He rapped his knuckles three times on the door to Cinna's corner office and leant against the frame, crossing one foot over the other, keeping quiet the moment he realised his boss was in the middle of a call. Even on the phone, Cinna was expressive, gesticulating with his hands while he spoke into the hands free, his voice smooth and warm and friendly. Not only was he a genius with his ideas and designs, but he also had a way of mesmerising his clients into doing whatever he thought was best - and because it always was, none of them ever argued, none of them ever regretted it.
He was one hell of a man to work for.
At Cinna's silent wave of invitation to come inside, Peeta stepped into the office and moved to sit in one of the plush, black leather client seats, propping his right ankle on his left knee, his fingers tapping out an impatient rhythm on his calf. Ever since his decision the day before, Peeta had been itching to talk to him, knowing if he put it off any longer, he'd try and talk himself out of it. But two young girls pepped up on sugary cupcakes and a client emergency for Portia hadn't leant itself to a conducive conversation environment for he and Cinna, and so he'd had to leave it until today. He'd barely slept thinking about it.
He hated that he was so nervous about the idea of going back.
"Great, I'll see you on Thursday, Messalla. Appreciate it." Disconnecting the call, Cinna dropped the earpiece onto the desk and rested his hands against the back of his head, smiling at Peeta. "So...I've managed to get Messalla Bairstow lined up for some consultancy work with us."
Peeta raised his eyebrows in approval, nodded slowly. Even though it hadn't been a client on the other end of the line, Cinna had still clearly been able to work his magic. "That's a great catch, I know he's hard to get. His design work is inspiring."
"It is - and I think he'll work well with Cressida. They've got styles that would complement each other."
"I agree. And those rave reviews he got on those loft conversions downtown last month? Amazing."
Cinna nodded and rose to his feet, crossing to a credenza that housed a hidden mini-fridge. Pulling out a large bottle of icy sparkling water, he poured two glasses, then moved back to the desk. He handed one to Peeta, before perching on the corner of the tabletop. "They were great. But...I know you didn't come in to speak to me about Messalla. And he definitely wasn't why you were on edge all through dinner last night."
Peeta winced. "You noticed?"
Cinna tried to bite back a smile, to no avail. "You don't have the greatest of poker faces, Peeta. Plus you usually devour lasagna like it's going out of fashion. You pushed it around the plate more than Élodie normally does."
He sighed, sipped at the water that slid a chilly path down his throat. "Sorry. I guess I wasn't much company."
"You don't need to apologise. Now tell me what's up."
"I was hoping to have next week off work." He pushed the words out in a hurry, one starting almost before the other had finished.
"I know it's short notice, but the project is on schedule, I have no meetings, the team is across everything, I don't need to have the other propo-"
Cinna laughed and held his hand up, effectively cutting him off. "Peeta, it's okay. Go."
Peeta blinked in surprise. "What?"
"I don't need a rundown of where the project is at, I'm completely aware of how it's going. And you know I trust that you wouldn't be asking for the time off unless you were on track." Cinna pushed away from the desk, lowered himself into the chair beside Peeta. The glint of his gold cufflinks flashed as his sleeves pushed up slightly against his forearms. "You want to go and see Katniss, right? You want the time off to go and see her?"
"I…" Peeta trailed off, then nodded. There wasn't even any point in denying it, especially to Cinna of all people. "Well. Yeah. The last few sessions with Dr A have really helped. I think we need to talk."
Cinna looked at him approvingly. "Good. Not only do I think it's about time, but Portia will also be thrilled that Mark has been such a help to you."
"I'm just glad she suggested him in the end. He's better than what I expected him to be."
"Well, you've got no argument from me for having next week off, just make sure the team is fully apprised of where things are at."
"Thanks. I appreciate it."
"Anytime. You know I'm always in your corner, Peeta. Just remember to bring her into town to see us sometime."
Peeta sat quietly for a moment before he shrugged. "The ball's in her court, really. I got up and walked away for 5 months. She could just tell me to get screwed, and she'd be utterly justified in doing so."
"She could, absolutely," Cinna agreed, standing and moving back around to his side of the desk. He smiled gently. "But something tells me she won't. If I was a betting man, I'd bet on the two of you."
"I was waiting for you."
He couldn't have sounded any cheesier if he'd tried.
He'd been on the beach for an hour, waiting - and hoping - that Katniss would appear. He'd taken a chance, without knowing for sure that she'd show up, but relying on the knowledge that Katniss was a creature of habit. Saturdays, without fail, had always included work in the morning, a few hours of chores in the afternoon, and a run timed to end at her front gate just as the sun began to set. And so he'd waited. Patiently. Then impatiently.
And just when he'd considered giving up and going home, she'd curved around the bend, her long, lean legs eating up the sand, her stride graceful and purposeful all at once.
It was beyond ridiculous how much he'd missed her.
Now he watched as the line between her eyebrows began to appear, drawing the skin together and making her confusion at his words clear. It was mirrored in the slight narrowing of her eyes, in the way she took half a step back.
"You were waiting for me?" Katniss echoed.
He nodded, fought with himself not to reach out and touch the ends of the long black ponytail lying messily over her shoulder. Instead he shoved his hands in his pockets in a mirror image of her own stance, while his stomach twisted. Nerves, he'd become used to. But this was something entirely different. "Yeah. For you."
He eyed her carefully, weighing his words, then figured he may as well go all in - the worst she could do was tell him to get screwed, and he'd had worse things happen to him than that. "I was waiting for you because I've fucked up enough things over the last few years, Katniss. I didn't want this to be one of them."
It was probably one of the truest things he'd ever said.
"This?" Katniss said it lightly, almost flippantly, but - much like her schedule - he'd come to understand so many of her nuances. Not seeing her for 5 months hadn't changed that.
He knew she was nervous too.
"This. Us." He lifted his hand, waved it between them.
Her lips firmed together, tightly enough that they looked bloodless. "Peeta, we agreed-"
"I was wrong." He cut her off, his voice sharper than he intended it to be, and he worked to soften it. "5 months away has told me we were wrong that day when we agreed to just be friends. Both of us were wrong. And we were stupid if we thought getting involved in the first place wouldn't result in something like this happening."
Her mouth dropped open slightly. "Wow, you come all the way back to town - out of the blue, I might add - to tell me that I was wrong, and that I was stupid?" She yanked her hands out of her pockets, folded her arms across her chest.
He felt his jaw tighten and clench in frustration. "That's not what I'm saying, and you know it."
Katniss shook her head, sharply pivoted until she was staring out at the water instead of at him. "You said-"
"I know what I just said. I know what we both said months ago as well. Some of it was true. A lot of it was bullshit." He moved around until he was standing in front of her, until she had no choice but to look at him. He admired the jut of her chin, the way her eyes - just a moment ago shimmering with confusion - were now steely with firm resolve. "I walked away because we knew it was the best thing for both of us at the time. And now it's not."
"So you think you can just waltz back into town and pick up things where we left off?" Katniss scoffed.
Peeta shook his head. "No, I don't expect that at all."
"Then what do you expect?"
He thought of all the conversations he'd had - mostly reluctantly - with Dr A over the last few months. The ones where he'd talked about his regret over the way he'd kept Katniss at arm's length. About how he'd always expected her to hurt him like Cass had, so it was better to keep that wall between them, even when there had been no hint that Katniss would. About how he knew, deep down, that she'd been just as hurt by her past, even if it was in a different way - but his own self-centered focus had prevented him from recognising it as much as he should have.
And he thought about how the anger and hurt and frustration he'd held onto tightly for so many years had started to ebb away the moment a stubborn brunette with a scowl had wormed her way into his life, even when neither of them had wanted it.
"No, I don't want to pick up where we left off. I want to start over."
She ran her tongue across her teeth, and her gaze drifted off to the side, out towards the cliffs. When she looked back at him to reply, her voice was strong, but held a hint of what he thought was sorrow. "Well, I don't know if we can, Peeta."
He felt like she'd ripped his heart out and stomped it on the ground, but he gallantly nodded. "That's fine, then. I can accept that."
Katniss was silent, only the sound of the water hitting the shore breaking the quiet. She sighed deeply before continuing. "But...I mean...there's a lot we need to talk about. And I don't think a conversation on the beach is really an appropriate place for it."
Peeta felt a glimmer of hope. "So-"
"I'm not promising anything." This time, she interrupted him. "But we at least need to talk properly, right?"
"Right," he agreed. "I'm, uh, in town for the rest of the week if you want to...talk properly."
"I have plans tonight and tomorrow, but Monday night would be fine. There's a little Italian place about 20 minutes away, Popolo?"
Peeta nodded. "I went there with Cinna once when he visited."
"Alright. We'll meet there at 7."
He swallowed. "Do you, uh, want me to pick you up?"
"I've pretty much got free reign to use Finnick and Annie's spare whenever they don't need it, so I'm fine."
"Okay." She took a step back, unfolded her arms. "I've got to go now, or I'll be late. I'll see you tomorrow."
Part of him wanted to know what her plans tonight - and tomorrow - were. The other part told him he had no right to ask, so he didn't. "I'll see you then."
She turned around, began to jog slowly down the beach before she tossed a look back over her shoulder, called out to him. "You look good, Peeta. New York agreed with you."
He didn't say anything in reply; he simply watched her run away, and continued to rehash their entire conversation over in his head long after she'd gone.
She couldn't believe it.
She'd played hard to get.
She'd been on the planet for 27 years, and hadn't played hard to get once, had thought it pointless and a waste of time - and then she'd finally decided to play it on the very day what she'd wanted had stood in front of her, laying it all on the line.
Okay, so it hadn't been playing hard to get exactly. The way she'd reacted had been the best - and only - way for her to react in a situation she'd been completely and utterly unprepared for. Despite admitting to herself only moments before she'd seen him that she missed him, she'd had no intentions of throwing herself into his arms like a damsel. Almost out of instinct, she'd gone on the defensive, her go to reaction for anything out of control, anything unexpected.
Because, after all his time away, she definitely hadn't expected Peeta to randomly be on the beach, hadn't expected him to look so...light. Hadn't expected him to tell her he'd been waiting for her, and most definitely hadn't expected him to tell her that he wanted to start over. That he didn't want to ruin this.
What she'd told Haymitch all those months before about being there for Peeta when he'd needed her was the truth, and she'd done that. She'd been his friend, had replied when he'd emailed her, had kept up the tenuous connection between them. But he'd never hinted that he'd still wanted more from her, not once. She'd figured he'd moved on, or at least had decided that for him to heal, he was better off without her, or anyone.
But maybe he'd just been as cautious as she had. After all, she'd never broached the subject in the time he'd been away. She'd never told him she'd missed him. She'd never told him that, on nights that she woke crying from a dream about Prim, that she'd wished he was there. She'd never told him that, while it had definitely been the right thing for them to end things when they had, she hadn't completely given up hope that maybe, just maybe, it would work out. Maybe now it would.
But...part of her liked the idea of making him sweat a little first.
Peeta studied the menu without seeing a word, the lines blurring together until it looked more like hieroglyphics than English. He glanced at his watch - again - noted it was only a minute later than the last time he'd looked at it.
He remembered the first time he'd officially gone out to dinner with Cass, how insane downtown traffic had meant she'd arrived 20 minutes late. He'd sat there calmly, not worried at all, somehow certain she'd turn up - and when she had, he'd been thrilled, but unsurprised, to see her.
But waiting for Katniss was completely different. He wasn't calm at all.
There was a chance she wouldn't show up. There was a chance she was only coming out of pity. There was a chance she'd arrive and do nothing more than throw a glass of wine in his face before walking away again. There was a chance she'd tell him that there was no hope for anything between them, and that he'd come back to Quarter Mile Bay - and to her - all for nothing.
And then she was being guided through the restaurant, wrapped in the same silky green dress she'd worn to the engagement party, and he didn't have any more time to worry.
He rose to his feet instinctively - ingrained manners drilled into him from his mother - as she arrived beside the table, waited until she'd taken a seat before taking his own again.
"Hi," Katniss said quickly, placing a small clutch beside her on the table.
"Hi. I'm glad you came," Peeta replied, before pausing. "I wasn't sure you would."
"Really? Why not?"
"How long have you got?"
The corner of her mouth quirked up. "I have a late start at the bakery tomorrow, so..."
He smiled at that, felt a little of the worry that had settled on his shoulder ease. "Then be prepared, because my list is long."
Easing back in her chair, Katniss reached for her menu, swiftly opening it. "I told you I'd be here, Peeta; there was no need for me not to."
"True." He nodded. "You, uh, look great."
"This old thing," she glanced down at the dress, shrugged. "Just something I had lying around."
"Yeah?" This time she looked straight at him, and the little candles in the middle of the table reflected in her eyes, sending them to smoke.
"You look amazing," he reiterated firmly, and watched as her cheeks pinkened.
"Good evening, can I get you both a drink?"
Whether it was good or bad timing, they both looked up to see their waitress studying them expectantly, electronic tablet in hand. Peeta tossed a glance in Katniss' direction, indicating for her to go first.
"Uh, I'll just have a glass of the Pinot Noir, thanks."
"Make that two," Peeta agreed, and the waitress nodded, before walking off.
With the pleasantries out of the way, and drinks ordered, an awkward silence fell over the table, whatever bravado either of them had disappearing with the waitress.
"So...this is weird."
"We've never had a problem talking before."
Katniss shifted in her chair. "No, I suppose we haven't. Always willing to throw a biting remark or sassy comment the others way."
"Or flirting with each other."
She raised an eyebrow. "That was all you. I can't flirt my way out of a paper bag."
"I don't know about that. You always did a good job of it with me."
She turned back to her menu, lifting it slightly to hide her face. "I never flirted with you."
He stared at her long enough that he could see her fingers twitch against the menu, her eyes start to hesitantly peer at him over the top of it. "Well, whatever you did, Katniss, it worked," he finally said, then glanced up at the waitress as she placed their drinks on the table.
Their orders were swiftly taken, allowing them to fall into a conversation that veered between awkward, stilted and formal. The problem, Peeta realised, was that they were trying to do everything 'right'. Trying to be polite, trying to steer clear of things that they both probably wanted to avoid. And that wasn't going to get them anywhere.
He needed to get this over with.
"So have you thought any more about what we talked about the other day?" he started abruptly, the moment their meals were placed in front of them.
Katniss blinked, then dropped her gaze to her meal, picking up her fork. "Constantly."
His eyebrows lifted in surprise. "Oh."
He watched as she twirled pieces of long, thin pasta around the utensil. "You thought I wouldn't? It's not every day someone tells me they want to be in a relationship with me. In fact...it's not something I'm familiar with at all. So yeah, I've been thinking about it."
Katniss paused in her actions, looked over to him. "I've been thinking."
"And that's all?"
She sighed. "Peeta, you know as well as I do that I wasn't looking for anything when we started all of this. Neither of us were. So when you left, it hurt. More than what I expected it to, even though I knew you needed to go, even though I'd been the one to suggest we just be friends. But it hurt. And it took me back to the one place I didn't want to be - aching over the loss of someone."
Peeta swallowed heavily, feeling hopeful and like a complete asshole at the same time. But at least he recognised it - Dr A would be proud. "Acknowledging you're being...an asshole, for lack of a better term, Peeta, shows you're progressing with our sessions." "You didn't lose me."
She shook her head. "But I did, even though I didn't realise it until after you'd gone. I just need to be sure that you're ready for something like this, because I won't go through it again." She turned back to her pasta, raising it to her mouth.
He picked up his own fork, scooping up some of his lamb ragu. It was terrific, but it could have been toast for all he knew. He could hardly taste a thing.
Because he knew she was right. And right now, he needed to be completely honest with her.
"I started seeing a therapist in New York," he blurted suddenly.
If she was shocked, or surprised, she didn't show it. "That's good."
He ate another forkful, using the time it took to swallow to figure out what to say. "Yeah. It, uh, took a while for Cinna and Portia to convince me to give it a go, but in the end it was a good decision. The seeds you, and Dad, and Cinna and Haymitch planted...well, he's a professional. I guess he knew what to do with what was already simmering away."
Katniss was ploughing away at her food like she hadn't eaten in a week. "It seems like it."
"He's helped me to face up to a lot of things I didn't want to - most of them I already knew. Like how I've acted like a dick, said a lot of stupid things, treated people like shit. But the whole point of me going back to New York was to move on with my life, and he's helped a lot with that. I'm not there yet, but I'm on my way."
Katniss paused, placing her fork back on her plate. Her voice lowered until it was barely audible. "You know that's all anyone wants for you, right? For you to be able to move on."
He shrugged. "I suppose."
"You suppose?" She reached out and lifted her glass of wine, took a deep swallow of the ruby red liquid before placing it back down again. "I bet if you asked anyone in your life, they'd tell you that. They'd tell you that you didn't need to define yourself by something that someone else did, by something that happened to someone else."
He understood her meaning without her actually saying it.
"You don't seem defined by it," Peeta murmured quietly. "How?"
Katniss drew her teeth along her bottom lip. "I was defined by it, for a long time. It took a few years to accept the things that happened to my family - it took me leaving and driving hundreds of miles away for me to finally feel settled in some way. It doesn't mean I've ever gotten over it, or that it will ever be something for me to think of easily." She paused, gathered her thoughts. "But I lost my family, and even after they died they were still the family I always knew. You...you had to deal with finding out that the person who had been your family was someone else entirely. I'm not surprised it took you as long as it did for you to decide to come to terms with it."
Peeta looked away, at the table beside them full of the empty plates of a recently departed couple. "I'm not sure I would have unless I'd met you."
"I think that's bullshit," Katniss said immediately, and he shook his head.
"I'm serious." He glanced back at her. "I don't think you understand the effect you can have."
She rolled her eyes. "I don't even know what that means."
He leant forward in his seat, his hand gripping his fork tightly. His voice was urgent, intense. "It means that for well over 6 years, I didn't really let anyone in, refused to let anyone get close. Refused to let my family and my friends be the family and friends they wanted to be. And no matter what they did, or said, it didn't change a thing. I didn't give a shit. Plenty of people have held a mirror up to my face over the years, but none of them were ever as good at it as you. A stranger who had a bark as bad as my bite. Maybe that's why - because you weren't afraid to call me out."
"It was up to you to make the decision to change," she said. "No one else."
"I know. But it took me a hell of a long time to get there, and in the end…"
"In the end?"
He dropped his fork onto the tablecloth and leant back in his chair, felt his throat thicken with discomfort. No matter how much he'd talked about his feelings with Dr A, no matter how much he'd told him that Peeta needed to be honest with those around him, it was still hard for him to share.
"You know, I still have bad days. Bad days where I have to hole up in my room and pretend not to hate the world. Days where I'm overly blunt with people when they piss me off, rather than taking a moment to choose my words carefully. Days when I don't give a shit. Days when I work until 3am because I need to focus on something other than the doubts in my head. But they're not like they used to be. I have more better days now than I used to - and that's because of you." He folded his arms stubbornly across his chest, because, even now, he hated the fact that Haymitch had mostly been right. A woman had made him who he'd become - and another was helping to return him to who he'd been.
He was practically a damned walking cliché.
"Just let me get this off my chest, okay?" he muttered, and she nodded. "In the end, it was really the thought of fucking things up for good with you that made me want heal, to put Cass behind me. I don't know if things will work out between us - or even if you want to give us a try. But I do, and I'm willing to take the chance. If you are."
Katniss shifted in her seat, and rested her elbows on the table. Her hair curved over her cheek, hiding part of her eye, making her look younger, more vulnerable. "Neither of us are perfect. Neither of us ever will be, and I don't expect either of us to ever be 100% over the loss of those we loved." She bit down on her lower lip briefly. "I moved here to get away. You moved here to hide. Maybe we need to figure out if we're both here, at the same time, to actually have a life."
Peeta tipped his head to the side. "So what you're saying is-"
"Let's give this a try," Katniss said firmly. "But...we need to take things slow, not rush into anything. I don't want the same thing to happen again. We just need to see how things go, okay?"
He nodded. "Okay." He looked down at his plate, picked up his fork again before speaking. "I'm in town until Sunday. Can we see each other again before then?"
Katniss smiled slightly. "I'll allow it."
They saw each other twice, away from the prying eyes of others in the Bay. She visited him at his house, where they sat on the back deck, drank beers and talked TV as the sun went down, settled down on Adirondacks a good foot away from each other. The second time they saw a movie in the next town over, tentatively holding each other's hand while the dark offered them a way to study each other's profile without getting caught.
(They both did).
A third 'catch up' was abruptly cancelled when Peeta, caught on an unexpected emergency conference call that soon descended into yelling and finger pointing over an error, knew he was in no state to be around anyone.
He returned to New York, their final contact before he left a phone call that took them well past midnight and had them both already tired when their respective alarms went off at 5am.
But it was progress. And that's what mattered.
Work is insane. One of my client's wives has decided she wants a second kitchen in their apartment. A second kitchen, for a woman who never cooks. She is, I swear, the most high maintenance person I've ever met in my life.
Being back has made me remember just how noisy it is here. I'd forgotten how silent the nights can be back in the Bay.
You should visit one day.
Is that an invitation?
You're lucky you kept your visit so quiet - you're all anyone has talked about this week, coz Finnick accidentally let it out of the bag that you'd been here. Anyone would think you were one of Effie's clients or something, the way they talk about you. Weren't you a surly asshole, like, a year ago?
I can still be a surly asshole, I assure you. Some habits are hard to break, but I'm trying.
Has she had clients show up in QMB before?
And yes. That was an invitation.
Well, maybe I'll take you up on it. You can show me around.
Yeah, she's had a few. One of them - he's young, cute, stars in this big trilogy - came to QMB about 6 months after I moved there. A girl passed out in the middle of the street after she met him.
Young and cute, huh? Sure the girl who passed out wasn't you?
The phone rang once, twice, three times, and Katniss closed her eyes, dropped her head back to the arm of the sofa. It had been a long day, and right now she was looking forward to a bath and bed. But she had to do this first.
She and Peeta had had two weeks of virtually non-stop emailing since he'd returned to New York. They'd had a couple of phone calls, half a dozen texts. And with each one, she felt the invisible walls they'd always seemed to have between them slowly begin to crumble.
His voice was sharp and clipped when he finally answered, breaking her out of her reverie. "Hey, it's Katniss," she started.
"Hey!" The immediate change in his voice was clear. "Sorry about that. I was neck deep in a draft and I guess I haven't come up for air for a few hours."
"It's okay," she replied. "I'm pretty sure I don't have the most welcoming of phone greetings 24/7."
"Still." He paused, blew out a deep breath. "Anyway, what's up?"
She cleared her throat nervously, because whether he knew it or not, the next question she asked was a surprisingly important one. "Uh, Dylan's having his first birthday party in two weeks time and I was wondering if you wanted to come back for it?"
She could hear his smirk down the phone. "You looking for a hot date?"
Okay. This was going to go fine, she realised."I've heard kids' birthday parties are the place to hook up, so you'll be cramping my style, really." Over the course of the last few weeks, a playfulness had begun to inject itself into their interactions, one that they'd never really achieved before. She liked it. It was nice. Fun.
It made her eager for his responses even more.
"Well, Finnick and Annie have already invited me, and I said yes, so I'll be there. I guess I'll be cramping your style either way."
"I guess you will."
Katniss heard him clear his throat, heard a thud that sounded like a foot hitting a desk. She imagined him in some fancy-pants office high up in a skyscraper, his suit jacket tossed carelessly on a chair, his sleeves rolled up and his tie loosened around his neck. It was...an appealing image, she couldn't lie. "I was also thinking about coming back to town this weekend. I've got a meeting that finishes at midday on Friday, thought I might hop on a flight to Portland after that. There's a bit of work I need to do on the guest bath, so…."
She closed her eyes as she pictured her calendar on the side of the fridge. "I have this Saturday off - Annie and I do alternate Saturday's now. I have to baby-sit Sae's granddaughter for a couple of hours in the afternoon, but other than that, I'm free. Oh - wait. No. Never mind."
"What? What were you going to say?"
Katniss felt her cheeks flush. "I was actually going to go to the archery fields in the morning. I've, uh, been going pretty often since you left. But I can wait and go on Sunday."
"No, stick with it. I'll go with you."
Her eyes flew open and she stared blindly up at the ceiling. "You want to go to the archery field with me?"
"Why not? You get to shoot things, right? Sounds like a good way to get out some frustrations."
Katniss chewed on her bottom lip. "Tough times at work, still?"
"Yeah. Sure. Something like that," he agreed, then coughed slightly. "Anyway, I'm heading out to dinner with Portia and the girls while Cinna is out of town. I'll speak to you soon."
She hung up the phone, held it against her chest, and smiled.
The morning dawned chilly, a cool but gentle breeze reminding Katniss that while October was practically perfect, November - and the inevitable slide into winter - wasn't too far away.
She dressed in jeans, an old black sweater that had definitely seen better days and her worn, brown leather boots, her hair braided back in its usual style. It had become her go-to outfit for when she went to the fields, preferring comfort over style. And just because Peeta was taking her there didn't mean she was going to dress up for him any more than she usually did.
Though she did apply a few strokes of mascara and a swipe of lip gloss. It didn't hurt.
She waited at the front fence until his car pulled up at the curb, and she quickly crossed to it, opening the door and sliding into the passenger seat. She tossed her backpack, containing a couple of bottles of water, a packet of band aids and a cap, in the backseat.
"Hi," she greeted.
"Hey," Peeta replied, glancing at her quickly and managing to skim over her head to toe before moving his eyes back to the road. "You good to give me directions?"
"Of course." She rattled off the quickest - and easiest - way of getting there before settling back into the seat. Music played over the speakers, an old song she remembered her dad singing when she was a kid. "Soooo have you ever used a bow and arrow before?"
Peeta shook his head. "Only one of those Nerf type things as a kid. Is that going to be a problem?"
"Nope. I'd never used one before either, the instructor just told me that I'm a natural."
He flicked her a look of horror as he turned the corner that took them onto the road out of Quarter Mile. "Have we got an instructor today?"
"Just me," Katniss assured him. "The class I took went for just over three months. Now I go whenever I want, for fun."
"For fun," he deadpanned, and she felt the smile tug at the corner of her mouth.
"Yeah, for fun. Better that than for survival, right?"
"True," Peeta agreed.
They chatted aimlessly on the short drive, continued to do so while Katniss took Peeta through the motions of selecting the right bow from the ones they had available to hire before leading him out to the line of targets. She watched the seriousness on his face as he slid the protective brace along his left forearm, while he tugged on the string of his bow slightly to test its resistance. She gave him some tips, demonstrated how to shoot, showed him the right stance. It meant she had to slide in close to him, pressed up against his back as she moved the way his hand clenched around the bow. The shiver that ran down her spine, and the echoing tug of desire that flared in her belly, was all too familiar - and sorely missed.
She stepped away, already regretting the loss of the steady warmth of his body against hers, and waited for him to shoot.
He missed the target by miles.
She hid a smile behind her hand, trying not to laugh as he got increasingly frustrated with each failed shot. The ground in front of and around the target was dotted with the long slim arrows, their brightly coloured fletching standing out against the green grass, and the more Peeta tried, the worse he seemed to get.
"This is absolute bullshit," he finally snapped, spinning on his heel to face her. His face was like thunder, his eyes glowering. "This bow is broken."
"The bow is fine," Katniss assured him, swallowing back a laugh and stepping towards him. She tugged it out of his hands before he decided to throw it or break it in two. "You're just too stiff with it. Your shoulders need to be firm but you're holding onto the string just a little too long, like you're afraid of it."
"I'm not afraid of it," he snarled, and Katniss raised her eyebrow.
"One, you need to check your attitude right now, buddy. And two, you might not think you are, but you are."
A muscle in his cheek twitched, and she could physically see the shift across his face as he tried to rein in his frustrations, before he finally sighed. "Alright. What can I do?"
Katniss showed him again, patiently, moving in close to position his stance a little better. She heard his sharp intake of breath when her chest pressed up against his shoulder blades, and for the first time she wondered if today was such a good idea.
Being this close to each other was reigniting a need too fast, too soon.
"Okay," he finally murmured once she had him in the right place. "Any other tips before I shoot this thing?"
Katniss hadn't told her instructor this, but she figured if it helped her, it might help Peeta.
"Well...it sometimes helps me if I imagine the target as someone who's been pissing me off," she admitted, stepping back, tapping his elbow into position again slightly as she did so. "Not that I'd want to literally shoot them with an arrow, but...it gives me something more to aim at, if that makes sense."
He turned his face to her slightly, his curiosity clear. "Then who do you imagine?"
Katniss shrugged. "It's not always the same person, and it might not be anyone I've seen recently. A couple of times it was you," she said matter of factly, and the corner of his mouth quirked. "Another time, my ex. Haymitch was annoying the shit out of me in the bakery one day, so he got to be my target. A guy who I dated in high school once got the honours, and another day I even shot Glimmer because she stole my jeans before I left Panem."
"They were good jeans that fit me well," she muttered defensively. "Anyway, maybe give that a try."
Neither said anything as Peeta lined his shot up, as he pulled the string taut. She held her breath as he let it fly.
It hit the blue ring.
He turned to her with the biggest, most ridiculous grin on his face. "Nailed it," he said triumphantly, and she laughed.
"Nice. Who'd you imagine?" she asked, then stopped, horrified, as a sudden realisation hit her. What had she done? How had she not considered that telling him to imagine someone as the target might mean he thought of Cass over and over-
"The kitchen lady back in the city," Peeta announced, breaking through her thoughts. "She's driving me insane with her ridiculous demands."
Relief flooded through her, and another laugh escaped. "Okay then. Let's keep going."
An hour later, Peeta's aim slightly improved and both their arms limp like jelly from exertion, they packed up, heading towards the hire building. And her next comment fell from her lips before she even knew she was saying it.
"You know, you never did tell me exactly how you knew Glimmer."
Peeta started, almost dropping the bow. "What?"
She cringed, hadn't even realised it had been on her mind since she'd referenced her earlier. "Uh, months ago, when we found out we both knew Glimmer. You just told me a friend knew her. But it was Cass, wasn't it?"
Hitching the bow over his shoulder, he nodded slowly. "Yeah. They were sorority sisters. At least, until Glimmer got kicked out."
"You didn't know her well?"
"No. Mostly her name, a few stories C...I got told."
Katniss bit down on her lower lip. "You can say her name, you know," she said softly, and he nodded.
"I know. But I don't want to right now."
Murmuring her assent, they continued on towards the building, the look on her face growing thoughtful as she shifted her eyes across to him. "Well, I knew she was bullshitting about her age."
She grinned. "Glimmer tried to tell me she was only 26 when we first met, but I'm guessing she was shaving quite a few years off her real age."
Peeta smiled back. "Somehow, from the little I did know of her, that doesn't surprise me."
Katniss considered it a miracle, and a testament to just how far they'd come, that an - albeit brief - conversation about their past didn't leave a dark cloud or an awkwardness over them as they drove back to QMB. Instead they sat in a silence that was comfortable, the sounds of an old Taylor Swift song on the radio filling the car. She found herself humming along, the chorus inciting her to murmur the lyrics softly under her breath.
"I've missed that, you know," Peeta said quietly, and she lifted her head from where it was resting against the car window.
"Your singing. Your voice. It was...it was one of my favourite things about working in the bakery."
Katniss blushed. "Oh."
"Don't let me stop you."
The look on his face made her heart beat just that little bit faster. "Now I'm self-conscious."
She smiled slightly, and looked out the window. "Well now of course I have to be."
But she didn't continue, the song quickly shifting into one she hadn't heard before, and the rest of the ride home was silent.
He pulled up at the curb, switching the ignition off as Katniss reached back to gather her backpack.
"Thanks for today," he started. "You're a good teacher. Patient."
"It was fun," she agreed, and he pulled a face.
"Well...for you being able to laugh at me, maybe. All it proved is that I'm not great at archery."
"Well we can't be good at everything," Katniss reminded him wryly. "You can draw a hell of a lot better than me, bake better than me and you threw those bags of flour around the bakery like they weighed nothing. Moving them wasn't exactly my favourite part of delivery day."
"And that explains why there was always so many for me to move when you signed off on the orders compared to when Finnick did."
"Guilty as charged," she admitted, clutching at the bag she now held on her lap. They stared at each other for a moment, the intensity in his eyes making the blue crystal clear and sharp. She cleared her throat. "Anyway, I'd better head in. Get changed and stuff before I head next door to Sae's."
He pushed a wayward lock of hair back from his forehead, and she saw his knee begin to bounce nervously. "Sure. I should get started on the bathroom anyway. The fixtures aren't going to replace themselves."
Nodding in reply, Katniss reached out and grasped the handle, started to open the door.
She half-turned to face him. "Ye-"
Her reply was cut off by Peeta's mouth covering hers hotly, his hands sliding into her hair, pulling her closer to him. His tongue ran across her upper lip, and her lips parted, enabling him to deepen the kiss. His taste was familiar but new, sharp and sweet, like she was discovering an old favourite all over again.
A slight moan fell from her lips as her hands reached out, clutching the front of his shirt tightly, cursing the console that separated them.
It was frantic, and needy; tongues tangling, mouths bruising, breaths panting against skin as they almost devoured each other in the front seat of Peeta's car.
And then they were forehead to forehead, eyes staring at each other as they fought to regain any sense of coherence and breathing.
"I've wanted to do that all day," Peeta murmured.
"Why did you wait so long?"
The corner of his mouth quirked up. "We're taking it slow, remember?"
"Right," she nodded, though right now, with the way her heart was thudding and her mind was cloudy, she really couldn't.
"You should go in," he reminded her.
"I should," she agreed, and reluctantly pulled away. "You, um, want to go for a run along the beach tomorrow morning before you go back to New York?"
Peeta nodded. "Sounds good."
"Okay. I'll, uh, meet you on the beach."
"Sure." He gently extracted his hands from her hair, leant back. "I'll see you then."
"See you then," she echoed, before stumbling out of the car, slamming the door behind her harder than she intended.
She didn't watch him go, didn't have a chance to. She was too busy blushing furiously when she saw Sae sitting on her front porch next door, knitting needles clacking away in her hands and a wide, knowing grin on her face.
"Peeta, it's good to see you. How have things been the last few weeks?"
Settling himself into the deep, comfortable cushions of the dark blue armchair in Dr Mark Aurelius' office, Peeta rested his hands on the armrest, his fingers curling over the edge. He'd missed his last few sessions, through a combination of work and visiting Katniss, and the familiar surrounds of an office that had once upon a time set him on edge now allowed him a sense of calm that he hadn't felt in a couple of days.
"Busy," he started.
"Oh?" Dr Aurelius crossed one leg over the other, pushed his glasses a little higher up on his nose.
"We've had a few problems on my major project. Nothing earth shattering, just a few people not meeting their obligations. It's led to some long, frustrating days."
"Are you sleeping well with it all? Is the stress causing some insomnia again?"
Peeta shrugged. It was clear the doctor could see the deep purple bags under his eyes as much as Peeta himself could every time he looked in a mirror. "The sleeping is as fine as it can be. I could always do with more, but who doesn't?"
Dr Aurelius smiled. "Tell me about your recent trips out of town then. You told me on the phone that you've visited Katniss a few times?"
He thought of their time at the archery field, the way he'd wanted to kiss her senseless all afternoon. The way he finally had in the car. The way he'd dreamt about her constantly afterwards, his body practically cursing him for giving it a taste and then taking it away again. "Yeah, I have."
"And how has that gone?"
Peeta took a moment before replying, choosing his words carefully. "It's...going well. We're taking things slow, going to see where things take us."
"So you broached the idea of beginning a relationship with her?"
He reached up, ran a hand along his jaw, and the three day growth that shaded it. "I told her that I wanted to try again. That I wanted to see if we could start over."
"She turned me down."
Dr Aurelius smiled. "If you've visited her a few times and are taking it slow, Peeta, I hardly think that's the case."
"She turned me down at first," he clarified. "Or told me that we needed to talk about it more."
"She seems like a smart woman," the Dr commented, and Peeta nodded.
"She is. I don't think she gives herself enough credit. But she is. I told her that it was because of her that I decided to get my shit together."
Dr Aurelius was quiet for a moment. "We talked about that, about how resting something like that on her shoulders might feel like a burden," he replied softly. "How did she react?"
"She told me it was bullshit, to start with. But I explained to her that the reason was because I didn't want to miss out on something again. I think she understood then, and we agreed to date. Or whatever."
"When you say that you didn't want to miss out on something…" The doctor didn't finish his sentence, allowed Peeta to pick it up.
Peeta lifted his hands in supplication. "I'm almost 34, and I've finally realised I can't spend the rest of my life wallowing over Cass and potentially...missing out on a life with someone else. I told myself for a long time that I didn't want that anymore. And now-" he cut himself off, swallowed heavily. "Maybe now I do again."
Peeta ran his tongue across the front of his teeth. "You already know it's more than a maybe."
"I know," Dr Aurelius agreed. "It's just good for you to continue to admit it, to say it, to get used to saying it. Don't you think?" It was. The more he said it, the more comfortable he felt with it. And the more comfortable he felt, the more confident he was about it - so he nodded his agreement, and the doctor smiled. "Good. But let's move onto other things. Tell me what else is happening at the moment."
Peeta thought over his work projects, the recent call he'd gotten from his mother to announce that his new niece had finally smiled at her, his Dad's pronouncement that he'd joined a chess club, the conversation he'd had with Katniss about their connection through Glimmer, the way he'd kissed her in the car - and then went with something completely different. He planted his tongue firmly in his cheek.
"I somehow voluntarily agreed to go to a one year old's birthday party this weekend."
The amusement on Dr Aurelius' sleepy face was clear.
Annie and Finnick had outdone themselves. Their small backyard was bedecked in decorations - balloons, streamers, fish cutouts hanging from tree branches, the tree house Finnick had had installed before Dylan had barely turned a month old turned into a pirate ship with the help of coloured cardboard and a fluttering bright blue sheet of material. Food stations were spread out across the yard, heaped with sweet and savoury party food, and a giant snakes and ladders mat took up pride of place in the centre of it all. It was a little cool outside at this time of year, but it was picture perfect otherwise, the sun shining brightly and the trees gold and red and yellow and exuding warmth.
Popping a handful of M&Ms from a bowl into her mouth, Katniss eyed the spread of food on the Odair's kitchen counter that had yet to make its way outside. "So how many people are coming to this, exactly?"
Placing another dirty prep plate inside the dishwasher, Annie straightened. "Um...maybe about 40?"
"You know Dylan doesn't have 40 friends, right? He's 1. He's friends with Mr Fishy," Katniss pointed out, referencing the overstuffed and drool covered fish that Dylan had taken to carrying everywhere with him - hence the party theme.
"Ha ha," Annie replied with a grin. "I know, it seems excessive. But when you take into account my Mom and step-father, and Finnick's parents and his grandmother, and the bakery crew and…" she trailed off, shrugged. "Okay, it's excessive. But Finnick got so excited, and he just kept wanting to invite everyone."
"Like Florence, and Delly's engagement party."
"Like Delly's engagement party," Annie confirmed. "But at least everyone coming has genuinely met Dylan before."
Picking up another handful of chocolate, Katniss tipped her head in Annie's direction in agreement. "Very true."
Turning back to the counter and grabbing another plate, Annie placed it in the dishwasher. "Is Peeta still coming?"
She fought to keep the smile from creeping up on her face. "Yeah, he'll be here. He had a skype call with his boss, so he'll be late. But he'll be here."
"Good," Annie replied. "Are you prepared for the inevitable onslaught of people saying how wonderful it is to see the two of you together?"
Katniss rolled her eyes. "We're not going to be hanging off each other, Annie. He's worked at the bakery - it makes sense for him to be here."
"You know people will be saying it anyway. Remember where you live."
"They're here for Dylan's birthday party, not me or Peeta."
Annie shrugged, closing the dishwasher door and turning it on. When she spoke, her voice was in a slightly tone-deaf sing song. "Well, I'll probably say I told you so later!"
She threw an M&M in Annie's direction. "Oh shut up."
"Just be prepared," Annie replied with a grin.
"Katniss, darling, you have no idea how excited we are!"
Katniss surveyed the already overfilled table in front of her, trying to determine where she could place yet another platter of '1' cupcakes. There was so much food, it was ridiculous - and she was certain most of it would end up being packed up and taken home by all the guests. There was definitely no way it would all get eaten this afternoon. Allowing her gaze to flit briefly to the woman beside her, Katniss raised her eyebrow in curiosity. "About what, Effie?"
The older woman clasped her hands in front of her, fluttering eyelashes that looked about a foot long. "About Peeta of course! He's back, and I'm certain you couldn't be more excited yourself."
She gave credit to years of tending bar, and the steady hands she now had to have when shooting at the archery field, that prevented her from splattering the cupcakes all over Effie's highly-inappropriate-for-a-backyard-picnic-party six inch magenta stilettos. She turned her focus back to the table, shoving aside a heaping platter of cheese and meats, barely managing to slot the plate into the gap. Internally, she sighed. Annie's foresight had been spot on, as usual, and she'd been dumb enough to think that the focus would all be on Dylan. It had been ridiculous for her to have thought otherwise.
She wondered if she'd ever get used to it.
"What do you mean?"
"Don't play coy with me, my dear," Effie said playfully, tapping her on the arm, before lowering her voice to a whisper. "Finnick was telling me all about it yesterday in the bakery. It will be so wonderful to see the both of you together in town!"
Her head swung back around abruptly to face Effie. "Finnick what?"
Effie laughed gaily. "Uh-oh, looks like Mr Odair has been sharing a few secrets again!" She leant forward, pressing a kiss to Katniss' cheek. "No never mind him, my dear, he probably didn't mean a thing by it! We're just so fond of you, that we love seeing you happy." Then she smiled brightly as her name was called out on the other side of the backyard. "Oh, Florence is here, I must catch up with her. I've not seen her all week, what with my being in LA! Bye, Katniss, we'll chat later!" She tottered away on her heels, their toothpick ends sinking into the grass as she made her way around clumps of gathered guests, while Katniss' head was spinning with such a hurried and frantic conversation. She made a quick getaway before she got cornered by anyone else, and headed straight to the drinks station where Finnick stood.
"Finnick, what the hell?" She blurted it out without a greeting, no preamble.
Finnick whirled from where he was pouring a lemonade and winced, sucking in a deep breath. "Uh-oh. What did I do? Did Annie tell you about the sex dream I had?"
"No - what?" Katniss blinked in confusion.
He shook his head quickly. "Uh, nothing. Never mind. What did I do?"
She shoved her hands in the pockets of her jeans. "You talked to Effie about Peeta and I!"
His brow furrowed in confusion. "No I didn't."
"Then why did she say it will be so nice to see us together, and that you told her about it?"
He lifted an eyebrow wryly. "Um, I just told her Peeta was in town because he is - I didn't mention anything about you. And as for the rest - maybe she said it because it will be nice to see you together. If she said anything, it was of her own volition, okay?"
"Ugh, why would you even bring him up to Effie of all people? I mean, you may as well have strung a sign up on Main Street proclaiming that the prodigal son had returned."
He laughed, and sipped at his drink, comfortable again with their conversation. "Because she was asking me when Annie and I were going to give Dylan a sibling. I was doing some serious deflecting, because that woman is relentless."
Katniss scowled. "Don't use me as your get out of jail free card, buddy."
He reached out and tugged on the end of her braid playfully. "Quit whining, Everdeen. You should know the drill by now - everybody knows everybody and everything. And everybody just wants to be happy for you. Now get out of here, and head over to the deck. Lover boy just showed up."
She rolled her eyes at that, but couldn't deny the little frisson of excitement that danced down her spine, the coil of need that tightened in her belly. She tossed a look over her shoulder, saw him standing in the middle of the deck, looking slightly bewildered but decidedly appealing in faded jeans and a deep green hoodie, before turning back to Finnick. "You're such an ass, Odair."
"And in my dream, you loved me for that."
"Ugh, you're so gross."
"Boy, you look like you've never been to a kid's birthday party before. You look terrified." Glancing beside him, Peeta found Haymitch standing there, hands in his pockets as he rocked back on his heels.
Scanning the crowded backyard - was every person from town here? - Peeta shrugged. "I've been to a couple, but they were only ever family," he replied, thinking of his nephew Elijah and Rue and Élodie, who technically weren't family by blood, but were the closest thing to it.
"Then why so scared?"
"Because...everyone is looking at me." And he wasn't exaggerating. From the moment he'd stepped out onto the deck, heads had swung to face him, eyes full of curiosity, surprise, excitement. He could see the looks that were being darted between himself and Katniss, and from where she stood on the other side of the yard with Finnick, he could see her eyes on him too.
But the look in hers was very, very different to everyone else's.
Haymitch chuckled. "Can you tell they've been starved for gossip for weeks? Possibly months? You being back is the most exciting thing that's happened since Darius got shitfaced on the Fourth of July and ended up passing out on the beach, buried up to his neck in sand."
"Exciting times in the Bay," Peeta drawled, and Haymitch nodded.
"Too true, kid. So suck it up." He yawned. "I'm gonna go get a drink. Your girl's headed this way, so I may as well keep Odair company. See if he's got anything...worthy to drink." Haymitch winked, a small grin on his face as he took the two steps down to the grass and headed for Finnick.
Peeta watched as Katniss walked past Haymitch, sticking her tongue out at a comment he made, before stepping onto the deck.
"Hey," she greeted.
"Hey. What did he say to you?"
"Something highly inappropriate in the vicinity of children," she muttered with a blush.
He grinned slightly. "It wouldn't be a regular day if Haymitch wasn't doing or saying something along those lines."
"He's a regular moral compass." She tucked her hands into the back pockets of her jeans, and he tried not to focus on the way the movement made her shirt cling to her chest. "The call with Cinna go okay?"
"It was fine," Peeta said simply. He wasn't sure if he was ready to tell her yet that the conversation had been about the majority of his project coming to an end, that after Christmas he'd be back in the Bay full time. Because being back full time meant that, regardless of what happened between now and then, it would possibly be some kind of turning point for them.
"Well, that's good," she smiled. Something over his shoulder caught her eye, and she grimaced. "Ugh, I'm sorry to leave you to your own defences, but I have to go help Annie with something. I'm certain Finnick has a drink over there with your name on it, though."
He nodded, turned in time to see her scurry into the kitchen, and prepared himself for a long afternoon of going solo.
But in the end, it wasn't so bad.
The few children who were there squealed and ran around, while clumps of people ate food and chatted. Annie carted Dylan about to practically every guest, while Finnick played the consummate host. Peeta sat in a plastic chair in the corner of the yard, Haymitch on one side of him, John Cartwright on the other, sipping on a plastic cup of Coke and vaguely listening to them as they talked football - or while John talked as Haymitch reluctantly responded appropriately. But they weren't really holding his attention.
It was Katniss, as she moved through the yard carrying trays of food, or picking up discarded half-eaten cupcakes from the ground, that had his complete focus. He couldn't take his eyes off her. The way a dozen flyaway hairs had escaped from her braid, the way her legs looked in the fitted jeans she wore, in the way she deftly moved around the packed backyard, never once bumping into anyone, her body fluid and somehow reminding him of more than a dozen nights they'd spent wrapped around each other naked.
And he knew she knew he was watching her, the faint blush on her cheeks clear each time she looked in his direction.
It might have technically only been a month since they'd started seeing each other again, but their history was a lot longer than that. Their decision to take things slow and all had been a good thing, but it was killing him. He just wanted her, wanted to take things to that next step. Wanted her more each time he spoke to her, saw her, interacted with her.
And now he was officially thinking things that he was pretty sure he should never think about at a kid's birthday party.
"Kid, you'd better get that look off your face," Haymitch suddenly growled.
"What are you talking about?" He glanced around, saw that John had gone over to replenish his plate of food, and it was just him and Haymitch.
"Like you want to eat that girl alive. Just make a damn move already."
"We're taking things slow," Peeta bit out.
"Then save us all." Haymitch leant back in his chair, stretched his legs out. "Though I gotta say I knew it was only a matter of time before the two of you got your shit sorted again."
"Crediting yourself as matchmaker?"
Haymitch snorted. "Hardly. I've told you before and I'll tell you again - you both needed a good swift kick, you especially. So just don't pussy-foot around each other forever is all I'm saying."
Peeta couldn't help it - the laugh fell from his lips before he could stop it. "You really do have a way with words, old man."
Haymitch tipped his cup in his direction. "Thank you."
He took another sip of his own drink, diverting his attention back to Katniss over the rim of the cup.
He watched her all afternoon, and she was surprised to find it didn't bother her, didn't make her feel self-conscious. In fact, all it did was make her hyper-aware - of everything. It took all her strength to focus on the party and the task at hand, and not think about him, and her, and all the ways they'd been together. In all the ways she wanted them to be together. And from the look on his face, she knew whatever she was feeling, he was feeling it too.
She also knew that they were both kidding themselves. She wanted him like she'd never wanted anyone before, and it was ridiculous to deny it - or themselves - any longer.
There was no going back now.
He'd been disappointed when she'd told him she had to stay behind and help clean up. He'd offered to help, but Annie had smiled and politely declined, telling him to head on home, that they were all okay.
So he'd gone home, sat in front of the TV, and debated with himself how long he was going to wait before he went to Katniss' house. Because he really couldn't take it any longer.
And then, almost as though he'd summoned her, she was knocking on his front door.
Peeta leant against the frame, his arms folded across his chest as he studied her. She'd changed - though she still wore the jeans, the shirt was long-sleeved and not covered in remnants of food, her braid smooth and perfect. And her hands were clenched tightly in front of her.
"You know, I was just trying to gather up the courage to go to your house," he started.
She blinked. "Oh?"
"I was thinking about how I can't do it anymore. Going slow is fine and all, but…" he shrugged. "Let's face it. I want you."
This time her cheeks coloured red, hiding the dashes of freckles that danced over them. "I know."
His eyebrow lifted. "You do, do you?"
She nodded. "I do. Because...because I want you too."
They stared at each other silently for a moment, and then he didn't give her a chance to say anything more, reaching out and yanking her against him, his arms banding around her waist tightly as he impatiently lowered his mouth to hers. The brief kiss they'd shared in the front seat of his car last weekend hadn't been nearly enough to satiate him, and he'd thought about this - her, them, together - virtually non-stop all week.
They stumbled inside, mouths still fused to each other, Katniss somehow managing to reach back to slam the door shut. The sound reverberated around them, and Peeta tore his mouth away, stared down at her.
"Is it really inappropriate that I was thinking about getting you naked all through a kid's birthday party?" He muttered.
She nodded, a little wildly. "Probably. Very likely." She took in a deep breath, her chest heaving against his. "But I don't even care. I've been thinking about it for weeks."
"Months," she agreed.
His hands reached down, tugged on the bottom of her shirt before drawing it up and over her head, fixing his mouth to hers again as he tossed it over his shoulder. He couldn't get enough of her - the feeling of her bare skin under his hands, the press of her body against his as they fought to get closer to each other. His blood, every nerve ending, felt like it was on fire.
"Upstairs," he murmured against her mouth, his hands already eager to dip below the waistband of her jeans. "We should go upstairs."
"Down here is fine," she muttered breathlessly, her hips thrusting against his as her hands slid up and underneath his sweater. Damn, this woman was going to be the death of him.
"No," he said firmly, and pulled his body away from hers reluctantly, reaching down to curl his fingers through hers. He needed to do things right this time. "Let's go upstairs."
She nodded blankly at him, and he turned, guiding her up the stairs and down the hall towards his bedroom. He let out a soft breath and pushed the door open with his free hand, led her in until they both stood in front of each other at the foot of the bed. They didn't move, didn't say a word, the air between them pulsing with tension. But, in the brief walk upstairs, something had tempered, something had shifted. And this time when he finally closed the gap between them it was smooth, slow. Not rushed, not hurried.
He took his time as he undressed her, as he'd failed to do so many times before. Took his time mapping her bare skin with kisses the more he revealed of it - the curve of her shoulder, the inside of her elbow, the spot just above her hipbone. And the way her body shivered and jerked under each of his touches made him wish he'd done this a long time ago.
She reciprocated, torturing him in taking what felt like forever to free him of his clothes, a scrape of her nails across his bare chest, a clench of her hand around his arm, a brush of the end of her braid against his stomach. They kissed, long and slow and leisurely, bodies pressing against each other closer the deeper their kisses became.
And then, as though a switch had been flicked, the impatience and need that had initially fueled them took over again.
Katniss wrapped her arms around his neck, lifting up onto her toes as she tugged him down slightly, his body bowing over hers as they fell back on the bed. He shifted at the last moment, landing on his back with Katniss curved over the top of him. He tugged at the tie in her hair as she fixed her mouth to his neck, threaded his hands through the lengths until they surrounded them like a curtain.
They moved over each other, under each other, skin becoming slick with sweat as their kisses heated, as his hands palmed her breasts, as her thighs clenched around him as they rolled over the bed. He could feel her heart racing a million miles an hour, pressed his lips to the skin above it before moving down and capturing one of her hardened peaks in his mouth, her body tensing against his even more, his name falling like a moan from her lips.
He took her over the edge with his hands, and his mouth, her own hands tugging desperately at his hair in those final moments. And then, while her body was limp like jelly and as fluid as water, he reached out blindly, fumbled in the top drawer he'd stocked with the hope things would work out. Nipping it out of his fingers, she rose over him, her mouth covering his with a heated kiss before she rolled the latex down, as she took him inside of her.
She rocked against him, a pace that was familiar to them, one they both knew would drive them hurtling to the end. More finesse, and time, would come later. Right now, they just wanted each other. Needed each other.
He felt in build in the base of his spine, his stomach and groin tensing in a way that he knew he wasn't far away. And their eyes were open and staring, breaths panting, groans and sighs mingling as, one after the other, they finished.
After, with their bodies cooling, Katniss' head on his shoulder and his arm wrapped around her, he lazily ran his fingers up and down her arm. Her breathing was calm and even, and for a moment he thought she'd drifted off to sleep until her toes dragged across his calf.
"So the project is almost done," he murmured, and he felt her foot pause.
"So that means…"
"I'll be back to working remotely again, will just travel down to the city whenever they need me."
He felt a breath he hadn't known she'd been holding blow across his chest. "And you'll be staying here? You'll be back in the Bay?"
"I'll be staying here," he confirmed, and her cheek shifted against him, the way he knew it did when she smiled.
So he smiled too.
I know, I've been really slack lately, and I'm sorry. But, if it's any consolation, I've been busy. Doing things. Having a life.
Isn't that strange?
It was Dylan's birthday last month - he's one already, and I can't believe it. I still remember the day Finnick went running out of the bakery, his face as white as a sheet, practically tripping over his own feet. Even thinking of it now makes me laugh.
I knew he and Annie would make great parents. Seeing them with Dylan is just...well, they remind me of when we were kids with Mom and Dad. How they'd shower you with kisses whenever you came home with a glowing report card.
Which was often, you smart ass.
They had a party for him, though as a one year old, I don't imagine he'll remember it. All he was really interested in was the wrapping paper and a piece of cake he smeared across his face. But it was nice for Annie and Finnick to celebrate - they loved it, and so did half the town, because that's pretty much who they invited.
And - surprise - Peeta was there.
He came back a couple of months ago, told me he wanted to try and see if things could work between us - actually see each other, and not pretend that we were just in it for some kind of kicks. So we've been dating. Doing activities on the weekends, when he visits from New York. Talking a lot on the phone, emailing when he's back there. He's not going to be back in the Bay full time until his project is done in February, but that's probably a good thing. While we've taken a step forward in deciding to be together, it gives us those times to be alone when we need it. You, of all people, know there are times when I need to hide away, and he needs the same. The past, good or bad, never goes away.
But we're getting better. And when he's here, we spend a lot of time at his house. It feels different to before. It feels comfortable. It feels right.
It feels real.
8 months later
She was running late. And she really didn't want to be late tonight.
She should have known the minute she'd woken up and realised she hadn't set her alarm and was already ten minutes late for work that it was going to be one of those days. Should have known it wasn't going to get any better when the steamer on the coffee machine decided not to work, and she couldn't get a technician to come in until next Monday to fix it. When the youngest of the Mitchell boys decided to smoosh his custard-filled doughnut into the face of his older brother, turning the shopfront into World War III. When Annie, hit with a morning sickness that carried on way into the afternoon and that they were all trying to keep on the down low from prying ears and eyes, had to head home early and there was an hour of her struggling on her own in the Friday afternoon rush before Finnick could arrive to help her close.
In short, if Katniss could have named the Day Most Likely to Go to Hell and the one she Least Likely Wanted to Go to Hell, both were today. But it at least kept her mind off of everything else, though. Kept her stomach from filling up with the nerves that had threatened to drive her into a panic the night before when she'd been certain she didn't have a single thing in her wardrobe worthy of tonight.
Switching the ignition off, she leapt out of the car, snatching the brown paper bag and backpack off the passenger seat at the last moment before she slammed the door closed after her. She raced up the front path, unlocking the door and pushing it open simultaneously with her hip.
"I'm here!" she called out, as she hurried down the hallway into the kitchen. He was already there, his arms covered in flour up to his elbows, annoyance clear on his face. "Uh oh. What's wrong?"
"I burnt the damned cheese buns, didn't I," Peeta growled, and Katniss snickered. It was actually kind of funny how nervous they both were, considering he'd known his family his entire life and she'd at least kind-of met them, in the modern day tradition of Skype. But this wasn't just a 5 minute video call. This was a dinner with his family - all of his family. His parents, his brothers, their wives, their children. "Now I have to start all over again. Shit."
Circumventing the counter, she reached up on tiptoes to press a kiss on his decidedly tense cheek. "Peeta, it's okay," she reassured him. "They're your family - they'll love whatever you cook no matter what."
"Ethen will bitch about whatever I've baked, Aaran will rag on me about how I need to re-stain the deck outside and my mom will likely alternate between giving you the third degree and trying to wipe the corner of my mouth with her napkin, wondering where I learned to eat."
"Sounds like every other family gathering I've ever heard about in my life," she said smoothly, dumping the backpack on the floor and moving to take the apple pie out of the brown paper bag to store it in Peeta's fridge. Hoping to distract him from his own woes, she launched into her own day. "Anyway, sorry I was late. The bakery was as busy as all hell, anything that could have gone wrong did go wrong, Annie got hit with morning sickness again, and then I had to go past my place to pick up my clothes to change into because I forgot them this morning."
His hands already deep in dough again, Peeta turned briefly to look at her over his shoulder. "You know you could solve that last issue if you just left some clothes here. Or, you know. All of them."
She kept her head in the fridge as she pretended to contemplate the chilling bottle of white wine and the 6-pack of ciders on the top shelf. It had been a tentative topic of conversation since they'd visited New York for Cinna's birthday a month ago, a casual remark by Portia that had inadvertently planted the seed. She'd been hesitant at first, and had continued to be, knowing that the last time she'd moved in with someone it had been rushed, and had ended badly. And she'd also been conscious of Peeta, knowing how he'd lived on his own for so long now, knowing why he'd had to.
But who was she kidding? She was just delaying the inevitable. It was pretty clear that this was the next step that they could - and should - take. Because they both knew they were definitely better together.
She straightened and turned back to face him. "Alright."
He stilled, slowly spinning around. The surprise was clear on his face. "What? Really? Yeah?"
"Yeah." The smile slowly spread across her face. "Why not? We should give your brother and his living-in-sin girlfriend a run for their money with your mom's disapproval."
The corner of Peeta's mouth quirked up. "Sounds like a good idea to me."
She crossed to him again, swiped her finger along his forearm to gather some flour to dust across his cheek. "Well, good luck with making your new batch, Soon To Be Roomie. I'm going to have a shower."
"That's not fair to put images like that in my head," he groaned.
"Too bad," she called out, scooping up her backpack, and heading down the hallway.
Katniss ran her hand along the bannister as she made her way upstairs, a smile on her face and a warmth in her belly at the promise of a future with Peeta. They'd taken big and little steps forward over the last few months, had had to help each other when times were rough and memories got dredged up that threatened to drag them down again. But taking the step of agreeing to move in together felt right - and she knew, now that they'd finally done that, telling him she was in love with him would be next.
They'd both hinted at it for well over a month now, the words always seeming to be on the tip of their tongues, barely able to be stopped, but something invisible always holding them back. His past, her past, their worries, their fears, recognising that it was such a powerful and courageous thing to say - who knew?
All she did know was that she meant it. And the idea of loving someone - of being in love - with someone was both exhilarating and terrifying and everything she'd seen embodied in her parents. She wanted that with Peeta. And even though he hadn't said it, she knew he wanted it too.
Maybe tonight she'd finally tell him.
A/N - I almost can't believe this is it! Done. Dusted. My arms are heavy as I write this, and part of me feels lost that it's done. But it is.
Thank you so much for reading and reviewing, for all your follows and favourites over the years. Every single one of them has meant so much to me, and helped me to keep going when I was struggling for words or time.
I didn't expect DBGB to become what it did, and I'll always be very honoured and grateful that so many people read it, welcomed it, were enthusiastic about it. It's a story that means a lot to me, and not just because of the Everlark that I loved to write, but the other characters who helped to shape their story. I hope you enjoyed spending some time in Quarter Mile Bay as much as I did.
I'd love to hear your thoughts, either here, or on tumblr, where you can also find me under sponsormusings. :)