By the time his car pulls into the sleepy village of Panem the sun is just setting, dashing splashes of pinks and purples and oranges across the clean August sky. He heads straight for his landlord's at the far outer side of the village up on Victor's Hill. The wooden house betrays a meticulously crafted architecture but decades of being inhabited by the friendly village drunk has left it dilapidated, the paint missing more than flaking off, and the roof shingles dangling like icicles.
The air outside his tiny beat-up car is as crisp as he remembers, with a waft of a burnt smell that makes him wonder to himself which faculty member is having a barbecue this time. The steps of Haymitch's house creak reliably beneath his feet and the door thuds hollowly beneath the rap of his knuckles. After several moments he tries again. And again.
Probably passed out drunk again, he figures.
"Haymitch!" he hollers. "I'm coming in!" He gives the door a shove and to his immense surprise finds the door locked. He tries the back door to the same results.
Stranded for the time being without any house keys and the reliable drunk unexpectedly MIA, Peeta releases a sigh and turns back to his car to head to one of the few places of temporary refuge in this little community and hopefully a place he can find out Haymitch's whereabouts.
The Hob on a Thursday night is fairly empty save for a couple nestled in the cushy armchairs by the big bay windows and a group of girls he vaguely recognizes, playing Scrabble at a low coffee table in the back. He can see Johanna leaning against the counter doodling idly as always and Sae standing next to her, casually sorting sugar packets as she chats to one of the locals. The bell over the door gives a tinkle as he enters and Jo glances up automatically at the noise.
"Ah! Bread Boy!" she exclaims.
"Peeta, sweetie! Good to have you back!" Sae leans a little awkwardly over the counter and tries to grab him in a hug but settles for a few shoulder pats when her arms don't quite reach al the way. "Have you been back long? All settled in yet?"
"Actually no," he chuckles, scratching the back of his head absently. "I was wondering if you might know where Haymitch is. He's not home and he even locked the door, but I need to get the keys for my house from him. He kept them over the summer for some kid who was doing summer research."
"Well, I ain't seen that delightful drunk since last night, but he's sure to turn up eventually. You wanna make yourself comfortable in the meantime?"
"No other choice, right?" Peeta smiles sheepishly at her.
"Oh you," Sae swats his head affectionately. "Jo'll make you your favorite chai latte, now, won't she?"
Jo grimaces and abandons her doodling, but turns to Peeta with a wink as she grabs a cup off the shelf. "Skim or whole, handsome? You like you've gained a little."
"Oi." He swipes his hand out to pinch her cheek but she ducks away and cackles at him from behind the steamer. "I see your drawing skills have improved. Moving away from awkward stick humans to flowers and bushes… they're a bit disproportionate, though."
"That's a vagina, you dolt," she deadpans as she sets his mug down, and he blushes beet red, hastily shoving her notebook away.
Long after his chai latte has been drained and he's cracking jokes with Jo as some kid messes around on the piano out front, the door slams open. The bells above the door jangle loudly and a strong gust of boozy air blows into the peaceful warmth of the Hob.
"There he is, the man of three hours ago!" Sae calls out jokingly.
Haymitch grunts by way of response and lumbers over to the bar stool. He looks almost as bad as he smells.
"Special brew," he mutters to Johanna, who glares at him momentarily before disappearing into the kitchen and returning with a non-descript mug of hot fluid that smells of spices and death. Haymitch downs half the contents in one swig and slaps his hand on Peeta's shoulder.
"Congratulations, kid. You're homeless."
"I – what?" Peeta surveys his landlord's face to check for signs of drunkenness (for Haymitch) or a joke and finds none. "Wait. What do you mean? Are you kickng me out? Hang on now, you can't do that!" he protests.
Haymitch rubs a hand over his temple and downs the rest of his drink. He holds it out to Johanna for more, then turns back to Peeta. "Listen, I can't help it. I actually like you as a tenant."
"Well then why-"
"Your house." He clears his throat. "Kind of uh. Burned down today."
Peeta can only blink in response.
"So that's what those fire trucks were wailing about earlier," throws in Johanna as she returns with Haymitch's refill. "Soo… what happens to our resident baker, then? I'd room with him but I think he'd get too comfortable in my bed." She winks and runs her tongue piercing across her lip in a distinct if-you-know-what-I-mean manner. Peeta winks right back to humor her, but his frustration is evident as he runs a hand through his hair.
"I guess I'll have to apply to get back onto campus housing, but that could take a while as they sort out all the incoming freshmen…I'd need to find somewhere to stay until then anyway. I don't know if anyone's got openings… most places in this tiny neighborhood of a village are always rented out well before the spring's even over. Haymitch, you got space on your couch?"
Johanna scoffs. "Not unless you wanna snuggle up real close with his liquor. I'm sure those ladies won't keep you warm at night."
Haymitch only shrugs and continues to entertain his drink friend of the night. Peeta sighs and looks down at the countertop. The few friends he's managed to make the last year are mostly kids from fairly well-off families and are comfortable remaining on the more expensive option of on-campus housing, which unfortunately for him means chances of crashing with any of them are dwindling fairly fast. He briefly considers Finnick who's moved in down the street near the dairy, but he remembers Finn's excitement at the prospect of actually living together with Annie and he can't bring himself to intrude on the couple's first weeks of bliss.
"Well actually," he's interrupted out of his thoughts by Sae's voice. "Technically my upstairs… There's technically a bedroom that's unoccupied. I mean, only one person is renting the apartment now, so y'know, if the new tenant doesn't mind I could let you move into that second bedroom temporarily. If you don't mind living with a stranger, that is, and if neither of you mind the arrangement. I dunno, just a thought. Better than nowhere, right?"
"Sae, are you serious? Like, actually, that would be so fantastic if you're serious."
"Of course! You know I'd do my damndest to help you, Peeta! Come on, let me go ask Katniss if that's okay."
Peeta follows Sae out round the back of the Hob and waits at the bottom of the stairs while she speaks to her new tenant. He can hear an awful lot of Sae's prattling and he can't make out a single word of response for a while. He well remembers many hours spent having his ear talked off by the sweet old lady as they worked together in the Hob. Abruptly, Sae's voice cuts off, just for about two seconds, followed by inordinate amounts of thanking and then her head's back around the door gesturing with a smile for him to come up.
He is relieved to have so quickly been able to secure a replacement living space. Nevertheless he is fairly nervous about this unfamiliar arrangement, too and his steps are a little hesitant as he climbs the steps.
"Katniss, this is Peeta. Peeta, Katniss," Sae introduces as he pokes his head around the door. He honestly means to smile, reach out a hand and say 'Hi' but the pleasantry dies in his throat, which instantly dries at the sight of his new flatmate.
Katniss turns out to be a petite brunette, with smoky grey eyes, her waist-length hair tucked neatly into a side-braid, a spattering of freckles across her nose and a guarded smile. But what has really gotten Peeta's tongue at this moment is her attire – or perhaps lack thereof. He tries to will himself to avert his riveted gaze away from the soft, tanned expanse of thigh bared by her barely oversized shirt, and he is mortified when her small hands fall into his field of vision to tug self-consciously on the hem of her shirt.
Instantly he tears his eyes way and intently fixes his gaze on her face. Her cheeks are bright and her eyes glued to the floor, and he has to resist following her gaze back down, too.
He clears his throat. "Uh, h-hi. Pleased to meet you," he stammers and holds out a sweaty hand, wincing internally at his choice of wording. He hopes she doesn't look at his crotch to confirm how very pleased he is indeed. This introduction is going much less smoothly than what he had imagined in his head, but he plows ahead valiantly. "Um, thanks so much for agreeing to this, Katniss. I really really appreciate it. I uh, hope we can get along while I'm here."
Her hand is smooth in his as he finishes talking and she retracts it quickly as he lets go. She continues to look at the floor and mumbles something in response, nodding her head. Well aware of her immense discomfort at being half-naked before him, he decides to excuse himself to go grab his things and leaves with Sae.
As he pulls his belongings out from the trunk of his car his mind wanders back to his more than attractive flatmate and mentally berates himself for acting like a teenage horndog. He really hopes Katniss was too busy studying the floor to notice his ogling her very bare and very enticing thighs. He loudly slams the trunk closed and shakes his head in an attempt to clear it of all his inappropriate thoughts. He takes a few breaths and tells himself it will be a piece of cake to be sensible about living with a pretty girl. He's been platonic friends with Delly for years and he's well aware of her assets.
By the time he's back at the door knocking, because Sae didn't happen to have the duplicate key with her, Katniss appears to have found a robe and extra long pyjama pants for good measure.
"Hey," she says quietly as she lets him in. She eyes his backpack and travelling bag and asks, "is that- did the uh, did the rest of your belongings burn, too?"
"Oh," he glances at the bags, "no. Luckily, I had to move all my things out to a storage unit. My landlord had another student living in the house while I was away over the summer. If you don't mind me spreading out too much, I'll be picking up my stuff from storage tomorrow. Technically supposed to have had it out by today…so.."
"Sure, um, no problem." She gnaws a little on her bottom lip. "You're… welcome to stay as long as you need. Like. Um." Her cheeks color a little again and she clears her throat. "I already moved into that room in the back, so I guess you can take the one by the kitchen there…" she gestures to the doorway, "I haven't put anything in there yet, I think…" she trails off again and he tries to smile reassuringly. "It's – I cleaned it already," she squeaks out.
"Thank you, Katniss," Peeta says softly. He wishes he could somehow put her at ease. She continues to fidget with the fraying ends of her sleeves. He exhales a little. "Well, I guess I'll try to be quiet as I unpack. I'm sorry for disturbing you so late, you probably want to be getting to bed right?"
She turns even pinker and looks down at her feet, and Peeta belatedly realizes he's inadvertently alluded to her recent state of undress.
"Right, well." He coughs uncomfortably, feeling his own face heat up. He tries to busy himself gathering his belongings up. "Goodnight, Katniss. I'll see you in the morning." And with that he disappears into the bedroom and hides behind the closed door.