“No!” Katniss protested angrily, stomping her foot and tucking her arms securely across her chest in agitation. She was feeling more panicked than anything, but she didn't want that to show. Better to display anger than weakness, in her opinion. “No way, Haymitch!”
“That’s not your call, Sweetheart. And it's Coach Abernathy to you,” he corrected her. “Besides, it’s already done.”
“You couldn’t have asked me first?” Katniss cried, flinging her arms in the air, then letting them drop to her sides. Her fists balled up tight, nails digging into flesh, and she squinted so hard at him she could almost feel the sharp daggers leaving her eyes.
Her long-time coach sat down in the chair behind his desk and leaned forward, leveling her with a hard gaze as his chair swiveled slightly. He had been like an uncle to her. A very grouchy, sometimes infuriating uncle, but they’d been together since Katniss started the sport.
“Should I be referring to you as coach now?” Katniss rolled her eyes. “Look, that boy is your best chance at snagging a gold medal at the Games this year, so don’t stand there and give your coach,” he raised his voice to stress the words so she would know he meant business, “the third degree.”
“Gale is my best chance at the winning the gold, not Peeta Mellark!” she hollered as she started to pace the small room.
The State of Panem was divided into thirteen districts, and every four years the best athletes from each district were invited to Capitol City for an elaborate competition that spanned an entire month. Ever since Katniss was a little girl she’d watched the games on television with her father. Together, they saw the winners be congratulated with shiny medals around their necks, saw their respectable notoriety in parades and on talk shows, and heard rumors of the residual incomes they would earn for the rest of their lives. There wouldn’t be another chance for four years, and by then, who knew what new talent would come along.
“Well, if you can hop in a time machine and go back six weeks and tell that idiot not to take the ‘roids, then I’ll agree with you. But since you can’t, this is what’s happening. Get used to it and maybe try to put a smile on your face.” He paused thoughtfully. “On second thought, don't.” Katniss narrowed her eyes in contempt and her scowl deepened. “I don't need you pulling a facial muscle or some shit. You know, since you never use those.”
“Don't worry,” she snapped. There was no chance in hell was she going to be smiling any time soon.
Katniss wanted to kill Gale Hawthorne. If he hadn’t taken performance enhancing drugs she wouldn’t be in this predicament. A new rule allowing the random testing of athletes prior to the games had come into effect this year, and Gale had thought he’d slink by unscathed with only weeks to go. Now she’s been left high and dry, relying on a partner she didn't trust to get her the prize she'd dreamed of since she was a little girl. Katniss clenched her fists again, digging her nails into her palms even harder to keep from screaming. Damn him!
Coach Abernathy took a swig of something clear that looked like water, but smelled more like it could kill a person, before grumbling, “What’s your problem with him anyway?” Then he waved his hand dismissively. “Doesn't matter. It’s all been arranged, Sweetheart, so forget about it and get rested. We leave tomorrow.” With that, he left her standing in his office, fuming with rage. How was she going to spend two whole weeks with Peeta Mellark? She could barely stomach being in the same school building with him four years ago and now, not only would she have to play on the same team as her high school enemy, she would have to share living quarters with him as well.
The apartment they would be living in had separate bedrooms, but that was only a slight consolation. Katniss breathed deeply and rubbed her temples. Her head felt like it was about to explode. If she could just make it through the next two weeks, win the gold medal she’d wanted since she started playing the game, she could walk off that podium with her back to Peeta and never have to see him again.
J ust before rounding the corner on her way to history, Katniss heard her name and stopped short.
“...can’t blame him. She’s hot,” the voice said. Her face warmed. Someone thought she was hot? She’d never considered herself anything of the sort, and hearing another person talk about her like that didn’t really sit well with her. But curiosity had her rooted in place.
“Yeah,” another male voice agreed. “But he just wants to get in her pants.” She sucked in a breath, clapping her hand over her mouth as the voice continued. “I caught him saying her name while jerking off in the shower after practice.” The other boy let out a low hiss, while Katniss’s temper flared and her insides churned.
“He wants to ask her to prom.”
“Think she’ll say yes? Maybe he’ll loosen her up and get something out of her.” Both of them chuckled.
“Not likely, besides…”
She couldn’t listen to anymore, and the voice trailed off as Katniss darted down the hall, away from the boys and into the ladies restroom.
Katniss sat on the edge of the sandy court their first day in Capitol. The already stifling morning sun beat down on her olive skin as she stretched her limbs, trying not to look at Peeta Mellark doing the same only a few feet away. She may have to do what her coach told her, but she didn’t have to be happy about it. As far as she was concerned she was getting the raw end of the deal. Peeta was the one who was going to benefit from being partnered with her.
He could play. There was no doubt about that. But was he serious enough about the game to go for broke? All her hopes and dreams were on the line. This could be her only chance. One thing was for sure, if he slacked off at all, he was going to get an earful from her. She wasn’t about to let Peeta get in the way of reaching her dream.
“Ready?” Peeta asked gruffly as he repeatedly drilled the volleyball into the floor like a basketball.
“What did that ball ever do to you...” she muttered under her breath.
“Ready,” she answered, jumping up and smiling at him with thinly veiled contempt.
“Let’s start with-”
“How about you don’t call the shots since you’re a stand in, alright?” Katniss interrupted, folding her arms across her chest in superiority. No way in hell was she going to let him tell her what to do. The only person she listened to was her coach, and the ice beneath his feet became thinner with every second she had to be around Peeta.
He glared at her, then stripped his shirt over his head, leaving him only in the red practice shorts that matched her own gear. She startled at the motion, trying not to gape at his tanned, chiseled abs and a dusting of light hairs that trailed from his bellybutton down into his shorts. She sucked in a breath and forced her eyes away, exhaling in hopes of blowing out the small flame that had just been lit from within. What was that? She saw Gale without a shirt on pretty much daily and it never had the effect Peeta’s bare chest was having on her now. And he was a pervert. A really, really good looking pervert with clear, ocean-colored eyes and a smile that could melt the panties off a woman who was into that kind of guy. Which she wasn’t.
Still, Katniss couldn't deny Peeta was even more handsome than he’d been back in high school. He had filled out in his chest and arms. His hair was golden and shiny from constantly being in the sun. Katniss would liken it to a halo except for the fact that she knew his true identity - he should be holding a pitchfork and sprouting a tail with a barb at the end.
She hadn’t realized her eyes had drifted back to him until he spoke. His tone was full of indifference and made Katniss wonder if he cared at all about winning. “Why don't you call the shots then?” She ripped her gaze from his pecs to his face, where she saw an arrogant smirk quirk up the corners of his devilish lips. Her eyes still hadn't reached his when he cleared his throat, pointing two fingers at the bright blue of his irises. “Eyes up here.”
Katniss's face flamed with embarrassment at being caught staring, quickly shrouding it in anger. She said the first thing that came to mind. “In your dreams, Mellark.”
Peeta spun the ball on his pointer finger, the smirk still in place, looking her dead in the eye. “No thanks. I've had those dreams already.”
“So I've heard,” Katniss retorted without missing a beat.
Peeta's eyes narrowed and the smirk dissolved, but before he could ask her what she meant, Coach Abernathy appeared, folding his arms over his chest as he eyed them both curiously.
“Let's get to work, team,” he barked, raising one eyebrow in obvious question at his use of the word.
Katniss seethed, and she wasn’t sure whether it was from the word Coach used, or the implication that he didn’t believe she could cooperate. She whipped her t-shirt off, tossing it aside to reveal her practice uniform - a red, t-back sports bra and tiny, matching shorts - and stomped out onto the court. She wondered if she was having the same irritating effect that he was having on her, though she couldn’t stand to look at his face for confirmation.
They set to work. The rest of the morning was spent running drills and drinking twice their body weight in water to keep hydrated. Every time Katniss took a drink she had to face away from Peeta so she could keep her traitorous eyes from following the droplets of sweat making their way over his pecs and down his abs.
She dabbed a towel at her neck and chest, both of which were drenched with her own perspiration, cutting her eyes at him when she caught him watching her. He shook his head at her and turned away.
The tension between them was thick. Neither spoke to the other unless it was to ridicule form or scoff at a missed opportunity. Coach Abernathy succumbed to frustration many times, finally pulling Katniss aside before they broke for lunch.
“Do you even want to win?”
Katniss whirled, spitting her words out at him. “Of course! It's not my fault you picked a…” she paused to look at Peeta, who was getting a drink on the other side of the court. Still, she hushed her voice. “A jerk to be my partner.”
“From where I'm standing, you both look like jerks. I would tell you to try being nice, but you have all the charm of a dead slug on one of your good days.”
Katniss opened her mouth to argue, but Haymitch stopped her with a raised hand and pointed glare. “Fix it. Otherwise the gold will go to Odair and Cresta.”
Katniss’s temper roiled, but she kept her mouth closed and considered his words. The victors from District 4 were the reigning coed volleyball champions of the Panem Games. They were good. Really good. “Focus your anger on them. Not Mellark.” He turned to go, throwing sharp words over his shoulder, loud enough for both of them to hear. “Champions do whatever they have to do to win.”
Katniss cringed and pursed her lips. How could she redirect her anger away from Peeta after hating him for so long? But, Coach had a point. She had one shot, and that shot rested on her shoulders and, like it or not, the frustratingly broad ones belonging to her high school enemy.
Peeta was sitting on his bed studying for a history test when his brother, Rye, came through the door. He barely gave him a glance.
“Hey, little bro,” Rye said when he walked into their shared bedroom and dropped his backpack on one of the two twin beds. He grabbed Peeta around the neck and rubbed his knuckles into his brother’s head. “I did you a real solid today, man.”
Peeta rolled his eyes. “Oh yeah?” he asked, pushing Rye off him and going back to his text book. He doubted his brother did him any kind of real ‘solid’. Rye’s extent of doing something good for him usually ended up with Peeta working extra hours at their parents’ bakery while his brother was out deflowering the many daughters of District 12. He called it ‘community service’, and it had taken months for Peeta to convince him that he didn’t want any part in it, and Rye finally gave up, sticking Peeta with all the work.
He was fine with it, though. He was always there when Katniss came in to buy her sister a cookie for getting a good grade or to celebrate a win with her teammates. She played volleyball and, though she was short, she was good. She was quick and limber, and she could get to a ball from across the court before it dropped to the floor. No one played quite like Katniss, and that fact made her intimidating not only to her competitors, but to him as well.
But Peeta loved to watch her play. She’s even the reason he started playing volleyball in an after school boys program. He thought having something in common with her would help him get the courage to say something more than ‘hi’, or ‘that’ll be $2.50’, and ‘have a nice day’, but so far it hadn’t.
“Yep,” Rye said with a satisfied smile on his face. Peeta took the bait.
“Are you going to tell me or are you just letting me know you did something I’ll be sorry for later? ‘Cause, honestly, I’d rather know now what trouble you’re getting me into.”
“Oh, it’s trouble, alright.” The smirk on Rye’s face grabbed Peeta’s attention and he narrowed his eyes.
“What did you do?”
“Two words - Thom. Roberts.” Peeta nearly fell off the bed as he scrambled to get to his brother, smiling like the Cheshire Cat.
“What did you do?” Peeta demanded, grabbing Rye by the collar. Thom and Rye were seniors, and teammates on the school’s varsity baseball team. All the boys knew Thom had his perverted eye on Katniss since the start of the school year. It made Peeta sick to his stomach to even think about them together. So far, though, he hadn’t seen Katniss express any interest in Thom. Or anyone, really.
“Relax, bro,” Rye said, removing Peeta’s hands from his shirt. “I talked him into asking Bristel Daniels to prom instead. Told him she was a sure thing, and he wanted his prom to be memorable. Asking a sixteen year old, stuck-up virgin probably would end up making it a pretty frustrating night.”
“Don’t talk about Katniss like that,” Peeta warned Rye, poking a finger in his chest.
“Whatever. It’s true,” Rye said, smacking Peeta’s finger away. “Besides, I was just trying to help you. Now you’re all freed up to ask her yourself.”
District 12 High hosted a junior/senior prom every year, and Peeta had been waiting since 8th grade to ask Katniss their junior year. He was certain they’d have formed some kind of relationship by now. He’d take whatever he could get, even if it wasn’t romantic. To be friends with her, to have her number and be able to call when he just wanted to hear her voice, had seemed like something attainable almost four years ago. Now it was more like a pipe dream.
He was such a coward. How could one girl leave him feeling so out-of-sorts? He was never at a loss for what to say around anyone. Never afraid to try and make a friend. But with Katniss he felt out of his element. Maybe because he’d spent so long imagining what it would be like to finally have her smile at him, talk to him. Hold his hand and touch him like she cared about him. Maybe he was afraid his dreams about what being with Katniss Everdeen was like would be better than the reality?
Whichever it was, he knew he at least had to try. He'd spent too long in the fantasy to give it up now.
The cab pulled up to the curb in front of a sleek, high rise apartment building. Katniss hopped out and stood on the sidewalk, craning her neck so far backward to see the top of it that she stumbled, almost planting her rear on the sidewalk.
“Here,” Peeta said, dropping her bag beside her curtly. She looked down at it, then shot him a scowl.
“I could have done that.”
“You’re welcome,” he said flatly, flinging his duffel bag over his shoulder and walking away from her. Katniss yanked her bag off the ground and lugged it to the outdoor elevator where Haymitch was waiting for them, all the while gaping at the glass structure. Every wall seemed to be a window, and she knew from her window seat on the airplane that the surrounding area was green and lush. She had a feeling the views were going to be spectacular and she sincerely hoped their room was going to be on a higher floor.
“Alright you two,” Haymitch warned as they stepped into the elevator. “I expect you to behave like adults and show each other the courteousness that you would extend to other players. Or other human beings in general.”
Katniss barely heard the rest of her coach’s speech. When the doors slid closed and the metal box began to rise, the view took her breath away, along with attention. Three walls of the elevator were solid glass, allowing them to see for miles. As the carrier rose higher and higher, Katniss began to feel the stress lifting off, whether from the dizzying height or the picturesque surroundings she wasn’t sure, and she didn’t care. She was here, living out her dream, and she was determined to enjoy every minute of it, Peeta Mellark be damned.
She turned her head slightly, nodded, pretending to hear and agree to Coach Abernathy’s instructions about being kind and civil to one another.
“Alcohol in the rooms is banned,” he said with thinly veiled disgust, “but hell, if it’ll help you two be civil to each other, I’ll stock you up. Also, condoms are in the night stands should you two have an itch to scratch.”
Katniss gave Haymitch a scathing look, and he actually had the decency to look sheepish.
Peeta seemed unfazed by it, and one glance at him caused Katniss to roll her eyes. He was really taking their rivalry to a new level if he couldn’t even look at her. He was facing the doors and staring down at his feet. Why did he hate her so much? He was the one who pulled that awful stunt back in high school. What grudge could he possibly be carrying?
The smooth stop and the high-pitched ding alerted them to their floor. Katniss looked at the circle lit up on the side of the elevator - 42. The forty-second floor! She was going to have a stellar view. When the doors parted, she brushed past Peeta, whose feet seemed to be glued to the floor. He still wouldn’t look up.
“Here you are, 4212,” Haymitch said, inserting a large metal key into the door, then pushing it open to reveal the space. Katniss stepped in, eyes wide, mouth gaping, lips curling up in a childish grin. Every outside wall was made of glass, and as she ran through the spacious apartment, she noticed every room had an enormous view.
She plopped her bag down on the king-sized bed in the furthest room. “I’ll take this one!” she hollered over her shoulder to whomever was listening.
Katniss walked to the windows in the bedroom and immediately yanked at the string of the heavy shades, tugging them up, so she could ogle the mountains in the distance. The bright green of the hills was a perfect contrast to the beautiful blue of the sky, and she had the fleeting thought of how closely it matched Peeta’s eyes; except that the sky didn’t regard her as the scourge of the planet.
Things were going to be okay, she thought. She could do this. All she had to do was hole up in the gorgeous master suite for the next two weeks and everything would be fine. Katniss scanned the room. It had everything she needed, from the large, comfortable bed with mounds of fluffy pillows to the flat screen TV, probably with more channels than she could surf in an hour. There was a large bathroom with a separate shower and a fancy marble tub that, once again, looked out over the terrain with windows for walls. It was a good thing she was so high or someone might see her naked. She made a face. Or using the toilet.
She wandered to the opposite end of the ornate bathroom, testing the door. She expected a closet, but grimaced when she realized she was standing in a jack and jill bathroom, and the door opened up into a much smaller second bedroom. She’d called dibs on the the better room, she thought smugly.
“I’m gonna go!” Haymitch’s booming voice called from the living room. When Katniss appeared, he grunted in surprise. “Well, look at that. Sweetheart can smile.”
She scowled at him and he turned to leave the apartment, cackling as he went. Katniss could hear his abrasive laugh until the elevator doors closed him in and whooshed him away.
The shuffling behind her reminded Katniss that she wasn’t alone. Her head swiveled to find a dining chair being scraped across the marble floors, and Peeta plopping sluggishly into one, laying his head down on one arm and letting his bag fall from the other in a heap next to him.
Katniss eyed him warily. He looked… sick. His skin was pale and his mouth was turned down. His body language seemed stressed and tired. She thought about Haymitch’s warning from earlier and how she should put her feelings aside for the good of the team. It was time to make nice. “Are… you okay?” she asked timidly, fighting back the natural urge to make it sound like she was mocking him.
“What do you care?” he groaned, turning his head slightly in her direction. One eye peeked out at her from the crook of his elbow, then disappeared when he buried his head back in his arm.
Well, so much for nice, Katniss thought. She rolled her eyes and marched past him into her private space, shoving the door closed and not caring one bit if it slammed hard enough to shake the building.
After she raised the blinds on every window in the room, Katniss unpacked her bag, hanging a few items in the walk in closet and tossing the rest haphazardly into the spacious drawers of the dresser. She filled the jacuzzi tub, humming to herself while peeling off her sweat-dried uniform. She and Peeta had opted to forego showering at the arena after practice due to the sheer number of athletes in line to use the limited facilities. She’d thought a place as lavish as the Capitol would spare a little more expense to make sure the athletes that bring in such an enormous amount of money were at least comfortable. She was wrong.
She hesitated before removing her underwear, remembering Peeta was sharing the same space. She quickly locked both doors, then flung her panties across the room and stepped into the deep, jetted tub. The hot water relaxed her while the jets pummeled her sore muscles. The arena might have awful dressing rooms, but at least their coach cared enough about them to make sure their time at the Games was enjoyable.
Katniss looked out over the hills and valleys, sinking deeper into the tub while drinking in the soft oranges and pale purples of the sunset. She’d never seen anything so beautiful. District 12, where they were from, was heavily wooded and sunsets were never viewed beyond the tops of tall pine trees. Every one of them seemed to look the same.
When the water became tepid, Katniss washed quickly and hopped out of the tub. She brushed her teeth, scrubbed her face and slipped into sleep shorts and a soft tank. Then, she climbed into bed, relishing the softness of the down comforter and silky sheets. The mattress was firm but comfortable, and when she settled against the pillows and covered up, she felt as though she was wrapped in a cloud.
In no time at all, she was fast asleep.
Katniss awoke in the middle of the night, smacking her lips together and swallowing, trying to wet her dry mouth. She rolled over on her stomach, choosing to ignore her thirst, but it was no use. She’d have to be sure to drink more water throughout the day.
She flung the covers off and left her room, tiptoeing through the apartment to keep from waking Peeta. Flipping the kitchen light on, she startled and let out a quick scream before she realized the figure sitting at the dining table was her teammate.
“What the hell, Peeta?” He was in the exact same spot she left him in. Had he even moved? She glanced around him, spying his bag on the floor in the same place it had fallen earlier.
“Wha- is it morning?” he asked groggily, lifting his head off his arm. He rubbed his eyes with both fists and blinked at her. Katniss thought about her bed and how much more comfortable it must be than the dining table.
“No, it’s the middle of the night. Were you so tired that you fell asleep at the table?” she asked curiously.
“Uh, yeah, I guess.” He stared at her, unmoving. Why didn’t he get up and go to bed already?
“Well,” Katniss said, trying to prod him away from her, or at least stop gaping at her. He said nothing. Moments ticked by and her mouth became even more parched. “Go to bed. You need rest,” she finally said as she fetched a glass from the cupboard and filled it with water, gulping it down, and filling it a second time.
“Alright, Mom,” she heard Peeta sneer, and it almost made her choke on her water.
“What was that?” she asked after setting down her glass. She moved to the opposite side of the dining table and grabbed ahold of one of the chairs, glaring at him.
“I'm a grown man. I can go to bed when I want.”
Katniss took a deep breath. “Look, you are my only chance to win a gold medal. I know, I know,” she widened her eyes and threw her hands up mockingly. “It sucks, believe me. I know. But-”
“Just go back to sleep, Katniss,” he said with a tired voice. Peeta laid his head back down on his arm, and though Katniss wanted to keep arguing with him about how being well rested was important to their game, she knew it would be precious wasted breath. Instead, she burrowed back into the dreamy covers of her bed, determined not to let him undo her resolve.
The alarm went off at 6 a.m. sharp, and Katniss bounded out of bed, rested and ready for their first game. After she donned her uniform and braided her hair, she stepped out into the living room, ready to leave behind all the spite that had been brewing between her and Peeta.
“Are you ready?” she asked, breaking the eerie silence of the apartment. The chair he’d been in last night was vacated, but the bag was still on the floor. The kitchen, living room and balcony were bare as well, and she’d just come from the shared bathroom so she knew he wasn’t there. Wonderful. He must still be asleep, she grumbled to herself, quickly becoming irate at his irresponsible behavior.
“Wake-” she started to growl into his room, but the reprimand died on her lips when she took in the perfectly made bed. The room looked as though it hadn’t been touched at all.
She walked around to the kitchen to grab a power bar, but stopped short when she saw the hastily scribbled note on the table. See you at the arena, it said.
“Oh, hell no,” Katniss muttered into the emptiness. The knowledge that he’d left without her fanned the flame of loathing deep inside. They were supposed to be a team, and being a team meant showing up together and leaving together. Everything together. As much as Katniss hated it, she knew Coach was right, and had tried to be a better teammate. But Peeta didn’t seem to want to play nice, so why should she?
She crumpled the note in her hand and dropped it in the wastebasket on her way out the door, a scowl firmly set upon her features. All bets were off as far as she was concerned.
When Katniss walked onto the court to warm up with her partner, she dropped her bag just outside the boundary and looked around for Peeta. He was sitting in the far bleachers, eyes closed, rolling his neck and massaging the muscles with his hands.
On the way over from the apartment, she’d decided that lashing out at Peeta would be too easy. He’d get defensive and then they would surely fight. Coach would see it, and rebuke them again, then probably punish them with line drills and burpees after the game until they puked. It was best to give Peeta the silent treatment for now. Don’t look at him, don’t speak to him. Make him think he doesn’t exist. When they were alone at the apartment later, she’d give him a piece of her mind, then lock herself away in her room before he could respond. That was if they weren’t sent packing after the first round.
“Let’s get to it,” Coach Abernathy’s gruff voice called from behind her. Katniss did a few quick stretches to ready her muscles, then jogged out onto the cool morning sand while Peeta took the opposite side of the court. He kept his shirt on for the time being, and for that Katniss was silently thankful. The ability to concentrate gave her new life as she tossed the ball into the air. She carefully served it away from Peeta, forcing him to run and lunge and dig the ball out of the sand. She could see his narrowed eyes, and she quirked an eyebrow in challenge.
It was Peeta’s turn to serve, and he hammered the ball back, sending it careening over the net directly towards her face. It was an easy bump, even though it stung like hell on her forearms.
They went back and forth like this, Haymitch critiquing their serves and digs over the next hour, each one more fierce than the last, as though they were trying to prove they were the better player. Katniss wasn’t sure she even heard half of their coach’s suggestions she was so focused on making Peeta miss, testing the bounds of his talent. He hadn’t, though, and with every touch of his fingers to the ball Katniss’s irritation flamed, even though she should be grateful to have such an exceptional partner.
“Break!” Haymitch hollered at them, motioning them over to the sideline. Katniss made sure to get there before Peeta. He trudged up beside her and pasted his hands on his hips. They were both breathing heavy and wet with perspiration, and the day was just getting started.
“Not bad,” Haymitch encouraged. “If you keep that up you’ve got a real shot at the gold.” Katniss nodded her head in acknowledgement before gulping down an entire water bottle.
“Nice play, Katniss,” Peeta said flatly before downing his own bottle.
“You, too.” Her reply was short and insincere, and without any eye contact.
“Brrrr,” Haymitch said, his gaze flitting between the two of them before sarcastically adding, “I know I told you two to be civil, but this is just surpassing my wildest expectations. I mean, you’re practically BFFs now.” He shook his head and grabbed onto the back of his neck, rubbing it tenderly. He muttered something about the longest two weeks of his life.
Katniss rolled her eyes. “Same here.”
“You’re no picnic to be around either, Princess,” Peeta shot back.
“Don’t call me Princess,” she snapped at him, tossing her bottle into the recycle can. She grabbed her bag and left the court to freshen up without another glance in his direction.
Katniss and Peeta took the court that afternoon with the team from District Ten on the opposing side. The first match was a disaster. Katniss was on her game, but time and again, Peeta sent his bump too high or his set too far from the net, making Katniss have to work that much harder to get it across. Half the time it soared directly into it, bouncing back at her. It cost them the lead multiple times and Ten was able to take the first match. The other team hi-fived and embraced, and Katniss looked on in jealousy, both towards their win and their unity.
“I take it back,” Haymitch barked between games as they toweled off and chugged water. “If ya’ll don’t quit playing like shit, you won’t even make it past today.”
Frustrated, Katniss turned on Peeta. “What’s your problem, Mellark?”
Peeta glared at her, cocking his head to the side. “Funny, I’ve been wondering the same thing about you for years.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Katniss glowered as she squared her shoulders at him, ready for a fight.
“It means- You know what? Forget it. I’m too tired to deal with this right now,” he huffed, turning away. He stalked through the sand, heels throwing up bits of the stuff in his wake, and Katniss was pretty sure she heard him say he was ‘going to need a nap after this’.
“So you didn’t go to bed last night?” Katniss griped as she followed him back to the court. “You slept all night in that chair?” She wasn’t ready to quit just yet, but she was ready to pounce at any evidence that he was pissing away her chance at the gold.
“You keeping tabs on where I sleep, Princess?”
“I said don’t call me that!” She grabbed his arm and whirled him around to face her, uncaring if the fans or the other team saw them squabble. He looked down where their skin touched, and Katniss dropped his arm as quickly as she’d grabbed it, swiping her hand across the fabric of her shorts in an attempt to wipe away the uncomfortable shock she felt.
With his brow furrowed, and his annoyingly blue eyes taunting her, he asked, “Well, why do you think I keep doing it?” Quietly, he mouthed the word princess to her.
Katniss scowled deeply at him. She wanted to kick herself for letting him know that he’d gotten under her skin. Her self-control had faded fast, and now she was so angry she didn’t even know what to say, let alone what to do next.
He flashed her an arrogant smirk and folded his arms across his chest, enjoying her lack of response. Despite her anger, she couldn’t help the flit of her eyes across his torso, the biceps that bulged, rock solid forearms laid over a glistening, sculpted chest. She swallowed, and her mouth felt dry even though she’d just downed a bottle of water. trying to grab onto that anger and not lose focus on the important issue.
“Look, Sugar,” he drawled, and her eyes flit to his lips momentarily. Katniss scowled deeper, hating the sound of that name almost as much as the other. Why did he insist on giving her a pet name, anyway? It wasn’t like they’d be buddies after this week. But, what she hated more than the names was the way his lips rounded appealingly when he said the word sugar.
“I’ll get you that gold medal. And when I do, all I want from you is a simple ‘thank you’. Then we can go back to avoiding each other like the plague. Until then, I don’t need your constant bickering and cold shoulder treatment, alright?” he challenged her, sticking his hand out as though he were making a business deal. As if this were some truce to agree on. It wasn’t, really. It was a band-aid to get them through this round and, hopefully, the next. What would happen when it was over and one of them ripped it off? Sparks would fly, she was certain of that.
Katniss looked between Peeta’s face and his proffered hand. She didn’t want to shake it. Didn’t want to touch him at all, but that medal was so close she could feel the cool metal in her hands. See the gleam of it hanging over her fireplace mantel. How many times was she going to have to tell herself she could get along with Peeta before she actually did it? Maybe it would stick this time. And maybe, since they were both shaking on it, he would try too, instead of it feeling so one-sided.
Fine! She grasped his hand and squeezed. Hard. He squeezed back harder, their eyes locked in a respectful disdain for each other, and they both silently nodded their agreement.
Some favor, she thought.
They battled through game two, tying the series with a hard-fought win. After the tie-breaking, and highly exhaustive third match, they were able to eek out a win over District Ten, but it wasn’t the feel-good win Katniss was hoping for. Instead, she and Peeta parted ways wordlessly, Katniss biting her tongue to maintain their fragile truce.
Katniss had been wracking her brain trying to figure out who the voice could have been talking about. It had been three days since she’d heard it, and so far no one had asked her to prom, but she was determined that whoever did would get the third degree. In fact, she’d wipe those masturbatory fantasies right from their mind with the earful she had planned for them.
She turned her head as she bounded down the school steps after volleyball practice, stopping at the bottom. Peeta Mellark was waving at her and jogging across the lawn with his backpack slung over his shoulder. She had no classes with him, and rarely saw him around campus.
Her breath caught in her throat. She’d always thought Peeta was the most attractive boy in school. In addition to bright blue eyes and wheat-blond hair that fell in waves across his forehead, Peeta was smart, kind, and popular. All the girls liked him, and Katniss often wondered why she never saw him with a girl on his arm. It definitely wasn’t for their lack of interest in him.
She didn't date, though. Boys were off limits for her. Her dreams of becoming a gold medal winner in the Panem Games mixed doubles volleyball event kept her busy. With practices every afternoon, and weekend tournaments at least once each month, the only time she had left after homework was spent with her sister.
Her parents were involved in a car accident when she was 12, which left her mother dead. Her father survived, but was so crippled with guilt he was basically working himself into an early grave. No matter how desperately Katniss tried to convince him to take a break, it was like he couldn’t be around them, or more likely he couldn’t be around Prim because she looked so much like their mother. She was a constant reminder of what he’d lost.
“Peeta?” she asked as he neared her. They barely talked unless she went into the bakery, and even then he only said what he needed to for the transactions. She didn’t know how many more times she could take Prim to get a cookie for getting a B, or convince her teammates that good practices should be rewarded with sweets. She knew she should speak up, but she was terrible with words and he didn’t seem to be much better. What could two people who were awful at saying something actually say to each other?
“Katniss, hey,” he said. She’d be lying if she said her pulse wasn’t picking up speed at being this close to him. Or that she hadn’t stolen a glance at his glistening lips after his tongue dragged across the them quickly. “I, uh, I was wondering…” she watched him shift nervously and rake a hand through his hair. “Would you, uh, like to go to prom with me?”
Her heart bottomed out and her eyes widened. In all her wonderings about who could possibly be the guy that just wanted to get into her pants, she hadn’t once considered it could be Peeta Mellark. Her tongue was thick in her mouth and her eyes stung from the realization. Her mouth opened in a futile attempt to tell him off, but there was no breath left in her lungs to reply. The horrible words she’d prepared had left her along with every other sense, save for the one that told her to flee.
“Are you okay?” he called from behind her as she walked away. “Wait! Did I do something?” He grabbed her elbow and the touch infuriated her. She whirled on him, lashing out in pain and anger.
“I’m fine, you Jackass! Now let go of me.” She yanked her arm from him and if she’d cared in that moment she would have noticed the dejected look on his face. His mouth opened and closed as if he wanted to say something, and he stepped back a little, grabbing onto the strap of his backpack.
“I-I’m sorry,” he stuttered.
“The answer is no! Don’t talk to me ever again.” And with that she turned and walked away, leaving Peeta to wonder what on Earth he had done wrong.
They were in a small conference room on the ground floor of their apartment building for a team meeting that night. Katniss couldn’t keep the worry about her partner at bay. Peeta looked utterly exhausted. He nodded at everything Coach said, but offered no feedback, instead sitting silently with his eyes on the table. Afterwards, Katniss watched as Haymitch pulled Peeta aside. He folded his arms across his chest and said something in a hushed tone, and Peeta’s shoulders sagged at whatever it was. She wished she could read lips.
Katniss sipped her water, never removing her eyes from the two men. She hoped coach was getting to the bottom of Peeta’s shitty performance. They’d never win a medal if he couldn’t pull it together. She was curious, though. What was the problem? Though she didn’t care for Peeta as a person, she had enough respect for his athleticism to see that he was really struggling.
“Hey,” Katniss caught Haymitch after the meeting after Peeta disappeared. “What’s going on?”
Haymitch sighed, looking around before he told her, “Peeta’s just not sleeping well, that’s all.”
Katniss cocked her head and gave him a thoughtful look. “Is it because of me?” If that were the case, Haymitch could solve his problem and hers by simply moving him to a different room.
“As hard as this may be for you to believe, Sweetheart, it’s not about you.”
“Well, what then?” Katniss grumbled, trying to let the insult roll off. She had a right to know what was going on with her teammate.
“Hey,” Peeta called to them from down the hall. “I’m going to grab some dinner. I’ll see you later.”
Katniss’s gaze followed him as he walked away, narrowing her eyes at him. It stung a little that he seemed to blow her off. He didn’t ask if she wanted to go. Not that she would have, because she certainly wouldn't spend unnecessary time with him, but they were supposed to be a team. He’d left for their match that morning without her, and now he was going out to dinner alone?
She growled and stomped to the elevator, poking harshly at the call button. This was about the worst experience she could have had at her first games.
Later that evening, after a soak in the tub and a veggie pizza with extra cheese had been delivered to her door, Katniss sat on the bed, flipping through channels and glancing at the clock every now and then. They had finished their team meeting over four hours ago. Where was Peeta? It was already past her bedtime and she knew she wouldn’t sleep if she had to keep worrying about where he was. Or worse, if something had happened to him.
Then a thought struck her - while she was sitting in the apartment, resting her aching body and mentally preparing to go through multiple rounds of grueling play, Peeta was out on the town. Probably picking up girls and getting drunk. That’s why he didn’t ask her to go, she reasoned, and the thought began to stew in her mind.
Katniss brushed her teeth and braided her hair, but she was too angry to go to bed. Instead, she paced the living room, each step furthering the contempt she felt for her partner.
When the door finally opened an hour later, Katniss wasted no time lashing out at Peeta. “Where were you?” He jumped, grabbing onto the door and seemed more skittish than she'd ever seen him. He obviously wasn't expecting his teammate to still be up, even though it was only half past nine. She moved close to him, sniffing the air around him.
“What are you…?” he asked, then his eyes lit up with understanding. “You think I’m drunk?” he asked incredulously. “Katniss, I have no idea what I’ve done to deserve such a low opinion from you, but get over yourself. I just needed some space.”
She heard what he said, saw the look in his eyes that said to leave him alone, but she wasn’t buying it. There was something off about him. Had been since they'd arrived at the apartment. Katniss watched him warily as he hobbled over to the table, wrinkling her nose when the stale stench of sweat wafted in her direction, and she realized he hadn’t stepped foot in the bathroom that she knew of since they’d become roommates. “Have you showered at all since we’ve been here?”
He ignored her, laying his head down again.
“Are you going to sleep at the table again?” she prodded. He grunted, confirming to Katniss that he was, indeed, going to be sleeping at the table again.
“Peeta! You can’t keep doing this,” she cried in disbelief, walking towards him, using her arms to help her convey the desperation she felt even though he wasn't watching. “We have a chance to win a gold medal and this isn’t going to cut it! Now, what is up with you? You’ve been acting so weird-”
He raised his head and shot her a glare. “How would you know what I’ve been acting like? You don’t know anything about me, Katniss! You never wanted to. You only care about me now because of your precious gold medal.”
“That’s not true!” she defended.
“Ha!” he scoffed. “When have you ever cared about my feelings at all?”
Katniss recoiled in confusion. There were two things she was not good at - feelings, whether they were hers or someone else’s, and saying something. Both of those flaws combined threw her into a complete loss for words.
“See?” he quirked an eyebrow to make his point. How dare he presume to know her enough to pass that kind of judgement on her! She was done with his rudeness.
“How we feel about each other is irrelevant. What is relevant is that you are ruining our chances of win-”
“Stop, just… please stop, okay?” Katniss was even more taken back by the pleading way he asked her to stop than his earlier presumption. It wasn’t malicious or condescending, like she’d come to expect from him. Instead, it was tired and a little bit whiny, which caused her to rethink the accusation she’d been about to lay at his feet.
Defeated, and without any idea as to how to handle the situation, Katniss looked toward the balcony, through the glass and into the night. For miles she could see the twinkling city lights, and they were high enough that the light from them didn’t outshine the stars above. It looked beautiful. Peaceful. More peaceful than inside the apartment, and she had yet to step out onto the 42nd floor balcony.
“Okay, I’ll stop,” she sighed, heading toward the glass door. It slid open with a whoosh, but before she could step out, Peeta spoke again.
“Wh-what are you doing?”
She peeked over her shoulder at him, wrinkling her brow. “I’m going outside?” Katniss thought it was obvious.
“Can you… not?” Peeta couldn’t hold her gaze for too long. When he glanced up at her he looked back down just as quickly, and he seemed to swallow every five seconds. There was an edge to his voice, but it wasn’t annoyance. It sounded more like… fear.
“Why?” she asked, beginning to put the pieces of his strange behavior together. How he never moved about the apartment, rode the elevator facing the door instead of the breathtaking view, didn't sleep in the bed, which she knew for a fact was more comfortable than a skinny chair.
“Just, I- I don’t know, just stay… i-inside,” he stuttered through the words, and in the overhead lighting, his skin looked dewy.
He wasn’t going to answer her question, though she was certain she now knew what had been bothering him. She took her eyes off him and stepped onto the balcony anyway. He muttered a curse word under his breath and she heard some shuffling behind her. When she looked back again he was still seated at the table, head down, hands gripping his hair tight enough that she could see the white in his knuckles.
“You should come out here, Peeta,” she called to him, a hidden smirk on her face. It felt good to have a little power. “It’s a gorgeous view.”
“Katniss…” he groaned from inside, and the way it sounded stirred something strange in her. She didn’t like it.
She leaned over the edge of the balcony and called out to him. “The cars look so small from here, like tiny-”
“Katniss, come inside!” He yelled.
“Tell me why and I will.”
“I’m afraid of heights, alright?!”
Katniss whirled around to face him fully, taking in the scene before her. Peeta was standing, if you could call it that. His legs looked like they were made of jelly and could give out any minute. The chair he’d been sitting in was overturned beside him. He was as white as a sheet and his entire body was trembling.
“Please, Katniss. Just come back in.” It sounded like a desperate prayer. There was no malice in the command, and he looked so wounded Katniss couldn’t have denied him if she wanted to.
When she stepped off the balcony, his shoulders slumped in relief. In the brilliant blue of his eyes, she saw a vulnerability he’d never allowed her to see before. When she finally stood before him, he grabbed her by the arms and hugged her tightly to him, and she could feel his body trembling. She was so shocked that her arms stayed by her sides, but she couldn’t have moved them anyway for the death grip he had on her.
“Please don’t go out there again.” His words were muffled, spoken against her neck and the warm breath that followed sent a shiver down her spine and raised the flesh on her arms. She didn’t know what to make of her reaction to his unexpected touch, but she needed to get away before she did something stupid like hug him back.
“Um, Peeta?” she asked into his shoulder.
“Oh, right. Sorry,” he backed away, looking sheepish and anywhere but at her. Katniss wasn’t sure why she missed his solid chest pressed against her, or why she felt a twinge of regret at the loss of his arms around her.
In an effort to replace some of the awkwardness she was feeling with the familiar banter they were more accustomed to, she told him he really needed a shower. He rolled his eyes at her and when his head fell back, Katniss’s eyes were drawn to the bob of his Adam’s apple.
“Have you been in the bathroom? It’s floor to ceiling windows,” he groaned. “Why do you think I’ve been leaving early and coming back late? I can’t handle being up here. It’s- it’s just too fucking high. I mean, the building could crumble or a window could shatter leaving a gaping hole in our space, and then what? What if there’s an earthquake or a... a bomb?”
Katniss tried not to snort at the absurdity of what Peeta was saying. It was his fear after all, and just because she wasn’t afraid of heights, didn’t make his fear any less real.
“Why don’t I call Haymitch and see if he can get us moved?” she offered. He shook his head.
“He knows, and he tried already. All the hotels in the city are full.”
Katniss watched Peeta pick up his chair and sit back down with a hopeless thud. “I’m stuck. I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. I can’t shower…”
“What can I do to help?” Katniss asked, taking a seat in the chair next to him. It was high time they started acting like a team. Now that she knew what was bothering him, and that it wasn't her, she wanted to do whatever she could to fix it, especially if it helped them win.
He quirked an eyebrow. “You want to help me?” The disbelieving way Peeta said it made Katniss second guess her offer, but she plowed forward anyway.
“Look, Peeta, we’re a team. No matter how it happened, it is what it is. If there’s something I can do to help you play better, then I’ll do it. For us.”
He sighed. “I’m not sure there’s anything you can do. I’m sorry, Katniss.” The defeated way he apologized worried her. Had he given up already? No. She wouldn’t let him. They'd both worked too hard to get where they were just to throw it all away.
“First, how about you get a shower?” Peeta looked at her like she was crazy. “It’ll make you feel better. Come on.” She hopped up energetically, expecting Peeta to follow. He sat, unmoving, gaping at her. “It’s not like the floor is going to fall out from under you.”
A strangled noise escaped his lips. “Did you really have to say it like that?”
“You can’t tell me you actually believe-”
“Katniss, every second I’m up here, I’m just waiting for the floor to give out,” he barked, then his countenance sagged. “I’m sorry. It’s just exhausting, and I’m so tired.”
Another wave of compassion washed over her. He needed her. And she needed him. It was a long shot, a kind of suicide maybe. Peeta may not even want her help. But she had to try something.
Without thinking, Katniss leaned down and captured his face with her hands, looking straight into his bewildered eyes. “I’m going to help you. Stay with me, okay?”
Katniss saw him struggling against the fear raging in his head. She grasped his wrists and he finally nodded, slight enough to miss it had she not been paying attention.
She pulled on his hands, urging him onto his feet and towards the jack and jill bathroom. He stopped when he reached the door, eyes wide and fearful, and Katniss let go of his hands. “I’m going to get the shower started. Just stay there.” Peeta nodded again.
Katniss could feel his eyes on her as she walked across the room and twisted the shower handle, the spray shooting from both directions left her arm dripping, and she shook the water off before going back for Peeta. Reaching for his wrists again, she lead him to the stall with some difficulty. His feet seemed to be glued down every few steps and his movement across the room was stiff. “I’ll get you a towel, then you can have a quick shower and be done, alright?” She was back in a flash and Peeta hadn’t moved, though she wasn’t sure if he was being obedient to her wishes or that he was rooted in place by his fear. She realized it was the latter when he began to shake his head no in little pulses.
“I- I can’t. I can’t do this.” Katniss stood behind him, blinking in disbelief. Her compassion was still there, but wearing a bit thin at the moment. How much was she going to have to do for him? How much was she willing to do for him might have been the better question.
“Peeta, you smell. You need a shower. You need sleep. Now strip,” she told him directly.
“Katniss, I can’t move. I feel l-like if I move, th-the floor will-”
“Okay,” she cut him off, realizing she was going to have to go a little further than she’d planned. “Raise your arms.”
“You heard me,” she said, tapping the undersides of his forearms to get him to lift them in the air, which he did slowly. From behind him, she shoved his shirt over his head, ignoring the flex of his toned back as he lowered his arms to his sides. Then, she moved in front of him and bent down, untying his shoes and pulling them off with his socks. When she stood, she saw he was looking at her intently, the question in his eyes mirroring the one she was asking herself. Next?
There were only his shorts left. “Do you have on…? You know, undern-neath?” She hated the way she sounded like such a prude, but if she was honest, she really hadn’t had much time to find out what was beneath a man’s underpants. And she never would have thought in a million years she’d be this close to Peeta Mellark’s… junk.
“I don’t care if you see me, Katniss.” It wasn’t a question of him caring as much as it was about her caring, Katniss thought. As if he sensed her dilemma, he added, “but yes, I have another layer on underneath.”
The breath she was holding slipped out as she tentatively reached for the waistband of his workout shorts. When her fingertips grazed the taut flesh of his lower abdomen, his stomach contracted and Katniss heard Peeta suck in a quick breath. Her pulse seemed to speed up and she realized how her actions could be perceived as inappropriate.
She drew her hands back, letting the waistband pop back into place with a snap. “You know, I think you can shower with these on.”
Katniss stood to the side while Peeta took forever to climb in. He had to grab onto everything just to keep his balance, almost slipping when he planted his foot on the shower floor. Instinctively she grabbed for his hand, steadying him, and he kept a death grip on it as the spray washed over him from head to toe.
She willed her eyes not to ogle him, with his face turned up toward the shower head, eyes shut tight and water racing down every ridge and valley of his cut body. He was a very beautiful man, however maddening. When she noticed his soaked shorts were clinging to his hips and thighs, she tried to let go of him, but he wouldn’t release her hand.
“I think you’re going to need your hand to wash your…” she chose the word carefully, “...hair.” She scowled at the crack in her voice.
“Can you… would you, I mean, do you think you could help me wash?” The hesitant, fumbling question told Katniss it must have taken a lot for Peeta to ask it. What choice did she really have now? And hadn’t she told him not twenty minutes ago that she would do anything for the team?
“Sure,” she relented against her better judgement, and climbed into the spacious shower with him. The water was warm, the spray hard enough to soak her nightclothes through before she could maneuver behind him. “Here, turn around,” she said, tugging their still-clasped hands until he twisted around to face her. He looked at her briefly, something she couldn’t comprehend flashing in his eyes before he closed them and tilted his head back into the spray.
Katniss grabbed the bar of soap with her free hand. She stared at his chest, mesmerized by the light smattering of hairs and the tone of him. There didn’t seem to be an ounce of fat anywhere on his torso. He brought his head forward, wiping the water from his face before staring down at her, and she felt heat creep into her cheeks.
Pressing the bar to his skin, she worked in circles across his chest, down his arms and finally his abs before having him turn around again so she could wash his back. Without him to see, she allowed her eyes to linger over his form, down to his backside where the soaked shorts clung deliciously to the curve of his ass. She took a little more time on this side, and when she’d finished washing his back and shoulders, she directed him to turn around.
“Actually, do you mind if we just quit?” he asked.
“We haven’t washed your hair yet,” Katniss replied to him skeptically. “Just turn around and-”
“Can you just wash it from there?”
Katniss scrunched her face in confusion. “Okay,” she shrugged even though he couldn’t see her. With shampoo in her hands, she scrubbed his hair, massaging her fingertips into his scalp. She could feel the tension lifting off him, even heard a few mm’s leave his lips which caused her stomach to flutter and her nerves to stand on end. She scrubbed faster, and jerked her hands away from him, unwilling to admit she was having some sort of… feelings for her partner. “All done, just tilt your head to rinse out the soap and we’ll get out.” Her request was surprisingly breathless in her own ears. She hoped Peeta didn’t hear it that way.
Once they were standing outside the shower, Katniss held out the towel. “You need me to dry you off?” she asked. Part of her hoped he could do it on his own, but a whole other, very disoriented, part of her wanted him to say ‘yes.’ He blew out a steadying breath, and reached for the cotton.
“I think I can do it,” he said, showing a little more confidence than when she’d first guided him into the room. He moved slowly, hesitantly as if, true to his earlier statement, sudden movements might make the marble under his feet fall away. His eyes flitted to hers when he stuck his thumbs into his shorts, preparing to remove them.
“Oh. I’ll just-” she said awkwardly, turning her back to allow him some privacy. The wet shorts hit the marble with a splat that made Katniss’s belly bottom out and her eyes widen with alarm. Peeta Mellark was naked behind her. Now those were words she never thought would be strung together.
“Don’t you need a towel?” he asked, and she was mortified to think she’d been so distracted she hadn’t even thought to dry herself. She grabbed one from the rack and started to pat herself dry, but her sopping clothes were making the process completely pointless.
“I need to change,” she told him, looking back to where he was fastening the low-slung towel around his waist. It was a good thing his head was down so he couldn’t catch her staring at the bare hip she’d gotten a glimpse of. Or the V of his lower abs that his shorts were normally pulled up too far to see.
“O-okay.” He sounded unsure again and his eyes locked onto hers. “Will you, I mean are you… coming back?” She’d never in her life thought Peeta was adorable, but she was having major second thoughts about that with the way his eyes pleaded with hers. Like a lost puppy trying to find its way home, and she didn’t have it in her to say ‘no.’
“Sure,” she nodded, then slipped out of the room and changed into dry clothes. Peeta still hadn’t moved, and she carefully guided him past the wall of open windows, though it was too dark to really see how high up they were, into the small spare bedroom.
Once inside, she turned on the bedside lamp and pulled the covers down. “Here,” she said, catching his startled gaze. “What?”
“I… it’s, the bed. It’s against the w-window.” Katniss could tell by the waver in his voice and the look in his eyes that he wasn't going to be able to lay down in the bed without some coaxing.
“Would it help if I stayed with you?” she asked. His eyes widened and Katniss quickly added, “Just until you fall asleep.”
“I…” he shook his head, “Katniss you don’t have to do this. I’m a grown man. A professional athlete, for fuck’s sake. I should be able to get a grip on my emotions and my fears. You know?” She knew it was a rhetorical question, but he paused, eyes shining, as though he wanted an answer.
“I don’t mind,” she said, and he deflated as though he didn’t believe her. “Really, Peeta. I don’t.”
“Thank you, Katniss, for all your help,” Peeta said so softly it pulled at her heart. “It really does mean a lot to me, but I’ll take it from here.” He gave her a hesitant smile, and Katniss didn’t want to push him further, so she told him to call her if he needed her, and went to her own room. She left the door ajar in an effort to keep the lines of communication open between them.
She tossed and turned, though, unable to fall asleep for thoughts of Peeta, and they weren’t all innocent. She finally drifted off only to be woken by the sound of something rough scooting across the floor of the front room. Katniss sat up, alarmed, and tiptoed to her door to peek around the corner. In her direct line of sight was the dining table, and Peeta was parked in the same chair he’d occupied since they’d arrived.
“Peeta?” she called to him softly as she approached him. He stirred, his head lifting up from his arm to glance sleepily at her. He looked destroyed. The lack of sleep and presence of constant nervousness was taking its toll on him.
“Come with me.” Katniss said resolutely and took his hand. Without any argument he followed her into her room. She climbed onto the bed, toward the middle and pulled him in with her. He seemed completely unfazed with her behavior and willingly fell into the bed next to her, where Katniss covered him up, and before she could say ‘goodnight,’ he was asleep.
“She said no,” Peeta barked, finally answering Rye after he’d asked a million times what happened to make his mood so sour.
“Oh,” Rye said sympathetically, patting him on the shoulder and offering a few more words before disappearing. “I’m sorry, Bro. She’s a bitch. You’re too good for her anyway.”
He wanted to argue with his brother’s choice of words, but he really had no basis other than the wrath he’d witnessed today. He didn’t know Katniss very well, despite having been in the same grade as her since kindergarten, so he had no idea why Katniss had been so cold to him. He couldn’t wrap his head around why the one girl he wanted to be with more than anything would just blow him off so quickly. It pierced him right through the heart like an arrow.
Why couldn’t he have fallen for Delly Cartwright, his best friend who would never hurt him? Or Madge Undersee, the Mayor’s daughter, who had (on more than one occasion) shown interest in him. He’d even said no to the sure lay that a night with Bristel Daniels would have brought, hoping upon hope that he’d be able to reach through Katniss’s tough exterior by now. Why did he have to be so hung up on a girl that obviously hated him?
Maybe Rye was right.
Katniss’s words had hurt him more than he wanted to admit. He replayed the scenario over and over, reliving each word and wondering how he could have done things differently. Did he look at her wrong? Had his body language somehow been offensive? But he couldn’t figure it out, and he couldn’t ask Katniss. She’d flat out told him not to speak to her ever again.
The more Peeta thought about it throughout the following week, the more angry he became. The more angry he became, the more resentment he harbored towards Katniss. And the more resentment that built up against her, the more his feelings for her were smothered underneath it, until he didn’t know they were there anymore.
Katniss woke the next morning facing Peeta. Her face was tucked into his neck and she could feel the soft puff of his breath periodically on her forehead. He was sleeping hard, with his arm slung over her waist and he looked so peaceful. She watched him closely; the way his lips parted when he breathed, the serene look on his porcelain face, a few freckles scattered over the bridge of his nose. His ashy blond hair fell in languid waves across his forehead. She’d never cared to notice any of these things before, and the image of this Peeta melted away some of the humiliation of what he’d said about her in high school.
Katniss nearly snorted out loud at the irony of it. She’d basically ripped him a new one for wanting to get in her pants, and now here she was, asking him to come to bed with her. It was all platonic, of course.
Not wanting to get caught this way and make things more stressful for them, she slipped from underneath his arm and grabbed her workout clothes, changing in the bathroom and plaiting her hair into her trademark braid. She was eating a bowl of cereal when she heard him stir, and after a moment he was standing in front of her, half-dressed, his thin cotton pants slung just below his hips, rubbing his eyes with one hand and covering a huge yawn with the other.
“Thank you,” he said. “That was the best sleep I’ve had since we got here.”
Katniss gazed into her bowl, pretending to be mesmerized by the brown flakes more than Peeta’s sculpted chest. They’d been practicing together long enough that the sight of him like this shouldn’t be doing these things to her. Her cheeks flamed and she shoveled a spoonful of cereal into her mouth. “You’re welcome,” she said around the bite.
She watched him as he looked around the apartment, probably for the first time, and really took it in.
“You, um, you closed all the blinds…” he said, trailing off.
“Oh, yeah. The view is, um… overrated,” she answered, waving the spoon in her hand in dismissal. When he turned back to her with a lopsided grin on his face and eyes light up like Christmas, her stomach swooped, and she noticed a deep dimple on the left side of his mouth. Well, if that isn’t just fucking adorable, she thought irritatedly. Why did Peeta have to go and complicate things by suddenly not being a jerk anymore in addition to being extremely attractive?
Peeta seemed to be on cloud nine by the time they left the 42nd floor, and their short morning practice was better than it had been since they’d come to the Capitol. Even Haymitch commented on how good they looked together. Playing together, Katniss reprimanded herself when her mind had other ideas. Obviously, Peeta being any kind of nice to her had her brain tousled up worse than his attractive case of bedhead from earlier.
They were more than civil, friendly even, to each other. He offered her water, picked up her towel when she dropped it. Offered her his hand to help her up when she dove into the sand for a dig. When she grasped it, she felt a current, warm and electric, racing up her arm. Her eyes shot up to his. He blinked and looked away too quickly for her to see if he felt it, too.
Katniss was too rattled by the new feelings that seemed to be surfacing that she kept her distance from Peeta, blaming her nerves about the upcoming game against District Seven when he asked if she was alright. Katniss rarely got nervous before a game.
They took the court opposite of the menacing-looking girl with short, spiky hair and her male partner, who didn’t look like much to Katniss. The games were quick and action-packed, as they volleyed back and forth with powerful serves and rocket-like spikes. The series should have been difficult since the female player, whom Katniss had heard referred to as Johanna, played as well as she did. It was her partner that was her downfall. But Katniss and Peeta swept it in two games, much to Johanna’s infuriation.
When the final point was won, Katniss jumped and hollered in glee, running over to Peeta and throwing her arms around his midsection. His arms tightened around her and he lifted her off the ground, spinning her once before settling her back in the sand.
Katniss was secretly relieved for the photos they were asked to pose for, even though she hated the invasion of the media into her private space. But, it made the relief of keeping her arms around him less conspicuous if he thought she was doing it for the benefit of the fans and the journalists. As the cameras continued to click, and more and more people gathered around them to congratulate their climb to the semi-finals, Katniss never left the safety of Peeta’s side, and if his arm around her shoulders was any indication, he didn’t mind it one bit.
Peeta leaned his head against the only metal wall of the elevator as it ascended to their apartment. “This is the worst part,” he mumbled under his breath.
“Almost there,” she said, trying to cheer him up somehow. He barked out a laugh, and Katniss couldn’t help but snort at the absurdity of how she’d tried to calm him, telling him they were almost to the 42nd floor, on which he would be stuck for the next 12 hours, only to have to board the metal box that dangled from a cable at deadly heights to reach solid ground again. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” he said good-naturedly, and she wondered where this Peeta had been hiding all the time they’d spent loathing each other.
Once inside the apartment, Katniss dropped her bag in her room, then headed to the shower. “You need some help with the shower?” she called out to Peeta.
“Ahhhhh….” he stammered from the living room, and Katniss got the impression he wanted to say yes, but didn’t want her to feel obligated to continue taking care of him. He’d told her the blinds helped him be able to move about the space easier, but there were no blinds at all in the bathroom. Only gauzy, white curtains that stretched lazily at each end of the room.
He appeared near the doorway, an unsteady look on his face as though he was contemplating stepping into the bathroom on his own.
“I’m going to get in, so I thought we could just kill two birds, you know?” she said, hoping she sounded practical. She turned to start the shower, unable to take the heat of his gaze on her. “You’re doing really well, today,” she encouraged him without looking at him. “Moving around the apartment more.”
He grimaced and looked down at his feet. “I feel like such a loser. I can’t get in a fucking shower for two seconds to wash up.”
“Baby steps, Peeta,” she told him, but his nod was uncertain.
“So?” she asked him one more time before stepping in. She wasn’t going to force him today. He had to take the steps on his own.
“Yeah, o-okay,” he agreed, and moved cautiously inside the doorway, grabbing onto things like the sink and the towel holder as he went. Katniss guessed they were supposed to keep him from falling into the abyss should the floor open up, and she had to suppress a smile. He caught her smirking at him, and he narrowed his eyes at her.
“Shut up,” he said, the barest hint of playfulness in his tone.
Katniss stripped off her cotton dress, leaving on her red workout bra and shorts, and Peeta did the same. They both seemed to be trying not to stare at each other, even though they wore the exact same garments to practice in. It was just more… intimate. They weren’t yelling out ‘I got it’ and cursing when the ball went out of bounds. There was a sensuality to standing under cascading waters while rubbing soap on their skin, massaging it through their hair, the steam from the hot water generating a seductive vibe.
She put her thoughts aside, concentrating on getting clean. Peeta seemed only slightly more comfortable in the shower than he had the night before, holding on to her hand again when she wasn’t using it to wash herself. This time, though, his grip felt more like he was seeking comfort rather than experiencing the simple terror of the night before.
When Katniss came out of her room, dressed in shorts and a fitted tank, Peeta was at the dining table again. He looked a little more relaxed in a blue t-shirt that stretched across his back, cargo shorts and flip flops, reading a book.
“Let’s go,” Katniss said, trying to be nonchalant as she headed for the door. It was only six o’clock, and they hadn’t had any dinner yet. Katniss knew if Peeta had to stay in the apartment for too long he might let the fear back in, and he’d really made some good strides at overcoming it, she thought. She didn’t want to see him lose the progress, and it was important to keep him as relaxed as possible so he could continue to play as well as he had been. Especially since the next day was the semi-finals against District Two. It would either be Two or Twelve against the reigning champs from Four, who had received a bye in this round.
“What? Where?” he asked.
Hand on the knob, and butterflies in her stomach, she offered another olive branch. “I’m starving. Aren’t you?”
Sleep that night was more awkward than it had been the first time, since they weren’t exhausted enough not to care about their proximity.
Peeta sat stiffly on the edge of the bed, while she settled in the middle. “Are you sure? I can sleep at the table. I’ve done it a few times, it’s fine, really.” She could tell he was trying to brush it off to spare them any discomfort.
“No, Peeta. I need you,” Katniss admitted. His eyes widened and hers followed, realizing too late what her words must have sounded like, stumbling through her reasoning. “I-I, I mean, I do, need you. That is… rested. You know, for the Games tomorrow.”
Peeta’s countenance fell, but he recovered it quickly, gave her a wide smile that she couldn’t say reached his eyes. Fuck. Why did she say it like that? Someone terrible at saying things should not say stuff, she scolded herself. Because she didn’t have the ability to explain when she screwed it up, which she always did.
“Stay,” she said softly, looking up at him through her eyelashes and hoping that was enough of an explanation. It was all she trusted herself with at the moment.
“Yeah, okay,” he said rather reluctantly, laying back carefully on the mattress. “Can you leave the light on?” he asked when she reached over to her side to switch off the lamp. She nodded, but his body was stiff as a board and she could feel the tension roll off him, which confused Katniss even more.
She was sure to put enough space between them to keep it platonic, even though her heart was beating wildly against her rib cage in a more-than-friendly rhythm. She wondered what it meant. She knew Peeta was attractive. Anyone could see that, and she wasn’t blind, but did that mean she had feelings for him? She was certainly feeling something for him, unlike anything she’d experienced before. And how was it that her disdain for him seemed to have all but evaporated since yesterday? He’d always had an effect on her, but she’d never dreamed it could swing so easily in the opposite direction.
Next to her, Peeta sighed. “I can’t sleep,” he said quietly, breaking into her muddied thoughts and Katniss turned her head to look at him. His eyes were screwed shut and his brow was wrinkled. He raked a hand through his hair and it stood on end adorably.
“Why not?” she asked simply.
“I just feel like everything is about to collapse underneath me. Like there’s nothing anchoring me to anything.” He sighed deeper. “I know it’s ridiculous.”
On a whim, Katniss reached over and took his hand under the covers, twining her fingers with his. Her pulse sped up and she half expected him to pull away. But he didn’t. “Better?” she asked after a moment.
“A little,” he confessed, and she watched his cheeks turn pink. “Could you, maybe, come closer? Like last night?”
“Um, okay.” When Katniss was settled next to him, she was surprised at how the coziness of his body overcame the awkwardness of laying so intimately with him. It was a little disconcerting how well they seemed to fit together, her head nestled in the crook of his shoulder and her hand resting lightly on his ribs. His arm was trapped behind her back, his hand dangerously close to her hip. There was no place else for their limbs to go in this position, and she was trying to keep it as chaste as possible, but it made her pulse quicken. She closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath trying to steady it, but that only made her other senses heighten more. He smelled good, felt incredible, and his breathing coupled with the faint beat of his heart sounded relaxed. The only sensation she couldn’t judge was taste.
Taste. That word alone had her envisioning Peeta’s lips against hers, and she squeezed her eyes tightly to keep herself from peeking at them.
“Goodnight, Katniss,” Peeta whispered tiredly, and the proximity of his voice calmed the thoughts spinning in her head.
“Goodnight, Peeta,” she replied. His hand twitched next to her hip as his breathing leveled out, and she could tell he’d fallen asleep. She sighed. Rest wasn’t going to come as easily for her.
The air around the arena was charged with electricity. Fans were packing the stands to see them take on the formidable team from District One. Coach had updated them on each team’s strengths and weaknesses before the games, and how best to break down their defenses. She listened intently as Coach Abernathy stood on the sideline with them, reminding them of the toughness of their opponents while Katniss shrugged her team coverup off and pulled out her sunscreen. Marvel and Glimmer would do anything to win, including the female tribute trying to seduce judges with her pretty face and ample cleavage. They’d never won gold before, and it was rumored this would be their last competition, as they were the oldest team in the games.
Katniss gave a disgusted shake of her head and glanced over at the two opponents. Marvel didn’t seem all that much to be ‘marveled’ at. He was taller than Peeta, but not as well-built, and his hair and eyes were nothing compared to her partner’s. Glimmer, however, was definitely a sight with her smaller-than-it-should-be uniform painted to her body, her breasts almost spilling out of the top. Her abs were toned and tanned, and a very blonde ponytail hung playfully to the middle of her back. She looked more like a swimsuit model than a competitive volleyball player.
A pang of jealousy hit Katniss that Peeta would have his eyes on the girl for the next hour. He would have to, of course, since they were literally facing each other, but it didn’t make it any easier to swallow. For whatever reason, she hoped Peeta wouldn’t compare her body with Glimmer’s. Katniss was straight where Glimmer was curvy, and she was certainly wasn’t as endowed. Though her suit allowed some glimpse of her cleavage, it was nowhere near as substantial.
Turning her attention back to their pep talk, Katniss roughly slathered the lotion up and down her arms, swirling it onto her cheeks, nose and forehead in agitation. She glanced up every now and then when Haymitch would make a gesture, one of the times catching Peeta’s gaze riveted to her hand as she quickly smoothed the lotion over the top of her chest. He blushed when he realized she’d seen him, and quickly averted his attention back to Haymitch. His eyes on her seemed to calm her ire, and she remembered that Peeta was her partner, not Glimmer’s. He was currently sharing a shower and a bed with her, however platonic it was.
She finished coating all of her exposed skin, save for her back, just as Coach was done with his speech. “Do you want some?” Katniss asked, holding up her bottle of sunblock to Peeta, who smiled charmingly at her.
“You just want your hands on me, Everdeen,” he teased. She scowled at him, but secretly her stomach fluttered at his words. He laughed at her as he reached behind his head to grab his shirt and pull it off, then took the bottle out of her hand and squeezed some in his own. “Turn around,” he said, and she could swear his voice was a touch lower than normal.
She did as he asked, more out of curiosity than submission, and she startled at the first touch of his hand to her skin. She’d washed him in the shower, had her hands in his hair, slept next to him, held his hand. But he’d yet to really touch her until now. And as his hands massaged the lotion into her shoulders and her lower back, Katniss had to admit the feeling was exquisite.
“Will you do me?” he asked. Katniss whipped around to face him, her silver eyes locking with his sparkling blue ones. The sunlight did glorious things to Peeta Mellark, she thought. It highlighted his blond waves like an angelic crown, made his eyes seem brighter and more intense all at the same time, its rays snaking in between the ridges of his muscles like her fingers itched to. The sun was a lucky bitch.
He held up the bottle in front of her with a completely innocent smile on his face, his eyebrows shooting up when it took her a beat too long to react. She blinked, focused on it, then it dawned on her what he was asking and she shook the inappropriate thoughts from her mind.
“Um, uh, yeah. Of course,” she said flippantly, trying to hide her embarrassment. She felt so stupid. And since when did a little charm turn her into a bumbling, lusty idiot anyway? She’d met charming people before. She usually just scowled at them and they left her alone. But in such a short amount of time, Peeta’s vulnerability had worked its way inside her, rooted there, and he was quickly growing on her.
Katniss rubbed the lotion in abruptly, the exact opposite way he had done for her. She had to get her head in the game. Otherwise, Peeta might not be the reason they went home early.
When they took to the sandy court, Peeta nodded his head at her in encouragement just before she tossed the ball into the air and sent it careening over the net right at Glimmer, who bumped it for Marvel to set, then jumped high into the air for a spike which Peeta blocked. Marvel was able to get under it before it touched the ground and Glimmer sent it back over toward the back corner. A dive and mouthful of sand later, Katniss had put the ball back in play for Peeta, who set it up perfectly for Katniss to spike, but Marvel blocked it and the ball hit the sand on their side of the court. Katniss shook it off and prepared to return a serve from Marvel.
The game was intense, long, but they edged past the team from One at the very end, gaining two points in a row to defeat them.
“Yessss,” Katniss hissed to herself as she jogged over to their team bench for a quick water break.
“Way to go, Everdeen,” Peeta said as he walked up behind her, smacking her on the rear playfully. She sputtered and choked on her water at the unexpected contact. “Sorry, sorry. I just got a little over excited,” he said remorsefully, putting his hands up in surrender. She looked at him wide-eyed, took in the terrified expression on his face before bursting into a grin as she swiped at the drops of water that dribbled down her chin.
“If we keep winning, you can get as over excited as you want, Mellark,” she quipped, her smile fading. His eyes grew serious, darkening a shade, and as much as she wanted to break their hold on her, she couldn’t.
In the distance, a timer went off, breaking it for her and signaling the start of the second round, and before Katniss had a chance to analyze what she’d said and his reaction to it, she and Peeta were on the court, engaged in another battle for the win. If they could sweep One, they’d be on to the finals against Odesta, and guaranteed a silver medal, though Katniss wouldn’t settle for anything less than gold now that she’d seen the light at the end of the tunnel.
They were tied at twenty when Peeta served a line drive at Marvel, who bumped it up for Glimmer. They volleyed back and forth several times, and it felt to Katniss like she dove into the sand more during this match than any of her others combined. That was one of District One’s strengths - tiring their opponents with strategically placed balls. They were experts at it. When she dove for the last time, sending the ball back over before Peeta could set her up for a spike, she couldn’t pick herself up fast enough to get underneath the the ball as Marvel sent it right back at her for the win.
He and Glimmer hi-fived and Katniss caught the girl smirking at her. She wanted nothing more than to wipe it off in the next match.
“You okay?” Peeta asked, helping her stand. Katniss angrily brushed the sand off her thighs and abs.
“No,” she growled through gritted teeth, keeping her eyes on the sand so no one could see how affected she was by the loss. She’d put them in situation where there was no cushion. They had to win, or they’d be standing on the podium in third place.
“Don’t sweat it. We’ve got another game,” he told her. When she didn’t respond, he tipped her chin up with his finger and caught her eyes with his, giving her a smile so brilliant it made her stomach flutter and hope squashed the anger she’d been feeling. “We’re not out yet, Everdeen.”
As if his words hadn’t done enough to her, he swiped his thumb across her cheek tenderly, and his smile faded as he continued to watch her. She felt herself so mesmerized by him that she actually leaned in. Peeta cleared his throat and backed away, his hand dropping from her face.
“Sand. You had, sand on your-,” he took a deep breath and pointed at her nervously, “cheek. Water?” he asked quickly, his voice breaking as he turned away and walked over to the bench. Katniss watched him, confused as to what had just happened. She touched her cheek, and sure enough there were a few grains of sand on her skin. Shame washed over her. He hadn’t been about to kiss her, and she’d just made a complete fool of herself. How was she going to overcome this misunderstanding? She couldn’t very well tell him she had feelings for him. She didn’t even know to what degree those feelings ran. For all she knew a kiss or a one time roll in the hay could be the end of it. And then what? Ruin the relationship that seemed to blossom overnight? No thanks. She had to admit that she enjoyed being Peeta Mellark’s friend more than she’d enjoyed being his enemy.
Katniss downed some water and followed Peeta back to the court. When she jogged past him to take her place, he snaked his arm around her waist and pulled her close to him. Her breath caught when he leaned in to whisper in her ear. “One more, Everdeen. Let’s help them say goodbye to their careers, shall we?”
All she could do was nod, rendered mute by his proximity and the warm breath caressing the shell of her ear. But she was thankful that he seemed to be unbothered by the fact that she’d leaned into him. Almost kissed him. In front of everyone. Idiot.
When Peeta let her go, the tension of the game and the anxious crowd replaced the comfort his hold provided. It was suffocating, and she knew the only thing that would lift it was the smack of the ball against her skin. She didn’t just want to win against the team from One, she wanted to annihilate them.
Glimmer tossed the ball into the air, and the last game between the two districts begun with an aggressive volley back and forth for the first point. It ended in their favor and Peeta giving her an encouraging wink as Glimmer served to them again. The second point went to them, and Peeta tossed the ball to Katniss, allowing her to take the lead.
Midway through the game, they were tied at 15. They only needed six more points to vault themselves into the finals, and Katniss was determined to get them. But first, they needed to get back on offense, so when she saw Marvel rubbing at his right hamstring, she knew where her next spike was going.
“I got it,” she called out so Peeta would know she wanted the bump and the spike. When Marvel readied himself for the block, instead of hitting the ball, Katniss rolled it left of where he was expecting it. He reached out and the ball fumbled through his fingertips, deflected out of reach with his sore limb, and putting them ahead by one point. Katniss smiled as she turned around to hi-five Peeta.
“Five more, Mellark,” she touted, grabbing the ball out of the air and handing it over for his serve. The next two serves were all his, making the score 18-15 before team One eked out two points of their own before sending it back across the net.
It was Katniss’s serve, and two intense exchanges later they were staring match point in the face. This was it. One point and they were contending for gold.
“Hey.” Peeta came over before her serve and placed his hands on her shoulders, massaging to relax her. “This is game, Everdeen. You’re on fire, you know that?” She couldn’t help but smile at him, his perfect words reaching right inside her and pulling out the best of who she was. “Ready?” he asked, his blue eyes luminous with certain victory.
“I was born ready. What about you?” she countered playfully.
“That’s my girl,” he said, patting her on her upper arms before backing away. The way he said it sent a thousand butterflies swirling inside her, and she felt like she could do anything as long as he was with her. One wink from him, and she tossed the ball up, driving it across the net, right into Glimmer’s waiting arms. Glimmer rolled it over the net after Marvel set it up for her, much the same way Katniss had done to him, except she was able to lunge to put the ball back in play. Peeta bumped it up, and Katniss set it up at the perfect height. It almost seemed like slow motion as she watched his glistening body fly through the air, his skin connecting with a smack as he sent the ball down so hard it hit Marvel in the nose, and instead of bumping the ball back up for his teammate, he grabbed at his face as blood gushed from underneath his hands.
It wasn’t until Glimmer stalked off the court with a disgusted look on her face that Katniss realized they’d won. They won! The crowd had already erupted in loud cheering before it hit her.
Katniss shrieked, and turned to Peeta, who was already on his knees in the sand, arms curled, biceps flexed, and fists clenched. His beautiful face was turned to the sky and he was screaming in elation. Katniss could think of nothing else but celebrating with him, and she wasn’t able to control herself as she raced to him, throwing herself down on top of him.
They fell to the sand with Peeta on his back, his arms instantly winding around her. In a moment of sheer bliss and poor judgement, Katniss sealed her lips to his, amazed at how soft they were after hours in the sun. She could have stayed there forever, except she realized that she was kissing Peeta, and he wasn’t kissing her back.
She smacked loudly when she drew back, hoping to quell some of the awkwardness he was sure to feel. The huge smile on her face faltered when Peeta leveled her with a look so intense she had to scramble off the top of him or be sucked into it, never to escape.
The next hour was torture for Katniss, as she and Peeta were pulled in different directions for interviews, autographs and fan photos. She had never been a social person. Glancing over at Peeta, she saw how good he was with the fans and the media, how effortless it all seemed to be for him. She wondered if he was watching her the same way she was stealing looks at him? He didn’t seem to be, and Katniss’s stomach twisted uncomfortably. She tried to smile for a few more photos with some male fans that wanted to lean in a little too closely, and hug her just a little too long.
The last fan reminded her of her coach. He was older, gruff, and she could tell he’d been drinking. The guy had obviously lost all sense of propriety when he leaned in to press a rough kiss to her lips, holding her face so tightly to hers she couldn’t break away.
“Hey, hey! Whoa!” Katniss heard Peeta’s concerned voice before she saw him, and thankfully he helped to separate them, pushing Katniss behind him and away from the over-amorous fan, who was laughing and saying something about liking the feisty ones. Katniss shivered.
“I’m ready to go,” she told Peeta, who was still blocking her from the retreating drunk.
“Yeah, me, too,” he said, giving her a thoughtful look she couldn’t decipher.
“Peeta,” Katniss said on the ride up to their floor, her stomach humming with nervous energy.
“Hm?” he acknowledged her, keeping his eyes on the floor. It might be the coward’s way, but she thought it would be easier to apologize for kissing him if he couldn’t look at her.
“About earlier, when I… you know,” she paused, running her hand along her braid.
“Can we talk about it when we get to the room? I’m having a hard time thinking about anything but falling to my death right now.”
That was exactly where she didn’t want to talk about it. But instead of arguing, she reached out for his hand, squeezing it for reassurance when she felt it trembling in hers. It seemed like the right thing to do in the moment. He shouldn’t have to face his fears alone, not when her presence and attention seemed to be a comfort to him. Plus, she liked how his hand in hers made her feel warm and curious.
Inside the apartment, Katniss knew she had to settle what happened between them. So with a deep breath she just started talking. “Look, Peeta, I’m sorry I overstepped out there. I was excited and shocked, and it just seemed like not a big deal or something. And I took advantage of our friendship and-”
“We’re friends?” he interrupted, his mouth ticking up in a sly grin.
She shot him a dubious look. Here she was trying her hardest to get the words right, to lay to rest any discomfort between them, and he was cracking smart-ass comments.
“That’s not the point, Peeta.”
“It so is the point, Katnisssss,” he teased her, drawing out her name in a way that sounded more tantalizing than it probably should have. She must be hearing things. “Honestly, I’ve been having so much fun with you I completely forgot why we haven’t always been friends.” He reached up to run his hand down her braid, and the intimate gesture almost made her forget exactly why they were enemies.
“It’s because you... said you... wanted…” Katniss swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry. She was having a hard time breathing with him so close, but when she didn’t say anymore, Peeta finished for her.
“To take you to prom?” his eyebrows scrunched together in confusion, and Katniss had to admit that when it was said that way it made no sense at all. But there was something Peeta didn’t know she knew, and it was time to tell him.
“No,” Katniss shook her head, her braid falling from between Peeta’s fingers. She hugged herself as she recalled the unpleasant memory. “You said, I mean, I overheard you in the hall.”
Peeta’s eyes were kind as he searched her face, but any indication that he understood what she was saying never reached them.
“Katniss, I don’t know what you’re talking about. What is it? You can tell me,” he encouraged her gently. It wasn’t about could anymore. She had to tell him since she’d let the cat out of the bag. Damnit! Why did she have to go and kiss her partner after an emotional win?
In a rush to get it out there, she blurted out, “I heard someone talking about you wanting to get in my pants.” She cringed when she heard it out loud, and Peeta’s eyebrows shot up above his hairline.
“Who did you hear that from?” he asked, and his eyes were full of concern.
“I don’t know, I didn’t see who they were, I just heard them talking, and-”
“And they said Peeta wants to get in Katniss’s pants?”
“Well, nooooo,” Katniss lengthened the word, remembering the exact conversation. “They didn’t say your name, but they said he wanted to ask me to prom so he could, you know... and then-”
“Then I asked you to prom and you thought it was me,” he said quietly, piecing together the memory in Katniss’s head. She nodded her confirmation, though from the blank look on his face she felt strangely like she had been accusing him all this time of something he hadn’t done. And then a thought occurred to her. What if Peeta wasn’t the one that said it?
She had just assumed it was him, since no other boy had asked her to prom, and at the time, it had crushed her deeply enough to learn that Peeta wasn’t who she’d thought he was that she put it out of her mind indefinitely.
“Oh my god, Peeta,” she whispered into her hand as it covered her mouth. “It wasn’t you, was it?”
It was Peeta’s turn to shake his head. “But I know who it was,” he admitted, and in his own confession he relayed to Katniss the events of that day. How Rye had come home and encouraged Peeta to ask her, telling him that Thom, his competition, had been redirected. How he’d been hurt by her seemingly unwarranted rejection of him, and then angered by it for too long.
“Oh,” was all Katniss could say. She was utterly speechless at the revelation she’d spent years hating Peeta Mellark for nothing.
“Anyway,” Peeta said, shuffling uncomfortably on his feet and rubbing his neck. “Water under the bridge, right?” The quick glance he gave her was so melancholic she felt it in her bones.
“Yeah, I guess.” She gave a weak laugh.
“Well, I’m gonna get a shower…” he said after a few beats, and he started hesitantly towards the bathroom.
“Alone?” she called after him, a surge of panic rising in her belly. Did he not need her anymore? Was their friendship over before it really began? She refused to believe the lie they’d both been living under was better than the truth. It wasn’t, right?
“Um, well, I can’t keep asking you to shower with me, can I?” If he meant it as a rhetorical question, Katniss didn’t hear it. It sounded more to her like a plea. Of course you can, she answered him silently with a soft expression.
Maybe it was the win from earlier that made Katniss feel invincible. Or maybe it was the knowledge that there was never any reason to hate each other, but she acted on it. Linking her hand with Peeta’s shaky one. she led him to the bathroom, where they stripped to their uniforms and climbed into the shower wordlessly, him under one showerhead while she stood under the other. He had let go of her hand, a sign that he was trying to master the fear.
But a whole other fear was gripping Katniss. The fear that with all that had come to light, nothing was standing in the way of her blossoming feelings for Peeta, unless he didn’t return them. She was nervous, alone with him like this; stripped down, almost bare, and in more ways than one. Two people, who had so thoroughly despised one another, sharing soft touches and shy looks. She almost wished for their mutual animosity to return and stop the freefall her emotions were in because she wasn’t strong enough to do it herself.
A spray of icy water on Katniss’s back startled her, and Peeta must have felt it, too, because they both gasped and lunged forward at the same time. Katniss smashed into Peeta’s solid chest and his hands gripped her arms. They were skin to skin, close enough that she had no idea whose breaths belonged to whom. And it felt impossibly good.
Peeta let go first. “Sorry, I, uh, I guess someone upstairs must have flushed,” he said, giving her a timid half-laugh as he ran a shaky hand through his hair and blew out a breath to match.
“Are you still afraid?” she asked, noting the slight tremble in his body. She reached for his hand, hoping that would help him relax.
He nodded. “But it’s not what you think. I mean, yeah, I still don’t like heights but I… like being with you, even if it’s on the 42nd floor of this god-awful skyscraper.” She would have laughed at that, but the way he eyed her through long, golden lashes, his irises a shade of blue so deep she could never swim to the bottom, stifled the amusement before it had the chance to surface.
“I’m, um, more afraid that what I think might be happening between us isn’t real. Katniss, I’m not sorry you kissed me,” Peeta said. His fingers skimmed over her shoulders, and down her arms, faltering with nerves that matched her own. An obvious shiver ran through her. “I never thought it was an option before tonight.” His voice was as low and dangerous as the current humming between them.
He brought his hands to her face, leaned in to her. Her eyes fluttered closed, expecting the feel of his wet lips on hers. But he didn’t kiss her. Instead, he touched his forehead to hers, and Katniss could swear she’d forgotten how to breathe.
“Please tell me you aren’t sorry for it.” His whisper broke through the steam that swirled around them.
Because she was terrible at saying something, Katniss tipped her chin up and touched her lips to his, hoping her answer was enough for him. The pressure of his lips on hers and the way he captured her bottom one between his, sucking gently told her it must have been enough. It made her knees weak and took every ounce of energy she had left to stay upright.
Her hands came up to grip his wrists and he slowly backed her into the wall. His tongue slid across the seam of her mouth and she opened for him, greedy for whatever he wanted to give her. He kissed her languidly, taking his time to acquaint himself with every inch of her mouth. Her hands hands began to roam his body like she’d been imagining; over his arms and across his chest, their kisses becoming more intense, needy. He pulled his lips away and her groan of protest transformed into a contented purr when they began skating down her neck, his tongue darting out to lick at the droplets of water slipping their way down her skin. She tilted her head back, inviting him to continue.
When she thought she couldn’t become any more turned on, his fingers skimmed across the top of her chest, and he toyed with the straps of her top. “Do you need this?” he asked against her skin, the vibrations from the deep timbre of his voice charting a direct path between her legs. Unable to use her voice, she shook her head almost violently in a silent cry for him to please strip it off her.
“Are you sure?” He stopped everything and locked eyes with her. “You have to be sure, Katniss. I need to hear it.”
How did he expect her to say anything when he had been kissing and touching her like that? But she found her voice in spite of it all, and she’d never heard it so raw with need. “I’m sure, Peeta.”
The sound of his name on her tongue must have spurred him into action, because he crushed his lips to hers in a bruising kiss before digging his fingers underneath her top and pulling it over her head. He let out a breath, chasing it with a curse. “You are perfect,” he whispered reverently.
Katniss wished he would touch her. His blatant staring was making the throbbing between her legs unbearable. Her breath hitched when he brought his hands up, and she was ready for the caress of his hands across her breasts, but instead his fingertips traced her collarbone and she felt like she might explode.
“Touch me, Peeta,” she commanded him, already knowing what he was going to ask. His eyes found hers and the heat between them matched the fire kindling in her belly.
With agonizing slowness, Peeta dragged his hands down her chest, and Katniss’s head fell back when he reached her breasts, palming them softly as she moaned her approval. His finger circled her taut nipple, his bottom lip caught in his teeth as he gazed at her thoughtfully, like he was witnessing something precious he never wanted to forget.
When he finally rolled the aching buds between his fingers, Katniss gasped and reached around his neck, tugging his mouth to hers. His hands left her breasts, planting themselves on either side of the wall around her head. She pulled him closer until his chest was flush against hers. She wanted him, all of him, and she could feel what she wanted pressing into her. Her hands wandered their way to the waistband of his shorts, and she was reminded of the first day they’d showered together. She had almost undressed him, but she’d been too embarrassed then. Now sheer instinct and desire forced her usual inhibitions into the background.
Katniss wanted his uniform off. “Can these go?” she asked, pulling and letting the band go, the wet pop against his skin reverberating between the marble walls. He gave her a grin as sexy as it was shy before looping his thumbs into the shorts and pushing them down his legs. It took some work, since they were soaked and clinging to his skin, but it gave Katniss a chance to check him out without him noticing. She was glad she had a moment to compose herself when she saw how big he was. It was unnerving and arousing at the same time.
Peeta kicked the shorts to the edge of the shower and descended on her lips, trapping his hot, hard length between them. The kiss wasn’t slow, and it wasn’t quick and needy. It was perfect, and she felt his promise of something more deep in her soul.
“Can we get out of here?” Peeta asked huskily, and when Katniss nodded, he picked her up by the waist and she wrapped her legs around his naked hips. When he exited the shower, he cursed, freezing in place, muttering something about how she made him lose all sense of reality. Then he turned to face the inside wall of the bathroom and sidestepped his way out, while Katniss buried her face in his neck, giggling at his resolve to overcome the fear of heights to be with her.
Inside her bedroom, Peeta set Katniss on the bed and she fell back, dripping wet all over. The bed was becoming as soaked as she was. She reached for him, wanted his body to cover everything about her that was exposed, but he eluded her grasp and she whined his name.
“Patience,” he laughed lightly, “though I do enjoy any time you say my name.” He tucked a finger into the waistband of her uniform, which was just a glorified pair of bikini bottoms with an expensive logo on the butt cheek, moving it back and forth teasingly, until she was squirming for him to do something more. “Your turn?”
Katniss nodded, thankful she didn't have to resort to begging. Her stomach tensed as he dragged the wet spandex down her legs, discarding the material somewhere over his shoulder. His eyes were fixed at the juncture between her thighs, and his tongue darted out to wet his lips. “Fuck, Katniss. You’re so damn sexy.” She blushed at his praise, but it made her feel beautiful, desirable.
Peeta's hand smoothed over the inside of her calf, fingers settling around her ankle as he lifted her leg. He began leaving a trail of kisses from her instep to the inside of her upper thigh, telling her between each touch of his lips to her skin how he'd never allowed himself to fantasize about her after their miscommunication. Pushed away thoughts of what she would feel like, sound like, taste like. His gaze held hers the entire time, and he stole her breath away as the whisper of her name fanned across her wet heat.
“Please, Peeta. Do something or I'll have to do it myself.” All his teasing and touching had made her care less about how he viewed her. She was too tightly strung.
If it were possible, his eyes darkened even more. “We'll save that for another time,” he growled, and suddenly he was there, dragging his tongue through her swollen folds as he pinned her thighs down with his strong forearms.
In no time at all he had her falling apart under his mouth. Stars exploded behind her eyelids and a high pitched moan filled the room as he continued to flick his tongue back and forth over the sensitive little nub he'd focused on.
Katniss’s chest heaved from the exertion, and when she finally opened her eyes, Peeta was staring down at her in awe.
She held out her arms and gave him a wicked smile. “Come here.”
Katniss scoured the arena for Peeta from behind her dark shades. They’d been separated a while ago for pre-game interviews, and now that hers was finally over she wanted to catch up with him.
After the night they had - and this morning, her lips quirked at the memory - Katniss had given the best interview of her life. Her smile was sincere instead of fake, and the only reason she wanted to wrap it up quickly was so she could spend more time preparing for the game with her partner, rather than trying to get away because the interviewer asked too many personal questions. Like her favorite color.
Who knew sex with Peeta Mellark could change her outlook so completely? It wasn’t just the sex, though, amazing as it had been. It was his patient, tender ways. And the way she responded to his kindness with her own. He seemed to draw out the best in her.
“Hey.” Katniss whirled around at the sound of Peeta’s voice. He was walking up behind her with a lopsided smile on his face. He stopped before he got too close to her, and she almost regretted suggesting that morning that they should try to maintain a professional appearance until the medals were hung around their necks. “Ready to warm up?”
They had an hour before the game started. “Yeah,” she answered, not meaning for it to sound so breathy, but she had this urge to fuse their mouths together and run her tongue over his plump lips and perfect, white teeth. Sex with Peeta Mellark had also turned her into a wanton woman apparently.
Katniss led the way to the court, unwilling to be distracted by his tight ass now that she knew exactly what was under the uniform. It was time to get focused. They were guaranteed silver, but that wasn’t what Katniss had worked so hard for. Settle for silver? Never.
They stretched together, bumped the ball back and forth, set each other up for spikes. It was the best practice they’d had so far, and with every additional body that filled the stands, the air became a little more electric.
At their bench, Katniss could hear girls screaming Peeta’s name, trying to get his attention for autographs and pictures. He was nice to them, listening to them go on and on, laughing at whatever they said. As if he sensed her eyes on him, he turned his gaze to her.
“Hey, come here,” he called, motioning her over. She was reluctant to go, knowing she wasn’t as popular as Peeta, but she just couldn’t say no to him when he smiled at her like that. But surprisingly, many of the young girls wanted to shake her hand and get a selfie with her, and they spent the next ten minutes signing all manner of materials and Panem Games gear. Hats, t-shirts, scraps of paper. One girl had the nerve to lean over the railing and ask Peeta to sign her breast, and all but popped her boob out of her shirt. Katniss almost snorted at Peeta’s dumbfounded expression, but decided shooting poisoned arrows at the fan from her eyeballs was a better idea.
They huddled up with Haymitch to go over strategy just before the game. He reminded them that Finnick Odair had surgery on his left rotator cuff, and to send as many serves as they could to his partner and wife, Annie Cresta, so he would have to raise his arms over his head for sets. Annie tended to jump too soon, anticipating the block. If they could hold out a half second, they could fake her out and gain a few points. “This is going to be a tough one, but you’ve trained your whole lives for it. You’re as good as they are, so don’t let anybody tell you differently, alright?” He winked and patted them both on the back. It was the most sincere Katniss had ever seen her coach. “Stay alive out there.”
The judge blew his whistle, signaling the start of the game. The team from Four served first, and before she knew it, they were ahead 0-5, and anxiety started to seep in. They were tougher than Katniss imagined.
“Just relax. It’s the first part of the first game. We’ll catch ‘em,” Peeta told her when they switched ends of the court after they’d failed to return the ball over the net two more times, making the score 0-7.
The next three points were theirs, but every point after that was hard fought, and they never caught up. Odesta took the first game 11-21.
The second game went in their favor, though the point spread wasn’t quite the landslide their opponents had managed in the first match. But 21-19 against the reigning champions was respectable. At least Katniss knew they could win.
As expected, it all came down to the third and final game. The crowd seemed to be holding their breath between points, right along with Katniss. They stayed tied the entire game, no team pulling ahead by more than one point at a time.
“They’re getting tired,” Peeta said to her as he crossed over to play on her left side. Katniss could see it, too, and she wanted to pull away from the tap dance the two teams had been doing.
They couldn’t do it, though, and found themselves down 13-14. Odesta had match point. Katniss kept her breathing steady, eyes trained on the ball as Annie sent it up and drove it over the net straight to her. The bump was perfect, as was Peeta’s set, and Katniss sent a line drive to the ground when Finnick tried to block with one arm. Obviously their plan to tire out Finnick’s shoulder was working.
Katniss hissed out a ‘yesss’ and lo-fived Peeta nonchalantly. Now it was all tied up, and with the ball coming back to Katniss, it was her and Peeta’s game to lose. She was in the zone, and not even Peeta’s glistening pectorals could break her from it.
Nothing could be heard over the roar of the crowd. Katniss closed her eyes to concentrate, and when she opened them, all she could see was gold. With more confidence in her game than ever, she served the ball to Odesta. Finnick moved in front of Annie to bump it this time, giving his partner the set, and himself the spike.
Peeta tried to block it, but the ball got past him. In a diving save, Katniss dug at it before it hit sand, popping it back into the air for Peeta to set, but she only had enough time to lob it over for Annie to bump. Finnick’s face contorted in pain as he set it up for Annie’s spike. Katniss went up to block, but instead of staying on Odesta’s side, it bounced into the net on Katniss’s end. She sucked in a sharp breath watching it all happen slowly, the ball fell towards the ground.
Peeta dove underneath her, but he hit the ball on his knuckles with such force, it ricocheted out of bounds and left Katniss with no chance to return it.
The crowd went wild for the victors as Katniss realized they’d lost. Silver was all she would go home with. Who knew second place could be so devastating? The sense of loss was so crushing she could barely stand.
But before Katniss could fall to her knees and make a fool of herself with an open show of emotion, Peeta put his arms around her shoulders and gave her a friendly side hug. Oh, fuck the professionalism, she thought. She needed him right now. He wrapped her in his arms when she turned her body into his, buried her face in his shoulder and let the tears flow. He rubbed her back and whispered how amazing she was. That if they had to lose to someone at least it was the reigning champions. He told her she was still young and could come back in four years to try again with Gale.
What? What did he mean, ‘come back with Gale’? They’d been so good together, on and off the court. She couldn’t lose him now. “You don’t want to come back with me?” Katniss asked, lifting her watery eyes to his, searching for the answer to a question she never thought she would ask of him.
“Are you saying you’ll allow me to be your full time partner, Everdeen?” She barked out a laugh at the saucy way he asked. The loss they’d been handed stung like the dickens, but she knew with more hard work, and Peeta on her team, she’d be back again.
She pressed a thankful kiss to his lips, tasting the salt of her own tears. Cameras and phones flashed furiously at the display, while fans hollered and swooned over them. She pulled back and gave him a smile, taking in his sun-bleached, blond hair and his tanned skin. Perhaps she was going home with something golden, though she wasn’t about to say it out loud. That would be her little secret. But she did tell him how she felt about being permanent partners.
“I’ll allow it.”
“Ready, Mellark?” Katniss asked Peeta, tossing the ball to him and giving an encouraging wink. They were one point away from the gold medal they’d been denied four years earlier, and Katniss could almost taste the metallic tang of the shiny disc. She hoped it was heavy when they hung it around her neck. She’d be disappointed if it wasn’t.
“I’m ready. You ready, Mellark?” Peeta winked back. Katniss couldn’t help but grin at how Peeta took every opportunity to call her by her new name.
They’d been playing against the new team from One in the finals this time, Cashmere and Gloss, a brother-sister team. They were popular, and excellent players, but it was Katniss and Peeta who were the darlings of the games this year, especially since Odesta had retired to start a family. Now, the Mellarks had one foot on the podium. It was theirs for the taking, and Katniss couldn’t have pictured a better scenario than sharing it with her husband and partner.
The entire set seemed to happen in slow motion as the ball flew across the net, angled for the sand. Gloss dove for the dig, sending the gritty pebbles flying into the air. His sister barely had time to get under it for the set, and Gloss could do nothing but tap it over the net, which made for an easy one-touch spike for Katniss. The ball hit the sand hard enough to make a small crater, and the crowd went wild.
Katniss ran to Peeta, jumping into his arms and crushing her mouth to his in excitement. This time when she pulled back, she didn’t have to scramble away from him. She could kiss him again and again for as long as she wanted. Having Peeta was better than any award or sponsorship she could ever win.
Of course, having it all wasn’t bad, either.