Author's Note-Thank you for your patience with the updates. I've had a ton of real-life work and an influx of beta work over the last month. I also wrote for PiP, and I should have those submissions up here later this week. I continue to be overwhelmed and humbled by the response to this story; I think with my overabundance of work last update that I missed answering some reviews. Please know all your support means the world to me, and I am so sorry if I missed yours.

Thanks as always to iLoVeRynMar, who motivates me to write even when it's a struggle, and to Streetlightlove for loving me no matter what. And to Pookieh for giving me the extra eyes when mine are tired and weary from proofing these chapters 50 times.

Playlist for this chapter: Passenger "Let Her Go," Fun. "Out on the Town," and U2 "With or Without You"

And now we begin the climb up from rock bottom. Enjoy. ~C~

If You're Feeling Lonely


(26 years old)

Peeta doesn't even really remember driving home from the wedding. He may be sober, but it's like he's on autopilot, his mind and his body both numb. It's not until his car vibrates with the impact of the rumble strip under his tires that he jerks himself out of his daze, lest he run the risk of being mistaken for a drunk driver by the cops who frequent this stretch of highway early in the morning.

It's after one when he finally shuffles into his apartment, strips off his rented tuxedo, and crawls under the covers, hoping that sleep will claim him quickly.

The odds are not in his favor. Every time he's teetering on the brink of slipping under, his thoughts drift to that haunted look in Katniss's eyes. Then he's wide-awake again. Their conversation at the wedding replays on a loop in his brain, and that final kiss torments him. No, not final, he chides himself. He can't afford to think like that.

But he swears he can still taste that kiss on his lips. He keeps reaching across the bed, hoping she will miraculously materialize and his fingers will find purchase with her warm flesh, but his hand recoils each time he's met with nothing but cool sheets.

When he finally does fall asleep nearly an hour later, his unconscious mind also hones right in on her. He finds himself immersed in that same recurring dream—the one where he stands at the end of the aisle, waiting for his bride to make her way towards the altar. Tonight, however, he startles himself awake before he even reaches for the mystery woman's veil. He refuses to accept that she could be anyone but Katniss.

Slumber evades him for another hour before his leaden eyelids close, fully resigning himself to more subconscious torture.

The second dream is different; he's no longer in a church but rather an opulent ballroom. His arms wind around the slender waist of a woman, his hands resting just below the small of her back. His feet move in time with hers while they sway and dance. Her white wedding gown swishes when he twirls her, and as he dips her, descending on her lips for a kiss, she blinks. He swears he sees a flicker of quicksilver, but when she opens her eyes there's nothing but a black abyss where those familiar grey irises should be.

And then he hears Katniss's voice rise above the strains of the band: a plaintive, garbled moan that sounds as if she's calling to him from the depths of the ocean. She cries for him again and again, until he lurches awake with his heart pounding in his chest.

A strange feeling hits him as he hunches over, trying to regulate his breathing. He pictures Katniss sitting up in her bed recovering from a bad dream of her own.

His mind flashes back to that night when they were teenagers, the first time she ever shared his bed, when she had come to him for comfort after they had fought over Prom. He can hear her words so clearly, even nearly ten years later: "…tonight when I tried to go to sleep, I dreamt about you leaving me, Peeta," she had said. "Us not being friends anymore. I hate fighting with you. Because it would literally kill me if I didn't have you in my life."

A profound ache migrates through his chest. He's never been besieged by as many nightmares as she has, but when he reflects on her words, and his own tortured visions in recent weeks (especially since the weekend in Atlantic City), it's so apparent that all the night terrors he's ever suffered from have to do with losing her.

He collapses back on the pillow and stares at the ceiling, his lungs still greedily sucking in air, while her voice reverberates in his head. Katniss has never lied to him. There have been times where she hasn't been completely forthcoming with him, and times she's been evasive, but she chooses her words carefully. He clings to that last sentence he recalls like a buoy, its implications keeping him afloat. She said it would kill her to not have him in her life. She needs him. He has to cling to that hope.

His mouth is gritty and his tongue is like flypaper. He rolls over and peers at the digital clock. Eight minutes to five. His bladder is suddenly screaming out for relief, and it's become almost painful to move. Gingerly he climbs out of bed and stumbles to the bathroom, flattening his palm on the wall beside the mirror to steady himself as he pees. He shakes his cock several times, washes his hands, and then shoves a Dixie cup under the faucet for a quick drink.

He shuffles back to his room and pauses in the doorway at the sight of the empty bed. Sharp pangs of regret stab at his heart that Katniss isn't fast asleep under the disheveled covers, waiting for him to rouse her awake with leisurely morning kisses. She should be there. If he closes his eyes he can see her, her dark waves fanned out across the pale blue sheets, a peaceful smile on those full pink lips.

Though he's never been as covert as her, he would carefully slide back into the bed beside her and let his mouth mark a trail up her arm to those lips, waiting for them to stir to life and start moving against his. Or maybe he'd say to hell with secrecy. He'd throw back the sheets, pry her legs apart, and bury his mouth between her other lips. The hot strokes of his tongue on her clit would jolt her awake, no doubt.

He adjusts the erection that now tents his boxer-briefs from fantasizing about her, but somehow he feels weird about jerking off right now. And it's too early for a cold shower. Technically, he should go back to sleep for a little bit. He can't have gotten more than three total hours of sleep at this point.

But the vacant bed and rumpled sheets continue to mock him. Fuck that, he's not taking his chances. Who knows what other nightmares await him if he closes his eyes again?

He starts the coffeemaker, throws on his sweats, and locks his door. With his sneakers pounding the pavement and his iPhone set to shuffle, he runs. He figures he'll do his usual six-mile loop. Luckily Katniss lives far enough away that he can't exacerbate his anguish by taking a route past her apartment. Because he knows if it were an option he'd probably do it.

The crisp morning air invigorates him, flooding his lungs with fresh oxygen and waking him up a little more with each stride. He'll probably be exhausted later when the lack of sleep catches up with him, but he can nap that afternoon. Beyond driving Finnick and Annie to the airport for their honeymoon flight (Finnick hadn't wanted to leave his car in long-term parking, and Peeta can't really say he blames him) he just has to do his lesson plans and finish up some stray grading from late student work that trickled in Friday.

He's doing a reasonably admirable job of keeping his mind off of Katniss—until he cuts through the park. He traverses the meandering trail that bisects the grassy field, and his eyes land on a couple on the opposite side of the path. The man pushes a jogging stroller. As they approach, Peeta glances into the stroller and sees the wide, curious eyes of the adorable toddler seated there. Though he can't hear the sounds she's making because of his iPod, her little mouth rounds in what appear to be happy babbles, taking in her surroundings as she enjoys her ride. The man and woman give him amiable smiles as they jog past, and Peeta can barely manage to get the corners of his lips to lift, mustering a faint smile in return.

That should be him. Him and Katniss. Their baby.

His self-pity escalating anew, he accelerates his pace. A cramp seizes his left side, but he grits through it and keeps running, his thoughts spiraling into another torturous daydream.

There's a green plaid blanket spread across the grass, with a stroller parked off to the side. He sees himself hunched over a wicker basket, unpacking a spread of bread and cheese and fruit. Katniss lays to his right, sprawled on her side, a dark-haired baby girl propped up in front of her. The infant claps her hands and giggles at the dandelion tufts Katniss gently blows into the late afternoon breeze. Katniss glances up at Peeta, and her grey eyes shine with pride. She quirks her lips at him, and he is powerless to the lure of them. As he leans down to kiss her, one facet of her ring catches a beam of sunlight, the diamond sparkling brilliantly. She murmurs 'I love you' against his mouth. Then he draws back and scoops their daughter into his arms. Katniss gazes at them both adoringly while Peeta peppers the baby's rosy cheeks with more kisses.

He shakes the vision from his head. Fuck! Don't do this to yourself.

He takes a detour to extend his run and try to re-clear his mind, and he pushes himself for almost three additional miles by the time he gets back his apartment. His lungs burn and his body is drenched in sweat, but he relishes the physical pain, because for the time being it outweighs his emotional distress.

Once he's showered and dressed and poured his coffee, he grabs his copy of The Sound and the Fury, needing to brush up on the novel since his seniors' final AP English essays will be written on it. He sips his coffee and attempts to immerse himself in the tragedies of the Compson family. Nothing like some Faulkner to make him feel better about his own shitty circumstances.

At quarter to ten, he folds the page down to mark his spot, drains the last of his coffee, and places the mug in the sink. Then he grabs his keys.

He honks the horn once when he pulls into a space outside Finnick and Annie's condo, and Finnick hauls their suitcases to Peeta's car. Annie draws another smile out of Peeta when she climbs in the backseat behind him, smoothing down the skirt of her sundress.

"What?" she asks, smacking Peeta's shoulder playfully.

"You're glowing, Mrs. Odair," he teases.

Her cheeks flush to match the pink of her dress, and Finnick gives Peeta a toothy grin after he slams the trunk and slides into the passenger seat.

"To the airport, Jeeves, post haste," he announces in a haughty British accent.

Peeta laughs, meeting Annie's gaze in the rearview mirror. "Ann, you ready for the next fifty-plus years with this clown?"

She smiles cautiously and studies him carefully, her green eyes unblinking. "You look good this morning," she says, surprise coloring her words. "How did you sleep?"

He sighs and grips the steering wheel a little tighter as he pulls onto I-95. "Not well. I didn't get much sleep at all, actually," he admits. "I went for a long run this morning to clear my head, and it must have helped a little. The shower probably helped, too."

When he glances into the mirror again, Annie is still staring at him. Shit. He knows that look. She's analyzing him. He braces himself for the impending interrogation.

So he decides to turn the tables on her. It's a short drive to the airport, and he wants—deserves—a few answers of his own. He asks, "Did you know Katniss was going to tell me she needed space?"

Annie looks towards Finnick, who suddenly becomes very interested in the billboards whizzing by above the highway. She purses her lips and then presses them into a thin line. "Yeah, she told me."

"Hmm. That's interesting. When? I mean how long have you known? When did she tell you? Because as I recall a week ago you and Finn were both pressuring me to do something about my relationship with Katniss, telling me how fucked up it was. You guys had me questioning things to the point where I actually thought about breaking it off."

Annie toys with a lock of her hair. "Yeah. Well…up until the other night…" she hesitates, "…I mean, I lived with her for two years, Peeta, and I had no clue how deeply she loves you. I didn't know, until the other night…when she let it all out."

Hearing Katniss finally say those three words was surreal, but it's oddly compelling to hear Annie say them, like someone else other than him or Katniss saying them makes it that much more real. And it's not lost on him that Annie uses the present tense. Loves. Katniss loves him.

"And you knew about Katniss's appointment the other day. So you know she's been seeing a therapist?" he hedges.

"Yes…it actually was my idea."

He narrows his eyes to slits. "She's been seeing this doctor for a while."

"Doctor Aurelius, yes," Annie supplies. "I recommended him to her. I had done some clinical work with him in grad school. He's excellent."

"How long, Annie? When did she start seeing him?"

"A year or two, I guess? God…I think it was before we moved into the apartment together. I'm trying to think…"

It takes effort not to slam on the brakes, and his knuckles wrap around the wheel so tightly a bolt of pain radiates through each hand. How could he have not known this? What signs did he miss? Was he so caught up in his own shit that he couldn't see how much Katniss needed him—and for more than just sex?

There's a sour taste in his mouth, and his coffee sloshes uneasily in the pit of his stomach, threatening to curdle into a bitter lump.

"Peet," Finnick starts, but Peeta lifts one hand off the steering wheel, waving it dismissively.

"You know…no. You guys just had the happiest day of your lives, and you're about to go off to paradise, and you don't need me dragging you down. I shouldn't have asked. I'm sorry."

"Have you ever considered talking to someone, Peeta?" Annie asks quietly.

He cuts his eyes to the mirror. "Someone? You mean like a therapist?"

"Yes like a therapist. Because I think that it could help immensely for you to get some of your feelings out."

Peeta stiffens and he glances over to Finnick, who gives him a sheepish shrug and coughs.

"I don't need to talk to some stranger about Katniss. I need her. When she's ready to talk…" As much as it kills him to keep his distance, he will respect her wishes. She has to know he'll do whatever she wants him to do, that her needs come before anything else in his life. "When she's ready to talk, I'll be waiting," Peeta finishes quietly.

Annie sighs heavily and gives him a sympathetic smile as they pull up to the departure terminal and he flicks the flashers on.

"Peeta," she whispers as he gives her hug while Finnick gets the luggage from the trunk. "I…I hope you'll think about what I said. And either way, I'm here for you and we can chat when Finn and I get back, okay?"

"Thanks, Ann." He hugs her back fiercely. "But do me a favor. Don't you dare think about me for a second while you guys are in Jamaica. Turn off the phones and just enjoy each other for the week. I'll be fine."

He drives away, wondering how fast a week probably goes by when you're holed away in a room with the woman you love, and how the minutes can't tick by fast enough when you're away from her.

Getting up Monday morning is near agony. He had never napped after returning home from the airport. For the first hour he had stared at his phone like an addict craving a fix, though he knew it wasn't going to go off.

Until it did. For a fleeting second hope sparked in his heart, but when he saw Rye's name above the text message he let the disappointment douse him like a bucket of ice water. He didn't even bother texting his brother back.

He had spent the rest of the day on his couch, queuing up Breaking Bad on his TiVo, content at least to wallow in someone else's misery for a while (even if the poor bastard is fictional). His phone buzzed a half-dozen more times throughout the afternoon, but by then indifference had settled in. It wasn't her. It wasn't going to be her. No one else seemed important enough to bother with.

He finally checked the texts when he ordered a pizza, and to his chagrin, Katniss's name was nowhere on the crowded screen. He answered Thresh (hanging in there, thanks buddy), and his dad (it was nice, I'll call you tomorrow), and Annie (turn off your fucking phone Mrs. Odair! I'll take care of it) and stuck his phone on the charger for the rest of the evening.

The alarm blares the next morning after another restless night, and he seriously contemplates calling out of work sick. The sleep deprivation has settled in and he feels like complete shit. But everyone knows he was at Annie's wedding over the weekend. It looks obvious. He wishes he had thought to use a personal day months ago. If she was here right now, Katniss would be ribbing him about his professionalism.

He forgoes his coffee and decides to stop for one. Maybe having the barista throw in a double shot of espresso will wake him enough to function by mid-morning. He can just show his first period freshmen a movie.

The raspy shriek of Ann Wilson fills the air just as he starts his car. Katniss! He fumbles in his pocket for his phone, keeping one hand on the wheel. But the screen is dark. Her name and her beautiful face are not displayed there, and he realizes that "Barracuda" is actually on the radio. The one time he's left the classic rock station on the satellite instead of the local sports talk station he usually leaves it tuned to that old Heart song would have to be playing among thousands of songs the disc jockey could have chosen from. The universe sure is having a good time mind-fucking him.

He tosses his phone into the cup holder, glaring at it. A wave of apprehension roils through his stomach. Like the other night when Katniss gave him that last lingering look as she exited the ballroom, he has no way of knowing when his phone will ring with the song that he has tied to her since they were fifteen.

It was the summer before they started high school, a disgusting hot July day in the middle of a heat wave. After much groveling and agreeing to mow the lawn for the next two weeks, Peeta had convinced Rye to let him and Katniss ride along when his brother and his hook-up-of-the-moment went to the shore for the day.

Rye and Amber had gone off in one direction when they arrived, and Peeta and Katniss had claimed a spot further up the beach in the opposite direction. They had spread out their towels and set down their bags. Then Katniss had stolen the breath from his adolescent lungs when she peeled off her shirt and shorts.

It had been the first time he had ever seen her wear a bikini instead of the practical one-piece suits she favored. He hadn't even seen that much of Katniss's skin exposed to him, and he had to think of his old algebra teacher and the dead deer he had hit with his car last winter to keep from sporting wood in his swim trunks.

They had lain in the sun, splashed in the waves, thrown a football back and forth, and eaten the lunch he had packed for them. Later when they had tired of the relentless rays and pounding surf, they had cleaned up in the cabanas. Katniss had changed into a little sundress, and with her damp hair and her tanned skin, he had never seen her more beautiful. They had walked along the boardwalk together, and in Peeta's mind the only thing missing from the perfection of the whole scene was her hand laced through his.

He pauses, trapped in the memory. Could things have been different if he had just reached for her hand that night? Would he have had the courage to confess that he felt things for her that were more than what friends feel for each other? Would she have admitted she felt the same?

Rye and Amber hadn't been in a hurry to get home, and Peeta had been shocked when his brother had encouraged him and Katniss to hang out with them on the boardwalk. They had dinner at one of the restaurant/bars along the pier, and the place had been having a karaoke contest, with a $250 cash prize.

It had been years since Peeta had heard Katniss sing in public. She had sung often as a kid, and she was nearly always given the solos in school concerts. But once her father had walked out, Katniss had stopped singing. In fact, he recalls that she had dropped out of the school chorus the very next Monday. Peeta was the only one who got to hear her quietly singing along with the radio when they did their homework, or humming softly when they loitered around the bakery.

But that hot summer night Katniss had taken the stage and confidently belted out "Barracuda." Peeta, along with the rest of the crowd, had listened, enchanted by the power of her voice. She hadn't even needed to glance at the screen once. He had been in awe of how she knew every word, but Katniss had always had eclectic taste in music. No one else who sang even came close to matching her performance, and when they finally left the beach, Katniss was $250 richer.

She never told him what she did with that money, but a few days later Prim was all smiles as she prattled on about playing the violin in the middle school orchestra when school started that fall. He knew Katniss had used at least part of her winnings to rent the instrument for her sister.

Katniss didn't grow up poor. Katniss's mother did okay for herself as a nurse, but with no child support coming in, what Katniss and Prim lacked were the extras that most other kids got. But Mrs. Everdeen always seemed to have money to go out with her revolving door of boyfriends, her hair and nails expertly done. Katniss was the one who sacrificed to make sure Prim had as much as possible. Prim did school activities. Prim didn't have to get a job, so she could study and get the kind of grades needed to earn a nearly full ride to Temple, avoiding student loans. Prim had nice clothes, and a prom dress, and she went out with her friends. Prim had a boyfriend who would become her fiancé.

In all her years, Katniss has never once stopped to put herself first. So how can he even think about begrudging her for doing it now —even if it means he's the one hurting?

When he gets to school he goes right to Annie's office and finds the two recommendations exactly where her text message had said they'd be. He slips each one into a Panem High embossed envelope, scrawls the students' names across the front, and hands them to the guidance secretary to pass along to the kids who need them.

Once in his classroom he makes a beeline for his closet, picking through the rows of DVDs until he finds the one he's looking for. They finished Romeo and Juliet about a week ago, so why the fuck not? They often watch clips of films in class, but there's just not usually time for entire films. Not surprisingly the class vociferously approves of his decision, but he has tosilence complaints from the girls that it's not the Leonardo DiCaprio version. He flicks off the lights and sits down at his desk to grade some papers. Hopefully the caffeine leaches into his veins and does its magic quickly.

Occasionally he glances up to be sure none of the kids are falling asleep or fooling around, but with one glimpse he has to blink to reconcile what he sees. He shakes his head. He's never thought about it before, but the actress playing Juliet definitely bears a striking resemblance to Katniss. He's seen this movie at least twenty times, and he can't recall ever dwelling on it before. Perhaps that's subconsciously why he's always preferred this version.

He's still staring mutely at the projected image when his classroom door opens. He groans inwardly but plasters a big smile on his face and rises from his chair to greet his boss.

"Mr. Mellark, can we step outside for a moment?" Dr. Coin's eyes cut to the white board where the film is projected, and Peeta swallows discreetly, mentally preparing a defense for the change in his lesson plans.

"Ah, sure, Dr. Coin." She's told him on multiple occasions to call her Alma, like most of the rest of the staff does, but he can't seem to bring himself to do it. He always feels like a teenager again when he's one-on-one with her. She intimidated him when he was in her class in high school, and she can still make him anxious from time to time—like right now.

"I've always been a fan of Zefferelli's Romeo," she says warmly as he closes the door, leaving it open a crack to keep an ear on his class. "It's good to expose them to the classics."

"Oh, yeah," he agrees, relieved she's not going to ream him out.

"My apologies for interrupting your class, but I need to ask you a favor."


She nods. "I know you always do more than your fair share of chaperoning and volunteering around here, Peeta, and you know that I, as well as the rest of the administration, appreciate it." She explains that while she knows he is already chaperoning the Senior Ball in a few weeks, they're suddenly short on chaperones for the impending Junior Prom.

"Sure, I'll do it," he offers. Not like he has much else better to do on a Friday night. It'll beat sitting around staring at his phone, though it raises a new wave of anxiety when he considers he and Katniss could still be apart two weeks from now.

Dr. Coin's eyes round briefly, but a pleased smile crosses her face a moment later. "Thank you, Mr. Mellark. Your professionalism is appreciated."

"Wait, Dr. Coin," he calls as she turns to leave. "Can I, um, ask you something?"

There's a good chance that Katniss might be upset with him for what he's about to do. She's never wanted handouts of any kind, and he suspects that she didn't tell him or Annie that she was applying for a job at the high school because she didn't want a 'pity' interview based on her connections. But if he can do anything to nudge Dr. Coin in Katniss's direction, it can't hurt to simply ask.

Dr. Coin arches an eyebrow at him, her expression impassive, but she bobs her head and watches him expectantly.

"It's about a job application. For the music opening," he adds hastily, less she think he is looking for another position.

"Funny you should mention that. I just received a stack of résumés from HR this morning. I've been sifting through them and scheduling interviews."

"A…friend of mine applied for the job, and I…" he hesitates, "I was just wondering if I could put in a good word for her. Katniss Everdeen?"

Dr. Coin smiles at him. "I thought that name looked familiar."

He tries to keep the hope out of his voice when he casually asks, "So you have her application? Does Katniss have an interview?"

She presses her lips into a thin line and shakes her head. "No, Peeta, my hands are tied there. The Fine Arts supervisor culls the applications down with me and then I get to schedule interviews with the candidates I prefer. I remember seeing Katniss's application, but she was dismissed as being less than qualified."

His heart sinks. And what Dr. Coin said about being 'less than qualified' irks him, because while Katniss doesn't have a teaching degree, it wouldn't take much for her to get that certification. A lot of his colleagues went Alternate Route. Katniss has the music credentials. She's been around kids her whole life, and she has the heart to reach students. She would be an amazing teacher.

What she needs is someone to fight for her.

"Dr. Coin, I can assure you that Katniss would be an excellent teacher," he begins. "She plans to get her teaching certification, and I know that—"

She cuts him off. "It's my understanding, Peeta, that her lack of a formal teaching degree was not the reason Ms. Everdeen was eliminated from candidacy. The position is for instrumental music. It will involve a large number of orchestra lessons. She simply did not have that background."

"Oh." He deflates a little. That he gets. Katniss can play the piano and the guitar, but no other stringed instruments.

"You're close?" she prompts. "With Ms. Everdeen?"

Close. He nods and swallows back the rock in his throat, in spite of the fact that the distance between him and Katniss presently feels like a canyon.

"I'll tell you what, Peeta. I can do Ms. Everdeen a favor and forward her résumé to a friend of mine. He's the principal at Capitol Heights Elementary. He's currently interviewing for an anticipated opening in September for a general music teacher, kindergarten to fourth grade. There are no guarantees, of course, but I'll put in a good word."

"That would be perfect for her, Dr. Coin. I'm sure she would very much appreciate it."

A vision of Katniss sitting at a piano surrounded by the adoring faces of a classroom full of five-year-olds makes his heart ache.

He's never been one for praying, but he casts his eyes upward and says a silent plea for something to come of this opportunity for Katniss. A new job would certainly go a long way to improving Katniss's outlook on things.

It might be what she needs to find herself—and to find her way back to him.

He works out longer than usual after school, taking out some of his aggression on the punching bags in the weight room. Thoroughly exhausted, he picks up a pizza on the way home. Cooking usually relaxes him, but he has a lot of work to do, having been indisposed most of the weekend.

While he's grabbing a plate from the cabinet, there's a cautious knock on the door. His heart catapults into his throat. The plate slips from his hand and clatters to the floor; fortunately it was one of his plastic ones, and it bounces harmlessly across the tiles. He exhales, grabs the plate, and tries not to get his hopes up that Katniss is on the other side of the door.

Peering through the peephole, he grimaces and his stomach lurches. It's not Katniss. He curses softly, and opens the door, plastering a strained smile on his face. "Gale."

"Mellark." Gale Hawthorne shifts his bulky frame in the doorway and jams his hands into his pockets. "Can we talk?"

"I was actually just about to eat." He hesitates. "But it's just pizza. You want a slice?"

"No, Johanna will be expecting me for dinner. This won't take long, I promise."

Peeta sighs. Talking to Gale Hawthorne has never been high on his list of things he enjoys doing. But he suspects the reason Katniss's friend is here has something to do with her, and so for that reason he steps back and gives Gale an exaggerated wave of his arm.

"So, um, how are you doing?" Gale hedges, lingering in front of the door after Peeta closes it behind them. He knits his brows at Gale and crosses his arms, leaning against the wall between the kitchen and the living room. Small talk with Gale is even worse than actual conversation.

"I'm fine. You?"

"Good. Excited for Saturday. A little anxious." He takes his hands out of his pockets, but he twists them in front of him, as if unsure what to do with them. "Like I said I won't take much of your time. Katniss, um, asked me to come talk to you."


Gale nods. "Uh, yeah. About Saturday, actually."

Peeta's stomach plummets. He now knows exactly why Gale is here.

Gale looks sheepish and he clears his throat, still busying his fingers. "She, ah, said it would be better if you didn't come with her, to my wedding…you know."

Shit. Yep, there it is. A boulder lodges itself beside his heart in his throat. He had hoped that Gale and Johanna's wedding this weekend would have been the catalyst for Katniss to at least speak to him again, even only to tell him herself that she no longer wanted him as her date for the affair. Instead, she's sent Gale as a messenger. Fan-fucking-tastic.

"Oh, well…yeah, okay," he replies flatly. Because really, how can he argue with the groom? The pity in Gale's eyes turns his stomach over again. He hardly wants or needs Gale Hawthorne's sympathy.

"Katniss told us everything. I can't say I was surprised," Gale adds.

Peeta closes his eyes briefly and imagines Katniss spilling the whole sordid story of their decade-long relationship to Gale and Johanna.

"I mean," Gale continues, "I always knew where you stood regarding Katniss. Anyone could see the way you looked at her. I always knew you were my biggest competition. Back when…when I still hoped that Katniss might see me as more than a friend."

"Yeah, well, if it makes you feel any better for the longest time I was just waiting for the day she would tell me that she was going out with you."

"Wasn't for lack of trying on my part. I kissed her once. She rejected me."

He remembers. The night at the movie theater, when she begged him to kiss her again, and then they made out for hours in the back of his car.

Gale's expression becomes more serious, wistful almost. "But with all that she told me, I realized I never stood a chance with Katniss."

Madge had used the same words: never stood a chance.

"I should have known, though. The signs were there. And the more I thought about it after she left the other night…Like there was a time when she had come to visit me at Pitt. I think it was sophomore year. I brought her to a frat party with me, and one of my fraternity brothers had thought she was hot. He asked me if he could ask her out." Gale chuckles at the memory. "I told him no at first, cause she was still in high school. Even if I hadn't had a thing for Katniss I was still gonna protect her."

Peeta stiffens. It's always been his job to protect Katniss.

"But Brady, he was pretty relentless, and he was a nice enough guy. So I caved and we went to dinner, Brady and Katniss, and me and Johanna."

Brady? It sounds like one of those names that could belong to a contestant on the Bachelor or something. Or a black Labrador. He already doesn't like this faceless douchebag.

"And everything went fine, and he and Katniss seemed to be getting along, so I didn't feel bad about letting him take her for coffee after, and Johanna and I…um…" he trails off and Peeta gets his drift.

"Katniss never mentioned any of this to me," he says, and in light of all that she's confessed to him recently, he wonders how many other guys have filtered in and out of her life that he's never been privy to. The ones he knew about made him jealous enough.

Gale snorts softly. "She probably didn't even give the date a second thought. When I saw Brady the next night, after Katniss had gone back home, I had asked him how things went. He chewed me out and said it would have been nice if I had clued him in to the fact she had a boyfriend she was hung up on. He said all she talked about was some guy named Peeta."

It's funny how just the mere association of the word 'boyfriend' used in any context with Katniss sends warmth rushing through him. And he thinks about the timing of what Gale's telling him. If Gale was a sophomore in college, then that was Peeta and Katniss's senior year of high school. He had been dating Bristel at the time. A bittersweet ache blooms in his chest thinking about how if Katniss was sincere in saying she's loved him all along, it had to have killed her to see him with his other girlfriends through the years. His own feelings of jealousy have always been swift and vicious every time he thinks about her with another guy. Hell just hearing about this Brady has his fists clenching subconsciously. And he never actually had to witness Katniss with a serious boyfriend, the way she did him with Bristel…and Clove…and Cressida.

That last thought gives him pause. In all the years they've been doing their fucked-up little friends-with-benefit waltz, he can't remember Katniss ever being the one to put a temporary hold on things because of a guy she was seeing. She mentioned names, and she referenced dates, but none of those names ever surfaced very long.

Has she limited herself to only casual hook-ups all this time because of her feelings for him? Did she ever even try to test the 'serious relationship' waters?

He coughs and scratches at his jaw when he realizes Gale is watching him intently, waiting for some kind of response. "I was dating Bristel then. Katniss and I…we never…"

"No, I know that. But hearing Brady say how much Katniss worked you into her conversations, I kind of thought that she might have had a thing for you. When I called her out on it, she blew me off. Said you guys were best friends, and nothing more."

Peeta frowns and exhales loudly. He supposes that was technically true. At that point he and Katniss had only had sex the one time, and he had kissed her that night on Marvel's driveway after she had incurred Bristel's wrath. He wonders if Katniss had clued Gale in on that detail. As immature as it is, he kind of wants Gale to know that he was Katniss's first.

"I wanted it to be more. All she would have had to say was that she wanted it too."

"For a long time I never knew the depth of her feelings for you."

Peeta uncrosses his arms. "Well, I guess that makes two of us."

Gale gives him a surprisingly empathetic look. "If anything, Katniss is good at keeping things bottled inside. You can't beat yourself up over the past. Trust me, I pined for Katniss Everdeen for a long time before I found the right girl to make me forget about her."

His stomach churns. "I don't want to forget her, Gale," he says sharply. "I'm not going to forget about her. I love her. I'll wait forever for her, if that's what it takes."

Gale holds up a hand. "I didn't say you should forget her. I guess I just meant…it's not your fault you never realized how much she loves you." He sighs and glances at his watch. "I should get going."

"Gale, wait a sec." He darts into his bedroom and grabs the card he had filled out when he had done the one for Finnick and Annie. He returns and hands it to Gale, who turns it over once in his palm before recognition dawns in his grey eyes.

"I can't take this."

"It's a gift," he says quietly. "Just because I'm no longer going…you can still take it. And you will. Congratulations. I hope that you and Johanna have a beautiful wedding and a long and happy marriage."

Gale presses his lips together, staring down at the card for a long time. Then he sighs and extends his hand. "Thank you, Peeta."

It might be the first time Gale has ever directly addressed him as anything but "Mellark." They shake hands, and Gale reaches for the doorknob, but pauses and turns to face Peeta again. "For what it's worth, I do hope things work out for you guys. I know how much you love her. And she could do a lot worse than you."

Peeta chuckles humorlessly. But after he sees Gale out and closes the door, he cracks a smile. It's as much of an approval as he can ever expect to get from Gale Hawthorne when it comes to Katniss. Not that he needed it, but it's still nice to have.

Sleep claims him quickly that night. He barely hits the pillow before his eyes slam shut and he's out cold.

He dreams, of course, but this time it's pleasant: he's back on the beach with Katniss, on that July day he'd just been thinking about the other morning.

Something is different though. The beach appears deserted, though the height of the sun in the sky suggests it's midday. She's wearing the sundress over her bathing suit, and her hair is gathered into a messy knot just above where he can see the strings of her bikini top double-knotted at the nape of her neck. A few dark wisps whip past her tanned cheeks. The surf crashes over their bare toes.

And her hand. It's now knitted through his, their arms loosely swinging between them as they walk through the ankle-deep foamy water. And when Katniss gazes up at him, the smile on her face rivals the radiance of the sun. He grins back at her and squeezes her hand.

But then she lets go and skips ahead of him, tromping through the waves, spinning around to aim a mischievous smirk at him.

"Come catch me," she dares. Her feet cut through the water, sending spray arcing in all directions. He pauses to watch her footprints get sucked away with the receding tide, before he springs into a slow jog, letting her put some distance between them. Katniss is fast, and she can keep up with him on a good day, but with effort he will overtake her handily.

"If I catch you what do I get?" he calls.

She throws him another playful glance and her hands grip the hem of her sundress. In one fluid motion she pulls it up and over her head and tosses it onto the sand. Without a word, she quickens her pace. He follows, keeping his strides measured, and he yells again, "Give me some more motivation, Everdeen. I want to know what I get if I catch you!"

She stops running and faces him again. He blinks, because she's suddenly no longer the gangly teenaged Katniss. Instead he's looking at present day Katniss, her silver eyes locked on him as she reaches behind her and unties both strings of her bikini top. It falls away to the sand. He sucks in a breath at the sight of her breasts, and how they never fail to captivate him though he knows every inch of her skin and every freckle to be found on her body.

"You get me," she taunts, taking off up the beach.

He grins and lurches into motion, his toes digging into the soft sand. He runs after her, catching up to her easily. He loops his arms around her waist. A sharp squeal pierces the air, and when he twists her around in his arms, those grey eyes sparkle with expectancy.

"I got you," he murmurs, drawing her flush against him. He feels the warmth of her breasts as she presses into him, and his fingers curl around her hips.

"You've always had me, Peeta," she returns, stepping back to tug her bikini bottoms down, and then her fingers dip into his board shorts to pull them down his legs. He cradles her to him, kissing her hungrily as he slowly lowers her to the sand.

The whisper of the surf provides a quiet soundtrack to their lovemaking. The rays of the sun warm their bare skin, speckling their bodies with more sweat than usual. Katniss writhes underneath him, her legs locked around his waist and her nails digging half-moons into the plane of his upper back. He thrusts in and out of her, pumping into her again and again.

The wave approaches with a menacing rumble. It crashes over them ferociously. He feels Katniss torn from his arms, then there's nothing more but a searing pain as he struggles to take oxygen into his lungs. When the water ebbs and he can stumble to his feet, he blinks away the brackish water stinging his eyes.

She's gone.

"Katniss!" He leaps through the waves, scanning the churning water for any sign of her. Nothing. A shrill squawk from a gull is the only reply.

"Katniss!" Panic chokes his voice. He calls for her until he's hoarse, when finally he hears his name shouted once. Shielding his eyes from the harsh glare of the sunshine— which minutes ago had completed the romantic mood but now works against him—he catches sight of a flailing hand above the white caps. He dives through the surf, swimming desperately towards her. His arms slice through the turbulent water and his legs propel him until his lungs are on fire. But he never seems to close the gap; he bobs to the surface, releasing her name in one last mournful howl.

He screams himself awake, a cold sheen of sweat slicking his fevered skin. In spite of the ice water sluicing in his veins and the terrifying realism of the nightmare, he's hard as a rock, and he sighs, irritated with himself, while his erection slowly deflates.

The overwhelming need to hear her voice hits him harder than that imaginary wave. He knows she's okay. The nightmare wasn't real. She's not drowning in the vast sea. She's probably sound asleep in her bed.

He pauses. Maybe she's not sound asleep though. His heart clenches when he thinks about her tossing and turning and crying out, trapped in a nightmare of her own, her quaking body tangling in the sweat-soaked sheets.

With a trembling hand, he reaches for his phone. Then he mutters a curse and pulls back. He can't call her. He promised. He can't break a promise to her. He drives his fist into his pillow, pounding it a couple of times for good measure, and thumps back against the bed.

On the third consecutive night jolting awake out of the same petrifying nightmare, gasping Katniss's name into the dark of his bedroom and staring numbly at his silent phone, he slogs to his refrigerator, takes a long pull off a bottle of water, and slumps against the counter.

Maybe he does need to talk to someone.


Sophomore Year of College (20 years old)

"Peeta! Hi!"

"Hey, Prim," he returns, staggering backwards when she launches herself into his arms.

"Katniss isn't home yet," Prim says as she finally releases him from the death-grip of a hug. "She had to go to the library to submit a paper or something."

"I know, she told me," he replies. He had offered to let Katniss finish up her paper at his house, but she had politely declined and opted to go to the county library to email her work to her professor.

"It's a pain not having Internet," Prim grouses. "I have to do all my Facebook stuff on my phone."

According to Katniss, there were a few things at the rental condo that were her mother' responsibility. The owners did not provide any kind of Wi-Fi or cable, and nearly five weeks later Mrs. Everdeen still has not gotten around to arranging for Internet access.

"What's in there?" Prim asks, peering over the edge of the bulging shopping bag.

"I thought I'd make Katniss dinner. Surprise her… you know, so you two aren't eating Lucky Charms and toast again."

Prim's blue eyes shine. "You're so awesome, Peeta! I wish Katniss—" she stops short and presses her lips together, then slinks off towards the condo's small kitchen. As he follows her, curiosity piqued as to what Prim was about to share.

He dumps the bag onto the peeling linoleum counter, and Prim helps him unload the groceries. As they unpack the bag, he studies the girl he's known since she was a tow-headed toddler. At sixteen, Prim has grown into a willowy, poised teenager. No one can argue that she's pretty, and Peeta suspects the girl knows it. She carries herself so differently than Katniss, who never seems to understand or accept how beautiful she is, and who never seems to benefit from the attention showered upon her sister by their mother. In fact, Prim bears a strong resemblance to Mrs. Everdeen, and he has to wonder if that's part of the reason Katniss's mother so blatantly favors her younger daughter. Katniss looks more like their father.

"You brought a lot of stuff," Prim muses.

"Yeah, well…" Peeta trails off, untwisting the tie on bag holding the fresh garlic cloves. He doesn't really want to say that he doubted Mrs. Everdeen had the necessary ingredients for the meal he had in mind.

"Will it be enough…?" Prim bites her lip and her pale cheeks bloom a deep pink as she rinses a chicken breast under the faucet. She pats it dry and looks up, still blushing. "I mean Rory's going to come over and watch a movie…"

"I'm sure there'll be more than enough for him to join us, yeah, Prim," he assures her, watching her face break into a wide smile.

Prim chatters on while he sautés the vegetables, going on and on about all the things she's got planned for the rest of the summer, and Peeta feels himself getting irritated with the agenda that she rattles off. He takes a deep breath and smacks the knife a little harder into the cutting board as he dices the peppers. It's patently unfair that Prim should be heading to the beach with her friends and lying around reading and cramming for the SATs, when Katniss is busting her ass without much of a summer break at all.

"No job for the summer?" he inquires casually, shoving the peppers into a small bowl.

Prim shrugs. "Nah. I might volunteer at the library or maybe one of the nursing homes to get my service hours for the Honor Society."

Prim resumes her chattering, and he listens half-heartedly while he washes his hands, clenching and unclenching his fists several times to relieve some tension. When Katniss was sixteen, she was already working two jobs. And she's working two jobs now, on top of summer classes. How does she not resent her sister's carefree days? Because he sure does.

Of course it's not really Prim's fault that their mother is a selfish bitch who in the few times she actually remembers that she has two kids and needs to be a parent to them chooses Prim's needs over Katniss's. And it's not Prim's fault that Katniss also puts her little sister before herself. How different would things be for Katniss if she had someone in her corner?

He's always tried to be that person for her. Katniss has relied on him more since she's been back living with her mother and her sister. While he definitely misses her lips on his and her body fused with his, everything else about their relationship seems more solid than ever. They talk for hours late into the night, usually about mundane things, but her rants about her mother creep in sporadically. She's complained to him vociferously about Prim deserving better than living like a vagrant (although the condo is not a total shit hole, as he thought it would be, and he thinks Katniss might be exaggerating a little about the whole vagrant thing). He's remained silent, letting her vent, merely offering her a best friend's sympathetic ear.

He and Prim work together to cut the chicken into slender strips, but when the doorbell chimes, she scurries off to let Rory inside. He hears heavy footsteps on the stairs, and a giggle, and then a door slams.

A key jiggles in the lock a few minutes later, just as he's finishing up seasoning the chicken. Katniss trudges inside and drops her large messenger bag to the floor with a thud, leafing through the mail in her hand. Her nose twitches, and the smell of the fajitas reaches her nostrils, and she finally looks up. Her eyes widen. "Peeta!"

"Hey," he calls, beckoning her with the spatula before returning it to the skillet. "You get your paper all sent off?"

"Uh, yeah." She comes to join him in the tiny kitchen. For a fleeting second he considers pulling her into his arms and giving her a kiss hello. But then his rational mind takes over and he just smiles.

"I thought you'd be hungry after working all day in the sun and toiling on your paper."

Her smile in return is weak but genuine, and once she's standing right beside him he can see the purplish shadows under her eyes. "You're too good to me," she murmurs, grabbing a fistful of grated cheddar and popping it into her mouth. "Where's Prim?"

"Upstairs. Rory is here."

Katniss sets her lips into a line. "He's here all the fucking time."

He arches an eyebrow at her and turns off the burner, removing the chicken and vegetables from the heat. "They're teenagers. They're crazy about each other."

Her eyes soften a little. "No, I know." She sighs. "I just…Prim has so much going for her. I don't want her…" A tired laugh tumbles from her lips. "Forget it. I'll get the plates."

Prim and Rory stumble into the kitchen just as Peeta and Katniss have sat down at the table. It doesn't go unnoticed that Prim's long blonde ponytail has slipped a few inches, strands of hair trying to escape the elastic on both sides, and Rory's short hair is disheveled, and both their mouths are puffy. Katniss gives Peeta a pointed look and rolls her eyes, but what he feels is more like jealousy—jealousy that Rory Hawthorne has what Peeta would kill for: a very open relationship with an Everdeen girl.

After dinner Prim and Rory immediately head back upstairs, but not before Katniss yells a warning at them to 'stay the fuck off her bed' and to keep their clothes on. She then cleans up the kitchen, refusing to let Peeta help.

"So," she sighs once they're seated on the couch in the den, and he's got the television tuned to the Phillies game on mute. "Only a couple days until you have to go back to school."

"Yeah." The summer has gone by too fast, and were it not for football, he'd have a few more weeks with her. But even beyond the drain on his time with Katniss, he's been starting to have second thoughts about playing football, thoughts that he has yet to confess to anyone.

"What's wrong?" Her voice is tender, as is her hand on his knee, and he jerks his leg a little as the heat radiates out from where her palm warms his bare skin. "You look a million miles away."

"No, I'm here. With you." He covers her hand with his, patting it twice, then he slumps back against the cushions and swings his legs up onto the scarred, faux oak coffee table.

"Talk to me, Peeta." She leans her head on his shoulder and plays with the hem of his shirt. He waits for her to slide her palm under and tickle the skin of his abdomen, a sure sign that she wants to fuck. But her hand remains above his clothes.

"I thought I'd be looking forward to the season more than I am." He clears his throat and rotates her hand so her palm faces up and he can trace circles on it with his thumb. "With Titus going to the NFL, I have a legitimate chance at starting, but…"

"But…" she encourages.

He sighs and starts to explain how his enthusiasm for the sport—at least playing it anyhow—is declining. Knowing that he isn't going to make a career out of it makes him wonder if it isn't time to hang up his cleats.

While he talks, Katniss is quiet, contemplative. He finishes, and she says, "You're a great quarterback. And you're so smart with the play calls, and reading your teammate. You shine at everything you do. But who are you really playing for, Peeta? Your dad? Your mom? Or are you playing because it's what people expect of you?"

He considers her questions. She knows how to cut to the core of things, because really, it's all of the above. His mother had made it patently clear to him that he would be playing football once he was old enough to go out for Pee-Wee because 'that's what the Mellark boys do.' His father had played for years, and while Mr. Mellark had never blatantly forced the sport on any of his sons, Peeta didn't want to disappoint his dad. And then of course once he made the team and the coaches saw his talent—more than either of his older brothers had ever had at his age—there was no going back.

"Does it make you happy, Peeta?" she prods. "Because you shouldn't do something that doesn't make you happy just because it makes other people happy."

She shifts forward and turns to scrutinize him when he remains silent, letting her advice seep in. Abruptly she stands up, thrusts her hand at him, and hauls him to his feet. "C'mon. Let's go for a drive." When he gapes at her, she runs her hand down his biceps, leaving his skin tingling in its wake. "The reservoir? Clear your mind?"

"What about Prim?"

Katniss makes a face and glances up at the ceiling. She sighs a pronounced huff. "They're fine," she decides. "She's not that stupid. Plus he has a curfew. Hazelle will skin him alive if he's not home by 11. Let's go. You drive." She stalks into the foyer and calls up to Prim that they're leaving, and he follows her out the front door and to his car.

"Take the back roads," she murmurs, unwinding her braid. "And drive carefully."

The engine catches, and he moves to fasten his seatbelt when she stretches over the console and stops him.

"Katniss, what the—?"

She shakes her head deliberately. "Drive."

The tone of her voice is as good as her hand between his legs, but soon enough that's there too. She squeezes his cock through his shorts, and in the intermittent flashes of the passing streetlights, he can see her irises gleaming.

"Keep your eyes on the road, not me," she orders, unbuckling his belt. He grins, and more blood rushes to his cock when she frees it through the gaps in his shorts and underwear. She wets her palm and grips him, twisting gently and coaxing him to swell to full arousal.

His fingers curl over the steering wheel at the first stroke of her tongue. He turns onto the desolate back road that leads to the reservoir, plunging the car into darkness—no more streetlamps. He flicks on the high beams just as the warm suction of Katniss's mouth sheathes his hard-on.

"God…yeah," he whispers, dropping one hand off the wheel to thread through her hair. Her head bobs rhythmically, and the bliss in his lower belly continues to mount. His groin prickles with heat as she sucks harder, bringing him closer and closer to the edge.

He bites back a protest when she releases him. Her hand takes over, pumping him slowly, and her lips hover near his ear. "Starting to feel better?"

He was already feeling better just from getting his feelings out there, and from Katniss listening so attentively and saying exactly what he needed to hear her say. Not that her incredible expertise at giving him head isn't making things even better…

"Always," he whispers, and the second syllable catches in the strangled net of his voice as her mouth engulfs him again. "You…always…make me feel so…good, Katniss. Fuck, I'm…almost there."

She hollows her cheeks and her tongue slides back, and he feels the intense crackle of current surging to his dick a moment before he tenses and comes in her mouth. She sucks him clean and licks his cock several more times before she readjusts him and zips his shorts back up. Her lips graze his cheek before she settles back into her seat.

"You're fucking incredible, you know that?" he asks, cutting his eyes at her.

"I don't like seeing you unhappy," she replies.

When they arrive at the reservoir a few minutes later, he's bitterly disappointed to see numerous cars scattered throughout the lot. The blowjob may have served her purpose in getting his mind off things, but it also increased his appetite for her. He wants her so fucking bad. But he knows that Katniss will never allow anything to happen with this many people around. The couple of times they've had sex up here they've been alone, or there've only been one or two other cars in the lot.

Loud shouts and joyous cries seep into his quiet car through the open sunroof, accented by splashes from those swimming in the reservoir. It's not as peaceful as it is other nights, but the pale pulses of the fireflies and the symphony of crickets audible over the din from the water still create a serene mood.

Katniss stares out the window for a long moment, and then she glances over at him. "Get the blanket?"

He nods, and they both climb out of the car. He grabs the large blanket he stores in his trunk, and he spreads it out before he carefully splays out on the cooling hood. Katniss crawls up after him, and to his surprise she snuggles close to him, her head in the crook of his arm.

He feels Katniss's shoulders lift as she takes a deep breath. Gazing down at her, he sees her eyes fixed on the blackened sky above their heads. Now she's the one who looks like she's a million miles away hovering among the stars.

"What are you thinking about?" he asks, taking a strand of her hair between his fingers.

She shrugs, another slight lift of her shoulders against his chest. "Do you ever talk to Bristel anymore?"

"Wha- No. Why? Where'd that come from?"

She worries her lip between her bottom teeth. "Oh…nowhere. Nothing. I mean…Just wondering." Katniss sighs, and though she doesn't say anything else or press the issue further, he finds himself compelled to elaborate.

"We, um, haven't spoken to each other since the day after we broke up. We're not even friends on Facebook anymore. I see her name from time to time on Annie's page, but yeah, no contact. At all."

"Oh." More silence from her.

For a while he thought it was strange that he had so little attachment to a girl who had been a big part of his life for nearly a year, Bristel never crosses his mind. But he's pretty sure she feels the same way about him, given that she's been back with her ex since Christmas.

"I guess that happens when couples split, right? At our age anyway?" he continues.

"Maybe," she replies, her body curling into his side. "You doing anything with the guys before you and Thresh leave on Sunday?"

"Oh…no…not that I know of. I mean I'm sure something will go down Friday night. But if you're not—"

She finishes his thought. "I am. Working. Saturday night too."

Arching his back off the windshield he scans the lot. It's a muggy night, and the sky is swollen, obscuring most of the moon's light, casting the reservoir in shadows. It's hard to make out anything too clearly, and in the general vicinity of where they're parked, he doesn't recognize any of the cars. Satisfied with the relative privacy, and with his heart thumping in his ears, he turns to meet Katniss's perplexed face. He edges his thumb along her bottom lip, beginning to tilt his mouth towards hers. She skirts away, scooting off to his right.

"Wh-what are you doing?" she stammers.

"Kissing you," he whispers.

"Don't." It's like a book snapping shut, and it fucking hurts to hear it. He rakes a hand through his hair and lies back against the windshield, searching the skies for a focal point while his anguish subsides. Guilt eddies in his gut. He should have known better than to try to kiss her in public. What was he thinking?

Out of the corner of his eye he sees Katniss draw her knees up to her chest, and her flip-flops slap against the hood as she taps her feet. He sighs and looks back at the stars. He connects invisible lines between the pinpricks, envisioning his own pictures. His stomach is doing back flips, and the fajitas are threatening to make an unwanted reappearance.

He feels her hand on his breastbone, and the hood groans a little, as she shifts and insinuates herself back into his arms. Her fingers brush back and forth along his ribs, and the heel of her palm rests over his heart.

"I can take Friday off if you want to try to go to the beach. We haven't been at all this summer," she offers.

A ridiculously buoyant hope blooms in his chest where the sting of rejection just prickled. "What about camp? The movie theater?"

"I haven't ever called out from rec camp in all the years I've worked there, and we'll be home in time for me to get to the theater, especially if you're going to hang with the guys." She hugs him, her body pressed so close to his, her leg hitched over his, and he clamps down on his lip to keep his dick in check. "If you want me to do it, I will."

"I'd love it," he whispers. "There's no one I'd rather spend the day with."

"Consider it done," she replies.

He winds one strand of her silky hair around his finger, as they stare up at the sky and spend the rest of the evening talking about books, and her thoughts on Prim and Rory, and what would happen if he gave up his football scholarship. It's nearly one a.m. before he notices she's slower to answer, and her eyes keep slipping closed, yawns punctuating her words.

She nods off in the car on the way back to her house, and before she gets out, she reaches across the console and cups his cheek.

"Thanks for being my best friend, Peeta."

And her smile is so sincere that it almost makes up for not being able to grab her and kiss her goodnight.


Friday is just about perfect from the moment he wakes up to a sapphire blue, cloudless sky. He couldn't have asked for a better beach day to spend with Katniss.

His face breaks into a wide grin when he pulls into her mother's complex and he sees her waiting on the front stoop. She bounces up and grabs her bag, ponytail swishing as she walks quickly to his car.

"Hi." She smiles at him as she slides into the passenger seat and buckles her seatbelt, immediately swinging her feet up on the dashboard.

He grabs a bag from the console and dangles it under her nose. She snatches it and inhales deeply, her smile spreading when she plucks the cheese bun from the bag.

"Fuuuuuck, it's still warm," she mumbles around a mouthful. "So good. Thank you."

"I made sandwiches for lunch too." He jerks a thumb at a large wicker basket in the back seat. She lets out a moan of appreciation, and then she starts licking the flaky crumbs from the cheese bun off her fingers.

Maybe one day he'll stop getting turned on by every little thing she does. Or maybe not.

She hums along to the radio, and he's happy that she's in a good mood. This is the Katniss he wants imprinted on his mind when he leaves on Sunday.

The beach is already crowded, but they find a relatively good spot and lay out their towels. He peels his shirt over his head, folding it into a little rectangle, and Katniss follows suit, stripping off her shirt and shorts. She inconspicuously adjusts her bikini top then bends down to rummage through her bag. Shamelessly he admires her perfectly toned ass before she straightens back up with a bottle of sunscreen in her hand.

He tries not to ogle her as she slathers the lotion up and down her arms, across her collarbone, and over the swells of her breasts.

"You just gonna stand there, or are you going to do something so you don't look like a lobster at the end of the day?" she teases. "Or you can make yourself useful and get my back." She tosses him the lotion, and turns around, wiggling her hips a little.

Her skin is warm and so soft, and holy fuck has he missed touching her. His palms glide over her shoulder blades, easing beneath the strings of her bikini, careful not to miss any spots. His fingers roll along her spinal cord, dipping just past the waistband of her bottoms.

"Thanks. Want me to do you?" She cranes her neck and smiles at him, turning around fully to take the bottle from him.

God does he. Heat unfurls in his belly and a shiver slithers down his spine at the first touch of the cool lotion on his skin. Her hands move methodically, rubbing and kneading, and he closes his eyes for a moment. He squirms when she curls her fingers around his waist, tickling him. The laugh that bubbles out of her quickly grows to a shriek when he lunges for her and seeks revenge.

"Peeta! Stop!" she cries, swatting at him. But he has the upper hand, going right for the spot just below her armpit, dangerously close to the side of her breast. She squeals again and lobs her fist into his biceps, connecting hard enough to make him wince. They're both breathless with laughter when his hands drop to her hips, and his eyes wander to her chest, rising and falling rapidly from their antics.

It would be so easy to lower his mouth to hers and kiss her now.

Katniss coughs and gestures towards her towel. "I'm gonna lie down for a bit, get some sun before we go in the water, okay?"

He kneels beside her once she's sprawled on her back. "Lift your head," he says quietly, sliding his folded shirt under her neck. She gives him another smile in thanks, and adjusts her head on his shirt, closing her eyes and going still.

A cluster of guys—he estimates them to be in their 20s, a little older than him—walk by and make no secret about the fact they're gawking at Katniss. Peeta glances up from his book and smirks over the top of his sunglasses when they meet his territorial glare and then walk off. As pathetic as it may be, at least perfect strangers can jump to the conclusion that she belongs to him.

The day passes by too quickly. They swim, they sun, they eat. At quarter to two, Katniss checks her phone, and she sighs. "I'm supposed to be at the theater by 5."

He sits up and angles his palm in front of his face to shield the sun's glare. He gives her a wan smile. "Yeah, okay. We can get going."

She stares back at him, his eyes drawn to the smattering of freckles that have asserted themselves across her nose, which crinkles in concentration. Then she flashes him a grin, and he watches her punch a number into her phone.

"Hey, it's Katniss…Not good actually…No…Yeah, I didn't get to camp today either…" She gives him a knowing smirk as she listens to whoever is on the other end. "I know, I think I've called out twice in all the years I've worked there…Yeah, I was supposed to be off tomorrow, but if they need me…Okay. Thanks." Her eyes gleam as she tosses her phone back into her bag. "Okay, I'm yours for the rest of the day. C'mon. Let's go back in the water."

She pulls him up, and he's shocked when she knits their fingers and keeps them linked together as they stroll down to the ocean's edge.

"Might as well spend every last minute we can together, right?" she murmurs, releasing his hand and diving into a wave. She surfaces several feet away, and treads water, signaling him to join her. As he wades in, the cold water briefly dulls the warmth that had just settled in his chest, but it quickly returns.

If only for today, he can keep pretending that she's his—really his.

Much to his chagrin he barely gets to say goodbye to Katniss on Sunday morning. He only sees her because he packs up some donuts and pastries (and two cheese buns) and takes them by her mom's condo on his way to pick up Thresh. Prim answers the door, grabs the Mellarks' box, and yells for Katniss.

He had hoped that Friday night they would have wound up somewhere to have sex, just like last summer when she had faked being sick to get out of work before he'd gone off to Penn State. But this time, as they left the beach she had asked him to take her home. Disappointed, he had acquiesced and spent the rest of the night playing beer pong and Xbox with Finnick, Thresh, and Thom.

She appears a few minutes later, both her hair and his old football practice jersey rumpled with sleep. The sight of her wearing it still makes him grin like an idiot, and it rides up on her thighs when she throws her arms around his neck and hugs him. His hands skim her hips, and he yearns to be able to pin her to the wall and give her a bruising kiss that she'll feel for days.

Her fingers skim the nape of his neck, and she whispers, "Text me or call me to let me know you guys get there okay, ok?"

Tightening his hold on her, he slides his hands up her back and rubs it. "I'll miss you. Please don't work yourself too hard."

She follows him outside, gives him one last lingering hug, and she's still leaning against one of the beams on the front porch when he backs down the short driveway and waves to her out the open window.

It never gets any easier leaving her behind.

"Peeta! Look! Look!"

"Jackson, let Peeta get inside before you assault him!"

He laughs at the gentle but firm reprimand of the shelter's director, and he lets the door swing shut behind him, hitching his backpack higher on his shoulder so he can ruffle the hair of the boy bouncing around in front of him.

"Whatcha got there, buddy?" he asks, raising his eyes briefly to nod a hello to Natalie, the director, who's doling out a bag of Chex Mix among rows of plastic bowls.

"Look! Boo-yah!"

Peeta grabs the paper, his grin spreading as he scans it. "Ninety-three?"

"An A!" Jackson crows. "My first A ever!"

"I told you that you could do it. Awesome job, Jack."

"I've got another one next Tuesday. I'm gonna get a hundred on that one!"

"I absolutely believe that you can. We can work on it on Thursday."

Jackson's face falls, and Peeta places a hand on his shoulder. "Tuesday is my day with Briony. And Darrell and Andre. You know that."

As if on cue, a pretty girl with skin like mocha and brown eyes approaches, dribbling a basketball in one hand and sucking on a Capri-Sun. "That's right, fool. It's my day with Peeta. Beat off."

"Bri," Peeta warns. Jackson sticks his tongue out and runs off to grab a snack from Natalie. Briony lobs the basketball at Peeta, and he catches it with one hand.

"One on One?" she pleads.

"You know my rules. Studying first, then we can play. What do you have to work on today? How's that paper coming?"

The girl heaves a loud sigh and makes a noise, tossing the basketball back into the wire bin as Peeta leads her to the study room.

Between his football schedule and his classes, the first six weeks of the fall semester have flown by. He feels like he's barely had time to breathe, let alone relax. But this is the best part of his week, the thing he looks forward to most: the time he spends tutoring at the local youth shelter as part of a joint service project for his fraternity and their sister sorority. Every Tuesday and Thursday he works with three kids for an hour each—kids who are struggling in school and don't have strong support systems at home. Mostly kids with single mothers or absentee parents altogether. One boy's father is in jail. His youngest tutee is twelve, the oldest a junior in high school.

As he's gotten to know the kids he's started to bond with them. He's learned to look for angles to connect with them that he can exploit in a healthy way as he helps them with their English papers and their trig homework. And every time one of them greets him waving an aced chemistry test or an essay on Julius Caesar with an A scrawled at the top, he feels a sense of pride and accomplishment, more so than any touchdown he throws on the football field.

His lack of enthusiasm for the sport has steadily waned as the season drags on. It doesn't help that their schedule is particularly brutal in terms of travel, and the times when he'd normally get to go home—fall break and Thanksgiving—are both away games.

He misses Katniss. Not that he expected it, but she hasn't been able to get out to visit him, nor has she made it to a game. He had held on to the dim hope that she would surprise him again like last year, but she's been as busy as he is. The exhaustion is back in her voice when they talk, and lately they're relying more heavily on text message conversations. Once or twice he's subtly tried to steer into sexting territory, but her replies have remained wholly innocent. He's resorted to jerking off more than usual.

Briony continues to grumble under her breath as she pulls a battered copy of The Lord of the Flies from her backpack. She slams it down on the table and slumps into a chair.

"The paper?" he prompts, and she gives him a surly smile and yanks a crumpled sheet from the front pocket of the bag. He frowns at her. "I thought we agreed that you'd use the folders I brought you, that you'd keep things neater."

Briony shrugs. "It's just a draft."

"We made a deal, kiddo. You ace this paper, and you and I have a date for that 76ers/Heat game as soon as my football season ends. You have to do your part though. You're not going to bat those eyelashes at me and say you tried your hardest if you get a bad grade on it."

"I know, I know," she huffs.

He takes her paper from her and starts to read, but he glances up to give Clove a wave as she and another of her sorority sisters enter the study room for their respective session. They sit down at the adjacent table. Clove grins at him from where she works with her first kid, and he can feel her gaze flitting to him every so often.

"You gonna stop making eyes at your girlfriend and give me some advice on my paper?"

"She's not my girlfriend," Peeta says.

Briony smirks. "Sure looks like she wants to be."

"I think you just like teasing me," he ribs, nudging her with his elbow. "Like you with Jackson. You know what they say about girls who tease boys, right, Miss Briony?"

"Oh hell no! I don't like that scrawny white boy!"

He laughs and squeezes her shoulder and manages to get her to focus on her paper for the rest of their hour together, stopping a few minutes early to play a round of Horse, as he promised her. Then he spends an hour on cellular mitosis with Darrell, but he's dismayed to learn his third kid, Andre, is a no show. He's starting to worry about the boy; he ditched last session too.

Still, instead of leaving early, he rounds up a few of the other kids, ones that he doesn't work with, and he puts together an impromptu pick-up game in the gym.

He's tugging on a clean shirt after the game wraps up when he hears Clove's voice. "What's it like?"

He pulls his head through the shirt and looks at her. "Huh?"

She laughs. "These kids idolize you. They fight over you; you know that? I'm pretty sure a few of my girls hate me just because they got stuck with me instead of you."

He shrugs modestly. "I'm sure that's not true."

"Oh, god, Peeta, they all have crushes on you. And you're really, really good with them. You're a natural."

"I've always liked kids."

"It shows." She grins again. "So you want to go grab a bite to eat or something?"

"Oh…well, I really need to throw my stuff together for tomorrow. We leave early in the morning for Madison."

Clove nods, and he sees the disappointment creep into her eyes. "Sucks that you aren't going to get to enjoy your break."

"That's the life of a student athlete," he replies diplomatically.

"I guess I'll see you when you get back," she says, after he's walked her to her car. She steps towards him and wraps him into a hug. "Have a safe trip." She waves and peels out of the parking lot.

While he's packing, he waits for Katniss's call. She has class late on Thursday night, and sometimes she's too tired to talk, but he hopes tonight's not one of those nights. He needs to hear her voice.

Her ring tone blares from his desk just as he's zipping up his suitcase. He shoves it beside his equipment bag and grabs for his phone.

"Hey you."

"Hi. You all packed up?"

"Just finished. You have great timing."

"Sometimes," she replies. "You have a good day?"

He finds himself grinning as he relates his tutoring session to Katniss.

"Saint Peeta. What can't you do? Maybe you should have been a teacher." She laughs softly. "Oh my god, oh my god, I can totally picture you like Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society. Except you know you're younger. And hotter. And you know, you'd have girls in the class—who would all be in love with you."

"Stop it." But a strange sensation roots in his chest. "You, um, really think I could have been a teacher?"

"I think you'd be an amazing teacher, Peeta. You're patient. You're kind. You're so smart…" She yawns audibly. "I'm sorry." And then she promptly does it again.

"It's okay. You should go to sleep. I don't want to keep you. Besides, you just gave me a lot to think about."

"I'm sorry. I'm just so tired." A third yawn.

"Go. Go to sleep. Get some rest."

"Will you let me know that you get to Madison okay?"

"Of course."

"Okay. Travel safe, Peeta. Night."

"Night, Katniss."

And just like every other time he hangs up the phone, the words 'I love you' are left lingering on the tip of his tongue.

The next morning he flies to Wisconsin with the rest of his team. After they check in at the hotel, a bus takes them to Badger Stadium to practice. It's an exhausting one, and the hot shower does little to ease his tired muscles. When they get back to the hotel, he spends the rest of the night chilling in his room, playing cards with Thresh and two of their other teammates. He only half focuses on the poker game, wondering how he could possibly excuse himself to pass off a casual phone call to Katniss if he doesn't hear back from her soon.

As she had asked he had texted her the moment they landed to affirm he was safe and sound in Madison. But nine hours later, he still waits for a reply. She's not usually this late answering a simple text, even when she's at work.

His phone finally pings in the middle of a hand of poker.

Katniss: glad you got to Wisc safely. thanks for letting me know

Relieved, he balances his phone in his lap, discreetly tapping out his reply.

Peeta: can I call in a bit? Are you at work?

Katniss: On a date. Can't talk now. Call me after your game tomorrow. Kick some ass like you always do

It's like a punch to the gut. He stares at the three words in the middle of the message, and lets them burn into his retinas. On. A. Date.