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The ivory ceiling is a blur as my body moves in time with his. I check the clock - 8:42. It’s not too late, but I certainly hope he finishes soon. I lift my legs for him to drive in more deeply; maybe I’ll get something out of this too. His carnal grunting against my neck used to send shivers down my spine, but now it’s simply a sign that he’s almost done.

His hot breath hits my cheek as he sighs in pleasure, “Katniss, oh yeah, baby... mmm... I’m coming.” His low voice bellows from his chest as his thrusting slows and then stills. As usual, he collapses onto my body as he loses strength then rolls to my side, his torso expands rapidly as he catches his breath.

I turn, kiss him quickly on the lips, and jump out of bed. “Don’t you have to leave by nine?” I ask as I walk into the bathroom and wait for his response.

“Yeah, I guess I should get dressed, shouldn’t I?” He laughs as he enters the room and turns on the shower.

I flush and move to the sink to wash up. He leans over behind me in an attempt to be cute as I have toothpaste in my mouth. His lips find the top of my head as I spit.

“Aw, Catnip, I appreciate these romantic moments we share.” He smacks my butt then pulls the curtain to disappear into the steamy water.

I holler over the loud stream, “You just have shitty timing, Gale. Next time, wait till I’m done brushing my teeth. Much more romantic when my mouth isn’t full of white paste.”

“I don’t know, Catnip. I think it’s pretty hot when your mouth is full of white stuff.” Finding himself hilarious, he chuckles at his own sick joke. I don’t acknowledge his stupid comment; I can’t waste any time.

Fully clothed, I traipse into the kitchen to get my breakfast started. I quickly check the clock - 8:57.

“Gale! You’re going to be late if you don’t leave soon. And don’t forget your toolbelt again! Hate to see you make an extra trip and drive back here.”

His long legs enter the room before he does. “Yep, got it in the truck. But thanks, Mom!” He peels a banana, takes a bite, and offers a wink as he heads out the door. “See ya later, babe.”

Finally!

I glance at the time - 9:01. I slowly open the kitchen curtains and peek outside. Our little house faces west, but this window opens to the north, so there’s no sun to obstruct my view. We live in a historic part of District 12 which was renovated many years ago. It’s an area full of quaint bungalows that became popular as an artist community well before I was born.

I lived here for a few months before Gale moved in with me last year. The place is closer to his job, and it saves us both money, so it was the right thing to do at the time. I’m happy we chose to move in together. My best friend Madge told me I shouldn’t do it because he would never ask me to marry him. She said something about milk and cows. I can’t remember.

I sip on my tea and crunch my toast as I stand looking out the window waiting. It’s 9:10. He’s late today. I jerk abruptly when the phone rings. I answer quickly as if he’ll hear it.

“Hello?” I don’t bother looking at the caller ID so I can keep my eyes trained across the street.

“Hey, it’s Madge. So what’s happening today?” She sounds almost too giddy.

I roll my eyes. “He hasn’t shown up yet,” I desperately whine to my partner in crime. “Do you think he knows?”

“No. How could he?” Madge reassures me. “Do you want me to come over?”

“Nah, I have to be at the gym by ten. I have a new client I’m working with today.”

“I swear, Katniss. I think these guys only sign up with you so they can check you out in your tight workout clothes,” she says protectively.

I laugh in response, “Madge, I don’t give a shit, to be honest. If they pay me, I’ll train them. I mean... wait! There he is!”

Madge squeals, “Eeep! What is he wearing? Tell me all the details.”

“He opened his drapes, and he’s wearing what he always does - a white t-shirt, jeans, and a painted up apron.” I bite my bottom lip unintentionally and wait to see what he does next. He usually opens his thick red drapes at 9 am, but today he’s late. “I wonder why he’s late today. Wow, his hair looks a little messy this morning.”

“I can’t wait to see this guy if he’s as hot as you say he is. He may have wanted to sleep in. If his hair is all mussed, maybe one of those girls slept over. Do you see anyone in there with him?” Madge’s excitement spurs me further.

“I’m looking, but I just see him right now.” I’m lucky to have such a good view into my neighbor’s house across the street. He’s been living there for a few weeks, and I’ve already noticed a pattern. I discovered him accidentally, but my curiosity and continued observations have been completely intentional.

Every morning around 9:00, he pulls open his thick red curtains that face my kitchen window. They remind me of theater drapes, the kind with gold sashes to hold them open at the cinema. It’s difficult to make everything out from across our two lane street, but I see an easel in the room and a few pieces of furniture. I’ve never seen him paint, but the soiled artist’s smock and the canvas on the wooden frame tell me what I need to know.

I’ve never seen him up close, only through the window. I know he has blonde wavy hair, a gentle face, and a thick and nicely cut physique. I’d love to know more, but those damn curtains are only open for a short time in the morning.

“Oh! Here’s someone. Wow, she’s beautiful,” I share with Madge, who has become quite the accomplice to my voyeuristic activities. “She’s the prettiest I’ve seen so far.”

“Don’t hold out! Tell me more.”

“She’s quite tall. Maybe 5’10,” a little taller than him. She has long flowing blonde hair...”

“What’s she wearing?” Madge interrupts.

“I’m getting there. Hold your horses, missy.” I giggle at Madge’s impatience. “She’s wearing a simple tank and yoga pants. Nothing special.”

Madge sighs and asks, “What do you think he’s doing with them? Painting them? Having sex? Both?” Her imagination runs wild when she suggests, “Oh my God, Katniss. What if he’s painting nudes or doing pornography?”

I ponder the thought of him painting nudes, and it does make sense. Once the woman of the day arrives, the curtains close immediately, and I don’t see him again until dinner time. Could he be having sex with these women? I couldn’t imagine, but maybe?

Shaking off my thoughts, I tell Madge, “Listen, I should go. I still need to get ready for work.”

“Don’t leave me hanging. I want all the details. Got it?”

“Madge, I would never leave you hanging. If I learn more, I’ll tell you.”

I click the red button and look outside. Curtains are closed. Show’s over... for now.

* * *

My muscles feel worn from all the training I’ve done today, but after work I like to take a brisk run around my neighborhood. I usually only run five to ten miles depending on my mood. Before I take off, I stretch on the front porch only to notice the overgrown weeds amongst my peonies.

Those peonies are my pride and joy. I think they are the only living things besides humans that I haven’t killed. My thumb is far from green. It is some shade between brown, black, and grey. What is the worst color for plants? That’s the color of my thumb. I have poor luck with fish, hamsters, and birds. They don’t do well around me, which is why I don’t have any pets.

But my peonies greet me everyday. My beautiful red blossoms hold court along my walkway, swaying with the gentle breeze like they’re waving hello. I squat down to pull the nasty weeds that litter my flowerbed. In general I don’t mind weeds, but these flowers are special.

The sudden bump on my rear forces me to fall on all fours into the dirt, crumpling two of my peonies. I quickly bolt upright, “What the hell are you...”

It’s him. With his dog. He has a dog?

His hand rubs the back of his neck nervously. Looking distraught, his stunning blue eyes flit around my face apologetically. “I’m sorry, this isn’t the way to meet my neighbor, is it?” He smiles and offers a shy laugh.

I don’t move. My tongue has lost the ability to speak. I must look like a fool with my mouth partially open, not talking or saying anything to this charming, handsome, sexy... stranger.

He looks down to his dog and chastises her, “Sadie, you know better than that! This is no way to behave in front of our new neighbor.” His scolding causes my lips to relax into a smile. Anyone who talks to their animals can’t be all bad. I do talk to my flowers. I understand.

I finally find my voice and get down on the level of the dog. “It’s okay, Sadie. I’ll give you this one free pass. But any more problems with my peonies, and you’ll have hell to pay.” I point my finger jokingly at the dog as if she really understands what I’m saying.

To my surprise, she actually whimpers at my command. “I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t hurt her feelings,” I apologize to her gorgeous owner. His hair is even more blonde in the evening sun, silver glints coming off it as the shadows cast across his face.

“I’m sure she understands.” He loosens the grip on her leash a bit so she has room to move forward to sniff my legs. I’m not used to animals, especially large ones with wet sticky tongues that push me over and lick god-knows-what on my body. I move backward unintentionally, and I see he pulls her tighter to him.

“I’m sorry. I’m not used to animals coming on so strong,” I explain before I realize what I just said. “I was about to go for a run. Is this the first time you’ve walked this path with Sadie?”

His gaze is so intense. I feel like he’s soaking in all my features, as if he’s trying to memorize me. But I’m sure that’s my wishful mind creating some imaginary scenario. I shake it off as I prod further, “I mean, I’ve never seen you out here before, so I - “

“Actually, no. I take this route everyday. You must already be out on your run by the time we pass by.” He looks down to his feet and shuffles them a bit, then back up to me. “I got lucky today.”

He got lucky.

I snicker, “Yeah, I guess we both got lucky. Well, um...I mean. It’s nice to finally meet you. I never get to see you since you moved in. Not out here, anyway.”

“Out here?” His eyes crinkle in wonder. “Have you seen me somewhere else?”

Shit!

Trying my best to act casual, I blow it off. “You know, just seeing you going in and out of your house. Typical neighbor stuff.”

“Ah, okay. I thought maybe we shopped at the same grocery or something. Hoping we could find another way to bump into one another again.”

He wants to bump into me again. Is he saying what I think he’s saying? I find myself chewing my bottom lip again, and the only thing I can think to say is, “Yeah, I’d like that.” My body is on fire. I’m a bundle of nerves when there’s no reason to be so anxious.

“I love those red peonies, by the way. The red flowers with the green leaves are complementary colors, you know.” His eyes stay on my face.

I don’t look away either. “Complementary colors? Sorry, art wasn’t one of my best subjects.”

“It’s okay. Art is my passion. When you look at a color wheel, the colors opposite each other are complementary, meaning they bring out the best qualities of the other one. Red and green are complementary colors, so your red peonies with their green glossy leaves are a perfect combination.”

“Oh!” I puff my chest in pride knowing there’s a reason I’m so attached to them. “That’s good to know.”

“I better let you get back to your run. Oh! My name is Peeta. Peeta Mellark.” He smiles the largest white grin I’ve ever seen. His hand, soiled by dried paint, is held out for me to grasp.

I take it in my grip. It’s warm and cozy, hugging my hand gently but firmly enough to remind me that it’s strong and stable. “Peeta...” I repeat. Such an odd name, but perfect for him. “I’m Katniss. It’s a pleasure.” I touch the paint with my hand.

“You’ve found me out,” he chuckles. “I’m an artist. Mostly portraits on commission, but I do some mural work too.”

“Portraits?” I suddenly wake up from my lusty haze. “Do you have an office, or...”

“My office is my home.” He pulls Sadie in closer as she walks over to my flowerbed. “You may see many people come in and out. Those are my clients.”

I feign a look of surprise. “Oh, I hadn’t noticed. Well, thanks for giving me a head’s up.” I wait a beat and then ask, “Are these portraits all the same type or do some people ask for more, um -”

Do I dare?

“ - personal paintings?” My eyes remain wide and attentive as I wait for his response.

He looks my body up and down, causing my shoulders to tremor so much that I have to intentionally still myself. His lips curve up just slightly as he replies, “Some are more personal. I paint whatever people want me to create. Whatever they want to be.” He clicks his tongue against the roof of his mouth to signal Sadie. “It was a stroke of chance I got to meet you, Katniss. I hope we will get this lucky more often.” He turns and walks away.

I’m left speechless. Not sure if I have the strength or will to run anymore, I pace on my walkway. What am I doing here? I’m completely and utterly taken by this man. What about Gale? I’ve got to process this.

I need to run. Immediately.

I rush forward but in the opposite direction he’s walking. The wind feels refreshing against my face. Maybe it will slap some sense into me. This is just a silly infatuation. Nothing more.

Nothing more.

As I run, I think about every detail. I remember his light freckles that cross the bridge of his nose and smatter across his cheeks. And that manly cleft in his chin and his angular jaw with blonde shadow that only appears when the light hits his face a certain way. And his hands, thick, rough, but delicate.

I have it bad. I’m going to need a cool shower when I get home.

* * *

I wake early today, my sleep interrupted by thoughts of him. I can’t get his cool blue eyes or that delightful smirk out of my mind. I leave Gale in bed as I start my morning routine early. Once I move to the kitchen sink, I pull open the curtains and take in the same view - red drapes drawn shut in Peeta’s window.

Peeta.

Knowing his name worsens my obsession. Now I have a name to attach to that handsome face, that structured body. I sigh and turn on the faucet. In my daze last night, I failed to wash the dishes. Now is as good a time as any. I look up occasionally when I sense movement, but it’s only a bird flying on the other side of the glass or a leaf falling from the tree.

His curtains remain closed.

What would it be like to be one of his clients? How would I want him to paint me?

I close my eyes as I imagine myself taking steps up to his door; his pearly white grin greets me as I brush past him. He shuts the world away as he tells me to undress - slowly, so he can capture every moment. I’m shy at first, but his gaze captivates me, enchants me into doing his bidding.

That’s it, Katniss. Show yourself to me. Let me paint you. It will be our little secret.

I drop forward over the sink as my body responds to this fantasy. I’ve become slick from the thoughts brewing in my head. I open my eyes to reorient myself. The drapes are unchanged. But I know he’s behind them. Is he sleeping in his bed? Is he alone? I didn’t see anyone come in, but then, I didn’t know he had a dog until yesterday.

“Morning, Catnip.” Gale’s greeting blares too loudly for me right now, but I smile and nod.

“Good morning, Gale. Couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d be productive.”

He approaches me from behind, wrapping his long arms around my small waist. “Next time you wake up early, feel free to be productive in other ways,” he pushes himself against me and groans into my neck. “I missed you this morning.” His fingers crawl their way down below my tank and into my panties. “God, Katniss. You’re so ready for me.”

His finger feels good touching me considering how much I worked myself up, but it feels strange getting turned on by thoughts of another man and then letting Gale get me off. Does he need to know? Is it all that bad?

I look behind my shoulder at him seductively. “The question is if you’re ready for me, hmm?” I raise my ass and arch my back as he pulls my panties down. He fingers me until I come, then he slides himself in, holding onto my hips and thrusting until he’s done. A morning quickie isn’t a terrible way to start the day.

All the while, I stare at those curtains. Those damn red curtains separating me from Peeta.

* * *

On my way home from work, I call Madge and tell her about my interaction with Peeta yesterday. I’m happy to return home early so I can keep an eye out for him this afternoon before he walks Sadie. The lemons are plentiful on our tree out back, so I bring a few in to make lemonade. I wash the glossy yellow fruit and see Peeta’s hair. My fingers brush off the dirt under the pouring water as I imagine how his wavy hair would feel in my hands.

I check the view outside and realize Peeta’s drapes are open now. Where is he? I look through my kitchen window expectantly while trying to figure out what his next step will be. I quickly shoot my gaze down at my lemon juicer when I see him entering his living room. I’ve never been so intent on squeezing juice from lemons as I am at this moment.

I cautiously peer up to see what he’s doing. He’s painting something on the canvas, but I can’t make it out. It’s just swirls of colors from where I stand. I juice all the lemons, not needing them all for one cup of lemonade, but wanting something to keep me busy by the sink. I look up again, trying to catch a glimpse of him one more time.

He’s at his window. Our eyes meet long enough for each of us to register that we have seen one another. I don’t take any time to consider my actions. I don’t wave and smile like a normal person would. Instead, I duck down below the window.

I can only imagine how strange that must have looked to him. First I’m up and looking through his window, then I disappear. I need to do some damage control, so I finish mixing the lemonade, avoiding any possible chance of looking out my kitchen toward his house.

I take the glass pitcher in hand and walk across the street. I rap lightly on his wooden door, my pulse bounding at the thought of seeing him up close again. The sound of his feet approaching causes my throat to catch, and I’m unable to swallow completely.

His smile greets me first. “Katniss! What a nice surprise.” He steps back gracefully and motions for me to come in. “Is that lemonade?”

I cough to clear my throat. “Yes, I have a bunch of lemons on my tree - hate for them to fall and rot on the ground. I juiced too many to drink alone and since I happened to see you home, I thought we could share.” I catch my breath to calm myself after my long, rambling run-on sentence.

His hand reaches for the pitcher. “Thank you, Katniss. You’re a very considerate neighbor. I’ll have to find a way to give back.” He grips the glass container but doesn’t waver. He memorizes my face again.

I look down nervously, feeling a warm blush take over my cheeks and neck.

“I’m sorry. I can’t stop looking at your eyes. That grey color is so complex.” He sets the lemonade down on the table and brings me near the large window I stare through everyday. His hands settle on my cheeks as he brings my face gently up to the light. His voice descends on me as he whispers, “Purple, yellow, a hint of green, so many hues...”

My mouth remains partially open, an automatic reflex to his seductive analysis of my eye color, but he releases his hands from my face and invites me to his kitchen to have some cookies with our drink. We pass by his easel, which is now covered with a canvas cloth.

“What are you working on? Something for one of your clients?” I pinch the edge of the cloth to take a peek, but before I know it, he clutches my wrist to stop me from revealing what’s underneath. “Sorry, just curious,” I mutter, wide-eyed and embarrassed by my behavior.

His grip loosens as he rubs my wrist. “I’m sorry, Katniss. I shouldn’t have been so...aggressive. I like to keep my paintings to myself until they’re completed.”

I hold the same wrist in a protective way, wondering what other things make him react with such force. My mind reels with ideas of how that might play out in bed; the pulsing I feel within my panties is a direct result of his actions. “It’s okay. I - I - I should have asked before touching it,” I stammer anxiously.

I follow him wordlessly to his kitchen and sit when he pulls the chair out for me. I take in his back and the way he walks as he moves to the cupboard to get the glasses for us. His shoulders are broad and fill out his t-shirt nicely. His jeans hang low on his hips with a loose belt but hug his bottom snugly.

He sets the glasses down and pours the lemonade, glancing up to me, then down to the pitcher. “I never realized what a great view I have into your kitchen until this afternoon. I saw you in there. Did you see me?” His eyes challenge me, waiting to see if I would tell the truth.

“Yes, I did actually, which is why I decided to make some extra for you as well.” I gulp my lemonade and look to the side, trying to avoid his stare. My eyes dart quickly back. “Do you like it?”

“Mmmhmm. I do.” He swallows his drink. I’m mesmerized by the movement of his throat as the icy lemonade flows down. I lick my lips unconsciously until I realize he’s staring at me again. I like how he studies me like a piece of art. “You’re flushed.”

“Sorry?” I ask, confused.

“Your neck and cheeks just turned a bright pink. Are you warm? Should I turn on the air?”

Not certain if he’s sarcastic or serious, I answer, “If I may be honest, I’m feeling a little warm from your looks. I’m not used to being under such scrutiny.”

He looks down and smiles, then looks up at me through his long eyelashes. “Katniss, I’m sorry. That’s not the first time I’ve heard that, unfortunately. I’ve got to stop looking at everyone as if they’re my next subject.”

His fingers trace the rim around his glass. “It’s just that your features are so unique. They’re captivating. Your hair looks so dark and silky, I feel the need to touch it just to figure out what type of paint I would use.” The heat of his eyes sends tingles through my hair and down my back.

“Would you like to,” I invite softly, “touch my hair?” I pull the band and unravel my braid. I swing my hair around to loosen the waves and whip it over my shoulder for him to hold.

He moves his hand forward hesitantly to bring his fingers through the strands. “Mmm, just as silky as I expected. I think oils would be perfect for you.” I’m not sure if he knows what he’s doing to me, but this fondling and admiring is getting me too hot for safety.

“I think I should go,” I apologize as I stand. “Keep the pitcher. I have another one in my refrigerator at home.”

He stands and follows me to the door. “Feel free to visit me anytime, Katniss. I enjoyed our conversation.”

“I did too. Maybe we’ll see each other sooner than we think,” I say as I motion to our adjacent windows.

He grins just before I turn and step quickly down to the sidewalk. If I didn’t cut that conversation short, who knows what I would have done to embarrass myself. He’s a cool, charming artist, and I’m getting sucked into his compliments and gestures as if he’s really attracted to me.

Let it go, Katniss. This is probably his way with everyone.

* * *

4:36 Gale: Getting off early. Let’s go out. I miss you in a dress.

4:42 Katniss: ok. I’ll take my run now.

My stomach is bunched up in knots as I read those texts again. Gale wants to go out. I want to fuck my neighbor.

I love Gale. I do.

We’ve been best friends since we were in middle school. He was my protector; he helped me make it through some really tough times after my father died. I owe him. But the spark isn’t there anymore. We laugh and get along, we’re still best of friends, but I shut off when he puts his lips on me. I freeze at the touch of his hand. I go through the motions to appease him, but I’m empty. An empty carcass void of excitement.

Peeta has infused me with the hope that I can find passion again. I don’t know what to do. I’m unsure of how far to take my flirtation, but he’s the only thing I look forward to from day to day. He evokes memories of what once was, what I could have again.

“Catnip, don’t you look beautiful!” Gale steps up behind me to assist in latching the halter behind my neck. “This red dress is gorgeous. Rrrowr,” he catcalls, “are you really all mine?”

I can’t speak. I feel like I’m a liar as soon as I open my mouth. I want to say, “I love you, but no. I’m not yours, not in that way.”

But what if this thing I feel for Peeta is nothing? What if he’s simply acting toward me like he would any of his other clients? Am I really considering throwing away years of a good thing for potentially nothing?

I lean forward to plant my lips on his cheek and whisper a thank you in his ear. I notice it’s just about the time that Peeta walked Sadie yesterday. I ask, “Gale, do you mind if I wait in front? You know, to get some fresh air?”

“Go ahead, I’ll meet you out there.” Gale is so understanding it makes me want to cry.

I open the front door and step carefully down to the walkway. Like clockwork, Peeta and Sadie walk across the street. He’s wearing a blue shirt that matches the color of his eyes. He’s striking tonight. His hair is combed off his face and styled back; gone are the boyish waves that flow onto his brow.

“Woo, look at you,” he exclaims, clutching his hand over his chest. “Special plans tonight, Katniss?”

I nod timidly, not wanting to say anything but knowing I must. “Yes, my boyfriend is taking me out to dinner.” I watch to see if there is any change, any sign that he might be disappointed, but no.

“Lucky boyfriend.” He reaches down and plucks a peony from my shrub. “Here,” he tucks the stem behind my ear, “this compliments your dress.” His thumb lingers on my face in front of my ear, tracing a line down to my jaw. The sensation elicits pins and needles all over my scalp.  

“Thank you for the flower and the kind words,” I respond coyly. I glance behind to see Gale bouncing down the steps. “Gale, this is our neighbor, Peeta. He lives across the street.” I point over to his house.

Gale reaches out for his hand. “Hey man, nice to finally meet you.” He walks to the car after Peeta greets him back. I follow Gale and do my best to not look back.

* * *

I focus on Gale’s shoulders, his contoured muscles move with his sleepy breaths. I trace my fingers lightly around the curved ridges as I try to get back to sleep. Our date didn’t go well last night. It was hard making small talk and acting fully present when my thoughts kept moving to someone else. He sensed it; he knew I was not connecting.

He asked what was on my mind. I asked if he ever wished he was with someone else. That was the beginning of the end.

I didn’t tell him about Peeta. I don’t even know what to think about Peeta. I keep asking myself if it’s worth breaking up with my lifelong friend for a guy that I don’t even know. But Peeta’s the catalyst. His presence alone has helped me see that I’m not happy. I need more.

I told Gale that I was going through some changes - that I love him, but the passion isn’t there anymore. He told me that’s a normal part of long-term relationships, but I have a difficult time believing that. I told him I needed a break. From us. From our living arrangement. I offered to ask Madge for a place to crash, but he refused. He said he would leave in the morning.

I haven’t been able to sleep all night. I’m having second thoughts. I’m wavering.

“Gale,” I whisper and pat his back, “are you awake?”

I hear a low rumble from his chest as he turns and lazily opens his dark grey eyes. “Hey, Catnip.”

His voice and smile cause me to tear up. “I don’t know if I’m making the right decision, Gale. We’ve been together for so long. I don’t know if I can survive without you.”

He props himself on his elbow and dries my wet eyes. “Trust me, you’ll survive. You’re stronger than you think. I’m not happy to go, but I don’t want to be with you if you’re not in love with me anymore.”

I lean toward him and kiss him softly, taking in his lips as if it’s the last time I’ll feel that softness against mine. The tide flows from my eyes, wetting my face as our heated kiss deepens. This final moment is mine to tell Gale how much he has meant to me all these years, how he helped me when I was at the lowest of lows. I seriously would not have made it to this place without him.

And now I’m asking him to leave. I feel like a horrible friend, but it’s for my own salvation. If anything, he taught me to look out for myself. I want to do more than survive now. I want to thrive. Gale gave me the power to do that.

My kiss says everything. Maybe somewhere within his, he’s telling me it’s okay to let go. He may have been unable to break free as well. This is a time for new beginnings, a fresh start. Once our lips part, he holds me close. I rest my head on his chest as the sound of his heart beating lulls me to sleep.

* * *

I wake fully refreshed with no buzzing alarm to jolt me from my dreams. It’s my day off, and I’m going to enjoy it. I scan the room. No Gale. He’s left already. I had hopes that we would have breakfast and some light chatter before he left, but I imagine it’s better this way. I find a note on his pillow.

Catnip, I’m leaving because I love you. You will always be part of me, and I know I will always be part of you. One day, you will find someone who you will not be able to survive without. That’s when you know you’ve found the right guy. I’m sorry I’m not him. Call me when you’re ready to be friends again. Love, Gale.

Damn these tears. Damn Gale!

I made my decision, and I must move forward. I had every intention to enjoy the day, and I will do that. I place the note in the drawer of my nightstand. I’ll hold on to that forever, I’m sure. My tears still flow, but I have to accept it as part of my healing from our sudden separation. I knew it would never be easy to break up, I just didn’t realize how much my heart would actually ache deep inside.

I wander to the kitchen for my morning routine, tea and toast. I open the curtain then look at the time. Strange how I wasn’t rushing to the window this morning. His drapes are open. I sip my warm tea as I look into his house. He’s painting at his easel. I can’t see his expression, but watching him work so intently relaxes me.

I lean forward, cup in hand, watching him paint. He looks over through the window occasionally, and not certain if he sees me, I simply observe. As I watch, I call Madge to update her on everything that’s happened. She thinks I’m crazy but understands why I did what I did.

“He better be worth it,” she chastises.

“Madge, I don’t know if anything will happen between Peeta and me, but he brought out feelings I haven’t experienced in years. I knew I would never feel that way again with Gale, as sad as it is to say.”

She relents, “Okay hon, fill me in on anything juicy. And if you need a shoulder to cry on, I’m here for you too.”

“I’ll remember. Thanks for not disowning me for my bad behavior.” We hang up, and I get back to watching Peeta.

He’s not in the room anymore. Did he stop while I was on the phone?

Trying to ignore my disappointment, I take my shower, braid my hair, and get dressed. Madge suggested “retail therapy” to get me through the day. I have full intentions to go to the mall when I notice a slip of paper peeking out from under my doormat.

It’s ready. Come over when you can. Peeta.

It’s ready? Note in hand, I walk across the street. My new shoes can wait.

Before my knuckles make contact with the door, it swings open with a grinning Peeta on the other side. “I’m so happy you came. Come on.” He takes my hand to pull me in.

“You’re in an awfully cheery mood,” I tell Peeta as I shut the door behind me.

“I’ve been working on something - a surprise for you. I just finished.” He rubs his hands together, his fervent energy escaping from every pore as he fidgets. He places his hand on the top corner of the drape that’s been hiding the canvas beneath. “Ready?”

I look at him, so full of excitement. I smile. “Yes, ready.”

He pulls the cloth, and my first reaction to the painting is one of shock. “Oh my!” I stare at the canvas then glance out his window. I walk away from the painting and over to that large pane of glass. I run my fingers along the edge of the velvety red drapes that acted as a shield between us. “How long have you known? You’ve been working on this for a while, haven’t you?”

He carefully approaches me. “I’ve known for the last couple weeks. I couldn’t help but stare back, but you didn’t seem to notice. You always appeared lost, looking for something out your window.” His hand finds its way to my shoulder and tracks down the length of my arm to grasp my hand. “C’mon, tell me what you see. Tell me if you like it.”

He positions my body in front of the large canvas. “It’s me. My hair is down, and I’m sipping my tea. It’s from your perspective, through your window into mine. This is what you saw?” I turn to him.

He nods. “Your eyes were the most challenging, but I think I got the right hue. Do you agree?”

I move closer to the painting, amazed by his talent and his ability to capture my emotions. I never knew I looked so sad, so lost. “My eyes are perfect. You’re a true artist, Peeta.”

“Thank you. It was a passion project, so I put much more care into getting it right.” I feel his breath on my neck as he moves closer behind me. “What were you searching for?”

What was I searching for?

“Happiness, contentment... I don’t know.” I turn to face him. His sky blue eyes fill me with hope. “You.”

His paint covered hand frames my jaw and pulls me forward. His soft pink lips part slightly as he presses gently on mine. I reach up to pull on his short blonde locks as my tongue nudges past his lips to have a taste. He breaks contact and murmurs onto my mouth, “Thank you for finding me.”

I clutch his body and push myself closer as he envelops me with his strong arms. My lips run along his jaw and down his neck. I want to explore everything there is to discover about Peeta.

“We found each other,” I reply between kisses. “Will you take as good care of me as you did with that painting?”

He releases me from his hold and moves to the window. His hands close the red drapes with a quick flick of the wrists, and the sunshine disappears save a beam of light coming from his kitchen. 

“I will handle you with the most delicate care, Katniss. Like mixing a batch of biscuits, it’s important to be gentle enough to keep them moist and tender.” His eyes bore into mine, communicating messages that I cannot hear but clearly understand.

“Are you comparing me to biscuits now?” I giggle as he lays me down on his long velvety sofa.

His hands roam under my shirt as he hums, “Mmhmm,” into my neck. “You’re soft and delicate, yet hearty and delicious.” He nibbles on my shoulder as I slip my fingers below the waistband of his jeans.

He pulls my shirt up as his face burrows under it and litters kisses all over my tummy and chest. His dexterous fingers unclasp the latch of my bra and expose my breasts just as his mouth descends to it. I’m in a state of bliss; the significance of the moment overwhelms me.

I’m with Peeta. Finally.

Clothes are shed, bodies connect, and tongues roam from one spot to the next. There’s no place I’d rather be than right here, right now. As I feel him inside me, stretching me and claiming me as his, I think about how he knew what I needed from the start.

He observed and waited until I discovered my own truth. For all I know, he may have even seen Gale pack up his truck this morning. He never asked me about him. He knew.

As my orgasm swells, I know I made the right choice. We fit together perfectly; we’re complementary. Just how Peeta explained the color wheel; we’re the perfect match. Opposites pair for the best combinations - my olive skin with his pink flesh, my grey eyes with his bright blue, my dark straight hair with his blonde wavy strands.

My body feels more alive than it has in years under his pressure. The warmth collects in my pelvis as the pulsing intensifies. I consume his rapid thrusts, inviting him to climax by squeezing him tightly and rocking my hips with his. He wraps my leg up around his bottom as his movements become more erratic.

He huffs and pants between breaths. “Katniss, you are amazing. I’ve only dreamt of this...” His mouth finds my shoulder as he locks down on it during his detonation. The pleasurable pain from the bite spurs my body to follow. We both pour into one another as our voices emit the most naughty and blissful sounds.

We hold our mutual embrace for several minutes as our breathing slows, heart beats normalize, and bodies quiver. The sounds of his pleasure satisfy me in ways I never imagined. I look up at the ceiling and realize I’m no longer waiting for my partner to be finished. I never want this to end.

“Peeta…“

He lifts himself up to look at me. “Yes, Katniss.”

I love how he says my name. He can say it every minute of every day. “I love that painting.”

He chuckles. “I’m glad. How do you feel?”

How do I feel? Happy, content, satisfied, hopeful - so many things right now.

“I’m happy you found me, Peeta.”

“Remember? We found each other.” He winks and captures my lips with his again.

Bless those red curtains. Bless those curtains that led me to Peeta.

* * *

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