Peeta answered the door with his usual smile and enthusiasm, and Katniss was grateful that his face didn't immediately fall at the unexpected sight of her. Sure it meant that he was happy to see her, but it also meant that she had done a decent job of pulling herself together while driving to his apartment.
"Hi," she offered back, though much more subdued. She made her way into his apartment, heading straight for his refrigerator.
"I thought you weren't planning on leaving the house today," he called over his shoulder, watching as she made herself at home.
"Changed my mind."
She rummaged through its contents as he came up behind her, resting his arm on the open door. "Everything okay?"
Katniss lifted her head, giving a cursory nod. She definitely was not in the mood to talk. "Got anything to drink?" she asked, her eyes back on the fridge as she moved around the gallon of skim milk, packages of fruit, and cartons of eggs.
"Ice tea. Milk." She shook her head. "Gatorade?" he continued. "Good ol' fashioned water?"
"Anything harder?" she pressed, somewhat frantically, as she opened the freezer.
"Uh, there might be some expired grape juice here just for you."
She was about to decline when she spotted the bottle way in the back. "Yo, ho, ho and a bottle of rum!" she crowed triumphantly, pulling it out.
"Really?" he asked, bemused. "Katniss, what's wrong?"
She grabbed a glass from his cupboard. "Nothing," she said, twisting the cap off as she walked to his couch. Since she never actually had rum before, she poured an experimental sip and sniffed it. Deciding it didn't smell any worse than beer, she chugged it, but it burned her throat and she immediately started choking.
Peeta rushed to her side, patting her back as she coughed violently. "Oh god, that's terrible!" she sputtered, wiping at her chin.
"It's better with Coke, but I don't have any since you should never drink your calories- hey!" He grabbed the glass she was already refilling out of her hand. "Pace yourself, Lightweight!" He took the alcohol away from her and studied her carefully, his brow furrowing in concern. "Come on, Katniss. What's wrong?"
She stared at the glass of clear liquid, zoning out as the fight with Gale began replaying in her mind. "Peeta?" she asked quietly. "Do you…do you think sex can ever be just sex?"
Now he just looked confused. "Yeah. I guess it depends on the person. Why?"
She wiped at her nose with the back of her sleeve, the rum already giving her a warm, airy feeling. "Gale slept with someone else."
The way Peeta's face contorted so quickly, his usual calm demeanor transforming into something like rage, would almost be comical if she didn't feel so lousy. "He what?"
"He said it was just sex."
"It's not just sex when you're in a relationship with someone else!" he exclaimed, but he took a deep, calming breath when he saw how visibly upset she was now. She sunk further in the cushions, her finger twisting nervously around the end of her braid as she continued to stare off into space.
He sat next to her, carefully reaching out to comfortingly wrap his arm around her. "What happened?"
Reluctantly, she replayed the events from earlier, even confessing to what Gale said about the time she spent with Peeta, which only enraged him more. "I can't believe he's trying to put some of this on you," he said, disgusted.
She never saw Peeta so angry before, and she needed that, she realized. She wanted to be pissed at Gale, and she needed someone to be pissed off with her, too. She told him everything, many of the words falling out before she could stop herself, and he absently rubbed her back until her tears subsided. "I never really thought he would do something like this," she added, still shocked. "I trusted him. I did."
"Katniss, I'm so sorry. I don't even know what else to say."
"We've been having problems," she admitted. She curled up against Peeta's side, a tiny part of her acknowledging that they were never so physical before, and soon she was divulging the details about their last fight, about the arguments they kept having but always tried to ignore. She talked and he listened, and so she kept talking until she couldn't talk anymore.
"Can we just watch TV now?" she asked, settling in on his sofa and pulling a throw over her. He agreed, handing her the remote. "And can I please have some more rum?"
He reached for the bottle of Bacardi, then topped off her tumbler, and she grimaced only a little with the next drink. As the rum began doing its job, she let her thoughts float away from her. She glanced over at Peeta, transfixed by his profile bathed in the glow from the television screen, and she thought about Gale's words. "Go see for yourself how it's just sex and it doesn't have to mean anything when it's with someone else." And that was the last thing she remembered.
The jostling motion woke her up hours later, and she vaguely registered that she was being carried by Peeta. She tucked her head under his chin, snuggling closer to him, and groggily asked where they were going. "I'm going to crash on the sofa, and you're going to sleep off about a quart of rum in here."
He placed her on his bed, positioning her on her stomach, and then gently tucked her in. "Just yell if you need me."
"We're in your room?" she asked, most likely slurring her words. She'd never been in Peeta's room before, and she was fascinated. His room! Was it as immaculate as the rest of his apartment? What color were the walls? Why had she always avoided it before? Suddenly learning the answers to these questions became her main priority, so she tried to pull off the covers so she could explore, but they were all twisted around body, trapping her.
"Peeta," she said somewhat pathetically, reaching for his hand. "I think I'm drunk."
He squeezed her hand back and laughed. "Katniss, I know you're drunk. But it's okay. Now I have a chance to take down my One Direction posters before you see them in the morning. Go to sleep."
He sat up from the edge of the mattress and she whined, reaching for him again. "Stay with me," she whispered, the alcohol already pulling her under. His hand wrapped around hers again as he replied, but she was too far gone to hear it.
She was really tired of the gym, so the first warm day that week, she seized the opportunity to really make Peeta sweat.
"Hiking?" he asked doubtfully when she showed up to his apartment in her boots and sweats.
"You'll get the best workout ever," she promised solemnly.
The last time they were at the gym, he had pushed her to two minutes on the fastest uphill setting, and she really thought she was going to throw up. He didn't look so great either, but he kept trying to egg her on. "Come on, only another minute!" As if that helped.
"Pretend," he panted, "You're being chased…by a serial killer." He took a deep, rejuvenating breath. "It's run or die! Keep going!" But she couldn't possibly do it for another second without actually dying, so she gasped for air as she switched off her treadmill.
"Go on without me," she wheezed, moving to sit on the belt. "Save yourself."
He stopped, too. "Then we'll die together." As he sat next to her, laughing at her defeat even though he was even more red and breathless than she was, she vowed to get her revenge.
She got it in the woods.
"Dammit!" he yelled for at least the tenth time in as many minutes. There was not a stone or stick that his feet hadn't gotten caught up in, nearly tripping him in the process.
"Keep up, Mellark!" she yelled back, unforgiving.
He might have doubted her methods at first, but she'd never seen him sweat so much during a workout. The warm, fresh air only invigorated her, though, and she felt great. As she jogged up the ragged path, he fell further behind, continuing to swear at every hindrance in his pathway. "It's run or die!" she reminded him, trying her best to keep a straight face.
He glared at her as he leaned against a tree, defeated. Feeling uncharacteristically kind in that moment, she took pity on him and stopped, too. After all, he did take pretty good care of her when she was the drunkest she ever was in her life. When she woke up in his bed a couple days ago, her head pounding as the rum worked its revenge, it warmed her cold, bitter heart to see the aspirin and water on the nightstand, the trashcan in heaving distance, and there on the floor next to her, Peeta still fast asleep.
"I have to say, I don't get the appeal. Give me an air-conditioned gym any day."
She looked out past the still blossoming trees; down over the large embankment flowed a beautiful, crystal clear river, and up ahead a mile was a gorgeous waterfall she had hoped to take him to, though she doubted they'd make it that far now. Everything about it was calming and peaceful.
But it did all remind her of Gale. Back before he went off to college, and before they were anything more than best friends, they spent every Sunday hiking in these very woods. The memories caught her off-guard and she had no idea how much time had passed before Peeta was next to, ducking his head to meet her eyes. "Hey, you okay?"
She looked up at him, blinking away those thoughts. "Yeah, sorry."
"Does this remind you of Gale?" he asked, surprising her not only because he guessed that, but also because he dared to bring up the G-word. They hadn't spoken any more about him since she told him what happened, and she appreciated the break.
"I'm sorry," he said sincerely, shrugging. "The guy's had a dead deer with him in every profile picture he's ever posted, so I figured he was the rugged, outdoorsmen type. I shouldn't have brought him up."
"Come on," he said, nudging her with his elbow. "We've got a trail to cover."
"You really think you can make it?" she asked, brow raised.
"Probably not," he laughed. "But I want to see that waterfall. Let's go."
"Have you talked to Gale?"
He had been doing so well, too. She hadn't heard that name in nearly a week.
But Peeta had an annoying habit of trying to see a situation from all sides involved. She blamed the writer part of him for it. Lately he seemed to be indirectly hinting for her to talk it out, or to at least seek closure or something. Apparently he was frustrated with her lack of progress, though, because now he was outright asking her about it.
As far as she was concerned, Gale didn't deserve much of anything right now, and she much preferred it when Peeta was pissed at him, too.
"We're on a break," she answered sharply, her arms folded across her chest. She stared mutely at the television, hoping he got the point that they were done with this discussion.
"Oh, okay, Ross. Does he know that?"
"He's a smart guy. I'm sure he can figure it out."
"I just think it would be best for you if-"
"Ugh, stop," she said, rolling her eyes. "Why are you suddenly on his side?"
"What?" he sputtered, shocked. "I'm not on his side at all! I just hate seeing you like this."
She shrank under his scrutiny, sliding down further in her seat.
"Katniss," he sighed, and she braced herself for the litany of sanctimonious lecturing about feelings right now, even though she could turn these tables so easily if she really wanted to. "He did come to you about it right away," he said.
Shocked, she turned to him with wide eyes. "Do you want me to forgive him?"
His face reddened as he answered with carefully measured words. "I want you to be happy, whether or not that means forgiving him. I just…I don't want you to regret anything later."
"Maybe I'd regret forgiving him."
Her eyes narrowed further as she pressed on. "Did you submit any more stories to your advisor?"
He raised his hands in surrender. "Okay, okay!"
"I just don't want you to have any regrets, Peeta," she said with a smug smile. He threw the remote at her arm and she shrieked in surprise, then she kicked her foot out from underneath her to hit his shin with her heel, hard.
"Oh don't start it if you can't finish it," he warned.
She kicked again, and then she was pinned underneath him before she took her next breath, which she released with a laugh.
The cord to their ancient wall phone was twisted around her fingers as she listened to the dial tone. She leaned against the kitchen counter, waiting for Gale to answer, but the temptation to hang up and go snuggle further under the covers of avoidance was growing by the second.
Her eyes fell shut as she took a seat at the breakfast table. "Um, hi."
"Hi. I was hoping you would call."
As soon as he spoke more than a word, she was enraged again. She remembered Madge from her visits, remembered her perfectly coiffed blonde hair and soft makeup and demure demeanor, so she had a pretty damn good picture in her head of what happened between the two. "I…I can't do this right now. I need more time," she said before she did something crazy, whether it was taking him back in a heartbeat or saying something that would ruin them forever.
He sighed in frustration. "You called me, Catnip."
"I'll call you again. Later. I'm not sure when. I just…I gotta go now." She hung up before he said another word.
Peeta had to be the fastest typer ever, and the sound of his fingers hitting the keys on his laptop was really starting to irk her; at first it was a comforting rhythm- a melodic song when he got into the zone and was writing like a madman, with the chorus being the sound of the backspace key, which he always tapped loudly with his middle finger.
She didn't want to say anything because she didn't want to bother him, but the noise was putting a real damper on TV night They had planned this days ago, but when she dropped by earlier, he contritely asked if she'd mind if he wrote for a little while instead.
He exhaled loudly and slammed his laptop shut, but just when she was about to open her mouth, he was typing again. Were they ever going to find out what Ryan Lochte would do?
"Sorry," he said a few minutes later. "I'm almost done."
Still, she was genuinely surprised when he finished up soon after that. "You can keep writing if you need to, Peeta," she said guiltily. She was well aware of how she'd been monopolizing his time lately. Ever since the whole thing with Gale, she'd been kind of clingy.
"No, it's okay. Did you want to watch that show now?" He grabbed the remote off the middle cushion that always seemed to be the buffer between them when they were on the couch. "What channel is it on again?"
"Peeta?" she asked, her tone just whiny and girlish enough to warn him about the topic she was going to broach. "Can we talk?"
"Yeah, of course," he said a little too eagerly, turning in his seat to face her.
She tried to think of how to word what she wanted to say, but she didn't even know what it was. He waited patiently as she tried to piece together her thoughts, and finally she asked, "How do you know when you're in love?"
The question obviously threw him. Even she was surprised that she had the nerve to ask it. But he recovered quickly enough, coughing to clear his throat. "Um, I…I guess I really don't know. I've never been in love."
"Never?" It was a strangely comforting thought. Lately Katniss had been feeling like what she had with Gale wasn't like that, and the realization was a worrisome one. But now it didn't seem like she was so alone. If someone like Peeta hadn't fallen in love yet, maybe she wasn't as defective as she feared she was.
He shook his head, his eyes downcast, and she inhaled sharply before admitting her worries to him. If she loved Gale, wouldn't she want to be with him no matter what? She would be willing to move to Colorado with him if what they had was real, right? And if he was the one for her, wouldn't she be entertaining notions of marriage and children someday, too?
"Hey," he said softly, "it's okay to admit that you do love Gale. It's not going to hurt any less if you say don't."
She looked away, her shoulders slumping in resignation as she exhaled. "But maybe I really don't love him the way I should."
"Should?" He shook his head, sighing. "Katniss, I think there must be an infinite number of ways to love someone, but none of them are perfect."
But wouldn't she have to be stone cold to not be head-over-heels for Gale after years of friendship and now dating? What was wrong with her? Why can't she fight for him? "Sometimes I feel like I don't even know what I'm doing," she admitted. "Do you ever feel like that?"
"Only all the time," he laughed. "It's not like I have the loftiest of ambitions, though. I figure I'll go on to teach high school English, maybe coach wrestling if I'm lucky. And I'll live here," he raised his hands, motioning around the room, "until one day, hopefully far off in the future, the neighbors notice a strange smell-"
"Stop," she said, laughing now, too. "You're crazy. No way are you going to end up alone. And you should be writing, Peeta. Really. Your stories are amazing."
They were. He had shyly shown her more of them, and she devoured them all, each one somehow better than the one before it.
He rubbed the bridge of his nose, still not believing her. "Effie wants to send some to her brother. He works at The New Yorker and she thinks they could be published, but the odds of that happening…"
How can he still sound so unsure of himself? "Peeta, you should. Even if the odds aren't in your favor, you'll never know unless you try." There, she thought. That sounded sufficiently wise.
"Maybe," he agreed, but she could tell he was only trying to placate her. "Are you, ah, thinking about trying things with Gale again?" he asked tentatively.
Her mouth opened in disbelief. "Do you think I should?"
"I'm not saying that. I told you before, I just want you to be happy, Katniss. That's all. And if he makes you happy, then maybe you should try to work it out with him."
"How?" she asked desperately. "How can I when all I can think about when I picture him is what he did? " She shook her head in frustration. "Maybe he was right, you know. Maybe I should just sleep with someone else so I can move on from this."
Peeta laughed unconvincingly. "I still can't believe he ever said that, but I really can't believe you'd ever go for it."
She watched him carefully for a moment, quietly observing him. He was her best friend now, she realized. He'd been her best friend for a while. She felt comfortable with him. She trusted him…
But how could she ever ask that of him? She peered over at him, her face already flushing, and she was stunned to find him studying her, too. Then he laughed nervously and shook his head. "Oh man, Katniss," he said, rubbing his eyes. "Not this again."
"What?" she asked in confusion, her pulse rate increasing dramatically. Again? "What do you mean?"
"The night you drank half a bottle of Bacardi," he answered simply, frowning when he realized how stricken she looked. "You said we should sleep together to get back at Gale. You don't remember?"
Uh, she certainly did not remember that. "No!" she shrieked, horrified. What did she do? Did she throw herself at him? Did she kiss him? Worse? She could barely look at him, she was so embarrassed.
"Hey, it's okay! Nothing happened!"
She shrugged off the hand that he had placed reassuringly on her shoulder, and covered her face to hide her mortification. "Trust me, Katniss, I have friends who have really embarrassed themselves when they were drunk. I've probably done way worse than that myself. It's fine." He grabbed her hands and pulled them down, forcing her to look at him. "Come one, it's me. It's okay."
"I'm so sorry, Peeta. I-"
"You don't have to apologize. You were hurting and upset. I get it."
She finally met his eyes, her hands shaking in his. "You still are," he said gently. "It's completely understandable." They both looked down at their entwined hands, and she realized how much freer they were with touches now, since that night she came to him after Gale's confession. It was nice, being able to seek comfort like that from each other.
Peeta laughed a little, his thumb rubbing back and forth against her palm. "We can just pretend it never happened, okay?"
A part of her wanted to tell him that she didn't want to pretend it never happened, that a part of her knew exactly what it was doing and meant it, even if she was completely wasted when she first said it. Because how else was she ever supposed to think about forgiving Gale when the scale was still so grossly tipped? How else was she ever going to stop picturing him with another woman if she wasn't ever with another man?
But she only smiled back at him and said, "Okay."
"'Then with a quiver of exquisite pleasure he touched the warm soft body, and touched her navel for a moment in a kiss. And he had to come in to her at once, to enter the peace on earth of her soft, quiescent body. It was the moment of pure peace for him, the entry into the body of the woman.' Wait, is this doing anything for you?"
"Yes," she replied, grabbing the copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover out of his hands and placing it on the shelf. "It's making me want to report you to HR."
"Then do it already!" Johanna called from another section. "Get his ass fired so I don't have to hear it anymore."
Darius looked truly offended and turned in her general direction. "Hey, I keep the peace around here. You two would kill each other without me."
"You're just sweetening the pot," Johanna said from somewhere over in self-help. It was early Monday morning, a rare but unwelcome shift for them all, and while the rush hour rush was making life hell for everyone over in the café, the sales floor was completely dead.
Darius ignored her and set his sights back on Katniss. "So what's the word, hummingbird? You single yet or what?"
Katniss gritted her teeth as she straightened the books. He was a nice enough guy, harmless really, but she did not want to go through this again. "It's complicated," she answered firmly.
"Is that Facebook official?"
"Don't you have an order to put in?" she asked, annoyed.
"Katniss," he said seriously, his hand moving off the shelf and to her shoulder. "I'm here for you. For anything."
Jesus, she really regretted telling anyone at work that she and Gale were "having problems."
She looked over to see Peeta strolling toward them, a relaxed smile gracing his face, and she found herself smiling back instantly. "Hi! What are you doing here?"
Darius sighed as he pulled his hand back. "Guess I'll go put that order in now. Sorry for the sexual harassment." He playfully kicked the box of books Johanna was stacking while on his way to the office, grinning mischievously at her after he did it, and she called him some sort of curse word in response, but Katniss was too busy grinning stupidly at Peeta to hear it.
"Oh," she said, shaking her head. "Darius was just being Darius. Hey, don't you have class this morning?"
"I do," he said, smiling again. "I just wanted to stop by and tell you my good news. Um, I guess Effie pulled some strings with her brother and they got one of my short stories sent through to the editor. It's getting published next month."
Her mouth dropped open in shock, then curled back up in a beatific smile. "Oh my god, Peeta!" she cried, launching herself into his arms. "That's amazing!"
And it was. She was as happy as if the good news had been her own; there wasn't any hint of envy or intimidation or anything like that that she may have experienced with others' good fortune. No, she was ecstatic for him. Really.
She held on tight to him, her nose pressed against the hollow of his throat. "See! I told you!"
"Yeah," he said, his arms tightening around her. "You did." He squeezed her once more time for good measure before reluctantly pulling back. "I really do have to get back on campus, but I wanted to tell you as soon as I heard."
"K," she said, beaming back up at him. "Celebratory dinner later this week?"
"Yeah." He tucked a piece of loose hair behind her ear, then smiled one more time before turning away.
It was the sound of Johanna's snickering that caused her to finally look away from his retreating form. "What the hell is so funny?" she growled, turning her attention to her best frenemy.
"Oh man, I never thought I would feel bad for Darius, but I kinda do."
Katniss's brow wrinkled in confusion. "Huh? Why?"
"Are you completely brainless or what? He's got his heart all set on being your rebound boy, but you've already got one."
She bent down to grab the box of paperbacks she was stocking. "Shut up, Jo. Peeta's my friend."
"And I bet he's really been there for you in this, your time of need," she said mockingly.
"Yeah, well, a shoulder to cry on becomes a dick to ride on."
The tip of Katniss's tongue grazed the roof of her mouth as she tried to curb her mounting anger. "You know, you really should be the one in the poetry section," she said, rounding the corner to forcefully shove the box against the brunette's chest. "What with your way with words and all."
Johanna's lips curled back, more of a snarl than a smile. "Hey, I'm not judging you. Friend fucking is the best way to go, and he's cute enough. Get that D, Katniss."
"You are so crass," she said with disgust.
"I only speak the truth."
Katniss shook her head in annoyance and then got back to stocking the next box of books. They worked in relative peace together for several minutes before Johanna spoke again. "It might be good for you, you know."
"We're friends," she repeated with frustration.
"Yeah, dumbass, I got that memo. That's my point. Work out some of your issues in bed with him and get over yourself. When you're friends, you can high-five after and it doesn't have to get weird."
"I'm sure," Katniss replied absently, her concentration on the alphabetizing.
Johanna muttered something else before moving on to another section, and Katniss glared at her as she walked away. Why couldn't her coworkers mind their own business? It wasn't as if she ever sought their advice. And Johanna's 'advice' sounded terrible. After all, Katniss and Gale started out as friends, and the transition into a romantic relationship was ripe with awkwardness, so even if Katniss may have entertained some crazy thoughts while drunk or depressed, her sober self knew that it wasn't worth the risk to her relationship with Peeta. And she didn't think anything was worth risking her relationship with Peeta, not even her relationship with Gale.
But as she worked the rest of the afternoon, Johanna's words kept replaying in her head.
He was using a muddler to crush the lime and mint leaves in the glass, his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth as he worked. "This is the best mojito ever," he promised, adding the sugar. "It's a perfect cocktail for a warm night. And it is not justa lady's drink, no matter what Finnick says."
Katniss laughed and continued to watch him work. She really didn't need another night of drinking, but he wanted to change her mind about rum, so she allowed it. Ice cubes were added next, then the dreaded white liquor that made her grimace. "It's not a lot," he assured her, and he filled the glass only about a quarter of the way with alcohol. He topped it off with club soda and then slid it toward her, watching eagerly as she hesitated before taking a test sip.
"Mmm," she agreed, pulling the rim away from her lips, and he relaxed at her reaction. "That's actually really good. Refreshing. Tasty. Very manly."
"Damn straight," he said, yanking the dish towel off his shoulder and snapping it against the countertop.
She took a bigger drink and then slid off the bar stool to make her way to his couch. "Make more."
He laughed, but complied, and then they settled in for the evening. As she turned the volume up on the TV, she momentarily mused about how much better it was to be on the couch than at the gym. "Want to order a pizza?"
"Are you serious? Did you see how much sugar I put in these?"
She shrugged. "Just one pizza."
"I swear you're like a devil on my shoulder," he said, shaking his head.
But she was already thumbing through the contact list on her phone, searching for the number for her favorite pizzeria. "Then who's the angel?" she asked after she found it, her thumb hovering over the send call button.
He grinned at her. "A little cartoon version of me, dressed all in white."
"That's cute. But I'm still ordering a pizza."
He didn't put up much of a fight, so she decided on a large barbeque chicken pizza and then rattled off his address for the delivery man. Another lazy night in, she decided. They were becoming more frequent; sometimes she didn't even bother to stop at home to change out of her work clothes before coming over to his place.
Of course there were still nights when she wanted to stay at home with Prim, or he had to focus on class work, or nights when they would go out with some of his friends, like Finnick, who Katniss actually really liked now. But there was nothing she enjoyed more than relaxing at his place. It was official: she was a homebody.
Gale wasn't, she realized sadly. He used to be, when they first started dating, but he grew to enjoy the time when he could shrug off the pressures and responsibilities he seemed to always be facing in favor of fun. It was probably just another sign that they were growing apart.
Dammit, she didn't want to think about Gale right now. She still didn't know what she was doing about their relationship, if there was even one left. He came to her over three weeks ago and they hadn't spoken since that awkward phone conversation.
Katniss bit her lip in contemplation, then glanced over at Peeta. He was holding up his glass, staring at it intently, probably mentally calculating the calories and deciding how to best burn them off. "Would you give it a rest already? You're done for the season."
"Devil on my shoulder," he muttered again, placing the drink on the coffee table.
Half an hour later, after Katniss had polished off three slices of the pizza and he was eyeing his second, she laughed. "Isn't it good, Peeta?" She grabbed another piece and took a bite, a strand of mozzarella clinging to her lips, so she licked them clean as she eyed him. "Mmm," she moaned exaggeratedly.
He stood up suddenly, walking straight to the kitchen. "I'm gonna make another mojito. You want one?"
"Yeah!" she yelled back, and then licked her fingers clean of the barbeque sauce. Good pizza, good drink, good friend. She felt good. Peeta was so easy to be with, she realized. Things were just easy when he was involved.
After the drinks were made, he sat next to her again, handing her a glass. "Thanks," she said happily as she accepted it. He gave her another sweet smile, and her heart clenched a little. What would she do without him now, she wondered. The thought was scary.
"Peeta," she said, running her thumb along the rim of her glass. "Thanks for everything. I'm…I'm just really glad we're friends."
His smile never faltered, his blue eyes bright. "Me too." He took another sip of his drink, then reached over and grabbed another piece of pizza from the box, which made her laugh. But it was good to see him relaxing, so she curled up next to him on the couch and flipped through the channels.
Katniss had work in the morning, so she wasn't about to get drunk, but Peeta was putting them away quickly. Three mojitos later, he went for the last slice, and she batted his hand away. "That's mine, Porky."
He was a little flushed from the drinks, and he grinned as he took the slice and held it up. "This? You want this?"
"Uh, yes," she said seriously.
"Okay," he shrugged, moving as if he was about to return it to the box. But he put it up to his mouth and licked it, dragging his tongue from the strands of cheese at one end to the crispy crust at the other. He smiled triumphantly as he tossed it down. "All yours."
She picked it up and took a bite, grinning as she chewed loudly. "Damn straight."
"That's gross," he laughed. "I wouldn't have eaten it and that's my saliva." He poked her arm with his finger, "you really want my bodily fluids, huh?"
"You're drunk," she said, her nose crinkling. "Drunk and disgusting."
"S'okay, Katnissss. I've been thinking about it," he moved his finger from her arm to his head, "a lot, and…I will."
"You will?" she asked, confused. "You will what?"
"Help you get back at Gale." He sunk down further in his seat, his chin hitting his chest, and motioned to the lower half of his body. "Use me."
She blamed the mojito for the rush of warmth that spread through her at the thought of it. He was staring at her with glassy eyes, and she was just tipsy enough to wonder if his kisses would taste like rum and mint. Oh, no good was going to come from this. "You're drunk," she repeated quietly, her eyes fixated on his mouth.
"Katniss," he said, sounding surprisingly sober, "I'd do anything for you."
He was going to have the worst hangover tomorrow, she told herself, forcing her stare elsewhere. She should be a good friend and take care of him the way he took care of her only a few weeks ago, but she wasn't in the best frame of mind, either. "Peeta, I think I should go." Yes, she definitely needed to get out of there immediately.
"Are you mad?" he asked, running a hand through his hair.
"No, of course not. But we've been drinking and…and I should go." She slowly rose from the couch and lumbered to the door to retrieve her sneakers, and the entire task was more difficult than she anticipated. She was further gone than she thought. "I'll call Prim to pick me up," she said, leaning against the wall.
He was acting sheepish and maintaining a safe distance from her. "Can I call you tomorrow?"
"Of course." She really wanted to cross the room and hug him. She wanted to feel the security of his arms and reassure him of their friendship, which was one of the most important things in the world to her right now. But she didn't trust herself to do it, so she whispered goodnight and waited in the lobby of his building until Prim pulled up along the curb.
Prim had taken one look at her the night before and declared that she needed a day of pampering, so after work, Katniss stayed home and soaked in the tub for an indecent amount of time. The hot water eased her aching muscles, sore from hours on her feet at the store, and the lavender bath salts Prim gave her relaxed her so much that she nearly fell asleep in the water.
After, she let her long hair air-dry as Prim filed her nails. "Polish?" her sister asked hopefully, holding up a bottle of pale pink lacquer. Katniss refused; it was enough that she agreed to the manicure in the first place. But Prim pestered her until she agreed to a coat of clear polish, and after that was dry, she stood to make her way to her bedroom.
"We could experiment with eye shadows!" Prim called out eagerly.
"If you look good, you'll feel good!"
Katniss laughed as she closed her bedroom door. She didn't need a makeover, she needed a movie night. Peeta had called her that afternoon while she was on her last break, and after he quickly apologized again for the previous night, he proceeded to talk to her as if it didn't even happen. She decided that was a good approach, so now she was going to call him and see if he had any evening plans.
"Hi," she said after he answered. "What are you doing tonight?"
"Hey! I'm going to party with some friends. I was just about to call to see if you wanted to come."
She looked down at her clothes, an old white tank top and gray leggings, and then glanced over at her closet. The last thing she wanted to do was change. "I'll pass."
"Oh. Well, okay. I probably won't be out too late. Do you want to come over after?"
"Um, depends on when you get back. I have to be at work at noon tomorrow."
"I'll call you," he promised.
After they disconnected, she flopped down on her bed and sighed. Prim knocked a few minutes later, and she didn't wait for an invite in before opening the door. "I'm going to stay over at Rue's."
Katniss huffed, annoyed and bored. "Fine."
"Yeah," she said, forcing a smile. "Have fun."
"What are you going to do?" Prim asked worriedly. Katniss knew it was kind of pathetic to have her little sister fretting so much over her.
"I might hangout with Peeta later."
"Okay. Are…are you going to call Gale before that?" The look on Katniss's face shut her up immediately, and she shrugged innocently as she waved goodbye, leaving Katniss alone with her thoughts.
Every time she tried to think about Gale, even now, the image of his head dipping between Madge Undersee's creamy thighs infiltrated her mind. So it was still best if she didn't think of Gale at all.
She picked up one of the books from the pile on her nightstand and settled in on her bed. Soon the sound of her phone ringing was breaking her out of that fictional world, and she dog-eared the page before checking it.
"Hey," she said, surprised to be hearing from Peeta already.
"Hey," he replied happily. "I cut out early, so if you wanted to stop by…"
Katniss looked over at her alarm clock. "It's not even 9 o'clock yet!"
"It was a terrible party."
"Peeta," she warned. "I hope you didn't leave because-"
"Katniss," he said, imitating her. "Just come over already."
She smiled to herself, her teeth biting into her plump bottom lip. "I'll be there in 15."
She quickly braided her hair and slipped on an oversized flannel shirt before grabbing her keys and jogging to her car. The ride to Peeta's place was practically second-nature, she'd been there so often, and she arrived at his apartment building in record time. After he answered the door with his usual smile, she immediately settled in on her side of the couch. Then she paused, unsure of what was next. Usually on nights in, they had a plan beforehand of what to watch, but lately they were hanging out together much more frequently and they didn't need the pretense of wanting to watch some inane reality show to do it.
"Hey, I started that new Kate Atkinson novel tonight," she announced.
"Yeah? How is it?" He took the seat right next to her, and she could smell his cologne that he always wore when he went out. DKNY Men, she knew from the many trips to his bathroom.
"It was good," she said, her eyes roaming over his body. He was still dressed for the party, wearing straight fit, dark wash jeans and a navy polo, and it was a little distracting, the way the short sleeves of the shirt hugged his biceps. "It was good," she repeated absently. "But, uh, I don't know if it's going to be as good as everyone says."
"I don't think you'd be here right now if it was," he said with a teasing smile. She felt her face heating up as she took in that smile, but it seemed to go unnoticed by him. "I didn't think you were the type to stop reading in the middle of a good book."
She leaned in closer to him. "Oh, I only stay up all night to read your stuff."
"Best compliment ever," he said as he stared back her, smiling reverently.
"So when do I get to read more?"
He laughed, turning away to stare up the ceiling. "As soon as I finish what I'm working on now."
That only stoked her curiosity, so she pressed for more details, but he refused. She rested the side of her head against the back of the couch as she watched him flip through the channel guide, still working to evade her questions. He said he didn't feel like writing tonight, but she wished he did, because lately she realized how much she enjoyed watching him do it. He always looked so intense as he concentrated, his entire demeanor transforming with the first keystroke. It reflected in his words, too; sometimes she was amazed by the underlying heat in his writing. Though much of his work reminded her of him (strong, steady, innately good), sometimes there was an anger written into it that nearly stole her breath. There were whole worlds simmering in his mind, and she was lucky enough to be invited into it.
His eyes were focused on the television straight ahead, so she took the opportunity to stare, unabashed. Johanna's words suddenly echoed in her mind, and Katniss licked her lips. She wanted to touch him, she realized. She wanted to run her hands through his hair, and down his chest, and up his arms. She wanted to feel him. She wanted to take her time as she did it.
He was watching her now, too, his position mirroring hers: head resting against the cushion, lips slightly parted, eyes transfixed on the other. She didn't know how long they stayed like that.
"Peeta," she finally spoke. "Did you mean what you said last night?" He blinked, sighing softly as he seemed to be gauging her reactions, and a long moment passed before he answered.
"I meant it," he whispered.
"So did I," she admitted after another interval of silence. She reached out her hand to touch his arm, but then she quickly pulled it away. He continued to watch her, his breath hitching slightly each time she made a move forward but faltered. That sudden desire to touch him was overwhelming.
She crawled forward to close the small distance between them, turning to press herself against his side. Very carefully, she moved her hand over to his chest, resting her palm against his rapidly beating heart. "We can go slow."
He nodded quickly, his tongue darting out to wet his lips. "Yeah. And we can stop, whenever." She slid her palm up, and then moved it back down, marveling at how solid he felt.
His arm snaked around her to settle on her hip, and she could swear his touch was burning her through the thin material of her leggings. How was it possible to be so aroused by his thumb rubbing back and forth against her hipbone?
Katniss moved her other hand from the back of the couch to his shoulder, and gently straddled his lap. "Slow," she repeated quietly as her hands explored his chest and arms, just how she wanted to earlier. Peeta had dropped his hand when she moved, and he hadn't made another attempt to touch her again. She was thankful for that, though, because now she was free from anything distracting her as she focused on feeling him.
His shirt was so soft under her hands, but the feel of him beneath the material was all her senses cared about. Her fingers trailed over the hard ridges of his upper body, and her eyes stayed fixated on their path as she moved down to his stomach and then back up to his sternum, rubbing the heels of her palms against his muscles along the way. He sighed softly in contentment, and his head fell back against the couch. She bit her lip, contemplating her next move, and then she traced the soft skin of his now exposed throat with feather-light touches. Feeling emboldened by his response so far, she allowed her fingers to dip below the collar of his shirt, and her nails scratched at the light chest hair she found there. But she was no longer content to take her time, so she brought her hands up to his hair and threaded her fingers through his thick waves. How long had she wanted to touch him like this? Now that she was doing it, she actually felt relieved. Finally.
His eyes fell shut for a moment before he forced them back open, and then they stared at each other with a shy, shared smile. He had his hand wrapped around the end of her braid now, tugging gently as he allowed himself to touch her again, too. As his fingers skimmed the length of her hair, she shifted in his lap, freezing when she felt him hard against the back of her thigh.
"Take off your shirt?" she implored, bunching the fabric in her fists. He nodded, then leaned forward so he could pull it over his head. Suddenly she needed more, more, more, and if there was any part of her still screaming doubts in her mind, she silenced them quickly.
Katniss followed the same path with her hands as she had when he was clothed, but this time he mirrored her movements, his own palms running over her curves, though he still shied away from actually cupping her. It was a tease, she thought in frustration. The feel of his fingers barely grazing the undersides of her breasts was just a tease, so she thrust her chest out as she shrugged off the flannel shirt.
Still, his hands only settled on her hips as he inhaled sharply. She was about to whip off her tank top to bare herself completely, but her hands froze at the hem. "Can I kiss you?" she asked quietly, instead.
His eyes were still wide with disbelief. "Yeah," he whispered.
She tentatively placed her arms around his neck, her hands in his hair once again, and she slowly moved in closer. Her nose bumped his before their mouths could meet, and she flushed with embarrassment. "It's okay," Peeta said, laughing lightly as she pulled back. "We'll go slow." He squeezed her hips reassuringly, and then she moved in again. Her eyes were still open when she firmly pressed her lips to his.
The kiss was quick and unsure, and the only thing she could really register was his warmth and scent. She was shaking when she pulled back, studying him cautiously. A part of her was sure that he would stop it right then, but he didn't. Instead, he waited patiently for her to make another move, his thumbs continuing to rub circles against her hipbones.
She rocked back, licking her lips when she felt him still hard. That earlier hunger was quickly returning, and she pinned him with a stare as she swiveled her hips again, and then again. He closed his eyes, grunting lightly as she moved, and the sound triggered something inside of her that she never felt before. Again, she captured his lips, moving more confidently against his this time. She took his top lip between hers, and experimentally touched the tip of her tongue to it, and when his mouth opened welcomingly, she sighed as the kiss deepened. She clutched his shoulders as his tongue stroked hers, their mouths melded together.
Katniss felt herself letting go, and soon they were panting into each other's mouths as their actions became more frenzied. His earlier promise that they would go slow echoed in her mind, and she forced herself to pull back, ignoring the part of her that was practically begging for this.
"Peeta," she said breathlessly. "Promise me we'll still be friends. No matter what happens tonight, just promise me that."
"We'll always be friends," he vowed. "Always." He looked so certain, his words so sure, and Katniss wanted to believe it so badly.
She massaged the hard muscles of his arms to busy her anxious hands, and she knew that if she just rocked back again, if she felt his hard cock against her again, then she would completely lose control. A part of her, maybe even the largest part of her, wanted nothing more than to do that, but she couldn't give in just yet.
Peeta must have sensed her growing apprehension; he rubbed her arms comfortingly, as if trying to warm her, and again reassured her that they didn't have to do anything, and that it would be okay to stop whenever she wanted.
"I don't want to stop," she admitted, revealing the problem. She didn't want to stop, but she was still scared of what it meant not to.
She glanced at the clock on the end table and realized that it was already just after 10 p.m. His eyes followed hers, and maybe his thoughts did, too. "Hey, whatever you want to do tonight, or whatever you don't, is okay."
"Just for tonight then?" she questioned with a furrowed brow.
"Yeah, if that's what you want. We can just give ourselves…one night."
That didn't seem fair to her. She might have her issues, but Katniss never wanted to think of herself as a user of people, and she felt like that would be exactly what she was doing to Peeta if they agreed to this. "What are you getting out of this?" she asked, unbelieving.
He didn't say anything as he grasped her hips and slowly pressed her down against him, and their eyes met for a long moment as she felt how much he wanted this. Did he really want her, though? She never even considered it, but the way he was looking at her…
Decided, Katniss scooted further back in his lap and nervously reached for the bottom of her tank top. Her nipples were hard and already visible through the thin material, and he stared at her with an open mouth as she slowly lifted the shirt over her head. Her eyes averted his when it was off, and he continued to take her in, so she released the top from her hand, letting it fall to the couch.
"You're perfect," he said, falling back against the cushions with a happy sigh. He reached out to touch her, and her eyes fell shut as soon as his fingertips trailed the curve of her breast. "Please don't doubt how incredible you are."
She could certainly return that sentiment, but she was too busy leaning into his touch; again, she was feeling what she experienced earlier: an all-consuming kind of passion that made her want to forget absolutely everything but Peeta. And why shouldn't she? They only had tonight.
He looked up at her with a shy smile as he continued to eagerly palm her breasts. The soft little moans she emitted seemed to encourage him, though, and he massaged her enthusiastically, his large hands completely covering her as he moved from one mound to the other. Her hands tangled in his hair as she pulled him closer to her, and those soft little moans grew louder as his mouth covered her nipple.
She chanted his name over and over as he sucked and kissed every inch of each breast, and when she couldn't stand it for another second, she took his face in her hands and moved his mouth to hers. The deep kiss, coupled with the feel of his bare chest against hers, had them grinding against each other, and Katniss was never so sure of anything when she asked him to take her to his room.
He slid his hands to the back of her thighs and hoisted her up as he stood, and she wrapped her legs around him as he carried her to the bedroom. She didn't want to break the kiss when he moved, so her mouth stayed pressed to his until he knelt on the bed.
"What do you want?" he asked, his hand rubbing up and down her leg as she fell against the pillows.
Katniss was never one for much talk at times like this; she was usually content to follow the lead. But Peeta had a way of looking at her that made something deep in her belly clench, and so she rose to her knees, reaching for his belt buckle. She wanted to see him, to touch him, to taste him. She didn't ask permission as she undid his belt and lowered his zipper, because he was staring at her with so much hunger that she knew he wanted this, too.
"Get comfortable," she said, her fingers skimming along the waistband of his boxer briefs.
"Katniss, you don't have to-"
He shook his head, laughing a little as he moved around her to lean back against the headboard. "Well, if you insist."
"I insist," she said, fighting a smile.
She crawled toward him, stretching for another kiss as he stroked her braid. Coy and cute weren't exactly her strongpoints, but she tried to be flirty as she left a trail of kisses down his chest, her eyes staying locked on his the entire time.
Peeta kept his hold on her hair as she pushed his jeans and underwear off his hips, and she tried to stay in the moment. This is what she wanted, and she knew that, though a part of her was still amazed that they were about to take this step.
But the sight of him naked was enough to force all other thoughts from her mind, and she wrapped her hand around him, awed.
"You're so big," she whispered as she watched her hand move up and down his length. She wasn't expecting that, but he was thick, and hard as a rock, and the realization that he was this turned on by her was what propelled her forward to lick up along his shaft.
"Fuckkkk," Peeta groaned, his hands tangling in her hair.
Her tongue darted out to swirl around the head of his cock, but this was never something she felt confident doing, even if he seemed to be enjoying it. As his fingers continued to massage her scalp and he softly called her name, over and over, she tried to focus on that and ignore the part of her telling her she was probably doing something wrong.
She took him into her mouth, bobbing her head slowly as she massaged him with her tongue, and then she added her hand to stroke the rest of him. She started moving faster, moaning deeply in the back of her throat as she took him in further, and she hoped he felt that. The hand not working with her mouth was still anchored to his hipbone, and her nails dug into his soft skin as she tried to get him off.
Just as she was about to pull away to ask where he wanted to come (she had always refused to swallow), he gently pushed her back. "Okay, okay, stop," he begged breathlessly.
He sat up and tucked himself back into his pants, missing the horrified look flitting across Katniss's face. "I didn't want to come yet," he answered with a shrug. "We've only got tonight."
His large hand spanned her lower back as he turned her around on the bed, so that she was now the one falling back against his pillows. She was still wearing her leggings and underwear, and as he took it upon himself to pull them off, she was silently thankful that he was no longer asking if she was sure every step of the way.
He lowered his mouth to her bare stomach and peppered kisses around her naval. "But you…you can come again and again."
He hooked his thumbs in the waistband of her panties and tugged down, peeling them and the leggings off her body. "You smell so good," he said, his nose nuzzling against her hipbone.
"Well, I took a bath." She covered her face with her hand, shaking softly with embarrassed laughter when she realized how stupid she sounded.
Peeta grinned when he looked up at her. "So that's your secret."
"With bath salts," she added, smiling back at him. "I used bath salts."
His head dropped down again as his lips found the smooth skin just below her belly button. Her legs were locked together at the ankle, and she just couldn't relax, no matter how good his kisses felt. She was completely naked in his bed now, and that was surreal enough at the moment; the idea that he was slowly inching his way down her body seemed crazy to her.
"Katniss," he whispered before dipping his head again to lick along the top of her thigh. "Is this okay?"
"Yeah," she said timidly. She just needed a minute to catch her bearings again.
When his chin grazed that soft thatch of hair, her legs fell open, and she relaxed a little once more. He smiled at her reassuringly before he settled back down, and her head fell against the pillows as soon as his tongue darted out to taste her. It was a teasing move, and he spent many minutes kissing and licking each part of her, but only his nose bumped the spot where she wanted him the most.
She closed her eyes as he closed in on her clit, and she tried to stop herself from raising her hips off the mattress, but her body was working for itself right now.
"Y-you don't have to, mmm, do this if you don't want to."
He stopped abruptly to look up at her, and she bit her lip when she saw his wet mouth turn upwards. "Why wouldn't I want to?" he asked, still smiling. He rested his cheek against her inner thigh, his hand moving up to slip between her slick folds. "Tell me what you like, all right?"
As his tongue flicked against her clit again, she grabbed at his hair, moving his head just a little so his mouth hit her right there, and then she was arching her back again as she tried to move even closer. She let herself enjoy it for a few minutes, because it always did feel nice, but she didn't want to waste too much time on this.
"I never come this way," she said, gently bucking him off of her and trying to sit up. "It's okay."
"Then someone wasn't doing it right," he insisted. He pressed his palm against her midsection to hold her back down, then started licking that same spot with more pressure, and faster.
She was about to throw his own words back in his face, the ones he said when she was trying to get him off with her mouth, but he looked up at her again, eyeing her deliberately as his tongue swirled against her, and she watched, fascinated, until he stopped to speak. "We've got all night."
"You'd want to do this all night?" she asked skeptically.
"Fuck yeah." He went right back to work after that, and even though she was getting closer and closer to her an orgasm, it wasn't enough. Because the way he just said that, and the look he gave her when he said it…
"Peeta," she called out, grabbing his shoulder. "Do you…oh fuck, Peeta. Do you have any condoms?"
He stopped immediately to stare back at her, his glistening mouth wide open. "You want to?"
She nodded enthusiastically, pulling him up her body so she could slide her hand into his underwear again. "Yeah," she said, pumping his cock as she reached up to kiss his neck.
Katniss released him so he could fumble with the nightstand drawer in search of a condom, all while still trying to remain as physically close to her as possible. Frustrated, he yanked it off the rails, and the drawer and all its contents spilled onto his pristine floor. She laughed as he reached down to grab one, and he returned to her triumphantly when he had it.
He placed it on the mattress next to their heads, and then positioned himself back on top of her, surrounding her completely. She sighed against his mouth as he kissed her again, slowly and softly. They stayed like that for a long while, the kisses alternating between long strokes of his tongue against hers, and sweet, short pecks that spanned from her mouth to jaw. Her fingertips danced along his strong back, and she reveled in the feel of his muscles flexing as he moved over her.
Peeta cupped her face in his large hand as they kissed, and she melted further into the pillows as his thumb stroked her cheekbone. They shared a lazy smile as he pulled away to comb his fingers through her hair, unraveling her braid, but she didn't like the space between them, so she leaned in for yet another kiss. She wished they could do this all night, too; just the kissing was amazing to her. The sound of it, that light smacking as their lips met, echoed in the otherwise quiet room.
"Now," she sighed against his mouth. He had hitched her leg high up on his waist, and she slid her foot along his hip to push his jeans off. "Now."
He untangled himself from her to get his pants and underwear off completely, and she felt as if she was out of breath as she panted, waiting for him. This was going to happen. They were going to do this. A part of her wondered if they should, because she was nearly shaking at the mere thought of it. But then he was back with her, smiling shyly as he dropped sweet kisses all over her face. Immediately, she felt relaxed and happy, and that, she realized, was her answer.
Peeta didn't reach for the condom next to them; instead he continued as they were earlier, only this time he was as naked as she was. His hands traveled all over her body, lightly tickling her skin as his fingers skimmed over her ribs, then back up to caress her breasts, all while his lips stayed melded to hers. As her moans grew louder, his touches became more sure. He palmed her eagerly, his thumb massaging her nipple, and then he dipped his head to take it into his mouth. She fisted a handful of his hair as she arched up, growling his name again and again as he licked and kissed his way to the other one.
"I love the way you say my name," he admitted later, after nearly every inch of her chest was coated with his saliva. Still, he moved lower, his mouth trailing kisses down her body. "Say it when you come," he commanded, just as he spread her thighs and pulled her closer to his face.
She gave in this time, pulling her knees against her chest so she was wide open for him, and he groaned against the smooth skin of her inner thigh before he dived in to taste her again. His tongue swirled circles on the hood of her clit, and she cried out as she arched closer, desperate for more pressure.
She was so close, she realized, but Peeta wasn't doing anything to tip her over that edge. He had her legs over his shoulders, so she pushed off and planted her feet flat on the mattress, nudging his mouth as she thrust against his face. He only allowed that for a moment though before he crossed his arms over her stomach, pinning her to the bed.
Katniss brought her fingers to her mouth, biting down on her short nails to stifle her cries. When she looked back down, Peeta's eyes met hers, and she called out his name as his tongue darted out once more.
Her eyes fell shut, and she wished he would let her taste him again. She imagined licking along his shaft, her stare holding his as she took him into her mouth. He still held her down now, but she would let him fuck her face, taking him as deep as she could for as long as he wanted. Then, when he came, she would just keep sucking, just like she was sucking on her fingers right now. She'd take every drop of his hot cum. Every single drop.
The thought of his face as she did that was everything, and her entire body tensed as she concentrated on Peeta's tongue in that moment.
But then he stopped. Just as she was about to come, he stopped, and he crawled back up her body, panting an apology as his hand searched for the condom. "I can't wait anymore," he admitted, struggling to tear open the foil.
"I've never been with anyone but Gale," she found herself admitting, slightly terrified, as he rolled the condom on.
He froze, his hand still on his cock. "Do you want to-"
"No! No, I want to. I just…I just wanted you to know."
His expression softened, and he leaned down to kiss her again. He moved to pull away, but she held firm to the back of his head, refusing to let him go. She could feel him hard and ready against her, and she wound her free hand around his waist, pressing against the small of his back to urge him on.
She was so wet that the sheets underneath her were damp, and it eased the way as he slowly slid inside of her. "Peeta," she said, unable to hide the tremor in her voice. He placed a gentle kiss on the hollow of her throat.
He moved slowly at first, and they stayed pressed together until Katniss pushed him back to a kneeling position. Her hands clutched at his shoulders as he rocked his hips against hers, and he was nearly pulling all the way out with each thrust. Her breath hitched every time he reentered her and the head of his cock grazed her walls.
"Mmm, yes," she panted as he sped up. The movement was inching her closer to the headboard, so she reached up to wrap her hands around the cast iron bars just to stop her herself from hitting them.
She was sure he was nearly there, but then he slowed again before withdrawing completely. Her mouth opened to ask him why, but as his head dipped between her legs again, his tongue flicking furiously against her clit, she found that she could barely speak.
"Fuck," she finally managed, her grip tightening around the bars.
Then he was hovering over her, back inside of her, pumping slowly at first, then faster. But he stopped again to slide down her body, his fingers parting her folds as he licked.
He alternated between fucking her with his cock and mouth, and when she couldn't stand it anymore, she released one of the bars so she could hold his head down until she came. "I-I'm going to," she called out, and that was all he needed to hear. He concentrated on her clit as she tensed, her entire body shaking in anticipation.
She called out his name over and over as he held firmly onto her thighs, lifting her from the bed and closer to his tongue, and then she came with a strangled cry. The sensation was so intense that she sprung up, her arms wrapping around Peeta's neck as she clawed desperately at his back. As the spasms slowed, she fell back onto the bed, panting and spent.
He still had a hard grip on her legs, and his palms slid down to hook under her knees as he entered her again. Katniss smiled softly at him as he rocked into her, and he moved a hand from her thigh to gently caress her cheek. Beads of perspiration dotted his hairline, and she watched as they dropped down his forehead and nose. "Are you close?" she asked, reaching up to wipe some of the sweat away, because she could do that now. It wasn't ever okay to do it before, but tonight, it was allowed.
He nodded as he moved faster, with short, sharp thrusts that felt impossibly good to her, too. She held his face in her hands, her eyes locked with his as he lost control, and as his hips jerked one last time, she wrapped her legs around him, cradling him to her. "Oh god, Katniss," he said against her throat, and she could feel his heart pounding alongside hers.
"I know," she said. "I know."
She woke up shivering, and she sat up, pulling the covers under her chin. The window closest to his bed was open, she realized dumbly. Sure, it was spring, but the temperatures could still drop to the freezing range late at night. What was he thinking?
The alarm clock on the nightstand next to her read just after 2 a.m., so they hadn't even been asleep for two hours yet. Katniss had pretty much passed out as soon as her head hit the pillow, so she hadn't noticed him sliding the window open before he joined her in bed, or she would have yelled at him then.
He was still asleep beside her, looking peaceful and beautiful and warm, and she couldn't help but smile as she watched him. The temptation to join him under the soft blanket was too much, so she slid back down onto the mattress, tucking her body against his. He sighed in his sleep, his arm encircling her waist, and she closed her eyes.
It was already two o'clock in the morning, she realized a second later. They only had tonight. Why the hell were they wasting time on sleep?
They were still naked, neither of them bothering with clothes after the quick shower Peeta had insisted on. That hadn't been awkward, though Katniss assumed it might be. But they were both already so relaxed, and when he asked to wash her hair, she gave in easily and leaned back against his bare, wet chest. He teased her that she would smell like a man now, but she didn't mind the mint shampoo at all. They joked and laughed as they scrubbed and rinsed, and then he wrapped the fluffiest towel around her, kissing her sweetly on the nose as he rubbed her arms.
She never really felt that way with anyone before, and she has never felt the way she does right now, either. Sex was always nice. The intimacy, the connection, the physical closeness…it was good, but she never realized it could be so pleasurable. Tonight was something else altogether, though, and she was starting to feel that thing again. It was something stirring deep inside her, making her want more.
Katniss pushed back against him, brushing his soft cock with the curve of her ass, and he began to harden almost instantly. She turned around in his arms and tried to rouse him from sleep with a series of kisses across his chest, and his eyes opened slowly before he grinned back at her.
This time she grabbed a condom off the bedside table, and she slapped it against his chest, declaring that she was cold and he needed to warm her up. It was as close to flirting as she could get.
"What, no foreplay?"
"What do you want?" she laughed, her chin resting on his stomach.
He shrugged with a smile, but his eyes were serious when he said, "Whatever you're offering." So she kissed down his body, smiling mischievously up at him. "I'll take whatever you're offering, Katniss."
She took him into her mouth immediately, and he groaned in pleasure as she sucked and stroked. Again, she wanted to finish him this way, and she was getting so wet at the thought of it, but it wasn't long before he was grabbing for her, begging her to go slow.
"What else do you want?" she asked, her hand pumping up and down his length.
"Um, I didn't hate when you told me how big I was."
"You're so big," she teased, repeating her words from earlier. "You're massive." She continued to stroke him, and he apologized with a laugh. "It's a curse, really," he said, but his voice choked on that last word as she leaned forward to lick the tip.
"Oh fuck, Katniss," he gasped, his hands tangling in her hair until she released him. "How about you? What do you like?"
She climbed back up his body and held his head to her chest, directing him without words and crying out when he immediately took her nipple into his mouth. "I like this," she said as she rocked against his hard stomach. "And I liked holding on to the headboard when we did it last time."
She reluctantly moved away, settling next to him on her hands and knees as he dealt with the condom. After he placed some pillows underneath her, and she wrapped her fingers around the bars, he slowly entered her from behind. Katniss exhaled softly, her arms stretching out as she pushed back against him. "Yes," she moaned, her entire body tensing as she held herself up. "Just like this."
His hands slid around the front of her body to knead her breasts, and she commanded him to go faster. Peeta pulled her back flush against his chest, thrusting into her as she continued to grip the bars. She held tighter as he sped up, and it felt incredible, but she still knew she wasn't going to come this way.
"Touch yourself," he said, one of his thick arms sliding along her outstretched one. He pulled her hand off the headboard and moved it down to where they were joined. "Come with me."
She tried, but she wasn't going to make it there with him. Even his own fingers working with her weren't doing it, and she assured him that it was all right, that she was enjoying this anyway. Just being with him was enough.
"Mm, come on, Peeta," she whispered as he nuzzled her neck. "Let go."
She arched back against him, effectively changing the angle, and he came with the next thrust. She smiled with pride as he groaned her name, and then she silenced his apology with a kiss. As he cleaned up, she snuggled back under the blankets, because the absence of his warmth reminded her that she was, in fact, still freezing cold.
Tempting as it was to stay up all night with him, she resigned herself to sleep. She did have work at noon, after all.
"I shut the window," he said, sliding into the bed with her. "Sorry about that. Force of habit." Her eyes closed as she felt his arms wrapping around her, and she covered his hands with hers as she drifted off, already warm and perfectly at peace.
When the blaring alarm woke her, it felt like she had just closed her eyes, but the clock told her it was already 6 a.m.
"Fuck, I'm sorry," Peeta grumbled, reaching over her to sleepily bat at the button to silence it.
"Whyyyy?" she asked dramatically.
"Uh, I was gonna to go the gym."
"You're going to the gym at six in the morning on a Sunday?"
"Well, not now. I think I got enough cardio last night." He smiled bashfully at her, but she only scowled in return. She had been sleeping so well.
He draped his arm over her stomach and settled back down beside her, and she could feel his warm breath on her neck as he whispered another apology. Despite being annoyed that she was woken up like that, she melted back against him, covering his hand with hers.
"Are you, um, tired?" she asked quietly.
He turned their entwined hands over and she traced up and down his palm, waiting for his answer.
"No," he finally replied, his voice low and husky.
She flipped over to face him, and their mouths met immediately in a messy, crazed kiss. Katniss didn't care about sleep, or her tangled hair, or any remaining sense of propriety; they only had a few hours left before she would have to leave for work, and she knew exactly how she wanted to spend them.
"Do you have any condoms left?"
He managed to pry his mouth away from hers for a second to rifle though the drawer for one, flinging every non-condom item to the floor. "I better. It was a damn bonus box." She was probably distracting him when she straddled him and started sucking on his neck, but he still found one.
"Trojan BareSkin," he said, reading the label as she nibbled on his earlobe. He paused in thought, then went back to the drawer to resume the search.
"What's wrong?" she asked in confusion.
"I want to last as long as I can. Not sure ultra-thin condoms are conducive to that."
"Peeta." She pulled his arm away from the nightstand, then grabbed the foil packet he discarded. "Just use this," she commanded, wrapping her arms around his neck as she nuzzled his cheek with her nose.
Katniss already knew what she wanted, so she pulled him with her to the center of the bed. "Lie down." He nodded wordlessly, complying, and she straddled his midsection again. "I can do all the work this time." She said it jokingly, but he was too busy focusing on her. He stared up at her in awe, his fingers digging into her waist. "Do whatever you want," he said softly. "It feels great for me no matter what, okay? Focus on you."
She leaned down to kiss him one more time, and then she handed him the condom, her hands tangling in his hair as he put it on. When he was ready and positioned, she slowly lowered herself to him, softly crying out when he was finally inside her again. It had only been a few hours since they were last like this, but she craved it as much now as she had that first time the night before.
Peeta liked to set the pace with long, teasing strokes; he would nearly withdraw, then press back into her slowly, so she felt every hard inch of him. While that felt incredible, she also liked what they were doing now. She still moved slowly, but she used a circular motion that kept him fully inside of her the entire time. She watched as his eyes roamed up and down her body, his hands following their path, and when they locked with hers, they shared a small smile.
"You're perfect," he whispered, and a part of her wanted to correct him, but the truth was, she felt pretty perfect in that moment.
When she needed a little more, she leaned back, resting her hands on his thighs as she gently bounced up and down. "Jesus Christ," Peeta muttered, all the reverence gone from his voice, and fuck, she loved that she could have this effect on him.
It was fun to experiment together. If there was a position she was always curious about, she wanted to test it out now. If it sounded like he was enjoying the move a little too much, she tried another. If she was enjoying it, she kept at it, desperately trying to get there without needing his fingers to do it.
Her knees started to ache from their position on either side of his hips, and she knew she could press her hands to his shoulders and rest her weight on him. She bent down to meet his lips when she did it, and they shared another long, slow kiss that did just as much for her as everything else.
But she wanted to come this way more than anything, and she was determined to make it happen. She stretched her arms out and rocked back, breaking the kiss to sit up straight. That earlier move, rotating her hips in a small circle, was now her standby, but she soon grew frustrated with that, too.
Peeta was still enjoying it though, and she could see him struggling to hold off as she started moving up and down his length. His fingers dug into her skin as he held her hips, and then he started moving her back and forth against his cock instead. She followed his lead and continued like that, and when her clit rocked against his pubic bone, she felt the first real stirring of something more.
"Oh, god," she cried after a few more strokes. "Peeta."
He was staring straight up at the ceiling, gritting his teeth as if he was in pain, but she knew he was trying to wait for her. She arched her back, and then it felt even better, and she was sure she was almost there.
"Kiss me?" he pleaded, and she nodded, leaning forward to capture his lips. As their mouths met, he lifted his pelvis, and the new angle brushed some never before touched spot deep inside of her. She whimpered as she kept rocking back and forth, and the feel of Peeta's cock hitting her right there, coupled with the pressure on her clit as she ground against him, had her feeling more pleasure than she ever felt before.
She arched her back again, and fuck, how could anything feel so amazing? "I'm going to come," she choked out, and his arms went around her to hold her close. As soon as the first wave hit her, Peeta let go, too, and they cried out together as she clenched around him while he came. "Oh god, oh god," she screamed, her fingernails digging into his shoulders, breaking the skin. He moaned against her neck as the last ripple tore through her, and they sunk down into the mattress, breathing heavily.
Her ears were buzzing as he gently untangled himself from her to take care of the condom, and she just kept repeating, "Oh god, oh god," as her heart rate finally slowed. Peeta pressed a palm to his damp forehead, opening his mouth to speak but nothing coming out. He tried again, and failed, and he laughed. "Words," he finally managed. "No words."
She laughed, too, and rested her head against his chest. They fell silent for a few minutes while they recovered, and she sighed happily as his fingers wound in her hair to massage her scalp. "Sorry about the scratches," she said contritely, turning to gently press her lips against the red, angry lines on his shoulder.
"Worth it," he said with a grin. "They'll match the ones on my back."
"I don't even have long nails," she said. "See?" She wiggled her fingers in his face, and he grabbed her hand to kiss her open palm. Her smile fell away as she watched him knot his fingers through hers. Outside, the sun was rising, and tonight was gone.
He looked at her, waiting for her to finish her thought, but she just shook her head and stretched out along the mattress. He turned on his side to face her, and she forced herself to smile as she rolled on her side, too. They shared a pillow, and she couldn't stop herself from bringing her hand up to trace along his cheekbone and jaw. She wanted to tell him how handsome she thought he was. Beautiful, even. But all she could manage was, "I like your face."
He reached out to touch her, mirroring her movements. He took his time, studying her features with the pads of his fingers, before finally saying, "I like your face, too.
"What time do you have to leave for work?" he asked later, after a long interval of nervous quiet.
"I guess around 10?"
He broke away to set the alarm, and she released a relieved breath when he came back to her, his arms wrapping around her after he pulled the covers over them.
She closed her eyes, and within minutes, she was asleep.
The next time she woke up, the beeping echoing throughout the room just as loudly as it did before, she stared off into space. Peeta hit a button to silence it, and she could hear his heavy sigh from behind her. "I wish I could hit snooze forever," he admitted.
'Well, you can't,' she thought bitterly as she sat up. "I should get going."
"You could shower here."
"I probably shouldn't go into work smelling like Old Spice," she said with a shrug.
"Yeah, I guess."
She reached down for her underwear and leggings, slipping them on as she realized that the rest of her clothes were in the living room. Covering her breasts with her arm, she turned to face him. He was sitting up now, the sheet haphazardly draped over him, and he leaned in to kiss her. She really did want to kiss him, but her mouth tasted terrible and she was not going to leave him with the memory of her morning breath.
"I gotta go," she said, pulling away. His face fell, but she missed it in her rush to scramble off the bed.
"What are you doing after work?"
The question made her freeze, and she spun around on her heel to face him. What was she going to do after work? There was only one answer; she probably already put it off for too long as it was.
"I'm going to see Gale."
"Oh." She saw his jaw flex as he looked away from her, and her brow furrowed in confusion.
"Did you want to hang out sometime this week?" she asked.
"I don't know, Katniss," he said with a head shake. "I have to get some writing done, and I've got finals coming up. I should study more."
"At least summer is coming up," she tried, her voice sounding incredibly small.
"Yeah," he scoffed. "Because it's not like I'll be at the bakery 60 hours a week then, or anything."
Her throat constricted as she swallowed thickly. Why did it feel like she was losing him? He promised her. But it was as if she could already feel him slipping away. "I gotta go," she repeated, turning away so he missed the tears in her eyes. She raced out of the room and grabbed her tank top and shirt off the couch, and she angrily wiped at her face as she searched for her keys. They were in the glass bowl on the little table beside the door, she realized stupidly. That's where she always put them. And sure enough, that's where she found them. Right next to Peeta's keys.
She dressed quickly and slipped on her flip-flops, and she hoped he heard how loud she slammed his door when she left.
Work was hell, and it wasn't just because she hardly got any sleep. Sundays were always packed, especially after church hours. She didn't think she had the strength to deal with people today, whether they were customers or her well-meaning coworkers.
About an hour into her shift, her supervisor called her into his little office. He grunted something about how she had been there for six months now, said they were impressed with her so far, blah blah. But her ears perked up a little when she heard him mention the word 'promotion.'
"Kids Lead. You want it or what?"
She blinked. A lead position meant a little more money and much better hours. She could say goodbye to the measly four hour shifts, like the one she had to work today. "Uh, yeah. Okay. Thanks."
He waved her back to the sales floor, and her shoulders slumped as soon as she closed his office door. The first thing she thought was that she wanted to call Peeta with her news, but she couldn't do that now, and a part of her was angry at herself for wanting that so much. If she thought she was miserable before…
She helped customers and organized shelves and generally busied herself to preoccupy her thoughts. Before her break, Darius congratulated her on the news, and she tried to smile her thanks. "You okay?" he pressed, and she shrugged. He was going to say something else, but a woman came up to him to ask him about a book of quotations, so he assisted her instead. As he led her away to the appropriate section, he turned around to roll his eyes at Katniss, mouthing the word Google. She tried, but she couldn't spare a laugh today. Not even for Darius and his outright disdain for his job.
She passed the surly Johanna on her way to the break room, resisting the urge to thank her for the shitty advice. Once she was safely away from everyone else, she marched to her locker to grab a granola bar from her bag and check her phone. Her heart stuttered a bit when she saw that she had a text from Peeta, since that was the last thing she was expecting.
Can you call me when you get a chance?
She kind of felt sick. She wasn't sure what changed between last night and this morning, but something definitely had and she was fairly sure he didn't want anything to do with her now. He probably wanted to end their friendship officially or something.
There was no sense in delaying the inevitable, she reasoned, so she hit the 'send' button to call his number, and threw her granola bar back in her locker, because there went her appetite.
He picked up after the first ring. "Katniss?"
"You wanted me to call you," she said, forcing herself to sound neutral.
She heard him sigh, and she leaned against her locker, waiting for him to finish it off.
"I'm so sorry."
She rubbed at her eyes, willing away that initial relief. "Um, what?"
"I'm sorry. I…I shouldn't have expected anything else. That's my fault, not yours." She didn't know what the hell he was talking about, but he sounded like Peeta again. Her Peeta.
"And I can hang out whenever this week. This summer's still going to suck, but we'll make that work, too." He took a deep breath. "I meant what I said last night. Always, okay?"
Her face stretched into a wide grin as she took in what he said, and she laughed as she blurted out, "So I got a promotion!"
"Yeah?" She bet he was smiling, too, as she told him the details. "You'll be running the whole store by next year," he predicted, and she laughed again.
"Yeah, right. But whenever you get published, I'm going to make a giant display for you."
Now it was his turn to sound dubious, but she insisted. "Sounds like a plan, then," he said quietly.
"I should head back. My break's almost over."
"Okay. Talk to you later then?"
Instead of going to her car after work, she wandered to the back of the store and sat on the loading dock where the trucks dropped off their deliveries. For the first time, she tried to think about what she was going to say to Gale. For the first time, she was actually thinking about Gale. It was kind of a shock to her when she realized that he really didn't cross her mind at all when she was with Peeta. She was pretty sure that wasn't how this was supposed to work.
She looked up to see Darius walking towards her. "Hey."
"What the hell are you still doing in this hole? You're supposed to escape as soon as you can."
"Just thinking," she answered honestly.
He sat down next to her, both of them swinging their feet against the cement slab the trucks backed up to, and he pulled out his phone. "Don't think too hard," he said, thumbing through his messages.
He looked her over in concern. "What's the matter, Kat?"
"I'm just confused," she admitted as she stared down at her hands. Darius was nice enough, but she didn't really want to do this right now.
"Well hell," he said, bumping her shoulder with his. "I can help you with that. They didn't stick me in the educational section for my looks. What are you confused about?"
She rolled her eyes, but decided to play along. "Love, okay?"
"Love. Well, that's not exactly my area of expertise, but I'll show you a trick." He held up his phone. "I'm going to teach you to do what every goddamn moron that comes up to me every day can't. You're gonna find your answer online."
He hit some letter on his keypad. "All right, so the English word "love" can refer to a variety of different feelings, states, and attitudes-"
"I don't need the definition, Darius."
"Fine, fine." He scrolled some more. "Quotes on love. This is good. Let's see…Marilyn Monroe? Yeah, she died young and alone, so we're gonna move on from that. Dr. Seuess, but that's kids' stuff. Hmm." He continued to scroll, stopping a second later. "Ah ha! Bob Marley, a personal hero of mine. Here's everything you need to know about love, Katniss." He cleared his throat, then spoke in a deeper voice. "'Only once in your life, I truly believe, you find someone who can completely turn your world around. You tell them things that you've never shared with another soul and they absorb everything you say and actually want to hear more. You share hopes for the future, dreams that will never come true, goals that were never achieved and the many disappointments life has thrown at you.'"
She looked over his shoulder, curious, as he continued. "'When something wonderful happens, you can't wait to tell them about it, knowing they will share in your excitement. They are not embarrassed to cry with you when you are hurting or laugh with you when you make a fool of yourself. Never do they hurt your feelings or make you feel like you are not good enough, but rather they build you up and show you the things about yourself that make you special and even beautiful.'"
She actually listened to what he was saying, the words resonating with her for some reason.
"'There is never any pressure, jealousy or competition but only a quiet calmness when they are around. You can-"
"Darius, I gotta go!"
He looked up from his phone, frowning, but she was already jumping off the platform, her feet landing on the parking lot pavement. "Hey, I'm not done!"
"It's enough," she called back, smiling. She raced to her car, knowing exactly what she needed to do right now.
Gale's mouth dropped open in surprise when he answered his door, and she felt a little of her resolve slipping at the sight of him.
"Catnip," he said, nodding solemnly. "I thought you'd call."
"I didn't want to…" she trailed off.
"Yeah," he said, his jaw tightening. "Yeah, go ahead. Do this in person."
"Gale, I love you."
He looked up at her in shock, his eyes shining hopefully, but the sad tears in her own stopped him cold. "I love you, and I'm so sorry that I was never able to say it back like that, and that I waited so long to tell you.
"I love you, and a part of me always will, but Gale, we aren't right for each other."
He sat down on the edge of his bed, putting his head in his hands. "How can you say that?"
"I can say it because it's the truth. All of it. You were my best friend, for so many years, and I'm always going to-"
"Don't," he said, lifting his eyes to hers and glaring angrily. "You can spare me the fucking clichés, okay. If you want to throw it all away-"
"Throw it all away?" she asked, incredulous. "You think I did this to us?"
"You checked out of this relationship well before I fucked Madge, and you damn well know it."
"Stop! Stop, okay! I don't want to play this blame game. I don't want us to hate each other! We were best friends, Gale. Best friends. And maybe that's all we ever should have been."
"You're such a bitch," he said, wiping furiously at the tears in his eyes. "You know that? You're fucking cold."
She didn't want him to know how much his words hurt her, so she gritted her teeth and turned for the door. "Wait!" he called out frantically, rushing to her. He spun her around to face him, his hand staying firmly on her shoulder. "I'm sorry. I-I just…I don't want to lose you, Katniss. I've tried giving you time, and I'll do whatever you need so we can fix this. You love me. You said it! We can fix this."
She tried to muster up some of the anger she had felt since he came to her that night a month ago, but all she came away with was a cold sense of finality. She didn't want to anger him, or hurt him. She just wanted to leave.
"I've worked so hard to get us out of here, Catnip. If you go to Colorado with me, we can start a whole new life together. One that we both deserve."
"I don't want to leave home, Gale," she said, shaking her head. "I never did. That's what you want."
"All I want is for us to be together."
"I don't want to lose you from my life-"
He shrugged, releasing his hold on her and stepping back. "Well, you will. You will. You can't have it both ways, Katniss."
She tried to ignore that, because she couldn't even wrap her mind around the fact that Gale Hawthorne wouldn't be there for her anymore. "I think this is for the best," she said, trying to fight back her tears.
"You've already replaced me," he said with quiet realization, his face paling. "That's it, huh? You don't need me anymore because you've got someone else, and that's why this is so easy for you."
"You think this is easy on me?" she shrieked, the tears falling freely now.
"I shouldn't have called you a bitch, Kat, but I meant it when I said you were cold. And it must be real easy to say those words now that they don't mean anything."
Oh, he knew all the best ways to hurt her. She wiped at her eyes with her sleeve and stood up straight. "Goodbye, Gale."
He didn't say anything else.
She drove straight from Gale's dorm to Peeta's apartment, but the long drive didn't do anything for her red, puffy eyes.
"Katniss?" he asked, more panicked this time. "What's wrong?"
She pushed past him to walk into his apartment, and he followed her worriedly. "Katniss?"
"Gale and I broke up," she said, turning to face him. "We broke up."
"You broke up," he said, trying to register the words. "Oh." He looked like he was debating with himself over what to say next, so she put him out of his misery.
"I went to end thing with him, and then I was going to come here and ask you out on a date."
His eyes widened. "What?"
"Yeah, but I don't think that's such a good idea now, 'cause I'm kind of a mess, and I don't want us to be a mess." She shrugged helplessly. "I don't think I need a boyfriend right now, but I could really use a friend." She tried to hold them back, but it was useless, and she was crying again. "It was a rough night."
"I'm sorry you had a rough night," he said, wrapping his arm around her to bring her against his chest. He rested his chin on the top of her head as he squeezed her. "And I'll be your friend."
She started to sob, everything that happened in the last 24 hours hitting her at once, and she didn't know how to deal with any of it.
"Where were you going to take me on our date?" he asked, pressing a kiss to her temple. "Assuming I said yes, of course."
She laughed, pushing back to brush away her tears. "Um, I don't know. Sae's? I like their mozzarella sticks." She tried to smile, but it was still looking a little forced. "And I'd definitely show up."
"This is already an improvement over my last date. Would you have paid?"
If he wanted to distract her from her current misery, then what the hell, she'd allow it. "Of course. I just got a dollar raise."
"It just gets better and better." She hugged him again, and as she nestled her head in the crook of his neck, he whispered, "Maybe we can go to still go to Sae's someday."
"I'm not going to ask you to wait for me," she said sadly.
"You don't have to ask." She pulled back, staring up at him hopefully, and he smiled down at her as he wiped that last tear stuck to her bottom lashes. "Now, let's go watch Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and order a pizza. I don't have any ice cream for you, but there's some fat free frozen yogurt that can be all yours."
She took a deep breath and smiled for real this time. "That sounds perfect."
~5 Years Later~
Nearly 400 hundred guests at the wedding, and she still spots Gale within the first 20 minutes of cocktail hour. She knew it was a possibility when Finnick told her that he was invited by Annie's family, but nothing could really prepare her for this moment.
It's been nearly four years since she saw him last, and that is not a happy memory. At that time, she and Peeta were still trying to navigate the rough waters of their budding romantic relationship, one already rife with insecurities on both their parts, and a drunken Gale showing up at Peeta's doorstep didn't exactly help matters any. Words were exchanged, punches were thrown, cops were called. But he was gone for good a few months later, taking refuge across the country at the school in Colorado.
She's only seen him on TV a few times since, usually as a talking head on CNN or another news network. He seems to be well-respected as a weapons analyst with the government, and she's happy for him. Really.
He catches her eye and smiles tightly, and she takes a deep breath as he crosses over toward her. "Hello, Katniss," he says, nodding. "You look great."
She gestures to his expensive designer suit, so unlike the Gale she knew that it throws her for a second. "You too."
He thanks her, then takes another sip of his scotch. Somewhere on the other side of the city, Peeta's posing for a million photos with the rest of the wedding party, and she has no idea when they'll be returning.
"How's school? And work?" he asks, finally breaking their awkward silence.
"Oh," she says, realizing that his mother has probably kept him up-to-date thanks to her mother. "It's good."
He glances down at her hand, and then looks back up. "Congratulations on the engagement."
She twists her ring nervously. "Thank you."
"I didn't think you'd ever get married," he admits with a shrug. "But I guess…things change."
"Yeah, sometimes they do."
She sees his jaw clench when his eyes dart back down to her ring again, but she's pretty sure the only thing still hurting is his pride.
"I have a girlfriend!" he says suddenly, and they both freeze at his sudden outburst. Then they laugh, and it's so bittersweet but welcomed. His laugh trials off and he clears his throat. "Um, sorry. But yeah, she's great. She had a work function so she couldn't make it tonight, but it's good. Things are good."
She smiles sincerely. "I'm glad."
"I'm gonna take off, Catnip," he says, offering another smile. "But I'm glad I saw you. And I'm glad you're happy."
"Thank you. I'm glad you're happy, too."
He gives her a quick peck on the cheek. "Tell Peeta I liked his book, okay?"
"I will," she replies, grinning.
She loses sight of him in the crowd, and she heaves a sigh of relief that the moment she'd been dreading has passed. Cocktail hour is nearly over, and her stomach was in such knots before that she couldn't touch any of the food, so she heads over to some of the tables and stocks up her plate with a little of everything. Peeta wants her opinion on this caterer, and he's reminded her at least a million times that he won't be around to taste the appetizers.
She's worked through most of her plate, writing comments on the little notepad Peeta provided her with, when she hears an enthusiastic, "Hey!" She looks up, shocked to see a grinning Peeta, (looking very dapper in his tuxedo, she might add) coming toward her.
"What are you doing here?" she asks, beaming at him as he leans down to kiss her.
"That photographer is amazing!" he gushes. "It was fast and painless. We're so using him. The DJ though," he points over at the man frantically playing with wires at the station in the corner, and he shakes his head in disappointment. "Technical difficulties already," he tsks. "Everyone else is waiting out in the hall until he gets it together and can announce us."
"Well, I'm glad you're here," she says, and she just can't stop smiling. "I took notes!"
He laughs at her enthusiasm. She may have claimed to be all for a courthouse wedding, but she's slowly coming around to Peeta's dream day.
"And I saw Gale," she adds. "It wasn't bad."
He seems relieved for her. "Good." Across the room, the DJ seems to have gotten it together, so Peeta reluctantly pulls himself away from her. "You can tell me all about it later," he says regretfully. "And we can reconvene after the dinner, and exchange those notes, too."
She rolls her eyes. "At least we know who's doing the cake."
He grins, kissing her one more time. "I'll make eyes at you later when I'm sitting at that fancy, elevated table for us special ones."
"I only hope you can find my face amongst all the other peasants," she says, cupping his cheeks in her hands.
"I promise you, I'll try."
She lets him go, but he's only a foot away when she calls his name and pulls him back to her.
"I love you," she says, kissing him firmly on the lips. "And I'm so glad things turned out the way they did, and I can't wait to marry you.
"And," she adds, stretching up to whisper in his ear. "I'm really glad we got a room.