"Buy me a drink?" she asks. Her dark hair is falling out of a braid, and her olive skin is gleaming with sweat, and she's in jeans when every other girl's wearing a dress, and Peeta has never seen anyone look so beautiful. Even in this dingy bar, she glows. His fingers itch for a paintbrush, and he knows he'll be trying to capture this scene for a long time.
He shakes his head, leaning closer to be heard over the crowd. "I'd rather buy you dinner," he says. Dinner, and maybe a picket fence.
She laughs, but he isn't joking. "I don't really do dinner." It's not the answer he's hoping for, but Peeta's always been able to play by a woman's terms.
"Drinks it is, then," he says, and tries to wave over the bartender, who ignores him.
The girl makes a hand signal and a minute later Peeta's got a glass of something cold and brown. "Friend of yours?" he asks, nodding to the bartender, who's tall and dark-haired and intimidatingly handsome.
"Best friend." She's got her chin up and her eyes are hard.
"Good friend to have," Peeta says, trying to look as far from jealous as he can. He's a pretty good actor.
She relaxes a little and leads him out into a courtyard, where the music and the voices are muffled. The little tables are all taken, so they sit on the edge of a low brick wall, backs to the thick hedge that borders the space.
Her name is Katniss, she says, and when he gives his name, she makes sure to pronounce it right. He can already tell that this girl won't want to talk about the weather. "What am I drinking?" he asks, taking a long sip. It's sweet, but it burns going down.
"Bourbon and ginger ale." She takes a sip of her own, and if it burns, she doesn't let it show. He can't tell if she's playing a game or not.
"Your favorite?" he asks, and she gives him a half smile. He wants to put her on a pedestal and worship at her feet, then take her home and kiss her entire body. "I would've guessed you for a beer drinker," he says. She raises an eyebrow. "It's straight-forward and refreshing, but with lots of variety," he explains.
Another smile, and he feels like he's won the lottery. "Okay, then what are you?" Katniss asks, obviously not really buying it but willing to play along anyway.
"Margarita," he says, grinning at the surprised look that crosses her face. She was probably expecting him to name a cliched "manly" drink, like whiskey or something.
She grins, too. "A little sweet and a little salty?"
"And then bam, tequila." Maybe it's conceited, but he likes to think he's got a few tricks up his sleeve.
She tilts her glass and clinks it against his. "Never underestimate tequila, I learned that the hard way."
"What about the couple over there?" he asks. "What are they drinking?"
They play an increasingly silly guessing game, predicting the other customers' drinks long after their own have run dry. It would be easy to go back inside for another round, but she doesn't get up, and he'd rather sit here with her than get drunk.
The night air is crisp and cool around them, and the hour must be getting late, because more people are leaving the bar than coming in.
"I live around the corner," she says, pointing over her shoulder.
"Good for you," he says, laughing.
"Do you want to come home with me?" Katniss asks, looking him right in the eye. "Or not?"
He wants to get down on one knee and propose, but it's probably too early for that. Besides, he's not made of stone.
"Yeah," he says, voice rough. "Yeah, that sounds good."
They leave the bar and walk along the sidewalk without speaking. Peeta's heart is beating fast, and he takes a few deep breaths to try to calm down. The sky is dark, but the street is bright, lit with porch lights and passing cars. Peeta watches Katniss's face as they walk. She seems so calm and confident, so self-contained. He wonders why she picked him when she probably could've had any guy in the place tonight.
He wants more than just one night with Katniss. To convince her, he'll have to make this good. Great. Spectacular. She'll have to throw her rules out the window and beg him for more.
So, no pressure.
When he opens his eyes, Katniss is looking over her shoulder at him, eyes amused. "Are you still here?" she asks. Her voice is teasing but the words are not really a joke. She expected him to be gone by now.
If Peeta has his way, he'll never leave this girl, ever. "Right here," he murmurs against her skin, pressing his cock against the curve of her thigh so she can feel how hard he is already.
Katniss laughs. "I have to go to work," she says.
"When?" He reaches up and cradles one small breast in his hand, rolling the nipple between his fingers.
She gasps, and he smiles.
"Have to leave in--" She struggles for breath between the words, and he knows he's winning her over. "--forty-five minutes."
He trails his hand down her stomach, telegraphing his intentions, but Katniss doesn't stop him. He slips his hand between her legs and finds her clit with one finger. "I can make you come three times before then," he promises.
She must remember the night before, too, because she doesn't try to argue, just arches her back and presses against him in silent assent.
It's a gratifyingly short time before Katniss is shaking apart under his fingers and moaning softly. He gives her about half a minute to recover, then rolls her onto her back and slides toward the foot of the bed to kneel between her outstretched legs.
She's got her head thrown back and one arm covering her eyes, stretched bare across the sheets, and she's gorgeous. But it's not enough.
"Watch," Peeta says. "Eyes on me." She needs to remember him, not just the sex.
He presses his tongue to her clit just as she looks down and meets his gaze, and it's electric.
Her eyes are inky black, blown wide with lust, and she watches him steadily as he brings her back to the brink.
When her thighs are quivering and her pulse is pounding against his tongue, he pulls away for a moment. She lets out an anguished cry, but he's on a mission.
"Say my name," he tells her. "When you come."
Then, without waiting for her to nod, he dips his head again and wraps his lips around her clit.
A minute later, her legs are shaking and her body is pulsing around his fingers. There's a rushing sound in his ears but he can hear her moaning, "Peeta."
He wipes his face on the sheets before stretching out beside her, taking a few deep breaths as she comes down.
"Peeta--" she says again, gasping for air. "That was amazing." Her dark hair is twisted and knotted on the pillow, and her cheeks are flushed red.
"I'm glad you think so," he says, as serious as he's ever been in his life. "But I promised you one more."
He can feel the words on the tip of his tongue, so he bites his lip to keep them back. It isn't until she straddles his hips and sinks down onto him that he lets himself speak again.
His hands are on her hips as she rocks against him, her breasts rising and falling with each movement. He pushes himself up to a seated position, so he can see her face.
"I want to take you to dinner."
"I told you I don't do dinner," she says softly, but not as firmly as she said it last night. He's winning her over.
He stills her hips with his hands, stopping her motion. "I want to take you to dinner," he says again.
His cock is buried inside her, and the room reeks of sex around them. The sheets are soaked with sweat and come. He's been hard for what feels like hours, and he knows this is his last chance with her.
"Tomorrow night," he says. "You eat, right? Why don't we do that together?"
"That's a--" she says, and she starts to move again, rocking back and forth. He doesn't stop her. "A pretty dirty trick. What am I going to do, say no in the middle of sex?"
"Is that a yes?" he asks, and then captures one nipple in his mouth.
"Yeah," she says, her hips snapping back and forth now as she rides his cock harder. "Yes-- fuck-- Peeta-- anything-- I'm-- oh, fuck."
Finally, he lets himself go and follows her over the edge, stars bursting behind his eyes as she spasms around him and cries out his name.
"Good night?" Gale asks mildly as he pours her a cup of coffee.
"Good morning," she says, grinning. She remembers Peeta's bright blue eyes locked on her, the way he'd said 'eyes on me.' Her body is still tingling from his touch.
"You are shameless, Catnip," Gale says, shaking his head in mock-disbelief. "Table three is ready to order."
And then the breakfast rush has started and she has no more time to think about Peeta, or his oral technique, or anything else.
When the rush is over, she's back at the bar. Her coffee has gone cold, of course, but Gale pours her another. "Was it that blond guy I saw you with last night?" he asks.
"Yeah," she says. "I-- um, I'm having dinner with him tomorrow night. Can you take my shift?"
"Dinner?" Gale's eyebrows go up so high, they practically lift off his face. "Katniss Everdeen having dinner with a guy? Like a date?"
"Something like that, yeah. So will you switch with me?"
"You'll take my breakfast shift?" She nods. "He must've been great in bed," Gale says, and Katniss winks at him.
It's not just that, though. Peeta was amazing, yes -- but it's more than that. He wanted her, not just her body. That seems like a small thing, but it made all the difference.
The taste of Katniss's body stays on his tongue as he walks home in last night's clothes. The sound of her voice crying out his name, the feel of her body tucked against his chest. His mind is spinning.
He doesn't take the long way home past the river, like he sometimes does. Doesn't stop for a cup of coffee or a breakfast sandwich. And when he gets home, he doesn't even take a shower, just drops his keys and jacket by the door and goes right to the easel.
There's an entire wall of windows in his apartment, in what should be the dining room, and the morning sun shines in and fills the entire main room with bright, natural light. It's the entire reason he got this place, the reason he didn't mind carrying his furniture up three flights of stairs. It's paid off, too, in stacks of finished paintings, in gallery sales and entries in shows.
There's a piece of charcoal and a sketchpad sitting on a table in the corner, and Peeta picks them up. He looks at them for a second, then puts the sketchpad down again. Usually, he plans every image before it goes on the canvas, careful not to waste expensive supplies.
Today, the inspiration is too strong.
He presses the charcoal to canvas and begins to draw.
"Hi," he says. "Is Katniss here?"
"That depends," the girl says. "Are you the date?"
He can only laugh. "You must be her sister," he says. "I'm Peeta."
"I'm Prim." She lets him in and closes the door behind him. "How'd you know?"
"I have two brothers of my own," he says. "Are you going to interrogate me, or make fun of Katniss?"
"Both," she says, apparently delighted to have a willing subject.
"Primrose Everdeen, I can hear you out there," calls Katniss from the other room, in a voice that sounds like it means business, but Prim just rolls her eyes and offers Peeta a seat and a glass of water.
While she's in the kitchen, he looks around at the apartment a little. The furniture is old and worn, but everything is clean and there's a fresh coat of forest green paint on the walls. A clunky computer sits in the corner, along with a stack of textbooks that don't quite look like college-level stuff. In the kitchen, the fridge is covered with snapshots. Peeta catches a glimpse of the dark-haired bartender from the other night and pushes away a stab of jealousy.
"You're roommates?" he asks Prim when she brings him a glass of water.
"Yes." Something in her eyes is a little sad. Peeta thinks about why a high schooler might be living with her older sister, and doesn't push.
"You just did," she says, smiling a little. It's not an outright 'no.'
"Why don't you do dinner, normally?" It's a pretty direct question. Maybe he should leave it alone, but he needs to know what he's up against.
Katniss looks down at her plate, quiet for a long moment. He takes another sip of wine, trying to hide how important the answer is to him.
"I don't really have time, or-- or space in my life for dating," she finally says. "I have work, and my sister, and just-- I don't want to start something I can't keep up." She toys with her wine glass, not meeting his eyes. It could just be an excuse, but it doesn't feel like one.
He thinks about how she was at the bar, asking him straightforwardly for a drink, to step outside, to go back to her place. "So picking me up was the more efficient method?" Method of getting off, he doesn't say.
"Basically," she agrees.
"Glad I could help," he says, toasting her with his wine glass.
She rolls her eyes at him and her cheeks flush a little. "Right. You're a real humanitarian."
She is so beautiful in this moment that he wishes he'd brought a sketchbook. On the date. He curses the restaurant's cloth napkins, wishes for even a paper napkin so he could capture a tiny bit of her spark. Whatever stupid joke he was about to make about his charitable impulses is gone.
Katniss looks at him for several seconds and then says, "Okay, my turn to ask you a question."
"Shoot," he says, trying not to get apprehensive.
"Why'd you care about dinner anyway? I mean, we were already--"
Peeta sits back and takes a sip of wine as he thinks about the question. Eventually, he decides to just answer the question in the most straightforward way he can. "I wanted to spend more time with you," he says. "I don't want this to just be one and done." She looks down at her glass, toying with the rim again. He leans forward and captures her hand with his, squeezing it lightly. "We could be good together, Katniss."
She huffs and pulls her hand away, frowning, and Peeta lets her go. "I told you I don't have time--"
"I got it," he says. "No pressure." If she was anyone else, he would probably just accept that the timing isn't right and walk away. But he's never been affected this way by a girl before, and he can't -- he won't -- let her shrug him off without a fight. All he needs is a chance.
He knows he's making a mistake, and he walks into it with his eyes wide open, because this is the best of several bad options. "Don't think of it as dating," he says. "Think of me as a friend, just one with a little more to offer."
She's the one who actually puts it into words. "Like friends with benefits?" she asks, biting her lip.
Such a bad idea, Mellark, you idiot. "Much more efficient, right?"
One day goes by, then two. He paints, to keep busy. Three days, and he starts to get nervous. She's busy, he reminds himself. Too busy for a boyfriend, which means that she doesn't have time to check in with someone every single day. Still, he's anxious. He takes his sketchbook out to the river and doesn't even look at the water, just draws her face.
On the fourth day, he's too nervous to paint, so he stretches canvas over his frames, stapling them in place and propping them against the wall. He lines up the tubes of paint by color, washes his brushes, flips through his sketchbook. Katniss's gray eyes watch his every move from a half-dozen paintings.
He stands in his studio and shakes his head. "Get a grip, Mellark," he mutters to himself. "You can't make the phone ring."
But maybe he can, because within minutes his phone buzzes with a text. All it says is You around? but Peeta smiles. She wants him.
He texts back, At home thinking about you. It's just suggestive enough, without veering into graphic. The last thing he wants to do is scare her off.
Can I come over? she asks.
Always. he types out, then erases. It's too serious, too over the top. Too revealing.
Of course. he writes instead.
A minute later, the phone buzzes again. Be there in 10.
Peeta feels a flutter of anticipation low in his stomach, and takes a deep breath to calm himself. Then he looks around the room.
He has painted more in the last few days than he can even remember. Katniss is everywhere. Sketches and drawings, finished and half-finished paintings are all over the space. Watchful gray eyes look out of one painting, the curve of her neck in a drawing, his fingers pulling out her braid. The room is like a shrine to her.
Shaking his head, he goes to straighten up, closing the sketchbooks and stacking the canvases away.
He doesn't want to scare her away, after all.
"Mind your own business, Little Duck," Katniss retorts automatically. Prim doesn't need to know that they'd fucked in his shower after her shift on Wednesday.
"I like this one," Prim says decisively. "He's a keeper."
Katniss blinks at her. "What?" She has never once heard Prim say anything like this about a guy, not even when she dated Gale.
"I said he's a good one," Prim says, and turns away from the television to look straight at Katniss. Her stern expression is at odds with her soft blonde hair and cupcake-patterned sleep shirt. "Don't just toss him aside like you always do."
"I'll keep that in mind, Doctor Phil," Katniss says.
But Prim won't be dissuaded. "Seriously, Katniss."
She sighs. "I'm not-- I don't have time for keeping anyone, Prim. I can't worry about a guy, along with every other thing."
"No." Prim's voice is stony and hard now, which is rare for her. "I didn't fill out all that paperwork and get all those scholarships so that you could work yourself into the ground for me. My tuition is covered, I'll have a work-study job, and you deserve something good in your life."
She doesn't answer Prim, just leans over and rests her head on her sister's shoulder.
Katniss knows her sister is right, knows that the patchwork of financial aid and scholarships they've cobbled together will be enough to pay for Prim once she goes away to college. Katniss has added it up so many times, and the numbers don't lie. Logically, she knows she's done enough.
There's a tension in the pit of her stomach that won't listen to reason, though. Something can always go wrong, and for Katniss, it usually does. She has to be prepared for any contingency, or Prim's education will suffer. It's that worry that keeps her pushing herself, working every extra shift she can pick up, scraping her tips together, saving every extra dollar. Her fear isn't logical. She can't relax, because she's all the safety net that Prim has.
Peeta smiles back. "Want to grab a drink or something?" he asks, as if he hasn't been thinking about the constellation of freckles on her lower back all day.
"I can't," she says, and she actually looks a little disappointed, which Peeta's going to count as a win. It's better than happily rejecting him. Baby steps.
"Want to go back to my place?" he asks, stepping closer and resting his fingertips on the skin just above her elbow.
"Yeah," she breathes out, looking up at him with a flush in her cheeks, and Peeta feels his heart skip a beat. "But--"
"All right, Everdeen, time to pay up," a brown-haired girl with a narrow face announces. She looks Peeta up and down, checking him out in such a comically exaggerated way that it's obviously for Katniss's benefit rather than her own. "Well, hello sailor," she drawls. "Who's this, then?"
"Peeta Mellark," he says, offering his hand to shake.
"I'm Johanna," she says, and takes his hand, holding on for way longer than appropriate, trailing her fingers over his wrist. "And where has Everdeen been hiding you away?" She's looking at him like he's a particularly delicious cupcake. Beside him, Katniss is glaring daggers at her, which makes the objectification completely worth it.
"Stop harassing the customers, Mason," calls Gale from the bar. The glower on his face matches Katniss's perfectly.
Johanna winks at Peeta before stalking off, and he doesn't even try to hide his smile.
When she's gone, he turns and raises an eyebrow at Katniss.
"Yeah, that's Johanna," she says, her frown fading to irritation. "I owe her a beer, and she wants to collect tonight." She looks up at him with bright eyes, biting her lip, and it's obvious to Peeta that she doesn't want to go.
He leans down, intending to apologize for intruding on her time with her friends, but she wraps her arm around his neck and whispers in his ear. "I wish I could go home with you instead," she says. "I want you in my mouth."
Peeta is half-hard in his jeans just from the suggestion, and he honestly does not care if Katniss owes her friend an entire case of beer.
"That can be arranged," he says. Then he looks over at Johanna, planning to bribe her out of the debt. But Johanna is talking with Gale, two dark heads bent together over the bar menu, standing too close, and he knows that she won't notice anything.
"Act natural," he murmurs to Katniss. "No sudden movements." He guides her slowly to the door of the restaurant and then out into the street, and then they're racing down the block, breathless and laughing.
Johanna has sent her seven text messages.
Where are you?
Bitch, you still owe me a beer, did you RUN AWAY?
You little skank, you'll live to regret this. muahaha.
Can't believe you ditched me to fuck that guy.
actually i can, he's pretty hot. way to go, KittyKat.
Bros before hos, bitch.
i want details.
Katniss just texts back: worth it.
And it was. Even if Johanna never stops teasing her, it felt great to take Peeta's hand and let him drag her away, to do something stupid and selfish and totally impulsive.
She sits on Peeta's bed in just her bra and underwear, her thumb hovering over the phone, and debates texting Jo some kind of comment about Peeta's abilities in bed. There's no doubt he's skilled, and usually she would go ahead and brag. But instead, she puts the phone away.
There's something about Peeta that she wants to keep for herself -- the slide of his hand on her knee, the look in his eye, the reflection of light off his yellow hair. She's not ready to share those things.
She can hear Peeta moving around in the kitchen, and so she slips on a t-shirt and pads out to join him. The kitchen is dark and empty, though. Instead, he's sitting in the alcove behind the kitchen, where normally there'd be a dining table, and she realizes that she's never seen this part of his apartment before. The place isn't that big; how did she miss it?
There's an easel in the corner, and a couple of metal barstools. A wooden table sits in the corner, covered with notebooks and tubes and brushes. Peeta sits in a wooden chair, a sketchbook propped on his knee.
Katniss leans against the fridge and stands in the darkened kitchen, watching him. His head is tipped down, but she can see a small wrinkle between his eyebrows. He's entirely still except for his hands and arms, which shift in tiny movements as he draws.
Along the edges of the room, finished paintings rest on the floor, leaning up against the walls. A few of them are blank but most are filled with color. She recognizes a cafe near the river, and Prim's favorite park. Behind where Peeta is sitting, the canvases are blank and empty.
She looks down at the stack by her feet, and realizes that these are different. No landscapes here, no buildings or trees. Instead, there is skin. For a moment, Katniss imagines Peeta drawing a model, some laughing girl who poses for him. She frowns, but then she looks more closely at the painting on top of the stack.
The face of the figure in the picture is hardly visible, but it's a familiar one. It's the face Katniss sees in the mirror every day, except--
In the painting, she is beautiful.
She stands poised on one foot, the other stepping into a pair of jeans. Her body is entirely bare except for a pair of black lace panties, and her skin almost glows. Her face is turned downward, obscured by her loose hair, but the expression on her face is thoughtful, even peaceful. In the background is a rumpled bed, and a sharp shaft of moonlight.
Katniss bites her lip. After a moment, she retreats back into the bedroom, as silently as she came.
The details don't really matter, though. There's a guy inside Katniss's apartment, kissing her. Katniss. And a guy. Kissing.
Someone walks past Peeta on the sidewalk and jostles his shoulder. "Sorry," he mutters automatically, and steps to the side.
So Katniss is seeing someone else. A knot forms in the pit of his stomach and sits there, getting heavier and heavier. Is this guy just a one-off, or is she actually dating him? Did she pick him up at the bar, like she picked up Peeta? Does it matter? She has no ties to Peeta, no obligation to be faithful. She has every right to sleep with whomever she chooses. They didn't make any rules. He's the one who suggested that they be friends. He feels sick. She's with someone else, and it's all his fault.
Something is cracking open inside Peeta's chest, watching her with another guy, but he can't look away. His eyes are locked on the window. It's too awful, too horrifying. He needs to go and leave Katniss alone. Maybe that's what he needed to do all along.
He can see it now, so clearly. He isn't built for this, for casual hookups and friends with benefits. Not ever, and definitely not with Katniss. He cares about her too much to just stand back and see her with someone else. It should've been obvious from the beginning.
He has to walk away, as far as he can go.
He tells himself that he'll do it. He can. Really. He'll just... turn around, put one foot in front of the other, and walk away from Katniss Everdeen.
In a minute.
He takes a deep breath, then another.
And just as he is about to turn around, a large truck pulls down the street. Its headlights are so bright that they're nearly blinding, and they illuminate the couple inside the apartment, reflecting off the girl's hair.
Her blonde hair.
It wasn't Katniss at all. He didn't see her kissing someone else.
Peeta's knees go weak and he has to sit down, right there on the curb. He feels his heart thudding in his chest, and wonders if it stopped for a second. It wasn't her.
Slowly, he gets up and walks the twelve blocks to his apartment, feeling dazed. It wasn't Katniss.
It wasn't her, but by the time he reaches home, he's realized that it doesn't really matter. He didn't see Katniss with another guy, but he could have. She has every right to be with someone else. And why wouldn't she? She doesn't owe Peeta any explanations.
Peeta owes himself more than that, though.
If he keeps up this friends-with-benefits arrangement, eventually a night will come when it will be more efficient for her to hook up with someone else. It's inevitable, and unbearable.
No, if Peeta wants to stay with Katniss, he needs to tell her what he wants. What he needs. And what he needs is all of her. Not just friendship and sex, but all the parts that make up Katniss Everdeen. And he needs to be able to give all of himself to her, too: not just the good parts, but everything, good, bad, and in between.
And if Katniss won't agree to that, then he actually will have to walk away. Because if he doesn't, the pain will be too much to bear.
Come over after your shift? he texts Katniss, and then checks his phone every minute for sixty-seven minutes in a row until she texts back sure.
If she's going to say no and leave, he wants to have one last time with her. And like the first time, he hopes he can get a little extra leverage by making her feel as good as he can. So he doesn't bring it up right away.
Katniss knocks on the door just after ten o'clock, and he lets her in. She's still wearing her work clothes, black skinny jeans and a white button-down, and her hair is falling out of its braid. He knows that it's not just about her -- he's selfish, and he can't deny himself this one last time.
He presses her up against the door and traces the line of her neck with his tongue. Her skin is salty and sweet at the same time, strong and smooth and fluttering beneath his mouth. She threads her fingers through his hair and grips it tightly as he kisses his way down her chest, undoing one button at a time.
"Peeta," she gasps as he draws his fingertips along the soft skin of her breast, and then down to the curve of her waist. "Peeta."
Dropping to his knees, he opens the button on her jeans and pulls the zipper down, pressing his lips to each new inch of skin as it's exposed. Slowly, as slowly as he can, he peels back the denim and slides it over her legs. She kicks off her shoes and watches with dark eyes as he pulls off her underwear.
He presses a kiss to the soft skin of her inner thigh, then pushes her legs open so he can flick his tongue against her clit. She gasps, and her knees quiver. Peeta smiles.
Leaning in farther, he strokes her folds gently with the flat of his tongue, tasting the rich, tangy flavor that is uniquely hers. When she's moaning softly and grabbing at the flat surface of the door behind her for support, he slips two fingers inside until his knuckles are slick and soaked, and crooks his fingers so they rub against the spongy tissue there. He wraps his lips around her swollen clit and sucks gently.
Katniss curses, and her hips buck into his face, and he has to hold on or be thrown to the floor. He feels her pulse pounding through him, hears her breathing hard. Her fingers grab onto his hair and pull just a little too hard, and then she's shaking and crying out his name over and over again.
A moment later, her knees buckle and she slides to the floor, resting back against the door. She's still wearing her white button-down shirt, hanging open over a lacy bra the same silver-gray as her eyes.
She laughs unsteadily. "Unbelievable," she murmurs, maybe more to herself than to him.
Peeta grins, and pushes himself up off the hardwood floor. "C'mon," he says. "Bedroom?"
"Yeah, okay," she agrees. "Just--" She reaches one hand up and he grasps her wrist, wrapping his fingers all the way around and pulling her up.
Together, they stumble into the bedroom, leaving half their clothes in a discarded heap by the front door. She drops her shirt in the hall, and his follows. When they reach the bedroom, she lays down on the bed and stretches languidly, her back arching off the sheets.
He stumbles a little at the sight of her, caught with his pants around his knees and one sock hanging off his foot.
Katniss looks amazing, her olive skin gleaming with sweat in the low light, dark hair spread across his pillow, eyes closed and face flushed. She looks like she belongs there, in his bed.
Peeta bites his lip to keep from blurting out something he'll regret. He felt fine about coercing her into a date by asking mid-fuck, but he wants their next talk to be free and clear. She has to want to be with him. No tricks, no coercion. Her choice.
He steps out of his jeans and takes a deep breath, pushing away all the things he wants to tell her. For now, there is only this bed, only her.
"C'mon," he says. "I want to show you something." He kisses her one more time, on the collarbone, and levers himself out of the bed. He finds a pair of old sleep pants and a plain white t-shirt in his dresser and pulls them on, enjoying the tingly feeling of her eyes on him.
She follows him out toward the kitchen, then shuffles around gathering up her clothes and pulling on a pair of panties and her white shirt. He leads her over to the studio area, where he's set out some of the paintings he's done of her.
There are dozens.
All around the room, Katniss lounges in bed and she sleeps peacefully; she orders a drink and runs laughing down a darkened street; she looks directly at the viewer and she walks away.
Peeta has thought of nothing but her since the night they met, and the only thing he has been able to do is paint her. She has overwhelmed his senses.
"Peeta," she says softly, looking from one to another. "I had no-- I don't know what to say." He can't read her expression.
"Do you like them?" he asks.
She makes a little sound, halfway between a laugh and a sigh. "Yeah, but--" One of the paintings shows her in the shower, her eyes closed and her head thrown back. He'd just finished going down on her, the water running across her body and over his face into his mouth. It was an intimate moment, to say the least, and he wonders if maybe it was too intimate to paint. "This isn't--" she says. "I don't actually -- I mean, do I really look like that?"
He steps up behind her and wraps his arms around her shoulders, holding her close to his chest. "You are so beautiful," he says. "I keep trying to paint you and I can never do you justice."
She's quiet then, and he presses a kiss to her hair.
Inside his ribcage, his heart pounds. It's not too late to back out. He doesn't have to take this risk, to chance losing her completely.
But no. If he's learned anything from his art, it's that you have to take chances when they come, no matter what. Even if it's scary, even if people say it's stupid, a dream opportunity doesn't come back. Once it passes you by, it's gone.
In a way, Peeta feels like he's already gotten a second chance with Katniss. The horrible clarity of seeing her with someone else -- it was like a gift. A reminder of something he should never have forgotten.
Don't fuck this up.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I'm pretty bad at this friends with benefits thing."
She laughs, and he can feel her body shaking against his. "Yeah, you are," she says. He loves her silences, her depths, her mystery -- but right now, he wishes he knew what she was thinking.
"I want to be your boyfriend, Katniss," he says.
She stiffens just slightly and pulls away, even though his words can't possibly be a surprise. When she turns around, her gray eyes are wide, and she's biting her lip.
In the perfect version of this conversation, she would say yes, I love you, and throw herself into his arms, but he wasn't really expecting that anyway. And she didn't say no, back off, which is good.
"No pressure," he tells her. "But think about it, okay?"
"Okay," she says, and nods. "I should--" she makes a motion toward the door, and he steps back.
He tries not to feel disappointed as she pulls on her jeans and finds her keys, steps into her shoes and turns toward the door.
The door is already open when she turns and walks back to him, standing on her tiptoes to kiss the corner of his mouth. "I'll think about it," she says, and then she's gone.
"Oooh, coffee," Prim says, then, "What's wrong?"
Me, Katniss thinks. I'm too stupid to say yes to something wonderful.
She doesn't say that to Prim. Instead, she asks, "The numbers add up, right? The scholarships?"
"Yes," Prim says instantly, nearly before Katniss is finished speaking. "Katniss, we've gone over them a hundred times, I talk to Gina in the Financial Aid office every week, what--" And then, because nobody knows her better than Prim, she stops for a minute, and when she speaks again, her words are slow and careful. "I'm all taken care of, Katniss," she says. "I'm going to college in the fall, and the money is there. The scholarships, the grants, the aid, the job... we even have an emergency fund, Katniss. It's happening."
"Are you sure?" Katniss asks. Her voice sounds tiny and scared in her own ears.
"I'm so sure." Prim sounds sure, too, the way that she has been more and more lately. Grown up.
"I just-- you know I worry."
"I know." Prim reaches out and takes her hand, and she doesn't say any of the things that other people say, about how this shouldn't be Katniss's job or how Prim is lucky to have her.
Katniss wraps her hand around her sister's and holds on tight for a long time.
Eventually, Prim speaks again. "Remember what I said. You deserve something good in your life, too." Katniss nods. "And if you have to cut back your shifts a little, you can do that. We'll be okay."
Katniss nods again, and wonders when her sister learned to read minds.
"I'm not," she says, sliding onto a stool at the bar. Gale hands her a bourbon and ginger ale and she sips it gratefully. "I'm meeting Peeta later." She looks down at her drink, running her finger over the rim of the glass.
Gale waits, and says nothing. He's getting too good at this bartender thing.
Katniss looks around the bar, hoping there might be another customer to distract him, but it's early and no one's around. Damn.
"Was I such a bad girlfriend?" she asks finally, and when she glances up, Gale's gray eyes look surprised.
"You want to get the band back together, is that what this is about?"
The corners of her mouth twist into a smile, despite her lousy mood.
"Cause I can take ten minutes in the break room right now to seal the deal, if you want," he says, reaching for his belt.
Katniss rolls her eyes. "I don't think so, Hawthorne." It's ridiculous, but he's made his point. He was never really her boyfriend, anyway. It's always been like this, but sometimes there was sex, too. And even the sex wasn't the greatest. They were two friends helping each other out.
For all that Peeta called them "friends with benefits," there was always something more between them.
She shakes her head. "I don't know what I'm doing."
"You like this guy," Gale says softly. When she looks up, he's leaning forward with his elbows on the bar, close enough that Katniss could reach out and touch him if she wanted to. She's not even tempted.
Katniss shrugs. This is getting uncomfortably close to forbidden territory. Peeta is... Peeta. He's a dinner date and a stack of paintings and a laughing run down the block. He's tumbling into bed and never even making it to bed and hunching over his sketchpad in the middle of the night. He's teasing with Prim and talking with Gale and not even blinking at Johanna.
"I guess so," she says. When did that happen?
"Then what's the problem, Catnip?"
There's no good answer to that question. She leans over and rests her forehead on the bar, and Gale ruffles her hair, messing up her braid.
Her friend's behind the bar, though, and he catches Peeta's eye and points to the courtyard. Peeta nods and raises a hand in thanks.
He walks slowly toward the courtyard, breathing deeply and trying to keep his breakfast down. It doesn't seem like a good sign that she wanted to meet him in a public place. That's a let-him-down-easy strategy.
When he steps into the courtyard, it's entirely empty except for Katniss, sitting at a small table. She looks up at the sound of the door, and watches him with wide eyes. Sunlight reflects off her dark hair.
She's drinking a margarita.
His head is swimming when he sits down next to her, but then she takes his hand and it's a little easier to breathe.
"I'm pretty bad at this girlfriend thing," she says.
He squeezes her hand in his. "You're doing great so far," he says.