Seize Me

Chapter 13

I paint a picture of the days gone by

When love went blind and you would make me see

I'd stare a lifetime into your eyes

So that I knew you were there for me

Skid Row-I Remember You

I'm not sure if the smell of antiseptics that greets us as we enter the tattoo and piercing shop is reassuring or horrifying. To anyone else it would just smell clean, but mixed with my adrenaline and nerves, I can only think about the hundreds of instruments of torture this shop carries.

The shop is small and mostly undecorated; the walls that are not covered by drywall are instead left bare to show the building's red brick structure. The front area has a few small chairs lined up against the wall on our left, and on the right is a long display case full of different bars and balls and god knows what else. The lady standing behind it surprises me with her fairly plain appearance compared to what I'd envisioned a tattoo and piercing artist to look like. Her ears are pierced four times from the lobe up the ear, along with a tragus on one ear and a rim on the other. She's wearing a simple black V-neck shirt and I can see two, maybe three tattoos peeking up past her neck line. Her wrist is tattooed and on her left hand she's got an intricate heart tattooed on her ring finger in place of a wedding band. The overall effect is actually quite nice and I feel like this is the girl I'd want piercing me, not the big, burly guy I'd envisioned in my head.

"Hey," she says, smiling warmly at us. "How's it going, guys? Good to see you again, Peeta. Lose another bet?"

Peeta gives her an easy smile and walks up to the counter, dragging me behind him by the hand.

"You would remember that," Peeta says easily as he leans one arm on the counter. "She—" He yanks me up next to and against him. "—would like to get something pierced."

The girl turns to me and gives me a genuine smile. "First time?" she asks. I nod my head, unsure if I can manage words yet or not. "Have you thought about what you'd like?"

I gulp. Actually, this is not something I've thought about at all. Do I want an eyebrow piercing like Peeta? Or do I want to add to my simple double ear piercing with something like this girl?

Peeta immediately jumps to my rescue, shaking his head ever-so-slightly. "This is kind of a spur of the moment thing."

The girl gives me a smooth smile. "Those, I think, can be the best sometimes. But we'll talk it over and figure out something you won't wake up tomorrow regretting. Do you want it to show or be hidden?"

I shoot a brief look at Peeta's eyebrow piercing before blurting out, "I want it to show."

Peeta raises said pierced eyebrow in surprise, but I can tell he's pleased by the answer.

The girl smiles. "That helps. What do you think of your nose?"

I ponder this for a moment, letting the idea of it sink in. My nose? I hadn't thought about it, but I consider the suggestion. Most of the girls at the bar have a nose piercing, and these days no one even blinks at them. And after the tour is done, it will be almost healed and I can put in something discreet, maybe a slight twinkle like glitter, and it shouldn't cause any problems getting a professional job.

"Yes," I say slowly. "I think that'd be perfect."

I can sense Peeta's amazement, but he doesn't say anything, which I'm relieved about. I don't want this to be about him or what he approves of, despite the fact he's the one who's talked me into this. This is about me and what I want. This tour has already opened me up to ideas and things I never gave a second thought about. This piercing is about that, and not the dark, seductive look my guitar player is giving me right now.

"Awesome," the girl says. "I'm Summer. I'll do the piercing for you. You can pick out the piercing you want from our starter section. Do you want a stud or a ring?"

"A ring," I respond automatically, fighting off a blush as Peeta gives me a little smirk.

"Great!" Summer pulls out the tray of small, thin rings. None of them are very fancy, which I guess I should have expected since they're going to be in a fresh piercing. The only selection among them is that a few of them are in different colors like pink, blue, gold and green. I consider the colors for a moment or two but eventually settle on a simple silver one.

"Good choice," Summer says, putting my selected ring on a small silver tray and putting the starter rings back in the display case. "Everything is surgical steel, but some people have a problem with the colors when the piercing is fresh."

"Do people have reactions often?" I ask, horrified. I'd never considered the idea before, but the idea of a raging infection or skin reaction in the middle of my face is not something I'm interested in.

Summer shrugs. "Not usually in piercings like the nose or the ears where we don't go through lots of skin. But in things like belly buttons or eyebrows some people's skin will reject the piercing and push it right out through the skin. It's kind of wicked, actually, when the body does something like that. Do you have metal allergies?" She says it all in such a rush that I almost miss the question.

"Not that I know of," I answer slowly, staring at her nervously as she comes around the counter and leads us past the tattoo chairs to a small piercing room.

"That's good," Summer says, setting down the tray with my piercing on a small table immediately inside the door. "But I've seen people with no metal allergy in their ears have a wicked reaction in other places. Surgical steel is the least likely to cause a reaction, so don't experiment with any other metals for about a year. That way the piercing is completely healed and set before you start introducing possible reactants."

I gulp and turn to Peeta, who's unsuccessfully trying to hide a smile behind his hand. "Relax," he says softly, "it's just your nose. It's like getting your ear pierced. The worse ones are stuff like navel piercings and dermals. This is no big deal."

"Dermal?" I ask, wrinkling my nose at the word. It feels unpleasant in my mouth, and I have a feeling the answer is going to make my skin crawl.

"Small jewels, like permanent bedazzles on your skin," he answers simply, as if it's the most natural thing in the world. "They're really common with girls."

"Permanent?" I question, surprised. "How is it permanent?"

"We make a small cut in the skin," Summer says, eyes bright with mischief. "The jewel has a small post on bottom of it. We put the post into the skin, then the skin heals around it. After that it's permanent, you can only change out the jewel by screwing in a new one."

My face pales and Peeta doesn't even bother to hide his laugh this time. "Why would someone do something like that?"

Summer's grin is ear to ear, and Peeta shrugs jovially as he says, "A lot of girls put one at their cleavage line or on their wrists. They think it's sexy."

"You don't want me to do that, do you?" I ask, suddenly very nervous standing in this room with the two of them. Maybe this wasn't the greatest idea.

Peeta rolls his eyes as he shoves me into the room. "Like I could make you do anything you didn't want to."

"I'm here, aren't I?" I ask, examining this piercing room skeptically. The walls are a bright white, broken up by large, vibrant paintings. There's a large cabinet against the far wall with a mirror beside it, I assume for checking out your newest metal. The only chairs in the room are the small, wheeled stool like the sort you'd see a doctor sit on in his office and the lounged chair in the center in the room, which looks far too much like a dentist chair for my liking.

Summer gives a small, easy laugh and strides over toward the cabinet, calling over her shoulder, "You can take a seat in the big chair, I'm just going to grab the supplies."

I throw Peeta an alarmed look, which he pointedly ignores by striding over to one of the paintings. I sigh and climb into the chair sulkily, dropping my small purse to the floor beside me. I'm there for only a second when I start to fidget, my nerves getting the best of me. This had seemed like a fun idea in the hotel room, a way to cut loose and join in on all the fun. But now I can't help staring at the packet Summer is pulling from the cabinet, wondering how ridiculous the size of a needle is that she's going to plunge through my nose.

"These are all beautiful," Peeta says thoughtfully, eyeing a particularly vibrant painting. "Local artist?"

"You bet," Summer says brightly, setting the packet down on the same table she'd left the piercing tray on. "One of our tattoo artists, actually. He does a little canvas work for extra income, but you should see what he can do with skin."

"Hmm," Peeta murmurs softly. "Is he in tonight?"

"Sure is," chirps Summer. "Free for the next two hours, too, if you want to meet him."

"Please," Peeta says, turning around with a broad smile on his face. "That'd be great."

Summer returns his smile with a brilliant white one of her own, and in turn, turns to me. She's strapped on a pair of surgical gloves and is holding a cotton swab in her hand. "Do you know what side you want it on?"

"I guess I hadn't really thought of it," I admit sheepishly, giving my shoulders a shrug.

"Most people do it on the left side," Summer says. "But we can mark up both sides and you can tell me which you like better."

This seems like a logical approach, so I agree. She runs the cotton swab over my whole nose, explaining as she does so that it's an antiseptic to help prevent infection. Then she uses a small pen to draw a small dot on both sides of my face. She hands me a hand-held mirror then to inspect both sides. And, honestly, I can't really see a difference.

"Do the left," Peeta says suddenly, sensing my dilemma. I look over to him and he's giving me an encouraging smile. "It'll look fantastic."

I look back to Summer and give her a small smile. "Left side it is," I say, handing her back the mirror.

"You've got it," she says, putting the mirror back away.

Then she reaches for the small table by the door and pulls it on its wheels toward her. She grabs the plastic packet from the top, and I can see now it's a surgical packet marked with "nose" on the front. Inside it are only two things: a small, brown cylinder that looks like cork and a capped needle. She pulls open the packet and takes the cork first, bringing it up toward my face.

"I'm going to put this in your nose first," she says calmly, gently putting the bit of cork in my left nostril. "It'll make it easier to pierce."

My breathing is picking up now, the cork in my nose making the air whistle as it passes quickly in and out. Without thinking, my hand blindly begins to search for Peeta's and I find it strong and steady beside me. He gives my hand a small squeeze, which I return ten-fold when Summer pulls out the needle, which is about two and a half inches long. She turns to me and gives me a reassuring smile.

"You've had your ears pierced before, right?" she asks softly.

"Twice," I manage to say, my throat closing up with anxiety.

"Probably with a piercing gun." I think it's meant to be a question, but it comes out more like a statement. She wrinkles a nose a little bit as she says it. "This will probably hurt about the same as that, but shouldn't have as much pain because there's no blunt-force pushing it in." She tilts her head to the side and gives me a sympathetic look. "Ready?"

I take a deep breath, then say, "Probably as ready as I'll ever be."

Summer steps up beside me again and places her fingers on the tip of my nose, holding it in place, while the other hand grips the needle. She instructs me to take a deep breath, during which I feel the slight prick of the needle against my skin. She asks me to breath out and as soon as I do, she plunges the needle into my nose. There's a painful pinching sensation, but I realize Summer was right, it wasn't much worse than getting my ears pierced. The needle presses into the cork in my nose, and Summer slowly pulls the cork out of my nose, pulling the needle through the new hole as well. Once the needle is half-way through my nose, she stops pulling on it and leaves it hanging there while she grabs the piercing.

While Summer's back is turned I hear a click that sounds suspiciously like the shutter of a digital camera. My eyes shoot up toward Peeta, who's holding his phone in his free hand and taking a picture of me, a wide and triumphant grin on his face.

"Peeta!" I gasp, releasing his hand to make a grab for the phone. "Gimme that!"

"No way," teases Peeta, sliding the phone into his jeans pocket. "I'm keeping this for future reference."

"Future reference?" I ask, raising an eyebrow at him. "What the hell does that mean?"

Peeta doesn't get a chance to answer because Summer returns with the ring in hand, but he still manages to get in a decent eye roll in my direction.

Summer does something with the top of the needle, attaching the ring somehow, then slides the needle through my nose the rest of the way. When it slides through, pulling the ring with it, she does some sort of twisting motion. I flinch when the pinch of pain temporarily morphs into a burning sting as she finishes maneuvering the ring into place. When she's done, she slides the needle completely out of my nose, cork and all, and that's it. My nose is now pierced.

Summer beams as she hands me the mirror again so I can admire my new nose ring. It takes a few minutes for me to clear the tears from my eyes, but eventually my reflection comes into focus and I'm astonished. It looks...good. More than good—it looks natural on my nose. Despite the fact that side of my nose is now red and a little puffy, I'm already in love with the way the small ring glitters in my nose. I look up at Peeta, who gives me an approving smile. The way his eyes are shining hungrily at the moment tells me a lot more than his smile does. I know that he finds it sexy as hell, which sends a thrill up my spine and a wave of heat to wash over me.

Summer explains the basic care instructions to keep the piercing from getting infected and to help it heal appropriately. She even gives me a small sealed cup of sea salt for soaks with a piercing care pamphlet. When it comes time to pay, Peeta doesn't even give me an option. He slams down enough money to cover my entire piercing, other rings and studs to put in later once it's healed enough, and a generous tip for Summer.

"Can I get you guys anything else tonight?" Summer asks, bagging up our purchases.

"No," Peeta says, "except I'd love to meet the artist from those paintings, if he's still here."

"Oh right, sure thing," she says, moving back around the counter and heading for the back, "he'll be excited to meet you, too."

I turn to Peeta and raise an eyebrow at him after Summer disappears behind the brick divider separating the lobby from the tattooing parlor. "Why does the artist care if he meets you or not?"

Peeta's suddenly uncomfortable, shifting from foot to foot and sliding a hand nervously through his blond curls. "I sort of designed the shop's logo."

I turn and look toward the logo on the wall behind the front counter. It's all different shades of gold, a large circle with a bird flying through the center, an arrow clutched in its mouth. Over the logo is the shop's name, Mockingjay. That must be the bird, then. A Mockingjay. A mockingbird and a blue jay? The logo is obviously hand-painted with broad, deliberate brush strokes. Every line of paint is purposeful and strong, lending an air of power to the golden bird.

"You did that?" I ask, admiring the artwork. I wish I could jump up on the counter so I could look at it more closely. "I didn't know you could draw like that."

Peeta shrugs, a hundred shades of red creeping into his cheeks. "I'm okay."

A light bulb suddenly goes off for me, and I feel a smile slide onto my face. "That's why you always smell like oil paints!" I gasp. "You're painting things!"

Peeta's smile is shy as his eyes meet mine. "I used to do the cakes back home in the bakery. It's how I learned."

"Those were yours?" I ask, eyes widening in surprise. Images of elaborate wedding cakes and cakes for other events dance through my mind, all of the intricate patterns imbedded in my mind forever. "Prim and I used to walk down to the bakery every Sunday to see all the cakes in the windows. We used to wonder how everything would taste, and we'd make up ideas from ridiculous to irresistible. I can't believe you made those."

"Decorated them," Peeta corrects. "And I know. I'd see you in the window every weekend. I used to wish you'd come in and say hi, but I knew my mom would throw you two out."

I'm saved from having to answer when Summer returns, followed by a sallow-faced man who wears a wide grin as he introduces himself to Peeta. They both immediately launch into a discussion about art, to which I can contribute nothing. So I allow myself to wander away from them and make my way down the front counter, which is set up like a jewelry store display case with hundreds of different studs and rings for all sorts of piercings. I'm most drawn to the belly button bars, which range from a simple dangling star to a full hanging chandelier-style pendant.

Summer follows me, apparently no more interested in discussing art with them than I am. "They'll be at it for a while, I think," she says with a soft smile.

"Is he...okay?" I ask, throwing a furtive look in the direction of the sickly-looking man.

"He' an addiction problem," Summer says, the smile falling as she does. "He was in an car accident with his wife almost a year ago. She died in the crash, and he spent over a month in the hospital recovering. Both his legs were nearly shattered. They put him on this new drug, morphling, to help with the pain. He got pretty dependent on the stuff after that and...well, between his chronic pain and losing his wife, he hasn't been able to kick it." Her eyes are sad as she looks toward the man, whose eyes are bright with joy as he talks animatedly with Peeta. "He's a great employee—very professional—and he does the best living art I've ever seen, but I'm not sure how long he's going to be able to go before it finally all gets to him."

Peeta calls me over then to introduce me to the man. I know Peeta tells me his name, but I don't really register it. Probably because Peeta tells it to me as the man and I shake hands, and all I can think about is how frail the man's hand feels in mine, how soft his grip is. I have to fight back a shiver of revulsion at the weakness, the air suddenly feeling heavy around me. I'm relieved when Peeta makes our excuses to go, eyeing his watch worriedly. I force myself to shake hands with the man one last time, wave goodbye to Summer, then rush outside in a bid to make it to fresh air before I vomit all over the pristine tile floors of the Mockingjay.

"You didn't!" Prim screams, latching on to the sides of my face ferociously as she examines my nose. "After all the shit you gave me?"

I snort, but struggle to fabricate a retort. She's right, of course. Her navel piercing is actually rather discreet compared to the glittering ring in my nose, out for all the world to see.

"You look ridiculous," Johanna snaps, fuming for some unknown reason. She's standing at the opposite side of the room from Finnick, which I'm sure plays largely into why she's so irritable tonight.

"No she doesn't," Madge sighs, seizing my giggling sister by the bra strap and pulling her backward away from me. "You look fantastic, Katniss."

"Where did you go?" Gale asks, his head cocked to the side with amusement.

"Mockingjay," Peeta answers with a grin. "Where else?"

"Wait," says Prim, throwing up a hand as if to ward off Peeta's words. "You went together?"

A sneaking heat slides up my neck to my face, coloring my skin a horrible shade of red. "He said we were in the same town where Finnick got his tongue pierced. I figured it'd be best to do it some place that's been tried before."

"So you just conveniently decided to get a nose piercing when we're in the same town Finnick got his?" Prim asks, a sly smile sliding across her lips.

I fight off the urge to toss my head indignantly. "Yes, actually, it was spontaneous. Now," I add, seething at my sister, "can we please drop it?"

"Yeah," says Rory, flinging an arm jovially across Prim's shoulders. "We have a show to get to."

Prim sighs in acquiescence and looks up at Rory, giving him a small smile. The smile he returns is bright and warm, a smile born from years of friendship. My heart gives a little pang at the sight of them. I'm pleased my sister is happy, and I know for a fact that any Hawthorne man is a great man to be with. But a part of me wishes I had something like that right now, someone I could be with comfortably. Being with Peeta is exciting, but with the excitement comes fear. Fear that I'm giving pieces of myself away to someone I may not be compatible with in the long run. There's still so much we don't know about each other, and I'm near certain there will be something that drives us apart. I glance toward Gale, the man I could have had years ago. Being with Gale would have been easy, like breathing. My very best friend, whom I've shared so much with. But, as always, something is missing in the center of my chest when I look at him, something I seem to always feel when I'm with Peeta.

Madge gives me a curious look, cocking her head to the side as she stares at me. I almost blush for a moment, worried she's seen what I've been thinking. There's never been a moment of competition or ill-feelings toward each other over Gale, even when Gale proposed in high school. However, I still find myself feeling guilty over considering him romantically, the betrayal of my friendship with Madge stinging in my chest. But after a moment I realize she thinks I've been staring at her, not Gale. Sweet, trusting Madge. I wonder what expression I had on my face at the time. It must have been a hell of a face, because she's staring at me with concern. I give her a tight smile, which she returns after a moment of hesitation. She thinks I'm mad at her.

Madge looks a little green, and it's apparent she's lost a little weight-not super noticeable, just in her face. The look of concern is now on my face as I scrutinize my friend carefully. What's going on with her that she's not doing well? Is the pressure of the tour and fangirls getting to her? Madge has never been overweight a day in her life, having a body with the perfect curves in all the right places. But as I look, I see the thinner waistline under the billowy shirt she's wearing, the way she teeters a little on her stilettos. Have I been so distracted with Peeta that I've managed to completely miss the fact that my friend is sick?

"Madge?" I ask softly. "Are you okay?"

"Me?" Madge asks, putting a hand to her chest. She slides it up her neck to her hair, which she tugs on slightly. "Yes, I just...I think I've caught a bit of a bug." She turns to Gale, who's eyeing her suspiciously now that I've brought Madge's condition to his attention. "I think...I think I may just stay here tonight, if that's okay."

Gale's brows knit together, his lips pressed firmly in a line of concern. "Of course it's okay. Do you want me to stay here with you? Haymitch can probably pull off my bass for the night—"

"No," Madge saying firmly, giving Gale a sharp push. He doesn't move an inch, but she almost falls over from the effort. "I'll be fine. I think I just need a good night's sleep."

Gale sighs and gives Madge a kiss on the forehead, the troubled look on his face never leaving. "If you're sure."

"I'm sure," she says, slapping him on the ass as he steps away. Rory groans in disgust as Gale raises a mischievous eyebrow at Madge, who gives me a half-hearted grin in return. I can't fight off the bit of worry that's welling in my gut as I watch my friend critically, but Gale seems satisfied with Madge's assurances. So when Gale throws an arm over my shoulder jovially I don't fight him, but let him pull me toward the door.

"Actually," Madge calls to our retreating backs. "Do you think you could spare Portia for the night? It might be nice to have some girl company."

"Madge," I sigh, turning away from Gale's embrace back toward my friend. "I'll stay with you."

"Not a chance, Everdeen," Madge says with a wide smile. "You need to go support Peeta. I'll be fine. Portia's great."

"I'll tell her," Gale says softly, reaching for her hand and giving it one last squeeze. "I love you."

Madge's small smile is sweet and adoring as she answers, "I love you too."

It's when we arrive at the concert that I understand why Johanna is so infuriated with Finnick. A small, meek girl is waiting by the dressing room for Misery's Fortune, twirling her backstage pass around her finger nervously. As soon as Finnick's face lights up with a broad smile and Johanna's turns into a mask of pure disgust, I know who she is.


Finnick leaves us to run to her, picking her up and spinning her around excitedly. Her laugh is light, like the tinkling of bells as her feet leave the ground to fly when Finnick pulls her into a tight up. She scolds him in a tiny voice, the reprimand almost funny coming from her delicate mouth. It's not until Finnick puts her down that I'm able to get a good look at her. Her hair is long and brown, covering most of her face as she dips her hair shyly. But despite the curtain of hair obscuring her features, it's impossible to miss the brilliant green of her eyes as she glances up at us curiously. She's lovely, if somewhat bedraggled, and I instantly like her. And I also instantly see why Johanna hates her without reserve. It's obvious Finnick adores Annie.

Prim slides up beside me, pressing so close I can feel the heat of her body against mine. "I thought Annie broke it off with Finnick. Did they make up?" she asks, keeping her voice low to avoid attracting attention.

"Apparently," I say softly in return. "It explains Johanna's sour mood."

Prim sighs. "I knew something like this would happen."

"We all did."

Finnick guides Annie over, introducing her to each of us in turn. He doesn't even hesitate as he introduces her to Johanna, either oblivious to the animosity Johanna harbors for his ex or he's just an excellent actor. But Annie is not so oblivious. She visibly flinches under Johanna's cold stare and it takes every fiber of me not to snap at Johanna for being so cruel to an obviously tender spirit. But I refuse flat out to get in the middle of this. This is a battle between Johanna and Finnick, and I will not become a pawn in their stupid little romance game.

As the others file into the dressing room I move to follow, but a strong, warm hand on my wrist stops me. I know instantly who it is as slivers of electricity slide up my arm and bury themselves in my chest.

I turn to find Peeta's wide, endearing smile meeting me. It's matched by the excitement in his eyes, which shines bright in the dim backstage lighting of the auditorium.

"I thought," he says softly, pulling me away from the door, "you'd like to see some of my paintings."

I raise an eyebrow at him, turning to face him better while he smiles sheepishly at my expression. "Your paintings?"

Peeta chuckles nervously and raises a hand to scratch at the back on his head. "Well, one. It's in another dressing room, actually."

That's a surprise. "You have a lot of paintings hanging around this town," I comment, a laugh bubbling through my words.

He shrugs and turns away, embarrassed suddenly. "Before we had our big break, I'd sell paintings to help fund our tours. I sold quite a few here, in the back parking lot of this stadium, actually."

My laugh is full now, no longer a bubble but a full stream of uncharacteristic giggles. Giggling. That's what I've been reduced to in front of Peeta. Fucking giggling. "Come on," I say, punching him on the arm in a pathetic attempt to counteract my giggles. "Show me this painting."

Peeta leads me away from Misery's Fortune's dressing room and toward a large mahogany set of doors, which appear out of place in the slightly grungy atmosphere. The sign over the top says "Green Room."

"This is where they hold meetings with patrons after shows," Peeta explains. "They use it more for stuff like ballet shows. Since rock concerts don't have patrons usually, it should be empty."

He pushes open the door and, sure enough, it's empty. It's aptly named, of course. The walls are a deep forest green with a rich red carpet to counter it. The couches are a soft gold and the lamps are green to match the walls. The only splash of bright color in the whole room is the one large painting that dominates the biggest wall in the room.

The painting is all shades of golds and reds, immediately bringing to mind images of fire and phoenixes and dancing gypsies. It's not a painting of any one thing, like a landscape or a portrait. It's just a beautiful blend of colors, twirling and twining around each other in ribbons of brushstrokes that take my breath away. I step toward the painting, forgetting for a moment that Peeta is beside me. I'm drawn to reach out and touch it, but some irrational part of my brain is convinced it will burn my fingers if I brush it.

"You," I sigh, "did this?"

"Yeah," Peeta says, scratching the back of his head in embarrassment again.

"Out of a car in the back parking lot of a rock concert?" I ask in awe, my eyes never leaving the painting.

"Yeah," Peeta repeats slowly, as if my words have concerned him. "That's how Mockingjay found out about me, actually. One of the guys at the parlor recognized me when we came in because he'd bought one of my paintings for the shop. The owner commissioned me to do the logo. It was pretty cool, really."

"I'll bet," I say, turning toward him with a smile. "This is incredible."

Peeta smiles, and I almost expect him to protest, but he doesn't. "Yeah, I was really proud of this one. "

"Any particular inspiration?" I ask, turning back toward the painting.

Peeta's quiet so long that I have to peer over my shoulder at him to make sure he's still there. He looks uncomfortable, as if I've asked him to recount the first time he caught his parents having sex. He shifts nervously back and forth and refuses to meet my eyes, glancing back toward the painting.

"Remember," he finally says slowly, "when I called you a 'girl on fire' when we were in Colorado Springs?"

"Yes," I say, nearly sighing as I remember the sunrise hitting the rocks. "It was beautiful. Was the Garden of the Gods your inspiration?"

"No," Peeta says softly, eyes locked on the painting. "That's not the first time I've thought of how you look in the sun. I remember how you looked the first time I saw the sunrise hitting your face. Your dad brought you to the bakery for a morning treat. The sun was just starting to rise when you guys came in. I thought you were beautiful then, still sleepy-eyed but excited about the treat. And then, when you guys left, the sun came over the trees and hit your face and you were was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. And I was actually worried, because you looked like an angel on fire who'd fly away."

I'm silent, my throat suddenly closed up at his words. My chest is rising and falling heavily and all I can think in this moment is that I want him to turn away from that damn painting and look at me. When he finally does, his eyes are dark with desire and longing and...something I'm not ready for yet. He looks beautiful himself then, open and vulnerable and kind and everything I don't deserve.

"I was painting you when I painted that," he says simply. "It's actually called 'Girl on Fire.'"

I'm at a loss for words still, my heart pounding in my chest as we drink each other in. And then, suddenly, I'm in his arms. My lips are on his in an instant, hungrily nipping at them while my fingers grip his hair, holding him to me. His hands are on me too, one at my back holding me pressed up against him while the other is tangled in my hair, which is long and loose and free tonight. I can't get close enough to him in this moment. Every part of me longs to melt into him, to be surrounded and protected by him. A ball of warmth builds in my chest to where it's almost uncomfortable. This man...this man is mine.

Peeta's lips leave mine and I almost whimper at the loss until he trails them across my cheeks to my neck, where he presses soft kisses to the delicate skin at the juncture of my neck and shoulder. I sigh as the stubble on his cheeks grazes my sensitive skin, a sharp contrast to the gentleness of his kisses.

"I love you," he sighs against my skin, pressing his lips to me again with the "you."

I stiffen immediately at his words, my spine straight as a board as my arms go rigid around him.

Peeta sighs again, but this time in exasperation instead of pleasure. "Don't get weird about it, Katniss."

"You don't love me," I insist, disentangling myself ungracefully in an attempt to put as much distance between us as I possibly can. He doesn't fight me, but he's not wearing the expression of sadness I'd expected. He just looks...annoyed.

"I do. And I'm not asking you for anything," he adds quickly with a roll of the eyes. "I'm just telling you how I feel, how I've felt since the first time I saw you, and you're kind of ruining it."

"Well," I spit, the backs of my knees hitting one of the hideous gold couches, "you shouldn't say stuff like that when doing stuff like...that. It'll catch someone off guard."

Peeta's about to respond when the doors to the room swing forward, revealing an annoyed Haymitch.

"There you two are," he growls. "Stagehands thought they saw you head in here. It's time for soundcheck, so you better get your ass on stage. I saw Flavius eyeing your guitar, pretty sure he's going to try to join in if you don't hurry."

"Right," Peeta sighs, turning away from Haymitch and back toward me. "I have to go. Just...don't overthink this, okay. Nothing's changed."

And then he's striding out of the room, leaving behind a confused Haymitch and a horrified me. Haymitch overcomes it quickly, muttering something about "early midlife crisis" as he stalks off.

And takes me a full hour before I can remember how to use my legs again.


So...sorry about the delay in that. You all know how it is in the middle of a semester. I'm a TA for two classes in addition to my grad classes. so I've been swamped lately with paper grading. I seriously will be so happy when mid-terms are done.

I hope everyone who's been angry with me about the lack of Annie is happy now ;)

A huge thanks to Court, who is an angel from beta heaven. You guys should thank her, because she was the one who suggested I update a day early as a treat. In thanks, you should go read her stuff. But you'll probably want a fan ready, because they're all HOT stuff.

Another thanks to Phsco13 for being a big part of my cheering squad lately, and for being willing to help me out with a new story I'm preparing for the end of Seize Me. You're wonderful, my friend.

Hopefully I'll get the next chapter out faster to you guys with mid-terms settling down...except soon I'll have projects to grade...ugh.