Peeta Mellark was sick of lying. He'd been doing it all day. In fact, he'd been doing it all day, nearly every day for the past five years.
"Giving things a positive spin," they called it in his firm. It wasn't really prevarication, because "truth" didn't really exist. The embarrassing or even reprehensible behaviors of their clients were explained away or twisted into whatever was more acceptable to the public. Reality was subjective and for approximately three thousand dollars a month, you could make your own.
Which worked in his favor most of the time. Though he didn't consider himself a liar, per say, Peeta had always been good at lying. He had to be, with a mom like his had been. Getting out of trouble had been essential; the alternative had meant bruises that ached for days in places where no one would notice. It meant cruel words that gnawed their way into his soul and slept there, only to wake again in his quiet moments alone. So at quite a young age he had gotten really good at talking himself out of things.
All grown up, with his mother nothing more than a dead woman that he had nightmares about sometimes, the skills she had unintentionally forced her son to learn proved fruitful when it came to keeping Hollywood's best and brightest in the good graces of their viewing public. Very fruitful. Six figures fruitful. He was respected in the industry as one of the very best. A rising star, even.
But at the end of the day, it all left him feeling like there wasn't really an accurate way to tell the difference between what was real, and what wasn't.
Especially at the end of days like today, when he had spent the entire afternoon trying to boost the image of a washed-up jerk of an actor just enough to get him a recurring role on a television series that Peeta actually really liked.
"Sorry, Dean," he muttered, hitting send on the email to Cato's agent. "But it's not like things didn't go sour about three seasons ago."
He sighed heavily, just as Delly opened the door to his office.
"So you sealed the deal?" she smiled widely, sitting his coffee mug on his desk.
Peeta pinched the bridge of his nose and ignored the fact that the relationships between his clients and the public were never really things that could be sealed.
"I think so," he grunted. "Unless Cato manages to get himself arrested for possession in the next few weeks, there'll be nothing but good news, and his agent thinks he's got the job."
"That's wonderful!" Delly somehow managed to beam even wider.
He smiled in spite of himself and picked up the mug, "Yeah, I guess so. He's paying double, so there's that. Also it means he's off to Vancouver and out of my hair for the next few months. The guy really didn't get the concept of scheduled appointments."
Delly sorted through some contracts on his desk as he took the first sip of the steaming beverage. It tasted very, very wrong.
"What the hell is this?" he demanded, inappropriately angry for the situation.
Without looking up, she answered, "Tea."
"I don't drink tea. Where's my coffee?"
Gathering the last of the paperwork, Delly looked him straight in the eye. "It would have been your seventh cup."
"Delly," he said in a warning tone.
She utterly ignored his fury, and smiled instead.
She was always smiling.
"Please, there's no need to thank me when you don't die from high blood pressure at the ripe old age of thirty-five."
"Coffee has a host of health benefits–" he started.
"Within moderation," she interrupted. "Look at you, Peeta. Your eye has been twitching since lunch."
"If you'd spent the morning on the phone with Cato, your eye would be twitching too."
"That's just it, though! You spend the morning on the phone with him, or at least people like him, almost every day. You're going to lose your mind if you don't start to relax. And that means less caffeine. I saw it on Dr. Oz."
"That man is a quack and a menace," Peeta sighed.
"Maybe, but I'm pretty sure his eye doesn't twitch," Delly responded airily.
Were Delly anyone else, he would have sent her packing the minute the tea had touched his lips. Only two weeks ago, he had fired a junior associate (who also happened to be fifteen years Peeta's senior) for what had been, in the grand scheme of things, a pretty minor oversight. Brutus, though he hadn't been particularly great at his job, had been with the firm for years simply because no one had the motivation to fire him. The older man had been pissed that, out of everyone, it was some angel-faced kid who had the balls to do him in.
But Delly Cartwright wasn't some old guy to whom he had no real ties. She wasn't like everyone else. She was from home. The only one who knew who Peeta really was. Or, at least, who he had been once.
Two years ago, the Cartwrights had died in a car accident on the way home from a casino. Peeta hadn't known about it until months after the fact. He hadn't spoken to Delly, or anyone else from back home, for years. At least not until he signed into Facebook on a rare slow day at Capitol PR, the firm where he had been working since his undergrad internship. If he was honest with himself, he only ever used social networking to gloat. But when he'd noticed a public conversation between Delly and some other girl from their high school, he hadn't felt particularly proud of how far he'd come. In typical shameless Delly fashion, they were publically discussing the fact that her brother was probably going to have to drop out of college. The Cartwrights had unsurprisingly brought the family's finances to the verge of complete collapse.
Not only that, but they were suddenly and unexpectedly dead, and Peeta hadn't even known about it for months.
For reasons he had barely understood but could not ignore, he'd sent Delly a message, offering her a job significantly better than the one she had. A job he made up, and had to convince the firm's senior partner they actually needed after the fact.
Of course Delly had been thankful. In fact, her response had been so overflowing with gratitude, that he'd felt uncomfortable. She'd told him she wasn't surprised, that he had always been so incredibly kind and caring, just like a brother to her when they'd been kids. Accepting his offer, she had moved to LA in a matter of weeks and her brother stayed in school. He was about to graduate with a degree in architecture. The kid was really talented.
There had been a few hiccoughs at first, specifically when Peeta had tried to take her home one Friday night after a few drinks. You couldn't really blame him – she'd somehow manage to grow into body that rivaled Christina Hendricks', and he was just a guy with a dick, after all. But as soon as he had leaned in to kiss her, she had wrinkled her nose in the closest thing to disgust she had ever seen on his face.
With a squeaky, "Peeta, you're like my brother!" his desire to see if her tits were just as bouncy and fun-loving outside of the confines of her bra as they were in it had been completely annihilated, never to return.
But it wasn't the potential threat of a retaliatory sexual harassment case that had convinced him to keep her around. As it turned out, he benefited from an administrative assistant after all. Delly did more than keep track of his appointments; she kept track of him in a way that no one had cared to in years, possibly ever, actually. And the best thing about it was she had absolutely no agenda other than just being… nice.
"I have an early Christmas present for you," she said happily, well aware that she had won the coffee argument for the time being.
He sipped the tea bitterly. "If it involves green juice, I'll accept your resignation at the end of the day."
Delly actually rolled her eyes as she tossed an envelope onto his desk. It was made of rough-looking paper, decorated with a red, four-petaled flower wearing a crown He lifted his eyebrow at her in disbelief. He didn't know what this was, but it wasn't exactly the kind of thing a man in an Armani suit carried around.
"Just open it, Peeta," she all but danced with excitement.
A few months ago, a very thankful client had bought him a ridiculously expensive and unnecessary carbon-fiber letter opener. Of course Delly insisted he keep the thing as a matter of principle, but it was too much even for him. Using it made him feel like a douchebag.
But as he sliced through the paper with the thing, while Delly watched eagerly, he laughed for the first time all day. Her enthusiasm was contagious, especially when she seemed to be on the edge of her seat, waiting for his reaction. The situation reminded him of something that danced on the edge of his memory. Something that life and stress had pushed away years ago, convinced it wasn't important.
But maybe it really was.
He pulled out a thick sheet, similar to the envelope. It had been printed by hand with a letterpress. He ran his fingers over the indentations in the paper. It was the same logo, a red flower with a crown, but the words "Red King Herbalists" were printed underneath in a typeface that he would have had pretty strong opinions about ten years ago when art school seemed like a legitimate option. Ignoring the excellent kerning and the sharpness of the serifs, he allowed himself to actually take in what the words were saying.
"Delly, I told you I don't want a massage," he sighed. "You can't set a foot inside one of those places without people trying to get at you for some kind of an in. The staff, the clients, every single person who comes in the door of a spa wants something from everybody else. It's not exactly my idea of a relaxing environment away from work."
Instead of being crushed, as he had expected with just a bit of guilt, Delly was just insistent. "I know you don't like those, and I understand, but this is different."
"It better not be one of those places masquerading as a Chinese restaurant. I let Marvel talk me into going to one once and I just ended up with more fried rice than any human can possibly consume. No happy endings, just a lot of sodium."
She made a choking squeak that was halfway between a sound of discomfort and a laugh.
"No, no," she finally said, clearing her throat. "This is a little place in Silver Lake. They have an urban farm, and sell fresh produce and herbs, and essential oils and things. Very hip but you know, in that earthy kinda way? I dated the owners' brother for awhile. He was really handsome, gorgeous really, but he really had some anger issues."
"Wait, what? You were dating someone?"
"Peeta, I've dated a lot of people," Delly said reproachfully. "You just never asked."
"Alright, alright, I'm sorry," he took a deep breath. "I'll get the stupid massage. But it's not going to work."
"Oh yes, I forgot, because you are so much more stressed than any human ever has been before or since, that there is no way anyone could possibly help you relax," she snapped. For a moment, neither of them said anything. For him to get Delly angry, he really had to be crossing some line.
A line he didn't really have a clue about, but that didn't mean it wasn't there.
"Schedule it for as soon as possible," he muttered.
The next day he found himself in Silver Lake. He was pacing outside a gate at the bottom a long set of concrete stairs. They led up to a house that was perched on the side of one of the neighborhood's many hills. The whole place was full of precariously positioned houses, so it was a fairly normal domicile in that respect. What was less normal was the fact that part of the house jutted out into nearby trees, giving it the impression of a tree house. Only, it wasn't particularly nice. Obviously not in ill-repair, or anything like that, but one of his clients had a similar sort of place that made this house look like a hovel.
To anyone else, this was a decent house, if not a pretty interesting one. But not to him.
It all made him wonder if he had been living in West Hollywood for too long.
He stood at the gate for more time than was necessary. Ostensibly, it was just because he had drove up almost ten minutes too early. But that wasn't the only reason. The thought of showing up at someone's house for that someone to put her hands all over his body in order to relax him didn't seem very above-board. Legitimate businesses had actual locations. Business entrances. A separation between professional and personal.
This, on the other hand, felt like the beginning of a really shitty porno.
He wanted to leave, but he knew that he'd never hear the end of it from Delly if he did. It was the thought of the disappointment in her face, not any sort of lecture, that really got to him.
So he pulled his phone out of his pocket and tried to look important, even though the street was fairly empty.
It was clear from the looks of the few passers-by that he looked like a jackass. His suit alone cost more than some of these people paid monthly to live here, and his car looked ridiculously out of place on the street, even for LA. He took a deep breath, fighting off the frantic, and completely unnecessary anxiety that bubbled up in his gut. It coiled around his heart and squeezed tight. It felt like his mind was jumping spastically. The idea that something was wrong, but not just at this moment. That something was wrong with everything. His life was somehow on backwards and he didn't even know why or how it'd gotten that way.
This was not some kind of joke, he reassured himself. Delly had actually told him why he was going to a house, and not to the location on the gift certificate… construction maybe? His memory was awful; another side-effect of excessive stress, apparently. He also vaguely remembered her mentioning something about what he was supposed to wear, but not enough to have remembered at an appropriate time, and now it was too late to do anything about it.
It was at that moment that he realized he'd have to get naked in a stranger's house.
He was on the verge of getting back in his car and driving away, Delly's quivering bottom lip be damned, when he heard it.
It started out softly at first, a gentle murmur that drifted out of the open window and down into the street. It could have been the radio, or even someone's ringtone. But it grew in intensity until it was obvious that, unless the inhabitants of the house had a sound system way beyond their budget, an actual voice was singing. A low female voice, with a hint of gravel that made it sound so devastatingly real it was as though she was singing just for him.
He felt like someone had grabbed his shoulders, lifted them up, and drawn all of the strain of the past six months out of his body. His mind was thrown back over two decades, and he was five again, happy and amazed by every pretty little thing that he saw. Slowly he walked up the stairs, transfixed, until he stood quietly at the door, unable to do anything but listen.
For the first time in recent memory, he felt blissfully relaxed.
But a woman's harsh voice interrupted all that, and once again, he was just a guy with frayed nerves, a schedule to keep, and no time for this sort of philosophical bullshit.
"Warbling again, mockingjay?" the sardonic words rang out. They echoed in the street too, bouncing around like superballs, and drawing out a noise of shock from the woman who had been singing.
"That's not even a real bird," the singer responded. She had a lower voice when talking too, but the spell of it definitely didn't extend to regular speech. "You spend enough time in trees to know better," she added. Her words sounded thick with angry embarrassment, like maybe she didn't get caught singing very often.
"Ah but see, since I know how much it pisses you off, I'm never going to stop," the second woman sniggered.
"Knock it off, Jo."
"Ooooh, someone's testy," although he couldn't see it, he could all but hear the first woman sneer. "You need to loosen up. When's the last time you got laid? Pretty sure Dubya was still in office."
"When's the last time you went on a second date with someone you slept with?" the low-voiced girl asked. "Or kissed on the lips?"
There was a thick pause.
"Go to hell, alright?"
Peeta cleared his throat uncomfortably. If coming to a random woman's home for a massage wasn't awkward enough, overhearing her and her roommate have some kind of fight about their sex lives made it even worse. You'd think that something like that would be hot, but really, it wasn't.
A soft woman's voice spoke up, but he couldn't make out what she was saying, and it didn't matter because he was busy debating whether to stay or go. Deal with Delly's disappointment, and leave just one more thing in his life uncompleted, or endure what was bound to be a nearly unbearably awkward situation?
Then suddenly the door was yanked open, making his decision for him.
The girl in front of him was pretty short, and her head was shaved, though he could see the dark hair sprouting across her scalp. Thick pieces of carved wood were threaded through her ears. She had a tattoo that started on her right collarbone and spanned her chest, until it disappeared under her left armpit. Leaves blowing in the wind, or something.
It was hard to really pay attention to what it was exactly because she was wearing nothing but cowboy boots, cutoff shorts, and a transparent lace bra. Although that would be pretty unnerving under any circumstances, she had the sort of body that could bring a man to tears. Her could see her dark nipples standing up in the chillier air from outside, and he subconsciously adjusted himself. His trousers didn't do much to hide his interest.
"Who's the douchebag?" the woman called back into the house. She was definitely not the person who had been singing, but it was obvious she was the other voice in the argument – Jo, was it? As she looked him up and down, her wide-set dark brown eyes were filled with enough disdain to shrivel even the most dedicated of hard-ons, and his began to deflate, albeit much more slowly than it had arrived.
A taller woman stepped around the corner and stood behind the first. She was barefoot, wearing a flimsy green dress that matched her eyes. Her long brown hair poured down her back in a tangled mess that managed to work for her. She looked at him curiously, but didn't say anything. If he had to guess from her vaguely "New Age" appearance, she was the one who would be giving him his massage.
Actually he really just hoped it was her, because he'd rather get run over by a lawnmower than have "Jo" come anywhere near his exposed back.
Plus, the second girl was definitely hotter.
"You must be Katniss' client," she said in a soft, airy voice that eliminated her chances at being both his masseuse and the woman who had sang, both equally disappointing.
He flashed her a million watt smile, anyway. "I guess I am," he said affably, "and you are?"
"Annie," Jo cut in. "She's also about five thousand miles out of your league, Blondie, so you might as well just go back to staring at my tits, it's gonna get you just about as far."
She was suddenly yanked out of his line of sight as a third and final woman stepped into view.
"Knock it off, Jo," she mumbled. Her voice was low, almost a little bit gravely, and he recognized it from the earlier argument.
She was the one who had been singing.
Really, she didn't look like much, especially compared to the other two. She wasn't particularly pretty, a scrawny little thing, wiry muscles visible with the tank top she was wearing.; not curvy like the first, or willowy like the second. Her skin was a dark olive, and her eyes were a very pale gray, almost silver. Her face wasn't anything to write home about, just a few freckles over a nose that was a little too small and cheeks that were a little too high. Her black hair was unflattering, just tied over her shoulder in a practical braid.
The only adornment she had at all was an arrow tattoo on her olive skin that skirted the underside of her clavicle, covering up a scar.
"You're here for the massage?" she asked bluntly, making eye contact that bordered on defiant. There was a bit of a curl to her lip as she asked, and it bothered him.
She didn't seem nice at all.
"Do you normally have people showing up dressed like this to make deliveries?" he said in a much different voice than the one he had used on her roommates. Now he was talking like a man who got things done. While he spoke he gestured to his suit.
There was no response, but he could see her eyes rolling as she turned and gestured for him to follow.
Fifteen minutes later, he was wearing nothing but his boxer briefs, standing in the middle of what was obviously his masseuse's bedroom. Katniss had asked him to change into his gym shorts, but he obviously hadn't brought any. When he told her so, she had let loose a sigh of annoyance before she caught herself, and told him that as long as he was comfortable, his underwear would be fine.
He was perfectly fine with getting completely naked, if that's what she wanted, but he felt like an idiot for forgetting, and it made him angry and even more stressed than before.
To deal, he focused on the fact that this Katniss was obviously going to be the worst masseuse of all time. She wasn't tranquil at all. In fact, she seemed outrageously uncomfortable with the human body for someone who made her living touching it. She definitely didn't have that tantric-babe sort of thing that he had hoped would be the one bright moment in this ridiculous scenario.
At least he'd get to tell Delly that he'd told her so when he inevitably left the place feeling more stressed than ever. He focused on that, and tried to ignore the thoughts of his friend's unavoidable quiet disappointment when she realized she wasn't able to "fix" him.
With an irritated sigh, he lay facedown on the towel Katniss had spread out over the mattress on the floor. It was assumed that the lumpy thing also functioned as her bed. He took another towel and covered his underwear, but it didn't even reach his mid-thigh.
"I don't give a damn if she sees me," he muttered.
There was a quiet knock, and when he grunted his assent to enter, she came in. He craned his head to stare at her, sizing her up as best he could. It was difficult to show any sort of control over the situation from his position, but he tried his best.
"What's your game?" she demanded unexpectedly.
"And to what do I owe such a charming question?" he asked condescendingly.
She crossed her legs and sank to the floor, settling herself next to him so he could see her face without craning his head.
"You could go to any upscale place in town," she said. "I just looked at your car. It costs more than a college education."
"Maybe I just wanted to go local," he shrugged.
"Yeah right," she rolled her eyes. "Local for you is definitely not this neighborhood, so try again."
"I don't see how it's any of your business where I go." Did this girl know who he was? That some of the most talented stars in the business tripped over themselves to become clients in his firm? Specifically to become his clients? That she was providing him a service in exchange for money, and it was her responsibility to treat him with respect, reverence even?
"My sister's business doesn't need your charity," she insisted. "I don't want 'supporting that scrappy little store' be the reason you feel better about yourself when you go back to your two million dollar house tonight. So be honest about why you're here, or you can have your money back."
Peeta was shocked into utter silence.
"I'll leave you to change," she made to sit up.
"I'm here because my secretary bought me a gift certificate," the words spilled out. He felt both vulnerable and strangely free with the admission. "I need to relax."
"Look, I know what I'm doing, but I'm not that good," she argued. "Guy like you can go anywhere."
"Can. But won't. I lie and suck up to people all day long for a living. Not about to go to some high-end place full of the same people I'm sucking up to. Delly," he stopped for a moment, shocked that he'd admitted her name, "she thought it'd be different here."
"Oh she did?" the implication was obvious.
Peeta rolled to his side so he could see her better, and the towel fell off him completely. He saw Katniss' eyes dart down, as though beyond her own volition, and her olive skin darkened, though her expression didn't change.
"You'd think it'd be like that," he smirked. "But it isn't. I don't like to mix business with pleasure. And I don't need to pay for it, if you know what I mean."
He talked to women like that often enough, with thinly veiled sexual innuendo, followed by sweet words. It inevitably lead to them screaming out his name. He figured it would go over equally as well here, maybe even loosen this girl up a bit, but as he listened to himself, it was pretty obvious how absolutely creepy he sounded.
"I just need to relax, okay?" he snapped irritably, really unhappy about the level of vulnerability in his voice. "And people who aren't real don't help."
Katniss narrowed her eyes, and he saw her glance at his neatly folded suit, but she didn't say anything for a long moment.
He threw himself into the mattress like a petulant child.
Next to him, he heard her knees creak as she stood up and then the room was filled with the sound of rain, free of that sort of bullshit chiming sort of thing that tended to go with "easy listening" music. She knelt next to him before he felt her touching his back, beginning to gently and then more firmly knead his muscles. Her hands were strong, although not very soft, but whatever oil she was using made up for it. The smell of ginger and sandalwood filled the air.
For the second time in one day, he felt the tension fall from his shoulders and spill down his spine, like a waterfall. His jaw unclenched.
She was actually good.
Better than good, he realized some time later, when he woke up fully with an anxious start and rolled onto his back. His heart rate sped up as he looked for his phone. Were there any meetings he'd missed? Any calls?
All benefits from any relaxation he'd experienced promptly evaporated.
"People fall asleep all the time…" Katniss offered, but her frank words trailed off for a moment and then sped up, like she was nervous, "it's just something that happens when you calm your body."
Then he looked down, realizing he was still only in his underwear and a towel. And of course he was hard. And of course, the towel was tented in such an obvious way that there was no point in even pretending it wasn't there.
Calmed his body, his ass.
She was at the door before he could even say a thing. "I'll just leave you to get dressed," she said uncomfortably.
And then he was inexplicably furious. If this was normal, why did she look like she wanted to jump out of the window? Where did she get off acting like he was some sort of creep, especially after he'd been so honest with her? What was her damn deal?
This was the stupidest thing he had ever been convinced to do.
After dressing quickly, he stormed through the house and out the door, leaving the gift certificate and a tip so generous it was offensive on the mattress. Before the door slammed shut, Jo called out at him from her position on the couch.
"Hope things are looking up, douchebag!"
He was never, ever coming back.
By the time the police officer pulled him over for going eighty in a forty-five zone, he was so pissed off he bit through his bottom lip.
Officer Mitchell was a pretty nice guy, and his night was going quite well. He probably could have been charmed into letting almost anyone who seemed remotely law-abiding off with a warning. Anyone other than a very rich looking man who bitterly berated him at first, and then full-out screamed at him later.
So Peeta Mellark ended up with a court date.
"Mr. Mellark, it is obvious based on the rather large number of moving violations you have acquired over your tenure as a California motorist, that time is a much, much more valuable asset to you than money," Judge Aurelius looked down at him over his glasses.
Next to Peeta, Connor Marvel, his old college roommate and current "legal counsel," shifted uncomfortably. Used to more… high stakes cases involving the rich and famous, he obviously hadn't prepared for this sort of thing to come up in traffic court. Now that it had, he wasn't ready at all.
Actually, Peeta was pretty certain his lawyer was actually still sort of drunk.
"I see your type all the time, Mr. Mellark," the judge continued. "Men with power who think the rules don't apply to them, since they can easily pay their way through any obstacles to their narcissism."
Peeta was pretty certain that even he couldn't talk his way out of this situation, so he kept his mouth shut.
"In what may be a fairly futile attempt to give you some perspective, in lieu of the obviously ineffective fines, I'm sentencing you to one hundred hours of community service," the judge said with finality. Other than the bailiff, there was no one there to gasp in shock. But Marvel hissed with annoyance.
The old man raised his eyebrows and there was the faintest sign of a smirk on his face, "Obviously, your… counsel is welcome to appeal, however, such a thing may end up requiring moreof your precious time than the initial sentence, Mr. Mellark. Details can be worked out with the bailiff. Dismissed." He rapped his gavel with what might have been a bit of flair, and then retired to his chambers.
The clever, clever bastard.
"We can contest this," Marvel assured him as they left the small courtroom, "That sorry old fuck is about to retire, and he's clearly stopped giving a damn about the legality of his sentencing."
Peeta shook his head, "I'm tired of this already. You heard him. An appeal's going take more time than if I just suck it up and go. Last thing I need is for my clients to see me going in and out of a courtroom. Just as long as I'm not picking up trash on the side of the road, or shit in some SPCA, I can handle it."
"Well, there is one place I can think of, but I don't know if you're going to like it…"
"So, you're going to be volunteering at a bakery?" Delly squealed. "Peeta, that's wonderful."
"Well, replace 'volunteering' with 'compelled to serve my community' and you'd be right," he tried to sound bitter, but Delly was so happy that he couldn't help but chuckle. "Means that I'm not going to be around the office as much the next few weeks. I'll be doing a lot more telecommuting. Actually it's all a huge pain in the ass."
"You loved working at the bakery when we were kids, though! Remember my tenth birthday cake that you and your dad made?"
"I know you said that the flowers were wobbly, but it didn't matter to me. There were so many of them! The ENTIRE cake was covered in flowers. It was like the garden in that movie… you know, the one with the mean kid who can't walk? Don't you remember?"
One rough night his dad had taught him to make frosting roses, and after that Peeta had begged and begged to be allowed to help decorate his best friend's birthday cake. The Cartwrights were notoriously bad with money, and in typical fashion, they had shelled out a lot more cash than was wise on their daughter's tenth birthday party. When his dad had finally agreed to let him help, Peeta hadn't realized that the baker had called up the Cartwrights and offered them a free cake, as long as his son was allowed to participate in its decoration. His dad was always doing nice things like that, but it didn't make up for the fact that they were distractions from the violent outbursts from his wife that he was too cowardly to stop.
Of course the Cartwrights had agreed.
It was easy to forget how close Peeta and Delly had been then. How many hours he had spent at her house, playing, doing homework, even eating dinner with her family when his mom was having "a bad night."
Basically, those nights, the screaming, the blows, were the sorts of things not worth remembering. And in forgetting them, he'd managed to forget everything else worthwhile.
"I can't believe you still think about that thing," was all he said.
Delly grinned, "Would you believe that every few years I get one made just like it? Not just the same decorations, but the same everything. A lavender cake with honey icing is what it was. Every other kid was having confetti cakes, but I had a fancy one." She laughed in a way that sounded just a little bit sad, "Think it was the fanciest thing I ever had in my whole life."
"Not anymore," he looked up at her. "If I remember right, which I do, because it came out of my wallet, your holiday bonus last year was a pair of Christian Louboutins."
She shook her head, "Doesn't feel quite as fancy when half the town has a pair for every day of the week." Realizing she could possibly sound ungrateful, she added, "Not to say I don't sit them on my kitchen table and stare at them at least once a month. Because that definitely happens."
The buzzing of his phone in his pocket sent Delly scurrying out of the room and he began the conversation that was starting to take place almost weekly with one of his younger clients.
"I understand that you really want to be friends, I do…" he was saying when an impeccably-dressed man knocked on the glass of his office. He waved the man in as he continued speaking, "…but you can't be seen together. You're already in an enormous franchise as the love interests. The public is dying to see you together together. Unless she's prepared to send that Brit packing and put on a smile for the cameras, the two of you are going to have to stick to pretending to be cats on set."
He looked up and Seneca Crane, the managing partner in the firm, was grinning down at him. The man's finely sculpted beard made his smile look almost bestial. On the phone, Peeta's young client was making some sort of desperate and nonsensical argument.
"Yes, I get it, the film is more than a love story. But fangirls don't care about that. If they can get their nails into a romance on AND off camera, they're gonna go crazy, and that's box office gold. So unless you want me to start arguing with execs about how you won't kiss for the cameras, you're going to have to just make some other friends, and wait until 2015. I've gotta go for now, talk to you in a week."
He gestured towards the chair in front of his desk, but Seneca was already settled in, looking uncomfortably eager and cheerful as he rifled through the papers on the edge of Peeta's desk. He pulled out the envelope that had held the damned gift certificate for the massage, and began to twirl it around in his fingers.
"So, I had a little conversation with Marvel last night at Marshall's," he began.
It was clearly time for Peeta to get a more ethical lawyer, college acquaintances be damned. This wasn't the first time Marvel'd gotten wasted and revealed some kind of private information, although this was the first time said revelation could get him disbarred. Why the hell he'd decided to go and hang out at a bar with Peeta's boss really escaped understanding.
Crane began to rip little tears into the envelope he was holding, as though it weren't a document found on someone else's desk.
"He explained to me the reason for your time away from the office over the next few weeks, and I have to say, Peeta, I'm a bit concerned," he said as he shredded the edges.
There was no easy way to handle this. Excuses wouldn't work at all. Explaining the reality of his past week made him sound pathetic. Obviously saying nothing was out of the question.
"Got a little too riled up closing up things with my latest account," Peeta shrugged sheepishly.
"Riled up enough to tell off a cop?" Crane's smile somehow grew wider. "That doesn't seem like the unflappable Mellark that I know. You could tell your own mother she was gonna die without breaking a sweat."
"My mother's been dead for five years," Peeta said coldly, before he could stop himself.
Crane didn't bat an eye, "See, this is how I know you're in a bad way, Peets." He hated when he called him that. "A few months ago, you would have had some kind of witty comeback, shrugged it off. Now, you're just bitter. Bitter never looks good to clients or the press."
Peeta didn't know what to say, so he didn't say anything. Which probably made things worse, because this was the normally the sort of situation when he shone.
"I'm worried about you, son," Crane said heavily after some time spent in silence. His supervisor was, at most, ten years older than he was. Not exactly in a position to call him "son."
Peeta had opened his mouth to respond when Crane finally noticed what was printed on the envelope he'd been playing with.
"You know what, I'm being hard on you. God knows this job takes it out of a man. And I've got Effie and the kids back home. A man on his own… though, I gotta say I envy you in some ways…" he winked lecherously and Peeta felt his stomach turn, "you've got your own set of problems. Stress can really get to you, I know."
"I have been feeling the heat lately," Peeta admitted.
Holding up the envelope, Crane's grin finally faded into something a bit more human. "I see that. Alternative medicine is a great way to deal. The ancient mystics, they really knew things we don't know today."
The thought of Katniss Everdeen as an ancient mystic was so absurd Peeta had to bite his lip to keep from laughing out loud.
"Look, I'm gonna call this place and set you up, okay?" Crane pulled out his phone and began dialing and before Peeta could stop him, he was in conversation with someone on the other end.
"Well hello there, Miss Posy. Seneca Crane, with Capitol PR, here" he began, turning on the charm to nearly unbearable levels. "I'm interested in setting up a series of massages for my star associate," he winked at Peeta "Name's Peeta Mellark, visited you all recently…" he paused as the person on the other end looked him up. "Yep, that's the one… anyone tell you you've got the sweetest little voice? Ever think about auditioning for any commercials?... Well, I'm gonna say two appointments a week for the next six weeks… just send me the bill, I'll take care of it tip and all… no thank you, Miss Posy… mmhmmm… take care."
Peeta was dumbstruck.
"No need to thank me, Peets," Crane reached forward and smacked his arm as he stood. "Although I do love a good Malbec."
He paused at the door and grinned his feral grin one last time.
"Who knows? Maybe you'll even get a piece of hot masseuse action, eh?"
Peeta's head hit his desk with a thud.
Victor's Bakery was the brainchild of an ex-con named Chaff who had spent most of his teenage and young adult life in and out of the system. He had finally got his shit together in his late forties, a luxury his peers in the system did not share. After that, he'd opened the bakery to give something back to the world, in order to even out his karma.
The mission of the place was to reach out to the no-longer-minors who had just left the system as young adults and give them the sort of work that kept them out of jail. The sort of work that would have kept Chaff out of jail himself. Anyone who worked for a full year got a portion of the profits the bakery made. It was supposed to invest them in their labor a lot more than flipping burgers at a soulless fast food chain did. And in a fair number of cases, it worked.
It was a pretty nondescript-looking storefront, definitely not the picturesque kind of bakery where housewives ran into each other for the latest gossip, but the neighborhood loved it anyway.
And according to Marvel, it was basically the best community service he could possibly get.
"No dog shit or side-of-the-highway trash involved. Just teach some tattooed thugs to bake, and you're done," he'd said over the phone, far too pleased with himself. "All you have to do is show up and the resident P.O. named Abernathy will take care of all the paperwork. I told him you wanted to do twice a week for six weeks, since you'll be in Silver Lake anyway for your appointments."
Peeta had hung up on him after that.
The mandated massages were a pretty sore subject. Crane, of course, had told everyone he knew. The man loved to put on a show and he was particularly proud of his "rehabilitation project."
Opening the door the to the bakery, Peeta slammed into a man who smelled just a bit too much like mouthwash to be good news. He was disheveled, unshaven, his olive skin was ashen, and his dark hair was greasy. He looked somewhat out of place in the otherwise spotless storefront. The only other person there was a girl with an enormous cloud of dark curly hair who seemed to be staffing the counter, which was probably not that necessary, since it was five o'clock in the morning.
"You the kid?" the unkempt man grunted, not entirely clearing up Peeta's concern that he wasn't a homeless vagrant who had wandered in from the streets.
"I'm Peeta Mellark. Not entirely certain what 'kid,' you're referring to, but I'm here looking for a man named Abernathy."
"You're the kid," the man said with a grim chuckle.
"What is that supposed to mean?"
The girl behind the counter laughed.
"It means," the slovenly man drawled, "that we don't often see your type around here. Too rich, too old…"
"Too white," the girl behind the counter laughed again.
"Wasn't gonna mention that, but thanks, Rue."
"No problem," she shrugged.
"And," the man continued, gesturing towards a doorway to the left of the counter, "the traffic court sent us a 'special case' today. Don't get muchspecialer than you, kid."
Peeta didn't follow him. "You're Abernathy then?" he asked suspiciously.
"Who the fuck do you think I am? Barack Obama? Yes, I'm Haymitch Abernathy. Now are you gonna come with me and sign the forms, or are you just gonna stand here taking up space?"
The office was tiny, and full of clutter. Underneath the scent of baked goods was the smell of filthy paper and hidden under that was the strong stench of cheap liquor. The man seemed sober enough now, but the odor seemed to suggest that that wasn't always the case.
After signing a few forms about insurance and liability, Abernathy led Peeta back through the storefront and into the kitchen.
"Chaff's away at a speaking engagement," he grumbled, "so basically you get to learn everything from me. And since I don't know a damn thing other than parole issues and how to drive a truck, you've gotta figure it out yourself. Your lawyer said you were a baker…"
"He lied," Peeta interrupted. "I'm a publicist."
"What a dumb job," Abernathy scoffed.
"I've made more money in three years than you'll make in twenty," Peeta said matter-of-factly. "Now just tell me what you want me to do and I'll do it, since neither of us seems to be enjoying the other's company."
"Smart move, talking like that to the man who decides whether or not you've done your time. If you're not a baker, I don't need you, so might as well find a nice spot along the highway to pick up trash."
"My dad was a baker," Peeta said coldly. "I've been baking longer than I've been reading. By the time I was sixteen I was making cakes that sold for hundreds of dollars. I can laminate dough, make frosting orchids, and roll fondant. If what's in your display case is any indication, whoever's been in charge here recently can't make chocolate chip cookies without burning them, so I'm pretty certain this bakery needs me more than it needs you. Maybe you should get your pointy stick and garbage bag ready."
Unexpectedly, Abernathy laughed.
"This has gotta be the first time I got someone so damn eloquent from traffic court," he shook his head. "Here's the kitchen. Here's the workers. Do your thing, kid."
With that, he turned and was gone, leaving Peeta with a group of ex-offenders who had all entered adulthood in the system.
There were three of them.
In the far corner, a pretty girl and a good-looking kid in their early twenties were flirting heavily. Standing awkwardly by the counter was tall lanky kid with horn-rimmed glasses who looked like he should still be in high school. Each one of them had a court mandated ankle bracelet on.
"I'm Peeta Mellark," he said with all the authority he could muster. "I'm here to teach–"
The girl snorted and tossed her long, chemically straightened hair, "Don't even play. You're here 'cause you gotta do hours. Don't pretend you give a fuck about us. Just be real, okay?"
The boy next to her sniggered and Peeta felt his ears grow hot with angry embarrassment.
"Okay fine. I'm here because I have to do some kind of community service, and this seems better than picking up trash."
"It's only marginally better," the kid with glasses offered.
"Shuddup Vick," the third kid said, "sure as hell's better than working at McDonald's. Everybody who works in that place turns into a damn fatass."
The kid with glasses looked nervous and uncomfortable. It wasn't surprising, really. He looked like a member of the AV club, while the other two kids looked like the kind who put AV club members in lockers.
"So he's Vick?" Peeta tried to diffuse the situation. "What are your names then?"
The girl tossed her hair and smiled. "I'm Solicitation for Prostitution." She wrapped her arms around the kid next to her, kissing him deeply before adding, "And this sexy thing is Grand Theft Auto."
"Tampering with Official Records," Vick grimaced when Peeta looked at him for help.
"You already saw Aggravated Assault out there," Prostitution said.
"As revealing as your rap sheets are, I'd rather have real names. Might make the whole process of communication easier," Peeta said wryly, not particularly wanting to care why they had spent any sort of time in juvenile detention, but finding he most definitely did.
The thought of a minor working as a prostitute made him almost physically sick.
"Only when you tell us yours," Grand Theft Auto grinned. "Gotta make sure you're not gonna try to sell me drugs or somethin'. I'm on probation, after all."
"Obstructing an Officer in Pursuit of the Law," Peeta sighed, "oh, and uh… Traveling Eighty in a Forty-Five Mile Per Hour Zone or something. You happy?"
"Leevy Rios," the girl smirked.
"Bristel Johnson," the kid shrugged. "But I like GTA better. Bristel is a dumbass name."
"My surname is Hawthorne," Vick added, pushing up his glasses. "And of course there is erm… Rue Dawkins out there. Really, she shouldn't be here at all. The assault she committed was definitely warranted."
Leevy made loud kissing noises and Vick turned bright red.
"Alright well then since I know who you are, we can either stand here glaring at each other, or I can do what I came here to do."
With a lot less instruction than he had expected being necessary, Peeta had Leevy, who had been working in the bakery the longest, rolling out laminated dough for croissants. Bristel, or rather, GTA was aggressively mixing up a batch of cranberry muffins while Rue filling cannoli with a steady hand. They all picked up their tasks quickly. GTA muttered something about fixing up his Camaro with his share of the year's profits.
Peeta was pretty familiar with how strong a motivator the thought of money could be.
Vick, however, was struggling. It was pretty obvious that he was the smartest one of the bunch, but that didn't seem to translate to the practical task of frosting things. As he held the pastry bag and tried to put a simple four-petaled flower on the sugar cookies, he ended up making nothing but a mess. Every time Leevy or GTA laughed, no matter what the reason was, the kid jumped. And it was impossible to miss the way he longingly glanced at Rue as the girl whistled blithely to herself. At one point he'd been staring so intently that he had smeared icing all over his glasses.
After watching the kid ruin a dozen cookies, Peeta stepped in.
"You need to brace your hand against something." Taking the bag from Vick, he demonstrated, making a flower in one smooth motion. "Took me about five years to figure it out," he added, noticing the look of embarrassment on the kid's face, "but I think you can probably get it by lunch."
Vick's jaw was still on the floor when Peeta returned the bag to him.
"Why on earth did you become a publicist when you could do this? It's like you were put on the earth to ice cookies."
Peeta shrugged, then lied effortlessly, "Money."
A laugh echoed through the kitchen, and he realized he had lost the younger man's attention altogether. Vick was instead gazing at the curve where Rue's neck met the cloud of her afro.
"She's pretty cute," Peeta said quietly. "Aggravated Assault? Sounds like she's not one to mess with, either. Kinda like that in a woman."
"She punched a man in the face because he was very getting fresh with her twelve-year-old sister. She's still certain he was touching little girls, but he had a good lawyer who twisted the truth like it was nothing at all, and she ended up in detention because she broke his nose and jaw."
Peeta felt sick for the second time that morning.
"She's dauntless, even though she's so tiny," Vick continued, almost in awe.
"So talk to her then."
The kid looked at him with a mixture of incredulity and amusement.
"I don't think there's a publicist on earth who could make me look good enough for a girl like her."
With a wicked sort of grin, Peeta looked him in the eyes.
"That's where you'd be wrong."
At one, when his eight-hour shift at the bakery was over, Peeta drove to the gym and worked out with a level of intensity that could only be called belligerent. Two hours and a shower later, as he walked to his car and his heart was still pounding against the cage of his ribs for reasons that had nothing to do with physical exertion.
Until that morning, he hadn't been in a bakery for ten years. Not since his parents' divorce. And that time wasn't something he liked to think about ever.
By the afternoon, he was so drunk he was screaming obscenities at the celebrities appearing on daytime talk shows.
He ended up in the bathroom at the end of the night, staring at his reflection in the mirror. The pale skin under his eyes was puffy and purple, and his eyes themselves were bloodshot. The faintest of wrinkles were beginning to appear at the corners of his eyes. He was starting to look old, but he wasn't even thirty yet.
He punched the mirror until it shattered against his fist.
"What happened to you hand?" were the first words out of Katniss' mouth as she opened the door to let him in. Unlike the last time, there was no welcoming committee of hot but bizarre housemates. Just her, in almost the exact same outfit she had been wearing the last time he'd seen her. Despite the severity of her tone, her eyes looked a little concerned.
Peeta flashed her one of his disarming smiles and chuckled, "Oh, that. It's nothing. I fell. I'm pretty clumsy."
"You're lying," she scowled, more out of confusion than actual disgust. "You barely know me. Why am I even worth a lie?"
He laughed again, a real laugh this time, and it sounded completely different than his fake chuckle had. A rush of warmth flowed through his chest and he crushed it down.
"I make people look good for a living," his voice was cold. "'I got drunk and punched a mirror,' doesn't exactly inspire confidence."
"Well, I don't need any confidence in you at all, since your boss already paid for all your sessions," she was already walking briskly down the hall.
"I could be a killer, you know," Peeta said casually as he followed her, "try to strangle you mid-massage."
"I carry a knife in my belt," Katniss shrugged as she grasped her doorknob. "You'd end up bleeding to death on the floor."
The frankness of her tone, though it was as offensive as it had been during their first meeting, was still equally as refreshing, so he tried his best to ignore it completely, because the conflicting emotions were bothersome at best.
"I'm sorry about the last time," he began, uncertain how he was supposed to apologize for a hard-on, but determined to give her not a single reason to think she was better than him. "I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable."
"It happens to pretty much every man," Katniss looked troubled and he felt just a little bit pleased with himself. "I don't take it personally."
Peeta looked at her sideways, "You still don't seem very at ease with the idea."
"People think that just cause I give massages, that I'm some sort of really sensual person with no shyness at all. That I'm just encouraging everyone to be free with their bodies."
"So you're not then?" he pressed her. "Even when it's not about you, and someone doesn't care if you see him?"
"I care, okay?" she spat, clearly flustered. "It's just… some things people should keep to themselves."
"I'll try to keep my dick to myself, Katniss," he laughed bitterly.
She glared, but didn't say anything after that, just violently spread the towel across the mattress and then left him to change clothes.
He had a bag with him, and he was more than able to change into the gym shorts she had suggested last time, but based on her reaction, he decided to strip down to his boxer briefs again. He chuckled to himself as he lay down, and moments later, Katniss knocked on the door.
Her silence spoke volumes.
"Figured I'd be as comfortable as possible, since it's mandated that I relax."
She sighed and he could tell she was scowling, even though he was face down in the mattress. It wasn't long until he smelled sandalwood and ginger again, and her fingers were on his back.
This time he forced himself to stay awake, trying to track the motions the heels of her hands made as they pressed into his body. It was a strange experience, feeling a woman run her fingers along his spine without the end goal of getting laid. He wondered what Katniss thought of him, and more specifically the muscles she was massaging.
Other women were typically impressed, so he wouldn't be surprised if she was.
But then, Delly hadn't been.
And, come to think of it, every other woman he had been with in the last five years had been in the entertainment industry. People he could somehow help, if he felt so inclined. Friends of friends (or worse, clients) who wanted to talk about their careers after sex, who were clingy at the worst possible moments, and who name-dropped in conversation with a frequency that drove him insane.
Maybe, just maybe, he was significantly less attractive than he thought he was.
The familiar anxious sensation of two rabid badgers ripping each other to pieces in his stomach was coming back just as Katniss' hands reached his trapezius muscles. He forced himself to take a deep anchoring breath as she began to knead slowly up the back of his neck.
He wasn't really certain how it happened. At first her firm touch hadn't felt that sexual at all, just a little painful, and then relaxing, like it had been all along. But then it suddenly wasn't.
It felt so fantastic, so overwhelmingly good that he moaned audibly.
Very. very. audibly.
Katniss' hands stopped moving completely and he could feel the awkwardness descend onto the room like a damp, musty blanket. He could feel his dick, rebelliously hard, pressing into the mattress.
"My parents had a bakery when I was a kid," he blurted out the absolute last thing he wanted to say.
The awkwardness blanket withdrew somewhat, simply because Katniss was confused.
"What?" she asked, moving her hands as far away from his neck as possible without being obvious. Which made it all the more obvious to him.
"Oh, I was just starting to say," he lied smoothly, "I have to do community service because of this douchebag cop and I'm stuck teaching kids how to bake. I hate it. I spent a day rolling out cookies, and now my neck is killing me."
"You're lying," she said coolly. "I don't care if you want to talk, just don't lie."
"How can you tell?" he asked, exasperated and embarrassed. "I lie on a daily, probably hourly basis, and no one ever calls me on it."
Her hands lifted off his back and he assumed she was shrugging. "Maybe they're all lying to you too. I don't know."
That was a pleasant thought to consider.
Without meaning to he sighed loudly enough for her to hear and the blanket descended again.
For a long time there was silence, until she finally made the sort of half-sighing deep breaths that people take in when they're working themselves up to say something.
"Look, I don't really have any reason to have an opinion about you. But if you lie to me, I can tell you that my opinion's not going to be good. So can we just not?"
"Not what?" he asked.
"Lie," she said quietly, like she was remembering something. "Pretend you feel something when you don't. Your secretary called. She said I'm supposed to help you relax. And, I know I'm not very good at the psychological part, and I'm definitely no therapist, but if you just come in here and lie, that takes work, and it's going to get all knotted up in your body. I'll have to work twice as hard to get it out."
"I didn't realize you were one of those kinds of masseuses," he sneered, remembering Crane's "ancient mystics."
"I've just seen it happen, okay? People lie and lie and say they're feeling better, that you're helping, and really you're not and then everything goes to hell."
"You'll still get paid," he felt pretty certain she wasn't talking only about him.
"Yeah, well maybe I actually want to help a client for once," she muttered.
"Are you saying you care about me?" he scoffed, leaning up to look at her.
She crossed her arms angrily, and it was apparent the massage was over.
"Everyone says I should."
"Am I allowed to ask what you're in for?" Peeta sighed with boredom. He was behind the wheel of a delivery truck, steering it away from the bakery, and Vick was seated next to him. "Or are we still slowly circling each other in the jail yard, fingering our shanks?"
The kid looked at him like he might actually punch him in the face.
"Guess I'd better sharpen mine," Peeta turned his focus back to the road.
"W-why are you interested in such a thing?" Vick sputtered with awkward fury.
"Because I'm driving a truck at seven in the morning and there's literally nothing else we have in common that I know of," Peeta responded. "If I don't talk about something, I'm going to fall asleep and drive this truck full of bread into a building."
Vick looked resentful. "Actually, how is it that you've been given permission to drive? I've made ever attempt to get that sort of privilege, but I've been told that it is an insurance issue."
"It is," Peeta squinted at the GPS on his phone. "Unfortunately, Haymitch was on the floor of in his office with a really smelly hangover, so somebody else had to take over. I'm the only one without an ankle bracelet, therefore I get to drive."
"But you're doing community service for traffic violations," Vick protested.
Peeta laughed, "The irony didn't escape me."
The kid crossed his arms and they sat silently for about five minutes before he finally answered the original question.
"I gave myself access to the grades database at my high school, then made some select alterations."
"You went to juvie for changing your grades?" Peeta was incredulous.
"Erm, well, actually not mine," Vick continued, his tone of voice wavering between pride and chagrin. "That was unnecessary. However, for a fee, I allowed my peers the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to graduate."
"That still doesn't seem like a thing you go to jail for."
Vick cleared his throat. "Perhaps the timeline should be taken into consideration."
As they sat at a red light, Peeta turned and looked at him quizzically.
The kid's face was red. "I may have provided said opportunities over my entire high school career. I suppose it was fortuitous, in a way, that I was discovered just before my eighteenth birthday. Otherwise, I would have been judged even more harshly than I was by the court."
Peeta was flabbergasted, "You only have to listen to about five words come out of your mouth to figure out that you're smart. Why would you do such an idiotic thing?"
"Money," Vick lied with some effort.
There was no real point to try to get to the bottom of the situation. He didn't actually give a damn about this kid. If Vick was bored or dissatisfied enough with his life to ruin it, that was his problem, not Peeta's. It really wasn't his problem, any more than Leevy's prostitution career was his concern.
So why did they gnaw at him so much?
In the following silence, Vick picked up the sheet of paper that listed their deliveries for the day.
"This can't be right," he gulped.
"I followed the GPS," Peeta asserted. "We're not lost. In fact, we should be there in about–"
"Three point five minutes," Vick muttered.
"How the hell do you know?"
"Because our first delivery is to my brother."
According to Peeta's groaning companion, Primula Farm and its adjacent store was a collaborative business venture between Rory Hawthorne, and his wife Primrose. They grew all kinds of things, but specialized in plants of a more herbal variety. Herbs that they had started trading in exchange for bread from Victory Bakery. A mutually beneficial partnership.
"I do not have any desire to be here," Vick moaned into his hands.
"Don't you see them a lot?"
Vick shook his head, muttering "I live with my mother and younger sister. Rory and Primrose have their own home, obviously."
"So we make this quick. In, out, no family complications."
Vick laughed bitterly as they turned a corner and the GPS announced the destination was on the right.
"That is not the way it is going to go, believe me," he sighed.
It was at that moment that Peeta read the sign.
"Red King Herbalists!?" he cried, turning to Vick with a frenzied look in his eye as soon as he parked the truck in front of the building.
"Well yes," the kid looked very uncomfortable and confused. "That's the name of their store. They named their businesses after each other, apparently. I always found it rather sappy."
"Does Prim have a sister?" Peeta demanded.
"Katniss finds the nomenclature as ridiculous as I do."
"Katniss," Peeta made a strangled noise full of embarrassment mingled with rage and despair.
Vick shrugged, "Another ridiculous name, I suppose. Although if you don't mind my saying, Peeta is a bizarre name. Were your parents Dutch? Or particularly fond of flatbread? They did own a bakery so…"
He didn't answer, just threw the door open and ran his fingers through his curls in frustration. "We need to make this as quick as we can."
"You will certainly not hear any complaints from me."
Chimes rang as they pushed open the door to a space filled with so many different smells Peeta's brain couldn't focus on a single one. He wasn't even two steps into the door when a leggy blonde whirlwind descended on them.
"Vick! It's been ages!" the young woman cried. When she finally stopped moving, it was obvious that on some level this person was related to Katniss. She had the same cheekbones, the same lips, the same gestures, even. Her golden hair was braided in a crown around her head, and her blue eyes sparkled over a bow of freckles scattered across her nose. She was wearing a faded floral print dress, and didn't have on a single piece of jewelry other than a sapphire that twinkled in a dark wooden setting next to her simple rose gold wedding band.
Like her sister, she wasn't particularly gorgeous. But the air around her nearly vibrated with the positive energy she gave off.
It made Peeta feel inexplicably happy.
It also made his teeth hurt.
Vick looked as though his were on the verge of falling out.
"When are you going to start making me croissants for breakfast?" she teased good-naturedly.
Peeta took a step forward, and smiled disarmingly, "I'd say give him about three weeks." Holding out his hand, he added, "Peeta Mellark, baker extraordinaire."
As Katniss' sister made to introduce herself, insisting he call her Prim, Vick's jaw dropped, "But you said that you were–"
The rest of his sentence was cut off when Peeta stepped heavily on his foot.
"So there's a few packages for us to pick up?" he asked.
Prim nodded and directed them to a stack of milk crates filled with leafy bundles and a few pumpkins and squash. As Vick picked one up and headed out to the truck, she grabbed Peeta's sleeve and held him back.
"How's he doing?"
Instantly feeling anxious, Peeta smiled benignly, "I'm not certain what you mean."
"A kid like him wasn't made for a detention facility," Prim sighed with concern. "Since he got out, he hasn't really come around much."
She paused, as though she was waiting for Peeta to say something to make it better. A million potential lies ran through his head. He was just focusing on one, a story about Vick's flirtation with Rue that had a large enough kernel of truth to work, when Prim continued in way of explanation.
"He was just so awkward in high school. Wanted so badly to make friends. Kids didn't understand him. I mean, you spend five minutes with him you can see that he's difficult."
"I haven't seen that at all," Peeta said honestly. Vick was awkward, sure, but he was just a kid who hadn't grown into his brain yet.
Prim looked up at him from under her eyelashes, and her smile just about stopped time. He wondered briefly if that's what her sister's smile looked like. Then he immediately felt annoyed at himself for wondering such a thing.
"Really?" she asked, in happy disbelief.
He laughed and shrugged, "He's a good kid. I definitely haven't felt like he's going to steal my wallet, unlike some others."
"I think he believes that Rory and I are disappointed in him," she sighed, and Peeta finally realized that she was confiding in him as though he knew more about the situation than he actually did. "But how could we be? After the accident, we spent so much time just pacing back and forth in the hospital praying that Katniss would wake up. Then when she did there was Gale's physical therapy..." She blushed at some unsaid memory and added, "Rory and I fell in love in the process. It was a really intense time. I guess everyone just forgot about Vick."
Accident? And who was Gale? What was she talking about?
"You did the best you could," he nodded reassuringly, as though he knew exactly what she was talking about.
Prim didn't seem to possess her sister's general distrust and suspicion, so she accepted what he said without question just as his phone rang.
"Sorry, I have to take this," he told her when he saw who it was.
Vick loaded the crates alone while Peeta stood in a quiet corner and explained to his client for the five thousandth time what a PR relationship was, and just how bad it would look if the public saw the young actor out with his unavailable female costar. The kid was on the verge of tears when Peeta finally pulled himself away, feeling overwhelming amounts of guilt that he couldn't just let the guy experience the normal unrequited love that any other twenty-year-old kid would have.
He was a publicist, not a therapist, he told himself over and over again.
Therapists were cheaper, although possibly less discreet.
When he put his phone in his pocket and turned, two more people had entered the room. One was obviously related to Vick. He was tall and slender, with two full sleeves of tattoos, gauges in his ears, and a pretty serious beard.
The other was Katniss.
His heart jumped into his throat and his stomach twisted into the mess of self-loathing that now seemed to be directly related to her presence. Logically, that probably wasn't true – she had absolutely nothing to do with his life. But whenever she was around, he always ended up feeling very intensely how wrong the life he had worked so hard to be able to live now seemed to be.
It was easier to just try to hate her.
Especially easy now that she was scowling at him, arms crossed, as the man who obviously was her brother-in-law exchanged quiet, worried words with his wife.
Uncertain what to do, he flashed her a smile that came out cocky and only served to deepen her frown.
"Katniss!" Prim pulled herself away from her husband. "This is Peeta! He's volunteering at the bakery and working with Vick."
"Oh, I know him," Katniss said flatly, knowing damn well he wasn't volunteering at all.
Prim made an exasperated face at her sister's lack of enthusiasm. "Be nice, okay?" she half-joked. "Vick seems to actually be able to have a friendly conversation with Peeta – that's more than he's done in six months with anyone else."
"I had no idea you all were connected," Peeta said mildly, wordlessly begging Katniss not to bring up the fact that he was actually not a volunteer.
She was silent.
"Peeta is one of my clients," she finally said. "Posy scheduled him while you were sick."
"And you should still be in bed," Rory called out, shouldering a large basket of cabbages as he headed out the back door. "Katniss and I have things covered. You need to rest."
"I'm having a baby, not dying of consumption," Prim called back to him, then glared down at her sister. "You both need to relax. I have tinctures to make, Posy is at school, your mother has been tending to customers every morning for weeks and I'm just bored, okay?"
Peeta chuckled, and Prim winked at him. Katniss, on the other hand, looked like she wanted to cut him. The chime rang again, signaling Vick's reentrance.
"I think we should probably get going," Peeta began apologetically. "Lots of deliveries to make."
Unexpectedly, Prim pulled him into a tight hug. She was slight, but he could feel the small roundness of her belly, hidden under her dress, as it pressed into his side.
"Thank you so much for volunteering your time at the bakery," she said warmly. Vick coughed uncomfortably.
Katniss said nothing, but her scowl grew deeper. Peeta felt each muscle in the back of his neck and shoulders all but curl around itself.
When they climbed into the truck, Peeta expected Vick to scold him over lying to his sister-in-law.
But he didn't.
"So what exactly is the situation between you and Katniss?" the kid demanded.
Peeta kept his eyes on the wheel.
"She gives me massages," he said neutrally. "I've been under a lot of stress."
"I've seen you interact with seventeen separate individuals since you began work at the bakery, and she's the only one who you had a negative reaction to," Vick noted, picking at his fingernails. "Are you entirely certain that she is only your masseuse? Or are you just entirely fake with every single other human you meet?"
"Not that you have done a thing to deserve it, but I'm honest with you," Peeta felt disgusted with himself as soon as the words were out of his mouth. "And I was honest with Prim…"
Vick threw up his hands, "You absolutely were not! You lied! Your time is in no way voluntary!"
"Not about that," Peeta muttered.
"Then what about, exactly?"
About you not being completely hopeless, Peeta thought.
"You never dated a girl named Delly, did you?" he demanded instead.
"I don't take kindly to people lying to my sister," Katniss said through gritted teeth as she pressed the heel of her hand into his deltoid muscle. She was angry today, and his back was feeling the effects.
Actually it felt pretty good.
"I don't owe anyone anything," he hissed at her. "And in a way, I am volunteering. I have hours to fill, and I could have done them anywhere. Ichose the bakery."
She dug into his trapezius muscle so hard his toes curled, but said nothing.
"Your sister seems like a really good person. I don't need her hating me like you do."
The intense pressure turned into actual pain. Peeta was on the verge of demanding Katniss stop when she cried out, and fell backwards.
Forgetting his irritation and anger, Peeta jumped up and reached out for her. She sitting on the floor, cradling her shoulder, the one adjacent to her scar and tattoo. Her eyes were wet with unshed tears and she was biting her lip.
"Are you okay?" he asked, crouching next to her and gently supporting her back with his hand. The fact that he was in his underwear was a non-issue for the first time in their entire relationship.
She was in too much pain to glare. Even though she was in pain, the lines on her face had softened. "I'm alright," she gasped, even though it was obvious she wasn't.
Standing up, Peeta immediately began to dress.
"Where are you going?" she croaked, the fingers digging into her own shoulder clenching and unclenching. "You've only been here for five minutes."
"I'm getting dressed to take you to the ER," he said as he slipped on his shoes. "Unless you'd rather I carry you there in my underwear."
It was the first time he had heard her laugh, and over the wall of resentment he had built up against her, he found himself liking the sound almost as much as he liked the sound of her singing. It felt relaxing, safe, and familiar, even though he'd never heard the song before.
"I can take them back off," he paused, hand at his fly.
Shaking her head, the scowl returned, but her eyes were softer, "I don't need to go to the hospital. It's just an old injury. I have painkillers for it. I worked my shoulder too hard today, that's all."
Nodding knowingly, he grinned, "Katniss, you don't have to make up a story, alright? I get it – my muscles are just that robust."
It was obvious she was trying to fight it, but she laughed again. "Doubt it."
He put his hand on his chest and looked at her forlornly, "You wound me."
"Shut up and help me stand. I need to get to the medicine cabinet so we can finish this massage."
"No way you're doing that," he asserted, regaining some of his emotional distance as he lifted her to her feet, shocked at how light she was. "You need to rest that arm, or you're never giving anyone a massage again."
She glared at him, laughter gone, "I've already been paid for today. I'm not about to owe you anything. I want these over with as soon as possible."
Ignoring the insult in her tone, he shrugged, "So help me relax some other way. It'll make you feel better too."
"What?" she all but bellowed. The implication was obvious.
He shook his head and laughed, "As confident as I am of my semen's healing properties, I think I'm just a bit above coercing someone into having sex with me just because she owes me a massage."
Katniss' face was unreadable.
"What I'm trying to say, is maybe we can just sit down and talk or something? Maybe get coffee?"
"I don't like coffee," she said neutrally.
"I'm trying to quit, actually. Hot chocolate then?"
Raising her eyebrow, she said frankly, "I don't like you."
"Well, I'm not your biggest fan either, to be honest," he said calmly. "But, for some reason you're one of two people who I feel any sort of clarity around."
"Go find the other one, then," she grunted, digging around on the mess that was the top of her dresser for a bottle of pills.
"He's not nearly as pleasant to look at," Peeta said before he realized what it was he was saying. He wondered when exactly it had become the truth. Well, not that Vick was kind of a funny-looking kid – that'd always been obvious – but that she'd gone from "nothing special" to someone worth complimenting.
Katniss swallowed her pills angrily in response, but as she threw her head back, he could see a faint pink staining her cheeks.
She was blushing.
"I'll pay and everything," he added. "Just show me where the closest place is."
For a long moment she didn't say anything.
"Fine," she growled. "But you have to help me put on my shoes."
He pulled the chunk of bread out of the thick drinking chocolate and then sighed happily as the combination of flavors touched his tongue. The bread was crusty, and just a little stale, but it didn't matter because it tasted perfect.
Katniss stared at him across the table, looking disgusted.
"Try it," he urged. "It's good."
Warily, she pulled a tiny piece of bread off of the hunk at their table, and dipped it in her drink. The place was almost deserted, most people in the neighborhood at restaurants that served actual dinner. Behind the counter an old woman Katniss had greeted as Sae was wiping down for the night.
Apparently they were allowed to come in even if the place was closing.
As she chewed, Katniss' face went from suspicious to impressed.
"Wow, this is actually pretty delicious," she begrudgingly told him. "How'd you even figure that out?"
"I don't like things that are too sweet," he said. "The bread evens out the sweetness and cools it down at the same time. We had a ton of stale bread around to experiment with when I was a kid."
"Cause of your parents owning a bakery?" she asked between bites.
"My father ran a bakery," Peeta clarified. "My mother was too busy not taking her medication and smacking us around to really claim ownership in much of anything."
There was a long awkward pause.
"So why aren't you working there?" Katniss asked. "Vick wouldn't shut up about how good you are."
Peeta dunked his bread too hard into the liquid and it splashed up, burning his fingers. He focused on the pain.
"Because it doesn't exist anymore. They got divorced when I graduated. They owned it jointly, and my mother insisted my dad buy her out. Obviously, he couldn't afford it, so they had to sell."
"Oh," was all she said.
"Yeah," Peeta said bitterly. "I was starting my first semester of art school, but there wasn't a point anymore – the eventual plan had always been to come back to the bakery, but there was no bakery to come back to. I transferred to business. Ended up being really good at marketing, got a great internship where I am now, and things just went from there."
It was the first time he'd ever admitted that to anyone. Of course Katniss didn't know that. It made it nice that she didn't. She took a long, blissfully ignorant sip of her drinking chocolate and they sat in silence for a while.
"I didn't want to be a masseuse," she finally offered.
Peeta smirked, "It's kind of obvious."
"Prim and I did the certification process together. She thought it'd be good for me."
"Did you like to touch people as much then as you do now?" Peeta asked, chuckling a little.
Katniss barked a single bitter laugh.
By the time their drinks were drained, Katniss' shoulder seemed to be paining her less, but Peeta helped her out of her chair all the same, despite her protests. Even though he was well aware that she was quite strong, he still marveled at how delicate she felt. For the first time, he was physically close to her outside of the false intimacy of his massages. Her skin was warm and smooth, but just like everything else about her, it was real, with dips and scars and other imperfections. The thought of finding each of those imperfections, no matter where they were, and kissing every one, flashed into his mind, though he had no idea where it came from.
It was confusing, angering even. She wasn't anything. He had dated models, actresses, musicians, and those beautiful people who never seemed to actually do anything but knew everyone. And he still could, really.
The two of them walked quietly back to her house and his car, neither finding the need to say much. The silence was comfortable, but when they reached her gate, he stopped her.
"Your sister, she told me something about an accident. I think she thought Vick had told me, but he didn't. I… I just wanted you to know. I mean, I don't actually know anything, but it seemed personal and…" he trailed off awkwardly, not certain why he wanted her to know that he knew.
Katniss shrugged, "I crashed my bike, shattered my collarbone, and was in a coma for two weeks. Prim thinks it was such a big deal that everyone heard about it. I guess it did make the news."
"That must have been an awful accident… I'm glad you're okay now."
She began climbing the stairs to her house and Peeta opened the door to his car. Halfway up, she turned around.
"It wasn't the accident that made the news," she called down to him. "It was the fact that I couldn't go to the Olympics that they cared about."
The buzzing of his phone against his leg, signaling a text message, began just as he pulled into his garage. His mind was too full of thoughts of Katniss, of her skin, of her past, of her everything, to check and see who it was or what it said. Then he realized it could possibly be her, and he picked up his phone.
been thinkin bout u alot lately, it said. It was from a number he didn't recognize, but there was no way in hell it was from Katniss. A few seconds later, as he exited the car, it buzzed again.
u fucked me so good after marvels party last month, this one said. There was only one person it could be. Someone Peeta had no desire to see ever again.
Her name was Glimmer, but he didn't even know her last name. She was a model who wanted to get into acting. After they'd slept together, she'd asked Peeta if he'd represent her. After explaining that he only represented people who were famous enough to actually need a publicist, and she probably needed an agent, she had left rather quickly, claiming her friend had texted her with an emergency.
She'd been a good lay. And at the time, he'd been pretty glad she'd left afterwards. It wasn't the first time people had thought he was an agent, and it was unlikely to be the last. In all honestly, there wasn't any reason for him to not respond to her now. She was almost a guaranteed lay, and he hadn't had sex since then.
But it hadn't been anything real. He wasn't certain if she'd enjoyed himself, or even found him attractive. And she reminded him of a host of other similar women.
The thought turned his stomach.
His phone buzzed a third time, and he looked at it with trepidation.
u want 2 meet up?
The answer was no.
He went to bed early, without responding to Glimmer's texts. He didn't want to think about her. He couldn't, in point of fact. As he fell asleep, he could think about nothing but the spot where Katniss' long dark braid fell against the curve of her collarbone. Of the timbre of her voice as it echoed in the street.
If this was hate, he wasn't certain if he'd be able to survive it for much longer.
The air was thick. Her oil covered fingers gently but firmly slid over the indentations in his abs. The room was hot, almost too hot, and the sweat ran down his temples in tiny rivulets. His dick was straining against the soft cotton of his boxer briefs. He knew she could see, but he didn't care at this point. She had told him to lie on his back for some reason this time, and, he had all but given up any hope of modesty.
"I'm sorry… I… this is…" he stuttered.
He was nearly insane with wanting her. He hadn't gone this long without having sex since he was a seventeen, especially not when a lovely woman was rubbing her hands against him twice weekly. And he craved her so, so badly.
"You want me," she said without fanfare, pausing in her ministrations for only a fragment of a second. "I… like it."
He sat up, nearly knocking her over in his enthusiasm. His excitement was so extreme that he almost thanked her before he caught himself and cleared his throat. He had slid his hands halfway up the long expanse of her thighs before she caught them, clasped them between her own, and then pushed them into his chest.
"Not like that," she said quietly, steadily. He felt the faintest tremor in her hands, but it could have just been the trembling in his own.
She sat down near his knees on the mattress and, for the first time, openly acknowledged his cock by looking at it. Well, at least the outline of it. Her breaths increased in speed, maybe only slightly, but enough that he noticed. After hearing plenty of women openly praise his equipment, it was more gratifying than made sense. But those past reactions now seemed so forced making him wonder if they had been lying.
None of that mattered though, once the next sentence was out of her mouth.
"I want to watch you get yourself off," she said simply, looking a little flushed and trying very hard to hide it. The whole scenario was infinitely more arousing than seeing and feeling the last girl's lips around his dick had been.
He exhaled raggedly, and nodded, reaching his hand down to the waistband of his briefs.
"No," she stilled him. "No hands."
Unless she thought he was one of the lucky few men who could suck himself off, he had no idea what she expected exactly, and he told her as much, probably sounding a lot harsher than he intended to.
"You need to relax," she shrugged, as though it were obvious. "That's the reason you're getting massages. And a huge part of that is gaining control over your body, stilling yourself… being aware of your own heartbeat."
He had no idea what she was getting at.
"So control yourself. Without your hands," she kept his eyes for a moment too long, then looked hard at the futon.
Having been a twelve-year-old once, he knew how it worked, sitting in class, shifting his hips against his clothes in ways that felt good. The horrible day when one day it felt so good that he'd had to retreat into the bathroom and try to clean up so that no one noticed that he'd come all over himself.
It was technically still possible now.
And if anyone could do it, he could at this point.
Otherwise he would go crazy.
He took another ragged breath and reached his hands out to fist the towel as he lay down. Then he closed his eyes willed himself to relax. With every breath, he became more aware of everything around him, the way his body sunk into the cushions, the heat of the room, the feel of his shorts against his aching skin. His heartbeat, though it thrummed quick in his ears, stopped pounding in his throat.
There was a sudden rush of blood to his groin, as the realization that he was lying on his back while a girl was watching him, hoping that he'd jack off, really sunk in. His dick twitched against his shorts, and it felt really good.
That was it. A movement he could control.
He clenched the towel in his hands and opened his eyes as he twitched up and thrust forward against his own underwear.
His reward was a feminine gasp so unexpected that he twitched again without meaning to.
His stone-faced masseuse was nearly drooling.
Katniss' eyes were wide, and she watched him unabashedly. He realized that his boxer briefs were so tight against him that the only thing not obvious about his dick was the color of his skin. As he rolled his hips to gather for each thrust, the lines of his abdomen rippled. The muscles in his arm contracted as he clenched the towel.
She made a tiny little whimpering sound.
"God…" he hissed.
He'd heard people say before that sex was mostly psychological. Until now that sort of thing had always sounded like a story ugly people told each other to pretend that things like size and looks didn't matter, when they obviously did.
But that had been before he had been on his back thrusting against his underwear, while a girl with small tits and crooked teeth watched.
That was before looking into her eyes while it happened somehow turned into the hottest thing he had ever done in his entire life.
She wanted him. She wanted him so bad and she was holding back and it made him want her more than he'd ever wanted anyone in his entire life. He thrust harder and faster, and his knuckles went white as he clenched the sheets.
Any other time, with any other girl, he would have grunted, and asked her in a rough voice if she wanted to be fucked as much as he wanted to fuck her. And then he would have done it, made her scream, and showed her just how goddamn long he could last.
He just didn't have the mental space for any of that artifice. So he rutted the air and his own shorts, and probably looked like a fool, but he didn't care. There was nothing to think about, nothing to prove. All there was to do was feel, and he did. Looking into her eyes, he wondered what she felt like. And he knew she was desperately wondering the exact same thing.
And then he came harder than he ever had in his entire life.
He woke up with underwear and even sheets sticky with his own cum for the first time in about ten years. He didn't know what was worse – the fact that he'd ejaculated all over himself, or the fact that he wanted Katniss so badly and he hadn't even realized it till now.
"Your ten am's here to see you," Delly said over the intercom. Peeta had been staring mindlessly at the wall for the past hour as his emails piled up, and his work sat untouched.
"Send her in," he responded, and before he could even look up, his door was swinging open, and in came a tall, blonde woman dressed in torn jeans, a cropped t-shirt that hung half off her shoulder, and enough chains to supply an entire jail. Her dark eye makeup was stylishly smeared. In general, she looked fresh in from an all-night party.
Cashmere was a pop star, one of the more famous clients Peeta had, but he wasn't certain why she even needed a publicist. The woman had a killer voice, that was true, but what she really excelled at was being famous. Her acoustic career had never taken off, so instead she'd sold her image, becoming the trashiest pop star on the market, and made a cool ten million in the process.
Few people realized that the woman that sang about vodka-soaked tampons was a card-carrying member of MENSA with a degree from Yale. She wrote all of her own songs, and made certain she objectified men in every single one. It was Peeta's job to make certain the general public didn't find that out, but in general, Cashmere did a pretty good job of that herself.
She was Peeta's favorite client.
"Cazh, how are you," he stood to shake her hand, but the woman grabbed it and pulled him across the desk for a hug.
"Pretty good, I guess," she shrugged, "according to Tumblr I have herpes, though."
Peeta smirked, "Do you want to have herpes?"
She tossed her hair, metal-tipped extensions tinkling against each other. "I don't think it'd hurt, do you? I mean obviously I don't want to verify it, because who wants an incurable STD? But let's be real, it doesn't actually hurt my image much."
Cashmere was practical. She knew how the business worked, and unlike a lot of actors, she didn't have to have her feelings protected from a cruel world that was more than ready to tear her to pieces over any sign of vulnerability.
"I mean, it's already generally accepted that I've had an abortion," she continued, pulling out her phone and scanning through it distractedly, "so really, I can't see this making things that much worse. Just kind of feeds into my not giving a fuck lifestyle."
Peeta nodded and made note of the situation, which as usual, required he do nothing. The only time it was necessary for him to even step in at all was when it seemed likely that her college background would be publically discussed. A few phone calls to some less than savory contacts at Yale, and her ill-performing, partying background had been firmly established, despite the fact that she had done neither.
And that was it. There was nothing new to discuss, no new issues to strategize about. Just the better part of an hour for the two of them to talk. It was how their meetings always went.
"So how have you been, Peeta?" she leaned forward and put her chin in her hands. "People are saying you're slipping."
"Who's saying that?" he demanded.
"Well, your boss for one. And a few old clients, lovers, or whatever. I heard that bitch Glimmer going on about you a few nights ago. It wasn't very flattering, and it involved your dick."
"Do you really still want to do this?" she asked him frankly. "The only reason I even have a publicist is because I think you're the only honest person in the business. But this isn't really a place for a guy with any kind of integrity. I'm surprised you didn't lose your mind a long time ago. It all messes with your sense of reality."
"That's just it!" Peeta cried, though softly enough that he wouldn't be overheard. "I thought this was all fine. Figured I knew who I was, and since I did, the job didn't matter. I was so certain. But I dunno anymore." He paused and then asked, "How do you do it?"
Cashmere laughed, "Well, mostly I don't care. And I manage that by not having any friends in the industry at all. Everyone I keep around knew me when I was basically starving on the street, trying to find a record deal. I know I can trust them, and they know me. The people outside of that, well, they don't matter at all."
"But you're not like that."
Thinking of all his friends, associates, and even romantic associations, there wasn't one of them who wasn't in the industry. Well, unless Vick counted. Did Vick count? For that matter, did Katniss?
"With the exception of your sweet little secretary, who should totally give me her number if she fancies the fairer sex, everyone you know is trying to climb to the top of this town by sticking a knife in your back."
"Not all of my clients are like that," he interjected.
She shrugged, "Maybe not the more successful ones, but enough of them are, believe me. To make matters worse, you have a conscience, which is something I lost the luxury to have back when I was starving to death on the streets. It never came back, but I think yours never left. You just repressed it."
"I dunno," Peeta shook his head. "I've done some shitty things."
"But you're starting to feel worse and worse about them… aren't you?"
"Do you even remember who you were before this job? Do you remember what made you happy? Who you wanted to be?"
"Maybe I don't want to remember."
Scrunching up her face, she laughed sadly.
"You're like a chopped up mix of two conflicting people, Peeta Mellark. You should probably figure out which one of them is the real you. Otherwise you're headed straight to hell."
There was a rap on the glass, and he looked up to see, once again, Seneca Crane's grinning face on the other side.
"Well, speak of the devil," Cashmere muttered. "Looks like I'll be going. I had snake a few weeks ago when I was in Asia. It gave me the runs. Not looking to have any more at the present moment."
She stood up and Peeta led her to the door, opening it to Crane's eager handshake.
"Cashmere, so good to see you! Has Peeta told you about his new stress relief regimen? Weekly massages! I know you have an interest in alternative medicine and Eastern culture…"
"Seneca, I appropriate religious elements from other cultures as fashion pieces to suit my career. That basically means I steal them and turn them into something cheap. When I get sick I go to the Urgent Care clinic at the local drugstore. Don't even have a regular doctor. I know less about alternative medicine than you do, which is really saying something. See ya round, Peeta."
At her desk, Delly giggled, and Cashmere gave her a flirtatious wink on her way out.
"Well, she is just something," Crane sputtered, trying to recover from the obvious insult.
"Yeah she is," Peeta said with some admiration.
His boss coughed disapprovingly.
"I don't have a lot of time," he said after a moment, "but I wanted to let you know about your newest client, Clove Patterson."
Peeta chewed his lip thoughtfully, "How do I know that name?"
Crane grinned, "Well, because she's a real challenge that I think you'll be excited about. She's a sprinter with Olympic aspirations and a lot of support from sponsors. Financial support. She's the sort of figurehead that can really sell a brand, and they want to see her get to the Games in London next summer."
"Wait, is she the one from that scandal?"
The man nodded, as though the thought pleased him, "Her boyfriend was charged and then found guilty of physically assaulting one of her competitors. She, however, was acquitted on a technicality and with no conviction, the committee couldn't ban her from the Games."
"Obviously, fans hate technicalities," Crane continued. "But Clove is the kind of rare athlete who is going to go all the way, no question. Her sponsors are willing to make certain that her reputation is restored by next summer. It'd be a lot of work, setting up meetings with the right people, volunteer photo ops, things like that. But it's just the sort of thing that my star associate excels at, wouldn't you say, Peeta?"
Katniss couldn't go to the Olympics. Katniss couldn't go because she had been in some accident that nearly killed her. And now his boss was asking him to make certain that he sent someone who had deliberately injured another athlete to a place she obviously didn't deserve to go.
Whoever Peeta Mellark was, this wasn't his game.
"Actually, Seneca, I'm going to have to say no on to this one."
Crane's eyes bulged almost out of his head.
"You see," the lie flowed easily, "this whole foray into alternative medicine has made me realize that it's hugely important I take some time to myself. I've lost my way, you see. I'm going to take a leave of absence, starting this afternoon, actually. I was just about to tell you when Cashmere showed up. Feel free to take the hours from my vacation. I've accrued about three months' worth in the time I've been here."
Crane's jaw hung open and Delly looked equally surprised.
"You really should give Delly more responsibility in the office, by the way," Peeta added. "We haven't had an office manager in a year. I can't think of anyone more suited for the job. I'd also suggest giving her a raise before some other firm realizes what a gem we have on our hands and steals her away."
With that, he reached into his office for his jacket, and then strode out the door while Seneca sputtered helplessly.
He didn't look back.
That night he sat on his couch, phone resting in his palm. Katniss' number was on the screen. He wanted to call her, to tell her what he'd done and why.
But he'd sound crazy.
Actually maybe he was crazy.
She'd given him no indication whatsoever that she was interested in him. In fact, he'd given her no such indication either. As far as she knew, they were still wavering somewhere within "dislike and irritation" territory. They weren't even friends.
And really, the only things that had changed were one moderately civil conversation. Well, that and he'd had a particularly vivid sex dream about her. That was it. It wasn't a tangible moment, emotional or physical, that she had actually taken part in in any way. It wasn't any more real than the good behavior Crane had asked him to fabricate for Clove Patterson.
All the same, the dream felt different. Important somehow. He couldn't explain why, but for whatever the reason, it felt like it was gnawing up his insides. He had to do something, to talk to someone. But there was no one to talk to.
So instead he got drunk and broke half the plates in his house.
"You're never going to get anywhere if you don't at least talk to her," Peeta told Vick as together they iced a three layer cake. Peeta was casually making lilies out of frosting as the kid was supposed to be piping a border around the top edge. Instead, though, he was staring at Rue as she rocked back and forth over a counter at the other end of the kitchen, laminating dough for croissants. "I've been told that, for some reason, women don't usually come and chat you up just because you're watching their breasts jiggle."
"I wasn't…!" Vick began, turning a dark shade of red and pushing up his glasses. "I mean to say… it wasn't intentional… she's just…"
"So what are you going to say, lover-boy?" Peeta continued, ignoring the younger man's blustered defense. "What's your strategy?"
Vick shook his head, "What does one even say to a beautiful woman?"
"That she's beautiful?" Peeta said distractedly, momentarily focusing on the curve of the petal. "That is, unless you like her for reasons other than jiggling."
In a sudden spurt, Vick sprayed green icing all over the top of the cake.
"I need help," he moaned.
Peeta thought about Katniss.
He'd been thinking about her all morning, really. He wanted to talk to her, tell her about his leave of absence from work. But he didn't have a clue how. He could list on one hand the things he actually knew about her.
Vick, on the other hand, had conversations with her. They were practically related.
"Are you asking for my help?"
"Are we discussing frosting technique or my lack of romantic relationships?"
Peeta chuckled, "Both, probably, but in this case I'm talking about Rue. I'm in the business of telling people what to say, you know."
"Obviously I lack the proper remuneration for your services," Vick said into his hands. "And I'm not prepared to owe you. As you may or may not know, my scholarship to MIT was rescinded after my trial. It is unlikely I will ever find the level of success necessary to pay your fees."
Laying down the pin and pastry bag, Peeta leaned over onto the counter.
"Maybe you're not the only one who needs help. We could do a sort of trade. My expertise for yours. Now, I want you to think really hard about the five reasons you have an interest in this girl. We'll go from there. In the meanwhile, there's your end of the bargain."
"My cybercrime days have come to an end," Vick hissed.
With a wry smile, Peeta said, "I'm not asking for anything like that. Although it might be more dangerous."
"What could you possibly want from me other than that?"
Leaning even further over the counter, his voice the barest whisper, Peeta said, "Tell me everything you know about Katniss Everdeen."
Vick started to laugh.
He didn't stop for quite some time.
"A bike shop?" Peeta asked with annoyance. "How is this supposed to help?"
They stood on the sidewalk in front of a heavily decorated garage. Through the open door, Peeta could see frames, wheels, and any and all other bike parts imaginable strewn in piles and hanging from the ceiling.
"It's not the location; it's the owner," Vick said over his shoulder as he marched them to the back of the space.
Peeta ducked, narrowly missing a set of handlebars that he had been about to walk into. "And that would be?"
"Rory?" Peeta gaped, not certain how the kid could be that ignorant of basic social loyalty.
Vick stopped walking completely and turned around. "No. The owner of this bike shop is my oldest brother. And, more importantly, he was the other party in the only significant romantic relationship that Katniss ever had."
"You brought me here to talk to her ex?" Peeta cried. "You really have no idea about women. Or men, really."
"Do you have a better indication of how we should proceed, 'lover-boy?'" Vick made air quotes over the last phrase as he spoke. "There is a grand total of one human being who knows how to woo Katniss Everdeen, which is, I am assuming, what you want to do, based on the ridiculous level of sexual tension existing between the two of you in the single interaction I observed. That human being is Gale."
Before Peeta could respond, a voice rang out from the back of the space.
"Vick? What the hell are you doing here?"
Vick rolled his eyes. "I hope you appreciate this," he whispered angrily. "The two of us don't exactly get along."
"Hello Gale," he shouted back. "I need a favor."
There was the sound of tools being tossed into a toolbox, and then from behind a particularly large pile of scrap parts, a man rolled into view.
Up until this point, Peeta didn't know what it felt like to be intimidated by most men. He knew he was handsome and charming, and typically there was just no cause for something as silly as jealousy. He was richer than most, and the few people he knew who made more than him often made their money because they paid him to help. As far as women went, there were always plenty to go around.
He really hadn't known what it felt like to be intimidated by a man in a wheelchair.
But he did now.
The man in front of him vaguely resembled Vick, and even more so resembled Rory, but he was significantly more attractive than either of them. His thick black hair was overgrown, falling into his steely gray eyes. Even in the chair, he was still tall, and his shoulders were broader than anyone Peeta had ever met who wasn't in the NFL. His well-muscled arms had streaks of grease across the olive skin, smudging the tattoo of a broken bow on his bicep.
"What do you need?" the man asked impatiently. "I'm in the middle of a custom job and it needs to get done for tomorrow."
"My friend, Peeta, is interested in pursuing Katniss," Vick said matter-of-factly. "He'd like all of the information you have available about her."
Gale snorted and turned his chair, heading back the way he had come. "He can damn well find out himself," he called over his shoulder.
Peeta looked at his feet and started counting backwards from one hundred in a desperate effort to both slow his heartbeat and to keep from hitting Vick over the head with a piece of bicycle.
Vick, on the other hand, stomped angrily after his brother. "Gale, you owe it to her to provide this information. I know for a fact that Peeta is a more than acceptable human being, and she has been alone since the accident."
"Do you think I don't I know about her relationship status?" Gale snarled bitterly.
His brother crossed his arms, not backing down. "Obviously you're aware of the situation, since you caused it. In fact, I pondered it all quite a bit while incarcerated."
For a moment, it looked like the larger man was about to launch himself out of his chair and pound his brother into the ground. But after a tense few seconds Gale seemed to deflate.
"What do you wanna know?" he asked Peeta, turning his back to him as he worked on a bike held up in a repair stand. He picked up a wrench and viciously attacked the brakes.
"Well, it would be nice to know how to make her not hate me," Peeta began, glaring at Vick throughout the entire statement.
Gale laughed, a big booming sound that filled the entire garage. "If I knew the answer to that, maybe we wouldn't be having this conversation."
"Katniss does not hate you!" Vick sputtered.
His brother shook his head. "Maybe not, but she resents me. Blames me, and she should, because it was my fault. I'm not so much of a coward that I won't own what I did. What'd you do to her?"
Peeta bit his lip, trying to find an answer, also wondering what exactly had happened between this man and Katniss. "I work in Hollywood, and I acted like it," he finally said sheepishly.
"So even getting her to talk to you is impossible, I assume," Gale said.
Shaking his head, Peeta replied, "Well, no actually. We talk some. But I don't really do much other than make her angry. Then when she's actually giving me massages I usually fall asleep, so obviously not a lot of talking there."
Gale stopped what he was doing and spun his chair around, "You're telling me that she talks to you, and gives you massages?"
Peeta nodded, looking confused.
Gale turned his head and shared a look with his brother, "You weren't kidding."
"What?" Peeta asked anxiously.
With a snorted laugh, Gale turned back to the bike, "Katniss doesn't talk to her clients. Ever. She doesn't befriend them, or say more than absolutely necessary."
"Well, I'm her first recurring client, I guess…" Peeta began.
Gale held up his hand to stop him. "Doesn't matter. Also, if she hated you, she would completely ignore you unless required to say something, and in that case she'd be terse as hell. Not irritated. She doesn't dislike you. She might think you're a pain in the ass, but…" he trailed off, looking distant, before he attacked the bike again.
"But what?" Peeta asked.
Turning to his brother again, Gale asked, "Does he know?"
Vick shook his head.
With a sigh, Gale spun his chair around, and then gestured that Peeta sit on a nearby stool.
"Alright it's storytime, lover-boy. Just keep in mind, you look like a total douchebag. I'm only even doing this because I owe it to Katniss. Hopefully she finds out what a tool you are sooner rather than later. If you fuck with her, I'll break your legs."
"Let's hope she kicks me to the curb, then," Peeta joked nervously.
"Katniss is an archer," Gale began quietly. He was leaning on his elbows, looking at his feet as he spoke. "Or at least… she was. Her dad taught her. When he died, she kind of got obsessed with it. Helped her deal. We met at a local sports camp one year. She was eleven and I was fourteen. I wasn't half bad with a bow myself, but I was nothing compared to her, and I was more interested in bikes anyway. But she was so good that the camp director set her up with a coach and everything, even though her family could barely afford it. Eventually the two of us ended up being counselors, and you know how those things go. She took a lot of convincing, but we started dating my last year there."
Despite the fact that he'd had about a dozen girlfriends, not to mention a plethora of casual encounters, Peeta felt a pang of inexplicable jealousy at the fact that Katniss had had one boyfriend. To be fair, her ex looked like a male model, and not the gay kind, but still.
Gale sat up and continued, "It was in oh four. A few weeks before she was gonna leave for the Games – they were in Greece that year – and she was really nervous. She'd been training nonstop for months, stuck in the city, so I surprised her with a ride up on the Cholla Trail. She loves the woods, and I thought it'd help her relax. But the weather hadn't been great, and the trail wasn't ideal. She was nervous about going, but I pushed her. We fought about it. I… said some things, told her she cared more about her career than us, which honestly it was the Olympics, I should have kept my mouth shut."
At some point in the conversation, Vick had left the immediate vicinity, leaving Gale and Peeta completely alone.
"She agreed to go, but I was pissed, so I rode hard and she felt like she had to keep up with me. Pretty certain you can guess what happened next. My front tire skidded out, and we wrecked. I flew off the handlebars, hit a tree, broke my spine, and obviously you can see the results," he gestured to the chair.
"She hit my bike, and the ground. Shattered her collarbone and fucked up her shoulder. Could never shoot again. Even if she hadn't done that, she hit her head so hard she was in a medically induced coma for two weeks. Never even got to see Athens."
Peeta opened his mouth to say something stupid like, "I'm sorry," but Gale didn't give him the chance.
"Save it, alright," he sighed angrily. "Worst part of it all is she refused to dump my ass at first like she should have. When she woke up, all she wanted to do was see me up and about again. Maybe it was her way of dealing with her own loss, I don't know, I'm not a psychologist. Anyway, we did PT together as much as we could. When her arm was working right, she started taking that massage certification class with her sister, cause Prim heard massage could help me out. We moved in together and everything. But you try and maintain a relationship with the person whose life you ruined. It just doesn't work. I was too angry. Felt too guilty. I drove her away. She couldn't fix me. She won't be able to fix you, either, so unless you're in the process of fixing yourself, don't even bother."
The two of them sat in the heavy silence that followed.
"So," Gale said bitterly, "any specific questions for me? Wanna know her favorite color? It's green. She loved to hunt until I fucked all that up, and her favorite food is anything with cheese in it. I've never met anyone more difficult to make laugh; I swear the only place she smiles is in the woods."
Peeta remembered her laugh. And something else.
"She sings like an angel," he said quietly.
Gale shook his head and chuckled sadly.
"Good luck, pretty-boy. You're gonna need it."
At the entrance to the garage stood Vick, a piece of paper in his hand. He handed it to Peeta wordlessly.
"What's this?" Peeta asked quietly, desperate for something else to think about, other than a broken girl he didn't deserve.
"A detailed outline of the marvelous qualities of Rue Dawkins," Vick smiled eagerly. "I was unable to focus on just five. They're ranked by order of significance. Please note that her attractiveness is item number fifteen."
"They're cheese buns," Peeta said, handing them to Katniss as he stood at her front door. "I made them today, but the shape's all wrong. We can't sell them."
Katniss raised her eyebrow, suspiciously, but there was just the hint of a smile on her lips.
"I'm sure my housemates will like them," she said cooly, placing them on the kitchen counter.
"Annie's a vegan, and cheese gives me gas," Johanna called out from the couch. She was wearing the tiniest shorts Peeta had ever seen, and again had on no top but a bra, although this one wasn't see-through. "But even if we both ate were moderately normal humans, Katniss would still kill anyone who came near any cheese product she owns." She popped a chip into her mouth and continued with a grin, "It's like you knew or something."
Peeta acted like he had no idea what she was talking about.
He felt Katniss' eyes on him when she didn't think he noticed, but she was even colder to him than normal when he left.
As he descended the stairs, he saw her devour three pastries in less than a minute.
He felt more relaxed than he had in weeks.
During their next appointment, he asked her about her sister. As she massaged his lower back, she told him an elaborate story about the goat she had actually stolen, and then managed to sneak into their Compton backyard so Prim could make cheese. She laughed so hard during the retelling that she had to sit down next to him on the mattress.
When he asked about the baby, who was apparently due in six months, she smiled the most genuine smile he'd yet seen.
"Prim's really happy," was all she said.
But her smile didn't go away.
Neither did his.
As soon as she answered the door for his following appointment, he could see her shoulder ached. There was a way she held her neck - stiffly, as though something was pulled too tight - that made it obvious.
For an instant, he thought about offering her a massage himself, but that seemed wildly inappropriate for some reason. Instead, with a sheepish grin, he told her it would be very therapeutic for someone to watch Arrested Development and eat ice cream with him on the couch. When she began to argue, he said that he really didn't feel like being touched at the moment, and he hoped she understood.
She didn't seem to notice when their knees bumped together and stayed that way, gently touching, and pressing more tightly against each other whenever they laughed.
Peeta was going to lose his mind.
"She's going!" Vick cried, excitement and fear warping his features. "She's going to the show TONIGHT."
Peeta had only been half inside the door when the kid had basically jumped on top of him.
"What are you talking about?"
Vick was babbling faster than his mouth could actually form words, and Peeta couldn't make out a single bit of it. From his office, Haymitch groaned something that sounded vaguely like "Shut the fuck up," but it was difficult to tell. Peeta wondered if maybe he lived in the bakery – he never seemed to be anywhere but there.
Reaching out, he grasped Vick's shoulders and shook him.
"We have to strategize immediately," Vick gasped between shakes. "Actually perhaps I'll go play in traffic. Yes, that sounds like a fine strategy, and an excellent way to avoid complete and utter humiliation."
"VICK," Peeta shouted, "I DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT."
He pushed the hyperventilating young man into a chair and held him down.
"Deep breaths, man. Deep breaths. We can't strategize if you pass out."
After several minutes, Vick was finally calm enough to speak at a normal speed.
"Rue… she's going… to the show tonight," he gasped.
Peeta was confused, "What show?"
Looking at the ground, Vick muttered, "That would be… that is to say… my brother's and… um… mine."
"You're in a band?" Peeta was incredulous.
"Thom and Rory's keyboardist left for Nashville rather suddenly two weeks ago," Vick continued muttering. "I'm a moderately talented pianist, and Rory was rather… convincing."
"So why didn't you tell me this when it happened?" Peeta couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Women love musicians."
Vick shook his head and coughed, "I'm hardly an accomplished…"
"Alright, this is what you're going to do," Peeta interrupted. "And I'm going to come to make sure you do it."
Peeta wished he had about three more tattoos, or at least some kind of Skrillex haircut. Or maybe dreadlocks.
He and Delly walked through the alley to the entrance to Primula Farm in the midst of an absolute sea of hipsters. There were crusty ones, and rockabilly ones, and hippie ones, and ones with hair dyed with unnatural colors. Some of them looked like they'd stepped from the pages of an American Apparel website, while others look liked they'd fallen from between the covers of a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel. There were so many bicycles locked to an elaborate metal sculpture that Peeta wondered how it would be humanly possible for any one person to find their individual bike at the end of the night.
The smell was... interesting.
He was dressed simply, in a pair of Diesel jeans and a white t-shirt from somewhere inexpensive like Banana Republic, but he still felt like he had West Hollywood stamped all over him. In a cute red and white polka dot dress that didn't look out-of-place at all, Delly was beside herself with excitement. She seemed to know everyone, waving at almost every group of people they passed.
Gale rolled by on his chair, and all three of them shared an awkward moment, complete with half waves.
"That guy," she shook her head, "he's just so angry. It's a real shame, because he was absolutely amazing in bed."
The information that Gale Hawthorne was some kind of rage-filled god in the bedroom made Peeta's stomach hurt, but he was quickly distracted from his nausea as they rounded the back corner of the store, and saw the rolling acres of the farm before them.
It was on a hill, like everything else in Silver Lake, but the long lines of plants that spread almost an entire block in two directions was not like everything else in the neighborhood. The edges of the field were lined with a variety of trees, and a stage had been set up behind the store, complete with a wide area for dancing. String lights hung everywhere, swinging in the wind like drunken fireflies.
Everyone seemed to have a sixpack in their hands, but to the right of the stage was an obscene amount of kegs. Next to them, Prim Everdeen, wearing a light calico dress that was swinging in the light evening breeze, smiled at everyone she saw.
"Peeta!" a young voice cried out behind him.
He turned, and there was Rue, waving with pleasant surprise.
"I didn't know you liked Petrichor," she said breathlessly after running to catch up with him. "They're one of my favorite bands."
Petrichor was big time. They had played on SNL. He had heard them, before, actually... they had kind of a folky sound, and lots of banjos. There was no possible way they were headlining in the back of some urban farm in Silver Lake.
"The owner of this place, Primrose I think it is, she knows them. She knows everyone. I heard a rumor that that director, Finnick Odair, even comes here sometimes."
"A rumor?" a familiar voice behind him called out. "You shouldn't listen to rumors, young lady. You'll only be disappointed."
Peeta looked up and the man himself was there, looking as suave as ever.
But what was even more surprising was his company.
Annie, Katniss' housemate was holding his hand, looking dreamily at the lights. Next to her stood Johanna, actually wearing a shirt.
And there was Katniss.
She was wearing the same thing as usual – a tank top, shorts, and a pair of chucks. Her hair was in the same unflattering braid. Nothing at all was different.
She looked beautiful.
"Peeta!" Finnick grinned as Peeta tried to control the rush of his heartbeat, "Small world, eh?"
The last time they'd seen each other had been at the Oscars after party. Odair had been wearing a tux, and had a supermodel on each arm. But the way he was holding Annie's hand now was entirely different than the distracted way he had interacted with those women. It was real.
"Allow me to introduce some of the most glorious women in the City of Angels," Finnick grinned, and it was obvious that he meant every word he said. "My fiancée and synchronized swimmer extraordinaire, Annie Cresta; my best friend and surgeon of trees at the Huntington, Johanna Mason; and last but not least arch… I mean…"
"We've met, actually," Peeta cut him off, averting an otherwise awkward situation. "Better keep an eye on that girl of yours, though," he winked. "Otherwise I might just steal her away from you."
Annie wrinkled her nose and Finnick laughed.
"I'd like to see you try," he smacked the back of Peeta's head and made his way to the kegs, Annie swinging their clasped hands happily between them the entire time.
Laughing good-naturedly, Peeta turned to Rue and smiled, "I didn't realize Petrichor was playing, actually. I'm here to see Vick's band."
Still staring at Finnick as he walked away, Rue shook her head, confused.
"Vick's in a band?" she said distractedly.
Peeta nodded, "They're opening tonight."
"A band that's opening for Petrichor? A band that Finnick Odair comes to see?" her jaw dropped.
Nodding again, he said, "There's a lot about Vick you don't know."
She crossed her arms, and behind them, Johanna snickered. "Like what?"
Peeta leaned close to Rue and said quietly, "He thinks you're amazing, for one thing."
"That guy?" Rue pulled her head back in disbelief. "He's never even acknowledged me when we're in the same room!"
"Talk to him," Peeta shrugged. "See what happens. You might be surprised."
Scratching her head, Rue walked further into the crowd just as Delly emerged.
"Peeta let's go!" she cried, grabbing his arm and pulling him into the mass of people.
By the time he pulled his arm free and stopped them, Katniss was gone.
"I didn't realize you had a girlfriend," she said bluntly, taking him by surprised as he leaned against one of the trees in the far back of the yard. He had been watching Vick awkwardly converse with Rue at the edge of the stage. Every now and again, the kid would get excited, arms gesticulating madly. Then he would catch himself and stand stiffly, arms behind his back.
There had been a moment, when Vick had rapidly looked at his feet, then back at Rue, then at his feet again.
A moment later, Rue had smiled shyly.
It was then that Katniss had decided to scare him nearly out of his skin.
"I… I… I don't?" Peeta said between heaving breaths, confused by her accusation. "Who even would be my… oh… that's just my secretary."
"She's not that kind of secretary," he added. "We were best friends when we were kids." He gestured at the stage where Delly was enthusiastically talking to a taciturn-looking man with a moustache, "She's chatting up the banjo player right now. And… wait… why do you even care?"
Her scowl turned into an outright glare.
"I don't care," she said loftily.
Peeta crossed his arms and leaned against the tree.
"You walked all the way back here, snuck up on me, and the first thing you do is accuse me of having a girlfriend. Not exactly the best way to start up casual conversation, but what would I know?"
"I wouldn't be against having a girlfriend, though," he continued, keeping his eyes on the stage as Delly brushed a stray hair off of the banjo player's forehead. "Of course, not just any girl."
Katniss snorted, "Yeah I bet."
"First of all, no blondes. Natural or otherwise. Maybe it's biology pushing me to add to the genetic diversity of the population, but I like my women with dark hair."
She gestured out to the crowd in front of them, "You've got a lot of choices out there."
"Well, possibly, but I'm not certain those women have the very specific combination of characteristics I'm looking for in a girlfriend. You see, I haven't had one in years, so I'm pretty particular about it."
He could all but hear her roll her eyes.
"Don't get me wrong, I haven't been a monk or anything. But… nothing seemed right, you know?"
"Maybe I do," she said quietly.
"So anyway, back to the list of characteristics I require… another one is most definitely independence. I mean, don't get me wrong, I think I could provide for someone pretty well, but there's just something about a woman who can take care of herself that's really appealing."
"When Jo's not bald she has dark hair. Independent too. She said you were hot once."
Peeta shook his head, "Nah, she's too mean. See another thing I'm looking for is kinda harder to find."
"Look, I don't know anyone's bra size," Katniss muttered.
Ignoring her, he continued, "A sort of nurturing kind of quality. You know, the kind of goat-stealing, future-niece-or-nephew-loving girl who won't talk about that sort of thing unless you earn her trust. Or at least buy her hot chocolate."
Next to him, the sound of Katniss' steady breathing hitched.
"I'm looking for the kind of woman who puts up with my anxious episodes, who can help me relax…"
"What are you playing at, Peeta?" she stepped in front of him, looking angry, maybe, or maybe something else.
"Do you need me to be any more obvious?" he asked quietly.
"Tell me what you're trying to do," she demanded, taking a step closer to him. He could see each of her eyelashes, even in the dim light.
"This," he said.
Then he kissed her.
She tasted like beer, and smelled like sandalwood and ginger.
And she was kissing him back.
Her lips were chapped, but pliant and full as they moved against his. For a moment, neither seemed quite aware of what they should do, they just stood, hands at their sides, as they gently kissed each other.
I'm kissing Katniss Everdeen, he thought to himself, and then he lost all control.
Snaking his hands around her waist, he pulled her close. Of her own volition, her arms wrapped around his neck, and she buried her fingers in the hair at the nape of his neck.
"I've wanted to do this for weeks," he pulled away and gasped.
With the tiniest hint of a smile, she shrugged and said, "So do it."
In the back corner of the farm, there was a treehouse situated in a small copse of trees. Prim had insisted Rory not cut them down. Apparently she liked to sit there in the morning with her coffee and watch the sun rise.
Peeta figured he'd best not tell her what he was quite possibly about to do to her sister in such a pleasant morning haven.
Katniss had pulled him across the yard as the second band began playing, the folksy sound spilling out into the night air over the roar of the crowd. She had led him to the base of the tree, and on legs that felt like jelly, he'd climbed the wooden rungs hammered into the trunk.
He sat on the platform, heart beating in his ears, as she followed, heavily favoring her good arm. When she reached the top, she settled on her knees, and for a long moment, they just stared at each other as the music swelled around them.
She crawled toward him, and was just about to kiss him again when he stopped her.
"Do you actually like me?" he asked, much more harshly than he intended.
Taking his reaction as a rejection, she immediately stiffened. "What?" she asked, pulling back.
"I mean… is this real? Because if you want something from me, just ask. Because, I like you a lot. So much that I don't think I could take it if it wasn't."
For a long moment, she said nothing, and in the far off light from the stage, it was impossible to tell if she was offended.
Then he felt the gentle pressure of her hand on his cheek.
"It's real, Peeta," she said softly, but not too gently. "Whatever it is, it's real."
And then they were kissing in such a flurry of movement that it was impossible to tell who had started things up again. He pulled off his shirt and balled it up, holding it against the back of her head as he lowered her to the platform. Then their bodies were flush, and for once, he was the one hovering over her. His hands traced the lines of her body, the small, firm rise of her breasts, the smooth, hard muscles of her thighs, the tight curve of her ass. He tried to mimic the smooth motions he had felt so many times lying on his stomach on her mattress.
She sang as he touched her, crying out wordless music that clashed perfectly with the sounds coming from the stage.
There was only enough space for him to lie on his side beside her, as he touched her, unbuttoning her shorts and pushing them around her ankles. She was hot and so wet as his fingers slid past the downy hair between her legs that was only faintly visible in the dim light. He pulled down the strap of her tank top and took her breast into his mouth as he softly rubbed circles on her clit.
When her back finally arched off the wooden platform, the sound she made was so unearthly, he knew for certain it had to be real.
Satisfied but not sated, she pulled him on top of her, her hand scrambling at the fly of his jeans. She was shaky enough from her orgasm that she couldn't unfasten the button, and he had to do it himself, lowering his pants to the middle of his calves.
He didn't mind.
Her hands scrambled at his back with a desperation that pushed him to the edge of frenzy.
"Please," she whispered as he fumbled in his wallet for the condom and clumsily unwrapped it. "Peeta, please."
Taking a deep breath, he positioned himself at her entrance. The music from the stage swelled, rolling around them in a landscape of sound.
He pushed inside her, biting down hard on his tongue to keep the stars from exploding behind his eyes at the sensation of her around him. He focused on the rough wood that dug into his bare knees and slid his hands under her shirt, palming her breasts as he kissed her.
She cried out, wrapping her legs around him, shorts flapping haphazardly around one of her feet. Her chucks were still on, and he could feel them digging into his lower back.
For a single moment, he took a deep breath. He could feel everything. In any other situation the pain in his knees and back, the vulnerability of being discovered, all of it would be too much. But it wasn't. The angle was sharp, and his thrusts were shallow, but it didn't matter because he was so pent up it took every ounce of self-control not to come with every movement. He could feel her gyrating against him as he drove into her.
"God, you don't even realize the effect you have," he babbled into her ear, pausing for breath. She clenched around him, and he nearly exploded.
"Don't stop," she begged.
She crested the wave again when he came with a strangled noise he didn't even think to quiet. Collapsing on his elbows, he rested his forehead against hers, their heavy breathing mingling in a vortex between them.
"Wow," he said softly after a long moment, as he rolled gingerly unto his back.
Katniss' head lolled onto his shoulder. "You're pretty okay at that," she breathed. They lay there quietly for what seemed like a blissful eternity, listening to the music and the sound of each other's breathing.
"I guess we should probably put our pants on now," he said at last.
He landed wobbly on his feet at the base of the tree, and promptly slammed into two entwined bodies.
"Ahhhh!" Vick screamed over the sound of a feminine giggle.
Katniss landed next to them, and in the faint light he could see her raised eyebrows as she took in the sight of Vick's mused hair and Rue's untucked shirt.
Taking Katniss' hand, Peeta walked back toward the crowd.
"Carry on you two," he said over his shoulder.
"They broke up?" Peeta asked in shock as he used his shoulder to hold his phone to his ear. The pie crust he was rolling out was nearly ready. "Well, I mean, good for you buddy, but I'm telling you, unless you want a really public, work-related romance, you should probably move slow."
He paused and then his brow furrowed, "Of course I know what I'm talking about. I've been dating the same woman for six months, and I took my time with that."
Rolling his eyes, he flipped the dough from the table to the pie plate in a smooth, practiced motion. "No, that's not why I only have two clients. I only have two because the two of you are the only people in this town worth working with. Of course, I can always quit, if you don't stop annoying me."
Grabbing a bowl of blueberries, he dumped them into the crust. "Of course I'm joking. You pay me too much for me to ever quit. Especially now that I'm freelancing. I really appreciate you paying Capitol the severance fee so I could work with you, by the way. That means a lot."
The beeping of his line, indicating another call, disrupted his sentimental moment. "Well, I've got another call coming in, buddy. Keep me posted on your love life, as always. Hope the odds are in your favor," he chuckled, sprinkling the top of the pie with a crumb mixture.
Dropping his shoulder, he caught his phone with one hand and deftly switched lines. Wedging the phone between his ear and his shoulder again, he lifted the pie and walked towards the oven. Leevy and GTA were arguing over the best way to decorate the wedding cake they were working on. In the back corner, Rue and Vick were… indisposed.
"Knock it off, you two!" he called. "We have orders to fill!"
"Hey," he said in a softer voice. "Sorry about that. What's up?" He paused, face lighting up, then he cried out with excitement.
The pie fell onto the floor and shattered into a million gooey pieces. In three strides, his apron was off and thrown on the counter.
"I'll be there in ten minutes. Of course, I'll bring Vick. It's not every day he becomes an uncle, is it? Love you. See you soon."
"Hey, do one of you mind cleaning this up?" he called out as he hung up, smiling wide. "Gotta go see about a baby."