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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.

“Definitely.”

“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.”

“You write?”

“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.

“Yes, please.”

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.

Me 2.

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: BRB

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!”

“Hi.”

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.”

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. 

“Shoot.”

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?”

“No.”

“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.

Please.

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.

Chapter Text

“Hey!”

 Peeta answered the door with his usual smile and enthusiasm, and Katniss was grateful that his face didn’t immediately fall at the unexpected sight of her.  Sure it meant that he was happy to see her, but it also meant that she had done a decent job of pulling herself together while driving to his apartment.

“Hi,” she offered back, though much more subdued.  She made her way into his apartment, heading straight for his refrigerator. 

“I thought you weren’t planning on leaving the house today,” he called over his shoulder, watching as she made herself at home.

“Changed my mind.”

She rummaged through its contents as he came up behind her, resting his arm on the open door.  “Everything okay?”

Katniss lifted her head, giving a cursory nod.  She definitely was not in the mood to talk.  “Got anything to drink?” she asked, her eyes back on the fridge as she moved around the gallon of skim milk, packages of fruit, and cartons of eggs.

“Ice tea.  Milk.”  She shook her head.  “Gatorade?” he continued.  “Good ol’ fashioned water?”

“Anything harder?” she pressed, somewhat frantically, as she opened the freezer.

“Uh, there might be some expired grape juice here just for you.”

She was about to decline when she spotted the bottle way in the back.  “Yo, ho, ho and a bottle of rum!” she crowed triumphantly, pulling it out.

“Really?” he asked, bemused.  “Katniss, what’s wrong?”

She grabbed a glass from his cupboard.  “Nothing,” she said, twisting the cap off as she walked to his couch.  Since she never actually had rum before, she poured an experimental sip and sniffed it.  Deciding it didn’t smell any worse than beer, she chugged it, but it burned her throat and she immediately started choking.

Peeta rushed to her side, patting her back as she coughed violently.  “Oh god, that’s terrible!” she sputtered, wiping at her chin.

“It’s better with Coke, but I don’t have any since you should never drink your calories- hey!” He grabbed the glass she was already refilling out of her hand.  “Pace yourself, Lightweight!”  He took the alcohol away from her and studied her carefully, his brow furrowing in concern.  “Come on, Katniss. What’s wrong?”

She stared at the glass of clear liquid, zoning out as the fight with Gale began replaying in her mind.  “Peeta?” she asked quietly.  “Do you…do you think sex can ever be just sex?”

Now he just looked confused.  “Yeah.  I guess it depends on the person.  Why?”

She wiped at her nose with the back of her sleeve, the rum already giving her a warm, airy feeling.  “Gale slept with someone else.”

The way Peeta’s face contorted so quickly, his usual calm demeanor transforming into something like rage, would almost be comical if she didn’t feel so lousy.  “He what?

“He said it was just sex.”

“It’s not just sex when you’re in a relationship with someone else!” he exclaimed, but he took a deep, calming breath when he saw how visibly upset she was now.  She sunk further in the cushions, her finger twisting nervously around the end of her braid as she continued to stare off into space.

He sat next to her, carefully reaching out to comfortingly wrap his arm around her.  “What happened?”

Reluctantly, she replayed the events from earlier, even confessing to what Gale said about the time she spent with Peeta, which only enraged him more.  “I can’t believe he’s trying to put some of this on you,” he said, disgusted. 

She never saw Peeta so angry before, and she needed that, she realized.  She wanted to be pissed at Gale, and she needed someone to be pissed off with her, too.  She told him everything, many of the words falling out before she could stop herself, and he absently rubbed her back until her tears subsided.  “I never really thought he would do something like this,” she added, still shocked.  “I trusted him.  I did.”

“Katniss, I’m so sorry.  I don’t even know what else to say.”

“We’ve been having problems,” she admitted.  She curled up against Peeta’s side, a tiny part of her acknowledging that they were never so physical before, and soon she was divulging the details about their last fight, about the arguments they kept having but always tried to ignore.  She talked and he listened, and so she kept talking until she couldn’t talk anymore.

“Can we just watch TV now?” she asked, settling in on his sofa and pulling a throw over her.  He agreed, handing her the remote.  “And can I please have some more rum?”

He reached for the bottle of Bacardi, then topped off her tumbler, and she grimaced only a little with the next drink.  As the rum began doing its job, she let her thoughts float away from her.  She glanced over at Peeta, transfixed by his profile bathed in the glow from the television screen, and she thought about Gale’s words.  “Go see for yourself how it’s just sex and it doesn’t have to mean anything when it’s with someone else.”  And that was the last thing she remembered.

The jostling motion woke her up hours later, and she vaguely registered that she was being carried by Peeta.  She tucked her head under his chin, snuggling closer to him, and groggily asked where they were going.  “I’m going to crash on the sofa, and you’re going to sleep off about a quart of rum in here.”

He placed her on his bed, positioning her on her stomach, and then gently tucked her in.  “Just yell if you need me.”

“We’re in your room?” she asked, most likely slurring her words.  She’d never been in Peeta’s room before, and she was fascinated.  His room!  Was it as immaculate as the rest of his apartment?  What color were the walls?  Why had she always avoided it before?  Suddenly learning the answers to these questions became her main priority, so she tried to pull off the covers so she could explore, but they were all twisted around body, trapping her.

 “Peeta,” she said somewhat pathetically, reaching for his hand.  “I think I’m drunk.”

He squeezed her hand back and laughed.  “Katniss, I know you’re drunk.  But it’s okay.  Now I have a chance to take down my One Direction posters before you see them in the morning.  Go to sleep.”

He sat up from the edge of the mattress and she whined, reaching for him again.  “Stay with me,” she whispered, the alcohol already pulling her under.  His hand wrapped around hers again as he replied, but she was too far gone to hear it.

 

**

 

She was really tired of the gym, so the first warm day that week, she seized the opportunity to really make Peeta sweat. 

“Hiking?” he asked doubtfully when she showed up to his apartment in her boots and sweats. 

“You’ll get the best workout ever,” she promised solemnly. 

The last time they were at the gym, he had pushed her to two minutes on the fastest uphill setting, and she really thought she was going to throw up.  He didn’t look so great either, but he kept trying to egg her on.  “Come on, only another minute!”  As if that helped. 

“Pretend,” he panted, “You’re being chased…by a serial killer.”  He took a deep, rejuvenating breath.  “It’s run or die!  Keep going!”  But she couldn’t possibly do it for another second without actually dying, so she gasped for air as she switched off her treadmill. 

“Go on without me,” she wheezed, moving to sit on the belt.  “Save yourself.”

He stopped, too.  “Then we’ll die together.”   As he sat next to her, laughing at her defeat even though he was even more red and breathless than she was, she vowed to get her revenge.

She got it in the woods. 

“Dammit!” he yelled for at least the tenth time in as many minutes.  There was not a stone or stick that his feet hadn’t gotten caught up in, nearly tripping him in the process.

“Keep up, Mellark!” she yelled back, unforgiving.

He might have doubted her methods at first, but she’d never seen him sweat so much during a workout.  The warm, fresh air only invigorated her, though, and she felt great.  As she jogged up the ragged path, he fell further behind, continuing to swear at every hindrance in his pathway.  “It’s run or die!” she reminded him, trying her best to keep a straight face. 

He glared at her as he leaned against a tree, defeated.  Feeling uncharacteristically kind in that moment, she took pity on him and stopped, too.  After all, he did take pretty good care of her when she was the drunkest she ever was in her life.  When she woke up in his bed a couple days ago, her head pounding as the rum worked its revenge, it warmed her cold, bitter heart to see the aspirin and water on the nightstand, the trashcan in heaving distance, and there on the floor next to her, Peeta still fast asleep.

“I have to say, I don’t get the appeal.  Give me an air-conditioned gym any day.”

She looked out past the still blossoming trees; down over the large embankment flowed a beautiful, crystal clear river, and up ahead a mile was a gorgeous waterfall she had hoped to take him to, though she doubted they’d make it that far now.  Everything about it was calming and peaceful.

But it did all remind her of Gale.  Back before he went off to college, and before they were anything more than best friends, they spent every Sunday hiking in these very woods.  The memories caught her off-guard and she had no idea how much time had passed before Peeta was next to, ducking his head to meet her eyes.  “Hey, you okay?”

She looked up at him, blinking away those thoughts.  “Yeah, sorry.”

“Does this remind you of Gale?” he asked, surprising her not only because he guessed that, but also because he dared to bring up the G-word.  They hadn’t spoken any more about him since she told him what happened, and she appreciated the break.

“I’m sorry,” he said sincerely, shrugging.  “The guy’s had a dead deer with him in every profile picture he’s ever posted, so I figured he was the rugged, outdoorsmen type.  I shouldn’t have brought him up.”

“It’s okay.”

“Come on,” he said, nudging her with his elbow.  “We’ve got a trail to cover.”

“You really think you can make it?” she asked, brow raised.

“Probably not,” he laughed.  “But I want to see that waterfall.  Let’s go.”

 

**

 

“Have you talked to Gale?”

He had been doing so well, too.  She hadn’t heard that name in nearly a week.

But Peeta had an annoying habit of trying to see a situation from all sides involved.  She blamed the writer part of him for it.  Lately he seemed to be indirectly hinting for her to talk it out, or to at least seek closure or something.  Apparently he was frustrated with her lack of progress, though, because now he was outright asking her about it.

As far as she was concerned, Gale didn’t deserve much of anything right now, and she much preferred it when Peeta was pissed at him, too.

“We’re on a break,” she answered sharply, her arms folded across her chest.  She stared mutely at the television, hoping he got the point that they were done with this discussion.

He didn’t.

“Oh, okay, Ross.  Does he know that?”

“He’s a smart guy.  I’m sure he can figure it out.”

“I just think it would be best for you if-“

“Ugh, stop,” she said, rolling her eyes.  “Why are you suddenly on his side?”

“What?” he sputtered, shocked.  “I’m not on his side at all!  I just hate seeing you like this.”

“I’m fine.”

She shrank under his scrutiny, sliding down further in her seat. 

“Katniss,” he sighed, and she braced herself for the litany of sanctimonious lecturing about feelings right now, even though she could turn these tables so easily if she really wanted to.  “He did come to you about it right away,” he said. 

Shocked, she turned to him with wide eyes.  “Do you want me to forgive him?”

His face reddened as he answered with carefully measured words.  “I want you to be happy, whether or not that means forgiving him.  I just…I don’t want you to regret anything later.”

“Maybe I’d regret forgiving him.”

“Touche.”

Her eyes narrowed further as she pressed on.  “Did you submit any more stories to your advisor?”

He raised his hands in surrender.  “Okay, okay!”

“I just don’t want you to have any regrets, Peeta,” she said with a smug smile.  He threw the remote at her arm and she shrieked in surprise, then she kicked her foot out from underneath her to hit his shin with her heel, hard.

“Oh don’t start it if you can’t finish it,” he warned.

She kicked again, and then she was pinned underneath him before she took her next breath, which she released with a laugh.

 

**

 

The cord to their ancient wall phone was twisted around her fingers as she listened to the dial tone.  She leaned against the kitchen counter, waiting for Gale to answer, but the temptation to hang up and go snuggle further under the covers of avoidance was growing by the second.

“Hello?”

Her eyes fell shut as she took a seat at the breakfast table.  “Um, hi.”

“Hi.  I was hoping you would call.”

As soon as he spoke more than a word, she was enraged again.  She remembered Madge from her visits, remembered her perfectly coiffed blonde hair and soft makeup and demure demeanor, so she had a pretty damn good picture in her head of what happened between the two.  “I…I can’t do this right now.  I need more time,” she said before she did something crazy, whether it was taking him back in a heartbeat or saying something that would ruin them forever.

He sighed in frustration.  “You called me, Catnip.”

“I’ll call you again.  Later.   I’m not sure when. I just…I gotta go now.”  She hung up before he said another word.

 

**

 

Peeta had to be the fastest typer ever, and the sound of his fingers hitting the keys on his laptop was really starting to irk her; at first it was a comforting rhythm- a melodic song when he got into the zone and was writing like a madman, with the chorus being the sound of the backspace key, which he always tapped loudly with his middle finger.

She didn’t want to say anything because she didn’t want to bother him, but the noise was putting a real damper on TV night  They had planned this days ago, but when she dropped by earlier, he contritely asked if she’d mind if he wrote for a little while instead. 

He exhaled loudly and slammed his laptop shut, but just when she was about to open her mouth, he was typing again.  Were they ever going to find out what Ryan Lochte would do? 

“Sorry,” he said a few minutes later.  “I’m almost done.”

Still, she was genuinely surprised when he finished up soon after that.  “You can keep writing if you need to, Peeta,” she said guiltily.  She was well aware of how she’d been monopolizing his time lately.  Ever since the whole thing with Gale, she’d been kind of clingy.

Ugh, Gale.

“No, it’s okay.  Did you want to watch that show now?”  He grabbed the remote off the middle cushion that always seemed to be the buffer between them when they were on the couch.  “What channel is it on again?”

“Peeta?” she asked, her tone just whiny and girlish enough to warn him about the topic she was going to broach.  “Can we talk?”

“Yeah, of course,” he said a little too eagerly, turning in his seat to face her.

She tried to think of how to word what she wanted to say, but she didn’t even know what it was.  He waited patiently as she tried to piece together her thoughts, and finally she asked, “How do you know when you’re in love?”

The question obviously threw him.  Even she was surprised that she had the nerve to ask it.  But he recovered quickly enough, coughing to clear his throat.  “Um, I…I guess I really don’t know.  I’ve never been in love.”

“Never?”  It was a strangely comforting thought.  Lately Katniss had been feeling like what she had with Gale wasn’t like that, and the realization was a worrisome one.  But now it didn’t seem like she was so alone.  If someone like Peeta hadn’t fallen in love yet, maybe she wasn’t as defective as she feared she was.

He shook his head, his eyes downcast, and she inhaled sharply before admitting her worries to him.  If she loved Gale, wouldn’t she want to be with him no matter what?  She would be willing to move to Colorado with him if what they had was real, right?  And if he was the one for her, wouldn’t she be entertaining notions of marriage and children someday, too?

“Hey,” he said softly, “it’s okay to admit that you do love Gale.  It’s not going to hurt any less if you say don’t.”

She looked away, her shoulders slumping in resignation as she exhaled.  “But maybe I really don’t love him the way I should.”

“Should?”  He shook his head, sighing.  “Katniss, I think there must be an infinite number of ways to love someone, but none of them are perfect.”

But wouldn’t she have to be stone cold to not be head-over-heels for Gale after years of friendship and now dating?  What was wrong with her?  Why can’t she fight for him?  “Sometimes I feel like I don’t even know what I’m doing,” she admitted.  “Do you ever feel like that?”

“Only all the time,” he laughed.  “It’s not like I have the loftiest of ambitions, though.  I figure I’ll go on to teach high school English, maybe coach wrestling if I’m lucky. And I’ll live here,” he raised his hands, motioning around the room, “until one day, hopefully far off in the future, the neighbors notice a strange smell-”

“Stop,” she said, laughing now, too.  “You’re crazy.  No way are you going to end up alone.  And you should be writing, Peeta.  Really.  Your stories are amazing.”

They were.  He had shyly shown her more of them, and she devoured them all, each one somehow better than the one before it.

He rubbed the bridge of his nose, still not believing her.  “Effie wants to send some to her brother.  He works at The New Yorker and she thinks they could be published, but the odds of that happening…”

How can he still sound so unsure of himself?  “Peeta, you should.  Even if the odds aren’t in your favor, you’ll never know unless you try.”  There, she thought.  That sounded sufficiently wise.

“Maybe,” he agreed, but she could tell he was only trying to placate her.  “Are you, ah, thinking about trying things with Gale again?” he asked tentatively. 

Her mouth opened in disbelief.  “Do you think I should?”

“I’m not saying that.  I told you before, I just want you to be happy, Katniss.  That’s all.  And if he makes you happy, then maybe you should try to work it out with him.”

“How?” she asked desperately.  “How can I when all I can think about when I picture him is what he did? “  She shook her head in frustration.  “Maybe he was right, you know.  Maybe I should just sleep with someone else so I can move on from this.”

Peeta laughed unconvincingly.  “I still can’t believe he ever said that, but I really can’t believe you’d ever go for it.”

She watched him carefully for a moment, quietly observing him.  He was her best friend now, she realized.  He’d been her best friend for a while.  She felt comfortable with him.  She trusted him…

But how could she ever ask that of him?  She peered over at him, her face already flushing, and she was stunned to find him studying her, too.  Then he laughed nervously and shook his head.  “Oh man, Katniss,” he said, rubbing his eyes.  “Not this again.”

“What?” she asked in confusion, her pulse rate increasing dramatically. Again?  “What do you mean?”

“The night you drank half a bottle of Bacardi,” he answered simply, frowning when he realized how stricken she looked.  “You said we should sleep together to get back at Gale.  You don’t remember?”

Uh, she certainly did not remember that.  “No!” she shrieked, horrified.  What did she do?  Did she throw herself at him?  Did she kiss him?  Worse?  She could barely look at him, she was so embarrassed. 

“Hey, it’s okay!  Nothing happened!”

She shrugged off the hand that he had placed reassuringly on her shoulder, and covered her face to hide her mortification.  “Trust me, Katniss, I have friends who have really embarrassed themselves when they were drunk.  I’ve probably done way worse than that myself.  It’s fine.”  He grabbed her hands and pulled them down, forcing her to look at him.  “Come one, it’s me.  It’s okay.” 

“I’m so sorry, Peeta.  I-”

“You don’t have to apologize.  You were hurting and upset.  I get it.”

She finally met his eyes, her hands shaking in his.  “You still are,” he said gently.  “It’s completely understandable.”  They both looked down at their entwined hands, and she realized how much freer they were with touches now, since that night she came to him after Gale’s confession.  It was nice, being able to seek comfort like that from each other. 

Peeta laughed a little, his thumb rubbing back and forth against her palm.  “We can just pretend it never happened, okay?”

A part of her wanted to tell him that she didn’t want to pretend it never happened, that a part of her knew exactly what it was doing and meant it, even if she was completely wasted when she first said it.  Because how else was she ever supposed to think about forgiving Gale when the scale was still so grossly tipped?  How else was she ever going to stop picturing him with another woman if she wasn’t ever with another man?

But she only smiled back at him and said, “Okay.”

 

**

 

“‘Then with a quiver of exquisite pleasure he touched the warm soft body, and touched her navel for a moment in a kiss. And he had to come in to her at once, to enter the peace on earth of her soft, quiescent body. It was the moment of pure peace for him, the entry into the body of the woman.’  Wait, is this doing anything for you?”

“Yes,” she replied, grabbing the copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover out of his hands and placing it on the shelf.  “It’s making me want to report you to HR.”

“Then do it already!” Johanna called from another section.  “Get his ass fired so I don’t have to hear it anymore.”

Darius looked truly offended and turned in her general direction. “Hey, I keep the peace around here.  You two would kill each other without me.”

“You’re just sweetening the pot,” Johanna said from somewhere over in self-help.  It was early Monday morning, a rare but unwelcome shift for them all, and while the rush hour rush was making life hell for everyone over in the café, the sales floor was completely dead.

Darius ignored her and set his sights back on Katniss.  “So what’s the word, hummingbird?  You single yet or what?”

Katniss gritted her teeth as she straightened the books.  He was a nice enough guy, harmless really, but she did not want to go through this again.  “It’s complicated,” she answered firmly.

“Is that Facebook official?”

“Don’t you have an order to put in?” she asked, annoyed.

“Katniss,” he said seriously, his hand moving off the shelf and to her shoulder.  “I’m here for you.  For anything.

Jesus, she really regretted telling anyone at work that she and Gale were “having problems.”

“Hey!”

She looked over to see Peeta strolling toward them, a relaxed smile gracing his face, and she found herself smiling back instantly.  “Hi!  What are you doing here?”

Darius sighed as he pulled his hand back.  “Guess I’ll go put that order in now.  Sorry for the sexual harassment.”  He playfully kicked the box of books Johanna was stacking while on his way to the office, grinning mischievously at her after he did it, and she called him some sort of curse word in response, but Katniss was too busy grinning stupidly at Peeta to hear it.

“Sexual harassment?”

“Oh,” she said, shaking her head.  “Darius was just being Darius.  Hey, don’t you have class this morning?”

“I do,” he said, smiling again.  “I just wanted to stop by and tell you my good news.  Um, I guess Effie pulled some strings with her brother and they got one of my short stories sent through to the editor.  It’s getting published next month.”

Her mouth dropped open in shock, then curled back up in a beatific smile.  “Oh my god, Peeta!” she cried, launching herself into his arms.  “That’s amazing!”

And it was.  She was as happy as if the good news had been her own; there wasn’t any hint of envy or intimidation or anything like that that she may have experienced with others’ good fortune.  No, she was ecstatic for him.  Really.

She held on tight to him, her nose pressed against the hollow of his throat.  “See!  I told you!”

“Yeah,” he said, his arms tightening around her.  “You did.” He squeezed her once more time for good measure before reluctantly pulling back.  “I really do have to get back on campus, but I wanted to tell you as soon as I heard.”

“K,” she said, beaming back up at him.  “Celebratory dinner later this week?”

“Yeah.” He tucked a piece of loose hair behind her ear, then smiled one more time before turning away.

It was the sound of Johanna’s snickering that caused her to finally look away from his retreating form.  “What the hell is so funny?” she growled, turning her attention to her best frenemy. 

“Oh man, I never thought I would feel bad for Darius, but I kinda do.”

Katniss’s brow wrinkled in confusion.  “Huh?  Why?”

“Are you completely brainless or what?  He’s got his heart all set on being your rebound boy, but you’ve already got one.”

She bent down to grab the box of paperbacks she was stocking.  “Shut up, Jo.  Peeta’s my friend.”

“And I bet he’s really been there for you in this, your time of need,” she said mockingly. 

“We’re friends.”

“Yeah, well, a shoulder to cry on becomes a dick to ride on.”

The tip of Katniss’s tongue grazed the roof of her mouth as she tried to curb her mounting anger.  “You know, you really should be the one in the poetry section,” she said, rounding the corner to forcefully shove the box against the brunette’s chest.   “What with your way with words and all.”

Johanna’s lips curled back, more of a snarl than a smile.  “Hey, I’m not judging you.  Friend fucking is the best way to go, and he’s cute enough.  Get that D, Katniss.”

“You are so crass,” she said with disgust.

“I only speak the truth.”

Katniss shook her head in annoyance and then got back to stocking the next box of books.  They worked in relative peace together for several minutes before Johanna spoke again.  “It might be good for you, you know.”

“We’re friends,” she repeated with frustration.

“Yeah, dumbass, I got that memo.  That’s my point.  Work out some of your issues in bed with him and get over yourself.  When you’re friends, you can high-five after and it doesn’t have to get weird.”

“I’m sure,” Katniss replied absently, her concentration on the alphabetizing. 

Johanna muttered something else before moving on to another section, and Katniss glared at her as she walked away.  Why couldn’t her coworkers mind their own business?  It wasn’t as if she ever sought their advice.  And Johanna’s ‘advice’ sounded terrible.  After all, Katniss and Gale started out as friends, and the transition into a romantic relationship was ripe with awkwardness, so even if Katniss may have entertained some crazy thoughts while drunk or depressed, her sober self knew that it wasn’t worth the risk to her relationship with Peeta.   And she didn’t think anything was worth risking her relationship with Peeta, not even her relationship with Gale.

But as she worked the rest of the afternoon, Johanna’s words kept replaying in her head.

 

**

 

He was using a muddler to crush the lime and mint leaves in the glass, his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth as he worked.   “This is the best mojito ever,” he promised, adding the sugar.  “It’s a perfect cocktail for a warm night.  And it is not justa lady’s drink, no matter what Finnick says.” 

Katniss laughed and continued to watch him work.  She really didn’t need another night of drinking, but he wanted to change her mind about rum, so she allowed it.  Ice cubes were added next, then the dreaded white liquor that made her grimace.  “It’s not a lot,” he assured her, and he filled the glass only about a quarter of the way with alcohol.  He topped it off with club soda and then slid it toward her, watching eagerly as she hesitated before taking a test sip.

“Mmm,” she agreed, pulling the rim away from her lips, and he relaxed at her reaction.  “That’s actually really good.  Refreshing.  Tasty.  Very manly.”

“Damn straight,” he said, yanking the dish towel off his shoulder and snapping it against the countertop. 

She took a bigger drink and then slid off the bar stool to make her way to his couch.  “Make more.”

He laughed, but complied, and then they settled in for the evening.  As she turned the volume up on the TV, she momentarily mused about how much better it was to be on the couch than at the gym.  “Want to order a pizza?”

“Are you serious?  Did you see how much sugar I put in these?”

She shrugged.  “Just one pizza.”

“I swear you’re like a devil on my shoulder,” he said, shaking his head.

But she was already thumbing through the contact list on her phone, searching for the number for her favorite pizzeria.  “Then who’s the angel?” she asked after she found it, her thumb hovering over the send call button.

He grinned at her.  “A little cartoon version of me, dressed all in white.”

“That’s cute.  But I’m still ordering a pizza.”

He didn’t put up much of a fight, so she decided on a large barbeque chicken pizza and then rattled off his address for the delivery man.  Another lazy night in, she decided.  They were becoming more frequent; sometimes she didn’t even bother to stop at home to change out of her work clothes before coming over to his place. 

Of course there were still nights when she wanted to stay at home with Prim, or he had to focus on class work, or nights when they would go out with some of his friends, like Finnick, who Katniss actually really liked now.  But there was nothing she enjoyed more than relaxing at his place.  It was official: she was a homebody.

Gale wasn’t, she realized sadly.  He used to be, when they first started dating, but he grew to enjoy the time when he could shrug off the pressures and responsibilities he seemed to always be facing in favor of fun.  It was probably just another sign that they were growing apart.

Dammit, she didn’t want to think about Gale right now.  She still didn’t know what she was doing about their relationship, if there was even one left.  He came to her over three weeks ago and they hadn’t spoken since that awkward phone conversation. 

Katniss bit her lip in contemplation, then glanced over at Peeta.  He was holding up his glass, staring at it intently, probably mentally calculating the calories and deciding how to best burn them off.  “Would you give it a rest already?  You’re done for the season.”

“Devil on my shoulder,” he muttered again, placing the drink on the coffee table.

Half an hour later, after Katniss had polished off three slices of the pizza and he was eyeing his second, she laughed.  “Isn’t it good, Peeta?”  She grabbed another piece and took a bite, a strand of mozzarella clinging to her lips, so she licked them clean as she eyed him.  “Mmm,” she moaned exaggeratedly. 

He stood up suddenly, walking straight to the kitchen.  “I’m gonna make another mojito.  You want one?”

“Yeah!” she yelled back, and then licked her fingers clean of the barbeque sauce.  Good pizza, good drink, good friend.  She felt good.  Peeta was so easy to be with, she realized.  Things were just easy when he was involved.

After the drinks were made, he sat next to her again, handing her a glass.  “Thanks,” she said happily as she accepted it.  He gave her another sweet smile, and her heart clenched a little.  What would she do without him now, she wondered.  The thought was scary.

“Peeta,” she said, running her thumb along the rim of her glass.   “Thanks for everything.  I’m…I’m just really glad we’re friends.”

His smile never faltered, his blue eyes bright.  “Me too.”  He took another sip of his drink, then reached over and grabbed another piece of pizza from the box, which made her laugh.  But it was good to see him relaxing, so she curled up next to him on the couch and flipped through the channels. 

Katniss had work in the morning, so she wasn’t about to get drunk, but Peeta was putting them away quickly.  Three mojitos later, he went for the last slice, and she batted his hand away.  “That’s mine, Porky.” 

He was a little flushed from the drinks, and he grinned as he took the slice and held it up.  “This?  You want this?”

“Uh, yes,” she said seriously.

“Okay,” he shrugged, moving as if he was about to return it to the box.  But he put it up to his mouth and licked it, dragging his tongue from the strands of cheese at one end to the crispy crust at the other.  He smiled triumphantly as he tossed it down.  “All yours.”

She picked it up and took a bite, grinning as she chewed loudly.  “Damn straight.”

“That’s gross,” he laughed.  “I wouldn’t have eaten it and that’s my saliva.”  He poked her arm with his finger, “you really want my bodily fluids, huh?”

“You’re drunk,” she said, her nose crinkling.  “Drunk and disgusting.”

“S’okay, Katnissss.  I’ve been thinking about it,” he moved his finger from her arm to his head, “a lot, and…I will.”

“You will?” she asked, confused.  “You will what?”

“Help you get back at Gale.”  He sunk down further in his seat, his chin hitting his chest, and motioned to the lower half of his body.  “Use me.”

She blamed the mojito for the rush of warmth that spread through her at the thought of it.  He was staring at her with glassy eyes, and she was just tipsy enough to wonder if his kisses would taste like rum and mint.  Oh, no good was going to come from this.  “You’re drunk,” she repeated quietly, her eyes fixated on his mouth.

“Katniss,” he said, sounding surprisingly sober, “I’d do anything for you.”

He was going to have the worst hangover tomorrow, she told herself, forcing her stare elsewhere.  She should be a good friend and take care of him the way he took care of her only a few weeks ago, but she wasn’t in the best frame of mind, either.  “Peeta, I think I should go.”  Yes, she definitely needed to get out of there immediately. 

“Are you mad?” he asked, running a hand through his hair.

“No, of course not.  But we’ve been drinking and…and I should go.”  She slowly rose from the couch and lumbered to the door to retrieve her sneakers, and the entire task was more difficult than she anticipated.  She was further gone than she thought.  “I’ll call Prim to pick me up,” she said, leaning against the wall. 

He was acting sheepish and maintaining a safe distance from her.  “Can I call you tomorrow?”

“Of course.”  She really wanted to cross the room and hug him.  She wanted to feel the security of his arms and reassure him of their friendship, which was one of the most important things in the world to her right now.  But she didn’t trust herself to do it, so she whispered goodnight and waited in the lobby of his building until Prim pulled up along the curb.

 

**

 

Prim had taken one look at her the night before and declared that she needed a day of pampering, so after work, Katniss stayed home and soaked in the tub for an indecent amount of time.  The hot water eased her aching muscles, sore from hours on her feet at the store, and the lavender bath salts Prim gave her relaxed her so much that she nearly fell asleep in the water.

After, she let her long hair air-dry as Prim filed her nails.  “Polish?” her sister asked hopefully, holding up a bottle of pale pink lacquer.  Katniss refused; it was enough that she agreed to the manicure in the first place.  But Prim pestered her until she agreed to a coat of clear polish, and after that was dry, she stood to make her way to her bedroom.

“We could experiment with eye shadows!” Prim called out eagerly.

“Not tonight.”

“If you look good, you’ll feel good!”

Katniss laughed as she closed her bedroom door.  She didn’t need a makeover, she needed a movie night.  Peeta had called her that afternoon while she was on her last break, and after he quickly apologized again for the previous night, he proceeded to talk to her as if it didn’t even happen.  She decided that was a good approach, so now she was going to call him and see if he had any evening plans.

“Hi,” she said after he answered.  “What are you doing tonight?”

“Hey!  I’m going to party with some friends.  I was just about to call to see if you wanted to come.”

She looked down at her clothes, an old white tank top and gray leggings, and then glanced over at her closet.  The last thing she wanted to do was change.  “I’ll pass.”

“Oh.  Well, okay.  I probably won’t be out too late.  Do you want to come over after?”

“Um, depends on when you get back.  I have to be at work at noon tomorrow.”

“I’ll call you,” he promised.

After they disconnected, she flopped down on her bed and sighed.  Prim knocked a few minutes later, and she didn’t wait for an invite in before opening the door.  “I’m going to stay over at Rue’s.”

Katniss huffed, annoyed and bored.  “Fine.”

“You okay?”

“Yeah,” she said, forcing a smile.  “Have fun.”

“What are you going to do?” Prim asked worriedly.  Katniss knew it was kind of pathetic to have her little sister fretting so much over her. 

“I might hangout with Peeta later.”

“Okay.  Are…are you going to call Gale before that?”  The look on Katniss’s face shut her up immediately, and she shrugged innocently as she waved goodbye, leaving Katniss alone with her thoughts.

Every time she tried to think about Gale, even now, the image of his head dipping between Madge Undersee’s creamy thighs infiltrated her mind.  So it was still best if she didn’t think of Gale at all.

She picked up one of the books from the pile on her nightstand and settled in on her bed.  Soon the sound of her phone ringing was breaking her out of that fictional world, and she dog-eared the page before checking it.

“Hey,” she said, surprised to be hearing from Peeta already.

“Hey,” he replied happily.  “I cut out early, so if you wanted to stop by…”

Katniss looked over at her alarm clock.  “It’s not even 9 o’clock yet!”

“It was a terrible party.”

“Peeta,” she warned.  “I hope you didn’t leave because-“

“Katniss,” he said, imitating her.  “Just come over already.”

She smiled to herself, her teeth biting into her plump bottom lip.  “I’ll be there in 15.”

She quickly braided her hair and slipped on an oversized flannel shirt before grabbing her keys and jogging to her car.  The ride to Peeta’s place was practically second-nature, she’d been there so often, and she arrived at his apartment building in record time.  After he answered the door with his usual smile, she immediately settled in on her side of the couch.  Then she paused, unsure of what was next.  Usually on nights in, they had a plan beforehand of what to watch, but lately they were hanging out together much more frequently and they didn’t need the pretense of wanting to watch some inane reality show to do it.

“Hey, I started that new Kate Atkinson novel tonight,” she announced.

“Yeah?  How is it?”  He took the seat right next to her, and she could smell his cologne that he always wore when he went out.  DKNY Men, she knew from the many trips to his bathroom.

“It was good,” she said, her eyes roaming over his body.  He was still dressed for the party, wearing straight fit, dark wash jeans and a navy polo, and it was a little distracting, the way the short sleeves of the shirt hugged his biceps.  “It was good,” she repeated absently.  “But, uh, I don’t know if it’s going to be as good as everyone says.”

“I don’t think you’d be here right now if it was,” he said with a teasing smile.  She felt her face heating up as she took in that smile, but it seemed to go unnoticed by him.  “I didn’t think you were the type to stop reading in the middle of a good book.”

She leaned in closer to him.  “Oh, I only stay up all night to read your stuff.”

“Best compliment ever,” he said as he stared back her, smiling reverently.

“So when do I get to read more?”

He laughed, turning away to stare up the ceiling.  “As soon as I finish what I’m working on now.”

That only stoked her curiosity, so she pressed for more details, but he refused.  She rested the side of her head against the back of the couch as she watched him flip through the channel guide, still working to evade her questions.  He said he didn’t feel like writing tonight, but she wished he did, because lately she realized how much she enjoyed watching him do it.  He always looked so intense as he concentrated, his entire demeanor transforming with the first keystroke.  It reflected in his words, too; sometimes she was amazed by the underlying heat in his writing.  Though much of his work reminded her of him (strong, steady, innately good), sometimes there was an anger written into it that nearly stole her breath.  There were whole worlds simmering in his mind, and she was lucky enough to be invited into it.

His eyes were focused on the television straight ahead, so she took the opportunity to stare, unabashed.  Johanna’s words suddenly echoed in her mind, and Katniss licked her lips.  She wanted to touch him, she realized.  She wanted to run her hands through his hair, and down his chest, and up his arms.  She wanted to feel him.  She wanted to take her time as she did it.

He was watching her now, too, his position mirroring hers: head resting against the cushion, lips slightly parted, eyes transfixed on the other.  She didn’t know how long they stayed like that.

“Peeta,” she finally spoke.  “Did you mean what you said last night?”  He blinked, sighing softly as he seemed to be gauging her reactions, and a long moment passed before he answered.

“I meant it,” he whispered.

“So did I,” she admitted after another interval of silence.  She reached out her hand to touch his arm, but then she quickly pulled it away.  He continued to watch her, his breath hitching slightly each time she made a move forward but faltered.  That sudden desire to touch him was overwhelming.

She crawled forward to close the small distance between them, turning to press herself against his side.  Very carefully, she moved her hand over to his chest, resting her palm against his rapidly beating heart.  “We can go slow.”

He nodded quickly, his tongue darting out to wet his lips.  “Yeah.  And we can stop, whenever.”  She slid her palm up, and then moved it back down, marveling at how solid he felt. 

His arm snaked around her to settle on her hip, and she could swear his touch was burning her through the thin material of her leggings.   How was it possible to be so aroused by his thumb rubbing back and forth against her hipbone?

Katniss moved her other hand from the back of the couch to his shoulder, and gently straddled his lap. “Slow,” she repeated quietly as her hands explored his chest and arms, just how she wanted to earlier.  Peeta had dropped his hand when she moved, and he hadn’t made another attempt to touch her again.  She was thankful for that, though, because now she was free from anything distracting her as she focused on feeling him.

His shirt was so soft under her hands, but the feel of him beneath the material was all her senses cared about.  Her fingers trailed over the hard ridges of his upper body, and her eyes stayed fixated on their path as she moved down to his stomach and then back up to his sternum, rubbing the heels of her palms against his muscles along the way. He sighed softly in contentment, and his head fell back against the couch.  She bit her lip, contemplating her next move, and then she traced the soft skin of his now exposed throat with feather-light touches.  Feeling emboldened by his response so far, she allowed her fingers to dip below the collar of his shirt, and her nails scratched at the light chest hair she found there.  But she was no longer content to take her time, so she brought her hands up to his hair and threaded her fingers through his thick waves.  How long had she wanted to touch him like this?  Now that she was doing it, she actually felt relieved.  Finally.

His eyes fell shut for a moment before he forced them back open, and then they stared at each other with a shy, shared smile.  He had his hand wrapped around the end of her braid now, tugging gently as he allowed himself to touch her again, too.   As his fingers skimmed the length of her hair, she shifted in his lap, freezing when she felt him hard against the back of her thigh.

“Take off your shirt?” she implored, bunching the fabric in her fists.  He nodded, then leaned forward so he could pull it over his head. Suddenly she needed more, more, more, and if there was any part of her still screaming doubts in her mind, she silenced them quickly.

Katniss followed the same path with her hands as she had when he was clothed, but this time he mirrored her movements, his own palms running over her curves, though he still shied away from actually cupping her.  It was a tease, she thought in frustration.  The feel of his fingers barely grazing the undersides of her breasts was just a tease, so she thrust her chest out as she shrugged off the flannel shirt.

Still, his hands only settled on her hips as he inhaled sharply.   She was about to whip off her tank top to bare herself completely, but her hands froze at the hem.  “Can I kiss you?” she asked quietly, instead. 

His eyes were still wide with disbelief.  “Yeah,” he whispered.

She tentatively placed her arms around his neck, her hands in his hair once again, and she slowly moved in closer.  Her nose bumped his before their mouths could meet, and she flushed with embarrassment.  “It’s okay,” Peeta said, laughing lightly as she pulled back.  “We’ll go slow.”  He squeezed her hips reassuringly, and then she moved in again.  Her eyes were still open when she firmly pressed her lips to his. 

The kiss was quick and unsure, and the only thing she could really register was his warmth and scent.  She was shaking when she pulled back, studying him cautiously.  A part of her was sure that he would stop it right then, but he didn’t.  Instead, he waited patiently for her to make another move, his thumbs continuing to rub circles against her hipbones.

She rocked back, licking her lips when she felt him still hard.  That earlier hunger was quickly returning, and she pinned him with a stare as she swiveled her hips again, and then again.  He closed his eyes, grunting lightly as she moved, and the sound triggered something inside of her that she never felt before.  Again, she captured his lips, moving more confidently against his this time.  She took his top lip between hers, and experimentally touched the tip of her tongue to it, and when his mouth opened welcomingly, she sighed as the kiss deepened.  She clutched his shoulders as his tongue stroked hers, their mouths melded together.

Katniss felt herself letting go, and soon they were panting into each other’s mouths as their actions became more frenzied.  His earlier promise that they would go slow echoed in her mind, and she forced herself to pull back, ignoring the part of her that was practically begging for this.

“Peeta,” she said breathlessly.  “Promise me we’ll still be friends.  No matter what happens tonight, just promise me that.”

“We’ll always be friends,” he vowed.  “Always.”  He looked so certain, his words so sure, and Katniss wanted to believe it so badly. 

She massaged the hard muscles of his arms to busy her anxious hands, and she knew that if she just rocked back again, if she felt his hard cock against her again, then she would completely lose control.  A part of her, maybe even the largest part of her, wanted nothing more than to do that, but she couldn’t give in just yet.

Peeta must have sensed her growing apprehension; he rubbed her arms comfortingly, as if trying to warm her, and again reassured her that they didn’t have to do anything, and that it would be okay to stop whenever she wanted.

“I don’t want to stop,” she admitted, revealing the problem.  She didn’t want to stop, but she was still scared of what it meant not to.

She glanced at the clock on the end table and realized that it was already just after 10 p.m.  His eyes followed hers, and maybe his thoughts did, too.  “Hey, whatever you want to do tonight, or whatever you don’t, is okay.”

“Just for tonight then?” she questioned with a furrowed brow.

“Yeah, if that’s what you want.  We can just give ourselves…one night.” 

That didn’t seem fair to her.  She might have her issues, but Katniss never wanted to think of herself as a user of people, and she felt like that would be exactly what she was doing to Peeta if they agreed to this.  “What are you getting out of this?” she asked, unbelieving. 

He didn’t say anything as he grasped her hips and slowly pressed her down against him, and their eyes met for a long moment as she felt how much he wanted this.  Did he really want her, though?  She never even considered it, but the way he was looking at her…

Decided, Katniss scooted further back in his lap and nervously reached for the bottom of her tank top.  Her nipples were hard and already visible through the thin material, and he stared at her with an open mouth as she slowly lifted the shirt over her head.  Her eyes averted his when it was off, and he continued to take her in, so she released the top from her hand, letting it fall to the couch.

“You’re perfect,” he said, falling back against the cushions with a happy sigh.  He reached out to touch her, and her eyes fell shut as soon as his fingertips trailed the curve of her breast.  “Please don’t doubt how incredible you are.”

She could certainly return that sentiment, but she was too busy leaning into his touch; again, she was feeling what she experienced earlier: an all-consuming kind of passion that made her want to forget absolutely everything but Peeta.  And why shouldn’t she?  They only had tonight.

He looked up at her with a shy smile as he continued to eagerly palm her breasts.  The soft little moans she emitted seemed to encourage him, though, and he massaged her enthusiastically, his large hands completely covering her as he moved from one mound to the other.  Her hands tangled in his hair as she pulled him closer to her, and those soft little moans grew louder as his mouth covered her nipple.

She chanted his name over and over as he sucked and kissed every inch of each breast, and when she couldn’t stand it for another second, she took his face in her hands and moved his mouth to hers.  The deep kiss, coupled with the feel of his bare chest against hers, had them grinding against each other, and Katniss was never so sure of anything when she asked him to take her to his room.

He slid his hands to the back of her thighs and hoisted her up as he stood, and she wrapped her legs around him as he carried her to the bedroom.  She didn’t want to break the kiss when he moved, so her mouth stayed pressed to his until he knelt on the bed.  

“What do you want?” he asked, his hand rubbing up and down her leg as she fell against the pillows.

Katniss was never one for much talk at times like this; she was usually content to follow the lead.  But Peeta had a way of looking at her that made something deep in her belly clench, and so she rose to her knees, reaching for his belt buckle.  She wanted to see him, to touch him, to taste him.  She didn’t ask permission as she undid his belt and lowered his zipper, because he was staring at her with so much hunger that she knew he wanted this, too.

“Get comfortable,” she said, her fingers skimming along the waistband of his boxer briefs. 

“Katniss, you don’t have to-”

“Lie down.”

He shook his head, laughing a little as he moved around her to lean back against the headboard.  “Well, if you insist.”

“I insist,” she said, fighting a smile.

She crawled toward him, stretching for another kiss as he stroked her braid.  Coy and cute weren’t exactly her strongpoints, but she tried to be flirty as she left a trail of kisses down his chest, her eyes staying locked on his the entire time.

Peeta kept his hold on her hair as she pushed his jeans and underwear off his hips, and she tried to stay in the moment.  This is what she wanted, and she knew that, though a part of her was still amazed that they were about to take this step.

But the sight of him naked was enough to force all other thoughts from her mind, and she wrapped her hand around him, awed.

“You’re so big,” she whispered as she watched her hand move up and down his length.  She wasn’t expecting that, but he was thick, and hard as a rock, and the realization that he was this turned on by her was what propelled her forward to lick up along his shaft.

“Fuckkkk,” Peeta groaned, his hands tangling in her hair. 

Her tongue darted out to swirl around the head of his cock, but this was never something she felt confident doing, even if he seemed to be enjoying it.  As his fingers continued to massage her scalp and he softly called her name, over and over, she tried to focus on that and ignore the part of her telling her she was probably doing something wrong.

She took him into her mouth, bobbing her head slowly as she massaged him with her tongue, and then she added her hand to stroke the rest of him.  She started moving faster, moaning deeply in the back of her throat as she took him in further, and she hoped he felt that.  The hand not working with her mouth was still anchored to his hipbone, and her nails dug into his soft skin as she tried to get him off.

Just as she was about to pull away to ask where he wanted to come (she had always refused to swallow), he gently pushed her back.  “Okay, okay, stop,” he begged breathlessly. 

“What’s wrong?”

He sat up and tucked himself back into his pants, missing the horrified look flitting across Katniss’s face.  “I didn’t want to come yet,” he answered with a shrug.  “We’ve only got tonight.”

His large hand spanned her lower back as he turned her around on the bed, so that she was now the one falling back against his pillows.  She was still wearing her leggings and underwear, and as he took it upon himself to pull them off, she was silently thankful that he was no longer asking if she was sure every step of the way.

He lowered his mouth to her bare stomach and peppered kisses around her naval.  “But you…you can come again and again.”

He hooked his thumbs in the waistband of her panties and tugged down, peeling them and the leggings off her body.  “You smell so good,” he said, his nose nuzzling against her hipbone.

“Well, I took a bath.”  She covered her face with her hand, shaking softly with embarrassed laughter when she realized how stupid she sounded.

Peeta grinned when he looked up at her.  “So that’s your secret.”

“With bath salts,” she added, smiling back at him.  “I used bath salts.”

His head dropped down again as his lips found the smooth skin just below her belly button.  Her legs were locked together at the ankle, and she just couldn’t relax, no matter how good his kisses felt.  She was completely naked in his bed now, and that was surreal enough at the moment; the idea that he was slowly inching his way down her body seemed crazy to her.

“Katniss,” he whispered before dipping his head again to lick along the top of her thigh.  “Is this okay?”

“Yeah,” she said timidly.  She just needed a minute to catch her bearings again.

When his chin grazed that soft thatch of hair, her legs fell open, and she relaxed a little once more.  He smiled at her reassuringly before he settled back down, and her head fell against the pillows as soon as his tongue darted out to taste her.  It was a teasing move, and he spent many minutes kissing and licking each part of her, but only his nose bumped the spot where she wanted him the most.

She closed her eyes as he closed in on her clit, and she tried to stop herself from raising her hips off the mattress, but her body was working for itself right now. 

“Y-you don’t have to, mmm, do this if you don’t want to.”

He stopped abruptly to look up at her, and she bit her lip when she saw his wet mouth turn upwards.  “Why wouldn’t I want to?” he asked, still smiling.  He rested his cheek against her inner thigh, his hand moving up to slip between her slick folds.  “Tell me what you like, all right?”

As his tongue flicked against her clit again, she grabbed at his hair, moving his head just a little so his mouth hit her right there, and then she was arching her back again as she tried to move even closer.  She let herself enjoy it for a few minutes, because it always did feel nice, but she didn’t want to waste too much time on this.

“I never come this way,” she said, gently bucking him off of her and trying to sit up.  “It’s okay.”

“Then someone wasn’t doing it right,” he insisted.  He pressed his palm against her midsection to hold her back down, then started licking that same spot with more pressure, and faster.

She was about to throw his own words back in his face, the ones he said when she was trying to get him off with her mouth, but he looked up at her again, eyeing her deliberately as his tongue swirled against her, and she watched, fascinated, until he stopped to speak.  “We’ve got all night.”

“You’d want to do this all night?” she asked skeptically.

“Fuck yeah.”  He went right back to work after that, and even though she was getting closer and closer to her an orgasm, it wasn’t enough.  Because the way he just said that, and the look he gave her when he said it…

“Peeta,” she called out, grabbing his shoulder.  “Do you…oh fuck, Peeta.  Do you have any condoms?”

He stopped immediately to stare back at her, his glistening mouth wide open.  “You want to?”

She nodded enthusiastically, pulling him up her body so she could slide her hand into his underwear again.  “Yeah,” she said, pumping his cock as she reached up to kiss his neck. 

Katniss released him so he could fumble with the nightstand drawer in search of a condom, all while still trying to remain as physically close to her as possible.  Frustrated, he yanked it off the rails, and the drawer and all its contents spilled onto his pristine floor.  She laughed as he reached down to grab one, and he returned to her triumphantly when he had it. 

He placed it on the mattress next to their heads, and then positioned himself back on top of her, surrounding her completely.  She sighed against his mouth as he kissed her again, slowly and softly.  They stayed like that for a long while, the kisses alternating between long strokes of his tongue against hers, and sweet, short pecks that spanned from her mouth to jaw.  Her fingertips danced along his strong back, and she reveled in the feel of his muscles flexing as he moved over her.

Peeta cupped her face in his large hand as they kissed, and she melted further into the pillows as his thumb stroked her cheekbone.  They shared a lazy smile as he pulled away to comb his fingers through her hair, unraveling her braid, but she didn’t like the space between them, so she leaned in for yet another kiss.  She wished they could do this all night, too; just the kissing was amazing to her.  The sound of it, that light smacking as their lips met, echoed in the otherwise quiet room. 

“Now,” she sighed against his mouth.  He had hitched her leg high up on his waist, and she slid her foot along his hip to push his jeans off.  “Now.”

He untangled himself from her to get his pants and underwear off completely, and she felt as if she was out of breath as she panted, waiting for him.  This was going to happen.  They were going to do this.  A part of her wondered if they should, because she was nearly shaking at the mere thought of it.  But then he was back with her, smiling shyly as he dropped sweet kisses all over her face.  Immediately, she felt relaxed and happy, and that, she realized, was her answer.

Peeta didn’t reach for the condom next to them; instead he continued as they were earlier, only this time he was as naked as she was.  His hands traveled all over her body, lightly tickling her skin as his fingers skimmed over her ribs, then back up to caress her breasts, all while his lips stayed melded to hers.  As her moans grew louder, his touches became more sure.  He palmed her eagerly, his thumb massaging her nipple, and then he dipped his head to take it into his mouth.  She fisted a handful of his hair as she arched up, growling his name again and again as he licked and kissed his way to the other one.

“I love the way you say my name,” he admitted later, after nearly every inch of her chest was coated with his saliva.  Still, he moved lower, his mouth trailing kisses down her body.  “Say it when you come,” he commanded, just as he spread her thighs and pulled her closer to his face.

She gave in this time, pulling her knees against her chest so she was wide open for him, and he groaned against the smooth skin of her inner thigh before he dived in to taste her again.  His tongue swirled circles on the hood of her clit, and she cried out as she arched closer, desperate for more pressure.

She was so close, she realized, but Peeta wasn’t doing anything to tip her over that edge.  He had her legs over his shoulders, so she pushed off and planted her feet flat on the mattress, nudging his mouth as she thrust against his face.  He only allowed that for a moment though before he crossed his arms over her stomach, pinning her to the bed.

Katniss brought her fingers to her mouth, biting down on her short nails to stifle her cries.  When she looked back down, Peeta’s eyes met hers, and she called out his name as his tongue darted out once more.

Her eyes fell shut, and she wished he would let her taste him again.  She imagined licking along his shaft, her stare holding his as she took him into her mouth.  He still held her down now, but she would let him fuck her face, taking him as deep as she could for as long as he wanted.  Then, when he came, she would just keep sucking, just like she was sucking on her fingers right now.  She’d take every drop of his hot cum.  Every single drop. 

The thought of his face as she did that was everything, and her entire body tensed as she concentrated on Peeta’s tongue in that moment.

But then he stopped.   Just as she was about to come, he stopped, and he crawled back up her body, panting an apology as his hand searched for the condom.  “I can’t wait anymore,” he admitted, struggling to tear open the foil. 

“I’ve never been with anyone but Gale,” she found herself admitting, slightly terrified, as he rolled the condom on. 

He froze, his hand still on his cock.  “Do you want to-”

“No!  No, I want to.  I just…I just wanted you to know.”

His expression softened, and he leaned down to kiss her again.  He moved to pull away, but she held firm to the back of his head, refusing to let him go.  She could feel him hard and ready against her, and she wound her free hand around his waist, pressing against the small of his back to urge him on.

She was so wet that the sheets underneath her were damp, and it eased the way as he slowly slid inside of her.  “Peeta,” she said, unable to hide the tremor in her voice.  He placed a gentle kiss on the hollow of her throat.

He moved slowly at first, and they stayed pressed together until Katniss pushed him back to a kneeling position.  Her hands clutched at his shoulders as he rocked his hips against hers, and he was nearly pulling all the way out with each thrust.  Her breath hitched every time he reentered her and the head of his cock grazed her walls.

“Mmm, yes,” she panted as he sped up.  The movement was inching her closer to the headboard, so she reached up to wrap her hands around the cast iron bars just to stop her herself from hitting them. 

She was sure he was nearly there, but then he slowed again before withdrawing completely.  Her mouth opened to ask him why, but as his head dipped between her legs again, his tongue flicking furiously against her clit, she found that she could barely speak.

“Fuck,” she finally managed, her grip tightening around the bars.

Then he was hovering over her, back inside of her, pumping slowly at first, then faster.  But he stopped again to slide down her body, his fingers parting her folds as he licked. 

He alternated between fucking her with his cock and mouth, and when she couldn’t stand it anymore, she released one of the bars so she could hold his head down until she came.  “I-I’m going to,” she called out, and that was all he needed to hear.  He concentrated on her clit as she tensed, her entire body shaking in anticipation. 

She called out his name over and over as he held firmly onto her thighs, lifting her from the bed and closer to his tongue, and then she came with a strangled cry.  The sensation was so intense that she sprung up, her arms wrapping around Peeta’s neck as she clawed desperately at his back.   As the spasms slowed, she fell back onto the bed, panting and spent.

He still had a hard grip on her legs, and his palms slid down to hook under her knees as he entered her again.  Katniss smiled softly at him as he rocked into her, and he moved a hand from her thigh to gently caress her cheek.  Beads of perspiration dotted his hairline, and she watched as they dropped down his forehead and nose.  “Are you close?” she asked, reaching up to wipe some of the sweat away, because she could do that now.  It wasn’t ever okay to do it before, but tonight, it was allowed. 

He nodded as he moved faster, with short, sharp thrusts that felt impossibly good to her, too.  She held his face in her hands, her eyes locked with his as he lost control, and as his hips jerked one last time, she wrapped her legs around him, cradling him to her.  “Oh god, Katniss,” he said against her throat, and she could feel his heart pounding alongside hers.

“I know,” she said.  “I know.”

 

**

 

She woke up shivering, and she sat up, pulling the covers under her chin.  The window closest to his bed was open, she realized dumbly.  Sure, it was spring, but the temperatures could still drop to the freezing range late at night.  What was he thinking?

The alarm clock on the nightstand next to her read just after 2 a.m., so they hadn’t even been asleep for two hours yet.  Katniss had pretty much passed out as soon as her head hit the pillow, so she hadn’t noticed him sliding the window open before he joined her in bed, or she would have yelled at him then.

He was still asleep beside her, looking peaceful and beautiful and warm, and she couldn’t help but smile as she watched him.  The temptation to join him under the soft blanket was too much, so she slid back down onto the mattress, tucking her body against his.  He sighed in his sleep, his arm encircling her waist, and she closed her eyes.

It was already two o’clock in the morning, she realized a second later.  They only had tonight.  Why the hell were they wasting time on sleep?

They were still naked, neither of them bothering with clothes after the quick shower Peeta had insisted on.  That hadn’t been awkward, though Katniss assumed it might be.  But they were both already so relaxed, and when he asked to wash her hair, she gave in easily and leaned back against his bare, wet chest.  He teased her that she would smell like a man now, but she didn’t mind the mint shampoo at all.  They joked and laughed as they scrubbed and rinsed, and then he wrapped the fluffiest towel around her, kissing her sweetly on the nose as he rubbed her arms.

She never really felt that way with anyone before, and she has never felt the way she does right now, either.  Sex was always nice.  The intimacy, the connection, the physical closeness…it was good, but she never realized it could be so pleasurable.  Tonight was something else altogether, though, and she was starting to feel that thing again.  It was something stirring deep inside her, making her want more.

Katniss pushed back against him, brushing his soft cock with the curve of her ass, and he began to harden almost instantly.  She turned around in his arms and tried to rouse him from sleep with a series of kisses across his chest, and his eyes opened slowly before he grinned back at her.

This time she grabbed a condom off the bedside table, and she slapped it against his chest, declaring that she was cold and he needed to warm her up.  It was as close to flirting as she could get.

“What, no foreplay?”

“What do you want?” she laughed, her chin resting on his stomach. 

He shrugged with a smile, but his eyes were serious when he said, “Whatever you’re offering.”  So she kissed down his body, smiling mischievously up at him.  “I’ll take whatever you’re offering, Katniss.”

She took him into her mouth immediately, and he groaned in pleasure as she sucked and stroked. Again, she wanted to finish him this way, and she was getting so wet at the thought of it, but it wasn’t long before he was grabbing for her, begging her to go slow.

“What else do you want?” she asked, her hand pumping up and down his length.

“Um, I didn’t hate when you told me how big I was.”

“You’re so big,” she teased, repeating her words from earlier.  “You’re massive.”  She continued to stroke him, and he apologized with a laugh.  “It’s a curse, really,” he said, but his voice choked on that last word as she leaned forward to lick the tip.

“Oh fuck, Katniss,” he gasped, his hands tangling in her hair until she released him.  “How about you?  What do you like?”

She climbed back up his body and held his head to her chest, directing him without words and crying out when he immediately took her nipple into his mouth.  “I like this,” she said as she rocked against his hard stomach.  “And I liked holding on to the headboard when we did it last time.”

She reluctantly moved away, settling next to him on her hands and knees as he dealt with the condom.  After he placed some pillows underneath her, and she wrapped her fingers around the bars, he slowly entered her from behind.  Katniss exhaled softly, her arms stretching out as she pushed back against him.  “Yes,” she moaned, her entire body tensing as she held herself up.  “Just like this.”

His hands slid around the front of her body to knead her breasts, and she commanded him to go faster.  Peeta pulled her back flush against his chest, thrusting into her as she continued to grip the bars.  She held tighter as he sped up, and it felt incredible, but she still knew she wasn’t going to come this way.

“Touch yourself,” he said, one of his thick arms sliding along her outstretched one.  He pulled her hand off the headboard and moved it down to where they were joined.  “Come with me.”

She tried, but she wasn’t going to make it there with him.  Even his own fingers working with her weren’t doing it, and she assured him that it was all right, that she was enjoying this anyway.  Just being with him was enough.

“Mm, come on, Peeta,” she whispered as he nuzzled her neck.  “Let go.”

She arched back against him, effectively changing the angle, and he came with the next thrust.  She smiled with pride as he groaned her name, and then she silenced his apology with a kiss.  As he cleaned up, she snuggled back under the blankets, because the absence of his warmth reminded her that she was, in fact, still freezing cold.

Tempting as it was to stay up all night with him, she resigned herself to sleep.  She did have work at noon, after all.

“I shut the window,” he said, sliding into the bed with her.  “Sorry about that.  Force of habit.”  Her eyes closed as she felt his arms wrapping around her, and she covered his hands with hers as she drifted off, already warm and perfectly at peace.

 

**

 

When the blaring alarm woke her, it felt like she had just closed her eyes, but the clock told her it was already 6 a.m.

“Fuck, I’m sorry,” Peeta grumbled, reaching over her to sleepily bat at the button to silence it. 

“Whyyyy?” she asked dramatically.

“Uh, I was gonna to go the gym.”

“You’re going to the gym at six in the morning on a Sunday?”

“Well, not now.  I think I got enough cardio last night.”  He smiled bashfully at her, but she only scowled in return.  She had been sleeping so well.

He draped his arm over her stomach and settled back down beside her, and she could feel his warm breath on her neck as he whispered another apology.  Despite being annoyed that she was woken up like that, she melted back against him, covering his hand with hers.

“Are you, um, tired?” she asked quietly.

He turned their entwined hands over and she traced up and down his palm, waiting for his answer. 

“No,” he finally replied, his voice low and husky. 

She flipped over to face him, and their mouths met immediately in a messy, crazed kiss.  Katniss didn’t care about sleep, or her tangled hair, or any remaining sense of propriety; they only had a few hours left before she would have to leave for work, and she knew exactly how she wanted to spend them.

“Do you have any condoms left?”

He managed to pry his mouth away from hers for a second to rifle though the drawer for one, flinging every non-condom item to the floor.  “I better.  It was a damn bonus box.”  She was probably distracting him when she straddled him and started sucking on his neck, but he still found one. 

“Trojan BareSkin,” he said, reading the label as she nibbled on his earlobe.  He paused in thought, then went back to the drawer to resume the search.

“What’s wrong?” she asked in confusion.

“I want to last as long as I can.  Not sure ultra-thin condoms are conducive to that.”

“Peeta.”  She pulled his arm away from the nightstand, then grabbed the foil packet he discarded.  “Just use this,” she commanded, wrapping her arms around his neck as she nuzzled his cheek with her nose. 

Katniss already knew what she wanted, so she pulled him with her to the center of the bed.  “Lie down.”  He nodded wordlessly, complying, and she straddled his midsection again.  “I can do all the work this time.”  She said it jokingly, but he was too busy focusing on her.  He stared up at her in awe, his fingers digging into her waist.  “Do whatever you want,” he said softly.  “It feels great for me no matter what, okay?  Focus on you.”

She leaned down to kiss him one more time, and then she handed him the condom, her hands tangling in his hair as he put it on.  When he was ready and positioned, she slowly lowered herself to him, softly crying out when he was finally inside her again.  It had only been a few hours since they were last like this, but she craved it as much now as she had that first time the night before.

Peeta liked to set the pace with long, teasing strokes; he would nearly withdraw, then press back into her slowly, so she felt every hard inch of him.  While that felt incredible, she also liked what they were doing now.  She still moved slowly, but she used a circular motion that kept him fully inside of her the entire time.  She watched as his eyes roamed up and down her body, his hands following their path, and when they locked with hers, they shared a small smile. 

“You’re perfect,” he whispered, and a part of her wanted to correct him, but the truth was, she felt pretty perfect in that moment.

When she needed a little more, she leaned back, resting her hands on his thighs as she gently bounced up and down.  “Jesus Christ,” Peeta muttered, all the reverence gone from his voice, and fuck, she loved that she could have this effect on him.

It was fun to experiment together.  If there was a position she was always curious about, she wanted to test it out now.  If it sounded like he was enjoying the move a little too much, she tried another.  If she was enjoying it, she kept at it, desperately trying to get there without needing his fingers to do it.

Her knees started to ache from their position on either side of his hips, and she knew she could press her hands to his shoulders and rest her weight on him.  She bent down to meet his lips when she did it, and they shared another long, slow kiss that did just as much for her as everything else.

But she wanted to come this way more than anything, and she was determined to make it happen.  She stretched her arms out and rocked back, breaking the kiss to sit up straight.  That earlier move, rotating her hips in a small circle, was now her standby, but she soon grew frustrated with that, too.

Peeta was still enjoying it though, and she could see him struggling to hold off as she started moving up and down his length.  His fingers dug into her skin as he held her hips, and then he started moving her back and forth against his cock instead.  She followed his lead and continued like that, and when her clit rocked against his pubic bone, she felt the first real stirring of something more.

“Oh, god,” she cried after a few more strokes.  “Peeta.”

He was staring straight up at the ceiling, gritting his teeth as if he was in pain, but she knew he was trying to wait for her.  She arched her back, and then it felt even better, and she was sure she was almost there.

“Kiss me?” he pleaded, and she nodded, leaning forward to capture his lips.  As their mouths met, he lifted his pelvis, and the new angle brushed some never before touched spot deep inside of her.  She whimpered as she kept rocking back and forth, and the feel of Peeta’s cock hitting her right there, coupled with the pressure on her clit as she ground against him, had her feeling more pleasure than she ever felt before.

She arched her back again, and fuck, how could anything feel so amazing?  “I’m going to come,” she choked out, and his arms went around her to hold her close.  As soon as the first wave hit her, Peeta let go, too, and they cried out together as she clenched around him while he came.  “Oh god, oh god,” she screamed, her fingernails digging into his shoulders, breaking the skin.  He moaned against her neck as the last ripple tore through her, and they sunk down into the mattress, breathing heavily.

Her ears were buzzing as he gently untangled himself from her to take care of the condom, and she just kept repeating, “Oh god, oh god,” as her heart rate finally slowed.  Peeta pressed a palm to his damp forehead, opening his mouth to speak but nothing coming out.  He tried again, and failed, and he laughed.  “Words,” he finally managed.  “No words.”

She laughed, too, and rested her head against his chest.  They fell silent for a few minutes while they recovered, and she sighed happily as his fingers wound in her hair to massage her scalp.  “Sorry about the scratches,” she said contritely, turning to gently press her lips against the red, angry lines on his shoulder.

“Worth it,” he said with a grin.  “They’ll match the ones on my back.”

“I don’t even have long nails,” she said.  “See?”  She wiggled her fingers in his face, and he grabbed her hand to kiss her open palm.  Her smile fell away as she watched him knot his fingers through hers.  Outside, the sun was rising, and tonight was gone.

“Peeta?”

He looked at her, waiting for her to finish her thought, but she just shook her head and stretched out along the mattress.  He turned on his side to face her, and she forced herself to smile as she rolled on her side, too.  They shared a pillow, and she couldn’t stop herself from bringing her hand up to trace along his cheekbone and jaw.  She wanted to tell him how handsome she thought he was.  Beautiful, even.  But all she could manage was, “I like your face.”

He reached out to touch her, mirroring her movements.  He took his time, studying her features with the pads of his fingers, before finally saying, “I like your face, too.

“What time do you have to leave for work?” he asked later, after a long interval of nervous quiet.

“I guess around 10?”

He broke away to set the alarm, and she released a relieved breath when he came back to her, his arms wrapping around her after he pulled the covers over them.

She closed her eyes, and within minutes, she was asleep.

The next time she woke up, the beeping echoing throughout the room just as loudly as it did before, she stared off into space.  Peeta hit a button to silence it, and she could hear his heavy sigh from behind her.  “I wish I could hit snooze forever,” he admitted.

‘Well, you can’t,’ she thought bitterly as she sat up.  “I should get going.”

“You could shower here.”

“I probably shouldn’t go into work smelling like Old Spice,” she said with a shrug.

“Yeah, I guess.”

She reached down for her underwear and leggings, slipping them on as she realized that the rest of her clothes were in the living room.  Covering her breasts with her arm, she turned to face him.  He was sitting up now, the sheet haphazardly draped over him, and he leaned in to kiss her.  She really did want to kiss him, but her mouth tasted terrible and she was not going to leave him with the memory of her morning breath.

“I gotta go,” she said, pulling away.  His face fell, but she missed it in her rush to scramble off the bed.

“What are you doing after work?”

The question made her freeze, and she spun around on her heel to face him.  What was she going to do after work?  There was only one answer; she probably already put it off for too long as it was.

“I’m going to see Gale.”

“Oh.”  She saw his jaw flex as he looked away from her, and her brow furrowed in confusion.

“Did you want to hang out sometime this week?” she asked.

“I don’t know, Katniss,” he said with a head shake.  “I have to get some writing done, and I’ve got finals coming up.  I should study more.”

“At least summer is coming up,” she tried, her voice sounding incredibly small.

“Yeah,” he scoffed.  “Because it’s not like I’ll be at the bakery 60 hours a week then, or anything.”

Her throat constricted as she swallowed thickly.  Why did it feel like she was losing him?  He promised her.  But it was as if she could already feel him slipping away.  “I gotta go,” she repeated, turning away so he missed the tears in her eyes.  She raced out of the room and grabbed her tank top and shirt off the couch, and she angrily wiped at her face as she searched for her keys.  They were in the glass bowl on the little table beside the door, she realized stupidly.  That’s where she always put them.  And sure enough, that’s where she found them.  Right next to Peeta’s keys.

She dressed quickly and slipped on her flip-flops, and she hoped he heard how loud she slammed his door when she left.

 

**

 

Work was hell, and it wasn’t just because she hardly got any sleep.  Sundays were always packed, especially after church hours.   She didn’t think she had the strength to deal with people today, whether they were customers or her well-meaning coworkers.

About an hour into her shift, her supervisor called her into his little office.  He grunted something about how she had been there for six months now, said they were impressed with her so far, blah blah.  But her ears perked up a little when she heard him mention the word ‘promotion.’

“Kids Lead.  You want it or what?”

She blinked.  A lead position meant a little more money and much better hours.  She could say goodbye to the measly four hour shifts, like the one she had to work today.  “Uh, yeah.  Okay.  Thanks.”

He waved her back to the sales floor, and her shoulders slumped as soon as she closed his office door.  The first thing she thought was that she wanted to call Peeta with her news, but she couldn’t do that now, and a part of her was angry at herself for wanting that so much.  If she thought she was miserable before…

She helped customers and organized shelves and generally busied herself to preoccupy her thoughts.  Before her break, Darius congratulated her on the news, and she tried to smile her thanks.  “You okay?” he pressed, and she shrugged.  He was going to say something else, but a woman came up to him to ask him about a book of quotations, so he assisted her instead.  As he led her away to the appropriate section, he turned around to roll his eyes at Katniss, mouthing the word Google.  She tried, but she couldn’t spare a laugh today.  Not even for Darius and his outright disdain for his job.

She passed the surly Johanna on her way to the break room, resisting the urge to thank her for the shitty advice.  Once she was safely away from everyone else, she marched to her locker to grab a granola bar from her bag and check her phone.  Her heart stuttered a bit when she saw that she had a text from Peeta, since that was the last thing she was expecting.

Can you call me when you get a chance?

She kind of felt sick.  She wasn’t sure what changed between last night and this morning, but something definitely had and she was fairly sure he didn’t want anything to do with her now.  He probably wanted to end their friendship officially or something. 

There was no sense in delaying the inevitable, she reasoned, so she hit the ‘send’ button to call his number, and threw her granola bar back in her locker, because there went her appetite.

He picked up after the first ring.  “Katniss?”

“You wanted me to call you,” she said, forcing herself to sound neutral.

She heard him sigh, and she leaned against her locker, waiting for him to finish it off. 

“I’m so sorry.”

She rubbed at her eyes, willing away that initial relief.  “Um, what?”             

“I’m sorry.  I…I shouldn’t have expected anything else.  That’s my fault, not yours.”  She didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but he sounded like Peeta again.  Her Peeta.

“And I can hang out whenever this week.  This summer’s still going to suck, but we’ll make that work, too.”  He took a deep breath.  “I meant what I said last night.  Always, okay?”

Her face stretched into a wide grin as she took in what he said, and she laughed as she blurted out, “So I got a promotion!”

“Yeah?”  She bet he was smiling, too, as she told him the details.  “You’ll be running the whole store by next year,” he predicted, and she laughed again. 

“Yeah, right.  But whenever you get published, I’m going to make a giant display for you.”

Now it was his turn to sound dubious, but she insisted.  “Sounds like a plan, then,” he said quietly.

“I should head back.  My break’s almost over.”

“Okay.  Talk to you later then?”

“Yeah, definitely.”

“Bye, Katniss.”

“Bye, Peeta.”

 

**

 

Instead of going to her car after work, she wandered to the back of the store and sat on the loading dock where the trucks dropped off their deliveries.  For the first time, she tried to think about what she was going to say to Gale.  For the first time, she was actually thinking about Gale.  It was kind of a shock to her when she realized that he really didn’t cross her mind at all when she was with Peeta.  She was pretty sure that wasn’t how this was supposed to work.

“Hey you.”

She looked up to see Darius walking towards her.  “Hey.”

“What the hell are you still doing in this hole?  You’re supposed to escape as soon as you can.”

“Just thinking,” she answered honestly.

He sat down next to her, both of them swinging their feet against the cement slab the trucks backed up to, and he pulled out his phone.  “Don’t think too hard,” he said, thumbing through his messages. 

“Yeah.”

He looked her over in concern.  “What’s the matter, Kat?”

“I’m just confused,” she admitted as she stared down at her hands.  Darius was nice enough, but she didn’t really want to do this right now.

“Well hell,” he said, bumping her shoulder with his.  “I can help you with that.  They didn’t stick me in the educational section for my looks.  What are you confused about?”

She rolled her eyes, but decided to play along.  “Love, okay?”

“Love.  Well, that’s not exactly my area of expertise, but I’ll show you a trick.”  He held up his phone.  “I’m going to teach you to do what every goddamn moron that comes up to me every day can’t.  You’re gonna find your answer online.” 

He hit some letter on his keypad.  “All right, so the English word "love" can refer to a variety of different feelings, states, and attitudes-” 

“I don’t need the definition, Darius.”

“Fine, fine.”  He scrolled some more.  “Quotes on love.  This is good.  Let’s see…Marilyn Monroe?  Yeah, she died young and alone, so we’re gonna move on from that.  Dr. Seuess, but that’s kids’ stuff.  Hmm.”  He continued to scroll, stopping a second later.  “Ah ha!  Bob Marley, a personal hero of mine.  Here’s everything you need to know about love, Katniss.”  He cleared his throat, then spoke in a deeper voice.  “‘Only once in your life, I truly believe, you find someone who can completely turn your world around. You tell them things that you’ve never shared with another soul and they absorb everything you say and actually want to hear more. You share hopes for the future, dreams that will never come true, goals that were never achieved and the many disappointments life has thrown at you.’” 

She looked over his shoulder, curious, as he continued.  “‘When something wonderful happens, you can’t wait to tell them about it, knowing they will share in your excitement. They are not embarrassed to cry with you when you are hurting or laugh with you when you make a fool of yourself. Never do they hurt your feelings or make you feel like you are not good enough, but rather they build you up and show you the things about yourself that make you special and even beautiful.’”

She actually listened to what he was saying, the words resonating with her for some reason.

“‘There is never any pressure, jealousy or competition but only a quiet calmness when they are around. You can-”

“Darius, I gotta go!”

He looked up from his phone, frowning, but she was already jumping off the platform, her feet landing on the parking lot pavement.  “Hey, I’m not done!”

“It’s enough,” she called back, smiling.  She raced to her car, knowing exactly what she needed to do right now.

 

**

 

Gale’s mouth dropped open in surprise when he answered his door, and she felt a little of her resolve slipping at the sight of him.

“Catnip,” he said, nodding solemnly.  “I thought you’d call.”

“I didn’t want to…” she trailed off.

“Yeah,” he said, his jaw tightening.  “Yeah, go ahead.  Do this in person.”

“Gale, I love you.”

He looked up at her in shock, his eyes shining hopefully, but the sad tears in her own stopped him cold.  “I love you, and I’m so sorry that I was never able to say it back like that, and that I waited so long to tell you.

“I love you, and a part of me always will, but Gale, we aren’t right for each other.”

He sat down on the edge of his bed, putting his head in his hands.  “How can you say that?”

“I can say it because it’s the truth.  All of it.  You were my best friend, for so many years, and I’m always going to-”

“Don’t,” he said, lifting his eyes to hers and glaring angrily.  “You can spare me the fucking clichés, okay.  If you want to throw it all away-”

“Throw it all away?” she asked, incredulous.  “You think I did this to us?”

“You checked out of this relationship well before I fucked Madge, and you damn well know it.”

“Stop!  Stop, okay!  I don’t want to play this blame game.  I don’t want us to hate each other!  We were best friends, Gale.  Best friends.  And maybe that’s all we ever should have been.”

“You’re such a bitch,” he said, wiping furiously at the tears in his eyes.  “You know that?  You’re fucking cold.”

She didn’t want him to know how much his words hurt her, so she gritted her teeth and turned for the door.  “Wait!” he called out frantically, rushing to her.  He spun her around to face him, his hand staying firmly on her shoulder.  “I’m sorry.  I-I just…I don’t want to lose you, Katniss.  I’ve tried giving you time, and I’ll do whatever you need so we can fix this.  You love me.  You said it!  We can fix this.”

She tried to muster up some of the anger she had felt since he came to her that night a month ago, but all she came away with was a cold sense of finality.  She didn’t want to anger him, or hurt him.  She just wanted to leave.

“I’ve worked so hard to get us out of here, Catnip.  If you go to Colorado with me, we can start a whole new life together.  One that we both deserve.”

“I don’t want to leave home, Gale,” she said, shaking her head.  “I never did.  That’s what you want.”

“All I want is for us to be together.”

“I don’t want to lose you from my life-”

He shrugged, releasing his hold on her and stepping back.  “Well, you will.  You will.  You can’t have it both ways, Katniss.”

She tried to ignore that, because she couldn’t even wrap her mind around the fact that Gale Hawthorne wouldn’t be there for her anymore.  “I think this is for the best,” she said, trying to fight back her tears.

“You’ve already replaced me,” he said with quiet realization, his face paling.  “That’s it, huh?  You don’t need me anymore because you’ve got someone else, and that’s why this is so easy for you.”

“You think this is easy on me?” she shrieked, the tears falling freely now.

“I shouldn’t have called you a bitch, Kat, but I meant it when I said you were cold.  And it must be real easy to say those words now that they don’t mean anything.”

Oh, he knew all the best ways to hurt her.  She wiped at her eyes with her sleeve and stood up straight.  “Goodbye, Gale.”

He didn’t say anything else.

 

**

 

“What’s wrong?”

She drove straight from Gale’s dorm to Peeta’s apartment, but the long drive didn’t do anything for her red, puffy eyes.

“Katniss?” he asked, more panicked this time.  “What’s wrong?”

She pushed past him to walk into his apartment, and he followed her worriedly.  “Katniss?”

“Gale and I broke up,” she said, turning to face him.  “We broke up.”

“You broke up,” he said, trying to register the words.  “Oh.”  He looked like he was debating with himself over what to say next, so she put him out of his misery.

“I went to end things with him, and then I was going to come here and ask you out on a date.”

His eyes widened.  “What?”

“Yeah, but I don’t think that’s such a good idea now, ‘cause I’m kind of a mess, and I don’t want us to be a mess.”  She shrugged helplessly.  “I don’t think I need a boyfriend right now, but I could really use a friend.”  She tried to hold them back, but it was useless, and she was crying again.  “It was a rough night.”

“I’m sorry you had a rough night,” he said, wrapping his arm around her to bring her against his chest.  He rested his chin on the top of her head as he squeezed her.  “And I’ll be your friend.”

She started to sob, everything that happened in the last 24 hours hitting her at once, and she didn’t know how to deal with any of it. 

“Where were you going to take me on our date?” he asked, pressing a kiss to her temple.  “Assuming I said yes, of course.”

She laughed, pushing back to brush away her tears.  “Um, I don’t know.  Sae’s?  I like their mozzarella sticks.”  She tried to smile, but it was still looking a little forced.  “And I’d definitely show up.”

“This is already an improvement over my last date.  Would you have paid?”

If he wanted to distract her from her current misery, then what the hell, she’d allow it.  “Of course.  I just got a dollar raise.”

“It just gets better and better.”  She hugged him again, and as she nestled her head in the crook of his neck, he whispered, “Maybe we can still go to Sae’s someday.”

“I’m not going to ask you to wait for me,” she said sadly.

“You don’t have to ask.”  She pulled back, staring up at him hopefully, and he smiled down at her as he wiped that last tear stuck to her bottom lashes.  “Now, let’s go watch Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and order a pizza.  I don’t have any ice cream for you, but there’s some fat free frozen yogurt that can be all yours.”

She took a deep breath and smiled for real this time.  “That sounds perfect.”

 

 

~5 Years Later~

 

Nearly 400 hundred guests at the wedding, and she still spots Gale within the first 20 minutes of cocktail hour.  She knew it was a possibility when Finnick told her that he was invited by Annie’s family, but nothing could really prepare her for this moment. 

It’s been nearly four years since she saw him last, and that is not a happy memory.  At that time, she and Peeta were still trying to navigate the rough waters of their budding romantic relationship, one already rife with insecurities on both their parts, and a drunken Gale showing up at Peeta’s doorstep didn’t exactly help matters any.  Words were exchanged, punches were thrown, cops were called.  But he was gone for good a few months later, taking refuge across the country at the school in Colorado.

She’s only seen him on TV a few times since, usually as a talking head on CNN or another news network.  He seems to be well-respected as a weapons analyst with the government, and she’s happy for him.  Really.

He catches her eye and smiles tightly, and she takes a deep breath as he crosses over toward her.  “Hello, Katniss,” he says, nodding.  “You look great.”

She gestures to his expensive designer suit, so unlike the Gale she knew that it throws her for a second.  “You too.”

He thanks her, then takes another sip of his scotch.  Somewhere on the other side of the city, Peeta’s posing for a million photos with the rest of the wedding party, and she has no idea when they’ll be returning. 

“How’s school?  And work?” he asks, finally breaking their awkward silence.

“Oh,” she says, realizing that his mother has probably kept him up-to-date thanks to her mother.  “It’s good.”

He glances down at her hand, and then looks back up.  “Congratulations on the engagement.”

She twists her ring nervously.  “Thank you.”

“I didn’t think you’d ever get married,” he admits with a shrug.  “But I guess…things change.”

“Yeah, sometimes they do.”

She sees his jaw clench when his eyes dart back down to her ring again, but she’s pretty sure the only thing still hurting is his pride.

“I have a girlfriend!” he says suddenly, and they both freeze at his sudden outburst.  Then they laugh, and it’s so bittersweet but welcomed.  His laugh trials off and he clears his throat.  “Um, sorry.  But yeah, she’s great.  She had a work function so she couldn’t make it tonight, but it’s good.  Things are good.”

She smiles sincerely.  “I’m glad.”

“I’m gonna take off, Catnip,” he says, offering another smile.  “But I’m glad I saw you.  And I’m glad you’re happy.” 

“Thank you.  I’m glad you’re happy, too.”

He gives her a quick peck on the cheek.  “Tell Peeta I liked his book, okay?”

“I will,” she replies, grinning.

She loses sight of him in the crowd, and she heaves a sigh of relief that the moment she’d been dreading has passed.  Cocktail hour is nearly over, and her stomach was in such knots before that she couldn’t touch any of the food, so she heads over to some of the tables and stocks up her plate with a little of everything.  Peeta wants her opinion on this caterer, and he’s reminded her at least a million times that he won’t be around to taste the appetizers.

She’s worked through most of her plate, writing comments on the little notepad Peeta provided her with, when she hears an enthusiastic, “Hey!”  She looks up, shocked to see a grinning Peeta, (looking very dapper in his tuxedo, she might add) coming toward her. 

“What are you doing here?” she asks, beaming at him as he leans down to kiss her.

“That photographer is amazing!” he gushes.  “It was fast and painless.  We’re so using him.  The DJ though,” he points over at the man frantically playing with wires at the station in the corner, and he shakes his head in disappointment.  “Technical difficulties already,” he tsks.  “Everyone else is waiting out in the hall until he gets it together and can announce us.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re here,” she says, and she just can’t stop smiling.  “I took notes!”

He laughs at her enthusiasm.  She may have claimed to be all for a courthouse wedding, but she’s slowly coming around to Peeta’s dream day.

“And I saw Gale,” she adds.  “It wasn’t bad.”

He seems relieved for her.  “Good.”  Across the room, the DJ seems to have gotten it together, so Peeta reluctantly pulls himself away from her.  “You can tell me all about it later,” he says regretfully.  “And we can reconvene after the dinner, and exchange those notes, too.”

She rolls her eyes.  “At least we know who’s doing the cake.”

He grins, kissing her one more time.  “I’ll make eyes at you later when I’m sitting at that fancy, elevated table for us special ones.”

“I only hope you can find my face amongst all the other peasants,” she says, cupping his cheeks in her hands.

“I promise you, I’ll try.”

She lets him go, but he’s only a foot away when she calls his name and pulls him back to her.

“I love you,” she says, kissing him firmly on the lips.  “And I’m so glad things turned out the way they did, and I can’t wait to marry you.

“And,” she adds, stretching up to whisper in his ear.  “I’m really glad we got a room."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Katniss hunkered down lower in her seat and wrapped her arms around herself, shivering slightly from the crisp autumn air they had just escaped. She noticed Peeta out of the corner of her eye as he leaned forward to turn up the SUV’s heat and switch one of the vents so the warm air was hitting her directly. It was sweet and thoughtful and only served to piss her off more.

She truly didn’t want to be this way. There wasn’t anything satisfying about feeling like an emotional weight for your best friend to bear, and she wished she could just forget all of her hang-ups already and move forward the way she should. But tonight she was in one of her moods, spurned on by jealousy and fueled further by alcohol, and this scowl was not going to be leaving her face any time soon

What should have been a nice night out with their friends did not go as she had planned it. Earlier in the day, she was practically joyful as she left work. She had the weekend off, plans with Peeta, and for the first time in a long while, hope that she was finally ready to move forward in their relationship. She was going to tell him the next evening, while they had dinner alone at his apartment. “I’m ready to label this,” she was going to say, every word already planned out. “I want us to be together and I want everyone to know it.”

Then this evening happened. Katniss was on her second glass of wine when she realized that one of the girls who had joined the group that night was eyeing Peeta. She laughed a little too loudly at his jokes, her hand would linger on his shoulder when she tried to garner his attention, and she kept smiling at him flirtatiously while he told a story that Katniss had already heard three times.

She was torn between her desire to claim Peeta as hers and the mounting urge to run off by herself so that Peeta could finally be free of her. Katniss knew deep down that he deserved someone who smiled at him like that all the time, and not just when they were alone. Not just when she was trying to have her cake and eat it, too.

Instead, she ordered another glass of wine and studied Peeta for any sign of interest on his part. It was both a relief and a burden when she found none.

“Enjoying that Merlot?” he asked after finally making his way back to her.

“I guess,” she replied shortly, but his face scrunched only in concern.

“What’s wrong?" 

She was about to snap at him again about something else, but she held her tongue and sipped her wine until he began a conversation with Finnick. Things had been so great between them lately, wonderful enough to propel her into planned action for the following night, so she didn’t want to start an argument. It would taint the last few weeks of blissfulness, all because she was cold and distant and simply not built for functioning romantic relationships.

It was bitter irony to realize that her desperate need to preserve their friendship would probably be what destroyed them. Things couldn’t stay as they were for forever; they’d already crossed a line and experienced what it would be like to be together, and it was haunting them. Still, it was possible, many times, to be content with all they had. Sometimes their time together-their phone calls, their laughter- was just like it was before that fateful night nearly six months ago.

Then other times, countless times, the tension was so thick they nearly choked on it. He itched to hold her hand, she was desperate to feel him wrapped around her, and they each wanted to get lost in the other’s kisses and touches.

And sometimes, four times, to be exact, they gave in and did that and more. Whether it was under the pretense of having just one night together again, or something they didn’t talk about at all, it always led to a palpable uneasiness that took days or weeks to heal. Katniss used to resent it, that sudden barricade that kept her from having it all, but now she understood it, as frustrating as it still was.

They seemed to have fully recovered since their latest relapse a month ago. She nursed him through a cold since then, and they had plenty of pizza dates and movie nights all alone in his apartment without succumbing to any temptations.

Of course, it was Peeta who was the one quick to end things before they actually began. He would still allow her to rest her head on him as they stared at the television screen, but he tensed immediately if she tried to take it further than that, and she’d pull back in a hurry, embarrassed.

Now she was still slightly buzzed from her wine, and Peeta was driving them back to his place so they could hang out alone for the first time that night. Suddenly her plans to move this forward for once and for all seemed like a monumentally bad decision. He could do so much better, a part of her screamed.

She stumbled a bit on the way to his door, but he was there to steady her, like always. Once they were inside, he led her to the couch and disappeared to make a drink for himself, and he called out to her minutes later to see if she wanted one as well. She declined, though she knew he wouldn’t mind taking care of her if she got completely wasted again, just as she knew that he would still be perfectly behaved even if he got wasted, too.

He returned a few moments later with a dry scotch and settled on his designated end of the couch. “Want to tell me what’s bothering you tonight?”

Ugh, she didn’t even know at this point. She was just a mess, simple as that. Then the image of the cute brunette resting her hand right on his shoulder popped into her mind, and she scowled reflexively.

He tipped back his glass, swallowed, and then stretched forward to set it on the coffee table. The Merlot and Chardonnay she tossed back all throughout the night was still running through her veins, mingling now with that intense draw she always felt toward him, whether she was drunk or stone cold sober. And now she was staring at him, her muddled thoughts trying to work out her feelings while her body reacted to the way his thin sweater stretched across his back as he moved. She might not think now that it was a good idea to commit to him the way he undoubtedly wanted, but she definitely didn’t want anyone else to be able to have him, either

She mumbled something about just being tired, and her voice sounded so far off and dreamy that he bought it without argument. Then she bit her lip as her eyes trailed down along his body, and she stretched out her leg so that her toes could rub against his thigh.

“Are you tired?” she asked suggestively, sliding her foot higher and making her intentions clear.

He bristled at her touch, and she knew the battle was waged. Oh why did everything have to be defined? If they started something, it could end. But if they just continued as they were, and allowed themselves their nights together, too? That, she reasoned, would be the perfect relationship.

She saw him grit his teeth in annoyance as he stared straight ahead, and then he pushed her foot off of him and reached for his empty glass. She sat up straight as he left the couch to return it to the kitchen, and she played with the hem of her short, black skirt as she tried to regain her bearings. It wasn’t surprising that he was upset. It always started out this way, but it always ended the same way, too, and despite the million thoughts racing through her mind, she was confident that he’d give in soon enough.

When he returned, she was stretched out on the sofa, her legs crossed at the ankle as she toyed with the buttons of her dark green cardigan. “Hey you,” she said teasingly, the wine easing the way.

“We’re not doing this again, Katniss,” he told her sternly just as she popped the first button. His eyes went straight to the glimpse of her cleavage, but then he caught himself and shook his head disapprovingly. “I’m serious.”

She held his stare as she continued to work them, and then she opened her sweater to reveal her lacy black bra, which he had gaped at in awe the last time when they were together like that. But she wasn’t getting the same reaction now. He wasn’t breaking as easily as she anticipated, and after a tense moment, she faltered at his stony face.

“So this is what I am to you? The friend you fuck?”

She gaped back at him, shocked by the anger with which he spoke to her now. He knew better than that. “Peeta,” she said, exasperated. “Why are we making things difficult?” She held out her hand, beckoning him to her. “Come on.”

He ran his hand through his hair in frustration as he gathered his will to rebuff her. “No. I meant what I said. I’m not playing this game anymore.”

“What game?” she asked defensively.

“The one where you get to make all the rules and set all the parameters and I’m supposed to settle,” he huffed. As mad as he sounded, his eyes still softened when he saw her face fall.

“That’s not what I’m doing,” she told him sincerely. At least that’s not what she meant to do. But she frowned as she absorbed his words again and realized how selfish she must seem. Everything had to be on her terms? She was forcing him to settle? The more she thought about it, the more she hated herself.

Then, aided by all her conflicting emotions and the seven glasses of wine she downed throughout the night, that self-loathing transformed into something else. Now she hated him too because he saw her for exactly what she was.

“It’s just a step back, every time. You agreed, too,” he reminded her, naively oblivious to the fire he had just unleashed inside of her.

“Fine,” she snapped, straightening abruptly. She smoothed her skirt and black tights as she tried not to look at him. “Maybe you should go find Clove. She seems like such a nice girl.”

“You have got to be kidding. Because there’s no way you can be pissed at me for that. I didn’t do a damn thing to lead her on.” She opened her mouth to reply but he cut her off with another withering look. “You know it’s ridiculous, what we’re doing. Right?”

She curled back up on her side of the couch, bringing her knees to her chest and trying to deflect the sting from his words. “We don’t see other people,” he continued, undeterred. “But we’re not together. We spend all of our free time with each other, but we’re not together.

“We’re in love, but we’re not together.”

“You said you’d wait,” she said, her voice small. She knew this arrangement would be difficult for someone as sensitive as Peeta, but his outburst really drove home how messed up this all was.

“I did,” he said simply. “And I will. For as long as you need. But I have to have boundaries. Otherwise it just screws with my mind and I can’t handle it.”

He sat down next to her, getting as close as possible without actually touching, and gently tugged at her sleeve. “I want us to have a real relationship, Katniss. When you’re ready. But until then, we’re friends, okay? Not fuck buddies.

It irked her, even if she understood it, because she was spoiled when it came to him and she wanted it all. And the truth was, the largest part of her still wanted to continue on just as they were, but with all the physical intimacy as well. It was the perfect situation as far as she was concerned. She’d get to have Peeta, all of him, and no one else would, but she would still be able to keep up the lies she fed herself to keep this anxiety at bay.

“Okay,” she agreed begrudgingly, eyeing where his fingers bunched the fabric of her sweater. He was being careful to not actually touch her, and it was bothering her immensely. She was still feeling a little light-headed, but in a good way now, and she curled up in her seat and continued to watch him out of the corner of her eye as he settled in on the opposite end of the couch.

It killed her how unaffected he could seem by her current presence. She knew, deep down, that he was, but the fact that he had an easier time rebuffing her advances was infuriating. Sometimes Katniss felt like she was no longer in control of her own body, her reaction to him was so overwhelming. It was never like that with Gale. Gale was intense, but her feelings toward him, specifically her attraction to him, was never like this. She never felt like she’d lose her mind if she didn’t touch him. Her body never demanded more from his kisses. She never craved him this way.

Yet she had been attracted to him, and she cared deeply about him, and the dissolution of their relationship was harder on her than she ever anticipated. So she could only imagine how it would feel to lose Peeta in that way. A part of her didn’t think she could survive it.

But fuck, she wanted him right now. On her terms, too, just as he had accused. She wanted him to break, to kiss her and touch her and to screw her senseless. And after, she wanted him to whisper how much he loved her as he held her tight, all while they kept up the pretense that this wasn’t actually a committed relationship yet.

He could be so stern, which is why they hadn’t relapsed as much as she anticipated or wanted. But she was confident she could get him to cave. It would just take a little time...

They decided on a movie and he leaned back in his seat, bringing his foot over his knee to get comfortable. He was still wearing his Rockport shoes, which was ridiculous. Katniss had slipped off her flats as soon as they entered his apartment, but apparently he couldn’t risk any state of undress with her.

Now it did feel like a sort of game, and it was one she was determined to win. His foot jiggled nervously as he kept his eyes trained straight ahead on the flat screen television, and she stretched out as far as she could to rub her toes against the top of his jean-clad thigh.

“Stop it,” he said with a gritted jaw, pushing her foot away.

“I’m just trying to get comfortable.”

He was as far away as he could get, and he tensed uncomfortably as she inched further down the couch, cornering him even more. “I’m serious,” he told her, refusing to look at her as he spoke, probably because her sweater was still unbuttoned. “Don’t touch me.”

The rational and completely sober part of her was horrified by her callousness in the moment, but the other emotions, particularly hurt, won out. She returned back to her spot and glared at him, more determined than before. He had to give in now, if only so she knew he still wanted her.

The black tights she wore underneath her skirt had done their job warding off the chill, but now inside his warm apartment, they felt too binding. She sat up on her knees and started to tug them down her thighs, and she could see his jaw flex in agitation as he tried to pretend he wasn’t paying attention to her actions.

When they were down past her calves, she laid back and used her feet to push them off the rest of the way before kicking them off her foot. They landed next to Peeta, and he shifted away from them, turning slightly in his seat to avoid her further.

It didn’t deter her. She slipped the cardigan off next, leaving her in just the bra, skirt, and panties. He still wasn’t allowing himself to look, and she reclined back further, her head now on the armrest and her body stretched out along the length of the couch. Maybe she didn’t need him to touch her right now, after all. Just the act of watching him, even if he was pissed off at her, was enticing enough. The challenge also turned her on a little, too, and seeing his handsome profile bathed in the glow of the television screen was all her fuzzy mind needed to ignite her further.

Katniss wasn’t touching him; her feet barely met the edge of the middle cushion, thanks to her petite frame, so there was no infringement on his personal space, she reasoned. And, she thought deviously, if he gave in and watched the show she was about to put on, that was his prerogative.

She hitched her skirt up, her tongue darting out to lick the corner of her mouth as her fingernails scratched along the smooth skin at the top of her legs. He glanced over, and then whipped his head away as his fist clenched against his knee. The glimpse of the crack in his resolve spurred her on, and she used the tip of her right index finger to trace along the seam of her panties. She looked down to watch her hand move below her bunched up skirt, and when she looked up again, her eyes met Peeta’s.

“Katniss,” he said thickly. “Stop it.”

“I’m not touching you,” she pointed out like a petulant child.

He still seemed unwilling to play her game as he turned away again, and he was so tense that there was no question about how pissed off he was. In that moment, though, she didn’t care, and she tilted her head back further as her fingers slipped underneath her cotton underwear. She sighed in contentment, but she wasn’t really seeking any physical pleasure for herself. It was easy to pretend that she was enjoying the slow traverse of her digits, but her focus was still on Peeta and his reactions. She listened intently for any hitches of his breath, or the feel of the couch shifting as he moved, or-most importantly-the burn from his stare as his eyes found their way back on her.

There was something about driving him to the brink of frustration that got her going right now, and that was doing more for her than her own hand ever would. He tried to seem unaffected, knowing that any show of emotion on his part was playing right into her hands, but she knew it was getting to him, and she was terrible enough to want just that.

“Do you want me to drive you home?” he asked flatly, and that was the only thing that could give her pause.

She tried to hide her hurt as she slowly shook her head in reply, but it was a lost cause as he still wasn’t looking her way. There was no give in his stern posture, no indication that he was going to play this game and fall into her arms. It infuriated her. In the rare moments when Peeta had been the one to decide that he wanted to hold her, or kiss her, or fuck her, he was never met with an ounce of hesitancy on her part. She was supposed to be the one setting their speed, but she always acquiesced. Or, more accurately, fell into him with relief, savoring every connection.

They could be watching a movie and his hand would find her hand, and she’d grasp onto it as if her life depended on him. They could be joking while they made drinks together, and his eyes would shyly meet hers as their laughter trailed off, and then she would be pressed against the refrigerator, holding him just as tightly as he gripped her, returning every hungry kiss.

But now he wouldn’t budge, and as much as it enraged her, it also stirred something inside of her. Maybe there should have been a hint of shame that it was turning her on, but as her thumb finally brushed over her clit, she gasped in pleasure and couldn’t be bothered to care about anything else.

The moan garnered his attention, and finally he relented, hitting the mute button on the remote and peering over at her. She dropped her chin to her chest and stared back at him, ignoring his poor attempt at disinterest even as his eyes were riveted to her fingers.

The panties were in her way, so she tugged them down and off, allowing them to drop beside the sofa. Then she brought up her feet and spread her legs, giving him a full access view, and he slumped further in his seat, one hand frozen at his side while his other tugged at his curls as he leaned back with his elbow on the armrest.

He didn’t even bother pretending he wasn’t taking it all in, but his face remained impassive as he tracked the rhythm of her swirling fingers. She was slick and swollen as she circled her clit, and she couldn’t stifle a moan when his tongue darted out to lick his lips.

“Touch me,” she begged as she pulled down the cups of her bra with her free hand, pinching and tugging her nipple as her fingers sped up.

He shook his head. “No, I can’t.”

She gritted her teeth in both frustration and pleasure, only stopping to completely remove her skirt and unhook her bra. All she wanted was to feel his mouth on her breasts again, because he liked to take his time with them, thoroughly worshipping each one with that tongue and his amazing hands. Hers were a poor substitute, but for now they’d have to do.

Katniss trailed her hand from her breast to the juncture of her thighs, and then she spread herself for him, relishing the intimacy of the moment. She could see the bulge in his jeans as he watched unapologetically, and the reassurance sent another jolt of pleasure through her center.

“Peeta,” she whispered, tipping her head back and pumping one slender finger inside of herself.

She stopped at the sound of rustling clothing, and her body tensed in anticipation as she looked back to find Peeta pulling off his sweater and unbuckling his belt.

“I can’t touch you,” he repeated as he stepped out of his shoes and socks and pushed his jeans down his legs. Her focus was on his tented boxers, but she felt the thrill of victory quickly slipping away. He sat back down opposite of her again and lightly stroked himself once through the thin black material, adding, “And you can’t touch me.”

“So touch yourself,” she commanded, and he pushed his shorts off his hips and settled back on the couch. 

Both sighed as his hand wrapped around his freed cock, and now Katniss licked her lips as she watched him. They were completely naked and in sync, panting and pumping in time with each other. 

She arched her back, her hips lifting from the cushion in anticipation. The way Peeta’s arm muscles flexed as he jacked off was intensely erotic, and her mouth practically watered at the sight of precum at the tip of his cock. Fuck, she wanted to taste him. She wanted him in her mouth and completely at her mercy. She wanted to be the one making him feel this good.

He used that moisture to ease his way, and she moaned again, louder, as she felt herself closing in on her climax.

It didn’t happen, though, and her face twisted in agitation as she kept rubbing herself, desperate for release. Peeta hadn’t looked away from her since he joined in, and his beautiful mouth hung open as he silently urged her to finish.

Still, she couldn’t. As much as she wanted it, as well as she knew her own body now, she wouldn’t settle for anything less than Peeta’s touch to get her off.

Her short intakes of breath punctuated her frustration, and she whimpered through her gritted teeth as she moved faster, her fingers aching from the exertion.

“Fuck it,” she heard Peeta say, and then he was in front of her, his hands hooking under her knees to pull her closer to him. When his tongue replaced her digits, she practically screamed, and then she was thrusting against his face as she fisted his silky hair in her hands.

“Yes, yes, yes,” she keened, and this was all she wanted, all she needed to help get her there.

Her feet were pressed flat against his back as he licked enthusiastically, and when he stretched his arm out to palm her breast, she lifted her hips higher and tensed. His beautiful blue eyes met hers as she started to come, and it sent her careening over the edge, crying out his name as her body vibrated.

He continued to pepper gentle kisses on the inside of her thighs as she recovered, and it was crazy how quickly she could go from feeling amazing to awful. But with the wine and lust clouds lifted, she realized how she was acting and immediately felt remorse.

“Peeta,” she said softly, her fingers still twisted in his hair. She gently scratched his scalp as he rested his chin on her tummy, and her reward was his sweet, solemn smile. “I really love you,” she whispered.

“I really love you, too,” he replied, moving up her body to capture her lips.

She could feel him hard and ready between her thighs, but she knew that he wouldn’t have condoms here when he had been so steadfast about their arrangement, and she hadn’t had the foresight to bring any herself. Still, she needed to feel him inside of her again, and it was probably going to be another foolish thing she did that night, but nothing could stop her from wrapping her arms and legs around him and telling him to just pull out as she nipped at his ear.

They had done this once before, and as irresponsible as it may have been, it felt too incredible to care. That was another side-effect of their situation, the temporary insanity. Peeta, again, was too far gone to protest, and she grabbed his biceps as he slid inside of her without a barrier. Once they were officially together, Katniss knew they would never be able to go back to that extra layer between them, and she never wanted to. She’d have to use something else, because even now it was hard to not beg him to release inside of her.

“Mm,” she said, nuzzling his cheek. “Tell me when you’re going to come.”

“You feel incredible,” he panted as he thrust slowly.

She held him tighter, pressing her breasts against his hard chest as her hands trailed down his back. Then, suddenly, he flipped her over, and she squealed in surprise as he sat up so she could straddle him.

There was no better feeling than riding him, and it felt like his hands and mouth were everywhere as she bounced in his lap. He looked so blissful, and in that moment she was sure of all her next moves.

“You’re mine,” she said, rising up on her knees and slowly lowering herself down again. “And I’m yours.”

Their pace alternated between frantic and tortuously slow, and he gripped her waist as he told her that yes, she was his. “I’m close, Katniss.”

She kissed him languidly and pushed off of his broad shoulders before settling in front of him, on her knees. His eyes widened in surprise when she took him into her mouth, but she wanted to do this for him, something she never did for anyone before, and her silver eyes reflected her steely determination. She could taste herself on his cock, and it sent a thrill through her.

“Oh fuck,” he muttered, tangling his fingers in her hair. “Fuck, please don’t stop.”

She released him for only a second, her hand taking place of her mouth, and told him to come. Then she descended again, her nails digging into his thighs, and he cried out as the first spurt hit the back of her throat. Nothing was going to prepare her for it, but his obvious pleasure and her intense need to prove something to him helped considerably, and she swallowed easily, coaxing more from him with her hand.

When he was finished, she licked along his shaft, trying her best to seem seductive as her eyes stayed locked with his. He gave her a soft smile, and lovingly brushed the hair away from her face. She could have kept her mouth on him forever, she was sure, but soon he was laughing lightly and pushing her away, as if it tickled him.

“Okay, okay,” he said happily, even as he gritted his teeth. “Ahhh, I’m really sensitive right now.”

“You told me not to stop,” she reminded him teasingly, kissing the head one last time.

“Since when do you listen to me?” he retorted, though not unkindly.

Her face must have fallen at that, because he was urging her up and into his arms. “It’s okay, Katniss. I wanted it just as much as you did.”

“I’m sorry for how I acted tonight,” she said, hugging him tightly. They were both still naked and pressed together, but now it was only the intimacy she craved. It was amazing to her, how she could nearly lose her mind with want for him in one moment, and then in the next be sated and needing only his embrace.

So why was she fighting it? This was Peeta. Her Peeta.

All her planned words felt a million miles away in that moment, but as she curled up against him, she didn’t need them. “I’m ready,” she said simply. “Peeta, I want to be with you. Really with you.”

He knew that if she was saying it, she meant it, and he broke out into a wide smile before he tilted her head back and kissed her. And yes, a part of her was still scared that she could lose him one day, but she was determined to enjoy this hard fought moment with him.

“This is the start of the rest of our lives,” he told her, and maybe that should have scared her a little more, considering they’ve technically been dating for a whole thirty seconds. But it was just the assurance she wanted.

She pressed her forehead to his. “It is.”

They shared another lingering kiss, and then they stretched out on the couch as she reached for the remote. “House Hunters?” she asked, because as much as she wanted this, she also needed to lighten the moment.

He laughed and pulled her tighter against him as she flipped through the channels. “Sure.”

“What?” she asked, confused.

He was still smiling as he shrugged. “Nothing. It’s just funny that things are the same between us. Except that we’re naked.”

“Nudity is a definite perk, though,” she said, turning to HGTV.

He pressed a kiss to the back of her head as they settled in comfortably. “Damn right it is.”