?” he asked as she inspected the damage, which was minimal. She’d still need a trim, though.
“Yeah,” she replied, red-faced. “Thanks, I guess.”
He had moved over to the other side of the counter, and he was already eating a piece of old pizza. He chewed quickly as his brow furrowed, and once he swallowed, he said, “You guess? Wow, don’t fall over yourself to show some appreciation.”
He moved on from the pizza to a box of bread bites, and he studied one cautiously before popping it into his mouth.
“Well, these are disgusting,” he said, though he continued to eat them.
“Are those even yours?” she asked pointedly. He obviously didn’t attend CU, so he couldn’t be living at the frat house. She thought it was damn rude to eat other people’s food.
“What’s a few bread bites between friends?” he asked. “And we’re all friends here.” He stopped and eyed her. “Except you. I don’t remember ever seeing you here before. You new?” The question was asked in such a friendly tone that it was almost hard to be annoyed. Almost.
“I’m not from around here.”
“Oh yeah?” he asked, his blue eyes bright. “Me either. I actually go to Panem College. What about you?”
“I don’t go to school,” she answered with a frown, realizing they were practically neighbors. “But I live about fifteen minutes from PC.” She honestly hated Panem College. It was the school Gale turned down because of its exorbitant cost. It was the reason he was away now.
“Cool. So what brings you here?” He was a nice enough guy, she supposed, so she didn’t hate talking to him. But if he was only being kind to try to get into her pants, then she was going to take pleasure in telling him this.
“My boyfriend.” She hid a smile, waiting for him to spectacularly fail this secret test. Many guys would check out about now.
She craned her neck to try and spot Gale in the other room. He was talking to some blonde girl, immersed in conversation, and she pointed him out.
“Oh,” he said, following her direction. “The biggest guy here. Awesome.”
She grinned at that.
“So is he the jealous, rage-filled type?” he asked.
“Good thing I just saved your life then,” he replied. “He’ll probably want to thank me.”
“You hardly saved my life.”
“I don’t know, you’ve got a lot of hair. You probably would have lit up like a human torch. You’re welcome, by the way.”
She scowled, then reached for the bread bites to read the bar-coded sticker adhered to the side of the box. “These are from three weeks ago!” she exclaimed, tossing them in the nearby trash can. “There. Now we’re even.”
“Thank you,” he replied sincerely. “See, that wasn’t so hard.”
He was still smiling in amusement when Gale came up to them, clearing this throat. But he didn’t look upset at all. In fact, he was actually smiling too. “Hey, Mellark. What’s up?”
“Not much, man. How’ve you been?”
“Real good.” He turned his attention back to her. “C’mon, Kat. There’s some people I want you to meet.” As he took her hand and led her out of the room, she looked over her shoulder to acknowledge this Mellark boy one more time. He raised his hand to wave a goodbye that she didn’t return.
Two weeks later, she was at her local mini-mart, putting twenty bucks worth of gas in her car before running inside to pay. It was colder out than she had anticipated, and she was wearing her zip-up hoodie instead of a coat.
As she stood in line, she stared at the display of individually wrapped cookies near the cash register. She had closed the store that night, and all she had for dinner was a sad Lean Cuisine, so she grabbed a macadamia nut one, reasoning that it had been a long shift and she deserved a treat.
The man in front of her was arguing loudly with the older woman behind the counter, insisting that he had earned more off a gallon of gasoline than his member card was stating. Katniss mentally rolled her eyes. This was going to take forever.
“Girl on fire!” she heard someone exclaim, and then the guy she’d met at the frat party earlier that month was next to her. She still didn’t know his first name.
“Boy with the bread bites,” she greeted unenthusiastically. Now the enraged customer was demanding to speak with a manager. Oy.
“It’s actually Peeta,” he said with a lop-sided smile. She noticed that his hair was shorter than the last time she saw him; she could still detect the slight curls on top of his head, but they weren’t falling onto his face. It looked good.
Peeta, then. Peeta Mellark.
“I’m Katniss,” she offered, impatiently tapping her foot as the customer and cashier continued to argue.
“Yeah,” he said. “Katniss Everdeen. In a relationship with Gale Hawthorne.” His eyes widened just as hers did. “God, that sounds creepy. I’m sorry. I’m just Facebook friends with him, that’s all.”
“It’s okay,” she found herself saying; his cheeks were rosy with embarrassment, so she could afford to take some pity on him. At the register, the fuel cost dispute was still raging on, so she stepped out of line to get a fountain drink, and Peeta followed her.
“Look, I just wanted to say I’m sorry if I came across as an ass at that party. I was just teasing you.”
She filled her plastic cup with ice. “You didn’t come across as an ass.”
“Oh, okay. Well, that’s good.” She grabbed a straw for her Sprite and leaned against the wall. “Maybe I’ll see you around, then,” he said, but she was too busy gaping at the armful of junk food he was carrying to properly reply. He had several Cup of Noodles, a couple bags of chips, some king-size candy bars…
“Are you ever not feeding?” she asked in disbelief.
He looked down at his haul, then back up at her. “I’m four pounds under for my weight class. For wrestling,” he elaborated at her look. “And that never happens, so I’m enjoying it while I can.”
“With that crap?” she asked. “You should enjoy it with some real food.”
“So what’s that?” he returned, motioning to her cookie. His nose scrunched up in disgust. “Gas station baked goods? Really?”
She shrugged. “It’s convenient.”
“It’s disgusting. My parents own the bakery downtown. Stop in sometime and tell them I sent you, and get some free cookies out of it. Besides, you should never just settle for something because it’s convenient. ”
“Says the guy buying ramen noodles.”
“Hey, I’ve acquired a taste for them after two years in college.”
“Maybe I’ve acquired a taste for convenience store cookies.”
“Oh, Katniss,” he sighed. “If that were true, I’d really feel sorry for you.”
The gas guy was gone by now, so they both headed toward the register with their purchases. Peeta motioned for her to go first, and as she dug through her wallet for some cash, she heard him jovially tell that cashier that she didn’t get paid enough to put up with jerks like that.
“Tell me about it,” she sighed. “I almost called you over to put him in a headlock.”
“I would have, too,” he said with a grin as he paid for his food. “Take care, Mrs. Seeder. Tell Mark I said hello.”
Katniss watched as the cashier returned the sweet smile. “You too, Peeta. I will.”
“Do you know everyone?” she asked as they both exited the store.
“What? I used to wrestle with her son in high school.”
“I didn’t realize wrestling was such a social sport.”
“You get to know guys pretty well when you’re rolling around on the floor with them, wearing nothing but spandex.” He laughed at the flummoxed expression on her face. They were stopped at her car, and he shuffled his bag from one hand to the other. “Well, maybe I’ll see you around again,” he said, repeating himself from earlier.
“Yeah, maybe.” They both said goodbye, and she watched as he crossed the parking lot to get to his black SUV.
The bookstore was packed that evening, but she still picked him out of the crowd. She wondered how many times they crossed paths in the past, before they knew each other.
She was headed to the back for her break, so she decided to stop by and say hello. Because why not?
He was in the history section, crouched down to look through the books on the bottom shelf, and she sidled up next to him and said, “Hey.”
He looked over, his eyes wide with surprise, but then he smiled happily at her. “Hey!” He noticed her name badge. “I didn’t know you worked here!”
“Yeah, I just started a couple weeks ago,” she said. “The great retail rotation.”
“Awesome. Man, I love Barnes and Noble. I could spend all day in here. The smell of books, the comfy chairs, Mozart playing in the background. It’s so classy.”
“Yeah,” she said with a laugh. “And they pay me to be here. I’m a lucky girl.” She reached for the book in his hands. “What are you getting?” It was a copy of Helmet for my Pillow, a WWII memoir that she read awhile back. “Is this for a class?” she asked.
“Sorta,” he answered. “It’s for a nonfiction workshop I’m doing. I’m hoping to get inspired.”
“And she wonders, ’Is there anything he can’t do?’ But yeah, I write. I’m a writer, wrestler, fire-fighter, all-around swell guy, so tell all your single friends.”
Like she had any single friends. Like she had any friends. “I’ll throw you to the pack and let them fight for you,” she said, returning the book.
They shared another smile. “I should get going. Enjoy your book.”
“Thanks. I’m sure I’ll see you again soon.”
At this rate, it seemed inevitable. “Yeah. I usually work evenings, so.” She wasn’t sure why she felt the need to tell him that, but it probably had to do with how easy it was to talk to him. With Gale gone and Prim busy with high school, Katniss was getting lonely.
“I usually stop by after my afternoon classes to get some work done in Starbucks,” he said with a smile. “So I’ll definitely see you around.”
She nodded. “Definitely.”
She was arguing with Gale again. She’d only been at her job for a few weeks, and she didn’t feel comfortable requesting weekends off already, so she hadn’t been able to come out to see him that month. “Why don’t you come home?” she’d asked into the phone. His entire family was here. The only thing there for her was him. But he insisted that she had more free time than he did, and that there were too many distractions at his house.
She remembered a time when Gale would never let work get in the way of his family. In fact, up until now, everything he had done was for them. But lately it felt as if he was getting caught up in a new, exciting life and he was allowing himself to be carried away. She wanted to confront him over it, but found she just didn’t have the emotional energy to do it. Often when they fought, time alone would ease the tension, but the root of the problem remained, and it was only ever a matter of time before it resurfaced. She knew that they both needed to put forth more effort to make this work, but sometimes it felt like he didn’t want to bother, so why should she?
She thought about bringing this up with Peeta one night while they ate dinner together in the bookstore’s café, but they’re were still getting to know each other. Starting a friendship seemed to be a very delicate process, and she knew it’d be strange to discuss Gale or her relationship with him.
So they stuck to safe topics: the weather, weekend plans, a book they were each currently reading. But superficial small talk paved the way for more personal discussions, such as family, their pasts, life-long dreams.
She discovered little things, too. It wasn’t long before she learned his favorite color, or noticed how he always double-knotted the laces of his Doc Martens, or remembered that he never took sugar in his Venti Tazo tea.
He was also really funny, and he had the kind of humor she appreciated, because it was dry and quick, but never mean. But she liked that he teased her sometimes; she took it as a sign of affection.
Everyone loved Peeta, and it seemed like they were always running into someone he knew. She started to wonder why someone so popular, fun, and easy-going would want to hang out with her. She really wasn’t any of those things, and unlike him, she didn’t have anyone else in her life she felt comfortable even categorizing as more than an acquaintance.
“How are you friends with everyone?” she’d asked one day, hoping that the sarcasm covered her genuine curiosity.
“I guess I just like people,” he said. “Besides, you can never have too many friends, right?”
It wasn’t like she would know.
“Are you trying to set a record or something?” she teased. “Securing votes early for a future career in politics?”
He took a sip of his tea and licked his lips. “I’m actually a collector. They’re like Pokemon to me, and I gotta catch ‘em all.” She laughed lightly and then they went back to discussing The Book Thief.
It didn’t take long for her to realize that things were different with Peeta. Like how she didn’t feel awkward or uncomfortable when others approached him to catch up. When she was with Gale at his university and he was talking with classmates, she always felt excluded; with Peeta, she felt…proud? Was that it?
Maybe she felt like Gale got stuck with her, but Peeta chose her.
As the weeks progressed, her relationship with Gale only became more strained. She begged him to come there for the weekend, but he insisted it wasn’t an option. “Why?” she demanded.
He sighed in frustration. “Do you have any idea how hard it is on everyone when I come home?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about the hell I have to go through every time I have to say goodbye to them again. Rory and Vick sulk, Posy and my mom cry. I’m not putting everyone through that. Can’t you just switch shifts with someone?”
The thing was, she probably could. But why should she have to? “No. I can’t.”
“Maybe you should try to see him,” Peeta said after she finally broke down and confided in him. “Make it a surprise, and show up a night you said you couldn’t. It’d probably mean a lot to him.”
She knew it would, and she also knew that she needed to put forth more effort, too. Only 75 miles separated them, but the distance seemed to span much further than that. She spent a significant amount of her free time with Peeta, and Gale wasn’t even aware the two had talked again after meeting up at that party.
For the first time, she reversed their positions in her head, and she tried to imagine how she would feel if Gale were the one with a new (female) friend he was oddly secretive about. The thought was enraging, and she knew she needed to make it up to him. So she planned for a Friday evening trip to his university, and she promised she would come clean about her newfound friendship as well. Not that there was any reason to not do that in the first place. They were just friends, after all. That was all.
“Are you going to visit Capitol again soon?” she asked Peeta the day before the trip. “Stay at the frat house? You could even drive down with me if you want.”
“Nah, I think I’ll have a quiet weekend and work on some papers. The burden of an English major.”
“You don’t want to see your friends?”
“I mean, yeah, but…they’re not really those kinds of friends, you know?” Her expression must have told him that she didn’t, so he continued. “We’re friends, but not that close.” He looked down at his notebook and tapped his pen against the paper, and she wondered just how many of his numerous friends fell in that column.
Gale wasn’t in his dorm, so she sent him a text message asking what he was up to. Her phone buzzed in reply a couple minutes later. Just getting coffee. U?
She figured he was in the cafeteria on the ground floor of his building, so she headed that way first. Not much. Missing you.
I wish I could see you.
So do I, baby.
She spotted him in a booth on the far side of the room, but her smile fell when she noticed a familiar looking girl sitting across from him. He hadn’t mentioned being with anyone else.
“Surprise!” she managed lamely as she approached them, and any apprehension she might have felt dissipated the second she saw Gale’s reaction. He had a smile on his face wider than any she could ever remember, and he practically jumped out of his seat to greet her.
He lifted her in his arms, crushing her against his chest, and she could only laugh at his obvious joy. Peeta was right, and this definitely seemed to mean a lot to him.
Peeta somehow convinced her to go to the gym with him. He claimed he now had two pounds that he needed to lose before weigh-in the next day, but Katniss wasn’t sure how he could get more fit than he already was. And he was seriously kicking her ass on the treadmill. Sure, it wasn’t technically a competition, but if he could run on high speed while still holding a conversation with her, then she thought she should be able to do that, too.
“He was….really….excited….to see me,” she huffed, ignoring his laughter and the cramp forming in her side.
“Told ya so!” he grinned, and then he reached over to reprogram her machine, and she tried to slap his hand away, but he wouldn’t be deterred.
“Okay, let’s do 30 seconds on the highest speed with the steepest incline.” She groaned inwardly, but put on her very best game face. Sure he was bigger and stronger, but Katniss was agile and light-footed, and the sound of Peeta’s feet hitting the belt was nearly deafening.
Now it was only a matter of endurance.
Ten seconds in, and her thighs were on fire. She was trying to keep up with her breathing, but her throat constricted painfully. “What arm hurts when you’re having a heart attack?” she asked, gasping for air.
“C’mon, you can do it! We’re halfway there!” Peeta shouted, and she glanced over at him to see that sweat was dripping from his brow as he stared straight ahead. A drop fell from his soaked hair and traveled down the bridge of his perfectly straight nose, and she watched, transfixed. She could do this. Like he said, they were halfway there.
When the treadmill beeped and automatically slowed down, she seriously thought she might pass out. “I hate you,” she said as she bent forward, her hands on her knees as she tried desperately to catch her breath.
Later, after they both showered and changed, they left the building together and walked back to Peeta’s off-campus apartment. Either it was unseasonably warm for a December day, or she was still overheated. “He has a new friend,” she finally admitted once they were on his couch. Peeta had the remote and was leafing through the channel guide, but he stopped to look at her. “And?”
“And she’s a girl.”
“Ah,” he said, looking back at the television screen. “And that’s a problem?”
She pretended to be very interested in her cuticles. “Well, no.”
“You sure about that?”
She sighed, shifting in her seat to get more comfortable. “I don’t know. I guess I keep thinking that he and I used to be ‘just friends’ too.” Peeta doesn’t speak, instead giving her the chance to gather her thoughts. “And the girl, Madge…she doesn’t seem like the type of person he’d normally be friends with, anyway. She’s some big-name politician’s daughter.” She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “I don’t know why it bothers me. It just does.”
“I think that’s normal,” he admitted. “You’re here, she’s there. It’s natural to be jealous, or even paranoid. You have to ask yourself, ‘Do I trust Gale?’ If you do, then you’ll be okay.”
She nodded as he continued. “Besides, guys can be friends with girls without there being any romantic interest or attraction. My buddy Mitch is best friends with a girl he met freshmen year. And I’ve been friends with Delly since we were little.”
“My sister is good friends with Gale’s younger brothers,” Katniss added.
“Yeah, see? I really don’t think you have anything to worry about.” He flipped the channel to a repeat of Killer Karaoke. “Now this lady,” he said, pointing to the TV, where a woman had just stuck her head in a box filled with pigeons as she struggled to sing a verse of “Before He Cheats.” “This lady has real problems.” The contestant lost it soon after that and they both dissolved in righteous laughter, Katniss’s insecurities momentarily forgotten. It was only later that she realized they both failed to cite the most obvious example of a platonic relationship.
The next month, Christmas break was over and Gale was back at CU, and all the happy, hopeful feelings she had regarding their relationship left her when he did.
She wasn’t sure if it was a desire to come clean, or if she wanted to try and make him jealous, too, but one night while they were on the phone, after he told her about a meeting he attended with Madge, she suddenly felt the need to tell him about her friends. So she mentioned something funny (but not really) that happened at the store that day with Darius, a coworker who also happened to be an incorrigible flirt. Then she briefly discussed Johanna, another girl she worked with who she thought might actually hate her. Finally, and carefully, she brought up Peeta.
“I’ve run into him a few times since we met at the party,” she said, wincing when she realized that she was lying to her boyfriend. She and Peeta had become so settled in their new routine that one found it odd if the other went more than a day without some sort of contact, and surely that meant that they were closer than she was disclosing. It was all innocent, of course, but how could she explain it to her boyfriend?
“Oh yeah?” he asked, and his tone was hard to read.
“Yeah,” she answered simply. But the more she thought about it, about him and Madge and all the time they were spending together, the angrier she became. She didn’t have to answer to him or anyone else. She knew there was nothing going on with Peeta. It was Gale she had to worry about.
After she ended the call with Gale, she logged onto her computer to check her email. It just so happened that Peeta was signed in to Gchat.
She typed in a greeting and only had to wait a second for a response, and then she told him about her conversation with Gale, admitting that she was feeling more insecure about their relationship.
He could be doing anything right now, she wrote. Like, shower threesomes, or public orgies. Anything! And how would I ever know?
Peeta: That sounds more Caligula than college.
She smiled before typing, No, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what’s happening there.
Peeta: Transferring to CU
Don’t you dare, she wrote, laughing. So…what are you up to tonight?
Peeta: Just working on something I wanted to finish a while ago but never did.
Is it for a class? she asked, and he admitted it wasn’t.
Peeta: It’s a story. I was going to submit it for a workshop but then I changed my mind. I still wanted to finish it, though.
Can I read it? She had already hit ‘enter’ by the time she realized just what she’d asked of him. He didn’t respond right away, and he wasn’t typing anything, so she panicked. She was trying to compose an out, and she settled on, If you want when she saw that he replied.
Peeta: You want to read it?
She bit her lip. Yes.
Peeta: It’s kind of long.
Peeta: And not very good.
Peeta: It’s probably terrible. Don’t feel like you have to, really.
She typed, I want to.
Peeta: Okay. Well, I’m almost done with it. I’ll send it to you when it’s finished.
She got the email an hour later, and Peeta wrote, “Please don’t feel like you have to read this just because we’re friends. There won’t be a quiz on it or anything. I’ll see you on Wednesday, same time, same place.”
He was already waiting for her at a café, looking over some notes from one of his classes, and he smiled up at her as she took the seat across from him. “Hey!”
He immediately started talking animatedly about his day, his class, his subpar blueberry muffin from the café. “What’s up with you?” he asked, finally taking a breath.
“Peeta,” she smiled. “Your story…”
He started fidgeting with the buttons of the cardigan sweater he was wearing over his T-shirt, his eyes no longer meeting hers. “Ah, you really didn’t have to-”
“It was the best thing I ever read.” He looked up suddenly, his eye widening in shock. “Really?”
Really. She couldn’t tear herself away from it. It was an absolutely beautiful piece, written from point-of-view of a small, daydreaming child who suffered malicious verbal and physical abuse at home. She cried and she laughed and she wanted nothing more than to wrap her arms around him as soon as she read that last word.
He seemed both happy and relieved that she loved it, but he didn’t act like he wanted to discuss it much. They would sometimes spend hours talking about books they loved, and she wasn’t sure why this was so different.
And then she realized something. “Peeta?” she asked. “Were you writing that story for the nonfiction workshop?”
His eyes flitted away again, then he nodded imperceptibly, and she chewed at her bottom lip as she took the information in. Suddenly the entire story read in a completely different way. It was still wonderful, but now it was all that more heartbreaking.
They didn’t talk as much as they normally did for the rest of the evening, but it was a comfortable, contemplative silence. After they ate, she still accompanied him back to his apartment so they could watch a show they both enjoyed, but when she got inside and sat down on his couch, television was the furthest thing from her mind.
He must have trusted her a great deal to allow her to read those words, but to then admit that it was more than just a story? How could she ever repay him for that?
He never pried when it came to any details of her life. His friendship almost had an open-door policy of sorts, and while she’d grown to realize that she could tell him anything, she’d never really done so. Yes, she discussed things like her relationship with Gale, but really, how frivolous was that in the end?
She twisted in her seat, bringing her legs up underneath her body as she faced him. “My dad died when I was eleven,” she admitted. “And my mom had a breakdown.”
He tipped his head back, reclining against the couch, and studied her carefully. “Katniss, you don’t have to-”
“I know,” she insisted. “But I want to.”
The next morning, she woke with her legs twisted between his. They both fell asleep on opposite ends of the couch, but their limbs tangled together in the middle of the night. She tried to gently extract herself from him, desperate to not wake him. They were up obscenely late talking about a million different things, and now she had to get home.
She snuck out of his door, closing it quietly behind her. Only when she was safely outside did she realize how upset she was, but for the life of her she couldn’t understand exactly why. But the night before felt like a betrayal to Gale, and it was feeling she couldn’t shake, no matter how she tried to rationalize it.
The frat was having a huge party to kickoff Spring Break, and Peeta told her that he was thinking about heading down to CU for it, and he asked if she wanted to ride with him so she could see Gale. She hesitated at first, but when she discussed it with Gale, he didn’t understand why she wouldn’t want to visit him. So the decision was made.
He dropped her off outside of her boyfriend’s residence hall and told her to call him if she needed anything. Gale was in the cafeteria, waiting for her, and once again he wrapped her in a back-breaking hug. “I missed you so damn much,” he said, kissing her cheek, and she nodded mutely.
Later, in his room, she found herself thinking more about the present and less about Peeta. She had missed Gale, too, she realized. And her relief was nearly palpable.
“Hey, there’s something I want to discuss with you,” Gale said, his fingers trailing down her arm.
He laughed softly, his bare chest brushing against her back. “What do you think about going to Colorado with me?”
She twisted in his arms so she could face him, and while he looked like the picture of contentment, she was a mixture of surprise and frustration. “Colorado? What’s in Colorado?”
“I was accepted into a program at State,” he said, his smile falling. “It’s an amazing opportunity, Catnip.”
“You’ve never mentioned a thing about moving across the country.”
He sat up, clearly annoyed. “Why are you acting pissed? This is a good thing.”
“For you,” she said. “Not for us.”
He took her hand, wrapping his long, slender fingers around her palm. “It could be for us.”
She pulled it out of his grasp, turning her whole body away from him. “I can’t just leave-”
“C’mon, Katniss,” he sighed. “Don’t you want more out of life than a dead-end job at some chain store?”
It surprised her how much that comment hurt. She liked her job. It wasn’t fancy by any means, but she was good at it.
“What about your family?” she asked. “How are you going to be that far away from them?”
“I’m doing it for them!” he bellowed. “Don’t you understand what this could mean for all of us?”
She grabbed her button-up shirt off the floor. “I can’t do this right now,” she said, her hands shaking. “I have to go.”
“Katniss, come on,” he said, though he made no move to stop her.
“I’ll call you later.”
She called Peeta from outside of the dormitory, and he said he’d be there in 15 minutes, though she could barely hear him with all the background noise. She got into his car wordlessly when he pulled up along the curb, and before he could even ask what was wrong, she barked that she didn’t want to talk about it. They listened to the radio the entire ride home, and she thanked him as he dropped her off at her house, waiting until she was inside before driving away.
I hate fighting with you. She read the text from Gale three times before replying.
I know, me too.
I also hate that tonight was ruined.
She rubbed at her temple, struggling with what to say. Finally she settled on, me too.
They agreed to talk the next weekend, promised that they’d figure something out. She crawled under her covers and fell into a fitful sleep.
“How heartbroken would you be if we rescheduled that Honey Boo Boo marathon?”
“I don’t know,” she said, biting her lip. “I’d be pretty devastated.”
He frowned, his eyebrows knotting together exaggeratedly. “Will you ever be able to forgive me?”
“I suppose. So what’s wrong? Do you have to study?”
“You’re not watching something educational, are you?” she teased.
“Oh god, no, nothing like that,” he promised, grinning back at her. “Actually, it’s a date.”
“Oh.” She went back to organizing the books on the shelf, checking the alphabetical order of the author’s name.
“It’s a blind date, really,” he continued, following her as she moved to the next section. “And Thursday was the only night she was available.”
“A blind date?” she repeated dubiously. “That…doesn’t sound like fun at all.”
He laughed. “Yeah, well, what can I say? I’m a big hit with the ladies over 60 who want to set me up with their granddaughters.”
She wished him luck and then excused herself, citing a bunch of work she need to do in the back. She didn’t call him the next day, and on that Thursday, she sat at her computer, trying to kill time with an underwhelming game of Bejeweled.
At around 7 p.m., her phone buzzed with a text notification. She was surprised to see it was a new message from Peeta, since she was sure he was first course deep into that blind date by now.
How long do you wait around before you declare yourself stood up?
She didn’t show? She messaged back.
She didn’t show!
She had to bring her hand up to her mouth to muffle her laughter. Oh god, Peeta. Seriously?
I’ve been sitting here since before six. I think the wait staff feels sorry for me. They gave me free mozzarella sticks.
Silver lining, she responded. Where are you?
Sae’s. In town.
She chewed on her bottom lip, contemplating the next move. Want some company?
You just want my mozzarella sticks.
I can be there in 20.
At the restaurant, he stood to greet her, and she noted how nice he looked in a dark blue dress shirt with a striped tie. “I can’t believe she didn’t show!” she said, taking her seat.
“I just keep picturing a girl walking in, seeing me sitting here, and then running back outside, screaming.”
“I’m sure that’s exactly what happened,” she laughed. She grabbed the menu from her place setting and mulled over the selection. “It’s her loss,” she told him, perusing the entrees.
“I’ll say,” he replied, browsing the menu too, though she was sure he had the entire thing memorized by now. “I was going to pay for dinner.”
“Is that your main selling point?” she asked teasingly.
“It’s all I got,” he grinned. “Sucks that it didn’t work out, though. Blind dates are great ‘how we met’ stories. Something cute to tell the kids.”
She shrugged. “I think they sound boring.”
“It’s too bad I wasted my best one on you,” he joked. “Fire. A damsel in distress. A dashing rescue. That’s a telenovela right there.”
She lowered her menu, peering over the top to glare at him. “You did not rescue me.”
“You know, I still haven’t heard a proper thank you.”
“Don’t hold your breath.” They both smiled again, their eyes meeting across the table and lingering for just a little too long.
That Saturday, she was enjoying a lazy afternoon off, lounging around in her sweats, when there was a rapid knocking at her door. Both her mother and Prim were out, so she rushed to the entryway, curious at the urgency.
“Gale?” she gasped in surprise,
He looked terrible, like he hadn’t slept all night, and his hair was in disarray, his flannel shirt wrinkled, his face unshaven. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Katniss,” he said, rubbing at his bloodshot eyes. “I really messed up.”
It wasn’t until after he confessed what he did that she realized how shocked she was by it. She was hurt, sure. But the shock is what really rattled her. Because she realized that no matter how she may have worried, she never really thought he would actually do anything.
He was practically in tears as he paced her living room, and she sat emotionless on the couch, still trying to make sense of what he was saying. “I’d been drinking,” he confessed. “I was upset about us.”
Gale stopped in front of her, stooping to his knees and taking her hands in his. “Sometimes she reminds me of you so damn much.”
Katniss yanked her hands back, then pushed him away as she stood abruptly from the sofa. “Well, I’m flattered,” she said, struggling to hold in the tears. “It’s so considerate of you to sleep with someone who reminds you of your girlfriend.”
“I hate myself for it,” he admitted, his voice choked.
“That makes two of us then.” She was proud of how strong and steady she sounded there, because she refused to break down in front of him right now. She was too angry.
“Things haven’t been good between us in so long,” he said, and her face contorted in disgust.
“Are you trying to rationalize what you did?”
“NO! But, Jesus, Katniss…do you think I haven’t heard about you always running around with Peeta Mellark? You think that hasn’t been in my head?”
Her mouth twisted, a thousand hateful things on the very tip of her tongue, but he pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes, shaking his head in defeat. “I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry. Can we please fix this?”
“How would you feel?” she asked. “If I slept with someone else and came to you, how would you feel? Would you want to fix it?”
“Yes,” he vowed, and she rolled her eyes. “I would. I think what we have is worth trying to save.”
“Easy to say when we’re only speaking in hypotheticals.”
He was growing frustrated with her. “Would it help? To fuck someone else to settle the score? Then do it, Katniss!”
“You don’t think I would!” she said.
“Oh, I think you would right now,” he said. “Go right ahead. Go see for yourself how it’s just sex and it doesn’t have to mean anything when it’s with someone else.”
“I can’t talk to you anymore about this. I just…I can’t deal with this right now.” She went to the door and grabbed her coat from the hanger, turning back to glare at him again. “You have to go.”
Then she left without another word, heading to only place she could think of in that moment.