I'm a ball of nervous energy the next day at school, excited for the evening's plans with Peeta, yet dreading them at the same time.
I don't know why, exactly. I've never been nervous about sex before. Not even my first time, when I'd basically bossed Gale around – touch me here, put your lips there, don't be gentle – until he grew fed up with my commands and took control, pinning me to the bed and doing things that left me speechless and satisfied. I wasn't nervous during my first time with another girl, either, or the first time I had two guys at once.
But the thought of having Peeta in my bed fills my stomach with butterflies.
At noon, I see him standing by a bank of lockers with his friends. I cast him a secretive look as I pass and he returns it with a grin. I have to give him credit – if he's anywhere near as nervous as I am about tonight, he's not letting it show.
I've barely passed him when he suddenly calls out, "Katniss! Wait!"
Before I can respond, Peeta is at my side. He grabs my hand and laces his fingers with mine. "I thought about you all night," he whispers in my ear, pulling me close. "C'mon. Let's go out for lunch today."
He tells his friends he'll see them later and starts to walk, but I remain rooted to the spot. My feet have stopped working.
"Katniss? Is something wrong?"
Yes, something's wrong! He's holding my hand. In the middle of the hallway, in front of his friends and everyone else. What is he thinking?
Even after last night's kisses I hadn't expected more than a sly, knowing smile or two to pass between us, at least in public. But here he is, practically announcing to everyone that we're more than friends. That his attraction to me is isn't a secret. That I'm not just some one-night stand, and he's not embarrassed to be seen with me.
All of a sudden, I want to cry.
"No." I swallow hard. "No, nothing's wrong. Lunch sounds great."
"Good," Peeta smiles, tugging me forward playfully. "Let's go."
His hand is warm and solid and reassuring. People turn and look at us as we walk through the hallway, but Peeta acts as though he doesn't notice, and their stares wouldn't matter to him even if he did. As for me, I feel like a balloon about to burst. I have to bite my lips just to keep myself from breaking into giddy laughter.
Peeta is holding my hand in front of everyone. And I like it.
I've been fucked six ways from Sunday, but no boy has ever held my hand. I've never felt this way before. I never knew it was even possible to feel this way. All those stupid lovey-dovey clichés I've heard suddenly start to make sense. Head over heels. Walking on air. On cloud nine. I'm all of those things at once, and more.
It's only when I catch Madge Undersee glaring icily at our clasped hands that I'm plunged back into reality.
This isn't real. Peeta believes we have a real relationship, but we don't. It's just a game. And after tonight, that game will be over.
"I said I'll sneak out after my parents are asleep so I can stay the whole night," he grins mischievously. "Okay?"
In my head, I know I should put a stop to this now, before it progresses any further. But my heart isn't willing to let go that easily.
"Okay," is all that comes out of my mouth.
"Peeta, I have something I need to tell you."
I exhale heavily, pace around the living room, and try again.
"Peeta, look. There's something you should know. About us."
No, no. None of these words sound right – too forced, too scripted.
It's past eleven o'clock. Prim is in bed, Gale is working the late shift and will be home at midnight, and Peeta's due to show up at the door any second. What on earth am I going to tell him?
I throw my hands in the air. "Hey Peeta, guess what? This has all been a big joke! By the way, Gale is going to walk in and join us, if you don't mind. Still like me?"
Ugh. It sounds even uglier aloud.
My self-loathing is interrupted by a knock at the door. Shit.
I reach for the doorknob and steel myself to just tell him before anything else can happen. Before we can kiss, before he even sets foot inside. Peeta, I need to talk to you about something.
I open the door.
"Peeta…" I start. But my courage is instantly sapped away.
He's standing on my doorstep, holding a bouquet of purple and white wildflowers. "For you," he says, stepping towards me rather shyly, slipping his arm around my waist and planting a tender kiss on my cheek.
I melt against his chest.
"You didn't have to do this," I choke out after a silence that seems to last forever.
"I wanted tonight to be special," he explains. Then he tilts my chin upwards and his soft lips find mine.
Don't kiss him! part of my mind screams. Don't do it. You're in over your head! But try as I might to make my lips stiff and unyielding, Peeta is just too damn good for me to resist.
I set the beautiful flowers on the coffee table, grab him by the collar of his jacket, and - fusing myself to his incredible lips once more - pull him towards my bedroom.
"P-Peeta," I gasp as we stumble into the door, making one last-ditch effort to put a stop to things. "There's something… I have to tell you something. You might not like it."
"What is it?" he breathes into my ear, slipping his hands down the back of my pants and squeezing my ass. He starts to kiss my neck and my eyelids flutter closed.
"Um… it's that… I have to tell you," I fumble. What did I have to tell him, again?
"Mmm?" Peeta hums against my skin.
"Uh, I have to tell you that… that Prim is asleep just down the hall," I finally blurt out, pulling his head away from my neck.
Instead of being deterred, Peeta just looks into my eyes with amusement, like a kid on Christmas morning. "Then we'll have to be quiet," he whispers, kissing me again.
He backs me into the room and we collapse onto the bed together. His hands seem to be everywhere, and his touch is perfect - just the right balance of firmness, roughness and feather-light teasing. When he peels my shirt away and palms my breasts, rolling each nipple between thumb and forefinger, I can't help but throw my head back and moan loudly.
"Shhh," he laughs, leaving a trail of wet kisses between my breasts. "We have to be quiet, remember?"
"I don't care," I gasp, too far gone to be concerned about our volume or anything else for that matter. I wrap my legs around Peeta's waist and grind my hips into his. "I want you."
"Katinss," he breathes. "I want you, too." And then he's kissing me again.
These kisses are different from the ones I've experienced before – passionate and addictive, yes, but Peeta's also strangely patient, as if he's savoring the way I taste and smell and feel. I can feel his hard cock straining against the front of his pants, and I'm soaked right through my underwear, but even though our bodies are ready, he seems to be in no rush to skip ahead to the sex part.
That's when it starts to dawn on me that maybe this is what making love is. I always thought that phrase was just a polite way of describing boring, monotonous sex, but this is anything but. This is wild and electric and playful and messy. But there's something else, too; something underneath the action that makes even the gentle stroke of Peeta's knuckles down the side of my ribcage utterly arousing.
It's the trust, I realize. The friendship, the jokes, the comfort, the shared meals, the wildflowers, the attraction building up over weeks and weeks – that's what's making this so good.
"You're so soft. You're lovely. You're perfect," Peeta mumbles against my skin. His hot breath makes me shiver. His fingers trail down to the waistband of my jeans, slipping underneath, into the damp heat between my thighs, and I whimper in pleasure. He kisses me again, so long and so deep that my head swims. I might be suffocating, but if I am, this is the best way to die.
Some part of my brain registers the faint sound of the front door opening and closing. Footsteps in the hallway. Water running in the bathroom. Gale is home, and any second, he will walk in and climb into bed with us.
Usually that would turn me on, but this time it doesn't.
All at once, I realize I don't want to share this moment with anyone but Peeta.
As if reading my mind, Peeta rolls to the side and pulls me up against him so we're nose-to-nose. He starts stroking my hair. "I don't do this with just anyone," he whispers. "Only someone I really care about. And maybe it's too soon, but…"
My chest tightens. I know what he's going to say. He's going to say he's falling in love with me.
At the same moment, the water in the bathroom stops running.
I can't do this. I can't.
I shove Peeta away from me with both hands and stand up. "You have to go home. You have to go home right now," I tell him shakily.
"What?" Peeta sits up.
"Go! Go now!"
"Get out!" I shout.
"Hey," Peeta says gently, standing up and trying to hold me, but I shrug him away and start to cry. "Katniss, what's the matter?"
"Get out of my room, get out of my house," I whimper. "I need you to leave, right now."
Peeta shakes his head. "No. I'm not going to leave you like this. Whatever is upsetting you, we can fix it. Let me help you fix it."
"No! This can't be fixed!" I wail. How can Peeta fix things when he didn't do anything wrong? He's not the problem – I am. He deserves so much better than what I can give him. "Just get out!" I cry. "Just leave me alone!"
Before Peeta can say another word, the bedroom door flies open with such force that the doorknob slams into the drywall, leaving a hole. We both startle and take a step back.
Gale stands there wearing nothing but a towel and a look of rage on his face.
"What did you do?" he barks at Peeta. "What did you do to her?"
At first, Peeta looks shocked by Gale's protective outburst. Then, slowly, he starts to put the pieces together. I can see it on his face. It's as if the three of us just being in the same room has revealed everything I've been trying to tell him all evening.
"Katniss?" Peeta asks, his voice wavering. He turns to me with such a pained, heartbroken expression that I can't bear it.
I bolt from the bedroom and fly down the hall, locking myself in the bathroom. There I turn on the shower to drown out my sobs and huddle under the spray until my tears run out and the hot water runs out, too.
When I eventually emerge, pale and puffy-eyed, Peeta has left. Gale is sitting on the couch, staring off into space. He's holding one of the purple wildflowers from my bouquet, spinning it slowly between his fingers.
"You win," I say hoarsely.
He looks up.
"You were right. I can't do it."
Then I retreat to my room and close the door quietly behind me.