Prim was gone.
Well, not really. Katniss' sister was alive, and pretty happy, in fact, in her new life in Boston. So happy (and busy) that she wasn't even coming home for Christmas. The knowledge had made Katniss all but cry with simultaneous relief and sadness when her sister had sleepily told her as much one night as they had Skyped. But Prim was still gone, and for the first time she could remember, Katniss didn't have a little sister to look after.
Not that Prim really needed it.
"Katniss, I swear, if you even think about moving to Boston with me, I'll never speak to you again," was the first thing Prim had said when she received the letter of acceptance to Brigham and Women's Hospital's resident obstetrics program. The number two hospital in the country for gynecology, Katniss had told Gale about fifty times.
Of course, Peeta bragged about it even more, to literally anyone who would listen, including strangers. He and Prim got along like a house on fire. Prim adored Peeta almost as much as she adored the idea of her sister and Peeta together, so she refused, simply refused to even consider breaking the two of them up over something as irrelevant to either of them as her career.
When the time came, Katniss moved into his house quickly and without a lot of fuss. She had always stayed over whenever Prim worked an overnight shift anyway, so her clothes and other things had accumulated over time. When Prim had moved out, it was simply a matter of selling the extra furniture. Everything Peeta had was nicer anyway.
Living with someone not her sister had proved to be more difficult than she had anticipated, even when that someone was Peeta. He was the most painfully clean and organized person she had ever encountered, while she was messy by nature and dirty from work even on a good day. She tried to keep things tidy and teach herself how to think like he did in terms of home organization, but it was tough, especially when it came to his dining room full of bookshelves.
Unfortunately Peeta arranged them by subject, then alphabetized them after that. Awkwardly-sized books had shelves all their own, and there was even a section for his large collection of comic books (which she teased him about on a regular basis, but secretly stood and read when he wasn't home, leaving her finger in the spot on the shelf so she could return them without his noticing). He insisted that this level of organization made it easier to navigate his library, but she could rarely find anything she specifically set out to find, and she definitely couldn't put things back once she had them. So he took to leaving books he thought she would like on a small end table next to her favorite chair.
It was so thoughtful it drove her absolutely nuts.
You wouldn't think it, but thoughtful, kind, people who seemed obnoxiously perfect actually had their hang-ups too. Ignoring the nagging feeling that she was never quite good enough for him, which Katniss was at least mature enough to realize was her issue, and not his, Peeta was incredibly passive-aggressive at times. It was a completely foreign concept to her. When she wanted something, she asked for it, bluntly, and without a lot of ceremony. Sometimes people were offended, sometimes they weren't, but if she knew what her mind was, it was pretty easy for those around her to know as well because she told them.
Peeta, on the other hand, was so in-tune with the emotions of other people that he couldn't easily understand how someone he saw every day, had sex with on a very regular basis, and slept with every night, wasn't perfectly attuned to his moods and the little things that upset him. When something bothered him, he hinted, which Katniss rarely picked up on, or left notes, which she found condescending. Worst of all, when he was really upset, he said nothing at all, just let his irritation fester until he exploded in a fit of rage, typically over something stupid.
A lot of other women would be put off by that sort of thing; in fact, that was definitely what had happened in all of his other relationships, but it didn't bother Katniss the way Gale's anger had. She wasn't any more scared of an occasionally raging librarian than she was afraid of sitting on exposed beams thirty floors away from the street. It wasn't like he hurt her, or even said nasty things to her in the heat of his anger. He just punched the outside bricks of the house and ended up with bloody knuckles that she had to wrap up afterwards as he sat next to her on the couch, embarrassed and contrite.
But that was in the worst times, and they tended to not happen very often. More often than not, she stepped out of her post-workday shower to hear him humming tunelessly to himself in the kitchen as he made their dinner. Instead of changing his clothes, he wore an apron over his sweater-vests and rolled up his shirtsleeves in his rush to make certain dinner was ready for her. His glasses were always fogged up with the steam from the frying pan by the time she reached the bottom of the stairs. After they ate, she always washed the dishes while he settled down on the couch and read to her.
Peeta hated reading out loud, but she loved to hear his voice when he did, even though she'd never tell him that was the reason she asked him to do so. Instead, she always claimed that work gave her a headache, but she missed books, and couldn't he just read to her? The fact was, though, she almost always ended up asleep with her head in his lap. So although he had read through dozens of stories, she really didn't know what had gone on on in any of them.
In general, they were a lot happier together than Katniss had really thought possible. It wasn't perfect, but if it had been, she likely would have left, certain that something was terribly wrong under the surface. And she probably would have been right.
Of course, that was all before Gale gave her enough scrap metal to almost fill their entire alleyway.
He was getting married to his concert pianist, and his fiancée, Madge, was less pleased than he had hoped she would be about the prospect of moving into a house full of the scraps of metal that existed to service various half-finished projects. So he took a truck bed full of scrap to the scrapyard, kept one for himself, and gave the third to Katniss. Other than the small shed in their tiny backyard where she insisted Peeta keep his scooter so it didn't get stolen, there was nowhere to store the long pieces of rod and angle iron, so she piled it all up precariously in the alley between their rowhome and the neighbor's.
The same alley Peeta drove out of every morning.
Shortly after Gale left with an empty truck bed, the notes started.
"I think I'm going to be late coming home," the first one said when she pulled it off her dresser drawer. "It took forever to get out of the alley this morning, and I have five meetings and a proposal that has to be finished for the board tomorrow."
She sighed sympathetically. Peeta was endlessly required to justify his position to the library's board of trustees. "Was it really necessary for a public library system without an enormous art collection to have it's own dedicated art librarian?" they always wanted to know. Katniss didn't have a clue if it actually was, but she knew that Peeta was good at his job, and he deserved to keep it.
"Hello beautiful," the second one said, "I'm wondering if that's really a good place for all that metal, there in the alley?"
She pulled the note off of the shower curtain and shrugged before she dropped it in the trash. Of course it wasn't ideal, but it was all they had. It was probably close to a thousand dollars worth of scrap, and she wasn't about to just get rid of it. She had all kinds of ideas about what she could do with the stuff, but until she could afford to secure some studio space for a workshop, it was going to have to sit where it was. She idly wondered if Peeta was worried it would get stolen, before she stepped in the shower.
The third note was in her lunch, "Love, can you please pick up some more gauze on your way home? I have a pretty bad cut on my leg – tripped in the alley yesterday night – we'll be all out when I need to change the dressing."
She stopped at a pharmacy and got enough gauze to wrap his entire body up if necessary. Then as soon as she came out of the shower, she made him sit down in the kitchen, pants around his ankles, while she dressed his cut, since he'd obviously done a poor job of it. Their dinner sizzled unattended on the stove. He hadn't been exaggerating; the cut was pretty ugly. It looked like he had gouged his leg against a ragged piece of metal…
"What happened?" she turned her head, trying not to gag at the wound, which was oozing pus. "This looks awful."
His smile turned into a hiss as she gently coated the laceration in antibacterial cream, "I tripped when I was pushing out my scooter, and landed on one of those pieces of scrap. Ruined a pair of pants."
"I didn't realize they were in the way," she said angrily. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Katniss, I did tell you," faint irritation teased the corners of his mouth downwards, "In fact, I told you three times."
"You mean those notes?" she scowled as she wrapped the gauze around his leg tighter than necessary. "They didn't say anything about you needing that stuff moved! I thought you were just worried it'd get stolen, or that it looked bad."
He leaned back in the chair and crossed his arms, bunching up his tie, "I told you it was hard getting my scooter out! I even asked if we could put it somewhere else."
Katniss' mouth formed a thin line, because he had not specifically said either of those things. "Fine. I'll just take it to the scrapyard tomorrow and that's that."
"Why is it always all or nothing with you?" Peeta cried, exasperated.
"Maybe because you never tell me what you want until it's too late!" Katniss shouted back. "You won't even tell me what you want for Christmas and it's two days away!"
"I've been telling you things I want for ages now!" Peeta shouted back. "You just don't pay attention!"
She stood up angrily, turning so fast that her braid swung around and hit her in the face. "Your way of telling isn't exactly obvious, Peeta!"
"You know what I like!" he cried, throwing up his hands.
"A lot of things I don't understand," she spat. "How am I supposed to buy you art, or books when I don't even get them? I don't have refined tastes or whatever. I just know how to make things and climb stuff. I don't even know why you spend time with me, to be honest."
He gasped like she'd slapped him in the face.
"Do you really think that little of me?" he was rapidly becoming angry.
Katniss shook her head in frustration.
"I'm going out."
The minute the door slammed behind her, she felt awful. She could hear Peeta calling out for her from the kitchen, but his pants were still around his ankles, and it slowed him down. By the time he got to the door, she had hopped in her truck and driven away.
She drove without knowing where she was going for some time, until she eventually stood outside Gale's house, listening to the faint sounds of piano music that drifted out from the closed windows. She had helped him take out the enormous front windows, and then Gale's crew had lifted Madge's baby grand piano through them. Reinstalling them afterwards had been a pain in the ass, and Gale swore he was never going to do this again.
It was commitment, really. Taking apart his life to fit someone else in. Someone who maybe didn't fit to begin with. But the look on Gale's face when he saw the look on Madge's face when she realized what he had done seemed to indicate it was worth it.
Katniss could see her in the window now, her light blonde hair shining in the lights from their tree. She was playing a Christmas song of some kind. Katniss didn't remember the title, or who had sang it, but she recalled it being vaguely romantic, and from the seventies or something. The cab of the truck was getting cold, her braid was still wet from her shower, and she hadn't brought a coat. She turned the keys in the ignition, and that Mariah Carey song came on the radio.
She switched the radio off.
Peeta was reading in bed when she finally came home. His glasses had slid down his nose, making him look ten years older than he actually was. As she silently undressed, his eyes flickered from the pages to her, as though he wanted to say something, but didn't know what.
"I'm going out tomorrow," he finally said. "I'll be out most of the day."
Christmas Eve. She was going to spend it alone.
She nodded, and then crawled into bed, wearing one of his old t-shirts. He switched off the lights, and for a long time, they lay there, side by side, not touching. Finally, he reached out for her and pulled her close. After the cold time spent in the truck, he felt incredibly warm.
"I'm sorry I'm not better at being up front with you," he whispered into her ear, his hot breath tickling her neck.
Katniss didn't know what to say, so she just burrowed into him.
"I love you, Katniss," he added drowsily.
"Love you too," she whispered a moment later. But his breathing had slowed, and he was already asleep.
Peeta had left before she woke up the next morning, but he left her a plate of still-warm cinnamon rolls on their small kitchen table.
The phone rang seven times before Gale finally picked up.
"Bring your kit," she ordered him. "I need to borrow it."
He protested that he had plans, but she reminded him of the time she'd paid his bail when he got busted for possession years ago, and he said he'd be over as soon as he could,
Fifteen minutes later, which was less time than it was supposed to take to even drive the distance between their houses, let alone pack up his portable welding equipment and drive over, his truck roared to a stop in front of her stoop.
"Catnip!" he bellowed. "Get your scrawny ass out here, I gotta go!"
She threw opened the door to see him nearly chucking things out of the back of his truck and on to the sidewalk.
"Why you don't have your own damn kit, I will never know," he sighed with annoyance, obviously forgetting that since her current employer provided her with everything she needed, she had sold the thing to her crewmate Finnick in order to buy Prim an old but reliable car. "What are you making on Christmas Eve, anyway?" he muttered
"A functional sculpture," she sighed, wishing he hadn't asked. "You'd better have brought tons of flux."
He sat a large coil in her hands, "If you need more than that, you're on your own. What kind of functional sculpture?"
"A scooter-anchoring one," she bit her lip with embarrassment.
His face scrunched up with confusion, "That's what you're doing with all the scrap I gave you? The stuff's real easy to cut through. You'd need to use pretty much–"
"All of it, I know," she pushed him to his open door. "Now can you go? I don't have time to chat."
"You're gonna need more flux!" he shouted with a strange smirk, just as she shut the door in his face.
In ten minutes, she was set up and prepared to work. As she pulled down her mask and struck the first arc, she hoped that the fact that it was Christmas Eve would keep the cops from arresting her for welding on the sidewalk.
Eight hours, two coils of flux, and an entire cylinder of acetylene later, the half ton of scrap metal that had been cluttering up the alleyway was instead gracefully climbing the side of their house like a wave. Not being particularly artistic, Katniss was prouder of the thing than she had ever been of anything she'd made before. She had planned to use the pieces of rod and angle iron for practical things like fences and trellises for a future garden, and instead, the front of her house now looked like it belonged to a troupe of skilled metalworking hipsters.
She knew Peeta would love it, even if it hadn't been designed to lock his scooter in three separate places, but the fact that it was functional made her very happy.
In order for someone to steal it, they'd have to cut the scooter into pieces, which would altogether defeat the entire purpose of theft.
She was in the process of cutting off the last bits of stray metal, to make it look as streamlined as possible, so she didn't hear the taxi as it parked behind her. She didn't hear Peeta as he yanked open the sliding door of the van, and she didn't hear the shocked, unhappy noises he made until the moment when she decided she really was finished, and turned off the oxidizing flame.
Realizing he was there, she lifted up her goggles and turned, a huge smile on her face.
It faltered the instant she saw the look of utter horror on his.
She had been wrong, of course. Why she thought he'd like this rough-hewn metal monstrosity she'd never really know. Now that she looked at it again, it was pretty ridiculous: an attempt to be creative and beautiful by someone who obviously didn't have an artistic bone in her body.
"Merry Christmas, Peeta," she said lamely, not knowing what else to say.
The rotund taxi driver chuckled to himself as he unloaded wrapped package after wrapped package from the back of his vehicle. A lot of them were quite large.
"You used all your scrap," Peeta finally said, still in shock.
The taxi driver guffawed.
"I made you an anchor for you to lock your scooter to," she shrugged. "You had trouble getting out of that alley even before it was full of angle iron."
He nodded, mouth hanging open.
"I'm sorry it's ugly," she said quietly.
His head shook violently, and the taxi driver laughed so loudly it echoed down the street. In the soft light of the streetlights, snow had begun to fall, and with it came the sort of silence famous among Christmas Eve snowfalls.
"Did he pay you?" she demanded, not caring at all about the weather conditions. "Cause you can definitely leave now."
"Thanks Plutarch," Peeta said in a strangled voice. "Have a happy holiday!"
"It's not ugly," he said as the taxi pulled away. "It's amazing. I had no idea it was even possible to do something like that with all that scrap."
"But…." Katniss began, "You're upset. Did I put it in the wrong place?"
He began to laugh, a nervous hysterical sort of sound.
"What, Peeta? Tell me what's wrong?"
He gestured toward the forest of gifts that was now surrounding him.
"Open them," was all that he said, but his voice didn't allow for much argument.
She went for the biggest first, no point in beating around the bush. It took a single rip in the paper until she saw what he was laughing about.
"A welder," she smiled wryly. "For metal I don't have anymore." Going from package to package, she slowly revealed the entire contents of a metalworking shop. "Peeta, this is high end stuff… how did you even afford–?"
"I sold it!" he blurted out in between bursts of hilarity. "I sold my scooter for the money, and so you'd have space for a workshop in our shed."
She shook her head in disbelief.
"But you love the thing," she gasped. "You even ride it in the winter."
Before she realized what was happening, his lips were crushed to hers.
"I think I love you more," he grinned when they finally broke apart. Brushing a few stray strands of hair away, he leaned forward to whisper, "And, I mean, it's not the only thing that gets ridden, even in the winter. Definitely not the most fun."
"Let's bring this stuff inside." She rolled her eyes, but tendrils of heat flickered up her spine, despite the cold.
She was in a sea of paper that scattered around the room from the gifts they had all but thrown into the house. When everything was off the street, Peeta shut the door heavily behind him and took a deep breath.
"No more bad innuendos," she said lightly. "One's all you're allowed."
"You mean to say," he began, slowly approaching her, "that while you're standing right next to our Christmas tree, and we're obviously going to engage in adult activities in the time it takes to get to you, that the abundant world of holiday-related sexual innuendo is out of my reach?"
She barked out a laugh, "Yeah, that's about right."
His eyes narrowed and he stopped, his face inches from hers. Leaning forward, his breath ghosted along her ear, but he didn't touch her, "You're going to regret that, Katniss Everdeen," he whispered.
"Doubt it," she snorted.
And in ten seconds, she was on her back, his hand cradling her head and catching it just before it smacked onto the wood of the floor.
"You know once I have you like this I can do anything I want," his voice was low in her ear as his hand effortlessly unbuttoned the fly of her jeans.
She shrugged even as he pinned her, "Why would you want to though? I smell like flux."
"Can I tell you a secret, baby?" he chuckled, still speaking in a deep, quiet voice right next her ear.
She laughed, "I have a feeling you're going to, whether I want you to or not."
"You always smell like that."
With a sudden jerk of her hips, he was underneath her.
"Oh I smell, do I?" she sat back on her heels and smirked at him.
He reached up lazily and grabbed her wrists, and quick as lightning, flipped them once more.
"Don't take it so personally," he said casually as he pushed her jeans down to her ankles with one hand, holding her hands over her head with the other. "I find it pretty arousing."
"Shut up," she laughed, trying to free her wrists.
"Nope. You're going to stay there."
Finishing with her jeans, he reached up and took a wrist in each hand, dragging them down her body, and then tucking them under her back, where he easily grabbed them both again with one. At the same time, he slid down her body, wedging himself between her thighs and spreading them apart with his elbows. The tingling heat in her spine had long since made it's home in her belly, and her mirth rapidly melted away into a nervous, electric anticipation.
The floor underneath the tree was uncomfortable, especially lying on her own arms, but you really couldn't beat the lighting. Peeta's light hair shone with the glow from the decorations as he looked up at her from his position between her legs. His eyes were dark and his laughter was gone as well as he leaned forward and placed a kiss on the now-soaking front of her underwear.
She audibly gasped at the pressure and heat of his mouth, and at the sound, he pulled away. His grin was back, though it was much more feral than it had been a moment ago. He tilted his head and placed long lingering kisses up and down her inner thigh. As he came closer to her underwear, her hips strained upwards.
He smiled wider and used his free hand to press her hips down.
"I told you that you were going to regret it," he chuckled, sliding his finger under the edge of her practical black boy shorts, coming so close but not close enough. His breath skittered against her skin in quick puffs of heat. The muscles in her arms trembled underneath her and hurt, really, but the pain just made the throbbing between her legs all the more intense.
Biting the inside of her lip, she scowled at him.
He kissed her again, more firmly this time, creating a bit of friction that she tried to buck her hips toward, but he kept his hand firmly planted on her hips. Sliding his arm over, so his elbow was keeping her down, he used his finger to lightly trace figure eights right where she wanted him to touch her.
But it wasn't enough pressure. She was going to lose her mind. And he seemed more than content to just hold her down and torment her until she begged.
"Damn it Peeta, unwrap me like a present, or whatever it is that I wouldn't let you say!" she threw her head back as she shouted, almost furious with frustration.
"You know, you just had to ask," he smirked, then leaned down and kissed her again, opening his mouth to tongue her through the fabric. She tried to writhe upwards into him, but he still held her down with his arm. His fingers pushed her underwear to the side, and then his tongue was slipping between her folds, wet and hot, before his finger slid upwards and spread her completely open to him.
The instant his tongue touched her clit, she rocketed upward hard enough that he struggled to keep her down. It was almost too much, but there wasn't anything she could do, held down as she was.
She was on the verge of letting out a scream of mingled pleasure and frustration, when there was a knock at the door. Her mouth slammed shut and she bit into her lip. Peeta didn't stop, but he looked up at her, eyebrows raised.
"Catnip?" Gale called loudly through the door. "I see your truck out here! I know you're home! I'm here to drop off something, and get my kit."
Peeta smiled devilishly with his eyes, then he began devouring her with renewed enthusiasm. It was nearly impossible to be quiet, held down and unable to move as she was.
"Mellark?" Gale bellowed even louder. "Dude, I know you're home, you called me when you were rounding the block!"
A woman's voice, Madge's probably, said something Katniss couldn't make out. They were both there, by the door, while Peeta was licking her senseless on the floor.
Her tormentor chuckled, and the vibrating sensation made Katniss curl her toes inside her boots. He lifted his head long enough to hold his finger against his lips in a gesture to keep quiet, then ran his tongue up and down the length of her slit in several long smooth strokes, before he focused all of his attention on her clit again.
She was going to come. She was going to come and she was going to scream and Gale was going to hear but it didn't matter because everything felt so good and and and…
W-why was he stopping?
He pulled away from her just as Gale knocked again, and in the instant he had let her go, he was ripping off his belt and dropping his pants as fast as he could. She didn't even get a chance to sit up before he was on top of her again, pinning her arms above her head with one hand, and positioning himself at her entrance with the other.
"Can you be quiet, Katniss?" he said lowly, his breath hot on her neck.
He took her whimpered response as a yes.
She was so wet that he slid inside her all the way to the hilt with the first thrust. He knew she was on the verge, so he wasn't careful or gentle, just slammed into her as hard as he could, over and over.
"Shhhhhh," he whispered, "you gotta be quiet, or I'm gonna stop."
"Damn it, Catnip!" Gale shouted. "It's cold out here, I need my stuff, and we've got places to be!"
This time she could hear Madge scold him, "Gale, come on! You don't know what they're doing! They could be taking a nap!"
Around her ankles, her phone vibrated on the floor. Peeta slipped his free hand under her shirt, and began to gently worry her breast.
It didn't matter if she was trying to be quiet, she gasped at the sensation.
"If I didn't know any better, I'd say you liked having them outside the door," Peeta panted into her ear as he thrust inside her even faster. Despite his casual words, she could tell from the hitch in his voice that he was close.
"Oh god, what if they're doing it?" Gale joked, just a little nervously.
Peeta chuckled into her ear.
He was right. She did like it. And it was that realization that drove her over the edge.
Putting his hand over her mouth, Peeta caught her, just as she screamed, muffling the noise, but she arched her back, lifting him in the air. The sound or motion or maybe the combination drove him to his own release. He made a choked noise of pleasure into her neck, and then they both lay completely still.
A moment later, her phone vibrated against the ground again.
Peeta rolled off of her weakly, and she stood up, straightening her shirt, and then pulling up her pants, uncomfortably realizing that she hadn't even taken off her underwear, and they were completely soaked. Peeta half crawled, half rolled behind the couch, and laid there, his pant-leg peeking out so anyone who was halfway observant could see it.
But Katniss didn't care at this point, she just wanted their unwanted guests to leave. When her jeans were buttoned, she threw open the door, still uncertain if Peeta had his pants on or not.
"Sorry about that," she tried to look calm and rolled Gale's kit towards him, "didn't hear you knocking. I owe you two coils of flux, by the way."
Madge blushed, unable to make eye contact, and Gale smirked. Parked on the sidewalk was Peeta's scooter, looking as good as it ever had.
"I brought your moron boyfriend his scooter back. Tell him he can pay me for it over time."
Before Katniss could respond, Madge chimed in, "I don't even know how to ride a bike, let alone a scooter, and Gale… well…"
"You wouldn't catch me dead on that thing," Gale finished for her. "Plus Madge bought me a quad for Christmas. Guess I need to clean out the rest of the scrap from the garage, so if you want any."
"She wants it," Peeta stumbled to her side. His hair was sticking up all over the place, and his face was red and covered with a thin sheen of sweat. His glasses immediately fogged up when the cold air hit them.
Gale snorted, "Well, you'd obviously know that better than me, lover boy. The two of you are like a pair of idiot kids. Let's go, babe."
"Bye Katniss!" Madge caught her eye for a second, then turned away, blushing again.
As he climbed inside of his truck, Gale grinned and fired his parting shot.
"Mellark, your fly's down."