Disclaimer: The Hunger Games belongs to Suzanne Collins.
Thanks so much to my beta fnur for helping me with this chapter.
The tennis ball I grip in my hand smacks the wall in front of me before bouncing back idly. Without hesitation, I throw it against the wall again, watching it hit the same spot over before rolling along the floor, hitting the edge of my foot.
I pick it back up and let out an exaggerated sigh before slinking down until my back touches the ground. I wiggle in adjustment, the wood digging into my shoulder blades painfully as I toss the ball up in the air and catch it with the other hand.
How long have I been doing this? I ask myself internally. I don't remember. It seems like this activity has consumed my life for weeks but I know it couldn't have been more than five days.
I haven't talked with Peeta for five days.
It's a weird thought. Since I met him, we haven't gone a day without being in contact in some way or another and since becoming friends - such a weird description for what we are... were - I've hardly gone an entire day without seeing him in person.
But he hasn't tried to call or text me since the night he stormed out of my apartment after our fight.
I glance up at Madge, who holds two steaming mugs in her hands. Her eyes are patted with sympathy and her lips twist up sadly in the corners like she's staring at an abused puppy.
She holds the mug out to me and I thank her with a silent nod, ignoring the way the liquid burns my tongue and the roof of my mouth as I swallow it down too quickly.
Madge picks the ball up before sitting on the couch behind me stiffly.
"Do you want to talk about it?" she finally asks, pushing a piece of hair out of her face.
"Talk about what?" I grumble, suddenly self conscious of my own hair as I try smoothing out the braid I've sported all weekend. "There's nothing to talk about."
"Katniss," she hedges, only furthering my annoyance. "There's obviously something going on."
"I'm fine." I bite back.
"We were supposed to start working on our project nearly two hours ago," Madge says with a soft shrug. "You've barely said three words to me since I got here."
I'm silent, because she's right. And if I'm being completely honest with myself, I don't even remember her arriving, or letting her in.
"I'm sorry, Madge," I sigh, pushing myself up off of the ground and taking the seat beside her. "I know this was probably a waste of a day for you."
"Nah," she says, unfazed. "It's good someone was here. You've been a space cadet all day."
"Mmm," I mumble, chancing another gulp of the tea she's made. It's bland with the mildest hint of berry in it and nearly clear as I glance down into my cup.
"So, you don't want to talk about it then?" she presses, the look in her eye as I glance up indicating that she clearly wants to talk about it.
She's definitely not the worst person I could choose to confide in. Madge may love to be kept in the loop of what's going on but she's a good friend and never given me a reason to feel as though my trust has been misplaced.
And, she's sort of all I have right now.
"Just... some stuff going on at work," I try saying as nonchalant as possible. "It's got me a little more stressed out than normal."
"Oh," she says slowly, nodding her head a little. "Is this stuff... Peeta related?"
I wince as she says his name, a clear confirmation to her question, and she tilts her head with the same sympathetic look from earlier.
"You'll work it out," she promises optimistically and I hope she doesn't see the way my eyes roll. How would she know? She doesn't even understand what it is she's telling me will work itself out. Our situation is near impossible because it involves a huge compromise on either of our parts for it to work; either he quits or I resign myself to the fact that my boyfriend will always be fucking other women and there's nothing I can say about it.
It was stupid to let this escalate above friendship anyway, I grumble to myself, sipping down the last bit of tea left in my mug. Did you expect the outcome to be any different?
Her positive smile dwindles as I snort sarcastically, jumping up from the couch to put the empty cup into the sink.
"Yeah, okay," I spit, not without managing to sound like a complete bitch, and Madge grows quiet in the other room. My phone vibrates with an incoming message and I flare with anger at the way my heart drops into my stomach with unreasonable expectation.
It's from Annie. And I should have known.
Earth to Katniss! the message reads. Reshoots are today. Are you planning on showing up?
I know that I knew about this, but like everything else that had any importance to it, it's managed to slip my mind.
I'm sorry, I type quickly, glancing through my missed messages to see that two are from Plutarch. I'll be there soon.
"Well," I hear Madge continue awkwardly over the roar of the faucet. "You guys are professionals anyway. So even if it doesn't go back to how it was before... it shouldn't affect your job, right?"
As the days went on and I still hadn't heard from Peeta, I resigned myself to the fact that things would probably never go back to "normal." Still, it's an entirely different thing hearing it said out loud.
My chest burns as I swallow deeply, blinking away any wetness that clings to my lower lids and wiping the back of my palm over them before Madge could see. It'd be stupid, for her to catch me crying over a porn star because of course that's how she'd see it.
That's how I'd seen it...
I'd come to terms that Peeta and I would not be able to be together as a couple. It was apparent that it would never be able to work out and one or both of us would just end up wounded in the end. But... I never entertained the idea of not having him at all... of losing my friend...
"Right," I sniff, turning to her with a shrug. "But uh... speaking of work... I just got called in for some reshoots that I forgot about... so, I uh have to get going."
"...Are you going to be okay?" she asks, skeptically and I nod in a way I hope comes across convincing.
"I'm fine. I'm just sorry that we got nothing done and now I'm running out on you."
"Katniss, you're pretty tough," she says, already slipping her shoes on. "But you're also allowed to be normal. And everybody has days like these."
"Well, thanks for coming anyway," I say, scratching the back of my neck as I catch the door for her. "We can reschedule."
"Okay," she smiles easily, flinging her bag over her shoulder. "I'll text you about it later."
"Sounds good," I say, watching as her feet start to slow in the threshold. She turns back, her lips raised in an impish smirk before gives me a look over.
"Good luck today. I hope it all goes well..."
"But... just a friendly tip? Leave the sweats at home."
I glance down at the charcoal gray sweatpants that are easily two times my size and pull at their baggy material before glancing up at her.
"What? You don't think these say: "I'm totally fine"?"
Madge chuckles, shaking her head at me a little before heading down the small hallway, throwing me one last wave goodbye before heading for the stairs.
Once she's completely vanished, I close the front door and lean back against it, glancing down at the clothes I've been sporting since yesterday.
I should definitely change... and shower.
I make my shower quick, not wanting to waste anymore time than I already have, and brush through my snarly hair afterwards, tucking it into its famous braid before wrapping the plush towel around my body.
I sift through different outfits, cursing the way none of them seem to be just right. I never cared about what I wore to work before... even after Peeta and I started spending most of our time together and I'll admit to having developed feelings for him.
But today, it does. And I finally settle for a simple pair of black slacks that hug my nearly nonexistent curves nicely and a white blouse that's easily tucked in.
It looks like I'm trying too hard. But that is in fact what I'm doing...
So I wear it anyway.
As soon as I turn into the parking lot, it feels strange being back on set. A jolt hits my stomach as I step out from my car and see Peeta's parked directly across the lot.
I duck, glancing around to make sure no one is inside of it - there isn't, thank God - but it makes the long walk inside that more nerve-wrecking. Because he's right inside...
Of course he's here, my mind spits as I swing the door open powerfully. He's the reason you're here.
I swallow back a wave of nervousness before forcing my head up higher, feigning confidence as I stroll down towards the wall of sets clear on the other side of the room. My footsteps sound heavy against the cement floors and I note the way most eyes flicker my way, if only for a second.
I don't immediately see Peeta, but I'm also not trying to look for him either and keep my eyes trained straight ahead. The action is too forced, and I can taste blood in my mouth from where I gnaw at my cheek. I'm sure it's obvious in my expression that I am tryingto avoid someone.
My head snaps to the left at the sound of my name and I see both Annie and Johanna staring back at me from where they stand in their normal spots against the wall.
"You were going to walk right past us," Annie accuses.
"Sorry, I'm just a little distracted."
"Really?" Johanna snorts sarcastically, swinging the loose ties of her unfastened silk robe.
I grab a cup of coffee from the dispensers on the table closest to them and press the hot liquid to my lips before leaning against the wall beside them, releasing a deep sigh.
"We were wondering if you were ever going to show up," Johanna continues.
"Yeah," Annie chimes. "It was weird seeing Peeta walking in without you. You guys are usually attached at the hip."
"Literally," Johanna snorts and she and Annie burst into cackling laughter.
I only stiffen reflexively at the indication and do a quick scan of the room, confirming that Peeta must be hiding out behind the closed door of his dressing room. I wonder how long he's been back there... if he immediately retreated to its safe confines, or only after noticing my arrival.
When I glance back at the girls, they're staring at me accusatorially. I watch as Annie taps her polished nails along the skin of her crossed upper arm.
"Yeah, I had this school project I had to get working on," I say in a single breath.
Johanna makes a short noise in response, nodding a little, but I don't miss the exchange that her and Annie share.
"That's weird," Annie finally speaks, furrowing her perfect eyebrows.
"Well, Peeta said you weren't feeling good. That you were taking your time because you slept in..."
My silence is answer enough and Johanna begins to cackle with laughter.
Whatever, my mind spits sourly. I don't care if they know I'm lying.
I don't owe them any sort of explanation about Peeta's and my personal life. It was obvious before I even said anything that something was up between us and it's none of their damn business.
I just wish Peeta and I weren't so out of sync. That we could at least communicate long enough to agree on a similar lie, so we didn't openly air out our dirty laundry all over set.
"Must've been confused," I mutter, my voice nearly inaudible.
Another uncomfortable silence lingers in the air as I go over possible ways to first confront Peeta. The first idea, and most tempting, is to ignore our underlying tension all together... to simply walk in and act as though we hadn't fought and I hadn't said those awful things and his spitting words weren't playing on repeat in my mind...
Clearly, not an option.
So I think about approaching him with anger, the same rage that bubbled up in his throat before he refused to take his shirt and fled my apartment... the same anger that I'd been suppressing before I spewed it all out at him...
But if I'm trying not to air out our laundry, perhaps this is not the right tactic either.
I've never been good at this. Relationships, talking, people have never been a forte of mine, which was part of the reason I liked Peeta so much.
He made it so easy.
"Well, aren't you going to go find him?" Johanna finally hedges, her face twisted into a look of confusion. "Probably going to need as much time as you can give... his make-up scene is with Clove."
"What?" I ask, the bite in my voice near unrecognizable, but a tightening sting rises in my chest at the sound of her name.
Johanna only nods ruefully, placing a hand on her bare hip, showing off more of her nearly nude form.
"Yeah, but I'm not surprised. It usually is. I mean, don't get me wrong, Peeta's a professional but... Clove brings out his bad side."
She must know I know that by now. I think back to how badly she'd psyched him out last time they had to work together, how his skin was sticky from perspiration and his knuckles white as he clenched the edges of the chair with frustration.
I look to the string of sets to my right and immediately my eyes lock in on the bedroom scene he and Clove have previously used. She stands there with a cocked hip and a red stained lips pursed tightly together, matching perfectly with the red and black bra/thong combination she wears. She's in deep conversation with one of the crew members, jabbing a finger in his direction before he disappears quickly.
Her head snaps to follow his trail but land on me and her lips rise into a steady smirk. I watch as she flits over slow and steadily, almost as if she were hunting me and her eyes drop down in an attacking manner.
"What's going on?" she asks as she approaches. "Is this the girls' circle?"
"Ugh," Johanna grunts and turns away with disgust, lingering around the coffee table. A second later Annie follows and I shift on my feet, refusing to break my stare with her.
Because even though I'm mad with Peeta, I fucking hate her.
"So, what's the hold up then, Everdeen?" she asks, condescendingly. "I don't have all day to wait around for Mellark's dick to get hard."
My jaw clenches.
"I know this is your first reshoot, so I'll go easy on you, but it's supposed to be quick and painless. Get it? So, if I'm stuck here all fucking day... I'm going to get pissed."
She takes another step closer to me and I can practically taste the peppermint gum she chews as she blows a breath in my face.
"You do your job, so I can do mine."
"Oh my God Clove, just shut the fuck up please for once in your damn life!" Johanna groans, pulling at the roots of her hair with frustration and Clove's eyes narrow.
It's the perfect diversion for me to slip away, as the two of them fall into a brawl, and I find my feet carrying me closer to Peeta's room without instruction. I can feel my heart pounding quickly inside my chest, in perfect rhythm with my unsteady knocks, as I straighten my blouse and swallow heavily.
I just want to forget our problems. Not forever, but for right now. To help him through this. I picture the frustrated mess I'd seen him turn into last time standing behind the door all alone and pound on it harder once more.
I don't know how much help I'll end up being, seeing as I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out he's even less excited to see me than Clove, but I have to try. Because Peeta is my friend and I care about him and-
The door swings open and Peeta's tired eyes widen. He has one hand in his hair, pushing his unruly curls from his face as he blows out a long breath from his flushed cheeks.
"Oh," is the first word that falls past his lips and then he takes a deliberate step back. "Come on in."
"Thanks," I mutter, acutely aware of the piercing awkwardness that stings in between us.
Peeta shuts the door behind me and clicks the lock into place before gliding across the room and falling down into the closest chair. It's the same chair he'd been sitting in the last time we were in this situation, his head tilted back in frustration the same as it had been the last time before I kneeled down between his thighs for the first time...
My heart clenches unnaturally. Fuck, this is ridiculous. There is nothing that should be sentimental about a chair I gave some porn star a blowjob in.
But damnit, there is.
"I'm surprised you showed up, to be honest," Peeta finally murmurs, breaking the thick silence. The words come out in a rushed chuckle but the smile falls from his lips almost immediately.
"Well, it is my job," I say, wincing at the clear lines of defense in my tone. "I wouldn't bail."
"No," Peeta agrees with a small twitch of his head. "I guess not."
This hurts more than I expected. It's like we're back to where we were before we knew each other: unsure of what to say to one another or how to take each other.
Only it's worse. Because we do. And when his eyes turn up to meet mine, there's a defined glaze of sadness in his orbs.
"Okay well, let's do this then," I sniff, walking over to kneel between his legs, trying my hardest to keep my tone neutral and professional. I part his thighs a little further until my middle rests comfortably between them and then work on the stubborn button of his jeans.
Peeta watches silently, keeping each of his hands tightly wrapped around the arms of his chair. I don't dare look up at him again, but continue to keep my focus on his crotch as I unzip the material. I yank on it a little, a silent gesture of him to lift his lips and wait when his legs stay firmly planted down.
I tug again.
"I need you to..." I trail off as his hand moves down to rest on top of mine gently and freeze. It stays there, his fingers gripping the back of my palm slightly before his thumb runs lines along the smooth skin causing my arm to break out in goosebumps.
"Katniss," he whispers, and my name sounds so good on his lips.
"Look at me," he instructs, his voice soft although filled with authority. I hesitate for a moment before pushing back a stray piece of hair and glancing up to meet his rounded eyes. His lips turn up slightly in one corner before he rubs the back of his neck with his free hand.
"What?" I ask defensively, feeling heat rise to my cheeks.
"What?" I repeat.
"You win. Truce."
I blink a couple of times, my lips pressed into a hard line and eyebrows deeply furrowed.
"I can't keep pretending everything is fine," he explains before chuckling humorlessly. "We're not even good at it."
I curse the way my mouth twitches slightly with his words and downcast my eyes.
"Now I'm sure you could keep this up but I have to call it quits. For one thing, it'd just be rude to let you suck my dick when you're clearly upset."
My eyes snap up to meet his and they hold a twinge of playfulness to them.
"For another thing, I'm scared of what might happen if I let you suck my dick when you're clearly upset..."
I roll my eyes and musical laughter falls past his lips.
"What do you mean 'I could keep this up'?" I ask, choosing to ignore his later statements and his posture changes as he sits up more fully.
"Oh come on Katniss, you can totally hold a grudge."
"You don't know that," I say, my eyes narrowing.
"You're not denying it."
"Just let me do my job," I insist, hoping he doesn't pick up the slight laughter that escapes my mouth with the words.
"Katniss," Peeta speaks again, his tone more serious as he stills my moving hands once more. "I'm sorry."
"Okay?" he asks in shock. "Don't you know how to apologize, Everdeen?"
"I don't want to apologize," I murmur, the words leaving me before I give them permission, and Peeta's hand on mine falters.
He's quiet for a hesitant moment.
"Because," I answer childishly. "If I apologize... and you accept it... then we go back to where we were before. And what good does that do us?"
Peeta's lips stay pressed together tightly as he mulls over my words. He holds my gaze, his position never changing and I shrug my shoulders slightly in defeat.
"It's true," I mumble.
"Apologize," Peeta repeats, leaning down so that his elbows rest on his knees and his face is only mere inches from mine. "And see what happens."
My heart sputters at the way I can practically taste his breath and I find myself involuntarily licking my lips as I study his slightly parted ones.
"Do it," he whispers.
"I... I'm sorry," the words come out breathlessly and Peeta's mouth connects with mine only a second later.
My hands fling themselves around his sturdy neck, my fingers making quick work of entangling themselves through his thick hair as our kiss deepens. I can feel Peeta's own hands clenching against the skin on my hips, pulling me in closer to him as his tongue fights its way past my lips.
He tastes as sweet as he smells and when he lets out a soft sigh of approval I push him back so that he's flush against the chair and climb up into his lap, straddling his hips. A moan escapes my lips just a second after one escapes his as my hips create a steady rhythm against his and our lips find each other once more.
"Peeta, I'm sorry," I mewl out as he nips and licks at the tender skin of my neck. My head falls back and eyes screw tight as he swirls his tongue along my collarbone, his hand already palming me underneath my shirt. "I'm so sorry."
"Me... too," he manages, bucking his hips up into mine once more before stilling completely. His eyes close and he leans his head back against the chair with a sigh. "We should stop... I'm ah... definitely ready for the scene."
I groan in frustration.
"We still have some things we need to talk about," Peeta mumbles, trying desperately to slow his breathing. "I just... I don't think I could go any longer without telling you how I felt. I knew you'd probably want some space, so I tried not to bother you but... I almost came over to your place about a hundred times."
"I didn't let go of my phone," I admit with only a trace of embarrassment in my tone. "I kept hoping you'd call."
"Let me take you out to dinner," he offers, helping me off his lap before standing up himself. I watch as he pulls down his heavy jeans with a relieved sigh and the reality of the moment hits me.
Yes, it's nice to have started the process of making up, and yes of course he felt amazing against me...
But it changes nothing. Just like I thought.
"Peeta, I don't know if that's a good idea..."
"Please?" he asks, his pleading unbearable. "Just to talk."
There's a knock on the door, followed by the voice of a crew member asking how long it'll be until Peeta is ready.
Peeta sighs in frustration, running a hand through his unruly hair as he glances back and forth between the door and me.
"Yeah, I'm coming right now," he growls before turning back to me with a softer expression. "Just think about it... okay?"
I shrug a little, but nod my head anyway.
He casts me a half-hearted smile, nodding his head in return before unlocking the door and slipping past it quickly. I sigh deeply, lingering around in the room for a minute before finally exiting.
Peeta is already on set, standing next to Clove and two stagehands who give them quiet directions, pointing to various objects in the small "bedroom" and what I think is talk of camera angles. It only makes the knot in my stomach clench tighter when Clove pulls back the robe that lingers on her shoulders and lets it fall to the ground, climbing up into bed followed closely by Peeta.
The day has just begun and I'm already past the point of being emotionally exhausted.
"Katniss," Plutarch calls, making his way to his chair. His mild voice sounds louder than usual, making me jump a little unexpectedly. He curls a finger, a small gesture for me to come closer to him, and silently I cross the room until I'm beside him.
"Yes?" I ask when he doesn't acknowledge my presence.
"Oh, I just want you to stand here," he speaks offhandedly. "A front row seat."
The way his words come out, so solid and sure of themselves makes my heart sink into my stomach. Could Plutarch possibly know about the drama surrounding Peeta and I? Oh god, what if he overheard us just now in the dressing room? He must be trying to get me to crack...
"Okay," I answer, clearing my throat when the words come out scratchy. I can feel my cheeks stinging but stand my ground, straightening my posture and leaning my weight comfortably to one side.
"Get a chair, get a chair," he motions, refusing to look up from his notebook until a stagehand walks by and he grabs his arm quickly. "Find Ms. Everdeen a chair."
"It's all right, I don't mind standing."
"Nonsense," Plutarch says, waving his hand and nodding with approval as a chair that matches his own slides up behind me. "Ah, there you are."
He waits until I'm seated beside him to raise a hand up, silencing the staff surrounding him, and then asks if they are ready to begin the scene.
"We don't have all day now."
It takes only a few moments for Peeta and Clove to get into position, the light fixtures to be set and for the cameras to begin rolling and Plutarch leans back casually, scratching the skin right under his lip with his pencil.
"Clove and Peeta have always worked well together," he whispers, seemingly out of nowhere. I watch as Peeta nips at her neck and she lets out an airy moan, tightening her fingers through his hair. "You'd never be able to tell they couldn't stand each other off set."
"Why exactly did you call me over here?" I snap before I can stop it, my mouth pressed into a hard line and hands clutching the chair's arms tightly.
"Ah," he says, his smile brightening. "To observe."
My eyes narrow slightly.
"You and Peeta have quite the chemistry," he hums, his eyes keeping their focus forward on Clove and Peeta for a long moment before finally turning to me. "I'm embarrassed to say I only noticed for the first time myself the other night at the Hob... when you two were dancing."
I swallow heavily at the memory as embarrassment wells within me having been caught.
"But some others have mentioned things to me as well."
"What kind of things?"
"Nothing awful. Just that you appear to be good friends."
"Oh," I mumble. "We are."
"Well, that can be a good thing or a bad thing," Plutarch speaks lowly, scribbling something down quickly onto his notepad. "Johanna and Finnick had been good friends before starting in the business, and they were a mess during their first scene. But, then again, it might be easier for you and Mr. Mellark... being more... acquainted with each other."
"I... what?" I rush out in a jumbled mess - the only words I'm able to focus on being first scene. Plutarch notes the change in my body language and turns to face me more fully, a leery smirk attached to his lips.
"I've been meaning to talk to you for a while now, Katniss. You've been a great help to the District, and it's only natural that eventually you would work your way up in our chain," he speaks matter-of-factly. "You have such a beautiful face. It would definitely attract the attention of the majority of our clientele."
His mouth continues to move, but the words that spill out make no sense. My mind is swirling and I feel my stomach seize up as images of his suggestion swirl to life in my mind. The thought of Peeta and I laying in the same precarious position as Clove and him do now, being filmed and distributed for the pleasure of lonely men...
My hands shake uncontrollably and I think for a moment that I might actually be sick. This has never been something I've wanted. All it was supposed to be was fetching coffee for a little extra cash, but everything has escalated so quickly that it feels as though I'm stuck in some strange dream.
I need to get out of here.
"Your quietness is making me nervous," he chuckles lightly, though I definitely pick up on an etch of worry hidden within it. "What do you say?"
I look up at him and my jaw clenches as I watch him extend a hand out towards me, looking to make the deal official. Because to Plutarch, that's all I am. My body, my life is a simple deal.
I'm out of my chair so suddenly that he jumps back in surprise, staring at me with wide eyes.
"Not interested," I hiss, pushing his hand out of my face.
"What?" he cries in obvious shock. It's louder than I'm used to hearing him speak, and we've definitely caught the attention of more than one of the stage hands.
"Katniss, I don't think you realize what kind of opportunity you're missing out on."
"I'm perfectly aware of my decision," I bite back and this is it. Surely if I don't quit right now I'm about to be fired... "I'm not interested."
Plutarch's eyebrows furrow.
"So what, you're going to be a fluffer for the rest of your life? A thankless job that earns half the pay?"
"No," I say in disbelief, because it's hard to believe he still does not understand what it is that I'm trying to say. "This is exactly what I don't want to do with my life!"
I glance around and not only is half the staff looking at us, but both Peeta and Clove have slowed their movements, trying to keep their eyes from casting in our direction curiously.
Plutarch notices too, his head whipping back and forth between me and them before he finally yells out to cut the scene with exasperation. It takes only a few seconds for Peeta to fly up from off of Clove and tie his robe around his body before stalking over to where we stand.
"Are you okay?" he asks, his eyes casting between Plutarch and I.
"I was just offering Katniss the opportunity to advance herself within our company," Plutarch breathes.
"What?" Peeta asks, a mixture of annoyance and confusion lacing his tone. "You mean..."
"A chance to co-star with you."
"No," he replies immediately, his tone icy with finality. My head whips in his direction out of instinct and I raise a questioning eyebrow. Excuse me?
"No?" I question at the same time as Plutarch and Peeta crosses his broad arms over his middle firmly.
"What the hell are you thinking, offering her something like that?" he speaks harshly, stepping in front of me and closer to Plutarch, who takes a step back. "Why are you trying to suck her into this shit?"
"She's already a part of the company, Mr. Mellark," Plutarch stands his ground. "I'm offering her advancement. I'm offering her higher pay-"
"No, you're taking advantage of her situation in order to get what you want!"
Plutarch opens his mouth to speak, but it's mine that cuts the tension between them.
"Why do you care?"
Peeta's stiff body relaxes slightly as he turns in my direction with wide and confused eyes. His tightly clenched jaw slackens and his shoulders slump in minor defeat. He stares back at me, unwilling to answer the question for a long time until Plutarch finally asks again: why does he care?
"Because," Peeta finally shrugs, forcing a hint of a smile to his lips. "I... care about you."
I swallow deeply.
"You can't tell me I'm not allowed to do something, when here you are doing it," I finally mumble and Peeta's expression falters before he evens it again with a quick nod.
"Yeah, you're right," he agrees quietly. "But... does that mean... is this something that you want?"
"No," I answer easily. "But I'm a big girl and I've already told Plutarch that."
"I just think it's a mistake, Ms. Everdeen," Plutarch chimes.
"I don't," I'm quick to reply. "This has never been what I've wanted. I'm in school for Urban Forestry... I never planned on staying here long-term."
Plutarch is silent.
"There are other jobs," I conclude.
"Ms. Everdeen, you can keep your job assisting Peeta, no one is firing you here," Plutarch says quickly.
"No, I think I need to quit," I say, nodding my head as if to reaffirm my thoughts.
"Me too," Peeta states spontaneously and his lips curl up into a smile as Plutarch's eyes widen. The room breaks out into whispered conversation; everyone's eyes trained on the spectacle that surrounds our conversation.
"Now, hold on just a minute," Plutarch begins but Peeta shakes his head.
"Katniss is right. All this was ever supposed to be was some stupid college job," Peeta sighs, running a hand through his tangled hair. He glances up towards me, his expression defeated. "It's ruined everything."
I study him for a long pause, unsure how to respond as I take in the look of pure frustration and sadness etched into his features. My stomach knots uncomfortably as I swallow the lump forming in my throat.
"You aren't allowed to quit," Plutarch interrupts our silent exchange, exasperated. "You're under contract."
Peeta's eyes close as he turns his attention back to him with a hollowed look.
"Yes, for two more weeks until re-shoots are finished. Then, I'm done," he extends a hand towards me, giving me no option but to take it, and squeezes my palm tightly as he leads me off to his dressing room. He doesn't let go until the door is closed and he's looking around for his street clothing.
I lean against the door, turning the lock just in case anyone tries to come inside, and watch him in confusion as I replay the last several minutes over in my mind.
"Did you really just quit?" I finally breathe out as Peeta tries to untangle the inside-out leg of his pants. He glances up at me, his expression caught off guard before he shakes the pants out and places one foot inside of them.
"Yeah," he answers in a breath, and his lips curl up a little at the edges. "We both did, I think."
"I think so, too," I confirm with a slow nod.
Peeta unties the silky robe from around his waist and lets out a short snort.
"Be honest, how ridiculous did I look out there in this robe?"
I bite the corner of my lip as laughter seeps through, bubbling forth easier once he joins in.
"It was a little ridiculous."
"How can you take anyone seriously in these things?" he gapes, pulling the cream-colored henley over his head.
"I don't know," I shrug a little, the light giggles dying on my lips as he tosses it over his chair and crosses the room over towards me.
"So, have you thought about dinner?"
Peeta and I sit in an empty restaurant, quietly waiting for our food. I focus on my fingers, twirling the small salt shaker that sits tucked away towards the corner of the table to keep myself busy in the awkward stream of quietness.
It still feels like some sort of weird dream, being here with Peeta... Peeta; the real man, no longer a porn star... just... Peeta Mellark. An uncomfortable twist knots in my stomach and I have to shift my position for it to settle. Quitting was something I'd wanted for a while now. Peeta quitting was something I'd only fantasized about. But now that I have both things... and I don't know what to do with them. Because all I can focus on is the fact that I'm now jobless... and I'm really not in a position to be jobless.
Peeta is jobless too. I can't help but feel like that's my fault.
So now what?
"What are you thinking about?" Peeta voice breaks through my inner turmoil and I turn up to look at his deep and questioning blue eyes.
"Nothing," I reply, lamely and Peeta's light colored eyebrows furrow playfully as he swats his leg at me blindly from under the table.
"You don't expect me to believe that, do you?" he asks with a soft laugh. "Come on, I know you well enough to realize when something is on your mind."
His words strike something in me and my head snaps up to look him in the eyes once more. Under my scrutiny his cheeks darken, which would almost be amusing if he didn't look so damn beautiful.
"Yeah," I finally breathe out, pushing a strand of hair from my face. "I guess you do."
He smiles at me a little, just barely flashing the tips of his teeth before the waitress stops at our table and places two steaming plates down in front of us.
"Can I get you anything else?" she asks politely and Peeta shakes his head, telling her we were all set for the time being.
"Not the classiest first date," he says to me once she's out of hearing range. "But, who doesn't love a good burger?"
"Well, it's exactly what I wanted," I murmur between bites of a crunchy fry, smirking up at him when our eyes meet. "Are you saying I'm not classy?"
Peeta breathes out a snort; his lips wrapped around the thick burger that takes both hands to hold. We both start to laugh when he bites down into it and a puddle of barbecue sauce falls out the back onto his plate.
"You're great," he finally says, dipping his fry into the fallen sauce and sticking it past his lips. "You're comfortable. And those always make the best kind of dates. None of that awkward shit."
There's that word again.
Although I'd known what Peeta meant when he asked me to dinner, hearing the word fall so easily from his lips twice gives this outing an entire new meaning.
"Not much room for awkwardness in our relationship," I finally allow myself to tease back, trying to play off his obvious ease (though I'm sure he can see straight through me).
"I already know how you are in bed," I breathe out smokily, lowering my eyelids and puckering my lips in a mock of the smolder I've seen different actors on set perfect.
Peeta laughs, but I catch the husky tone that lingers in the back of his throat before he clears it, his eyes darkening.
"And... how am I?" he raises an eyebrow and his lips twist up just slightly when he notices my eyes focusing in on the way his lips wrap around the straw of his cup.
I take the first bite of my burger, chewing slowly as he waits for my reply. I hold his gaze as I swallow, and snicker as he lets out a puff of air when I press a fry into my mouth immediately after.
I shrug my shoulders indifferently at the same time my foot snakes up past his ankle across the table from me. I run it over his calf teasingly, lingering by his kneecap before pressing a little further up his thigh. It's as far as I can get without having to shift awkwardly in the seat and cast unnecessary attention our way, but I play it off as if it's as far as I wanted to go in the first place and cast a wicked wink his way.
"You're okay," I finally allow and an intense heat pools in the pit of my stomach as he lets out a low groan of satisfaction, so quiet I can barely hear it just inches away.
"Just okay?" he asks, and his voice has definitely taken a new tone, one that causes me to suddenly lose my appetite. "Wow."
"What? You think I'm wrong?"
"Well, just by the way I had you screaming last time, I figured I'd score a little higher than an 'okay.' Unless you're constantly having mind-blowing sex."
"Mind-blowing?" I snort, and easiness of our relationship slowly starts to return to me as I lean in closer to him. "Confidence is cute, Peeta. But cockiness is a whole other thing."
"Oh I'm not cocky," he counters, lifting his hands up in surrender. "It was... pretty fantastic from my end too."
"I'm not afraid to rate it accurately," he winks, his smile deepening as I feel one appear on my lips. I notice the way Peeta's hips aren't even down in his chair anymore as he leans in towards me and it's only then I realize how close our faces are. He must too, because he blinks a few times before sitting back down, adjusting in his chair before picking a fry up in his fingers.
It doesn't make it to his lips before he pauses and looks back towards me, running his free hand along the back of his neck.
"Do you uh... want to take this to go? We can eat back at my place?"
"Are you trying to seduce me?" I ask with mock surprise, though I can already feel a familiar tingle building between my legs.
"Is it working?" he asks with a raised eyebrow, challengingly.
We face off for a long moment, my lips pursed and his set in a steady and confident smile as I hold a hand up to stop the waitress from passing us by.
"Can we get some boxes?" I ask, though my eyes never leave Peeta's. She disappears a moment later to grab them and I notice Peeta's expression brighten.
"So, it did work then?"
"Don't be cocky," I chide once more, running my foot back up the inside of his leg. "You're just okay."
"Peeta!" I gasp, clutching to him tighter as he pushes me up against the long wall of his entryway. My legs are wrapped around his hips tightly, head thrown back in ecstasy as he plunges into me deeply, hitting a new angle with our positioning.
He lets out a grunt as the arms around my back clench, rubbing up and down along my skin as he continues to thrust upwards rhythmically. My hands move up to his hair, pulling at the curly roots as I dip my head to pay attention to his neck, sucking the skin at the base before biting down gently.
"Oh shit," he breathes, nodding a little in encouragement before his head falls down onto my shoulder. I can feel his arms quivering with the effort it takes to keep us in position. My back rubs up against the wall as his thrusts grow deeper and his legs begin to shake as he draws closer to his finish.
"Keep going," I urge in a moan, my eyes rolling to the back of my head as the hood of my clit catches on the stubbly hair that surrounds his dick. Fuck. "I'm almost there."
"I want you to scream when you come," Peeta mumbles, his voice coming out in broken pants that hitch towards the end of his sentence. "Tell me how fucking good it feels."
"It feels so good," I croon, biting my lip as he moves faster, my words egging him on. "Oh fuck! Peeta, it feels..." I cut off with a sting of gasps and sighs as orgasm overtakes my body and I squirm and shake in his arms, riding out the feelings of euphoria as I cry out uncontrollably.
Peeta watches me, his blue eyes wide as if he doesn't want to miss a moment and lips parted to allow his heavy breathing to pass through. His eyebrows knit down in concentration as his thrusts start to grow erratic as I clench around him tighter, uncontrollably.
"Ah, fuck," he breathes, and his face scrunches as he holds onto me tighter as I feel him begin to pulse inside of me. "Katniss!"
I hold onto him tightly until his body turns to mush as he slides out from inside of me, slowly letting me down onto the ground before leaning against the wall with a heaving chest.
"Still... just... okay?" he asks, his tone rising hopefully and I half-heartedly push him, causing him to chuckle.
"You won't let it go, huh?"
"No," he insists, before glancing down at his still semi-erect member and the soiled condom that clings to it. He rolls it off, walking towards the bathroom that hangs off the side of his living room to freshen up. "I need to hear you say it."
"I think you did already," I call back, and then decide to follow him, because I need to clean up too and there's something entirely weird about standing in his foyer naked, alone. I poke my head past the doorway to find him finishing up and pulling up his boxer shorts over his hips.
"About three minutes ago," I finish.
He rolls his eyes, moving out of the way so that I can have the bathroom to myself and I give him one last smile before shutting the door and twisting the lock. I try my hardest to be quick and once I've finished and re-open the door, Peeta stands exactly where I left him, only this time holding one of his long and comfortable shirts for me. I take it easily, slipping it on along with my underwear before joining him where he sits tiredly on the couch.
I rest my head on his shoulder and curl my legs up comfortably before closing my eyes as he places a quick kiss on the top of my head and smile a little.
"Okay," I sigh, turning my head up to look at his curious eyes. "I guess you were better than okay."
He snickers, the hand wrapped around my back tightening.
"I'll take it," he settles with a wink and then his lips meet mine, only staying for a second before he pulls away with a somewhat timid smile.
"I want to have more dates with you," he says, his tone hinting that I might not want the same thing. "We don't have to go out. We can just... order pizzas and play video games until two in the morning or something. I just like spending time with you... like this."
"I like it too, Peeta," I admit with a blush, unable to help matching his growing smile. "Even if you suck at saving us from zombies."
He barks out with laughter, playfully nudging me before rolling his eyes.
"Hey, it wasn't my fault. You were the one handing out commands. I was just following your lead."
"Right," I snort but am cut off by the loud grumble my stomach gives off. It's only then I realize how hungry I am and I give off another rumble as I envision the burger inside of Peeta's fridge. He notices too and smiles a little before standing up and walking towards the kitchen.
I watch him plate our food before sticking mine into the microwave.
"Well," I say, stealing one of his cold french fries. He swipes at my hand playfully, and pretends to scowl as I push it past my lips. "Maybe I could teach you some of my tricks... for date two or something."
His face brightens as he leans against the countertop easily.
"I'll hold you to that."
So there it is, the grand finale! In case you didn't know this was the last chapter of this story. Thank you so much to everyone who's read this story and stuck with me because I know it took me a really long time to update, ugh. But thanks again and I hope you enjoyed it!
I'd also like to thank misshoneywell for all her help with this story and support. Also to my friends nonemoreblack, didntheramble, annieoakley1 and atethermind for all their cheerleading, word battles and words of encouragement to help me finish. You ladies rock!
Feel free to add me to your author alerts, I have a few more ideas that I plan to write in the future. Also if you feel so inclined, come find me on tumblr: stutteringpeeta.