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Three of Hearts

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“Here, take this.”

A cookie wrapped in cellophane lands on my desk with a muted plunk. I stiffen with awareness and lift my face from my hands, instant irritation fighting for space with exhaustion in my groggy head. Not a morning person is an understatement in my case—taking a class this early wasn’t my first choice, but it was the only available slot by the time I had registered for fall courses.

“I’ve heard the professor is no joke. Zero tolerance for nap-taking.” The relentlessly cheerful voice comes again, this time closer to my ear. “I think you need this sugar rush more than me, sleeping beauty.”

Really? Who is this guy?

I sleepily rub my cheek and blink down at the unexpected gift. “I’m not taking that from you.”

“Why not?” The audible smile in my neighbor’s question is almost, but not quite, infectious as he settles into the desk next to mine, the small piece of furniture groaning as he drops down into it carelessly. “It’s a perfectly good cookie. I should know—I made it myself.”

Right.

“I don’t take candy from strangers. I learned that in kindergarten.”

“It’s not candy,” whoever-he-is insists, leaning over and tapping the dessert. “It’s a cookie, made from dark chocolate chunks.”

My mouth waters at the description, and I finally turn to face the guy next to me. And—wow. My throat goes dry.

Regarding me with amusement are blue eyes fringed with thick eyelashes that no boy should have, and his full lips tilt to the side, revealing a dimple that’s begging to be kissed. He ruffles his light blond hair, transforming the careful strands into haphazard waves.

“Do I have something in my teeth?”

“Uh.”

He waves a hand in front of my face. “Are you always this eloquent in the morning?” he asks, chuckling. He reaches for the cookie and I slam my hand down onto it, an impulsive move borne from pure early-morning spite. “Oh, so now you want my goodies.”

I’d be blushing if it weren’t for the benefit of my deeply olive skin, which makes me angry, because it just serves to remind me how rusty I am with the opposite sex. Even the slightest flirtation fills my cheeks with color. Pitiful.

“Can you please dial it down? It’s way too early for this nonsense.” I touch one hot cheek with the tip of my finger. Burying embarrassment with a contrary attitude, I unwrap the cookie just so he can't have it. I take a bite and my eyes almost roll back in my head. “Wow. What’s in this? Crack?”

“Meth,” he deadpans with a grin, holding out his palm. “Give me a piece. I’m tired, too, you know.”

I snap off a corner—a very small corner, because this might be the best thing I’ve ever tasted. Then I ask the obvious question that follows eating food from a stranger.

“Who are you?”

He chews and swallows. “Peeta.” He pulls a water bottle out of the backpack by his feet and takes a long pull from it, making his throat muscles do something that makes my stomach clench. “Peeta Mellark. Who are you?”

“Katniss Everdeen. You have a crumb on your lip.” This I say a little smugly, because seeing this cocky, perfect male specimen with even a small flaw seems like a victory.

Peeta sticks his tongue out, brushing at the offending tidbit with the moist, pink tip of it. Time stills as I watch his tongue flick away the crumb, and it’s as if I’m in a porno for 2.5 seconds. But then he ruins the effect by laughing at me.

“I have no idea how you did this, but you have chocolate on your nose,” he says.

Self-conscious, I immediately brush at the spot, but Peeta shakes his head. “No- it’s here.” Then he licks his thumb and rubs the side of my nose with a gesture so familiar it’s as if we’ve known each other five years instead of five minutes.

I jerk away. “That’s gross.”

He shrugs and settles back into his seat as if it's a throne rather than a desk. “You’re welcome.”

“Seriously, I don’t want your cooties.”

“You should be so lucky,” he says loftily. “Anyway, what’s a little body fluid between two friends?”

I gape at him and cross my arms. “We don’t even know each other.”

“Sure we do!” He shoots an easygoing smile at a guy with dreads, slapping him a high five as he walks by to take a seat in the back of the room. “You’re Katniss. You like cookies, hate sharing, and are a highly suspicious person—but don’t worry.” His dimple deepens. “I’m gonna break you down eventually.”

My eyes narrow at his silliness, but the professor saunters in a moment later, interrupting my reply.

“Welcome, class. I’m Professor Crane. Please pass around the syllabus”—he hands a stack to the nearest student in the first row—“and take a look to your left. Say hello to your partner for the rest of the semester.”

I groan.

“Hello, partner,” Peeta says, leaning back in his desk and lacing his hands behind his head.

***

I make my way into my apartment juggling four grocery bags and my backpack, sighing with relief when I finally unlock and kick open the door. 

I had knocked first, but of course my roommate didn't answer despite her car being in my assigned parking spot, causing me to park in an alley a block away. Hers was occupied by an obnoxiously orange muscle car, which doesn't bode well for me or my mood considering I once caught the owner sniffing my underwear in the laundry basket.

When I told my roommate, she just gave me a scornful look and said, "He must have thought it was mine."

Comforting. This is what I get for answering a Craigslist ad for a roommate.

Elizabeth "Call Me Glimmer" Paladino hasn't made more than a handful of daytime appearances since I moved into the apartment. Instead, she stumbles into the house no earlier than three AM, reeking of beer, smoke, and the lingering scent of Victoria's Secret body spray. I offered her a bowl of cereal once in the spirit of roommate solidarity, but the hung-over glare Glimmer gave me coupled with a growled exclamation of "carbs!" very quickly cured me of my generosity.

I creep into the kitchen, annoyed that I have to walk on eggshells in my own living space. I start to put up the groceries, but I jump when I close the refrigerator door after the eggs and milk are tucked away. Mr. Orange Muscle Car crosses his arms and gives me a lopsided smile that's probably supposed to be charming but comes off creepy and smug instead.

"If it isn't my favorite roommate." He pushes away from the scuffed Formica counter and saunters toward me, and I scowl.

I'm extra careful not to touch him as I walk by, making sure to give him a wide berth, but he reaches out and runs a finger down my arm. Chills break out over my skin, but not the good kind. I swat him away and jump back.

"Do not touch me." I inject as much death into my voice as possible.

Inside, I'm nervous. This guy is at least twice my size and outweighs me by a hundred pounds. I find myself eyeing the knife rack on the counter, wondering how quickly I could reach it if necessary.

"Aw, you'll like it."

"What's going on?" Glimmer says, coming around the corner with raccoon eyes and bed hair. She gives us both a suspicious look that fades into a yawn. "Is Katniss bugging you, Cato?"

Un-bel-ievable.

"Katniss was just offering me breakfast," the creep says smoothly, walking over and giving her a deep, disgustingly wet kiss. I turn away and pick up my backpack, heading toward the safety of my bedroom.

"She's so weird," I hear Glimmer complain, but Creepy Cato's response is lost in the shutting of my door. I wait until the front door slam an hour later before coming out to make some lunch, and I sit and watch television by myself until it's time for my late afternoon class.

What a life.

***

“Maybe Glimmer will grow on you. Stick it out,” Prim tells me, sounding distracted even through the phone. It depresses me a little, because even though I'm both happy and proud that Prim has her own life, I still miss when my little sister needed me. “This is going to be such a better deal than community college. You deserve the full university experience, Katniss.”

“But what if the experience is terrible? I don’t know about this.” I sit on a bench in the middle of campus and watch as students stream by, isolated and lonely even in this busy hub. The sad fact of the matter is that the most engaged and lively I’ve been since arriving at Panem University has been while verbally sparring with my new Biology partner. “I probably would have been better off just staying home, maybe working for the city.”

“No way,” my sister protests. “Besides, I needed you to leave so that I could have the room to myself. Makes it easier when Rory sneaks through the window.”

“Primrose!’ I scold her with a laugh. “You’re barely seventeen-years-old. You better be...um. Careful.”

I can practically hear her roll her eyes. “Yes, mom .” Her voice turns a little sly. “I hope you’re not being careful. Have fun! Be young. I know I will be when I get to go to college,” she adds wistfully.

“You’re never going to college,” I tell her. “You’re gonna stay my baby sister forever.”

“Okay, Katniss,” she says, sing-song. "And, hey..." There’s a hesitant quality to her voice that wasn’t there before. "You could always get in touch with you-know-who. Rory hasn't told him you're there, but I know he wants to talk to you."

I'm silent. "Are you serious?"

"Just think about it," Prim pleads. I know she'd love nothing more than for me to make that phone call, if only because one day we'll probably all be one big happy family if Rory has anything to say about it.

"Maybe." I look up at the sky and sigh. "Bye, baby sister.”

We exchange I-love-yous and hang up, and then I’m alone again, even in the middle of thousands of fellow students. I lean back against the bench and consider the pros and cons of Prim’s suggestion. On one hand, it’s been years. Shouldn’t I be completely over my issues with Madge and Gale by now? It’s pathetic to still be holding onto any sort of anger. But is it more ridiculous to hang on to a grudge, or crawl back to your ex-best friend and ex-boyfriend because of loneliness?

Not for the first time, I wish that I were better with people—that I had the sort of easy going personality of Prim that seems to draw people like bees to honey. That I could open up to someone without expecting the worst of them. Then I remember that at least part of my trust issues are because of the person I’m thinking about contacting, and I have to start my mental argument all over again in a vicious circle.

I stare down at my phone, tap my leg and then shoot off a quick text, my stomach churning after it sends.

Katniss: Hey

The reply is almost immediate, and I read it with bated breath.

Gale: Hey. How are you?

Katniss : Good. I’m at Panem actually.

Gale: What?

Gale: You're here? A student?

Katniss: Yeah.

My phone rings a minute later, and I almost drop it in surprise. I hesitate and consider letting the call go to voicemail, but change my mind at the last second.

“What the hell?” Gale asks without preamble, sounding out of breath. “When did that happen?”

“Just transferred in this semester.” I stand and start walking down the sidewalk, filled with nervous energy. “It’s...been awhile,” I say lamely.

Silence. “Yeah. Too long.” Gale clears his throat. “Look, do you want to meet up? Maybe talk?”

“I don’t know.” I move to the left when a couple holding hands almost runs me off the sidewalk. “Is that going to be weird? What about Madge?”

“Madge misses you,” he says. I can hear a voice in the background, and it sounds like he covers the phone before speaking again. “She’s...she actually wants to come along.”

“I’m not going to steal you from her or something.” I wince at how sharp I sound, how bitter , even though I’m basically over what happened between us. Mostly. “That’s a little like the pot calling the kettle black, don’t you think?”

“Shit. I know that, Katniss." His voice drops an octave. "So does she. She wants to see you. Be friends again. We both do.”

I rub my forehead, regretting answering the phone. “I don’t know how I feel about that.”

“Why’d you text me then?”

“I don’t know.”

He huffs. “Just meet me at the damn Bean King, Katniss. You know where that is?”

“Yeah, but...” Even having only lived here a short while, I’ve come to figure out where some of the more popular areas and hang-out spots are, even if I haven’t had a chance to partake of them myself. It’s a little awkward being a transfer student. "I don't think that’s a great idea."

“See you in twenty.” Then in true Gale-like fashion, he hangs up on me without saying goodbye or waiting for an answer.

I stand there, a little shell-shocked at the sudden turn of events, but when I start walking again, it’s in the direction of a main thoroughfare leading to the downtown area of this college town. A part of me must have known that I’d end up in this predicament, because otherwise why would I have texted Gale Hawthorne at all?

It’s pitiful how hard-up I must be if I’m reaching out to my ex-boyfriend, especially one who cheated on me with my best friend.

Fifteen minutes later, I’m reluctantly standing in the Bean King, a local coffee shop with an eclectic array of furniture, its brick walls lined with bookshelves boasting a paperback exchange. Almost every beanbag, bar stool, recliner and what even looks like an old bicycle seat are occupied with bodies. There’s a joyous din of voices and the delicious smell of coffee in the air. Even I can’t help but smile at the cheerful atmosphere.

“Kat,” a deep voice calls, and I turn around to scope out where my name is being called from.

Gale is facing me from one side of a small card table, and I see the back of a sleek, blonde ponytail sitting on the other side of him. I suck in a breath, exhale, and walk toward them. When I reach the table, I stand there awkwardly for a good ten seconds before sliding into a ragged folding chair.

“Hey,” Madge says, her face shining with earnest prettiness. She looks fresh, friendly and not at all like someone who would cheat with your boyfriend for six months. Her expressive eyes look at me with genuine warmth and excitement. “We’re so glad you contacted us, Katniss.”

Us.

I refrain from correcting her, though it's a struggle. “Sure,” I say instead, wishing for a cup to hold. Or any sort of prop, really. “I’m going to get a cup of coffee. Does anyone want coffee?”

Madge waves one delicate hand toward her mug on the table, but Gale nods. “I’ll go with you,” he says, looking at girlfriend as if asking permission. Sick.

“Bring me back a scone?”

“With lemon curd,” Gale confirms. He stands and joins me in my walk toward the long, scuffed counter that houses two baristas.

I hold back my feeling of...not quite jealousy. Envy . If pressed, I'd have to admit that even three years ago there were hints Gale and I weren’t right for each other, despite having grown up next door and being alike in almost every way that should count. I wasn’t as surprised as I should have been to find out he was hung up on my only girlfriend, but seeing two people so perfectly in sync with each other just makes me feel that much more lonesome. Companionless. Sure, I’ve dated around a bit since they betrayed me. I’ve even hooked up a few times, but I’ve never once looked at a guy the way Madge looks at Gale.

"So." He gestures toward the chalkboard menu that we take a few moments to study while waiting in line. "What do you want?"

"You're not paying for me."

"Try and stop me," he says, turning toward a barista whose name-tag reads 'Enobaria.' "One mocha latte and one tall black coffee."

I wrinkle my nose. "I hate mocha lattes."

He looks a little sheepish at this, not speaking again until he has his debit card back. "It's for me. Woah, that's a terrible face you're making."

"Because you sicken me," I inform him, the two-fold meaning hanging heavy in my statement. I ignore the fact he remembers my coffee preferences. "Mocha lattes? Really?"

"So my tastes run a little differently now." Gale crosses his arms, defensive. "It's been a few years. I'm sure we've both changed. I know I have. I've grown up a lot since the last time we've seen each other." He leans against the counter, his brown eyes serious. "I handled everything so wrong back then, Katniss."

"Can we just...can we not talk about this right now?"

"But isn't that why you called me?" He scratches his jaw, looking genuinely confused. "To talk things out? Be...friends again?"

I don't know what I was thinking, coming here like this. He's right, but I rile just the same, because of course making amends would be just that easy for him.

" You called me. I merely texted. There's a difference. Second of all, I wanted to talk to you, not Madge, but apparently you're a package deal now."

"You're not being fair."

"Fair?" I laugh and shake my head. "This was a terrible idea."

"Please, Katniss. We were best friends. Our families are still friends, for fuck’s sake. And I miss you." He runs a hand through his dark hair. "Doesn't that count for something?"

"You should’ve thought of that-" I lower my voice when the barista turns around with our coffees, an uncomfortable expression on her face. "Thanks," I tell her, stepping away from the counter. I head toward the door, and only a hand on my shoulder stops me.

"Hey," Gale demands behind me. I can’t believe how wounded he sounds. "You're just gonna leave like that?"

"Yeah," I say to the door, ignoring the curious eyes looking our way. "I am."

I push open the handle and walk out onto the sidewalk, and when I pass by the window, I can't help but glance back at the table. Gale is talking to his sad-faced girlfriend, his own expression solemn.

I almost feel guilty for disrupting their day for no reason other than my own selfish, lonely whims until I remember what it felt like to learn that they had been seeing each other behind my back for half a year, thus destroying all confidence in my own judgment in relationships and friendships for years to come.

My coffee lands in the trash with an unsatisfying thud.

***

A figure plops down next to me on the bench outside of the Bio lab.

"So," Peeta says, cautiously pushing a brownie on a napkin toward my hand. He taps the bench and leans back against the wall, pensive. "You're looking particularly, um-" He looks me up and down, from my worn-out jeans up to my plain white tee. “Volatile today."

I accept his gift with flattened lips.

"I like how you think we know each other well enough to make a statement like that." I take a bite and speak around a mouthful of pure heaven. "What's your basis for comparison?"

"Yesterday, you were merely sleepy and grumpy. Now you are the eighth dwarf—murderous."

 He reaches out a hand and tears off a piece of the baked good and pops it into his perfect mouth. A girl walking down the hall trips on her heels when she passes us, her tonsils practically showing at the sight of Peeta licking chocolate remnants from his fingers. She catches herself and limps around the corner, appearing stunned. 

Peeta, oblivious, wipes his hand on his dark-wash jeans and leans forward. “That was delicious, if I say so myself.”

"Why don't you ever bring enough for yourself to eat?"

" Ever ? What's your basis for comparison?" he mimics, but his smile is too warm to put any real sting in his mockery. "Well, Katniss, I wasn't planning on sharing yesterday, but you looked pathetic. You're even more pitiful today. It invoked my generosity. I'm beginning to think this is a scam, Katniss Everdeen. A scam for treats."

"Yep. You're on to me." I close my eyes and tilt my head, my head touching the wall.

There's a tentative tap on my shoulder. "Hey. You okay?" he asks.  

The genuine concern in his voice makes my eyes water, and I keep them shut strictly to keep the liquid from overflowing onto my cheeks. "Yeah.” I run my tongue over my teeth, tasting the lie. “No," I admit, turning my face to quickly brush my fingers beneath my eyes. "I'm really not."

He clasps his hands in his lap. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"No."

Peeta persists, "Is there anything I can do?"

I loll my head to the left, my body still slouching against the wall. "Fudge, next time."

"All right, Katniss," he says, patting my knee. It's absurdly comforting. "That I can do." He stands and holds his hand out to me, the one he licked and wiped on his pants. "Ready to get our lab on?"

I take his hand.

***

I decide to give the Bean King another try. It really was a nice place, and I felt as if I disrespected it when I was rushing away from Madge and Gale. I'm still on a post-lab high, having had three hours of a surprisingly good time with Peeta, filling Bunsen beakers and trying not to burn our eyebrows off.

Once we parted ways after class, I found myself unwilling to go home and be alone in front of the television again. I walk back toward the coffee shop, and when I push my way inside, a wave of peace washes over me. I see the barista from yesterday and she waves, and a fissure of pleasure at being recognized runs through me.

"Hey," I say, approaching the counter. It's less busy than yesterday, so I don't have to wait in line.

"Hi there," she says, flicking one of her long braids away from her face. Big, dark eyes peer at me beneath pierced eyebrows. "I remember you from yesterday. Tall, black coffee, right?"

I clap lightly, impressed. "You're good."

She shrugs. "Trick of the trade. The only real skill required is having fingers to press buttons and a decent memory."

"Sounds great," I remark.

"Yeah?" She brightens, flashing perfectly straight, white teeth that contrast beautifully with her brown skin. "You mean that? Because we're hiring, and you seem like someone I wouldn't want to punch every day."

My mouth drops. "Me?"

"Yes, you." She reaches beneath the counter and slides an application my way. "Fill this out...what’s your name? I’m Enobaria.”

“Katniss,” I supply.

Please fill this out, Katniss." She bats her eyelashes.

"All right," I consent. I do need a job, because the grant and small stipend I was awarded by the school only covers the necessities, and my savings account won't last forever. I’m cautiously hopeful that things are starting to turn around. "Got a pen?"

***

He actually does it. A few days after our little bonding moment outside of lab, he saunters into class and brings a zip-lock container full of perfectly uniform fudge squares, topped with walnuts.

"I don't remember asking for nuts."

"Good grief. You're a hard nut to crack, Everdeen," Peeta groans, thumping me on the nose. A girl who usually spends the entire class chatting with her boyfriend, I think her name is Clove, walks by and gives us a strange look. I put a protective hand on the container. "I toil away all night for you, and what do I get? Criticism."

"It's a tough world out there, chef."

He laughs and nudges me with his elbow. "Hey, so...can I get your number?"

"Um." The honest part of me was expecting this, but maybe just not so soon. As much as we bicker, there's a spark between us that I know I'm not imagining. And he's persistent . "Sure."

I rustle around for a pen, but he's already prepared. This boy is absurdly organized, blowing me away in regard to note-taking. He uses a different color highlighter for every new heading under a subject. He uses sticky notes in his text books. He makes me feel like a regular slouch.

"Here's mine." He hands me an index card with his phone number, email, and Instagram account. "I figure since we're best partners, we need to be able to contact each other."

"Best partners?" I ask warily.

"Yeah." Peeta shoots me a grin and yanks on a piece of hair escaping from my braid. "Like best friends, only partners. I haven't decided if you're best friend material yet," he adds.

I smile despite myself. "You're an idiot, you know that?"

"Finnick tells me that every day," he says.

Before I can ask who Finnick is, the professor comes in with a bad attitude, and we have to stop our chit-chat for the next hour.

We do pass notes, though, and I discover Peeta has mad drawing skills when he doodles little animals and sketches in between our written banter.

It's a good day.

***

"Then you just flip this switch, and you're on your way to making the best espresso this side of Panem. Got it?"

It's my second day on the job, but the first two were mostly just me shadowing Enobaria and a boy with fake hipster glasses named Thom, listening to them crack jokes while ringing up purchases on the register.

"Yeah." I look at the machine doubtfully, hoping no one orders an espresso today. We just opened the doors about fifteen minutes ago, and so far there's only one early bird customer in the cafe sipping quietly on his coffee and tapping away on a laptop in the far corner of the room. "I think so."

"Don't worry. You'll pick it up in no time." Enobaria bumps her hip with mine. "So." She takes a bite out of a muffin before handing it to me. I can't believe how easily she shares food and drinks—I've definitely never been one to do that with anyone, with maybe the exception of Prim, but Enobaria is so warm and likable that I don't have the heart to reject her offer. Plus, one of the perks of our job is up to ten dollars of free food a day, so it makes sense for us to consolidate our snacks. "What's the story with that guy from the other day?"

"What guy?" I play dumb until I break under her skeptical stare. "Okay, yeah. He's my ex."

"Thought so." She nods, encouraging me to continue like a curious bartender. "Bad break-up? I know all about those."

"You could say that." I fill a Styrofoam cup with water and take a sip. "He cheated on me with my best friend."

"Oh, fuck." She stares at me with sympathy. "I'm sorry, Katniss. Was it recent?"

"Nah. It was senior year of high school." I shrug and fiddle with the ties of the frilly, aqua apron that Enobaria dug out from a bin of retro ones the Bean King keeps on standby. "It's just...he was my best friend too, you know? Lifelong. And we probably should've never dated at all, but it hurt like hell when he played me like that. And Madge..." I scowl. "Yeah, it sucked."

"Have you forgiven them?"

Her question makes me pause. "I'm not as mad anymore."

"But do you want them back in your life?" She frowns, her eyes apologetic but determined. "I'm sorry if I'm overstepping any boundaries, but—well, I think if you didn't want to forgive them, you wouldn't have shown up that day."

I rub the bridge of my nose.

"You're right. It was just hard to see them together, you know?” The bitchy little part of me would feel vindicated if they had broken up. The fact they're still together just seems like a slap in the face. I search for the words to explain my mindset. “Like they were justified in hurting me."

She tilts her head, eyeing me thoughtfully.

"I don't know. Maybe we're looking at it wrong. I think the fact they're still together just means they really were in love—and if they were as close to you as I think they were given your mopey expression, I'm sure that a deep, true love is the only thing that would have caused them to do what they did."

I trace a scuff mark on the counter and consider the merit of her words.

She hits me with a balled-up tea towel. "But what do I know, right?"

"I don't know about that." I catch the towel and smile at her. "I think you're pretty smart, Enobaria Taylor."

Enobaria takes the muffin out of my hand and bites into it. "Tell that to my psychology professor."

"Hey!" I stare at her suspiciously. "Did you just sneakily psychoanalyze my life? I'll have you know I've successfully avoided therapy for over a decade." God knows, my mother tried to get me there after my father died. She would have tried anything so long as she and I didn’t have to actually talk about it.

She smiles mischievously and starts wiping down the counter even though it's already spotless. "You're welcome."

"Dammit, Eno."

"In a few years, you'd be shelling out the big bucks just to lie on a couch and confess your thoughts to me." She pats my shoulder. "I can tell you have a very interesting mind, Katniss."

"Whatever." I roll my eyes heavenward and lean against the counter on my elbows, turning my head to the side with a lazy roll of my neck. "Hands off my troubled brain."

The little bell above the door chimes, indicating we have a customer. Enobaria makes a noise in the back of her throat, almost as if she's choking.

"Gorgeous boy alert," she says, jerking her chin somewhere behind us. "I'll let you have dibs, since I think you might need this more than me."

I give her my most sarcastic look. "You're too kind." 

When I turn around to face the room, a smile breaks out across my face against my will. 

"Best partner," I blurt out.

 I cringe at the high, carrying pitch of my words. Even though we have lab together later, I haven't seen him in two days and a thread of excitement winds through me. He's quickly become one of the best parts of my week over the past month.  We've even grabbed a bite to eat together at the on-campus cafeteria a few times, but this is the first time we've ever seen each other away from school.

Peeta turns in his chair, and his eyes go blank as he looks at me.

"Oh, hey," he says, and my smile falters until his voice strengthens. "Hey. When did you start working here?"

"Yesterday." I look at Enobaria. "Is it okay if I go over there? That's my friend."

She waves me off with a hand, the rings lining her fingers glinting under the cafe lights.

"Of course. There's no one here yet, and the owners are really chill. They actually prefer for us to be social." She turns her face away from him and smirks at me. "Hot friend," she mouths.

I feign ignorance and walk around the counter, heading toward Peeta's table. For some reason, I'm nervous approaching him outside of the safety of campus.

"Is it alright if I sit a minute?"

"Of course," he says. He flashes me a smile that sends a spark of awareness my spine.

"Cool."  I lower myself into a chair, mindful that it's the one with a refurbished leg. A straw in its colorful, bejeweled holder draws my attention until Peeta taps my hand.

"Stop being weird."

"What?" I scowl, embarrassed by my awkwardness. "How am I being the weird one?"

"I can just tell. 'Cool,'" he mimics me, a slow grin breaking out on his face. "What was that?"

"Stop," I groan. "I thought you had finally quit being difficult."

"Hmm." Peeta pulls a straw from the holder and blows a stream of air at me. "I thought you had finally stopped acting like I was a stranger."

I hesitate, but then go for it. "Says the person who didn't recognize me at first."

"What?" He seems genuinely offended. "Yes, I did. Of course I did. I would recognize you anywhere." I'm not imagining the uncomfortable expression that crosses his face. "You and that messy braid," Peeta tacks on, drumming his fingers on the table. "I just didn't expect to see you out here in the wild like this." He clears his throat. "You're very secretive, Katniss Everdeen. I had no idea you'd gotten yourself a job at the coolest place in Panem." I can tell he's fighting a smile now, and I kick him under the table.

"That's me. A regular 'It' girl," I deadpan.

"Seriously, though—this is the last place I'd have imagined you'd work."

"And where, oh wise one, in your infinite wisdom, would you have placed me?"

Peeta leans back in his chair and balances on the rickety legs. A part of me is going to laugh like crazy if he falls, but the other half is actively concerned for his stupid, beautiful head.

"Hmm." He looks me over thoughtfully. "A morgue? Graveyard? Somewhere without people."

I reach across the table and slap him on the arm. "You jerk."

We're still laughing when the bell rings again, and my attention is diverted by an extraordinarily beautiful person that walks through the door. Peeta's attractive, but this man is stunning from his bronze, shaved-at-the-sides hair all the way down his impressive body to his stylish boots. He looks like he’s of some sort of Mediterranean heritage, and his eyes are the color of the sea there. I look over and see Enobaria practically drooling at the counter, and—oh, he's coming our way. 

I glance at Peeta, who waves at the person and then gives me an unreadable look.

"Hey babe," the other man says. Time seems to slow, and then stop altogether when he leans down to give Peeta a casual kiss on the mouth.

Um. That's definitely not a friend kiss. That's...

"This is my boyfriend, Finnick Odair," Peeta says.