"Well, uh, thanks for going to the park with me," Katniss said as Gale pulled up to her house, nervously twisting her braid around her fingers. He put his car in park, letting it idle, and she sighed inwardly in relief, glad he didn't seem to expect to be invited inside.
"Yeah, I had fun," he told her, smiling. He ran a hand through his hair. "I haven't been to a park in ages."
She nodded not because she agreed but for lack of a better response; she didn't want to tell him going to the park with Peeta when they were younger used to be one of her favorite things to do. She felt kind of bad taking Gale to their park, but she didn't know where else to hang out with him. Certainly not at her house or his apartment, lest he think she anticipated sex, and going to a restaurant or to see a movie seemed too date-y still. Right now, they were just hanging out. She was still trying to get a feel for him.
"I'm gonna go then," she blurted, and he nodded. He looked at her expectantly, and she couldn't tell if he was waiting for a kiss or what, so she hurriedly leaned over to hug him before he could make a move. Then she quickly let go, turning to get out of the car.
"Talk to you later?" he called after her, and she could hear the amusement in his voice.
"Yeah. Bye," she said as she slipped out the door, closing it behind her and heaving a sigh of relief. He waved at her through the window, and then he drove off. Katniss strode up the driveway to her house; her mother was at work, and her sister was at a dance rehearsal, so she knew she was on her own for the night. Once inside, she made herself a bowl of cereal and headed upstairs to her room. These days she half-expected Peeta to appear and scare the shit out of her, but he was keeping a low-profile lately. Probably because he was kind of miffed at her for hanging out with Gale.
She didn't really understand why, as she'd tried to reassure him it didn't mean she was going to hang out with him any less, but Peeta didn't seem to believe her. He never voiced any of this, but after a 10-year friendship, she could read him well enough to know when he was being kind of cold toward her, even when it wasn't overt. She could just tell; their interactions weren't as easy-going now, more tense. Something had shifted, and she could only assume it had to deal with Gale.
Which was completely frustrating to her. Peeta got to date girls all the time, and while she might not have liked any of them, she hadn't let it affect their friendship the way he did. He was being entirely unfair. And she wanted to tell him this, but she worried she would just drive him further away. She couldn't do that, not now when their parents were finally, actually dating.
It was almost Thanksgiving, and Mr. Mellark and Ms. Everdeen had started seeing a lot of each other in the last couple of weeks, when their hectic schedules allowed. It was good. It was a good thing, Katniss repeatedly reminded herself. She and Peeta would get over this bump in their friendship, as they had in the past, and things would be smooth-sailing again.
Sitting down at her desk, she dug into her bowl of Raisin Bran while she waited for her laptop to boot up. Then she opened up a browser and logged into her Gmail to check her emails. When she saw that Peeta was on Gchat, she messaged him immediately—whether things were weird or not, she couldn't not talk to him.
Sent at 8:34 PM on Thursday
Back from your date
Except the problem with talking online was that she couldn't read his tone. She ate a spoonful of cereal before she replied, deliberating as she stared at his words.
Katniss: it wasn't a date
Katniss: we're just hanging out
Sent at 8:38 PM on Thursday
Ugh. The dreaded "Ok." She wanted to reach through the screen and shake him. She momentarily debated just driving over to his place to talk to him instead of this online messaging nonsense, but it was late. And she hadn't done anything wrong, so she wasn't about to show up at his house and act like she had.
Katniss: what are you up to?
Sent at 8:41 PM on Thursday
Peeta: Just doing homework
Katniss: of course :)
you're so predictable
She finished eating the rest of her cereal while she waited for him to respond; it was taking an unusual amount of time. She expected him to volley back with his own humorous retort, like he always did, but now she was wondering if she had unintentionally offended him.
Peeta: Well I had an essay to finish up
and I have a huge test tomorrow, so
actually, I'm about to head over to Finnick's
He wants to study together for it
I'll talk to you later
Peeta is offline
She stared at her screen in disbelief after he signed off, not even giving her a chance to respond. What the fuck was his deal? Fuming silently, she signed off as well and went back downstairs to deposit her dirty dishes and watch TV to try to distract herself from Peeta's odd behavior. It didn't really help.
When she was getting ready for bed, she finally received a text from him. Slipping under the covers, she pulled her phone off the nightstand to read it. Hey sorry for signing off so abruptly earlier. I was just in a hurry.
She chewed her lip, then responded. Yeah rude much?
I know. I'm sorry.
Well, at least he felt contrite. She sighed softly; she couldn't really stay mad at him for long. It's okay. I'm about to go to bed though.
Ok see you tomorrow. Good night :)
She couldn't fight the smile. Night punk :) Setting her phone aside, she settled down into her pillows and closed her eyes. At least, now she could rest easier.
It was the day before Thanksgiving break, and Peeta was nowhere to be found. It wasn't unusual for him to turn up late for lunch as he often met with teachers before heading to the cafeteria. But 10 minutes had already passed, and Katniss was getting annoyed.
"Where the hell is Peeta?" she wondered out loud as she pulled out her phone to text him; the girls shrugged, but Finnick glanced at her in surprise.
"He didn't tell you?"
She stared at him, perplexed. "Tell me what?"
Finnick's face fell. "Oh, uh. He wasn't in class this morning, so I texted him. Apparently, his mom showed up last night."
Her eyes nearly popped out of her head, and she slammed her phone down loudly. "What?" she gasped. "What is she doing here?!"
He shrugged, his face twisted in concern. "I don't know. He didn't really want to talk about what happened, so I left him alone."
Katniss stood up to leave, balling up her unfinished food and grabbing her phone and backpack. "Why didn't you say something sooner, Finn?!" she nearly screeched. His eyes widened.
"Whoa, I figured you knew!" he answered, but she was already turning away. Johanna called after her.
"Yo, Everdeen, what about English?"
"I don't care, tell 'em I'm on my period or something," she yelled back, not caring how much her voice carried through the cafeteria or the number of eyes that followed her. She tossed her lunch in a trashcan on her way out, and when she reached the hallway, she started running. She didn't stop until she reached her car in the parking lot, and she threw her door open, stashing her bag in the passenger seat as she slid into the driver's side. As she started her car, she tried calling Peeta, but he didn't pick up. Frustrated, she dropped her phone by her backpack and sped out of the parking lot. She wasn't even worried about being pulled, so wrapped up in her worries for her friend.
When she pulled up to his house 15 minutes later, she almost expected to see his mother's car in the driveway, but all she saw was Peeta's. Considering the time of day, his dad had to be at the bakery. Throwing her car into park, she jumped out and rushed up to the front door; she unlocked it with her spare key and slipped inside, slamming the door shut behind her.
"Peeta?" she called. No answer. She didn't waste any time and headed upstairs, taking them two at a time. His bedroom door was shut, and she knocked only briefly before she opened it, peeking her head inside. "Peeta?"
He was lying on his stomach on top of his bed, his head and arms shoved under his pillow. He was dressed as if he'd made an attempt to get ready for school but hadn't quite made it out the door. He didn't respond, but she knew he was awake.
Shutting the door softly, she crossed to his bed. "Peeta," she tried again, gentler this time. She thought she heard a noise of response, so she knelt down on his bed and crawled over him, flattening herself along his back. She pressed her cheek between his shoulder blades and hooked her arms under his to hug him. She slipped one leg between his; the other rested against the outside of his thigh. "Finnick told me about your mom. What happened?" she whispered, her voice soft.
It took him a minute, but he finally shifted, moving the pillow some so he could talk. "My mom showed up last night. Guess she found out about my dad and your mom somehow," he said quietly, and Katniss winced. Great. "I don't know. I guess my dad talked to her recently. Apparently, she wanted to see me for Thanksgiving. Why now, I have no fucking idea. But when she found out about your mom, she flipped her shit. Drove all the way here last night. I didn't even know she was planning to show up. I was shocked. I haven't even seen her since..." He stopped himself and sighed. "They got into a huge fight, and she was screaming at us until he finally threatened to call the cops. I don't know. It was a mess. I got upset. I didn't know how to deal with it."
Katniss squeezed him tighter, closing her eyes. Her hatred for this woman burned hot, but she stuffed it down for his sake. He needed comfort, not her rage. "I'm sorry," she breathed out, freeing one hand to rub his arm soothingly. He just shrugged. "Did she leave town completely?"
"As far as I know." He fell silent for a moment, and she just listened to him breathe. His back rose and fell with his breaths, expanding against her chest. He spoke again a moment later, his voice bitter, "She had to pull this shit right before Thanksgiving, too. I think Dad might have canceled tomorrow."
Her eyes snapped open. "Shit," she murmured. Their families were supposed to have a Thanksgiving feast together at the Mellarks. "Did he talk to my mom?" Peeta nodded.
"Yeah, I think so. I think he told her about my mom, too. I overheard him on the phone. I don't know, I think he might have broken it off with her," he said quietly. Katniss inhaled sharply.
Worrying her bottom lip between her teeth, she decided to focus on the problem at hand. She could worry about their parents later. "I'm sorry, Peeta," she murmured, squeezing his shoulder. "I know it doesn't help, but your mother's a bitch, and none of this is your fault. I hope you know that."
Something like a snort stuck in his throat, but he just shrugged. She lifted her head, resting her chin on his back. "I'm serious," she continued, her tone more authoritative. "You're perfect. You know that, right?" He started to shake his head, but she cut him off sternly, "Shut up. We agreed that I'm always right, and you should always listen to me. Remember?"
That time, he laughed weakly. "I remember."
She smiled slightly. "Your mom is the one with issues. You couldn't be a better person if you tried; she's the one missing out on knowing you and spending time with you. I know it's hard to see now, but you're better off without her."
He sighed heavily. "I guess," he relented unconvincingly. She pressed her mouth between his shoulder blades, the cotton material of his shirt soft against her lips. She knew it was virtually impossible to convince him of his own self-worth. All she could offer him was physical affection; sometimes, that was what he needed most. So she just held him, waiting for him to speak next.
After a few minutes, he stirred. "Sorry I didn't tell you. But I knew you'd come over like this, and I didn't want you to worry unnecessarily and miss class."
She frowned. "It's not unnecessary. I'm always going to worry about you, Peeta. I want you to be happy."
He sighed. "I know. I'll be fine. I promise."
"What can I do to help?"
He shook his head. "You don't have to do anything. This is fine." He made to roll over, and she lifted herself up so he could shift onto his back, pulling his head out from underneath his pillow to rest on top of it. When she got a look at his face, her heart broke. His eyes were red-rimmed and puffy, like he'd been crying earlier.
She jutted her bottom lip out pathetically and lay back down on top of him, tucking her head under his chin. She hugged him tightly, as if she could somehow absorb some of his pain, and he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close. He took another deep, steadying breath, and they just lay there in that embrace for a while.
"You should probably get back to school," he murmured, though he didn't remove his arms. She shook her head defiantly.
"Nope, staying right here with you."
He sighed. "Katniss."
"Peeta," she returned mockingly, before adding, "It's just English and Biology. You know we're probably just watching another movie in that class. It's the day before break."
He chuckled lowly. "Probably."
"That class is so damn boring without you, anyway," she said, and he made a sound of agreement. They fell quiet again, lulled into a peaceful silence by the sound of their own breathing. She became aware of Peeta stroking her back, his hand palming the back of her head before absently trailing down the length of her braid repeatedly. She shuddered involuntarily and pressed her face to his chest tighter, hoping he didn't notice.
"You know this is why the girls I date are so damn threatened by you, right?" he said, a wry note in his tone. She furrowed her brow at his words.
"What do you mean?" she asked, and he laughed again, squeezing her waist.
"This, Katniss. If I had a girlfriend right now, I don't think she'd be too happy with this arrangement. You drop everything and come running to check on me. You're better to me than any girl I've ever dated."
Frowning, she lifted her head. He was staring up at the ceiling, but when he sensed her stare, he peered down at her. What was he getting at? "You do the same," she said almost accusingly. His face turned serious, and he directed his gaze back to the ceiling, his mouth pursed slightly.
"Yeah," was all he said. She continued to stare at him, trying to read him.
"Do you want me to stop?" she asked, and his eyes widened, flicking back to her. Then he smiled.
"No, of course not. I like us," he answered honestly, his hand rubbing small circles on the small of her back. Satisfied, Katniss laid her head back down. His gentle ministrations on her back forced her eyes closed again. "Sorry I've been such a dick lately."
Her eyes snapped open at that. She hadn't been expecting that. "Well, I wasn't going to say anything..." she tried to joke, and he chuckled.
"Yeah, right. You would have eventually. I know you."
She moved one of her arms so she could curl her hand under her chin, flexing her fingers around the collar of his shirt. "Any reason why you've been acting like such a dick?" she pressed lightly.
He sighed, but it took a moment for him to respond. "I don't know. Stressed out, I guess. And there's just been so much change lately...guess I never really dealt too well with that." She nodded thoughtfully and left it at that. After another moment, he slid his hands down her waist. "On a lighter note," he started, squeezing her hips lightly. "You're it."
She blinked, her lips parting in astonishment, and her head shot up. "Are you kidding me?" He just laughed, and she huffed, sitting up to glare down at him playfully. "That was fucking dirty, Mellark," she accused, folding her arms over her chest. "Here I am, comforting you like the good friend that I am, and you use the opportunity to tag me!"
He shrugged, his hands slipping down to rest on her thighs. "Constant vigilance, right?" he teased. She tried not to grin, but it was difficult; it was good to see him smiling and looking happy again. Uncrossing her arms, she dropped her hands to rest on his stomach; they ventured to his sides, and he raised his eyebrows. "You know I'm not ticklish, so I don't know why you're bothering."
She knew that. It was highly frustrating. She didn't have many weapons in her arsenal to use against him, unfortunately. Scowling, she leaned forward some and moved her hands toward his neck, sliding them up his chest. "Well, you might not be ticklish everywhere, but I know at least one spot—"
His hands wrapped around her wrists with lightning-fast reflexes, stilling their path, and he pulled her arms out to the sides some, balancing her weight on his hands. He grinned at her. "Don't even try it. I'm a wrestler. I can anticipate every move before you make it."
Katniss pouted, and they just stared each other down while she tried to formulate a plan of attack. Suddenly, he exhaled harshly and released her hands, sitting up abruptly; she lost her balance and had to brace herself against his shoulders. "Ahhh, shit, you shouldn't sit on me like this."
"Huh—" she started to ask as she sat back, but then she felt it: his erection pressing between her thighs. With a soft gasp, she bucked against him involuntarily, a pulse of pleasure reverberating through her core before she pushed off him abruptly, praying he hadn't noticed the movement of her hips. She collapsed on her ass beside him, wide-eyed, and he twisted away from her, swinging his legs off the side of the bed.
"Sorry, you just—sorry," he apologized emphatically, his hands gripping the edge of the bed firmly, but he didn't look back at her.
She was stunned silent, and it took her a moment to process everything. Finally, she opened her mouth, struggling with a response, "I—it's fine. It happens," she breathed, hoping she sounded more unaffected than she felt. And it had happened before. He was a guy; she'd dealt with his inappropriate boners growing up. She understood that he couldn't really help it. When they were younger, sometimes he'd get hard when they hugged or when he saw her in a bathing suit, no big deal. It was always a little uncomfortable, but she would just crack a joke about it, and they would move on. He got a boner with just the slightest provocation, anyway; seeing Madge or Johanna half-naked did it, too.
But it felt different this time. She hadn't realized she'd been straddling his waist, their groins pressed together. She hadn't felt him between her own legs before; she hadn't enjoyed it so immensely herself. Before, she hadn't been on the verge of practically dry-humping him.
Her face was hot with embarrassment and arousal, and she was too flustered to say anything else. Peeta eventually cleared his throat and slapped his thighs, rubbing his palms against his jeans. "Well, I guess that means I'm feeling better," he joked nervously, and she laughed weakly, glad he was trying to diffuse the situation. Humor, she knew how to deal with.
"I do what I can," she offered. He rubbed his face and chuckled. She scooted across the mattress until she was sitting on the edge next to him. They avoided looking at each other, and she fidgeted with her braid. Time to change the topic. "Well...I guess we should talk to our parents and try to fix things."
With a deep breath, he nodded, bracing his elbows on his knees. "Yeah, I can talk to my dad."
"I think my mom's home right now, actually," she said, but she hesitated. "Except...she'd be pretty pissed with me if she knew I skipped class, so...I guess I'm stuck here until school ends."
He finally glanced at her, smiling slightly. His face was still red, though. "Guess so. What do you want to do?" he asked.
She knew he meant it innocently, but her face flushed with warmth; she quickly looked away and licked her lips, forcing the titillating thoughts from her mind. "Umm, we could just, I mean, do you want to watch a movie or play a video game? I'm fine with whatever," she rushed out, tugging idly on her braid. He nodded and stood up, offering his hand to help her to her feet, too. His hand was warm, soft yet callused, and she was disheartened when he released her hand almost immediately.
"We can play Smash or Mortal Kombat or something, come on," he suggested, gesturing for her to follow him downstairs. With his back to her, she took the opportunity to compose herself, unnecessarily smoothing her hair and clothes down, then she exited his room right behind him.
Katniss entered her house quietly, unsure what state she would find her mother, but Ms. Everdeen was in the kitchen, reading a magazine. She looked up when her daughter entered the kitchen and smiled wanly. She looked tired, and the smile didn't quite meet her eyes. "Hi, honey. How was school?" she asked. Katniss shrugged, sliding onto a bar stool opposite her.
"Fine," she replied vaguely, removing her backpack. "I hung out with Peeta a little after school."
Her mother turned her gaze back to her magazine, humming in acknowledgement. Katniss waited a moment before she went for the kill. "He told me about his mother. And his dad."
Ms. Everdeen looked back up, her eyebrows raised. There was guilt in her eyes. "Oh. Well, how is Peeta doing? I'm sure he must be upset."
Katniss nodded. "Yeah, he was. His mother's a bitch," she added, her voice taking on a nasty note. Normally, her mother would reprimand her for her language, even though she disliked Peeta's mom, too. This time, her mouth just twitched, as if she were fighting a smile. Katniss went on, "He seemed in better spirits when I left though. Actually...we're more worried about you and his dad..."
She trailed off, and her mother sighed, closing her magazine. "It's a complicated situation, Katniss—"
"It's not really, though," she interrupted. "His mother doesn't want anything to do with them until it's convenient for her. And she's never liked you—I mean, now I know why, at least—and she just wanted to stir up shit when she found out about you two."
Ms. Everdeen pinched the bridge of her nose, rubbing it firmly. "I'm aware of how she operates. But I have to respect what Faren wants. It's his family—"
"He just got spooked!" Katniss said fiercely, silencing her mother. She took a deep breath. "Look, it's obvious you two like each other. Things were going well, weren't they? He probably just thinks he's doing you a favor by not getting you mixed up with this mess. But, I mean, you like him, right? And if you want to be with him, then you should. Peeta will make him see reason, I'm sure, and then everything will be fine tomorrow, and we can have Thanksgiving together as planned."
Her mother just looked wary, though. She folded her arms on the kitchen island. "Honey...this is about more than just me and Faren. It's also about you kids. We don't want to do anything that could negatively affect any of you..."
Katniss' brow creased with confusion. "But how could this negatively affect us? I mean, I like Mr. M.; Prim likes him. She's seemed fine with you two dating. I think we've had enough time to deal with dad's death. I don't see what the issue could be."
But her mother wasn't convinced. She stared at her daughter intently, and then she reached a hand toward her, flattening her palm on the counter. "Katniss...are you absolutely sure you're okay with this?" she asked, and Katniss almost started to laugh because, of course, she was, this was the plan all along, but her mother's next words made her blood run cold. "Because you and Peeta..." She left the sentence hanging, and Katniss felt her stomach bottom out.
Her skin felt clammy all of a sudden, flushed and sweaty and cold all at once. "No," she croaked uneasily and hurried to correct herself, "I mean, yes, I'm okay with this. We're both okay with this. I don't know what you're getting at," she said stubbornly, a note of hysteria pulsing under the dismissiveness she tried to inject into her statement. She didn't give her mother time to elaborate. "Just...I want you to be happy. This is what's best for everybody. So...work it out with him. Call him so we can do our family dinner tomorrow as planned, okay?"
She hopped off her stool and grabbed her bag to head upstairs, not wanting to hear whatever else her mother had to say.
Things were back on track; her mother and Peeta's father had worked things out, and the Thanksgiving dinner at the Mellarks' was back on.
Except Katniss was decidedly less enthusiastic about it now. In fact, she debated feigning an illness so she could get out of it, but she knew that was ludicrous. They would have been suspicious, and she couldn't deal anymore with people questioning her friendship with Peeta. Because now she was questioning it, and it freaked her out—terrified her even. To make her question something she'd been so sure of for 10 years, something so intrinsic to who she was as a person—she didn't know how to deal with that. She wanted to hide and shut everyone out, but she couldn't.
So she went to the Mellarks' with her mother and sister and tried to act like everything was fine. Tried to act like watching their parents flirt and touch didn't confuse her, like seeing Peeta didn't make her stomach knot painfully with something she didn't know how to identify.
But she should have known Peeta would see right through her. He cornered her in the kitchen when she went to get a drink, away from their parents and Prim, who were having a grand time talking about her dance classes.
"Hey, what's going on?" he asked as he approached her near the fridge, keeping his voice low. Her eyes widened, but she tried to play dumb.
"What do you mean? I'm just thirsty." Please, god, just drop it, she begged silently.
He scowled slightly. "You know what I mean. You've been acting weird and jumpy all night, and you've been oddly reserved," he said. He looked over his shoulder and then moved closer. "Is this—is this about yesterday?" At her blank stare, he scrubbed a hand through his curls. His cheeks bloomed with color. "Because I'm sorry. It just—that happens sometimes, and I don't want to freak you out—"
She was sure her face purpled exponentially when she realized what he was referring to specifically. "No!" she nearly shouted, and he pulled back, surprised. "No, no, don't—I mean, it's fine!" She couldn't believe he was actually going to talk about it; that moment was the last thing she wanted to talk about.
But Peeta kept going, not quite able to meet her gaze—not that she could meet his, either. "You just—you're acting different, and I feel like it's my fault. I don't want you to think—um, it's not that I'm..." He stopped and took a deep breath, rubbing the back of his neck. "Fuck, I don't know—I don't know what I'm trying to say here."
He was flustered. He was never flustered. She'd never seen him not know the right words to say; it unnerved her. So she deflected, completely. "Peeta, it's nothing—I mean, it's not about you, I swear. It's just—Gale."
He blinked, an indescribable emotion flittering across his face, and then his expression hardened. The change in his face was like a punch to her gut. "Gale," he repeated, and she nodded hesitantly, even though her brain was screaming at her. What was she doing? He inhaled deeply and released it, then he licked his lips and looked around the kitchen. "Okay. What about Gale?"
Fuck, what could she say? Just take it back, tell him you're on your period and PMSing and being moody; guys never question that. That sounded perfect—except her mouth was still spewing stupid shit despite what her brain was trying to tell her. "He just...you know," she flailed miserably, but Peeta just stared at her, waiting. "He wants to date me." That wasn't even true—at least, Gale had never explicitly asked to date her. They hadn't even talked that much in recent days. But she was grasping at straws here.
His throat bobbed with his hard swallow, and he looked away after a moment, running his hand through his hair again, before looking back at her. "Okay. Well. That's...not surprising." Katniss wrapped her arms around her waist, hugging her stomach, as if she could calm the nerves roiling in the pit of her gut. Peeta continued, his voice quiet, "And what do you want?"
The problem was she had no idea.
Or maybe she did, but it wasn't something she was supposed to want.
Her mouth felt dry and her tongue thick, and she tried to swallow. "I don't know," she answered hoarsely, unable to hold his gaze.
He didn't speak for a moment; she could hear his ragged breaths, like he was trying to get them under control. When he finally responded, his voice was so raw, her heart splintered. "Well, you should figure out what is that you want, Katniss," he said lowly, and then he turned on his heel and stalked back into the dining room. She stared after him stupidly, her mouth hanging open.
What the hell did that mean?