The bar smells of stale beer and peanuts. The late afternoon sunlight is seeping through the blinds that line the front of the bar creating a golden haze around the room. It's still quite. Just a few college students fill the booths lining the walls, their heads bent in soft conversation. The low drone of the baseball game that fills the screen of the TV over my head battles with the clanking of the glasses I wash in the sink.
The door creaks open as laughter fills the air. The afternoon rush is about to commence.
"Beer…Beer…I need beer." I smile at the strained voice behind me. I turn to find Finn leaning his arm against his forehead like a man dying in the desert sun.
"Hi, pretty lady, " he says as he flashes a smile that can stop a woman at forty paces. His emerald eyes sparkle as he flops his long, lean frame into the bar stool across from me.
"Rough day, Finn?"
"Baby, I just need a warm woman to ease my achin' muscles," he says as he winks at me and rolls his shoulders. The muscles straining against the tight fabric of his t-shirt. He shifts his face into a sultry pout and holds his arms open in invitation.
"How 'bout it, beautiful?" he drawls.
I make my way around the bar and into his waiting arms which immediately come around me. He smells of soap and aftershave.
"In your wettest dreams, baby," I breathe into his ear, the flirty words falling from my lips more easily with him than with anyone I've ever known. I suppose it's the fact that I know he's harmless. Nothing happening here. I nip his earlobe as I pull away. He groans and dramatically clutches his heart.
"Indeed, Miss Everdeen, indeed."
I pour him a tall Guinness and set it in front of him. He greedily gulps half the glass and wipes the foam off his lips with the back of his hand.
"Well, I suppose this will do in a pinch." He holds the glass up and tips it towards me before downing the rest, "Cheers!"
"So, bad practice, huh?" Finn is a baseball player. A star player in all aspects of his life and one of my roommates and very best friends. He is a genuinely good natured person who can bring out the flirt in anyone. Even closed off me. I have my back to him getting a beer out of the cooler for another patron when I hear a stool scrape the floor.
"Ugh, you have no idea," an exhausted voice says. I peek over my shoulder to see a sweaty, disheveled blonde boy with Caribbean blue eyes crumple onto the stool next to Finn.
"My soul for a draft, darlin'," I smile at him as I build him a Guinness and pull Finn another.
"$1.50 will suffice, Peeta" I answer as I set the glasses in front of my boys.
"Thank God," he groans as he brings the midnight liquid to his lips. I catch myself watching as his Adams apple bobs while he drinks. Finn catches my eyes and a knowing smile creeps onto his face. I roll my eyes and quickly busy myself cutting lemons.
As the bar begins to fill with the after class rush, Finn makes his way around the bar. His voice carries over the crowd. His laugh sincere and warm as he jokes with virtually everyone in the building. Peeta, however, seems to have set up camp at the bar with me watching the game. He usually plays the part of Finn's wingman quite well. His easy, charming personality combined with Finn's overtly flirtatious and outgoing nature make the two a deadly combination to the female population of Panem University. Many a panty has disappeared in the company of these two. Tonight, however, he's nursing his beer, his eyes trained on the screen above my head. He talks animatedly with the man to his left here and there. I don't think Peeta has ever met a stranger. He can make conversation with just about anyone. His ease with words and people is a trait that I fiercely envy. Usually that ease is accompanied by an infectious smile and sparkling eyes. Tonight, however, he just seems tired. Worn around the edges.
"What's up, Peet?" I ask as I wipe down the bar in front of him. The crowd at the bar has dispersed for a moment and I can actually breathe.
"Tired, Kat, that's all" he takes another sip of his beer, "I'm pretty sure Coach Snow was trying to kill us today. Plus, I really should be home finishing up my Lit paper…" he trails off. I know he hates his American Literature class. He put it off all 4 years and is suffering through it now.
"I can take a look at it for you, if you want," I offer, " It's what I do."
"I guess having an English major for a roommate has it's perks," his eyes sparkle as he lifts them to mine, "that would be amazing, Kat. I'd really appreciate it." He pauses as he looks at his watch, " Hey, what time do you get off, I can take you home."
I glance at the clock and a smile overtakes my face, "20 minuets, but then I'm supposed to sing a few songs with Gale," I pause eyeing his tired frame, "you don't have to wait for me. I can call a cab or Joanna to come get me later."
He smirks and tilts his head to the side, his almost white blonde bangs drifting into his eyes, "I can wait, Kat, I promise I won't fall asleep in my beer." He chuckles as he moves to find Finn. I watch him move away. I seem to be doing that a lot lately. Watching him. I really can't help it. The boy is just that beautiful…especially when he wears those dark, worn jeans that hang just the right way on his narrow hips. I shake myself out of my trance and finish cashing out.
Gale is setting up behind the tiny stage at the back of the bar with the rest of the band. In the 12 years since I have known him he has become a truly gifted and beautiful musician. He can strum your worries away or stoke the fires of your soul. Over the last 6 years his band, Caged, has become the number one draw on campus and around town, as well as gaining fast acclaim across the eastern seaboard. His strong, muscled 6'4 frame with brooding good looks set off by dark mahogany hair and piercing diamond eyes might help just a little, as well.
Sometimes I look at my boys and wonder how I got tangled up with such beautiful men. All three are completely different, but all completely captivating in their own way.
Honestly, though I am loathe to admit it out loud, Finnick really is the most beautiful male I have ever seen. His tall, lean athletes body combined with a chiseled jaw, liquid eyes and a brilliant smile are hard to deny. He's almost too pretty. Too pretty for my taste, anyway. I really can't say that for the rest of the female population considering the throngs of admirers he has.
And Peeta. Oh, I try really hard not to notice Peeta and his messy blonde hair and ocean eyes. When I do find myself being drawn in by the strong line of his jaw or the way his dimple sneaks out when he smiles my heart stops and that unnerves me. It scares me. Really scares me. I don't do relationships. I don't let myself go there. Not anymore. Not after Gale.
And Gale Hawthorne is a whole different story entirely.
We grew up together. Literally right down the street from each other. He was my family. Our fathers worked together and our mothers are best friends. It seemed only natural that we start dating in high school. We spent every waking moment together anyway and the moment his lips first touched mine on a cold, snowy Christmas Eve my insides melted and I was lost. He's 2 years older than me, though, and when he left for college only 6 months after that first kiss my heart broke a little. It was hard - those 2 years apart - but we saw each other as often as possible. He would write me songs. I would travel to see his gigs, often singing beside him. I suppose it was my youthful naivety that I never saw that he was running around on me until I actually got to college with him. It was actually harder to reach him even though we were once again in the same town. He wouldn't return my calls and would often stay out all night. It was one month to the day after I moved to town that I walked into his apartment only to catch him, jeans around his ankles, banging a blonde cheerleader type on his dining room table.
I swore men off that night.
It took us a long time to get passed that night. Over a year. My best friend/boyfriend had betrayed me in the very worst possible way imaginable and apparently had been for almost 2 years. But we're ok now - 3 long years later. Friends again. I can't imagine it will ever be as it was before, but we are friends none the less. We even live in the same house when he's not on the road. He stays in the basement while I am tucked away on the 2nd floor. Plenty of room between us. I don't have to see him bring anyone home and he me…not that I have ever brought anyone home…but the space is there anyway. We make it work along with the 4 other people who live in the house with us. But my trust has never returned.
The mic crackles and the hard beat of the base drum pulls me out of my reverie. Time to get my rock star on. I agreed to do 3 songs with the band tonight. It's been a long day of classes and then behind the bar schlepping drinks. I'm beat. I relax with a bottle of Blue Moon as the band warms up, my feet screaming at me. I roll my shoulders and mentally prepare myself for the stage. I don't really like singing in front of a crowd. It still, after 5 years, makes me unbearably nervous. I'm not meant for the spotlight. I like to be the watcher, not the watched.
I feel strong hands tenderly touch my shoulders and begin to rub slow circles and then softly kneed my tired muscles. My head falls to the side as the pleasure Peeta's hands make ripples down my spine. A soft moan escapes my lips and his hands still.
"Don't stop…" I practically purr the words. I feel Peeta's breath against my neck as he leans into me, his thumbs stroking the tight muscle leading from my ear to my shoulder. I shiver at the contact, lost in the bliss he's creating with his hands. Mmmm, his hands.
"Sing my favorite song tonight?" He asks softly against my ear.
"You keep doing that and I'll sing for you all night long." The words come out all breathy and completely unlike me. But I don't care. I am lost in his magical hands.
He groans at my words. "You really shouldn't say stuff like that to me, Katmiss," He leans his head against mine, his lips grazing the top of my ear. Fuck. "I might just take you up on that. I'm not like Finn, I…" His words are interrupted by a glass being slammed down on the bar next to us. I jump at the intrusion, startled out of my haze.
"You ready, Catnip?" He glances sideways at Peeta.
"Mellark" he states by way of greeting.
"Hawthorne," Peeta returns in the same deep, monotone voice men use when staking their territory. I was no ones territory. My mood shifts immediately. His hands squeeze my shoulder one last time, "I'll be ready when you are," he says leaning over my shoulder to retrieve his beer.
I can feel Gales eyes on me as I watch Peeta cross the bar to where Finn stands surrounded by a group of girls.
"What's up with you two?" he bites out. I slowly turn my head toward him, my eyebrows raised.
"Nothing…not that it's any of your business."
"Didn't look like nothing to me," he dips his head, fiddling with the black leather cuff that encircles his wrist, " looked pretty cozy."
"Back off, Gale," I hiss as I shove my way by him and to the stage. My relaxed mood blown to bits.
The crowd is good tonight. Everyone seems to be enjoying the set. I'm in the middle of my second song when my eyes find Petta leaning against the far wall, his arms crossed over his chest, legs crossed at the ankles. His head is down as he listens to the haunting lyrics of Gales newest song falling from my lips.
Your eyes light the fire catching within me
My soul on fire
Light me up
Light me up
His eyes find mine and I can't look away. I feel like I'm being drawn into him as the music crescendo's behind me.
Something is changing inside so I can't see
My soul on fire
Light me up
Light me up
Catching fire. Burning for you. Burn for me.
My soul on fire
Light me up
Light me up
I see his eyes tear away from mine as his hand jumps to his pocket and pulls his phone out. His eyebrows knit together as his hand goes to his ear to drown out the drone of the crowd and wail of the guitar. He glances back at me as he heads for the door, his hand pushing at his hair.
Something is wrong.
When I pull my focus back to the band I notice Gale staring at me as he strums his guitar. A deep frown on his face.
The band plays another song without me after Catching Fire. I'm about to walk back on stage when the entrance door finally swings open revealing a visibly paled Peeta. His eyes are glassy with emotion and his hair looks like his fingers were raked through it a hundred times. I know this is a nervous habit of his and I am instantly concerned. He winds his way through the crowd to me with Finn following close behind.
"What happened?" I ask, laying a hand on this forearm, pulling him closer to me. Finn moves to the other side of him effectively blocking out the crowd and providing a meager form of privacy for the three of us.
"I need to go," he chokes out as his sad eyes lift to mine and I can't help but swallow the dread I find creeping up my throat.
"What happened," I repeat. He runs his shaking hands through his hair again before they scrub his face. I reach up to take his hand in mine, "Peeta…" he's scaring me. I've never seen this usually jovial man so quiet andat a loss of words.
"My parents…accident…" his voice cracks as he tries to stifle a sob.
I inhale sharply, "OK, I'll get my things." I hug him tightly, my arms circling his neck before moving to tell Gale I have to go, there's an emergency and I'll explain later. His frown deepens even further but he nods his head.
We are moving between the cars in the parking lot toward Peeta's jeep when he bends over at his waist resting his hands on his knees, taking deep breaths to collect himself. It seems like he's breaking apart right in front of me. I swing my messenger bag to my other shoulder and rest my hand on his back. "What can I do, Peeta?" I question. He stands back up and takes my hand, pressing it to his lips. "You're doing it, Katniss."
The ride back to the house is quiet. I'm not at all sure what to say in these situations. I just continue to hold his hand as I drive; I was not going to allow him to drive after that kind of news. He just stares out the window, deep in thought, every once and awhile bringing our joined hands to his face as if breathing us in. I find the gesture endearing if not a little worrisome.
As he fumbles with his keys at the front door I take his arm in my hand and turn him to me. My hand palms his cheek, " Do you want me to come with you? You're exhausted and it's a long drive. I can drive. Be there with you." I lay my hand on his chest. He nods and pulls me into him, resting his cheek on the top of my head.