a/n: Here it is, the last chapter. I hope you all will be satisfied with how things end. I just want to say that I've been absolutely floored by the response to this story. I'm thrilled you guys enjoyed this story so much. Thank you, thank you, thank you. It really means a lot to me that you took the time to read and review. I will miss writing for this story, but it had to end.
Merry Christmas y'all!
Hey you :) I'm in town this weekend, wanna hang out?
Peeta made a face at his phone as he read the text. Leah. She couldn't seem to take a hint. He'd turned her down the last few times she'd texted him with the same message—he was always busy with med school, anyway, but he just didn't have any interest in hooking up with her anymore. They had dated casually a year ago; with all his work and studying, he just hadn't had much time for anything more serious. And then she had moved away, and they had both mutually decided to end things. But she would reach out to him when she was in the area, and, for a while, that had been fun. A day or two here and there with her was all he really had the energy for.
But when it became a chore, he knew it was time to end those occasional rendezvous, too. He'd thought he'd made that perfectly clear to her, but either she was oblivious or she was just choosing to ignore what he'd said. So when she'd text him, he'd simply declined with an excuse about being busy. And he was, usually.
Running a hand through his hair, he sighed. Then he quickly typed out a response: Sorry, I've got to go to a wedding this weekend.
Which was actually true. Finnick and Annie were getting married, and Peeta was the best man. And as ecstatic as he was for his friend, he was kind of dreading it. Because Katniss was going to be there.
Katniss, who he had not seen in six years, not since that night in her apartment when he'd stormed out on her. It had not been easy avoiding her, what with his best friend dating her good friend, but he'd always managed to find a convenient excuse to beg out of any social gatherings where he knew she was going to be in attendance. This became a lot easier to do once he started med school as he was at the hospital most of the time. Finnick was understanding at first, but after a year he'd started harassing Peeta about always bailing.
"Look, I know it's weird, but she's not mad anymore," he'd say, or, "It was a long time ago; she's dating someone else now," or, worse, "She asks about you a lot, you know. I think she really wants to be your friend."
Peeta knew his friend was just trying to be helpful, but his reassurances just made Peeta feel horrible all over again. He'd avoided seeing her or being anywhere near her in the beginning because he'd been hurt and angry and humiliated. But then he was just embarrassed. Six years later, and he was still embarrassed.
He'd made an ass out of himself the last time he'd seen her, and on top of that, he'd been a complete asshole to her. Why she'd want to know about him or have anything to do with him after the way he'd treated her, he had no idea.
He'd tried to get over her, he really had. And for a while, he thought he had succeeded. After he'd finally gotten over being so damn hurt about their breakup, he'd opened himself up to the possibility of dating again. Which had been weird at first. He hadn't actively set out to start a new relationship, but when he'd met Olivia in one of his classes his senior year, they'd hit it off immediately. It was scary, dating again when his only experience up until that point had gone so horribly awry, but he'd been determined to not make the same mistakes he'd made with Katniss. He didn't have sex with Olivia for a month after they'd started dating. Olivia had been nice and almost as reserved as him, so there'd been no pressure.
When they'd finally started having sex, it had been nothing like it had been with Katniss. Olivia was shy and quiet in bed. He found himself having to initiate every aspect of their sex life. At first, he had liked that. It was nice not feeling like he was always behind, like he was always trying to play catch-up to someone more experienced than him. So, they had very vanilla, pleasant-enough sex—that was fine. He was okay with that.
Until he wasn't. Olivia didn't like to do a lot of things in the bedroom; she wasn't much for experimenting. She wasn't comfortable giving blowjobs and only did it on rare occasions, usually when she was drunk. He could have lived with that, really, but she didn't even like for him to go down on her. Which had been really crushing to him because he wanted to do it for her; he liked doing it. He tried to get her to open up, to put her at ease, to interest her in new experiences, but then she would get upset and accuse him of pushing her, so he finally gave up. They stuck it out for the duration of their senior year until Peeta realized it just wasn't going to work; they weren't sexually compatible. When he'd rather just jerk off instead of have sex with his girlfriend, he knew there was a problem.
And that sucked because he had loved her. Or thought he had, anyway. She had loved him, too. She was the first girl to say it to him, and that had been thrilling and validating, especially after what had happened with Katniss.
But once they had broken up, he began to wonder if he'd actually loved her or just loved that she'd loved him. He hadn't been nearly as upset about ending things with her as he'd been with Katniss, and he didn't know what to make of that.
His next relationship had gone infinitely better. He met Clove the first year of UNC's MD program; they had a lot of the same courses together. She was a little quiet and intense, but once he got to know her better, he found her to be really witty and sarcastic, and he liked that. They hadn't started dating immediately; they were just friends at first, but they gravitated toward each other more and more. And then eventually they started having sex.
And it was good. Great, even. She was very open sexually and up to doing pretty much anything and everything. There were things she'd introduced him to that he'd only gotten a taste of with Katniss, and while he found that she was clearly more experienced than him in certain areas, he realized he didn't mind so much anymore. It wasn't a big deal to him, not like it had been with Katniss. But he was also realizing that the variable the first time around had been him. He was the one who'd been too insecure and unsure of himself when he'd dated Katniss. That had been his first relationship, and he'd learned a lot about himself since then, a lot about relationships; he liked to think he had matured a lot while he was with Olivia and Clove. Dating them—not to mention getting into med school—had done wonders to his self-esteem and confidence.
He'd been a child then, really, even at 20 years old. But he felt like he'd really grown into his skin since then. His time in med school had been extremely formative.
He and Clove hadn't broken up so much as they had just...petered out. He didn't love her, he realized, had never once even thought it. And she hadn't loved him either. They'd just been having fun, relieving a little stress. And there were no hard feelings when things ended; they'd both just gotten busier their second year, saw each other less. He was still friends with her; he would see her around the hospital, in some of the same rotations, and they were completely amicable with each other. He had liked that, liked that he could look back on a relationship for once and not feel like he was picking at a scab.
Things were a lot more hectic his last two years of med school; he just didn't have time for relationships, though he continued dating casually. He'd gotten more comfortable around women, more comfortable with himself, so he'd stopped putting a lot of pressure on himself when it came to flirting and having sex. If there was anything he'd taken from his relationship with Katniss, it was how to be safe. He supposed he should thank her for the invaluable lessons, but, well, that wasn't exactly something he could work into a conversation with her. And if he still couldn't even think about her without the pangs of regret and guilt twisting his stomach, there was certainly no way he could talk to her—and definitely not about the sex they used to have.
He had no idea how he was going to deal with seeing her at the wedding. Tonight was the rehearsal dinner; Katniss was one of Annie's bridesmaids, so there was no way he could delay seeing her any longer. He was glad she wasn't the maid of honor, though; at least, he wouldn't be paired up with her for the ceremony. That would have been immensely uncomfortable and awkward and, yes, painful. For him, anyway. He wasn't hurt anymore, per se, but he ached for what could have been.
Many times in the past six years, though he had convinced himself he was over her, thoughts of her still crept in; he couldn't stop himself from wondering what could have happened between them if things had gone differently, if he had just been able to let go of his own shit and get out of his own head. He found himself constantly comparing the different women he dated to her; none of them ever lived up to the memory of her. He wasn't sure if his wistful recollections of Katniss were because he regretted how he'd acted or because he still loved her. It scared him to think it might be the latter. Often, he looked back at their time together just utterly confused. Had it been real, what he'd felt for her? It seemed so long ago now, yet the memory of how she'd made him feel, how strongly he'd felt for her, still felt so present. Was it real, or had his regrets in retrospect simply heightened how he remembered his feelings?
Peeta grunted in amusement suddenly, digging his thumb and index finger into his eyes; for not having seen or talked to her in six god damn years, he sure spent a lot of time thinking about her.
The vibration of his phone on the coffee table brought him back to himself, and he snatched it up to read Leah's response: Oh boo. :( Next time then!
Shit. He didn't want to be a complete dick to her, but she couldn't seem to take no for an answer.
Never mind, he would deal with her later; he really needed to get going now. He started to stuff his phone into his pocket when it vibrated again. Exasperated, he groaned loudly to himself, but when he looked at his phone again, he was relieved to see it was only Finnick.
You're coming to the rehearsal tonight, right?
He rolled his eyes. Finnick's hyperactive worries about his attendance weren't without basis; Peeta had missed the engagement party, which he'd felt terrible about, but he was so deep into his last year of med school, he just couldn't afford the time off—and, okay, he still hadn't been ready to face Katniss yet. Anyway, Peeta had designed the cake for the wedding himself; he definitely had to be there tomorrow for that.
Yes. I swear I will be there. About to leave right now. Calm your tits.
His friend's response was immediate. Good, just making sure you weren't planning to bail AGAIN. Annie will flay you alive if you miss this shit. She's scaring me right now. Remind me why I'm doing this again.
Peeta grinned to himself. Cuz you've already spent too much money to back out now. And something about loving her more than anything, I guess.
Ah yeah, I knew there was a reason. Ok, get your ass out here already.
Pocketing his phone, Peeta pushed up off his couch and grabbed his keys. He glanced around his apartment to make sure he wasn't forgetting anything, and then he ran his hand through his hair, trying to steel himself for what awaited him. He guessed he couldn't avoid her forever.
It was time.
Peeta was certain he hadn't felt this nervous in years; in fact, he was pretty sure only Katniss could make him this anxious. He felt 20 all over again walking into The Cotton Room, the venue where Finnick and Annie were holding their wedding. He took the elevator to the second floor and wandered into the event room. He licked his lips and tried to stop his eyes from automatically seeking her out. Finnick found him first, squinting at him from where he stood with Annie and the venue owners, Cinna and Portia.
"Peeta? Peeta Mellark? Is that you?" he called across the room, a little too loudly, and Peeta chuckled sheepishly, embarrassed by the number of eyes that suddenly darted toward him. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he strolled up to Finnick and Annie.
"It hasn't been that long," he griped good-naturedly, slapping his friend on the back when Finnick pulled him into a hug. When he looked at Annie next, she beamed at him and offered her cheek when he leaned in to kiss it.
"I don't know, Peeta—I hardly recognized you with this whole mountain man look you've got going on these days," she teased, and he scratched the beard he was sporting.
"Yeah, I thought I'd really class up your wedding photos."
Cinna interrupted in that moment, turning his sharp, curious gaze on Peeta. "Is this the best man?" he asked, and Peeta nodded, shaking Cinna then Portia's hands. "Okay, good, we should get this rehearsal started, and then we can move on to dinner."
"Just tell me what to do," Peeta responded easily, following Portia as she directed him to the other groomsmen. There were four altogether: him, Thresh, Thom and Finnick's high school friend, Evan. As the best man, Peeta was paired up with Annie's older sister, Molly, her matron of honor.
Peeta greeted the other groomsmen enthusiastically—he didn't get to see Thresh and Thom as much anymore, but they'd gotten to hang out last month for Finnick's bachelor party, after Peeta had graduated. As they talked and caught up, Peeta couldn't stop his eyes from drifting across the room, searching out the group of bridesmaids, searching for her face.
And there she was. She was laughing with Johanna and Madge, but, almost as if she could sense his stare, she lifted her gaze to his, and their eyes locked. His heart fluttered dangerously, the silver heat of her eyes like quicksand pulling him in. Oh, God, she was beautiful. Absolutely gorgeous. The images in his head, the sketches he'd drawn over the years in the vain attempts to rid her from his mind, did not do her justice. Her laughter died in her throat, then, and his stomach twisted as he wondered what was going through her mind in that moment, what she was thinking as she looked at him for the first time since college.
But then her mouth quirked into a smile, a soft, lopsided smile, and her eyes crinkled. He was suddenly so grateful for the beard, hoping it concealed the flush of his cheeks. Meekly, he smiled in return—or at least, he thought he did; his lips felt numb all of a sudden. He had to avert his eyes after that, focusing on Thresh as he spoke, replaying her smile over and over in his head.
Fuck, the effect she had on him, still, after all these years.
Portia called for everyone's attention so she could start the rehearsal. She and Cinna started to line them up at the back of the room. As they shuffled into place, Peeta saw Finnick's mother and touched her shoulder to get her attention. When she looked at him, her eyes lit up. "Peeta, it's good to see you again!" she exclaimed as she leaned up to hug him.
"It's good to see you, Ms. Odair. How are you doing?" he asked, accepting the motherly kiss on his cheek. She huffed, blowing some hair out of her face.
"Oh, I'm fine. I'm absolutely thrilled for Finn and Annie, but the drive up here took it out of me, so I'm ready to crash after this." She grabbed his shoulders, surveying him. "Jeez Louise, Peeta, you seem so much broader than I remember! I'm glad to see you're still taking care of yourself. Are you eating okay? I know how terrible hospital food can be..."
He laughed, embarrassed yet touched by her concern. "Yes, ma'am, I do all right. The food's not the best, but I still find some time to cook, at least."
"Good, good. Finn told me you designed the cake for their wedding."
Peeta nodded. "I did. They commissioned it through my parents' bakery, and I've been working on it specifically."
She smiled widely. "I can't wait to see it! I'm sure it's going to be incredible."
He shrugged modestly. "I guess we'll see," he said, giving her one last hug before he moved to his designated spot with Molly. They greeted each other amicably enough—he only knew her in passing, really. Johanna, who stood behind them next to Thresh, shot him an amused look.
"Hey, there, Mellark," she said, loud enough to attract Katniss' attention behind her; she looked straight at him then, her hand already curled around the arm of her ceremony partner, Thom, as they waited for the rehearsal to start. Peeta swallowed nervously, his eyes inadvertently catching hers before he glanced back at Johanna's face.
"Hey, Johanna," he said as casually as he could manage, then he looked back at Katniss, who was still watching him, one eyebrow just slightly arched. Just say it; spit it out, you dumbass, he chided himself. He licked his lips, forcing the words out before he could lose his nerve. "Hi."
Well, it was a start.
Katniss smiled again, just as softly as before. "Hey, Peeta," she returned, and his pulse throbbed in his neck at the way her tongue caressed his name. But then Cinna was snapping his fingers for their attention, and Peeta turned back around to watch Annie's parents and then Finnick's mother walk down the aisle toward the officiant.
After that point, it was nearly impossible not to look at her. He tried to pay attention to Cinna and Portia as they ran through the breakdown of the ceremony while they all stood in their specified places on either side of Finnick and Annie, but his gaze kept drifting over to her. Sometimes, they would make eye contact briefly before their eyes flitted away; other times, they would hold the other's gaze for a beat too long, and she would smile slightly at him, almost as if she was fighting it. Warmth would spread through him, and after the initial alarm at being caught staring, he finally started smiling back at her.
All his concerns about seeing her again seemed silly now. She didn't look at him with resentment or barely suppressed annoyance. He probably would have deserved it, honestly, for having been too cowardly to face her back then, but he was flabbergasted by her reactions to him. It was almost like she was...happy to see him. Hopeful, even.
Peeta shook that thought away immediately. Hopeful for what? That was a dumb thing to consider. For all he knew, she still had a boyfriend. She was being friendly, that was all. She wasn't mad at him anymore; she probably hadn't even thought about that night in years. It was stupid of him to think she thought of him with the same frequency that he thought about her.
At least, the wedding wouldn't be uncomfortable now. Maybe they could even be civil toward each other...like old friends. He could deal with that. That would be enough for him.
Peeta glanced back at her; she was absently pulling on her braid, and when she noticed him looking again, she grinned, a little wider this time.
Damn damn damn.
During the dinner that followed, they didn't interact, and he did his best to not stare at her so much, to actually engage himself in the conversations around him, with the friends he didn't get to see as much anymore.
Afterward, once dinner had been eaten and a few bottles of wine emptied, they all began to take their leave, ambling downstairs and lingering in the lobby. Peeta knew he had to get up early to make sure he finished the cake, for which he would have to drive to his parents' bakery, so he started to take his leave. He hugged Finnick and Annie again, shook hands with Thom and Thresh and waved farewell to those who remained, but then Katniss was at his side, standing so close to him when he turned, he nearly jumped back in shock. With a bemused smile, she touched his arm lightly, her fingers lighting on the bare skin of his forearm, right beneath the rolled-up sleeve of his dress shirt, and he had to actively ignore the electrical current that seemed to radiate out from her fingertips. "It was good seeing you again, Peeta," she said.
His mouth twitched into a shy, nervous smile. "Uh, yeah, good seeing you, too...Katniss."
He wasn't prepared for what she did next; her body moved closer to his as she lifted her arms to wrap around his neck, leaning into a hug. He was almost stunned into inaction, his whole body flushing with heat at the feel of her body pressed against his, her breath warm on his neck. Fighting the shock, he anchored his own arms around her waist and squeezed her close. His hands splayed against the curve of her back, and he inadvertently nuzzled his face in her hair before he realized what he was doing and forced himself to turn his head away.
But not before he got a whiff of that scent he knew so well, that still haunted him. Ebony and vanilla. It made his groin stir. Shit.
"Maybe we can catch up tomorrow at the wedding," she suggested in a quieter voice, already stepping back, pulling away from him too soon.
He had to shake the haze from his mind, retracting his arms from around her. He stuffed his hands in his pockets so he couldn't be tempted to reach out for her again. "Uh, yeah, sure." Absolutely, definitely, whatever you want. "That would be nice."
She smiled, her hand trailing down his arm again. "Great. See you tomorrow, Peeta." Nodding his goodbye, he walked away and told himself not to look back.
But he didn't stop thinking about her all night.
Peeta put the finishing touches on the wedding cake by early afternoon the next day, and he arranged for a couple of his father's employees to deliver it to the venue; he had to get going so he could get cleaned up and changed and then head over to the venue himself. The ceremony started at 6:30, but Finnick wanted his groomsmen to hang out with him beforehand.
Once Peeta was back home and showered, he slipped into his slacks, undershirt and dress shoes but saved the rest of his attire to put on at the venue. It was hot as hell outside, anyway. He drove the 10 minutes to the venue and quickly found the other guys inside. Finnick was in good spirits, if a little anxious, and they just shot the shit for the next couple of hours, lending their help with getting everything set up when needed.
When it was finally time to start, Peeta was relieved, though if it was more for Finnick's sake or for his own—because he was eager to see Katniss again—he didn't know. He tried not to think too much about it; that had always been his problem with her in the past: He let his mind run wild with unvoiced concerns and doubts.
He was better about that now, or at least tried to be. There was still that niggling voice in the back of his head that wondered if she had truly meant what she'd said the night before, about wanting to catch up. He tried not to get his hopes up, but...when he saw her in the hallway as they lined up, her hair swept up off her olive-skinned shoulders, left bare by her short, strapless forest-green dress, he couldn't help the way his stomach flipped. She caught his eye and smiled sweetly, waving her bouquet at him in greeting.
His breathing was shallow, and he had to force himself to take deeper breaths. But he smiled at her, anyway, holding her gaze for a long moment, longer than he would have in the past, longer than he rightfully should, he was sure, before he took Molly's arm and faced forward.
He was aware of her presence throughout the entire ceremony, but he kept his eyes on Finnick and Annie this time—for the most part. Their vows were sweet and funny, and it was rude not to pay attention to the couple of the hour, right? He managed to keep his eyes trained on them until the ceremony was over and they followed the bride and groom down the aisle. He couldn't help sneaking a glance at Katniss then, and she winked at him. He ducked his head but grinned widely at his shoes as they marched out of the hall and into a separate room to take photos while the staff set up for the reception.
They didn't speak before the reception, however; most of the attention was directed toward the newly married couple, congratulations and hugs abounding. Peeta had never seen Finnick so elated, and he and Annie couldn't stop touching each other. It was inspiring and oddly comforting to watch.
After about an hour, they filed back into the reception area and took their seats at a table in the center after they were introduced. Peeta was uncomfortable with all the attention just walking in and was already dreading the speech he was going to have to give later as the best man; he was relieved when a server came around and began filling their glasses with wine. He hated wine, but it would have to do; he'd have to hit the bar later once the servers started bringing out the food.
A local folk-rock band Finnick and Annie had hired for their wedding was playing some background music. From behind the rim of his wine glass, he surveyed the table. Finnick was to his left, and since Peeta didn't have a date of his own, Thom sat to his right with his boyfriend. Katniss was on the opposite end of the table, on Annie's side; she was surrounded by Molly's husband and Johanna.
Peeta's heart palpitated in his chest, hard, when he considered what that could mean, that she wasn't currently seeing anybody.
His attention was drawn back to the band when the lead singer began to speak. "Now it's time for Finnick and Annie's first dance as husband and wife. I believe their friend has agreed to sing their song, so if she could come up here now..."
Peeta looked around perplexed until he saw Katniss stand up from the table and make her way to the front where the band was set up. His eyes widened as she took her place in front of the microphone and flashed the singer a grateful smile when he lowered it for her. Her face was flushed red, and she looked nervous. She cleared her throat quietly, watching Finnick and Annie take to the middle of the floor.
"I must really love you guys if I agreed to sing in front of everybody," Katniss joked lightly, brushing strands of hair from her face and looking to the band behind her. The music started after a moment, the wail of the guitar reverberating around the large hall, and soon Katniss' voice joined in:
"Standing on a hill, staring at a mountain
Swallows dive and turn,
Trying to catch what we can't see
Sure ain't the first time, hope it ain't the last time
"When all the work is done
By the light of the setting sun
We see what we've become
Two of the lucky ones."
Everyone's eyes were on the married couple as they danced to the music, but Peeta's eyes were riveted to the woman behind the mic, a woman whose voice he'd never really heard before this moment, not like this.
"The wind is gonna blow,
The trees are gonna sway in kind
And, babe, I know you know,
They don't have to try
Sure ain't the first time, hope it ain't the last time
"When all the work is done
By the light of the setting sun
We see what we've become
Two of the lucky ones."
His heart was in his throat, the velvety, dulcet tones of her voice seeming to rub him raw. Katniss clung to the mic stand as she sang, swaying slightly in time with the rhythm. She kept her sights trained on Finnick and Annie as they rocked each other in a small circle, nuzzling each other's neck and whispering amongst themselves. Once, she looked over at Peeta, her gray eyes and voice pinning him to his spot. She smiled softly, and this time he didn't blush. He didn't even look away—he couldn't.
"For the very first time,
There's no words to be found
Opened up our eyes,
There was love all around
"When all the work is done
By the light of the setting sun
We see what we've become
Two of the lucky ones."
Oh, God, it was real. What he felt for her was real. He could feel the enormity of it now, the past, the present, all at once, and his doubts that had accumulated over the years all felt so insignificant now.
It had been real. And nothing had been more real since.
As the song ended, Finnick dipped Annie then kissed her soundly. Everyone applauded, and even Finnick, after he'd righted his wife, stuffed his fingers into his mouth to whistle sharply then cheered for Katniss. Peeta couldn't bring himself to clap; his hands were limp in his lap, his whole body tingling with warmth. Katniss stepped away from the mic and gave a slight bow before hurrying back to her seat, as fast as her heels would allow.
The dances continued, first with Annie and her father, then Finnick and his mother, but Peeta just stared stupidly at his empty plate, numbly taking sips of his wine every once in a while.
He hadn't felt this rattled and dazed in a long time, not since the first day of their anatomy lab, when she'd sat down next him and changed his world completely.
He had no idea what to do now.
"Can I get a Yuengling?" Peeta asked the bartender, who nodded and grabbed a bottle from under the bar. He popped open the cap and slid it over to Peeta. "Thanks, man," he said, stuffing a couple bucks into a jar for a tip. Then he moved down to the end of the bar to sit on one of the stools so he wouldn't be in anyone's way as he sipped his beer.
"Hey, Mellark," a gruff voice said to his right, and he glanced over, reigning in his surprise when he saw the tall man next to him.
"Uh, hey, Gale," he greeted uncomfortably, gripping his beer. He had no idea how to act around Katniss' best friend, what to expect; how much had she told him about their breakup? Everything, he was sure. Was he pissed? It was years ago, but Peeta was suddenly very nervous as he regarded the older man.
Gale smiled tightly at him after he'd ordered a beer; he shifted the dark-haired toddler in his arms, who had his pudgy arms wrapped around his Gale's neck. "And, uh, who's this?" Peeta asked, smiling slightly as he nodded to the little boy.
Gale's smile brightened, and he palmed the back of the toddler's head. "This is my son Zeke. Can you say hi, Zeke?" he asked, his voice softer, and the little boy stared wide-eyed at Peeta, burying his face against his father's chest. Gale chuckled lowly. "Sorry, he's tired. It's way past his bedtime."
Glancing between father and son, Peeta smiled genuinely this time. "It's okay. He's really cute. Man, he looks just like Madge." Peeta knew they had gotten married a few years ago; Finnick and Annie had attended the wedding.
Gale grinned, nodding his thanks to the bartender when he grabbed his beer. "Yeah, got her temperament, too. If he didn't have my hair, I might have to wonder," he joked. "Well, we're probably gonna be leaving soon. It was nice seeing you."
"Yeah, you too. Bye," Peeta replied, tipping his beer in farewell.
Zeke straightened suddenly, his face lighting up. "Bye bye!" he chirped, waving frantically, and both Peeta and Gale laughed.
"Yes, that's right, bye bye," Gale cooed as he whisked the child away, back to his wife. Peeta turned back to the bar, shaking his head. Why had he been so threatened by him before? Gale was an imposing sort of guy, but he seemed harmless now. Peeta had to laugh at himself, at his stupidity in his younger days.
"Your cake was lovely," an all-too-familiar voice said in his ear, and his body jerked in surprise. Everything inside him tightened as he craned his neck around to find a smiling Katniss at his side.
He tried to fight his blush. "Um, thank you."
She sidled up to the bar and ordered a gin and tonic. Then she turned back to him as she waited. "I mean, it looked really beautiful, but I think it tasted even better," she continued, leaning against the bar.
Peeta swigged his beer to give himself a moment to compose himself. He didn't want to revert back to his stuttering, shrinking self, but it was hard not to in her presence. His wiped his mouth with the back of his hand after he'd pulled the bottle away. "Thank you. I'm glad you liked it. I just wanted to give Finn and Annie the best because they deserve it," he said carefully, glancing between her and his beer. She just smiled and nodded in agreement, thanking the bartender when he presented her drink to her. Peeta licked his lips and forced himself to say his next words, "You sounded beautiful earlier. I was...stunned. I mean, I've just, uh, I've never heard you sing...like that...before..."
Well, that didn't come out quite as eloquently as he had wanted, but she blushed lightly, anyway, sucking the tiny black straw of her drink between her lips. She responded after she'd taken a sip. "Thanks. I haven't been that nervous in a while," she said with an airy laugh. "I kind of hate singing in front of crowds, but, well, I couldn't exactly refuse when they asked..."
He was glad she hadn't. "Well, I guess I can see why you never pursued that singing career, after all," he cracked timidly, picking at the label on his bottle. Her eyes widened, and she made a face.
"Oh, God, you remember that?" she asked with an embarrassed laugh. He smiled.
"Of course." I remember everything about you. He swallowed those words with his next gulp of beer. "Uh, you know, I never did get to listen to that EP of yours..."
She was already shaking her head. "And you never will. That thing is never seeing the light of day again."
"That's too bad," he said, grinning slightly, and she just rolled her eyes.
"So we've established what I'm not doing," she started, taking a sip of her gin and tonic. "Tell me what you've been up to."
Peeta twisted in the stool, setting his beer down and running a hand through his hair. "Well, uh, I finished med school last month, so I've finally got a little bit of time off."
She lifted her eyebrows. "Congratulations! I mean, I knew you were in med school, but that's great to hear you're done. What do you have planned next?"
He dropped his gaze shyly, picking at his bottle label again. "I'm, uh, well, I start the pediatric residency program at Duke in July. I've got, uh, orientation in a couple weeks, so I'm just enjoying the very minor reprieve before the craziness starts..."
Her mouth was hanging open. "Oh, my God, at Duke? And in pediatrics—wow, that's incredible!" And then she stepped toward him, between his legs, to hug him, and he was rendered momentarily speechless as he relished the weight of her body against his. "Congratulations, Peeta. I know how much you wanted to do that. I'm really happy for you."
She stepped away, and already he missed her warmth. "Um, thank you," he said sheepishly. He was touched she remembered and was excited for him; his mother hadn't been at all, when she'd realized he wasn't going to do cardiology or neurology, like she had wanted. But he didn't care anymore; he had learned to disregard her opinion a while ago. "What about you? What are you doing?"
She smiled brilliantly, swirling the ice in her drink with her straw. "I'm a research scientist at UNC. I work at the Center for Infectious Diseases."
"Wow," he breathed, awed. "So you're doing what you wanted to do. That's really fantastic. Congratulations." He wanted to hug her again but thought it might be odd after she'd just hugged him.
She shrugged demurely, swallowing some of her drink. "Thank you. It's good, rewarding work, so I'm happy." Nodding, Peeta smiled at her and sipped his beer. Katniss' eyes glinted with amusement then, her mouth listing into a crooked smile. "So, am I supposed to call you Dr. Mellark now?"
He grinned bashfully, and a thought came to him so suddenly, he almost balked outwardly. He couldn't say that to her. Could he? He licked his moist lips nervously and hardened his resolve. "You can call me whatever you want," he murmured, his tone light and playful to mask his nerves; he braced himself for her reaction, but her eyebrows shot up, pleasant surprise dancing in her eyes. She laughed heartily, her laughter tinkling over the music.
"I'll keep that in mind, Peeta," she returned once her laughter faded, lifting her glass to her mouth. She nipped the straw between her teeth and worried it absently. Then she pursed her lips around it and drank, squinting at him thoughtfully. He started to sweat, uncomfortable with her penetrating gaze. Maybe he shouldn't have said what he'd said—he was out of line trying to flirt with her.
But she smiled, setting her drink down. "You know...you're different," she mused. He narrowed his eyes in confusion. "I mean, not completely. You've got the same kind eyes," she said softly, meeting his gaze. "But you're different in other ways. You didn't even break a sweat giving your speech."
He frowned as he considered her words. "Is that...bad?"
Katniss shook her head. "No, not at all. Just noticing, I guess..." She grinned, a little teasingly, and grazed his beard with her fingers. "I mean, this is different. I like this." She tugged on the scruff on his chin lightly to emphasize her point. Heat spread through him at the intimacy of the gesture—but not from embarrassment.
Peeta shrugged, willing his quickening heart to slow. "It's mostly just out of laziness that I haven't shaved it."
"Well, I think you should keep it. Whatever my opinion counts for, I mean."
A lot, he wanted to tell her, but he just smiled at her. There was something in her eyes, her expression, he couldn't quite read. It made him feel vulnerable, and he took another swig of his beer to distract himself. Being with her, it was impossible not to think about six years ago, the last time they were together. He thought about the rest of their relationship, too, but the way it had ended tainted it all—it was a weight that hung between them, even now. He needed to say something, to clear the air. He needed to own up to the things he'd said, to acknowledge the things he'd done.
"Katniss..." he faltered, anxious energy surging through him. He made himself look at her, and she watched him curiously. "For what it's worth...I'm sorry. About how I ended things between us back then. I was...a huge dick to you. I mean, I was just an idiot about everything, really, and I just hate the way I left that night. So I'm sorry...and I'm sorry it took me so long to even apologize. I guess I was too busy being wounded about everything."
She looked stunned, and she didn't even speak for a moment. Was this the first time he'd ever driven her to silence? He swallowed thickly, his throat and tongue feeling dry all of a sudden—but funnily enough, his palms felt damp and clammy. He wiped them on his thighs and opened his mouth to apologize for drudging it all up when she finally chuckled incredulously, waving her hand.
"I—well, I appreciate your apology, Peeta. I really do. I wasn't even expecting that. It was so long ago, you know? It's in the past now. It's okay." She chewed on her lip as she considered something, then she touched his wrist. "But I'm sorry, too. I was pretty abrasive back then, wasn't I? I made you uncomfortable so many times, I'm sure, and I didn't even realize it..."
He tried to smile, his gaze lingering on her hand on his wrist. "Well...you made me more comfortable than uncomfortable, at least. Not your fault I had no idea what I was doing. You were just trying to help, I know..." He thought his tone was light, but her mouth drooped into a small frown.
"I wasn't trying to help you, Peeta. I really liked you," she said sincerely. His breathing shallowed at her words. "I mean, I just wanted you to..." She looked around then and lowered her voice, her fingertips dancing across the delicate skin of his wrist and making him shiver, "to enjoy things with me. To enjoy being with me. That was all. I'm sorry that I made you feel otherwise."
He felt lightheaded, and he wasn't sure if it was the alcohol or her touch or her admission. He wasn't even sure what to say, so he just blurted the truth, "I did. Enjoy being with you, I mean. A lot." He didn't think that fact hadn't been completely obvious at the time, but he wanted to say it out loud, anyway.
She quirked an eyebrow and grinned. "Yeah? Me, too." She withdrew her hand to grab her drink and down the rest of it. Sucking an ice cube into her mouth, she crunched it between her teeth and shot him an inquisitive look. "So, Peeta...Are you, ah, seeing anybody right now?" she asked lightly. His heart stuttered in his chest, and he shook his head silently. Her smile widened. "Good...good."
His eyes were wide as he took her in, and he wanted to ask her what that meant, exactly, but then there was an announcement over the sound system about the bouquet toss. Katniss groaned, rolling her eyes. "I hate these things. Maybe they won't notice I'm missing..." Peeta glanced at the gathering crowd of women on the dance floor, positioning themselves behind Annie. Katniss peered over her shoulder and then back at the bar, pushing her empty glass away. "At least, that means the night's almost over. I can't wait to get out of these heels..."
His eyes widened as his eyes automatically dropped to her feet. "Oh, shit, I'm sorry. I didn't even offer you my seat. I'm an idiot—" He made to stand up, but she just pushed him back down and smiled.
"Don't worry about it. I sit all day in a lab; I don't mind a little standing. But I think I'm gonna take these off, anyway." Balancing herself on his thigh, she bent down slightly to slide her heels off. Peeta tried not to think about how close her face was to his crotch, but the way she firmly gripped his leg was too hard to ignore. Without thinking, he grabbed her arm to help steady her, and she smiled at him gratefully as she straightened up, her heels dangling from her fingers. "Thanks."
But she didn't move her hand from his leg. In fact, she flattened her fingers over the taut muscles of his thigh, her thumb rubbing back and forth lightly. The gentle, hypnotic motion was making his dick harden in his slacks. He briefly wondered if he should push her hand away or shift to hide his growing erection, but instead he just slid his hand down her arm to cover her hand, squeezing her fingers slightly. They just stared at each other wordlessly, unfazed by the shrieking from the dance floor as the women scrambled to catch the bouquet.
What was she thinking? He wanted to know. Her eyes were dark, and her tongue darted out periodically to wet her lips. He thought he recognized that look; he saw it many times when they were dating, saw it many times, still, even after they'd broken up, whenever he'd close his eyes and stroked himself. But it couldn't still mean what it meant when they were 20—could it? It was foolish to hope...
He vaguely registered the call for the single men for the garter toss. Katniss arched an eyebrow. "Do you want to go do that?" she asked, but she moved closer to him, stepping between his legs.
He shook his head, not breaking eye contact. "Nope. Staying right here," he replied, slightly dazed, and her gray eyes flashed with satisfaction. Her fingers curled against his skin, her nails digging into his flesh through his pants. His cock twitched.
"Me, too," she breathed, and he could see the red flush of her cheeks and chest. He wondered if it was from him, if he was having this effect on her. "Peeta..." she hummed, watching him empty the last of his beer down his throat. "Do you live nearby?"
His hand tightened over hers, and he carefully set the bottle back down. "Yes." She just smiled, resting her free hand on his other thigh. He felt like his vision was swimming, but he knew it wasn't from the alcohol. His hand shot out instinctively, sliding around her waist to draw her closer. "Would you, uh...like to come over after this?"
She caught her bottom lip between her teeth, giving a diminutive nod of her head. "Very much so."
After the reception, after all the guests had seen Finnick and Annie off as they headed to the airport for their honeymoon, Peeta and Katniss drove to his apartment separately so they didn't have to leave their cars at the venue. He was glad he had those few minutes alone, to think about what was about to happen, what he had willingly agreed to.
Was he making a mistake? He didn't want to fall back into the same pattern with Katniss, but he couldn't deny the pull she had on him. Thinking back on it all now, he realized no one had ever affected him the way she did. It had been terrifying then, the feeling of helplessness loving her and wanting her brought him.
But he was different now. Giving himself over to someone so completely wasn't as scary as it used to be, and this time he didn't find himself worrying whether she felt the same. If she didn't, that was okay; it still didn't negate what he felt. Six years had passed, and more than anything, he just wanted to get to know her again. Better, even. To see if he could read her as well as he thought he could. Because he was realizing now, she wasn't as much of a mystery as he used to think she was. His own doubts and insecurities had clouded his understanding of her before, but he thought he could understand her now.
No, this wasn't a mistake. He wanted this; he wanted her, over and over again. And he trusted the sincerity of her words, her feelings, finally. It was freeing.
So back at his apartment, he felt light as air, buzzing with confidence as he led her inside his apartment. "Do you want anything to drink?" he offered, dropping his keys on a console table and draping his jacket on the back of a chair. "Or eat, even?"
He turned around to look at her, something in her voice tugging at his gut. Katniss dropped her shoes by the door, but she didn't move. She stared at him imploringly. "I just want you." She never skimped on her words.
He was in front of her in an instant, his hands cupping her face to tilt it upward. Her eyes were heavily lidded, her breath warm and quick against his face as it hovered just mere inches from her own. His thumbs smoothed across her cheeks, then he molded his lips to hers; she opened her mouth eagerly, meeting every stroke of his tongue with her own. She moved her tongue exactly how he remembered. Katniss moaned low in her throat and fisted her hands in the sides of his shirt to pull him closer. Pinning her against the door, he poured everything into that kiss, all his longing and frustration and desire, everything that had festered inside him for the better part of a decade.
When he broke the kiss, it was to find the pulse point under her jaw he knew so well. She was panting heavily, her hands grabbing at his chest, his shoulders. "Oh, God, I've missed you," she murmured, and he sucked harder on her skin, scraping his teeth down her neck to nip at her collarbone. She whimpered when his hands slid up her ribcage to roughly cup her breasts through her dress.
He couldn't wait anymore; he needed to touch her, to feel the moist heat of her against his palm. He tried to slip his hand under her dress, but the tightness of her skirt made it impossible to part her legs enough to move his fingers over her the way he wanted to, so he yanked her dress up to her hips and pulled her panties down to her knees. Then his hand was between her thighs again, curling over her center, and she gasped. He traced his fingers over her folds and her clit, familiarizing himself with her again. He could feel the wetness seeping out of her, and he sought it out, thrusting two fingers inside her, pumping them hard and fast. Katniss just grunted sharply, holding onto his shoulders and letting her head fall against the door.
She squeaked hoarsely when his slick fingers touched on her clit next; Peeta teased it only briefly, circling it lightly with his index finger before he began stroking it deftly. In just the way he remembered her liking it. "Peeta, oh God, Peeta," she mewled, her hips rocking against his hand as she sought her relief. When he heard her breath hitch in her throat, he kissed her again, his tongue sweeping into her mouth to muffle her loud moans as she came, quivering and panting against him.
He didn't give her time to recover, ripping her underwear off completely and hoisting her up into his arms. She wrapped her arms and legs around him weakly, dropping her forehead to his shoulder while he carried her into his bedroom where he dropped her onto his bed unceremoniously. She struggled to sit up—to assist him or undress him, he wasn't sure—but he just pushed her back down onto the mattress, covering her body with his own. "Relax. I can handle this," he whispered in her ear, sliding his hands around her back to tug the zipper of her dress down; she arched underneath him so he could slide it down more easily. When he sat back to pull her dress down, she watched him with glassy eyes. Lifting her legs up, she smiled at him as he yanked it off her feet and dropped it to the floor.
"Peeta, you're still fully clothed. Come here..." She beckoned for him, but he wrapped his hand around hers and pinned it down beside her head.
"I said, relax. I'll deal with myself in a moment," he assured, kissing her again. Her free hand came up to fist in his hair as she slanted her head to kiss him deeper, but he broke away quickly. She whimpered in frustration until his lips kissed a trail down her chin and her neck, his beard rubbing against her skin.
"Definitely—definitely keep the beard, Peeta," she moaned, squirming underneath him. She pressed her hips to his, and he couldn't stop his involuntary thrusts against her. He finally released her hand so he could push the cups of her strapless bra down. Her dark, puckered nipples were enticing, calling for his mouth; he obliged, swirling his tongue around one before he sucked it between his lips. Katniss groaned, her legs coming up around his waist to anchor him there. His hand teased under the cup over her other breast, massaging the fleshy weight under his palm; he circled her nipple with his thumb, rolling it under the callused pad.
Then he caught her other nipple between his front teeth, biting down. Katniss gasped, giving a rasping, startled cry, and he waited to see if she objected, if he had misremembered this about her...
But she urged him on, bucking up against him harder and threading her fingers through his hair. "Peeta," she gasped pleadingly, and he smirked to himself. Perfect.
His hands fumbled behind her with the clasp of her bra, but he unhooked it quickly. Instead of pulling it away, he gripped her bra in his hands and forced her to raise her arms over her head. He brought his mouth back to hers, stroking her tongue lazily with his while he pressed her wrists together. He wrapped the bra around them, efficiently tying the ends together into a tight knot.
Katniss seemed to finally register what he was doing, unsealing her lips from his to glance up at her bound wrists. When she looked back at him, her eyes were round. "What are you doing?" she whispered, but her voice trembled with excitement.
He just grinned and sat back, finally working his loose tie over his head. He briefly considered it; he could use it as a blindfold. But he decided against it, tossing it to the floor. Next time, definitely.
"I've got some things I wanna show you," he told her simply, his voice gravelly, and her mouth parted in anticipation. Standing up, Peeta slowly, slowly, unbuttoned his shirt and shrugged it off his shoulders. She watched him anxiously, her beautiful, naked body stretched out before him. She kept her arms obediently over her head without even having to be asked. He knew the knot wasn't that tight; if she really tried, she could work it loose. But she didn't.
"Peeta," she finally whined breathlessly when he had his undershirt off. She flexed her knees, planting her feet on the bed. His eyes darted to the juncture of her thighs, which glistened with her want, and he licked his lips eagerly. But then he shook his head to clear his thoughts.
Glancing around his dimly lit bedroom, Peeta found what he was looking for; he grabbed a belt that hung from the doorknob of his closet. He folded it in half and grabbed both ends in his hands, turning back to her. Her eyes widened even more when he cracked the belt lightly, her thighs clenching together in response. He crawled back onto the bed beside her, dragging the loop of the belt between her breasts and down her stomach; the muscles of her abdomen contracted with her sharp intake of breath. He just smirked.
"I'm gonna have so much fun with you, Katniss."
Thanks again for reading, you guys! FYI, the song Katniss sings is "Two of the Lucky Ones" by The Droge and Summers Blend. Come find me on tumblr: fuckingplebe.