The days pass by in a blur. We lock ourselves away. Wrapped around one another beneath layers of blankets as we set out to learn every inch of the other. This was inevitable, this change, with the dance we've been engaged in for months now. I've denied myself this pleasure for far too long, and will seize every opportunity to make up for lost time.
Morning, through nightfall, we rarely leave his bed. Meals are delivered to his room with little inquiry, and we greedily devour our plates before returning to one another with renewed energy. There's no need to be discreet, his family has assumed that we've been sleeping together for weeks now, and when he makes me come with earth shattering screams using only his mouth, I wonder if he's purposely trying to make a show of it.
I can't say the thought upsets me. For so long I've been walking on eggshells to keep peace between both sides of Panem. I've bitten my tongue and played the part that everyone in town wants to see of me. But Peeta's fire has consumed me with its spell. He refuses to bend to the whims of others. He's true to himself, and confident in his beliefs. Peeta would never become a pawn, unless it came to protecting me.
Because he loves me.
The declaration still haunts me in a way I could never have imagined. Love is foreign to me. Love is a burden. Look at all the trouble it's caused him. I feel selfish for taking advantage of his affections – for letting him believe that this is something that it's not. But sometimes, when I catch my gaze lingering on him for longer than necessary or feel my heartbeat quicken at the thought of him, I wonder if he's not the one being fooled.
Either Peeta is oblivious to my conflicting feelings, or he's purposely chosen to ignore them. He never repeats his confession nor prods for me to return it. Still, it hangs between us, nearly tangible. A weight on my shoulders that I do my best to shrug away, because the alternative – losing him because I can't reciprocate? It's a fear that I refuse to even humor.
There are so many other things to worry about these days. Things I can only put off for so long.
Saturday comes too soon, and I find myself staring at the dark blue canopy that hangs over Peeta's bed. The steady stream of water coming from the shower is soothing, and I allow it to hypnotize me into a false sense of security.
The water abruptly stops with a jerk of the faucet, and soon I can feel the warm, damp air heavy in my nostrils, followed by the heat of Peeta's body hovering above me. His ashen skin is flushed red and tiny crystal droplets cling to the end of his curls, before dripping to tangle in my eyelashes.
"Let's skip graduation," he decides, bowing forward to kiss me.
I push weakly against his chest. "I can't," I say.
He groans and rolls away to lay on his back beside me. "It's the same tired thing," he argues. "Falsely sentimental speeches where we reminisce about good times that no one can really recall having. I could think of several far more productive things to do in those two hours." He sits up on his elbow and catches a loose strand of my hair with his finger. "I'll even let you wear the robe, if you must."
"You're the salutatorian. Aren't you supposed to be giving one of those allegedly false speeches?"
"Oh no," he chuckles, and I can feel the rumbles of his chest through the mattress, making me smile. "I'm giving the most honest speech of all. My greatest memory of high school was having sex with Katniss Everdeen, and I'm letting everyone know it."
My jaw drops and I look at him incredulously.
"You sure you still want to go?" he teases.
"I have to," I say with a sigh. "It's very important to my sister. A year ago this seemed impossible. We literally had nothing..." I trail off feeling silly, but as usual Peeta is genuine in his concern.
"It's settled then," he says. "We'll go." He climbs out of bed and quickly begins to dress in the slacks and dress shirt he had laid out earlier. "But first call your kitchen staff and tell them they have the morning off. I'm going to make your family breakfast."
I roll my eyes. "You don't have to do that for me."
"What makes you think it's for you? This special day is for your sister," he says with a wink.
There's an impatient knock at the door, too brazen to be any one from the staff. Peeta's only fastened a few buttons of his dress shirt, and even though I'm dressed in his sleep shirt, I tuck myself protectively beneath the comforter before he answers.
His mother enters and she glares at me for a long moment before turning to address her son.
"You're not even dressed?" she says sharply. "Look at you! We're supposed to be at the Country Club in twenty minutes and you're a mess."
Peeta continues to button his shirt deliberately slow, and turns his back to Mrs. Mellark to face the mirror on his dresser. "And you look absolutely glowing, Mother." He catches my eye in the reflection. "Doesn't she look lovely, Katniss?"
My eyes widen at my sudden inclusion, but Mrs. Mellark prefers to pretend that I don't exist, and doesn't take Peeta's bait.
"The car's waiting downstairs," she says. "Mr. Snow will be there to congratulate you on your achievement, so there will probably be pictures in the paper."
"I'm sorry Mother, but I've already made plans with the Everdeens," he let's it sink in for a moment before he continues. "You'll have to have Cartee stand in for me, I'm sure Mr. Snow won't notice the difference."
"Peeta," she says sternly. "You know how important this election is to our family."
"Yes," he nods and moves to his closet where he retrieves a tie. "It's very important to you. But Katniss is important to me and I'd like to spend the day with her. It's my day after all, isn't it?"
"Fine," she says with a reluctant sigh. "Your friend can join us for brunch if those are your terms."
Peeta chuckles and shakes his head. "Not everything I do is to spite you, Mother. Sometimes I'd rather surround myself with a family that can actually tolerate one another."
"The Odairs?" she practically spats. "Oh dear boy, if you think the Odairs are the pillar of dignity and family kinship, than you're more foolish than I thought."
I feel unnecessarily offended by the accusation. I'm not an Odair by name, and I don't feel a connection with them, but to me, it's an obvious slight towards my mother. As usual though, I bite my tongue and keep silent, allowing the insult to linger.
Peeta isn't swayed by her argument, and politely asks for some privacy. With a scowl, she turns to leave, but not without a final request. "I trust you'll still be attending the campaign reception tomorrow. I feel I've been awfully generous in allowing you your freedom," her eyes flit to me, still laying in her son's bed. "Please don't make this anymore difficult than it needs to be."
The encounter doesn't sour Peeta's mood. He walks me home, where he spoils Prim and me with a hearty breakfast. It's not as lavish compared to what the kitchen staff usually prepares, but the muffins are warm – the best I've ever tasted, and sitting around the breakfast table this way seems like the most normal thing any of us have done in months.
When Prim insists on helping him with the eggs and bacon, I have no choice but to offer my services as well, and soon, even Finnick has joined us in the preparations.
We stuff ourselves full with our feast, conjuring up memories of family breakfasts from the past. Prim drives the conversation between mouthfuls of food, encouraging me to tell stories from when our father would cook for us. It becomes apparent after I've monopolized the meal with memories from the Everdeen kitchen, that Peeta and Finnick don't have their own family tales to share.
A foreign feeling of sympathy fills me at the thought. Never in the time that I've known them, have I felt more fortunate than them.
After breakfast, I head upstairs to change for the ceremony. Effie has a collection of dresses that Cinna sent over earlier in the week hanging on a special rack outside of my closet. I sort through the pieces, allowing for the silks, chiffons, and satins to tickle my fingers as I inspect them. Once again, Cinna has chosen the perfect assortment of elegant, Capitol appropriate attire that also suit my mood of being both simple and comfortable. The dress that I select is a soft yellow, with small embroidered flowers that dot a tulle overlay and falls just above my knees.
As I make my way down the hallway towards the staircase, I hear heavy footsteps hurrying behind me. I turn to see Finnick, anxiously fiddling with something in his hands and he slows to approach me.
"Katniss, hey," he says, and I pause, allowing him the opportunity to catch up. "I wanted to give this to you. A graduation gift. It's from our grandfather."
He extends his hand to me and I inspect the contents skeptically before reaching out to accept it. It's the most exquisite pen I've ever seen. Solid white gold accented with intricate swirls of yellow and rose from the nib up the outer cap. The body is layer upon layer of shimmering diamonds and rich, blue sapphires, wrapping around the barrel to resemble crashing ocean waves, and making it impossibly heavy. The cap is no less stunning with a beautiful ship carved into ivory and accented with more diamonds. The tip of the cap is branded with a small anchor, and I have to squint to read the "L" and "O" that flank each side.
"It's lovely," I say, nearly breathless. "I can't take it though." I push it back into his hands and close his fingers over it. "He left it for you."
"Actually," Finnick says, drawing out the word with an uneasy chuckle. "I only technically found this. I mean it looks pretty expensive, so I'm sure he signed some important documents with it or something, but it wasn't in his will. I found it under a loose floor board in his office a couple of years after his death."
"Loose floorboard?" I arch my brow curiously.
"Living under a very critical spotlight, sometimes you have to get creative to hide your secrets. It ran in the family apparently. Mother was always snatching up anything that looked to be of value, so Grandfather was probably hiding it to keep something for himself."
He presses the pen into my palm. "Take it, okay?" I don't budge and he let's out a heavy sigh, combing his fingers through his copper hair. "Consider it a peace offering." He takes a step away so I can't return the pen again. "Growing up, you and your mom and your sister, you were just names – cautionary tales. I didn't really connect these characters with actual people, and I apologize for that. You needed us and we turned our backs on you, and I promise, it'll never happen again. And if it does, you have this $200,000 pen to make a few bucks off of," he adds with a wink.
I acquiesce, and turn it in my hands to inspect it again.
"Face it, Katniss, you're stuck with me now, whether you like it or not," he says, and playfully musses my hair with his hand before turning to disappear down the endless corridor.
"Finnick, wait," I call out before my mind has fully formed its thought. "Are you coming to my graduation?"
He turns on his heels, his smile so broad that I can count every one of his pearly teeth. "I guess I could pencil you in."
Finnick arranges for the limo to take us to the ceremony, since the town car won't seat us all comfortably. There's a bottle of champagne and sparkling cider on ice with an assortment of glasses, and when Finnick fills a flute for both me and Peeta with champagne, he leans towards my mother and loudly whispers, "Our little secret."
The ceremony is long and uneventful. Contrary to Peeta's claims, he gives a genuinely heartfelt speech that leaves half of our classmates in tears. Delly sits in the seat directly in front of me, and reaches back her hand to hold mine during his ending notes, crocodile tears smearing mascara down her cheeks.
The school colors are black and gold – the boys in black gowns and the girls stuck in hideous, lemon colored robes. The polyester is cheap and every tiny wrinkle catches the light in a way that makes it look ten times worse. As we're lined up to receive our diplomas, I frantically smooth my hands over the rumpled mess, reminding myself that it's just a piece of paper. A piece of paper I never cared much about.
My name is called and I freeze at the edge of the stairs. My heartbeat is ringing in my ears, and my feet too heavy to lift. The person behind me grows impatient and nudges me forward, causing me to trip up the steps. I regain my composure when I step into the light, and I take a deep breath, one that I hold as a I approach the superintendent and line of faculty members. She hands me the leather bound book and reaches out to shake my hand, which I absently accept.
I can't even take in what's happening, instead I look out at the crowd, my eyes seeking my sister familiar face. I find her, tucked between my mother and Finnick, and even Haymitch is sitting along side of them, all four beaming with pride. A feeling I can't help but mirror as I clutch the book in my hands.
I had never invested much value in my education, but this feels like an accomplishment. Something normal, and typical, and in my life, normal is the greatest comfort.
Peeta is the first to greet me after the ceremony has ended. He lifts me off my feet into a tight hug, and I lock my arms around his neck when our gowns cause me to slip from his grasp. Delly and Madge are soon by our side to exchange congratulations. Rarely am I an enthusiastic person, but Delly's happiness is contagious, and when she insists that Peeta and I attend her graduation party that evening, I agree with little hesitation.
I shouldn't be surprised that evening when we approach her street – densely packed with cars – that Delly's party is the head quarters for tonight's Capitol gathering. Her house isn't as extravagant as Peeta's or my own on Victory Lane, but the homes in the Merchant Valley subdivision are nothing to scoff at either.
"Last chance to bail," Peeta murmurs in my ear, an offer that I strongly consider as we make our way up the cobblestone path.
A smoking crowd has already formed on the front porch, flooding the area around the front door with a cloud of smoke where they hang on the banister with red plastic cups dangling in their free hands. I only vaguely recognize them, but Peeta greets each of them by name and with a handshake. When one offers a "Hey Katniss" in my direction, I awkwardly return the greeting with the tightest smile I can muster.
It's still early enough in the night that Delly is at the door to greet her guests. She smiles apologetically as she pulls me into a hug.
"Sorry, the size of this party sort of went from a low key gathering to a three tapped keger when word got out that my parents were on the red eye to Switzerland for their second honeymoon." She turns and retrieves two plastic cups from a cart positioned next to the door, which she has fully stocked with drinks. "The good news is, the booze is much better now. Before I only had lemonade wine coolers."
"And what is this exactly?" Peeta lifts the cup to his nose and takes a reluctant whiff.
"Liquid awesome!" Delly giggles, and picks up a cup for herself, which she finishes in two long swigs. "It tastes like Skittles," she exclaims.
Peeta takes a sip and immediately begins to cough until his eyes water. "It tastes like vodka," he says between coughs. "A lot of it."
I take a drink, and behind the sharp, sterile taste of the alcohol, I catch the hints of fruit and sugar and something slightly tangy. The sweetness becomes stronger after my next sip, and soon I can see the bottom of my cup as I empty its contents. I drag my tongue across my lips to clean the residue and nod at Delly approvingly. Peeta is watching me intently, his eyes darkening as they follow the path of my tongue.
"You going to be able to keep up?" I tease and poke a finger into his side.
"Not if you keep drinking like that," he says with an amused chuckle, his gaze still lingering on my lips and his hand moving to rest on the small of my back.
"I never took you as a lightweight." Peeta drinks at plenty of parties, usually far more than me.
"I'm not," he assures me, taking a long, even swig. "It was the way you drank it. It was hot."
"Would you two shut up?" Delly shouts, nursing another red cup. "You're so cute it makes me want to puke."
Peeta swipes her drink from her and finishes it himself. "No. I'm pretty sure that this will be the cause." She rolls her eyes and places her hands on her hips. "If we're bothering you though, we'd be more than happy to get a room. Your's is top of the stairs, first to the right, yeah?"
"Ew, stop it Peeta," she shouts and swats at his chest. "Don't you even think about it!"
We weave through the throngs of people, every corner of her kitchen and living room occupied by recent grads and under class men. Peeta guides me towards the back of the house. It's suffocatingly hot in the kitchen, and he plucks a few freshly poured beers from the keg, before nodding his head in the direction of the french doors that lead to the back patio.
It isn't until the cool summer breeze touches my skin that I feel the dizzying effects of the alcohol. It isn't that incoherent, sloppy stage of intoxication, rather the pleasant buzz that leaves my lips tingling and my hands wrapping around Peeta's arm with more intent than usual.
He takes note of this, and draws me closer, his arm wrapped firmly around my waist. We've always been public in our displays of affection, because that was always the point of whatever this is. But now that I've been fully integrated into the Capitol crowd through Snow and the Odairs, I'm not sure that it's necessary anymore. In fact, so much of our relationship takes place behind closed doors, it would be impossible to justify it as a PR stunt.
His lips touch my neck, my head lulling back to accommodate him, and it becomes clear. I don't need him to protect me when I'm in trouble or to elevate my status. As selfishly as it sounds, I just need him.
I spot Madge on the other side of the lawn, looking disinterested as she chats with a few of our former schoolmates. I debate going over to rescue her, but my mind is too clouded by lust to think of much else.
I turn in his arm so that our foreheads are touching, and the hand clutching my beer is curled between our chests. "You want to get some air?" I ask, my voice taking on an unfamiliar lilt.
"We're already outside," he says, his chuckle rumbling deep from his chest. "You ready to go home already?"
"You offering me a ride?" I ask, biting my lip between my teeth when he tightens his grip on my hip to pull me against his arousal.
His lips latch onto mine and I gasp, allowing his tongue to slip into my mouth and paint across my own in a way that makes my knees buckle. I meet each touch eagerly until we're both breathless.
"If we're talking semantics about 'home,' when I was eight years old I basically lived at the Cartwright's house with all the sleep overs we had," he pants against my forehead.
I've abandoned all sense of my usual inhibitions, and the alcohol isn't to blame. I lean into him, slanting my lips across his again. "I'll allow it," I say.
The guest rooms downstairs are already occupied, if Peeta's frustrated jingle of their locked handles are any indication. "There's one more upstairs," he insists, grabbing my hand to eagerly pull me after him.
"Not Delly's room," I say, feeling suddenly awkward about the whole thing.
"Not Delly's room," he agrees, pushing the door open with the heel of his foot. The room is dark, but there are enough personal items scattered around the room to distinguish it as someone's bedroom. Peeta seems to recognize my hesitation as he pushes the door closed behind me. "No, no, it's okay, it's Delly's brother's room. He doesn't even live her anymore, he's out of college even. It's fine."
"Okay," I say, using the light from the moon that trickles through the window to guide us towards the foot of the bed.
Peeta's on me in an instant. His palms claim my breasts and thighs, hiking and stretching my dress in different directions to expose more skin until it's bunched around my middle. He urges me to turn and I feel the back of my legs brush against the edge of the bed.
"Lay down," he says, dipping his fingers into my underwear to slide them down my hips.
I begin to oblige, my eyes hypnotized by the path of his fingers. But something else flares up inside me. The rush of this day. I feel accomplished, I feel at ease, I feel empowered, I don't need Peeta to bring me pleasure as he's so skillfully able to.
"No." I reach down to unloop his belt, pushing both his pants and boxer briefs down to his thighs. "You," I say, cocking my head towards the bed.
His eyes widen in recognition and he nods his head briskly. "Okay," he breathes, settling onto the mattress. He leans back onto his hands, his breathing labored, and shirt riding up his torso where his erection lays flat against is stomach.
I sink down to my knees, resting a hand on each of his thighs. Peeta has pleasured me with his mouth before, but I've yet to return the favor. The concept seems simple enough, and if my inexperienced hand was enough to get him off, I'm sure my lips can accomplish the task too.
Wrapping my fingers around his shaft, I pump my hand up and down his length in a familiar motion, pausing at the base when he let's out a content sigh. My tongue darts out to wet my lips, and my chest feels heavy as it rises and falls with each breath.
I press the flat of my tongue against him, starting at the base and licking up the velvety skin to the tip, where I catch a drop of salty fluid. His entire body shudders in response and I feel the same wave of want rush through my core.
Positioned between his legs, I peer up at him. His lids are heavy, but open just wide enough to watch me through his lustful gaze. "Was that good?" I ask, repeating the motion.
His fingers dig into the mattress, balling the comforter into his fists, and he nods tightly to encourage me on.
I sit up on my knees and lower my lips to wrap around his head, swirling my tongue to trace along the ridge, causing his hips to lift from the bed to thrust deeper. He reaches his hand to tangle in my hair, wrapping the long strands around his palm to guide me. He's too big to take in all at once, so I counter the shallow movement of my lips with the long strokes of my hand, bobbing in an asynchronous motion.
"Shit Katniss," Peeta groans, tugging on my hair.
I quicken my pace, taking him deeper. He thrusts erratically from the bed, so close to the edge, when suddenly additional light floods the room and it's obvious that we're no longer alone.
"Woah, woah, sorry." I freeze at the familiar sound of his voice and slowly pull away. "Peeta Mellark? Is that you?" Cato barks with laughter at the sight of us.
"A little privacy," Peeta says, unamused. He tucks himself back into his pants and buttons them.
"In a minute," he says, shifting in the doorway to lean against the frame. "Color me impressed that you're still getting your dick wet even though your crazy bitch of a girlfriend is worth more than you now."
"Don't," Peeta warns, his voice a growl.
"What is it that they say," Cato says, his footsteps growing closer. "You can take the girl from the Seam," he crouches so his face is menacingly close to mine. "But you'll never take away her taste for culm in her mouth."
Peeta's fist connects with Cato's jaw without hesitation and he stumbles back a few paces.
"I said enough, Cato," Peeta says, rising to his feet.
Cato laughs, swiping the back of his sleeve across his mouth. "I'd fucking end you right now, if I didn't already think she'll do that herself. You're a fool if you think she's interested in anything more than your legal team. The trash in this town has it's place," he says, fixing his glare on me. "Better learn it."
He puffs out his chest to assert his dominance and folds his arms. "Now. You two still need the room?"
I climb to my feet and adjust my dress, a scowl sharpening the angles of my face as I silently step past him, never breaking eye contact. That is until I catch sight of the girl waiting for him outside. Leevy.
I bite my tongue, unwilling to start this argument with her again, but we stare one another down. I feel helpless and infuriated at the situation, and can do nothing but follow Peeta down the hallway.
If she isn't the one spreading her legs to Cato for money, it'd just be someone else. It'll always be someone else until Cato and the rest of his Cap scum are stopped.
And I know exactly how.
A/N: Sorry for the delay on this one. There are about two chapters left for this book, I think, it may stretch to three, as this one kind of did. After that is book three, which I already have outlined and ready to dive into. Thank you so much for coming along for the ride. As always I'm on tumblr (absnow) if you ever want to find me!