Sorry for the wait on this. Basically, I suck. I know a couple of you were really looking forward to the ending and I truly hope you're not disappointed.

And, uh, there are spoilers for The Big Lebowski. So if that's as important to you as it is to a couple characters here, please consider yourself forewarned.

Also, more notes at the end. Thanks!

Her mouth feels like it's stuffed with foul-tasting cotton, and her arm's beginning to tingle from the weight of her head resting on it, but she can't move, can't get up and go to the bathroom and brush her teeth and shower like a normally functioning person would. All she can do is lie in bed and listen to 'N Sync's "I Drive Myself Crazy" and the rest of the songs from Prim's CD. It's sufficient punishment.

The night before, when it all fell apart, Prim came to her room with a chocolate bar and "mixed tape" to get her through the breakup. "A lot of oldies but goodies," she told her as the music started to play.

It hasn't stopped playing since, and Katniss doesn't even want to eat the chocolate.



"It's after 2! Aren't you gonna get out of bed?" Prim's standing at the door, regarding her pitifully.

"Not today." She's given herself the weekend to fall apart, and then she'll be back at the dreaded office bright and early Monday morning.

"Katniss…" Prim trails off and Katniss closes her eyes to try to go back to sleep.

She makes it through work, and after surviving another miserable day of her miserable life with the miserable Snow and Co., she rewards herself with a nap. She can't even bother to remove her stockings before she crawls under the covers. It's a warm mid-May day, but she doesn't mind the heat.

At least I went to work, she tells herself. That's more than her mother ever managed, and it's a small comfort that helps deflects Prim's pointed looks and not-so-subtle hints.

Her phone rings and she halfheartedly grabs for it, pausing when she sees Gale's name on the screen. She hesitates again before answering it. "Hello?"

"What the hell did you do?"

Now Gale's said that sentence to her about a thousand times over the years. It was usually said with utter disbelief, like when she kneed Darius in the balls during a frustrating game of pickup basketball, or general exasperation, like when she scratched his car all up when he was teaching her to parallel park, or adoring amusement, like when she slipped on a patch of ice on the way to school and nearly knocked herself out in the process.

But this is not said with disbelief or exasperation or amusement. Katniss knows Gale very well, and she knows his low, clipped tone is wrought with anger. Gale's mad at her. And Gale's never been mad at her. He wasn't mad at her when she hurt his teammate, or his bumper, or his own tailbone on that day she pulled him down on the ice, too. He wasn't mad then, but he's sure as hell mad now.

"I-I don't…I-"

"You know you broke his heart, right? He's a fucking mess."

Self-preservation kicks in immediately and she's suddenly mad at him. How dare he? As if he has any idea what happened. She's about to say as much to him when she finally hears what he said. "You've seen him?" she asks. Suddenly she's desperate for every detail: the where and the when, a description of his appearance, maybe even a transcript of their entire conversation. That's not too much to ask for.

"Yeah. He wasn't answering any of my calls so I stopped by his place on my way home. He's completely wrecked. So is his apartment."

She worries her bottom lip. This is what she wanted for him, though- a clean break that would heal nicely. "And he told you? That we broke up?"

"He didn't tell me much of anything." He still sounds so annoyed with her, and damn, it hurts. Isn't he supposed to be her best friend? Where's the concern for her?

He picked Peeta, she realizes. She's heard about this happening before, the division among mutual friends following a breakup. But Gale was hers. Anything else was unthinkable. The idea that she could lose him, that they all wouldn't still be friends…

Once, a few years ago, Peeta and Gale got into it while playing some touch football with a group of guys. Peeta had possession of the ball, but instead of a simple two-hand touch to end the run, Gale tackled him with all he had. The ensuing push led to a punch and then it was a full-out brawl. Gale was a lot bigger but Peeta was stronger, and it resulted in a frustrating dead-lock that even the other teens grew bored with after a while.

As they fought pathetically on the ground, hurling obscenities and accusations at each other, Katniss realized the anger was rooted in more than a football foul. She didn't know who really started it, or why, but the fear that their friendships were ending was nearly overwhelming. It's a feeling that's resurfacing now.

She rubs at her temple, flustered. She won't really lose Gale. She knowsthat deep down. Even Gale and Peeta patched things up after a couple days, and that fight had come to blows.

But as she tries to calm her fears over Gale, she still can't bear to think about her loss of Peeta's friendship, or the total loss of Peeta from her life. That's something she didn't really consider before the breakup and now she can't. She just can't.

She doesn't know what to say to Gale so she doesn't say anything. She's not ready to offer up any details of the breakup to anyone other than Prim, and heaven knows she's already regretting that decision.

"I made the Dean's List," he finally says after a long, uncomfortable silence. He doesn't give her a chance to congratulate him. "Ma's having a celebratory dinner Saturday night, and you better be there."

"Will he…Peeta be there, too?" she asks.

"Yeah. So you've got five days to fix this." He hangs up before she has a chance to reply and she falls face-forward on the bed, sighing loudly.

She takes a deep breath and dials his number. She has no idea what she's actually going to say to him, but they have to talk sooner or later.

Her heart's racing as it rings. But it just rings and rings and then goes to voicemail, which is full.

There are, like, a million reasons why they shouldn't be together. But when she tries to think of some examples, just a few of those million, all that comes up is a gnawing feeling of regret.

Doing the long distance thing is so much harder than she ever expected, she reminds herself. And Peeta also comes from a completely different background than hers.

And, well, there's the indisputable fact that they're on two utterly different paths in life. Peeta's smart and likable and he'll be a great success, and Katniss isn't and won't be. It's as simple as that.

Anything else doesn't matter, she realizes. This would have happened anyway. At least she got to end things first.

He's still not answering his phone.

Everything about life is so damn complicated. There should be a handbook out there to help guide everyone through some of the tougher times.

She tries to mentally catalogue all of the advice she's ever heard, whether it was from family, friends or some dumb column in the same magazine as those arbitrary number of sex tips. She knows she's supposed to have a career of some sort. It should be something that she loves and that she's good at, yet it has to be something that's stable and pays well and has a higher-than-average national job growth rate. But Katniss is so lost there she can't bear to think about it for too long.

Love might be even more confusing. Apparently long distance will never workout, so don't bother. And no one ends up with their first love, either. Nope, that's never happened.

So you have to date an acceptable number of guys before finding the right one. But the number can't be too small or you're settling, and the number can't be too big or you're a slut. You should also be a certain age before falling in love; not too young, because then you don't know what love is, and not too old because then you're a spinster.

You also shouldn't meet for the first time in a bar. Or online. Or at work.

And you should seamlessly straddle the fine line of being supportive but not losing yourself. The relationship has to always be well-adjusted. You should be comfortable but it should still be exciting. You should have things in common to sustain the relationship, but enough differences to encourage growth.

Ugh, it's all a mess. She's never doing this again, that's for sure.

It's Thursday and she still hasn't talked to him. She really doesn't want to see him for the first time at the Hawthornes' but she also doesn't want to reach out too far. The more often she calls, the likelier it is he'll answer.

Prim is looking sheepish when she comes to Katniss's room after work. Katniss eyes her suspiciously, but she doesn't say anything. She owes Prim, after all; her little sister has gone to great lengths to keep their mother out of Katniss's hair, and for that she will always be grateful.

Prim whistles quietly to herself as she makes her way to her sister's bed, and her fingers are locked together behind her back in a telltale display of guilt.

"What'd you do?" Katniss asks as she stops the CD player, cutting off JC mid-note.

"Now don't be mad."

"What did you do?"

Prim bites her bottom lip nervously before finally meeting Katniss's eyes. "I went to see Peeta today."

At this rate it seems like everyone else will have seen or talked to Peeta before she does. Just like it was with Gale, her first reaction is to screech, "Tell me everything." But she has to play it cool in front of her little sister. "Oh? How is he?"

Prim looks away. "He's seeing someone else, Katniss."

She always heard people saying that bad news felt like a punch in the gut, but she never believed it to be like an actual physical blow. But that's exactly what this feels. It's suddenly very hard to breathe. So she doesn't. After a sharp inhale, which she's still holding, Prim continues.

"And…and Katniss, they're engaged."

What? She sits on the edge of her bed, shaking her head in complete disbelief. Nothing makes any sense. It's barely been a week since they broke up!

Prim nods solemnly. "And she's pregnant. With twins."

Katniss finally lifts her head to glare at her sister, and the look is powerful enough to make Prim actually take a step back, her hands raised defensively. "How do you think he is, Kat? He looks so sad and lost. Like Mr. Heavensbee's three-legged puppy. You remember him? That was awful."

"Prim, I swear to god, if you don't get out of here-"

"You should just get back together, okay? Because I'm really starting to worry about you. You're sleeping all the time, and it's…it's like it was with mom." Her voice breaks at that, and there it is, Katniss's worst fear realized. "And I don't know what to do! Why's everyone always making everything harder than it has to be?" She wipes at her eyes, and Katniss can't bear to look at her anymore.

"Getting back with Peeta isn't going to magically fix everything," Katniss admits softly. "I don't know what's wrong with me. I don't know what I'm doing." She can feel her throat constricting as she tries to fight back tears. "I'm so tired, Prim." She lies back on her mattress and stares at the ceiling as Prim makes her way toward her to climb into the bed and wrap her arm around her.

Prim sighs, and her warm breath tickles the back of Katniss's neck. "I'm sorry for upsetting you. I just thought…if you realized how much you still wanted to be with Peeta, you could just go to him and then everything would be okay again." She gently runs her hand down Katniss's braid, a calming gesture they both learned from their mother, and hugs her tighter. "I just want you to be all right."

Katniss sniffles, but tries to compose herself, if only for her sister's sake. She just wants to be all right, too. "What did you say to Peeta?" she asks after a few minutes.

"Not a lot. I didn't want to make him uncomfortable. But I had to drop off his breakup mix."

"Oh god, you made him a CD, too?" Katniss asks, laughing a little. She can feel Prim's shrug.

"Well, yeah," she says. "His has a lot more Backstreet Boys, though."

At the mention of music, Katniss reaches for the remote to her player and, once again, the sound of 'N Sync fills the room. "You really miss him, huh?" Prim asks, and Katniss nods.

"It's too bad Peeta's hair doesn't look like Justin Timberlake's old style," she adds knowingly. "He'd probably be easier to forget if he had those yellow, crunchy curls."

Again, Katniss laughs despite herself. She lovingly pats Prim's arm, which is still wrapped around her. "I'm glad I've got you, Little Duck."

"You always will."

Gale's dinner is only a day away, so Katniss decides to suck it up and go to the bakery after work. But she spends an inordinate amount of time fixing her hair and makeup in the ladies' room before she leaves, and since she's pretty awful with both hair and makeup, she doesn't get to Mellark's until after 7, which is their closing time.

The 'closed' sign is already up in the window when she gets there. She's about to spin around and run away (already planning her, "Sorry, Gale, I tried! I really tried!" speech) when she sees movement behind the counter. She curses herself for not taking a little bit longer at work. Now she has to at least knock.

The woman who comes to the door, Cecilia, recognizes her immediately, and she smiles warmly as she unlocks and then ushers Katniss inside. She tells her that Peeta's in the back, and nothing about her disposition indicates that she knows they're no longer together.

She stops at the swinging door that leads into the kitchen, and her palms are already unnaturally sweaty. She takes a quick peek into the small square window, but she can't see him, so she braces herself and then pushes forward.

He's around the corner, his back to her as he leans over one of the large stainless steel tables they use to decorate cakes on, and he doesn't seem to know she's there. She moves around it to stand on the other side, quietly watching him as he pipes icing on the dozens of mini cupcakes before him.

Deep in concentration, he still doesn't acknowledge her presence. It's funny to see him working so intently, especially knowing how much he despises decorating those trendy, tiny cakes. He once said that it was like trying to paint a mural on a Post-it Note.

"Hi," she finally says, and he jumps a little at the sound of her voice. He looks up and just stares at her, and she fully takes in his appearance. He looks awful, with dark circles under his eyes, which even his glasses can't hide (and it's always a bad sign when he doesn't bother with his contacts). He probably hasn't shaved since that fateful night, so his face is covered in strong stubble, and his hair's a mess of greasy curls flattened on top of his head. And he kind of does look like Tripod. Now she feels bad for being so determined to look nice when they finally came face-to-face.

"Hey," he says unfeelingly, and immediately goes back to work. She hesitates as he proceeds to arrange tiny sugar flowers all over the mound of cream-colored icing.

"Uh, I thought maybe we should talk," she tells him, but all of his attention is on the decorating. She tries again. "I didn't think we should see each other for the first time again at Gale's."

When he looks up at her, she's taken back by his scowl. "Yeah, well, I'm not feeling so great, so I probably won't make it tomorrow. Sorry you wasted a trip." He pushes away from the table and moves past her, untying his apron along the way, and she spins on her heel to follow him.

"Hey, wait," she calls out, and when he turns to face her, she freezes.

"What?" he asks expectantly, but she doesn't know what to say and he just looks so annoyed. "What are you here for, Katniss?" he presses. "What do you want?"

She has absolutely no idea. "I don't know," she admits.

This isn't going at all how she thought it would. Granted she didn't spend a lot of time planning out any particular scenarios, but she didn't expect his anger. She was prepared for tears, and maybe even hoping for his compassion and comfort when he saw how much she was hurting, too. But she didn't see this coming.

She's suddenly very aware that this is probably a Defining Moment, and how she proceeds is going to have a profound impact on the rest of her life. She can leave, right now, and things will continue as they are, and one day Peeta might even be a stranger to her. Or she can cowboy up and at least offer an explanation for what happened, which is something she couldn't manage when she just needed to end it.

He huffs in frustration, his apron bundled roughly in his hands. He's about to turn away again when she repeats her plea for him to wait. "Can we go somewhere and talk?"

"About what?" he asks.

"Us," she says, shrugging helplessly. "About what happened."

She can see the internal debate, but he finally relents. "Fine."

She assumes he'll lead her up to his apartment, but he just goes back to the decorating table and starts on the last batch of cupcakes. "So talk," he directs, and Katniss is starting to get pissed off. She knows he's hurting, but this isn't her Peeta and she can't take much more of it.

Where does she start, anyway? She's too embarrassed to tell him about Temple, and too confused about everything else to start sorting through it all.

"I'm sorry I hurt you," she offers. It's lame, but it's an opening. But he just laughs bitterly, and that does nothing to curb her rising temper.

"Jesus, Peeta, I'm trying here!"

He's shaking his head, but the cruel smile is falling from his face. "All right. Then tell me the truth, okay? What did I do?"

"What do you mean?" she asks.

"Was it something in particular? Or…or was it just everything adding up?" He continues to shake his head, ignoring her confusion. "And why couldn't you have talked to me about it first? Maybe I could have done something. Maybe I could have changed something." It's like the anger is draining out of him and all that's left is a sad shell. His shoulders slump visibly as he looks down at the table. She's starting to think she prefers a pissed Peeta to this.

"I know I can be a lot," he admits softly. "Intense, you know. With my feelings, and what I tell you."

She could rush to placate him, but the truth is, he's not wrong. But still, she mostly liked that. She wasn't scared by how much he loved her; no, it was the idea that he could ever stop that worried her.

And he would have, eventually, she reminds herself now.

He's holding one of those small sugar flowers in his hand, pretending to study it intently, brushing a tiny petal with his large thumb, but doing it so gently that the delicate confection somehow does not break.

"It's just…no one's ever really loved me before. And then to have it, and it to be you?" He nearly chokes on that last word, and then he finally pulls his eyes away from the flower long enough to meet hers, and then they dart away again.

Oh god, why can't he just go back to being an asshole? This is undoubtedly herPeeta, wearing his heart right there on his sleeve, but she's not emotionally equipped to deal with this right now.

"I applied to Temple, and I didn't get in." She kind of blurts it out, even surprising herself, but yes, she'll take admitting this over the alternative.

"What?" he asks with a furrowed brow as he sets the flower back on the table.

"I, uh, applied to Temple. I was thinking about going for a Bachelor's, and I wanted to surprise you." She grabs the hem of her suit jacket and watches as she twists it between her fingers, too ashamed to look at him. "But I didn't get in. And I felt…awful." After a beat, she dares to glance at him, and he opens his mouth to speak, but she raises her hand to stop him. Suddenly she needs to finish saying this. She has to get it all out there.

"I just couldn't do it again. I couldn't handle another summer of hanging out with everyone, hearing about all of their plans for the future. I don't even have any plans for the future! Then having to face you going back to Philadelphia, and in July this time. It's all too much.

"So believe me when I say, again, that it isn't you, okay?"

He sighs as he moves away from the table to stand in front of her. "Why didn't you tell me this before?"

"Because it's embarrassing!"

"I know. I mean, I know. Did you forget that I didn't get into any of my top picks?"

She rolls her eyes. "Peeta, you didn't get into Harvard and Yale. It's not exactly the same thing."

"I didn't get into the schools my brothers got into, Katniss. In my house, that's all that matters."

They're both quiet for a few minutes, neither sure what to say next. Finally Peeta asks, "You applied there so you could be with me?"

"Yes and no," she answers honestly. "It was for me, too."

He nods in understanding. "Yeah. I get that." They're silent again, neither sure what to do next.

"Are you really not going to Gale's dinner?" she finally asks.

"I don't know," he shrugs. "I probably will. He's just going to track me down if I don't."

She smiles at that, because she knows it's true. "So I'll see you tomorrow?"

"See you tomorrow," he returns, the barest hint of a smile, too.

It's sprinkling lightly when she leaves the bakery, and she inhales the scent of the rain against cement. She doesn't feel better or worse. Nothing was really resolved. But at least it's a start.

Hazelle Hawthorne could never afford to shower Gale with gifts for all of his academic achievements, of which there are many. But she would cook up a storm of his favorite foods to reward him, and eventually Katniss and Peeta were expected to join the family for these dinners. Now it's a tradition.

Tonight's menu consists of extra crispy fried chicken, the creamiest macaroni and cheese in the history of the world, and a giant…garden salad?

"What's that?" Gale asks, horrified, when she sets the bowl of greens on the table.

"You're starting to get a little pudgy, Pumpkin. A salad would do you good."

His mouth drops open in shock, affording Katniss a disgusting view of half-chewed mac and cheese. Then he grunts and goes back to shoveling food in his mouth, and that's the end of that discussion.

Next to her, Peeta's uncharacteristically quiet. He still brought the dessert, and he's looking much more like his old self, so she's taking it all as a good sign.

With the weather really warming up and summer looming ahead, Rory, Vick and Posy eat quickly and then rush back outside to play. Prim had been invited to the dinner, too, but declined because of plans with Rue. So now it's just Katniss, Peeta, Gale and Hazelle sitting around the old dining room table, and Katniss already knows what's next.

"So Gale got straight A's this semester, and Katniss graduated!" She's cutting the cake, and she hands a plate to Katniss. "What about you Peeta? How are things at Penn?"

"Things are good," he offers with a polite smile. "There's not really much to report."

Katniss thinks it's nice that Hazelle always wants to acknowledge their accomplishments, too, but this isn't really a discussion she feels like having now. When everyone has their slice of chocolate cake and Hazelle looks over at her again, she dreads any further talk.

"Peeta got a 24 on the DAT," Katniss says, intercepting the attention. Besides, Peeta deserves the spotlight for a moment anyway. He certainly never gets enough recognition from his own family. "That's in the 98th percentile." She totally looked that up as soon as he told her his score, and even though she was drowning in her own misery, she really was proud of him.

Both Hazelle and Gale turn their attention to him, grinning. Gale says, "That's awesome, man!" and Peeta sinks down in his seat a little.

"Thanks," he tells them. "But it's nothing. It's actually embarrassing how much I studied for it. I didn't even come back during breaks." He stares down at his food and quietly adds, "I probably should have just come home."

Later, when Peeta and Katniss both stand to clear the table, Hazelle tries to shoo them away as she always does. But Gale intercepts this time, and Katniss doesn't miss the look he gives Hazelle when he leads her away, insisting that they 'earn their keep.'

"I wash, you dry?" Peeta offers. Katniss nods her agreement and stands next to him at the sink.

They work together in an uncomfortable silence for a while, and then she just can't take it anymore. She has to say something.

"It really is great…your score." She wants to tell him again that she's proud of him, but she's pretty sure she gave up that right already. But still, who doesn't like to hear that? So she says it when she's carefully placing the silverware in the drying rack and her eyes don't have to meet his.

"Thanks," he says softly. Then he looks over at her and offers the most genuine smile she's seen on him since that night last week when he picked her up. "I'm proud of you, too." Okay, so she doesn't like to hear it. He sighs, annoyed with her scoffing. "I don't know why you don't give yourself more credit."

"It's not a big deal," she shrugs.

"It is," he insists.

She falls quiet. It's not. A big deal is attending an Ivy League college, like Peeta. Or studying abroad in England, like Madge. Or working your way from barely graduating high school to going for a Doctor of Engineering degree, like Gale.

"It's Temple's loss, Katniss," he adds. "Really."

Peeta sees her differently. It's a side-effect of a longtime crush. But the day will inevitably come when those rose-colored glasses are lifted and he realizes that there's not anything special about Katniss Everdeen.

He hands her another dish and then resubmerges his hands in the soapy water. He's trying to look busy, like he's intently concentrating on the task, but she knows everything that happened between them is still weighing heavily on him.

Ugh, he should be enjoying his summer and the payoff for his hard work, not moping over her.

They're quite for a while, and when the last pan is dried, he grips the edge of the countertop. "I think we both need to work on some things." She nods her agreement, though she's not exactly sure what it is he needs to fix about himself.

"Sorry if I've been a jerk to you the last couple days."

"You weren't so bad."

They walk into the living room together, and he stands awkwardly at the front door. "I should get going. Cakes to ice, and all that." He congratulates Gale and thanks Hazelle, and gives Katniss a small smile and wave goodbye as he heads out.

"You okay?" Gale asks her after Peeta leaves.

"Yeah," she manages, thankful for the concern but really not ready to talk about anything yet. He's usually so good about not pushing, so she freezes up when he drapes his arm around her and whispers, "Katniss, tell me the truth."

He takes a deep breath. "Am I getting fat?"

Maybe she will get cats, she decides. Maybe she'll get a lot of them, and she'll make them wear bonnets and name them after Downton Abbey characters. It's the closest thing she has to a plan.

She's tried to distract herself with work and planning an outing for Prim's upcoming Sweet Sixteen, but she misses him. She misses him so much. She misses laughing with him, and kissing him, and curling into his side while they watch television together on hot summer nights.

She was hurting so bad, though, and it was like an inflamed wound where all she could concentrate on was the pain. But instead of treating the site, she lopped off her entire appendage. Now it feels like she's missing her right arm. Just how did she come to rely so heavily on him when he was 300 miles away for the better part of the year?

Ah, and she misses sex, too. At first, she thought it was perfectly acceptable to fondly reminisce about their times together, because they were just getting so good at it! So she'd take care of things while remembering the way Peeta moved above her, his arm supporting her back as she held her weight with her shoulders, arching her entire body. It always felt amazing, and that was definitely her favorite position.

But now she doesn't want to think about it because it invariably leads to thoughts about her future of celibacy and, worse yet, worry over Peeta and day he starts to move on. Try as she might, she can't help but imagine a time when Peeta will be rolling off of his new, gorgeous lover. And as they both light up cigarettes, she'll exclaim, "That was incredible!" and he'll say, "Thanks. I learned a lot with my first girlfriend. Funny, I can't remember her name."

Katniss groans as she covers her eyes with her hands, digging the heels into her sockets hard enough to leave spots in their wake. She really has to get a grip. Or a kitten.

Gale has a new girlfriend. Johanna has a new boyfriend. Prim has a learner's permit and Katniss's car keys.

There's still Madge, who is unenthusiastically preparing to leave for London at the end of the summer. By no means is her friend a braggart, but Katniss is still too deep in her own insecurities to be around her much.

That leaves Peeta, but it's not like Katniss has the nerve to call him or anything.

She passes time by taking online career aptitude tests, which are always a bust because they want you to pay for the real results. One night, after carefully filling out over a hundred questions, she hits the 'view results' button only to be taken to a page asking for her credit card information. She nearly throws her laptop out the window.

As she's gritting her teeth, her phone pings with a text alert. Her breath hitches when she sees it's from Peeta.

'The Room' is on Comedy Central now. Uncut.

She types out and then erases about twenty different replies before settling on, Thanks. I could use a moving cinematic experience.

Her thumbs are still tingling from the exertion when he messages her back.

Ha, me too.

So does she text him again? Does that even merit a reply? She could ask how he is, though she's mildly terrified to do so.

He messages her back. So how are you?

Good! But she deletes that.

Awful. She deletes that, too.

Okay, I guess. You?

It's a few minutes before her phone buzzes. Same. Can I call you?

She reads that message over and over and then, finally, sends back, okay! Then she freaks out when she realizes that she used an exclamation point. Why oh why did she use an exclamation point?

When her phone rings, she feels like her stomach is falling to her feet. Why is she so nervous? It's Peeta.

Oh god, it's Peeta!


"Hi. I figured you were tired of texting and I just wondered if you wanted to watch it with me? You know, over the phone?"

"Oh. Okay, yeah."

It's strange at first, and they don't say much, just laugh at the best worst parts. But something about watching the most terrible acting ever caught on film seems to ease any tension, and she finds herself asking him about the bakery and his last summer of shadowing, and he asks her about work and Prim.

"So…talk to you later?" she asks after the movie ends, and he tells her, "Of course," and she really loves the way he says it.

She's spent so much time in bed since the breakup, but that night is the first time since it happened that she has a restful sleep.

Sae's Strikes is a dumpy old bowling alley just outside the city, but its patrons commonly refer to it as Greasy Sae's for both the overly oily lanes and delicious snack bar offerings.

But Katniss, Gale and Peeta like it for the dirt cheap specials (all you can bowl for five bucks) and general ambience associated with poor lighting and the stench of stale beer.

Gale always uses their bowling nights as a way to introduce his friends to the current woman in his life. The same girl rarely makes a repeat appearance, and Katniss and Peeta like that because it means Gale's partner usually doesn't have a chance to get good. Since the three are terrible bowlers, they need all the help they can get.

Tonight, they're meeting Gale's newest girl, the one Katniss has barely heard anything about. When Gale texted her with the invite, Katniss took it as an excuse to call Peeta and ask what he knew about the newest lady love. It stung to realize he seemed to know quite a bit, including that Gale seems pretty crazy about her.

Peeta's truck is already in the parking lot when she pulls in, and she finds herself feeling nervous immediately. Aside from a few texts and the two phone calls, they haven't interacted since the dinner at Gale's. And as she enters the building, she can't help but think that if she and Peeta were still together, she would have rode with him and he would have opened the door for her and got her shoes and helped her track down the two bowling balls she always uses.

She can't find them now. She searches all the racks on the back wall and then starts the arduous process of checking the ball returns at each lane. She tries out others on the way, but they're either too heavy or don't fit her fingers. Besides, she wants the pretty blue swirly one and her lucky green one. She once bowled an impressive 87 with it.


She spins around to find Peeta smiling at her, the lucky green one in his left hand, and pretty blue swirly one in his right. "I got those balls you like." As soon as the words leave his mouth, his smile falls and then he drops his head dramatically, shamed.

"Thanks," she grins, taking them from him. "For the balls and, you know, being the first to say something awkward."

He's about to say something else when Gale appears, clapping his hands to get their attention. "All right, Bristel's running late at work so she won't be here for a while. Let's get a game in now so the Hawthorne ass-kicking can commence."

Peeta and Katniss share a look, because while they both admittedly suck, Gale really sucks.

Katniss is first up, and she knocks down three pins on the first ball, and three more on the second. "More than half," Gale whistles while writing down her score. "Nice start."

Peeta goes next, and as always, takes an obnoxiously long time positioning his body and setting up his shot. Katniss's eyes linger a little too long on his…form, while he does so. There's something mesmerizing about the way his grey Penn tee clings to his arms and shoulders and then just sort of hangs around his narrow hips. She gets a peek of his olive cotton belt when he bends forward, but his shirt doesn't ride up enough to reveal any skin.

Stupid belt, she thinks. She knows that belt. She's unbuckled that belt about a hundred times.

"Today, Mellark!" Gale yells, and that breaks her out of her reverie. But only for a second, because when he actually releases the ball, she does get a tiny flash of his bare back and that sets her off again long enough to miss his shots and Gale's.

"Katniss? Earth to Katniss?" Gale waves his hand in front of her, and she pushes it away, annoyed. She hits the gutter both times on her turn.

When they're on the sixth frame and Peeta's up again, she takes the time to ask Gale about his new girlfriend. She doesn't really know anything but her name, and she started picturing Girl Gale when she learned that he seemed to really like her.

"She's getting her PhD in biomedical engineering," he says proudly, and Katniss plasters on a semi-convincing smile in return. Great, another future doctor to bowl with. Just lovely.

"Dammit, Gale!" Peeta yells as he tries to find his ball in the packed return rack. Gale blames the ball for every poor frame and then immediately goes to find a new one, so they accumulate quickly. "You've got too many balls!"

"Impressive, isn't it?"

"Put some back!"

He does it begrudgingly, and Katniss watches as Peeta gets a spare. When Gale returns, he mentions that Bristel is also a little older.

"A little?" Peeta snorts as he takes a seat next to Katniss. "She's 29!"

Katniss's eyes widen. "She's 29?"

"I needed someone a little more mature after spending so much time with you children," Gale calls back from the fault line.

He gets the gutter, and then knocks down two pins. When he comes back to sit down as Katniss is readying her turn, she hears him tell Peeta that there's nothing like an experienced older woman. "Man, some of the stuff she's said she wants to do to me I've had to look up on Urban Dictionary." Katniss grits her teeth before releasing the ball, and all she gets is one damn pin. She glares at Gale while Peeta's taking his turn, but he feigns innocence.

"Maybe you can set him up with one of her friends from the AARP," she mutters to him.

He just smirks back at her and says, "You're looking a little green there, Catnip." That shuts her up immediately.

Before they finish the final frame, a pretty brunette joins their group and wraps her arms around Gale. He absolutely beams in her presence, and again Katniss feels hurt that she knows so little about someone who obviously makes him so happy.

"Guys, this is Bristel. Bristel, this is Peeta and Katniss."

They both greet her politely and she smiles, repeating their names as she takes turns shaking their hands. Katniss can tell by the overly enthusiastic expression and the sweat on her palm that she's nervous.

"So Gale says you're a grad student at Pitt?" Peeta asks, moving to sit with her and chat. Katniss knows he'll calm her down.

They all bowl a game together, but Katniss finds her mind wandering every time it's not her turn. She's glad the tension is thawing between her and Peeta, but she doesn't feel the relief she assumed she would. She doesn't understand how to go from what they had back to just friends. Ugh, that term alone. Just friends. As important as her friendships are to her, it's not the same. With Peeta, she had the comfortableness, the fun, the trust. But she also had this sense of stability and intimacy that she never expected but really came to crave.

Nope, she thinks, subtly shaking her head. She can't trade practicality for romance. What's done is done and she has to focus on herself now.

Gale nudges her with his elbow, indicating that she's up next, so she walks to the ball return for the pretty blue swirly one. Peeta passes her on the way and smiles at her again. It immediately rattles her. Maybe that's his strategic bowling move.

She throws the ball down the lane without a care and then walks away. "Woo!" she hears Gale call out, and she looks up to find that he, Peeta and Bristel are clapping for her. She turns around to see that she got a strike.

She makes her way back to the gang who are all huddled around a nearby table. Peeta's grinning now. "The elusive strike! Congratulations!" he says.

"Thanks." He's standing so close to her, and it kind of drives her crazy that she no longer has the girlfriend privilege to just reach out and touch him whenever she wants. Her eyes linger on his arm, on the fair skin not covered by his short-sleeved shirt. She remembers how hard his muscles are, how her own hand looked so small when it was wrapped around his bicep, which it often was whenever he was on top of her, moving inside of her. Ah, that was always her favorite position.

She finds herself absently reaching for him, feels her fingertip gliding down from the inside of his elbow to his wrist. He's watching her do it, and when she lifts her head and her eyes meet his, she sees confusion there. That's when she realizes what she's done, and she immediately brushes her hand back and forth as if she's clearing dust from his forearm.

"Hey Katniss!" Bristel calls out, unknowingly saving her. "Want to sit out the next game and get something to eat?"

"Yes," she says, spinning away from Peeta without a second glance.

Bristel tells her that she's been dying to try some of Sae's legendary food, and Katniss offhandedly mentions that the chili's good. Her face is still hot with embarrassment.

"I think I want to try one of those deep fried Oreos," she says, and then cups her hand to her mouth to yell for Gale. "Gale? Do you want me to get you some deep fried Oreos?"

His shoulders slump dejectedly and he sadly shakes his head. Bristel just shrugs and moves to the counter to order.

They sit down while they're waiting for the food, and Bristel begins chatting animatedly. Katniss tries to be polite for Gale's sake and so she asks about her studies, and Bristel surprises her by saying that it's her second semester back after a four year break. "I wasn't sure what I wanted to do after getting my Masters, so I took some time off to work."

"You're sure now?" Katniss asks curiously.

"I guess I'm as sure as someone like me will ever get," she smiles.

Bristel's pretty easy to talk to, and she's already engaged her more than any other girl Gale's ever brought to bowling night. Katniss normally isn't one for chit-chat, but she's not really hating it now.

"So, I don't know if Gale told you, but I'm sort of an astrology geek." She leans in, whispering, "I've pegged Peeta as a Pisces. Is that right?"

Katniss laughs a little. Yeah, this is definitely not Girl Gale. "His birthday's on March 19th."

"Ah, so he's on the cusp! Interesting!" She taps her chin thoughtfully. "You though…I can't quite figure you out."

"Taurus," Katniss admits before Bristel has a chance to venture a guess. Not that Katniss really believes in any of this stuff.

"Taurus! Yeah, okay! I can definitely see you as a Taurus."

Katniss isn't sure what else to say, so she falls silent. But Bristel is still chirping away happily. "I read palms, too," she admits. "Mind if I read yours?"

Ah, what the hell? she thinks, and she holds out her arm. Bristel takes Katniss's hand in both of hers and turns it over to read her palm. She traces her finger along the lines and mounts, her lips pursed in thought.

"You're very loyal," she begins. "Family means the world to you. And while you only have a few close friends, the people you choose to let into your life are just as important as the ones born into it. There's nothing you wouldn't do for someone you love.

"You're strong, too. So strong. Stronger than you even know."

Katniss swallows thickly. "You can tell all that just from my hand?"

Bristel's eyes lift to meet hers, and then they dart over toward Gale, who's picking out yet another ball from a different lane's return rack. "Well, no," she admits, patting Katniss's hand before releasing it.

Peeta's now joined Gale and is obviously chiding him for his annoying habit. Both of the girls watch them as they argue playfully. "Just look at them," Bristel says. "It's like Fred Flinststone and Barney Rubble at the Bedrock Bowling Alley."

Katniss snorts, because damn, they really do look like Fred and Barney together. Their laughter must catch the guys' attention because soon they're walking toward them, still arguing along the way.

"I'm officially implementing a Delay of Game rule," Peeta announces when they reach the table.

"Bullshit," Gale says adamantly. "We don't play by any rules with bowling."

"Smokey, this is not 'Nam. This is bowling. There are rules," Peeta says, and Bristel's brows furrow in confusion.

"The Big Lebowski," Katniss tells her, to clarify. "Expect them to quote it a lot. Gale will likely be reciting Donny's eulogy from the end before the night is over."

"Ahh!" Bristel yells, covering her ears. "Spoiler alert!"

"Damn, Catnip! We were gonna watch that tonight!"

Katniss slinks down in her seat, surprised by their reaction, while Peeta watches on in amusement. "Yeah, Katniss," he says.

After they've bowled all they can bowl, they return the disgusting bowling shoes for their own and then meet up at the exit to say their goodbyes.

"We're gonna take off," Gale says. "Still probably watch the movie." He looks at Katniss pointedly. "Though it won't have the same emotional impact now."

"It was so great meeting you guys," Bristel says, and then she hugs each of them, somewhat stunning Katniss. They all wave to each other as the new couple leaves the building, and then Katniss turns to Peeta awkwardly, not sure where to go from here.

"Can I walk you to your car?" he offers, and she nods.

It's extremely humid out for a June night, but Katniss doesn't really mind the stifling heat that hits them as soon as they leave the cool air conditioning. As they walk quietly to her old sedan, she tries to not think about all of the times in the last two summers when they left together after a night like this.

"So…Bristel seems nice," she says to break the silence.

"Yeah, definitely."

"I feel kinda bad that I ruined the movie for them."

Peeta laughs. "I wouldn't worry too much about it," he assures her. "They were probably never going to make it through the movie anyway." At her look of confusion, Peeta shrugs. "Gale likes to brag."

"Oh," she says, getting it. "Ew." After what feels like an eternal silence, she finally gestures to her car door. "I should go."

His head bobs in agreement and he reaches out to squeeze her arm. "Drive safe."

He walks away with an unusual amount of hustle, and she immediately seeks refuge in her car. Safely ensconced inside, she exhales slowly. And then proceeds to beat her head against the steering wheel.

She can't handle it for another second. If she doesn't do something about this soon, she's going to go crazy.

So she takes off early from work so she can see him, but she's a bundle of nerves once she's standing outside his door. She takes a second to compose herself and then knocks loudly.

"Come in."

She greets him as Mr. Abernathy, and he scowls at her. "Didn't you graduate? Didn't I get rid of you?"

"Well, yeah," she says. "But…I could use some advisement?"

He blows out a puff of air. "And I am an advisor. Go ahead, sit down."

She does, and then launches into an explanation for her appearance. "I didn't get into the only college I applied to, and now I'm not sure what to do." She shakes her head. "I don't know what to do. I don't know what I want to do."

He leans forward, his dark eyes piercing hers. "You mean to tell me you're, what, 19-years-old and you haven't figured out exactly what you want to do with your life yet?" He barks in laughter. "Well, you're finished. No one can help you! Go on, get out!"

She rolls her eyes at the obvious sarcasm. "I'm serious. I feel stuck. And everyone else I know isn't stuck and that makes it even worse. And…I'm 20."

He holds up a black Swingline stapler. "First off, if everyone else you know ends up doing exactly what they say they want to do, come back here and I'll eat this paperweight." He slams it down on his desk. "Secondly? I told you so."

Her jaw locks in aggravation as she stands, and she chastises herself for the wasted trip. "Great. Thanks for that. Really." But at the door, she spins around to face him again, incensed. "You know, when someone's already at their lowest, it's really not necessary to try and knock them down further. You're here to help your students. To help them!"

"You're no longer my student."

Damn, he has her there. She stands awkwardly at the entrance to his office for a minute before he takes pity on her. "All right, sweetheart. What can I help you with?"

She fumbles for the folder in her bag, a week's worth of research and meetings with HR. She'd realized a while ago that Temple was a pipe dream and there was no way she would have been able to afford the tuition plus all the living costs, even with some financial aid and students loans that would have haunted her forever. But she recently found out that Capitol did tuition reimbursements and she's been trying to parlay that into some sort of plan for herself.

Haymitch, as he insists she call him, looks over the papers. "You'd have to take a lot of business courses for them. You okay with that?"

"Sure," she says, shrugging. "As long as they're paying for it." She takes the papers from him to flip to the deadline schedule. "But I've only got a month to find a college that will accept me into one of the programs."

He folds his hands together as he leans back in his chair, swiveling slightly as he narrows his eyes in concentration. "You're smart." He says it as if it's something he's just now remembering, and Katniss's eyes widen a little at the statement. No one's ever called her smart before. Well, at least not anyone who didn't have to say it.

"I got a buddy over at Point Park. It's a good school, lotta flexibility. He can probably get some stuff together for you if you're interested."

She nods enthusiastically. This is something. This is a plan.

"Thank you," she says genuinely, taking the contact information from him. She's trying not to get ahead of herself, but this is the best she's felt in months. "I'll call him tomorrow!"

"You'll call him Monday!" he corrects quickly. "Tomorrow's Dart Day at the Pollack club and he's my partner. Don't bug him until after the weekend." She agrees.

"And sweetheart?" he calls when she's at the door, and she turns around.

"Just…take things one day at a time. Sometimes that's all you can do, you know? You'll be all right."

She repeats her thanks, and she actually smiles at him before she leaves.

She should just call him, really. A simple, "Hey, Peeta! What's up?" That's all. That's nothing!

It's not that she wants to get back together with him. Well, she does, but she knows it's pretty crummy to break things off when she's at her worst and then expect to reconcile as soon as she's feeling better. She doesn't want to hurt him, but she does miss him. And there's also a certain anniversary date just around the corner and she kind of wants to spend it with him, even if it's at the movies or something.

She squeezes her eyes shut and hits 'send' before she can think about it anymore.

He answers on the third ring. "Hey."

"Hello. Uh, how are you?"

"Not bad. Tired. It was a long day at work. You?"

"I'm all right. I was, um, wondering if maybe you'd like to hang out this weekend?" Has her voice always been this high and squeaky? Ew.


Well that's not exactly the response she was hoping for.

"I mean, I would. Like to. But I already have plans."

"Oh," she echoes. "Hot date?" She winces as soon as she says it and vows to put Prim in charge of all of her future human interactions.

Besides, it's not like she still has any claim over him. She doesn't own Peeta Mellark.

(Yes, I do, she thinks. He's mine, dammit.)

He laughs a little. "If you consider a camping trip with my older brother a hot date. Which I do. So yeah."

"Camping? You're going camping?"

"Scary thought, huh? But yeah, it'll be nice to get away for a little while."

"Yeah," she says, understanding. "Well, maybe we can hang out when you get back?"

"Definitely," he agrees. She's about to say goodbye when he adds, "Actually, we're not leaving until Saturday afternoon. We could get lunch together first. I mean, if you want."

Oh, she does.

Lunch is nice. It's easy to talk to Peeta. And he always hangs on her every word, as if she's saying the most important thing in the world.

But she doesn't tell him about Point Park until they're walking back to the bakery together, and when she does, he's ecstatic for her. His enthusiasm is kind of contagious, and for the first time, she lets herself get excited about it, too.

"I have to stay on full-time at work, so I can't take too many credits at once, but they're covering all the tuition."

"That's awesome."

"And Chaff, he's the one Haymitch introduced me to, he said that there's this two-week long conference at Cleveland State this August for business students, and he wants me to go. I'll be staying in a dorm there and everything." She sounds like a little kid yammering on the way she is, but it's hard to care at the moment.

He grins. "It sounds like things are really falling into place."

"Well, I don't know, I guess. I get to take classes for free, so that's nice."

"It's a start, right?"

"Yeah," she says, grinning now, too. "It's a start."

They stop at his truck parked outside, and it appears that his brother is already loading camping gear into the bed.

"I should help him get everything together," Peeta says, motioning to it. She hears a sweet, mumbled, "Hi, Katniss," and turns to see Martin shuffling toward the truck, a heavy sleeping bag tucked under each arm. She figured that Peeta would be camping with Rye. Rye's the most athletic one, after all. Martin's nice, but kind of clumsy and chubby, and it doesn't exactly ease any of her worries about Peeta spending a week in the woods.

"I'm gonna get going," she says, pulling something from her pocket. "But I wanted to give this to you first." She hands him a compass that used to belong to her father. "If you get lost, just keep going north. Cause, uh, then you'll end up in Canada, I guess. And Canada's nice."

"Thank you," he says, examining it.

"And watch out for snakes. And don't eat any berries."

"I'll be careful, Katniss," he promises. They both go in for a hug at the same time, and he says he'll call her when he gets back.

She didn't think he meant right when he got back, but he must have, because when he calls her the next weekend, he's just getting to his apartment.

Not that Katniss minds, though. Not at all. The past week was somehow the longest of all the ones they've been apart.

"Do you want to come over? Watch a movie?"

"Sure," she agrees coolly. Or at least she hopes it came out that way.

"Great. But I have to take a good two-hour shower before you get here." He starts laughing nervously and Katniss isn't sure why. "Ah, just because I'm so dirty. Wait, I mean, because I was in the woods for a week. That's…that's how I'm dirty. I'm just going to shower, is all. I'm not going to do anything else, in the shower. Just shower. I'm not-"

"You can stop talking, Peeta."

He exhales, and it crackles over the phone. "Thanks. I think I must have gotten too much fresh mountain air."

"How about six?"


"How about I come over at six o'clock?" She enunciates carefully this time.

"Oh, okay. That's good. See you then." And he hangs up.

He got a new lamp. And the coffee table is pushed further away from the couch. Those are the only changes she can spot right away, but it's enough for her to realize that things are definitely different.

Try telling that to her body, though. Her stupid, traitorous body that seems to be expecting Peeta to turn off the television and pin her against the cushions, whatever they were watching forgotten. He did that all the time. She still doesn't know how The Shawshank Redemption ends.

"Uh, I didn't know what you wanted to watch," he says, settling on the opposite end of the sofa and scrolling through the programming guide. "Did you want to get something On Demand?"

"It doesn't matter." She curls her feet underneath her and tries to get cozy. "Is there anything on cable?"

"Hmm. Valkyrie's on HBO. That's the one where the German officers plot to assassinate Hitler. Spoiler alert: they don't."

"Forget that then," she laughs. "It's not going to have the same emotional impact now."

"The Avengers is on Showtime."

"We already saw it."

"You slept through most of it! And that was forever ago."

Forever ago. Ugh. "That's fine, then." So he turns that on and she leans her head against the back of the couch and tries to think pure thoughts.

It's not working. Halfway through the movie, she's so wet that it's physically uncomfortable. The whole apartment is flooded with too many memories, especially the damn sofa they're both sitting on right now. Oh, the best was when he would flip her on to her stomach, and she'd brace herself against the arm of the couch while he took her from behind. It was her favorite position.

She doesn't know if he's remembering all of these things, too. He has to be. Maybe that's why he's been holding a throw pillow over his lap for the last hour.

It's not that she lacks self-control. Katniss actually thinks she has a great deal of restraint, especially when it comes to her own wants and even needs. But if he wants it, and she obviously wants it, too, then what's the issue, really?

So she decides that she'll snatch the pillow from him, see what's up, and proceed as appropriate.

It takes another ten minutes for her to work up the nerve to turn around in her seat. He's focusing on the fight scene and doesn't seem to notice her watching him. So she leans forward and grabs the pillow and as soon as her hand meets the fabric, she regrets it. What the hell is she doing?

But…she wasn't wrong. They're both frozen, their eyes locked together. She could make a stupid joke about camping and pitching a tent and then find an excuse to leave early, or she could go for it.

She decides to go for it. She tosses the pillow on the floor in front of him and uses it to cushion her knees as she settles down. It's not easy, but she forces her eyes to stay with his, and as she runs her hands up his thighs, she asks, "Do you want me to take care of that for you?" And god that sounded so sexy in her head but it probably didn't come out that way at all.

Peeta licks his lips and nods, lifting up to help her tug his sweats down. She breaks contact only when her eyes instinctively close as soon as she takes him in her mouth, but she can still hear his moans and feel his fingers as they dig into her hair. He smells soapy and tastes salty and she forces her eyes open because it's not enough, she needs to see him, too.

Sometimes before, when they were like this, he would have his head thrown back and his mouth open. But not now. He's watching her like his life depends on it, so she tries to match his intensity, her mouth and her hand working together to finish him off.

He's usually much louder than he's being right now, she realizes, and she doesn't understand why he's not talking like he usually does. Maybe he's afraid to speak, as if it'll break the spell and they'll both push away from each when they realize what they're doing. She has the same fear. But it's still unnerving, his quietness. She's not used to that.

So she asks, "Is this okay?" because she needs to hear something and if it's not, well, it's better for them to stop now. He just nods enthusiastically. "Take off your shirt?" he asks hopefully, and she pulls back long enough to whip it over her head. "You too," she says, and so he does the same.

When her head dips back down again, he starts running his fingers through her hair from the scalp to the ends, and then he wraps the strands around his fist. This is how he lets her know he's close, using a gentle tug to warn her.

She takes him deeper into her mouth, aiming for the back of her throat. When she first started doing this, it was usually a disaster with lots of spitting and gagging. But she was determined, and eventually they figured it out together. Now when his body tenses, she knows exactly how to take him, and she feels slightly victorious when the silence breaks and he starts chanting her name.

"Come here," he says after, reaching for her. She stands up, wiping her mouth as he pulls her down onto his lap. His head immediately falls against her chest, his lips trailing kisses along her collarbone and at the swell of her breasts. She closes her eyes in bliss as she rests her chin against the top of his head, and his soft hair smells so clean and good and it's almost enough to make her feel content with just this and nothing more.

But as soon as he goes for the waistband of her shorts and underwear, she remembers how she's been feeling all night. She balances herself against his shoulders as he yanks them down her legs with next to no grace.

She straddles him again as soon as they're off, and then she starts to rock her hips against his stomach, so ridiculously turned on that it's almost enough to do it for her. As her fingernails dig into his shoulders, he whispers in her ear, "What do you want, Katniss?" It's a loaded question, really, but his voice is low and teasing.

"Just tell me," he urges. "I'll do whatever you want."

She kisses along his jaw and then moans softly against his ear as she continues to grind against him, so he takes the initiative and slips his hand between them, his fingers grazing her right there.

"That…that's good," she says, and really, it's enough. Just about anything is enough right now, she's so damn worked up.

"I really want inside of you tonight," he pants. "Is that okay?"

"Yes!" she says, probably a little too eagerly. She climbs off of him and lies back on the couch, her legs splayed out invitingly. He laughs as he climbs on top of her, and then he nuzzles his nose against her ear and admits, "I'm gonna need a few minutes."

"Oh. Right." Her hand is already back in his hair, happily playing with the curls. None of this is weird at all. Not even a little bit weird. How is that possible?

His chin rests on breastbone, and he looks up at her with this sweet puppy expression. His eyes are so blue it's ridiculous. "How ever will we pass the time?" he asks innocently, and she grins.

He kisses his way down her body, and on the television, Captain America and Thor are evacuating citizens or something. She's never going to make it through this movie.

She stretches out to press her palms against the armrest, and she clenches her entire body. He goes down on her throughout the climax of the movie, but dammit she's got other climaxes to worry about.

"Peeta?" she cries, her heels digging into the middle of his back. "Are you ready yet?"

He's on top of her and then inside of her in record time, and even in the middle of the lust-induced haze she realizes they're not using anything. It's not easy to think while he's thrusting, but she's pretty sure her last shot is good until the middle of July.

She kind of wanted him to carry her into the bedroom, like old times. But they're obviously not going to make it off the sofa.

"Katniss, I-" and he grits his teeth against the crook of her neck. "I…I can't last much longer."

"That's okay," she says. It's really not, but Peeta's got an impressive recovery time.

She knows he's close when he digs his fingers into her thigh, hitching her leg higher up his waist so he's deeper. It only last for a few seconds more after that, and then he grabs the back of the couch and rests his head against his arm.

"That was terrible," he says, and she scrambles to sit up, grabbing for the clothes strewn in front of her on the floor.

What was so terrible for him, she's not sure. She thinks he got a good deal out of it. "I should go," she says, and he bites his lip but he doesn't try to stop her.

When she pulls on her shirt, she realizes he never even took off her bra. And he didn't kiss her! Not once. Was this a quickie? Some sort of friends with benefits thing? She didn't sign up for that.

She can't believe he didn't kiss her.

She doesn't say anything as she slips on her shoes and rushes to the door, and he doesn't say anything, either.

Gale's cursing up a storm as he struggles with the mini fridge, and Katniss makes sure to stay out of his path as he makes his way to Peeta's pickup with it.

"Are you sure you don't want me to get it?" Peeta asks him. He's carrying a large box and he's got a duffle bag slung over his shoulder, but he's not breaking a sweat. Gale looks like he just got out of the shower and threw on his clothes without toweling off first.

"I got it," Gale growls, finally setting it in the bed of the truck. "Fuck! Why is that so heavy?"

"Just a standard mini fridge," Peeta says, shrugging.

"Yeah right. You probably ordered some special, rich boy lead-lined one," he says.

"Got it at Target, dude."

Gale waves him off and starts walking to his car across the street. "Don't die on your way to Philly."

"Thanks for helping me move, Gale!" Peeta calls out loudly. "You're a real pal!"

After Gale's car rounds the corner, Peeta opens up the refrigerator and removes at least ten heavy textbooks from the inside, winking at her as he does it.

"I should go, too," she says, suppressing a smile. They haven't talked about last night yet, and they probably won't. Whatever. Katniss will just sort out her feelings after he leaves. She hands him the messenger bag she carried down for him.

He takes it from her and carelessly tosses it in the truck, but when she moves to step off the curb, he grabs her arm, giving it a gentle squeeze. "Stay?" he asks. She tries not to roll her eyes. What's he want, a repeat performance? No thanks.

"Why didn't you kiss me last night?" she asks suddenly. It's been bothering her nonstop.

His eyes widen a little, and he pulls his hand away. "I wanted to. I mean, I would have. But…well, you know."

"What?" she presses.

"Uh, I made a fool of myself? And you were mad, and I get it. I'm sorry."

"I wasn't mad about that," she says. "I was upset because you said it was terrible."

He laughs incredulously. "No, I was terrible! It wasn't terrible. You definitelyweren't terrible."

"What are we even doing, Peeta?" she asks, folding her arms across her chest as she leans against the truck. "Was that a mistake?"

"No! God, that could never be a mistake." He looks away from her and rubs his forehead. "Do you think it was a mistake?"

"No," she admits carefully. "But what's changed? How are we any better off now than before?"

"I don't know what's changed, Katniss," he sighs. "But I know what hasn't, and that's how I feel about you."

They're both quiet, and it's somehow the loudest silence ever. "I love you so much, Katniss," Peeta finally says. "I know things aren't perfect. But it's never going to be perfect, right?"

"You said that we both had things we need to work on," she reminds him cautiously.

"Yeah, and we do. It's not like a camping trip with Martin fixed everything with my family and I'm perfectly adjusted now. I wish there was a quick fix for it, but there's not."

"I know," she says agreeably. "Taking some classes part-time isn't exactly solving all of my issues either."

"Right. But I was thinking, maybe we could work on things together?"

"Together?" she repeats. It's a nice thought (a great one, really) but she doesn't think anyone can fixher. It's something she has to do herself. It's probably something that's not even possible. It's not as if something is going to click and then everything else will fall into place for the rest of her life. No one's ever really fixed, she thinks. Life's mostly just a series of cuts and stitches, with some cuts deeper than others.

But god, she misses him. She wants to be with him. Just the idea of being able to work things out is thrilling, and she has to bite her lip to keep from smiling at the thought.

"It's going to be hard," she says, in fair warning.

He reaches out to run his hand down her loose braid. "It was never going to be easy."

She takes a step closer to him and he smiles.

"Can I kiss you now?" he asks.

"I don't know," she teases. "Can you?"

He grins as he tilts his head and leans in, the first touch of his lips to hers soft and gentle, then she wraps her arms around his shoulders and pushes up on the tip of her toes to press her mouth more firmly against his. She sighs, but it's only a breath caught in the back of her throat until the kiss deepens.

"Oh," she groans, sliding her hands around to his chest so she can play with the collar of his shirt. "You're leaving tomorrow morning." There's a cold reminder of how hard this will be.

"Yeah," he affirms, sadly.

"We wasted an entire summer, Peeta." Well, not technically. Peeta's summer session class starts July 2nd. But they wasted what precious little time they had together.

He rests his forehead against hers. "I have some good news, though."

"You don't have to go back until August?" she asks hopefully. "And this whole packing thing was an elaborate ruse to torture Gale?"

"No," he laughs softly. "I still have to leave for that class. But there's a reason for it." He wraps his arms around her waist and brings his mouth to her ear. "I'm graduating next May," he whispers.

Her eyes widen. "You're graduating early? An entire year early?" she grins. "Why didn't you say anything before?"

"I was afraid I'd mess it up," he shrugs. "I didn't want to say anything until I was sure."

"And you're sure now?"

He nods happily. "I'm also highly motivated. It's still going to be terrible, being apart, but all of my dental school applications will be out by September, and things will be so much easier after that," he promises. "I'll be able to come home for breaks, too."

Her smile falls a little. It's all the same old insecurities and concerns over the effect she has on him. "Hey," he says, reading her expression. "I'm doing it for me, too. For you, for me, and for us." He threads their fingers together and motions toward the bakery with their entwined hands. "C'mon, let's talk."

She can't stop the slow smile spreading across her face. "Just talk?"

"Ah, I guess I owe you a couple orgasms, too, huh?"

"So you're just counting last night?"

"Ouch," he laughs, pulling her into the building. "You wound me."

The next morning, when they're saying goodbye at her doorstep, neither of them can keep from smiling. Every time he starts to leave, he changes his mind and goes in for one more kiss. Finally she pushes him away, playfully admonishing his lack of self-control. "What am I going to do with you?" she sighs.

He grins as he grabs her again. "Anything you want."

The next time their lips break apart, they both know he really has to go this time.

"I love you," she tells him, and he repeats it back to her, his eyes too bright and happy for this early in the morning. He waves from his truck, and she watches him until the taillights disappear in the smog.

She slips inside and leans against the door as she works to smooth down her obvious sex hair, and then she sprints to her room, ignoring the amused look from Prim.

Professor Coin talked for six hours. Six hours. It was the worst.

And on her way back to the dorm, she broke a heel off one of her stupid "professional" pumps. It's also one of the hottest Augusts on record and she's pretty sure she's going to have to peel the suit jacket off herself. But it doesn't matter, because she has the rest of the night free and she's going to spend it in bed. In that tiny, uncomfortable bed.

It's not much cooler in her room, but at least they have an oscillating fan. She slows as she passes it, bogarting it all for a few seconds, and then plops down in her desk chair and reboots her computer.

She grabs for the package that was tucked between the shelf and a pile of papers, but it's not there. She reaches her hand further back, but all she feels is the cheap fiberboard of the desktop. Annoyed, she searches all over, moving books, her laptop, the pencil holder. She even checks the floor.

"Have you seen my bag of Skittles?" she asks her roommate, the quiet redhead in the corner who can't be bothered to pull her nose out of her book.

"No," she says simply from behind the cover of The Adoration of Jenna Fox.

"I had it right here on my desk."

"Never saw it."

Katniss grits her teeth in annoyance. She had an awful day and all she wants to do is kick back, relax, and taste the rainbow.

"Maybe you ate them already and forgot," the girl suggests some time later, and Katniss scowls.

"She steals! All the time! My food, my school supplies, my clothes."

"You know, kleptomania is classified as impulse control, but a lot of leading psychologists categorize it with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Has she shown any other signs of OCD?"

"I don't know," Katniss sighs into the phone. "But I do know that I'm definitely not cut out for a roommate."

Madge laughs softly. "Yeah, I kind of had the feeling you wouldn't be. I certainly wasn't. We're a lot alike."

"Yeah," Katniss agrees, smiling to herself. "You could have warned me, you know!"

"Nope. You had to experience it for yourself."

Now Katniss laughs because she knows that's true. "At least there's only a few more days of this thing left."

"Still on for dinner before I leave?" Madge asks.

"Definitely. How's the packing coming along?"

"Okay, I guess." She grows quiet over the line, and Katniss asks if she's all right.

"I'm scared," she admits. "I'll be staying in a flat with three other girls. What if they hate me?"

"Why would they hate you?"

"I don't know. Some people just do." Madge is usually pretty self-assured, so it's unnerving to hear her like this. "They think I'm stuck up."

"I get that, too," Katniss confesses. "It's just because we're quiet around most people. You're definitely not stuck up." It's not really comforting, but Katniss isn't very good with comforting anyway.

"You can call me any time you want," she offers, imagining how lonely Madge might feel in England at first. "I'm like a long-distance connoisseur at this point. There's lots of ways to stay in touch. Skype's good."


"And hey, maybe you'll meet Robert Pattinson!"

Finally Madge laughs. "Well, that isthe dream!"

It's a genius plan, really. She can visit Peeta in Philadelphia! It's not as if it's only now occurring to them, but it was never really feasible before with their schedules.

But she still has a couple days of vacation time left at work, even after using a significant amount of it for the conference at CSU. And Peeta's classes start a full week before hers do, and he's not really swamped with work yet after only a week of lecture. It's actually kind of perfect timing.

When she suggests it, he breaks out into a smile so wide it looks painful. "Seriously?" he asks, his chin resting on his folded arms as he looks into the webcam.

"If you want."

"Are you kidding? There's nothing I want more."

"If I take off that Friday, I can leave mid-morning and get there after your last class."

"And you'd stay Friday and Saturday night?"

"Sound okay?"

"Sounds perfect! I'll get us a hotel room."

"Can't I just stay in your dorm?" she asks. He's still got a single, and she really doesn't need for him to go all out.

"I thought you were over dorms?"

"Not if you're my roomie," she teases.

"Then it's a date."

He emails her the most detailed set of directions in history, and he lists all the rest stops and adds bullet points next to the ones he recommends with little notes like, This one has a Starbucks! Three exclamation points. Three!

He's so excited, but as the time nears, he starts to worry about her drive. Katniss isn't concerned about that, but she is starting to worry about the visit itself. Peeta has a whole other life there. What if she doesn't fit into it? What if it just drudges up some of the insecurities they're trying so hard to work through and get past?

"Don't forget to call me as soon as you get off the exit," he reminds her the morning she leaves.

"I won't," she promises.

"But don't call until you're parked at the gas station!"

"I'm hanging up now, Peeta," she warns as she gets into her car.

"Please be careful. I can't wait to see you."

"Me too," she smiles. "I love you. See you soon."

He repeats the words back to her exactly and they disconnect. Less than 30 seconds later, her phone buzzes with a text message alert.

This is just a friendly reminder to never text & drive!

She rolls her eyes and texts back, replying to this message, steering with my feet.

As the miles between them melt away, so does a lot of her anxieties. And they're replaced with excitement. She's going to see Peeta soon.

He must have sprinted to the parking lot after she called from the gas station. She spots him as she pulls in, and he opens her door for her before she has a chance to turn off the ignition.

"Hi!" he says, ducking into the car and hugging her. She should probably play it a little cool, but she thinks, Ah screw it and tightly wraps her arms around him as she grins from ear to ear.

He grabs her bags and her hand, and jabbers on endlessly as they walk to his residence hall, and that's probably good because it gives her less time to freak out about interacting with anyone else at Penn.

The building is massive. It almost looks like a skyscraper. He laughs when she says it, but it's seriously bigger than the dormitory she stayed in, and she thought that one was huge and intimidating. It's nice inside, too, with pool tables and couches.

They sign her in and then take an elevator to his floor. "The stairs are good on the days you can't make it to the gym," he says, and she just nods dumbly because they keep going up and up.

"It's Friday, so it should be pretty deserted," he tells her before the elevator opens. But it's not, because there's a rather large group of people hanging around one of the doors at the end of the hall.

"Great," Peeta mutters, and his grip on her hand tightens a little. One of the guys leaning against the wall straightens immediately. "There she is!" he yells, clapping his hands as he and the others make their way toward them.

The man leading the way is actually ridiculously pretty, with dimples and bright green eyes. She's sure he knows just how good-looking he is, too.

"Katniss Everdeen, as I live and breathe!" He takes one of her hands in both of his. "I can't believe you're real. I've had this long-running theory that you were actually some nameless Abercrombie model Peeta 'shopped into all those photos."

"Katniss, this is Finnick, the RA," Peeta says, glaring at him.

Finn sidesteps Peeta to slip his arm around Katniss's shoulders, ignoring Peeta's protests. "You have no idea how many people are just dying to meet you, Kat," he says. "Let's go to the lounge so we can allll get to know one another."

"Dammit, Finn, she just got here."

"Ah, shut it. You've had blue balls for this long, a couple more hours isn't going to kill you."

Katniss is swarmed around for the next 45 minutes, and she's having a really hard time keeping names straight. She's finishing up a cursory conversation with Thresh, a super nice guy who informs her that he shares a wall ("a really thin wall") with Peeta, when a tornado of long, frizzy blonde hair envelopes her in a hug.

"I feel like we already know each other," she says, squeezing tightly as Katniss awkwardly holds out her frozen arms. When she finally releases her, she smiles as if they're best friends. "But just to be formal, I'm Delly!"

Delly. She knew Peeta maintained a friendship with her after the project, but it's still weird to actually be talking to her. Delly chats happily for a few minutes while Katniss nods politely, until finally Peeta comes up behind her, snaking his arm around her waist and pulling her back to his chest. "Hey Del," he says kindly as Katniss relaxes against him. "We've got to get her settled in. She's had a long drive." He's tried to intercept with nearly every new introduction, but Delly seems to be the only one allowing it.

They sneak away to his room, which is actually a single apartment. It's tiny but nice, and he just hangs out while she peruses the space. Everything's neat and in order, but his desk looks like it could collapse under the weight from all his textbooks. She smiles at the set of framed photos lining the top shelf. They're all of her or them together, and she remembers taking each and every one of them.

In true Peeta form, there's also Post-it Notes sticking everywhere, little reminders he always writes to himself. She leans in to read one.

Dear Monday Morning Peeta,

Don't forget to send hard copies of the letters of recommendation to Dr. Aurelius this afternoon.


Thursday Peeta

She laughs and then looks over at the pile of applications next to his computer. She's careful to not touch anything, but she does reach for the slip of paper on the top.

"I thought you were set on Pitt," she says, reading over the list of dental schools, most with checkmarks, some without.

"I am," he says, walking toward her. "But the committee wants everyone to apply to at least six schools, so I'm doing it to get them off my back."

"Oh." She guesses it makes sense, and she looks over the list again. It looks like he's applied to Pitt, Penn, Temple (boo), Ohio State and Case Western. And Harvard. For some reason, that one bothers her. "Looks like you've been busy."

"Definitely." His lips find her throat, and he peppers kisses along her pulse point. "And I think I deserve a couple nights with my girlfriend for my efforts."

She smiles, her eyes closing in content as he continues his attention on her neck. "I think that can be arranged."

Later, when she's on top of him (definitely her favorite position!), all she can think about is Thresh's stupid thin wall and how loud Peeta's being. He's always loud, but it's one thing when they're in the apartment above the bakery and quite another here.

Katniss slides the fingers she had been so eagerly sucking out of her mouth and shushes him again. "They'll hear you!"

"No one, ahhhh, can hear anything." He thrusts up and she grinds down in response, and he's so deep and it feels so good and it's getting increasingly difficult to reprimand him for anything when she's starting to lose herself, too.

She begins to move faster and he calls out, "Fuck, Katniss, yeah. Just like that."

"God, Peeta, you're so…loud!" Then she hits a spot that makes her clench her thighs, and it's like it becomes impossible for him to keep quiet, so she hauls him up against her and wraps her legs around his back. A deep kiss keeps his mouth occupied, and when he breaks that, she pushes his head down to hold it against her breasts.

But it backfires majorly because she comes as soon as his mouth latches onto her nipple, and then she's the one calling out far too loudly.

"Well," Peeta laughs breathlessly a few minutes later. "They definitely heard that." She slaps at his back, but she's laughing, too.

It was hell leaving Peeta after such a great weekend. He showed her all over the campus and city, and she had a genuine Philly cheesesteak that was insanely good. He also took her up to the "roof" of his building, the Heyer Sky Lounge, and they spent a lot of time on the comfy couches, just staring out at the beautiful Philadelphia skyline.

But the best part was that she didn't feel out of place there. It's like Peeta's there, so she belongs there, too. She also got along great with all of his friends, even Delly. When she got home, she laughed to see a notification of a Facebook friend request from her.

It's nice, though. It makes her feel included.

Peeta was home for both fall break and his Pitt interview, but winter break is the one she's looking forward to the most because it's the longest and since they're both done with their semesters, the only thing they'll have to worry about is work.

The first night he's back, they agree to double with Gale and Bristel at the movies. Katniss is looking up the showtimes online to confirm the plans when Peeta says, "Hey, I've got something to show you."

She looks up to find him unzipping his jeans, and she shakes her head and turns back to the computer screen. "I've already seen that."

"No," he chuckles, sliding his pants down just past his hips. "This."

She glances up to see him pointing to a tattoo. A tattoo. Her mouth drops open in shock.

"I succumbed to peer pressure," he shrugs.

She reaches out to tentatively touch his skin. It's of a cluster of three-petaled katniss flowers intricately woven around their stalk. The ink starts right on his hipbone, and while the tattoo isn't huge, it's exquisitely detailed.

"Did it hurt?" she asks, because that seems to be what everyone says when they're shown a tattoo.

"It wasn't too bad."

She can't seem to stop tracing it with her fingertip, and a slow smile takes over her face. "You have a tattoo of a flower. I think you just effectively ruined yourself for all other women."

"You did that a long time ago," he says while caressing her cheek, and the statement sends her heart racing a little.

She hooks her fingers into his belt loops and pulls him closer so she can press gentle kisses along his hip and stomach, and then she looks up to watch him as she slowly slides the waistband down further. "Well, then let me ruin you some more."

Working 40+ hours a week while taking college classes is a little more daunting than Katniss expected, but she thinks a lot of that has to do with the fact that her business courses are so boring. So she's both excited and relieved when she signs up for a biology course for the next semester.

The first day of classes, she's scrolling through her text messages when Johanna unceremoniously plops down in the seat next to her. "What are you doing here?" she asks.

"What do you think? I'm being introduced to Botany."

"I thought you were taking the year off."

"Eh," she says with a wave of her hand. "Time off is overrated."

"So you came here," Katniss says, chuckling. "In the same class as me. At my school."

"I didn't realize you owned the whole damn university," she retorts, growing agitated. Katniss's lips are pursed together in amusement and it clearly annoys the hell out of her. "That's right, I'm here because of you. Maybe I'll even grow out my hair and wear it in a stupid braid all the time. Maybe I want to be you, Katniss Everdeen."

Katniss holds her hands up defensively, but she can't quite get rid of her smile. "I'm just saying, maybe you missed me."

Johanna rests her head on the desk and closes her eyes. "Shut up and take good notes."

Peeta calls her in the middle of January to tell her that he's going to Boston for an admissions interview at Harvard.

"But why?" She doesn't understand. He got his acceptance call from Pitt in early December and they were both ecstatic.

"Mostly because my parents want me to, but I don't know, I kind of want to see for myself if I can get in. I was already waitlisted again by them. It's like it's personal now."

"Do you want to go there instead?" she asks timidly.

"Oh god, no," he promises, rushing to placate her. "I just want to see if I can charm them into accepting me so I can finally reject them."

She believes him, she decides firmly after they hang up. He doesn't really want to go to Boston for dental school, it's just a matter of pride. Maybe she'd do the same thing with Temple if ever given the chance.

No, he definitely doesn't want to go to Harvard. And he definitely isn't settling for Pitt just because of her.


Peeta calls her in early March to tell her that he's been officially accepted into Harvard Dental.

"I mean, I was waitlisted forever. And I'm still probably low on their list of top choices, seeing how long it took to get that call. But I got in!"

"Yeah," she says, trying to muster up some enthusiasm for him. "Congratulations!"

"It felt so good to turn them down. We need to celebrate when I come home!"

"We will." It is a little consoling to know he'll be home next week for spring break. Seeing him and being with him always helps to chase away all these insecurities.

"Peeta?" she asks, nervously twisting a strand of hair around her finger. "Are you sure you don't want to go there instead?"

She can hear his soft sigh over the line. "I'm absolutely sure. I promise. Okay?"

She smiles to herself, content with his reply. "Okay."

He met his parents for dinner his first night home, but Katniss had to work late so she couldn't join them. She wasn't too heartbroken over it, either, to be honest.

But that was hours ago and he's still not back. She waited around while the staff closed down the bakery, and then she let herself into his apartment. Now she's flipping through the channels while periodically checking her phone and trying to not get too freaked out.

She hears him climbing the steps just before nine, and she stands to meet him at the door. "Where were you? I was starting to worry." She knows something's wrong because his eyes are red and his hair's sticking up like he's been running his hands through it nervously all night.

He hugs her, happy to see her for the first time in weeks, and softly inhales the scent of her shampoo as he rests his head on her shoulder. Considering how far he has to stoop to do that, it can't be comfortable, so she leads him over to the couch. "What happened?"

"I just got into it with them," he shrugs, taking a seat. But Katniss knows he's more upset than he's letting on.

"What about?"

"I told them I got into Harvard. And then I told them I wasn't going."


This is it, she thinks. It's all starting. Everything from before comes screaming back at her and she knows she has to let him go. It's going to be so hard. Can she even do it again? She has to at least try, she realizes. She loves him too much to not at least try, but her heart's already breaking at the thought of-

She stops the inner monologue and rush of conflicting feelings as soon as she sees the tear rolling down his cheek. "Peeta?"

He sniffles a little and wipes at his eye. "I just…I just wanted them to be proud of me." A few more tears fall now, and he tries to quickly brush them away, but she grabs his hand and wraps him in an embrace. He reciprocates immediately, his arms locking around her.

"She kept saying how stupid I was for passing up this opportunity," he tells her, his words muffled against her chest. "And he just sat there and didn't say anything."

"I'm sorry," she says, stroking his hair. "That's wrong. They're wrong. There are so many reasons to be proud of you, Peeta, and they're idiots for not seeing it."

She holds him tighter to try to ward off the silent sobs now wracking his body. "Sometimes I don't even know where you came from," she whispers, mostly to herself. He loves so much despite never having enough people loving him back in the same way. "I don't know where you came from but I'm so glad you're here."

It only takes a couple minutes for him to calm down, and then he pulls away from her and tries to smile. "Sorry."

"You don't have to apologize." She curls up next to him and rests her head against his arm. "And if it helps, I'm proud of you. I'm ridiculously proud of you." She really is.

Now he actually does smile. "Will you come to my graduation?"

"Of course!"

"They're not," he admits. "I told them not to bother. It's the same day as Yale's commencement, anyway. Rye can have them both."

She continues to run her fingers through his hair, hoping he can take at least some comfort from the gesture. "I wouldn't miss it for anything."

He calls the night of his birthday and she grins when she hears the loud music and boisterous laughter in the background.

"Finn does't waste any time, huh?"

"Nah, none of them did."

"So how drunk are you right now?"

"Not nearly drunk enough to be in this gross bar," he laughs. "But I've got a nice little buzz going."

"I really, really wish I could be there." His break ended four days before his 21st birthday and she hates that she's missing it.

"Me too, but hey, this is the last birthday we'll be apart. That's something."

"Yeah," she says happily. "That's definitely something."

"So. What are you wearing?"

"Um, I'm not going to have phone sex with you while you're sitting in some bar," she laughs.

"Ah, c'mon! Just a little tease."

"Nope. Not happening."

"I bet I can guess, anyway," he says cockily. "You just got home from work, so you took a shower."

Well, she always does that. "I did," she confesses. "But that's my routine. I'm not impressed."

He continues undeterred. "Um, you have a test tomorrow night, right? So you're probably getting ready to study. That means you took out your contacts and you've got your glasses on. And if you've put your glasses on, you probably aren't planning on going out again, so you're already in your pajamas. Am I right?"

"Don't you have some appletinis to drink?"

"So I'm right. Now I just have to figure out which pajamas you're wearing and I can officially set the mood."

"I don't know if you're being cute or creepy. I'm leaning towards creepy."

"I'm thinking it's that ratty old Penguins tee and flannel bottoms?"

"Nope," she declares proudly. "Game over. Happy Birthday."

"No, no. I get another guess because it's my birthday." She hears a mumbled voice in the background and then Peeta says, "Hold on a second, I gotta take this shot for Thom." She can hear the phone being jostled around and shortly after that, there's a chorus of cheers. "Okay, I'm back."

"You should go," she says reluctantly. "Enjoy this with your friends."

"Yeah," he agrees with a sigh. "I miss you though. I already miss you so much."

"Me too. Call me again tonight? Maybe I'll let you know what I'm wearing then."

"Really?" She can practically hear his smile.

"Why not? It's your birthday."

"Ah god, Katniss, I'm so far gone." His voice sounds a little distant and dreamy.

"Shots will do it," she chuckles, and he laughs too.

"Uh, that's not what I meant," he sighs happily. "I love you. I'll call you later."

Everyone seems to think Peeta's going to propose after his graduation.

Surprisingly enough, Madge starts in on it first when Katniss is ruminating on how she has no idea what to get Peeta for graduation because it's so difficult to buy gifts for him.

"Well, he probably already has your gift, so you better make it good," she teases.

"Why would he get me a gift when he's the one graduating?" she asks sincerely, but Madge only laughs. It's not really like her friend to joke about sex, but she figures that's what Madge is implying.

"Come on, Katniss! He's probably had a ring picked out since kindergarten!"

A ring?!

Prim's the absolute worst, though. She likes to leave catalogues all over Katniss's desk with dog-eared pages highlighting the ugliest bridesmaid dresses she's ever seen.

"Purple's really my color," Prim says. "But let me show you something in green."

Katniss sits stone-faced as Prim flips to another page. "Lovely, huh?"

She can't help the way her lip curls in disgust. "That's not green, it's neon!"

"Neons are so in right now!" She points to the different styles available. "The halter's nice, right?"

Katniss pushes the magazine away, shaking her head. "This is dumb, Prim." Then she actually catches a glimpse of the dress Prim was eyeing. "And that looks like something Julia Roberts wore in the first act of Pretty Woman!"

"God, Katniss!" Prim cries as she flounces out of the room dramatically. "You have no sense of style!"

But Gale? She never thought Gale would be in on it, too.

He calls her one Saturday afternoon and asks if she wants to go to the mall with him. It's an unusual request, but she has some free time and she could go for a smoothie.

As she's slurping down the last bits at the bottom of her cup, he nudges her toward Helzberg Diamonds. "Hey, uh, let's take a look."

She eyes him skeptically but follows, mostly out of curiosity. The salespeople are preoccupied with other customers so he browses the displays without being harassed.

"What are you looking for?" she asks him.

"Hypothetically speaking, if someone were to propose to you, what kind of ring would you like?"

Propose? All she can hear after that is the blood rushing in her ears. He's going on about princess cut versus round, solitare or three-stone, classic and canary, but she's not registering a word of it.

It's as if the walls are closing in on her and the smoothie she just drank is now a lead weight in her stomach. Did Peeta ask Gale to do this? Are they really picking out a ring?

Oh god, she can't breathe. She literally cannot breathe. This is not happening.

Get it together, Katniss! She has to get out of there, she knows that much. So she grabs her phone and pretends to be answering a call. "Prim! Hi, Prim! Sure, I'll be there! Yeah, right now!" She looks over at Gale and grins like a loon. Are her teeth chattering? It feels like her teeth are chattering. "You just hold tight and I'll be there soon!" She 'disconnects.'

"So that was Prim!" she tells him, and her voice is higher than a prepubescent boy's. She needs to take off before he says anything else about rings, or even before the sweat forming on her brow starts dripping into her eyes. "And she needs a ride! So I have to go. But we," she punches him in the arm. "We will talk soon. Bye!" And she rushes out as fast as her little legs will carry her.

So when her mother comes into her room a few weeks later as she's packing for the graduation trip to Philly, Katniss braces herself for the inevitable lecture. She really doesn't want to hear about how they're too young or how it's too soon. Mostly because she agrees, and she hates agreeing with her mother.

She's been trying to drop subtle hints to Peeta that marriage is something they're not ready for, but at the same time she doesn't want to hurt him. It's a very delicate process.

"Hey, did you know studies show that marriages are more likely to succeed if both partners are at least 25-years-old?" she told him earlier on the phone.

"Really? Huh."

"Yeah. And these are, like, scientific studies."

"You don't say."

"It's fascinating, really."

"Sounds it."

"So you did it," her mother says as she takes a seat on the edge of Katniss's bed.

Katniss doesn't bother looking up from her suitcase. "Did what?"

"Survived three years living mostly apart. That's pretty impressive, honey." She grabs one of the shirts and starts folding it herself, but Katniss takes it from her hands and shoves it into her bag.

"Are you excited to have Peeta back home?" she asks.

"Of course."

"It'll be much easier on the both of you."

Katniss doesn't respond, and finally her mother reaches out to still her hand, which has been fiddling with a zipper for minutes now. "Sweetie, I know you're still mad at me about a lot of stuff. And I understand that. But I just want you to know that I am so proud of you.

"I wish I was more like you," she continues. "I wish I had even an ounce of your strength. But what happened to me after your father left…you have to understand that it wasn't my choice. If I have a choice, I'll always choose you and Prim."

Katniss doesn't respond, so she sighs softly and then pats the hand she's touching. "I'll let you finish up."

"Mom?" she calls out to stop her from leaving. She takes a breath and tries to smile. "Do you want to help me pick out a dress to wear?"

Her mother happily agrees and comes to stand next to her to look at the options. "I was going to ask Prim, but she has terrible taste," Katniss says.

"She really does." And they both laugh.

She spent the weekend in Philadelphia, and it was wonderful. Martin attended the graduation ceremony, too, and they were both beaming with pride.

When they returned home, Peeta moved into an apartment in Oakland. Gale, newly engaged to Bristel (and Katniss felt like a fool when she put that together) again helped with the move.

He's still getting settled in, and she's spending a lot of time at his place because it's closer to school than her house. That comes in handy since she's decided to go for a Bachelor's in Biology. She still doesn't know exactly what she wants to do with it, but she knows she has plenty of time to figure that out.

So far the only proposal Peeta's made is Chinese for dinner.

"Sounds good," she says, kicking off her shoes. They've settled into a really nice routine, and she loves spending the nights with him.

After he's ordered their food, he sits next to her on the couch and grabs her feet. "Hey, there's something I wanted to ask you."

"Mmph?" she asks, her eyes drifting shut as he massages her heel.

"What do you think about making this official?"

She sits up immediately, her mouth dropping open. Oh no. Is this it? She looks around, and there aren't any candles or flowers or unicorns. Surely Peeta would arrange for unicorns.

"What do you mean?" she asks cautiously, and he just laughs.

"I mean just move in already!"

Living together? Like officially living together? She doesn't hate that.

"You want us to live together?" she asks, just to be sure. He nods.

"You want me to be here all the time? And for all of my stuff to be here?"


"You want me to eat dinner with you every night? And to help pay the rent?"

He looks like he's just considering that for the first time. "Hey, yeah! That'd be awesome, actually."

"You want to live together?" she asks, just one more time. She wonders if her smile matches Peeta's. It probably does.


She doesn't answer, just bites her lip as she considers all the possibilities.

"Did you know studies show that living together can be a great way to strengthen a relationship?" he asks. "Scientific studies."

She can't fight the grin overtaking her face, and she hurriedly crawls into his lap, her arms wrapping around his neck. "Oh my god, Peeta! We can be two broke college students, living together!"

He buries his face in her hair and hugs her. "Sounds great, huh?"

"And since you're cut off, I can finally help you out, too."

"I'm not cut off, I'm self-exiled!"

She ignores him in her excitement. "Oh this is great. I have so much to teach you. Peeta, I'm really great at being poor!"

Once she calms down enough to process it all, she finally and officially agrees with a beatific smile. "I thought you were going to propose," she can admit now, and she laughs to herself as she caresses his arm.

He hooks his finger under her chin to lift her head, and when his eyes meet hers, she knows, without a doubt, that he's in love with her.

"Spoiler alert," he says, his lips quirked up in an adorable smile. "I am going to propose one day."

She tries to match the intensity of his gaze, because, god, she really hopes he knows how much she loves him. That she loves him without a doubt, too.

"Spoiler alert: I'm going to say yes."

-The End

A/N: Many, many thanks to porchwood (a.k.a Mejhiren) for...everything.

I'm also back on tumblr because I just really MISS some of you and I also want to get to know some others better, too. You can find me at there annieoakley1. 3