Chapter 1: Intro
Dr. Katniss Everdeen stood in front of the tidy little cottage that would be her home for the next six months. Beige siding, white trim, two cute dormers popping up like eyes and a porch just big enough for two chairs, it looked like almost all of the houses in her hometown of Seam, Ontario. Except, of course, for the two towering palm trees flanking the front walk. That, and the fact that it was 24 degrees Celsius in freaking November emphasized that she was definitely not in Canada anymore.
She pulled her suitcase from the back of her rental car—no, she corrected herself, her hire car with its steering wheel inconveniently located on the wrong side. It had taken nearly the entirety of the two and a half hour drive from the airport in Sydney for driving on the left side of the road to stop feeling weird. Mostly stop, anyway.
And now she was here, in Panem, New South Wales.
Home sweet home, she guessed.
Inside, the cottage was exactly as Annie had promised, clean and furnished, albeit sparingly. Tiny scrap of a kitchen, outdated but functional, living room, bedroom, bath and a half, and a sunroom at the back that would make a decent yoga studio. For what the rent was setting her back, Katniss had maybe expected a little bigger, but it was ample for one person.
One person . Her heart clenched as it always did when Katniss remembered that she didn’t need that second bedroom anymore.
She shoved aside the pain, squeezed it down into that dark pit in her stomach, then dragged her suitcase up the stairs to unpack.
Chapter 2: Chapter 1
Annie came just as Katniss was tucking the last of her clothes into the dresser, and Katniss’s melancholy and exhaustion lifted a little, seeing her old friend. Medical school classmates, they’d formed a deep bond sharing a crappy apartment near the hospital during residency. But like so many things in life, that bond had stretched thin when Annie moved to New South Wales four years earlier, following a man she’d fallen in love with, a man to whom she was now married.
The years melted away as Katniss embraced her friend. “I didn’t think I’d see you until Monday,” Katniss said, and Annie laughed.
“Like I’d leave you alone in a strange town for four days, Kat.” Annie’s voice, lilting with the languid cadence of her South Carolina origins, was like a balm to Katniss, the familiarity so keenly felt. “I brought you the essentials.” Annie thrust a bottle of red wine at Katniss, and a paper bag that by the scent contained Chinese take out.
“Bless you,” Katniss groaned. “You’re staying to share, right?” Annie grinned.
“The food anyway,” she said, moving further into Katniss’s new little home. “Afraid the wine is still a while away.” She rested a hand on the swell of her belly, her face glowing with happiness and contentment.
Annie’s upcoming maternity leave was part of the reason that Katniss was in New South Wales. In a bit of fortuitous timing, the day Katniss just happened to check Facebook for the first time in months was the day that Annie had been complaining about the shortage of doctors at the rural NSW hospital where she worked. A half-joking offer to come over and help out was met with a ream of information on the equivalency of Canadian and Australian medical training and requirements for foreign-trained doctors in Australia.
About a hundred application forms, a phone interview and a designation of substantially comparable later, Katniss had a shiny new provisional license to practice medicine in Australia and a six month contract in the emergency department of the Panem Hospital.
It had all come together so quickly, she hadn’t had time for second thoughts.
“So what do you think of the town so far?” Annie asked, moving into the small efficiency kitchen and searching the cabinets for plates.
Katniss dropped the bag of food onto the tiny table that barely fit in the space and shrugged. “Didn’t see much on the drive in. Google took me pretty much directly to the door.”
“That’s great, actually,” Annie said. “I’m forever losing the signal and ending up in the bush.”
The old friends talked and caught up over fried rice and Mongolian chicken, but Katniss was yawning before she’d even finished a single glass of wine. Three flights and a whopping 28 hours of travel time were taking their toll. “I should let you rest,” Annie said, glancing at the slim watch around her wrist. Katniss tried to shrug off the concern, but she hadn’t been this tired since residency, she’d even lost track of the days at this point.
Annie laughed, but not unkindly. “Four days won’t be nearly enough to catch up on your sleep. Maybe start now, and I’ll come around in the morning to take you to the shops.”
After seeing Annie out, Katniss staggered up to the loft, which contained the bedroom and a small bath. She found sheets in a cupboard, a little stale but clean enough, and made the bed on autopilot, then turned to draw the curtains.
The window in her new bedroom faced the rear of the house, looking out over the back yard. Over the rear fence was another house, what looked like a mirror of her own, with the same windowed studio space at the back, though her neighbour seemed to be using it as a home gym, judging by the man she could just make out doing pull ups, his bare torso illuminated by the afternoon sun.
She was too tired, too scrambled to look away, instead pressing her nose against the window glass. She couldn’t make out his face but there was no mistaking his strength as he easily executed twenty more pull ups without pausing.
When he dropped from the bar and walked to the wall of windows, the light caught his hair, crowning him in gold. A brawny blonde Australian beefcake right in her yard. Almost made up for the obscene rent.
Katniss closed the curtains a little reluctantly and fell into bed, wondering where she could buy a pair of binoculars.
The time change was a bitch.
Katniss found herself wide awake and climbing the walls at half past four in the morning, or what her internal clock insisted was dinner time. Her first day in Australia had been a blur of driving to the new town, finding the new house and messaging people back home that she’d arrived safe and sound. The visit with Annie had sapped the last of her energy and she’d passed out without even thinking about what she might need to get by. Now, 12 hours later, she was starving and standing in a darkened house with a completely empty pantry.
She set out into the predawn on foot, wondering if there was a 24 hour grocery or an all night diner in this little town
The entirety of downtown Panem consisted of about five blocks. The tiny grocery store sat right in the middle of Main, but it didn’t open for another three hours. Katniss sighed, but continued walking. A florist, a deli and a candy shop along one street. A bright yellow fire station at the end of the block. An adorable little tea room shrouded in darkness. And a bakery, light faintly glowing through the plate glass window.
She climbed the cement steps. The sign on the door said it didn’t open until six, another 90 minutes. Katniss shuffled over to the large window and peered inside anyway. The glow came from somewhere in the back, but it was enough for her to make out the shop, mostly. Black and white checkered tile floor, wooden cabinets with shining glass fronts. She squinted, trying to read the chalkboard above the front counter. Meat pies? That sounded promising. She’d have to come back when—
“Can I help you?” Katniss nearly jumped out of her skin. She’d been so engrossed in the scene before her, she hadn’t even noticed the door opening. “Easy,” the stranger said, “didn’t mean to startle you.”
Katniss closed her eyes and took a deep breath to steady her heart rate. A warm, yeasty scent wafted from the open door, threatened to weaken her knees.
“Sorry,” Katniss said, finally looking at the man. He was average height, but broad shouldered, strong forearms crossed over a white apron, some sort of graphic tattoo peeking out from under the sleeve of his plain white tee. His smile seemed kind and his blue eyes twinkled under a mop of unruly ashy blonde curls. Were all the men in Australia blonde and unfairly attractive? “I, um. I was looking for an open store. Somewhere I could grab something to eat.”
“You must be an American,” blondie snickered. “There’s nothing open overnight in the country.”
Katniss scowled. “I’m Canadian,” she snipped, and blondie held out his palms in supplication.
“Sorry,” he said, “didn’t mean to assume.” Katniss deflated a little. She was hangry and tired and still fuzzy-headed from the travel and lack of sleep and none of that was Blondie’s fault.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I just got in yesterday, or I think it was yesterday, and I have nothing at the house yet.” She bit her lip, irritated that she’d shared that much with a complete stranger, then turned to go.
“Wait,” he said. “I can set you up with some brekky.”
“Oh, no, I couldn't,” Katniss started, but her stomach grumbled loudly in protest.
Blondie smiled again, wide enough for a dimple to pop in his cheek, and opened the door wider. Katniss couldn’t resist.
Inside, the yeasty smell mingled with the scents of cinnamon and dill. Katniss was almost dizzy with the delight of it. He left her standing in the centre of the shop while he tucked into the back, and she used the time to examine the rest of the interior. There was a small seating area, just three café tables with wrought iron chairs, and the walls were covered with paintings, landscapes of the local area she thought.
She was studying a particularly striking painting—a craggy finger of ancient rock extending into water so blue it was almost unreal—when he returned, moving to stand right behind her. She could feel his warmth and when he spoke almost directly into her ear in his low, lyrical accent, it felt intimate. Until his words registered. “Delicate Nobby reef,” he said, and she bit back a snort of amusement. This place had the greatest names.
“It’s beautiful,” Katniss said after a beat where she was mostly successful at schooling her mirth. She turned to face him. The faint light caught his eyelashes, blonde too and impossibly long and lush, and she found herself, strangely, wondering how they didn’t get all tangled up when he blinked.
“One of my favourite places,” he said, his voice still hushed, his smile shy. Silence stretched between them, not uncomfortable, but electric and full of potential. “I, uh, here,” Blondie said, thrusting a paper bag at Katniss.
Oh . Maybe not so comfortable after all if he was anxious to be rid of her.
“Thank you,” she said, looking over his shoulder, trying to swallow the very inappropriate disappointment. She was only here for six months anyway, she had no business flirting with the local baker, no matter how handsome he was.
“Muffins,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck, his discomfort now obvious. “Fresh from the oven.”
“What do I owe you?” Katniss asked, fishing for her wallet. She had 100 Australian dollars in her wallet, extracted from the airport ATM, their physical similarity to Canadian dollars oddly comforting, even if their rendition of the queen wasn’t a particularly flattering one.
“My shout,” he said, and Katniss glanced at him in confusion. “On the house.” He smiled again, more tentative than before, but just as beautiful.
Only after she was back outside, scampering down the sidewalk while almost inhaling the best chocolate muffin she’d ever tasted did she realize she’d never even asked the blonde baker for his name.
Chapter 3: Chapter 2
A moment’s inattention, and now he was sitting on a gurney in accident and emerg, pressing gauze against a gash in his arm that stung like a bugger. Fifteen years as a volunteer firefighter for Panem Fire and Rescue, and this was the first time Peeta Mellark had let his mind wander while on the job.
It was a car crash, pretty near as routine as they get. The Panem brigade was often first on the scene of car crashes on the lonely country roads, Peeta had attended dozens over his years volunteering. But this time, when he’d gone round to help extract the passenger from the crumpled wreck, all he’d seen was a sheet of inky-black hair glinting in his torchlight, and all of his training had momentarily flown from his head. Reaching into the cabin without first evaluating the risk, he’d caught his sleeve on a jagged piece of window glass, sharp as a spear, that cut him from the edge of his kevlar wrister almost to his bloody elbow. Missed slicing anything important, but it hurt like a bloody bugger and worse, he had to take the ride of shame in the back of an ambo to get stitched up at the hospital instead of helping his mates with the clean-up. They’d never let him live it down.
And it hadn’t even been her. Her, the woman who’d stolen his sense and his silver tongue when she’d scowled at him four days ago. He’d spent four days kicking himself for not getting her name, and four days hoping she’d come back. But he hadn’t caught another glimpse of her.
Except in his dreams.
Every time he closed his eyes he saw hers, an unusual silver shade, wide and deep, the ocean by moonlight. And her hair, a long ebony rope carelessly plaited and tossed over one shoulder that even in the moment had made his fingers itch to unwind the strands.
Peeta loved women, loved the female form and had never lacked for companionship. His reputation around town as a flirt was well-earned, he could charm the pants off most anyone. He wasn’t exactly a love ‘em and leave ‘em guy, he treated the ladies well, showed them a good time, monogamously, and when their time together had run its course, they always parted as friends. He was never with anyone longer than a few dates though. Peeta Mellark wasn’t relationship material. But getting the girl in the first place, that’s something he never had any trouble with.
Except for four days ago.
When he’d seen her there, bathed in a weak pool of lamp light like a bloody angel, he’d thought she was beautiful. Then she’d spoken—in that accent!—and she was in turns feral and vulnerable, he couldn’t help but be fascinated. He’d invited her into his shop, thought they’d yabber, he’d wrangle a date out of her. But she’d turned those big eyes on him, and it had felt like a fist to the gut. He’d never had such a visceral reaction to a pretty face before. He’d fallen all over his tongue, like a dipstick, and she’d run off, disappearing into the predawn, as if she’d never been real at all.
His mobile rang, interrupting his thoughts. Finnick Odair’s face filled the screen. Peeta groaned. The last thing he needed was to be revved up by bloody Finn. Still, he answered, because if he knew anything about his best mate, it was that he’d keep trying, ringing incessantly until Peeta answered. Best to get it done.
“Hey,” Peeta said into the device, keeping his voice even and upbeat. In reality, he was knackered, but there was no need to show that to Finn. He’d be catching enough grief.
“Peet,” Finn shouted through the phone. “How ya goin’?” There was enough noise in the background that Peeta assumed he was still at the accident scene. Fire brigade often did the clean up, especially if there were chemicals spilled.
“Not bad, mate,” Peeta said, shifting to keep the mobile pressed to his ear while also keeping the gauze pressed to his arm, wincing as he did. He hoped the doc wouldn’t be much longer, he needed to be at the bakery in about three hours to start the morning bake.
“They didn’t cut off your leg yet?”
Peeta rolled his eyes. “It’s my arm, ya drongo, and it’s barely a scratch.” A scratch that was still bleeding, pain pulsing along with his heartbeat, but again, why give Finn more ammunition?
“Sure,” Finn laughed, then sobered. “Seriously though, mate. You right? Want me to come by and pick you up?”
Peeta was sorely tempted, the hospital was on the outskirts of Panem and the walk back to town was going to suck. But Finnick’s wife was pregnant and probably pacing the floors, waiting for him at home. They’d been putting in so many hours volunteering with the fire brigade, both of them, Peeta didn’t want to take up any extra of his time. Besides, a brisk walk in the predawn would do him good, help him refocus, sharpen his mind.
“Nah, mate, you go home to your lady,” he said, but Finnick snorted through the phone.
“Annie’d have my arse if I left you to walk home. And you’re gonna clomp back into town in your PPEs?”
Peeta slumped in defeat. Finn was right, he knew it. He could probably wrangle a ride from one of the nurses, several had already popped their pretty heads in to see if he needed anything. But then there’d be expectations, and Peeta was tired. Not just physically, but mentally too. Drained, really. “Yeah,” he said softly.
“Ace,” Finnick replied. “We’re nearly done. I’ll be there in an hour.” Peeta hoped he’d be stitched up by then. It would have been better if the EMTs at the crash site could have patched him up, but they’d insisted on bringing him here instead.
He slid his phone back into his pocket, then returned to keeping pressure on his arm. A low murmur beyond the curtain suggested that it might finally be his turn.
Dr. Hawthorne—Gale Hawthorne—entered first. He was tall and powerfully built, with black hair that spoke to his Aboriginal heritage and a sharp gaze that saw everything. Peeta knew him, in a small town like this you knew pretty much everyone. He’d played footy with Doc Hawthorne’s two younger brothers in school, they were good blokes. But the doc was far more serious, intense. Even when they were kids he’d been that way. Head of the family from a young age, Peeta reckoned that matured a lad fast.
“Mellark,” the doc said, but didn’t reach out to shake Peeta’s hand. Just as well since it was occupied keeping pressure on his wound. “Our new doctor is shadowing me today. This here is Dr. Everdeen.” Only then did Peeta notice the person who had followed Doc Hawthorne into the treatment room.
His heart skipped a beat. Good thing he wasn’t connected to the monitors.
His silver-eyed dream, Dr. Everdeen apparently, stood beside Hawthorne, eyes twinkling with amusement. In deep blue scrubs and with that same dark plait, she was every bit as beautiful as the first time he’d seen her, only now she held an aura of authority, along with that mystery. And damn but that made her even more attractive.
“Mister Mellark,” she said, and he swore he could hear the smirk in her voice. “Let’s have a look.”
Her touch was firm and competent, but gentle too as she prodded the skin around the gash in his arm. There was absolutely nothing sexy about it, but his heart tripped in his chest anyway. Blood loss, he thought. Definitely not because of the woman leaning over him, filling his lungs with lavender and antiseptic. She glanced up at him through sooty lashes, a gentle smile playing on those lush lips. “Going to need a few stitches,” she said. “We’ll fix you up, good as new.”
Then she pulled away, and it felt like a physical loss.
Chapter 4: Chapter 3
Four days in this crazy, upside-down country, and who ended up in her treatment room on her very first shift? The blonde baker she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about. She couldn’t decide if it was fate mocking her, or throwing her a bone.
She’d spent her first half-week in Australia in a jet-lagged haze, or at least that’s the excuse she’d given herself for why she hadn’t gone back to the cute bakery and apologised to the cute baker for being so rude her first morning in town.
She had a chance now, it was clear her patient recognised her. But she couldn’t make herself mention it, at least not with Gale Hawthorne in the room. Her new colleague was nice enough, but the way he bristled when he picked up Mr. Mellark’s chart made her guess he wasn’t a fan.
Mellark . She hadn’t thought to glance at his first name before they’d entered the room, and Gale hadn’t used it either. Oh well, maybe it was for the best. It was strange enough having Gale shadowing her, she hadn’t been accompanied by another doctor since her first year of internship, and that was a long time ago. Flirting with a patient definitely wouldn’t improve tall, dark and broody’s opinion of her.
Even if that patient was wearing the sexiest little half-smile.
“I’m just going to grab one of the nurses, Mister Mellark,” Katniss said. Gale was already moving on, he was shadowing her mostly to show her where everything was and to help out with the unfamiliar systems. But in a bustling emergency room, wasting his time watching her put in a line of sutures was just silly.
“Peeta,” Blondie said, and she frowned. He laughed, it was warm and deep and Katniss thought she’d do a lot just to hear that laugh again. “My name is Peeta,” he repeated, a little shyly. “Peeta Mellark. Mister Mellark is my dad.”
“Peeta.” She tried out his name, liking the way it felt in her mouth, and his grin widened. “It’s nice to meet you. Now hang on, I’ll be right back.”
She was still grinning when she found a pair of nurses chatting near the triage station. “I’m sorry, I don’t know your names yet,” Katniss started, “but I need an extra set of hands in treatment room four.”
“Wouldn’t mind getting my hands on that one all right,” one of the nurses said, a tall redhead a little older than Katniss herself.
“He’s a total spunk,” the younger nurse tittered, and Katniss rolled her eyes. She wasn’t certain exactly what that meant, but from their flushed cheeks and the way they both giggled behind their hands, she had a pretty good guess.
“Right, well, could one of you glove up and bring a suture kit?”
Katniss didn’t bother waiting to see which would follow.
She stopped at the entrance to the treatment room, not really a room in fact, more of an alcove, but giving the illusion of privacy for the patient. Peeta was still sitting sideways on the gurney, but now his head was tipped back against the wall, eyes closed in exhaustion. She took a minute to really look at him. He was wearing a white t-shirt, just like the first time she’d seen him. But instead of jeans and an apron, he wore a pair of heavy canvas pants with yellow reflective stripes, and red suspenders that puddled on the white paper sheet. Heavy black boots dangled just above the floor.
Firefighter clothes. Turnout gear, she thought it was called, at least back home. Seems the handsome baker led a double life.
He opened his eyes as she entered, the blue warm and welcoming. He was one of those guys who smiled with his eyes, she thought.
She slid a wheeled stool over and sat beside him, taking his arm in her hands. The bleeding had slowed to a sluggish ooze, but the gash was deep. “Going to start with a little shot of local anaesthetic,” she said, “then we’ll clean and stitch this up.”
“I don’t need a shot,” he said, looking warily at the alcohol swab she unwrapped. Uncomfortable with needles, she gauged.
Katniss couldn't resist teasing him. “That’s what all of the big, tough men say before they start crying like little girls.”
He unleashed that broad smile at her again, genuinely sweet with just the right touch of shyness, and an unexpected warmth rushed through her veins.
“Did you get these fighting fires?” she asked, tracing a finger along the myriad of burn scars scattered over his forearm and hand.
“No,” he said, hissing as she used his distraction to inject the anaesthetic. “Burns are part of the life of a baker.”
“You’ve been doing it a long time.” It wasn’t a question, some of those marks were old, more than a decade if she had to guess.
“I opened my bakery right out of uni,” Peeta said. “Everyone thought I was crazy. Tech was where the money was. My mum wanted me to be an accountant. But I was stubborn.”
“And the firefighting?” Katniss prompted after several moments passed with only the muffled cacophony of the hospital between them.
Before he could answer the curtain flew open with a flutter. The younger of the two nurses appeared, beaming like the sun. “Sorry,” she said a little breathlessly. “Had to get a kit.”
Katniss scrutinised her. Had to fluff her hair and put on lip gloss, apparently.
But Peeta must have noticed. He smiled at the newcomer— Em , she said her name was, and proceeded to flirt shamelessly with her, to the point where Katniss had to ask Em at least twice for just about everything she needed. Apparently neither of them even remembered Katniss was there. She’d have been better off doing the damned sutures alone rather than putting up with all of the fawning and giggling and hair flipping.
Yet when she pressed the last bit of tape into place over the gauze (maybe a little too roughly) and glanced up to release her patient, it was like a different man sat on the stretcher. Same golden curls, same incredible arms. But his eyes looked dead, devoid of emotion, not the smiling eyes she’d seen before. He kept up an effortless banter with the besotted young nurse, but his smile was more of a smirk, cocky instead of warm. Katniss could see it was an act.
How incredibly odd, she thought.
She stood. Peeta’s gaze flew to hers, his turmoil plain, as if he wanted to speak to her but something was holding him back.
Or maybe she just wished that was the case. It had been nice, those few minutes where his attention had been on her, but it hadn’t been any more than a flirt flirting, obviously. Not that she minded, she definitely wasn’t looking for anything anyway. She enjoyed the company of men from time to time, usually other doctors who understood the hours and the lifestyle and were looking for the same no-strings release she was.
But it had been a long time since she’d felt any desire. Her libido vanished when her world came crashing in on her. So while the little spark of interest was nice, this time in Australia wasn’t about screwing her way through the myriad of hot blonde surfers the country boasted. It was about figuring out her life.
She snapped off her gloves, leaving Em to explain wound care to Mr. Mellark, and ignored the way his eyes followed her.
Chapter 5: Chapter 4
“Rye, no, I’m dead on my feet,” Peeta groaned into his mobile as he flipped the sign on the shop door to “closed”. His brothers were always calling him last minute to watch their kids, and he usually loved it. But he’d been called to the station every night this week, a farmer’s ill-advised burn had gone out of control, a lightning strike fire had destroyed a cottage. The firies were always busy this time of year, but Peeta was sure it was getting worse. The summers were getting hotter. The dry season dryer. They were all stretched to the limit.
“You know I wouldn’t ask if there was any other choice,” Rye wheedled, and Peeta rolled his eyes. Rye never had another choice, because Peeta was always bailing him out. But how could he not? His nieces and nephews, both Rye’s kids and his eldest brother Brann’s, were amazing. “Stel’s got a new song she’s dying to play for you,” he said, the killing blow. Peeta could never say no to that little love.
“Fine,” Peeta said, “I’ll be home in ten.”
“We’re already in your driveway.”
Of course they were.
Peeta tucked back to the kitchen and boxed up some Lamingtons for the kids. Then he boxed up some extras. If Rye’s kids were there, chances were Brann’s would be too.
Sure enough, by the time he got home there were two cars in front of his house, and six kids dancing around on the verandah. The twins came tearing across the grass, he caught them both, trying not to flinch as the stitches in his arm pulled. Four days later and it still stung every time he flexed. The only reason the brigade was letting him respond to calls was that he’d sweet talked that cute little nurse into writing him a well-note. Certified fit for duty.
It was ridiculous that he even needed a note, the brigade was shorthanded and struggling to keep up with the calls this season, and Peeta was there; ready, willing, and able to work. It certainly wasn’t for the money, as a volunteer firefighter he wasn’t paid at all for his services, not a cent, and in fact lost money during the dry season, when frequent calls required that he hire extra staff to cover at the bakery.
No, firefighting spoke to something deep inside Peeta, that need to help people. He’d considered becoming a professional firefighter, back when he was in uni. But that would have required him moving to the city since Panem was only served by the NSW Rural Fire Service, which was almost entirely voluntary. So, it was never really an option. He’d been set on coming home and opening a bakery, and it was a damned fine one at that.
Peeta loved Panem. He loved the lazy pace, the friendly neighbours, the half-hour drive to some of the prettiest surfing on the planet. It was home. A home he loved to serve, to feed, to protect.
“Uncle Peeta,” Stella squealed, squirming to sit higher on his hip. She was, of course, on his sore side. He gritted his teeth, hefting her higher. Her gap-toothed grin was worth that little bit of pain. “I brought my guitar, so I can play for you!” she practically sang, and Peeta laughed.
“Can’t wait, Stel,” he said, and he meant it.
Not to be outdone, her twin sister grabbed his cheeks, twisting his head to face her and grinning an identical grin. “I brought my ball,” Shannon said. “Can we play footy?” Different as night and day, his girls were.
“Let’s have tea first,” he said, figuring that none of them had eaten their evening meal yet. “Then we can play in the garden until your mum comes.”
“Leevy will be by to grab the lot of them when she’s off work,” Rye yelled from his car window. Peeta waved him off. Three kids in 13 months had taxed Rye’s marriage almost to the brink in the early days, Peeta had been happy to give him and Leevy some relief. Now, it was habit, they called on him in lieu of properly planning their days. But how could he say no? He knew how hard his brother and sister-in-law worked to pay for private school tuition and music lessons and sports and uniforms for three kids who grew like weeds. It was only right that he help, since he could.
Brann waved absently as he too pulled away. It would be nice, Peeta thought, if his eldest brother ever showed a speck of gratitude for these impromptu babysitting sessions, or hell, even asked Peeta if he minded. But Brann was grieving, his wife had picked up and left him a year and a half ago, headed for America with big dreams and even bigger boobs that she’d nearly bankrupted Brann to pay for. Spending time with Uncle Peeta gave Brann’s boys a bit of stability, of familiarity while their dad was trying to put his life back together.
Those boys were sitting with their cousin on the tiny settee Peeta kept on the verandah, just big enough for two adults, or apparently four little boys. Ollie, the eldest, was playing some electronic game, and the others were tucked around him, watching and offering criticisms. “Did you bring us bickies, Uncle Peeta?” Charlie, Brann’s second boy, asked without taking his eyes off the game.
“You’ll have to see. Come on, you lot,” Peeta laughed, unlocking the door while Stella hung from his neck, then herding them all inside.
He made them hotdogs on the barbie, leaving Ollie in charge of cutting onions, and Charlie in charge of the rolls. Sam, Rye’s boy, dug around in the kitchen until he found bags of chips while his sisters located the juice poppers he kept for them in the fridge. Even little Patrick helped, proudly bringing out a plastic bottle of mustard. They were a handful, these nieces and nephews of Peeta’s, but he loved them like nothing else in his life.
They ate in the afternoon sunshine, Patrick curled on his lap, the others arguing about Animal Crossing again, and despite his exhaustion, Peeta felt content. He ruffled Paddy’s golden curls and the little guy grinned, snuggling in closer. Peeta couldn’t understand how his sister-in-law could leave any of her boys, but Paddy had still been in nappies then. How do you leave a baby behind?
Peeta had always loved his brothers’ kids, but hadn’t given much thought to having a few ankle biters of his own until recently, until Glim left Brann, really. But now he was starting to wonder if he’d ever get to have any little ones of his own. He was almost 35, and had never been in a serious relationship. All of his friends were paired off now, and even playboy of the century Finnick Odair was married and having a kid.
But not Peeta.
Peeta was flirting with nurses probably a decade younger than he was instead of the gorgeous but seemingly unattainable foreign doctor who had twice knocked him senseless. Katniss Everdeen . A name as beautiful and unique as the woman herself. She hadn’t given him her first name either time they’d met, but Finnick it turned out knew her and gave Peeta the scoop. She was Annie’s friend from way back, single, but only in Panem for a few months, filling a spot at the understaffed hospital so Annie could take parental leave without worrying so much. Then she’d be gone again. She’d be gone, and soon enough his brothers’ kids would be grown and gone too. Everything was growing and changing. Everything but Peeta himself.
His life was big and full and fun. But he wasn’t sure it fit him so well anymore.
The sounds of Charlie and Sam arguing pulled Peeta from his musing. Time to run off some steam. “Oi, Shan,” he called over the cacophony. “Where’s your ball?”
They weren’t enough for an Aussie rules side, especially since Paddy was more interested in the drought-crisped dandelions than in footy strategy. But the kids screamed with delight as he ran, two or three of them hanging off him for dear life in an averted tackle. He wouldn't go easy on them just because they were little!
And Peeta held onto these moments, the sunshine and the laughter and these kids who loved him just the way he was.
Chapter 6: Chapter 5
Katniss’s new schedule was pretty sweet, it had made the decision to spend six months in New South Wales even easier. Four shifts a week, alternating days and nights every other week, and only one weekend a month. It was fewer hours than she’d logged back in the Seam, and much more regular, dependable. It was going to leave her tons of time to explore and to meditate and to figure out her life. Once she got enough sleep to kick this residual jet lag, that was.
But that wasn’t going to happen today.
Shrill shrieks wafted through her bedroom window and she groaned, abandoning any thought of a nap. Her first four shifts had been overnights, which hadn’t helped in getting her circadian rhythm reset to Australian time. Worse, she’d had a terrible time sleeping between the new bed and the new surroundings and the mental overload of the new systems at work. Not to mention how much harder she had to listen to her patients and coworkers to figure out the Australian accent and the different way they phrased things, and how truly exhausting that was.
Her only respite had been watching her backyard neighbour’s workouts. He was remarkably consistent, doing shirtless pull ups or running on his treadmill around six every evening, providing her with glimpses of his golden body through the wall of windows in his sunroom. And after encountering that cute but terribly confusing baker again, her backyard neighbour’s shenanigans had become a respite of another type, where she could use her imagination to superimpose a wide, dimpled grin and smiling blue eyes onto her neighbour’s half-naked form. She’d have liked to enjoy more of that respite, but it turned out that the electricity differences in Australia ran deeper than just the different shaped plug, and she’d fried her magic wand.
That’s something they didn’t warn you about in the Lonely Planet guides.
With a sigh, Katniss climbed out of bed and wandered over to the window. Her neighbour was outside this evening, and sadly wearing a shirt. He also wasn’t alone. Though she’d never before seen any sign of anyone else living in his little house, his yard was full of children.
Maybe he shared custody, she mused, though if that was the case his house must be a lot bigger than hers. She couldn’t imagine fitting that many kids into her tiny cottage.
She watched as he ran, holding a football while several giggling children attempted to tackle him. It was adorable, wholesome, like a soap commercial or something, all of those blonde heads in the sunshine.
Katniss was just about to turn away when her hot beefcake neighbour threw his arms up in some sort of touchdown dance, and a flash of white bandage stretching the length of his forearm caught her eyes.
She was downstairs and pushing open the sliding glass door to her yard before she could even think about what she was doing.
It was him, it was definitely him. The two men she’d been fantasising about, her beefcake neighbour and the hot firefighting baker, were one and the same. What were the odds?
He didn’t notice her at first, not until she was most of the way to the fence. Then he caught sight of her and did an almost cartoonish double take.
“Well I’ll be,” he said softly, approaching, seeming not even to notice the weight of multiple kids hanging off him like he was a jungle gym.
“Uncle Peeta,” one of the kids whined. “You’re going the wrong way.”
“If it isn’t the mysterious Doctor Everdeen,” Peeta said, leaning against their shared fence, his eyes raking down her body. Only then did Katniss remember she was braless under the thin tank she’d worn to nap in. Oh well, she thought. There wasn't much to see anyway. Though the way Peeta grinned appreciatively made her wonder if he’d disagree.
“Are you really a doctor?” a little voice piped up. Katniss glanced over Peeta’s shoulder and her breath caught in her throat. Dangling from his back and looking at her with wide blue eyes was a curly haired version of Prim.
It took a few beats for her brain to catch up. The little girl waiting patiently for her to answer couldn't be more than six or seven. Similar colouring to Katniss’s sister, but a generation—and half a planet—removed. Finally she caught her breath. “I am,” she said simply.
“You don’t look like a doctor,” the little girl said. Her tongue poked out where her two front teeth should have been.
Katniss narrowly bit back a scowl. “Oh?” she said. “And what do doctors look like?”
She fully expected to have a discussion about misogyny with a first grader, but the kid surprised her. “Old,” she said, freckled nose wrinkling. “You’re not old,” she said.
“And you’re pretty,” another voice piped up. Katniss leaned over the fence to find a second little girl with exactly the same smile but dark pigtails. Sisters, one fair, one dark. Closer in age than she and Prim had been, but so very similar otherwise. “I like your hair,” the second little girl said.
“Thank you,” Katniss said, pulling at the end of her French braid a little self-consciously. It was coming unwoven and probably sticking up everywhere from trying to sleep on it. “I like your hair too,” she said, and the child beamed.
“I’m Stella. Will you braid my hair like that?” she asked, and before Katniss could answer, her sister was asking the same thing, begging in stereo.
Other little voices joined the fray, questions for Katniss, admonishments for Uncle Peeta to rejoin the game, an amazing amount of high-pitched noise.
“Oi, knock it off you lot,” Peeta said, but gently, and with such fondness in his voice that something warm and bright flared in her chest. “Charlie,” he continued, addressing one of the bigger boys. “I know you found the icy poles when you were perving in the kitchen earlier.” Katniss had no idea what that meant, but the way six little people suddenly stampeded towards Peeta’s house indicated they did.
“I didn’t realise you had your own football team over here,” Katniss said with a smirk.
Peeta laughed. He had a really great laugh, warm, a little husky. “Few shy of an Aussie rules side,” he said. “You wanna help me add to the crew? We could get started now. You and me, Doc. We’d make heaps of real pretty midfielders together.”
She froze, uncertain, until he winked, and she understood he was flirting. Peeta Mellark was definitely a flirt. Whatever shy side she’d thought she’d seen in him must’ve been her imagination because this guy oozed self confidence.
Katniss could work with that. Guys like that, players , they didn’t have expectations she couldn't live up to. They didn’t add complications she wasn’t prepared for.
“Mighty forward, Hotshot, when you don’t even know my first name,” she said, smirking.
His grin widened. “I can just keep calling you Doc Beauty…”
Katniss laughed, surprising herself. It had been a very long time since she’d laughed at anything.
Peeta’s cocky smile fell a bit, a flicker of vulnerability in his blue eyes. He was an enigma, this brawny blonde beefcake.
One she thought she might like to know better.
“Katniss,” she said, sticking her hand over the fence. His smile widened.
“Nice to meet you for real, Katniss,” he said, taking her hand in his much larger one. She liked the way he said her name, liked the warmth and solidity of his skin under her own.
“Third time’s a charm.”
Peeta held her hand longer than was strictly necessary, and when he finally released her, she felt sorry for the loss.
“They’re my brothers’ kids,” he said, gesturing over his shoulder. “But you’ll be hearing a lot of them. Sorry for that. I’d have kept them quiet if I’d known you were sleeping.” He gestured to the tank top and shorts she was wearing, bare toes curled in the dry grass.
“It’s fine,” she said. “I wasn’t asleep anyway. And I shouldn’t be trying to nap, I switch to days on Monday. But I’m still jet lagged like crazy and trying to adjust to the new time zone.” And there she was, oversharing with blondie again.
But he just nodded. “I hear you,” he said. “I mean, I’m not jet lagged, but early mornings at the bakery and late nights with the firies…” he trailed off, and for the first time Katniss noticed the faint purple circles under his eyes, like bruises in the evening light.
“And long afternoons with your nieces and nephews.”
His expression softened at that, different from the cocky smile. “Hard to feel stuffed when they’re keeping me on my toes,” he said. “Do you have kids?” Katniss rolled her eyes and Peeta grinned. “Nieces, nephews? Siblings?”
Her heart hurt at the question. Prim loved kids. She would have been the best mother, calm and kind. Katniss shook her head, glancing away, and tried to stuff the pain back down.
Peeta was looking at her strangely, like she was a puzzle that needed to be solved. She wanted to tell him to stop, that she wasn’t broken, that she was just fine, thank you. But his back door slid open and sticky-faced children spilled out, like so many clowns from a car, distracting them both.
The older kids scattered about the yard, but the littlest one, a boy of maybe three, came straight for Peeta, a melting popsicle in each chubby fist. “I brought one for you,” he lisped, and Peeta lifted the little guy up into his arms.
“Thank you, Paddy,” Peeta said, “but you have two here,” he tapped the little guy’s hands, “and at least one more here,” he danced his fingers over the large purple stain decorating the front of Patrick’s shirt, and the child giggled.
“One for her,” Patrick said shyly, not quite looking at Katniss.
“Oh,” Katniss said softly, and that unfamiliar warmth flared in her chest again. She’d forgotten, maybe, how sweet kids could be. It had been a very long time since she’d been around a little person outside of a professional capacity. “Thank you, Paddy,” she said, repeating the name Peeta had used.
He handed a yellow popsicle over the fence, the wooden stick stained and sticky, then buried his face in Peeta’s neck. She’d never been one to fawn over muscled men holding babies, but there was something about this man, with his bulging biceps and his ashy blonde hair just a little too long, curling in the slanting light, cradling a little guy who looked just like him, that made her feel things she had no business feeling. Not for someone who in six months time she’d never see again.
Peeta was grinning, the smile she remembered seeing briefly at his bakery, and again in the hospital before he’d been distracted by the nurse, the one that seemed real and deep. It confused the hell out of her. Time to make an exit.
“I uh, I should leave you to your evening,” she said.
Peeta raised his eyebrows, and the soft smile was replaced by something more wicked. “I can help you with that jet lag,” he said lowly, then he licked a long line up the side of his melting treat, holding her eyes as he did. “Wake you up real slow.” Another long lick. “Get your blood pumping for the day.” The tip of his tongue swirled, and Katniss shivered. “Waddaya say, Doc Beauty? Shall I sneak over the fence tonight?” He winked suggestively.
Katniss rolled her eyes. “In your dreams, Hotshot,” she said, and turned for the house.
“Yes you will be,” he called after her, and she grinned. He’d be in her dreams too, no doubt about that.
Chapter 7: Chapter 6
Peeta walked home from the bakery just after eight with a paper bag and a smile. There’d been no fire calls that night, and after his sister-in-law had picked up all of the kids, he’d slept long and deeply, assisted by a little fantasy wrist action.
Doctor Everdeen was his neighbour. The unattainable doc was suddenly a little more attainable.
He’d flirted her up the night before, and while she’d played it cool, he had seen the interest in her deep silver eyes. Seen the way her nipples had stiffened under that indecent scrap of singlet when he’d hinted about what he wanted to do with her.
He’d barely scratched the surface of his fantasies before she’d gone back to her own place. But he’d seen her peeking through the back door later in the evening, after the kids had left. Watching him as he sat on his deck under the garden lights with a coldie. Watching him watch her back.
Peeta took the steps to Katniss’s verandah two at a time. Her house was nearly identical to his own on the outside, though the painted trim was a little more worn and the garden beds a little overgrown. She’d only been in Panem a couple of weeks, and the house had been vacant for months before that, the owner a city-dweller who rarely came out to check on the place.
He could hear music, faintly, through the door, and stopped with his hand poised to knock just to listen. A song he wasn’t familiar with, sung a capella in a woman’s voice. It was gorgeous, ethereal, unlike anything Peeta had ever heard. He was transfixed.
Finally, he shook off his stupor and rapped sharply on the wood. The music cut off so quickly it gave him pause. Had Katniss been singing?
The lady herself opened the door and blinked up at him with those big grey eyes.
Damn, she was bloody beautiful.
She was wearing tiny little shorts that showed off about a mile of bronzed skin, tightly toned calves and lean thighs that he could envision wrapped around his head. Reluctantly, he dragged his eyes higher. Her perfect boobs were obscured by an oversized sloppy-joe, grey with a beaver and the word—
Oh bloody hell. Peeta nearly choked on his own tongue. He wasn’t easily embarrassed, but he blushed to the tips of his ears. Katniss, who had been scowling at his leering perusal of her legs, looked concerned. “Are you okay?” she asked, tugging him through the door, looking closely at his flushed face, holding his bandaged arm.
“Crikey, Katniss,” Peeta choked out, laughing. “I didn’t know Canadians were so vulgar. You’re near as bad as we are.”
“What?” She was scowling at him again, the concern gone and irritation flooding her features. It just made him laugh harder.
“Your shirt,” he gasped between chuckles. “That word, it doesn’t mean the same thing here.” Peeta was aware that Americans, and Canadians too, it appeared, used the word root far differently. Panem attracted a decent number of tourists after all, and when they asked him which sporting team he ‘rooted’ for, it invariably made him laugh. He was aware, too, that for the most part they simply didn’t know what it meant here.
Clearly Katniss didn’t. She was staring down at her jumper in confusion.
“It means fucking, in the carnal sense,” he said, noting the way she flinched at the cuss word.
Katniss glanced between the shirt and Peeta’s face several times. “Really?” she said finally.
“Fair dinkum,” Peeta nodded. “You’re likely to get propositioned wearing that.”
She whipped the sloppy-joe off, chucking it onto a chair, beside a basket of partly folded laundry. A Gold Coast guidebook lay on the coffee table. Peeta laughed inwardly. That would definitely not be a day trip. “Ugh,” she groaned. “Why is this entire damned country out to get me?”
Under the jumper, she was wearing the same thin singlet as yesterday, and it was having the same effect on Peeta. He couldn’t help but stare. He was a boob man, and those were a perfect pair, dusky nipples just faintly visible through the cotton.
“Why are you here anyway,” she asked, still pouting. “Did you just drop by to critique my fashion choices?”
Peeta wanted to laugh again, but she was standing before him, black hair a staticky tangle around her face and an expression of such abject frustration that he didn’t have it in him to tease her anymore.
“Brought you brekky,” he said instead, holding up the bag and carry tray of cups.
Her expression softened a little, but she still looked puzzled, and maybe wary. She was going to be a tough one to crack. He looked forward to the challenge.
“Bein’ neighbourly,” he smiled, then brushed past her and headed to the kitchen.
The inside of her place was laid out the same as his, but that’s where the similarity ended. He’d spent four years painstakingly renovating his own place, every fixture and finish carefully chosen. Hers was builder's beige, cold and utterly soulless. She desperately needed some colour, some art on the walls, new curtains.
He shook off that idea. She was temporary. She didn’t need any of that.
There was no breakfast bar in her kitchen, not like he’d installed in his own, and the benchtop was nothing more than a narrow strip of laminate. But there was an ancient looking wooden table just big enough for two. He found plates above the sink and laid out sausage rolls. An hour long convo with Annie this morning while he did the baking proved fruitful. He’d learned that the way to Katniss’s heart was most definitely through her stomach, and that she favoured savoury over sweet, tea over coffee and the outdoors above all else.
She was standing at the kitchen entrance, arms crossed over her chest, but she couldn’t quell the interest in her eyes. Peeta could work with that. But it was the Bondi chai in her takeaway cup that dropped her defences.
He pulled the lid off and waved it teasingly in front of her face. The scents of tea and cinnamon filled her small kitchen. “Oh my God,” she gasped, grabbing the cup and cradling it almost reverently. “How did you know?”
“I have my ways,” he grinned.
“I haven’t had chai since the airport in Vancouver,” she breathed, and her rapturous expression as she sipped the now lukewarm tea had parts of his anatomy wondering what else he could do to elicit that face.
He cleared his throat, turned back to the little table. “You know, even if you don’t want to come by the bakery, there are other coffee shops in town.” There were no American chain coffee shops, thankfully, but there was a little tea house popular with the tourists, and a café with a patio where old people liked to while away afternoons.
“I do want to come to your bakery,” she said, distracted, “I have since that first day.” She seemed to catch herself, her unfiltered words, and glanced up at him, more frustration painting her pretty features. Then with a shrug, she continued. “Apart from the hospital, I haven’t been anywhere. My days and nights are still all mixed up, I’m tired, and I haven’t the first clue where anything is and I’m kind of freaked out about driving in this crazy wrong-side place. I haven’t even bought groceries, I’ve been eating at the hospital and ordering pizza delivery.” She sighed, long and loud. “Ugh,” she said softly. “I don’t even know why I’m telling you all this.”
That was something Annie hadn’t mentioned. She hadn’t said anything about Katniss struggling to adjust. Yet standing in her kitchen, he could see her exhaustion. Jumping into a 48 hour, high stress work week just days after arriving—alone—in a foreign country was insanity.
The doc was definitely his kind of lady.
Peeta sensed that she was more than crazy though. She was fiercely independent, probably not used to relying on anyone else. He knew Annie would drop everything in a heartbeat if Katniss had hinted that she needed something. Which meant Katniss was keeping her concerns to herself. Not sharing her needs even with her closest friend in the country.
Yet she was telling him. Reluctantly, based on the dusky flush that painted her cheeks. But it was something.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” Peeta said, guiding Katniss by an elbow to sit at her own table. She scowled, but she sat, and she didn’t interrupt. “I’m going to feed you, then we’re going to spend the day together to help get your internal clock set to days again.”
Katniss stared at him. “Why?”
“Because being out active and awake during the day will help—”
“No,” she interjected. “Why would you help me? I’m a stranger.”
“I’d like to change that,” he drawled, “you being a stranger. I’d like to get to know you real well.”
Her quicksilver eyes regarded him warily, his flirty tone clearly not scoring him any points. “Does that line ever actually work?”
It worked a lot, actually. But she was sharp. Peeta had a choice to make. Keep joking around, like he always did. Or give her the truth.
He chose the truth.
“You intrigue me, Doc,” he said, dropping the smirk and smarm. She more than intrigued him. She made his heart race and his gut clench. She excited him. “I’d like to know you better.” He’d like to know every inch of her, but he bit back the flirt. She was studying his face, her expression giving nothing away.
“Katniss,” she said softly. Peeta cocked his head. “Friends use each other’s names, not their titles.” He smiled in understanding.
“All right, Katniss,” he said. Both Finn and Annie had referred to her as Kat, but both times she’d introduced herself to him, she’d used her full, beautiful name. And it fit her in a way that ‘Kat’ just didn’t. “Friends… for now.” Then he winked, and she laughed, just a small, shy little laugh, but it felt like a gift.
“Besides,” she said, “everytime someone calls me ‘Doc’ here I feel like I’m trapped in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.”
“What’s up, Doc?” Peeta teased in an absolutely terrible imitation of the cartoon rabbit, and Katniss gifted him with another of those husky laughs.
He was smitten.
“Grab a different jumper,” he said when they finished their sausage rolls and tea, “and I’ll take you to the beach.”
“Will there be surfers?” she asked, wide-eyed. Peeta laughed.
“Ah, no, not much in the way of waves around these parts until late December earliest. March’ll be beaut, you’ll see. Do you surf?”
Katniss snorted. “That’d be no. It’s a twelve hour drive to the ocean from my condo.” Peeta thought that sounded awful. He’d always lived within cooee of the beach, even in uni.
“Well then you’re in for a treat, love,” he grinned. So was he, he hoped.
It took her less than ten minutes to get ready, no makeup, no fuss. Sadly, she swapped out that indecent little singlet for a polo, blue with a children’s charity logo on the breast, and the short shorts for white crop pants. Bare-faced and with her lush, black hair plaited again, she was so naturally pretty it took his breath away.
He took her through town first, on a slow drive by the CBD, pointing out the bottle-o, the café and the pub tucked inside the old hotel. On a whim, he parked at the fire station. It was tiny, one bay and a side drive for the light tanker. But she was keen to see inside, and he enjoyed playing tour guide.
“You never did tell me why you took up firefighting when you already have a business of your own,” Katniss said as they walked through the dayroom.
He waved at one of the full-time staffers, who was pecking away at a computer. “The firies predate the bakery, actually. I was a cadet firefighter in year ten and was volunteering when I was home from uni on holidays.”
“You like the adventure,” Katniss guessed. They all thought that, Peeta knew it, and there was some truth to it. He liked the rush, the adrenaline. But it was more than that. Katniss stopped, turning to look at him closely. “No,” she said softly. “You like helping people.”
It was too much, the way she saw through him, saw past his carefully cultivated persona. She was different from the other people in his life. It was disconcerting. “Well it’s not for the pay,” he deflected with an easy grin.
She regarded him solemnly for a moment, but then allowed the deflection. “I can’t believe you don’t get paid anything at all when you’re putting your life on the line like that,” she said.
“That’s the point of volunteering, love,” he teased.
She scowled. “At home we have rural volunteer firefighters. But they at least get an honorarium, and a tax break.”
Peeta laughed as he guided her to the door. “It’s just the way it’s always been here,” he said. With how much busier the dry season was getting and how much worse the fires were, there was plenty of grumbling that volunteer firies should be compensated. But he didn’t pay a lot of attention to it.
“Kat,” a voice called as they exited the station into the bright midday sun, and Katniss turned. Gale Hawthorne was approaching, dressed in running gear, one of those ridiculous Patagonia singlets and an equally expensive pair of shorts. Bloody figjam. Peeta edged closer to Katniss, setting a possessive hand on her hip. Hawthorne noticed, and frowned. “Mellark,” he said with a nod.
“Hey Gale,” Katniss said. Peeta thought her smile seemed stiff, but maybe that was just wishful thinking.
“What are you doing this arvo?” Hawthorne asked, subtly shifting to give Peeta his shoulder.
“Peeta is taking me to the beach,” Katniss said. “A little sightseeing.”
Hawthorne grunted. “Out to the tacky tourist spots?” Peeta bristled, but Katniss just laughed, a breezy thing that sounded nothing like how she’d laughed for Peeta.
“Well, I am a tourist, Gale,” she said lightly, “and there’s usually a reason those places are popular.”
Peeta was getting twitchy with the small talk and annoyed by the disapproving looks Hawthorne kept shooting him. His hand flexed on Katniss’s hip, and she glanced at him in confusion. “Should head out,” he said, unwilling to get into a pissing contest with Hawthorne but feeling an unfamiliar jealousy.
He’d never been territorial over a woman before. It was unsettling. Everything about how Dr. Katniss Everdeen made him feel was unsettling, though mostly in a good way. A new and exciting way.
“Right,” Katniss said, and the glance she shot Peeta was far too knowing. “Good to see you, Gale.” Hawthorne nodded, and continued on his way.
Once Gale was out of earshot, Katniss turned to Peeta. “You can stow the possessive bit now, Hotshot,” she said, but with no anger. Peeta simply grinned. But he didn’t remove his hand, nor did she complain about it.
Chapter 8: Chapter 7
“I don’t need an overprotective big brother, Gale,” Katniss huffed. They were on the same shift again, and while Gale wasn’t shadowing her this week, he’d sought her out as soon as she’d arrived at the hospital.
To warn her off Peeta Mellark.
“I know that, Kat,” he said, and Katniss cringed. She hated that short form, and virtually everyone here used it—or worse, called her ‘doc’—regardless of how she introduced herself to them. Everyone but Peeta, she realised. Huh. “I just don’t want you to get hurt. He’s the type of bloke who jumps from one sheila to the next,” Gale continued.
Katniss stopped, shaking her head. “Not that it’s your business,” she prefaced, “but he’s a neighbour, and a friend.” She was attracted to Peeta Mellark, that was certain. But the day they’d spent together hadn’t crossed that line.
He’d taken her to the beach which was, as Gale had alluded, packed with tourists and weekenders enjoying a balmy late spring day. But after a little while of ooohing and ahhhing over the white sand and crystalline blue water, Peeta had taken her hand and led her away. When she’d pouted about leaving so soon, he’d merely grinned.
A twenty minute drive into the low mountains Katniss hadn’t even known were so close to Panem, along the amusingly named ‘Tourist Road’, and they were in a forest. Not quite like the boreal forests she loved so much back home, but close enough to make her ache. And so incredibly beautiful. “Reckon this is more your speed,” Peeta had said, smiling that broad, dimpled grin that messed with her insides.
He couldn’t have known how right he was, how back home Katniss spent most of her days off hiking. And she hadn’t realized how much she’d missed it, how homesick she was for the cool shadowy green of the woods, for the scents of damp earth and decay.
It was cooler in the woods, Peeta had pulled one of his own sweatshirts over her head and held her hand as they set out along a gentle hiking trail. They’d spent hours wandering the paths and chatting about nothing in easy companionship. He’d told her about his brothers and their families, his parents who lived a few hours away, the little nieces and nephews he clearly adored.
Katniss couldn’t reciprocate, it was still too hard to talk about Prim and she was never going to talk about her parents. Instead, she’d told him about the lake she’d loved as a child, about fishing in its murky waters and cooking walleyes over a campfire. She hadn’t mentioned that her father had been the one fishing with her, that her family had spent many Sundays swimming in the icy water and picnicking on its shore, and Peeta hadn’t pushed. Instead, he’d kept their banter light and fun, for which she was grateful.
There was a lookout, natural flat rocks rather than the wooden decking she was accustomed to back home, and they'd spent a long time gazing out over the brilliant green landscape in silent awe.
He pointed to a haze in the distance. “Bushfires,” he said. “Getting bad already and it’s not even officially summer yet.”
“You’re going to be busy,” she’d guessed, and he’d nodded.
“Always busy in the dry season. But it’s getting worse.”
He’d taken her to a little restaurant after, a casual place with a large deck overlooking the valley, and they'd had hamburgers with French fries, which he’d called hot chips, and glasses of bold Australian wine.
Then he’d driven her back to Panem and taken her, of all places, grocery shopping. She’d tried to protest that she didn’t need his help but he just grinned cheerfully and pushed her cart, her trolley , adding packages of something called Tim Tams to her purchases.
He dropped her, and her grocery bags, at home long after dusk. She’d thought he might kiss her then, hell, she’d wanted him to kiss her. Instead, he’d toyed with a piece of her hair that had fallen out of its braid. “I’d like to take you out, Katniss,” he’d said softly. “On a date.”
“This wasn’t a date?” Her voice had been embarrassingly breathy.
But Peeta had smirked. “This was friends hanging out. When we’re on a date, you’ll know it.”
And then he’d left.
In the midst of all of the strangeness and confusion of her first couple of weeks in Australia, that day with Peeta had been an oasis. But it hadn’t led to anything more. And even if she’d maybe slept in his sweatshirt, she wasn’t going to overthink it.
“Reckon Lover Boy’s not looking at you like a friend,” Gale interrupted her thoughts, and Katniss groaned.
“I’m an adult, Gale and so is he. If we choose to do adult things together it’s nobody else’s business.”
“He's not an adult, he’s a big kid,” Gale sneered. “He’s not capable of an adult relationship,”
“And I’m not looking for a relationship.” She shrugged. “Frankly, I’m not sure I’m capable of an adult relationship either. You know what it’s like, all doctors do. No room for emotional attachment in our lifestyle. A little fun, a little release. No strings.”
Gale stared at her with something bordering on disgust. “In med school, sure. I’m long past that now. Aren’t you?”
It hit a little too close to home. Prim had asked her something similar, a few months before she’d died. “ Why are you so resistant to dating, to forming real relationships? ” her little sister had asked. “ When I’m gone, who will you have left to love? ”
Katniss couldn't risk loving anyone new. They all left, eventually. She wasn’t strong enough to lose anyone else that way.
“I guess I’m not,” Katniss said.
Gale’s words stayed with her all day, not the part about Peeta, she didn’t care that he was a ladies man, her past was the same, they were birds of a feather as far as she was concerned. But the rest of it, about having outgrown those no-strings affairs. Gale wasn’t much older than Katniss, despite his serious demeanor. And Annie, who was the same age as Katniss, was married and was having a kid.
If Prim were here, if she’d had a chance at a normal life, would she be married now? Would she have started filling Katniss’s yard with little nieces and nephews? Katniss was pretty sure she would have. Prim had been all of the light and love in their family. She’d been the one to bounce back, after. But Katniss herself would probably be in exactly the same place.
Well, maybe not Australia.
But unattached, unencumbered, unbeholden to anyone else? Damn straight.
Maybe Peeta was just what she needed. A fun guy, a no-strings romp, or three. He definitely seemed interested. And she could set the parameters right off the bat. Casual, no-drama fun.
She’d almost talked herself into calling him when her phone rang. For a heartbeat she thought it was Peeta.
It was not.
“Kat,” Annie drawled down the phone, “I’ve been an awful person, leaving you all alone in this crazy place. You’re going to fire me as your friend,” she joked.
Katniss laughed. "No, you're still on the books," she teased, and Annie giggled. It was good to share an old joke with an old friend, nice to know she was just across town instead of halfway around the world.
“Still,” Annie said softly when her giggles faded away.
“You’ve been busy, Annie,” Katniss said. And it was true. Not only were they on opposite shifts, but Annie had worked all weekend. Being hugely pregnant hadn’t slowed her down a bit.
“I know. But I’m off tonight, and Finny is finally home.” Annie’s husband had been a child actor in Australia, appearing in some wildly popular soap opera. Now, he did mostly voiceover work, which had him away in Sydney for days at a time, and spent the rest of his time doing motivational speeches and volunteer work. In the nearly two weeks Katniss had been in Panem, she’d yet to see him. “Come for dinner,” Annie continued. “Finn’s having a couple of his friends come by too.”
“Yeah, okay,” Katniss agreed. Brawny blonde beefcakes could wait.
Chapter 9: Chapter 8
The Odairs had a beautiful home just outside of Panem. Katniss was late arriving because she’d stopped on the way to buy flowers. The way Annie fawned over them made Katniss certain she’d made the right choice.
Finnick Odair was holding court in a tastefully appointed sunroom at the back of the house, the setting sun illuminating his signature bronze hair and the bone structure that had apparently turned a generation of Australian teenagers to mush. He caught sight of the two women approaching and winked suggestively. Katniss couldn’t argue that Finnick wasn't one of the most stunning, sensuous people on the planet. But she could honestly say he'd never been attractive to her. Maybe he was too pretty, or maybe it was really that he'd just be too easy to lose.
“Kitty-Kat,” Finnick called, and swept her off her feet in an uncomfortably long hug. “You are radiant as always.” He set her back on her feet, and she eased back out of arm’s reach.
A deep, familiar chuckle caught her attention. She turned in disbelief. Her brawny blonde beefcake baker-slash-firefighter neighbour was comfortably ensconced on the Odairs’ ivory leather sectional. “I think you know my mate, Peet,” Finnick said, and Peeta winked.
“Well this explains a lot,” Katniss said dryly. She turned to Annie. “You told him what I like?” It felt kind of crappy, she’d thought he must enjoy the same things as she did. Instead, Annie and Finn had handed him the keys to manipulation city.
“I told him you have a terrible Starbucks chai addiction,” Annie admitted, confusion wrinkling her brow. “Didn’t he mention that he and Finny are on the same fire brigade?”
Katniss shook her head, scowling at Peeta who was chuckling.
“Peet!” Annie practically screeched. “You didn’t even tell her you know us?”
“What would be the fun in that?,” Peeta drawled, walking over. “Hello, Katniss,” he said softly, bringing her hand to his lips. Her pique cooled somewhat as other body parts heated up. He was smooth, that was for sure.
“This one’s a jokester, you shouldn’t believe anything he says,” Annie laughed, elbowing Peeta. Something flickered in his eyes, a little bit of pain, maybe, a flash of vulnerability. But it was gone so quickly that Katniss wasn’t certain it’d been real. Then he was all charming smiles again.
“Wily old rascal,” Finnick laughed, clapping Peeta on the shoulder. “Figured you’d move in before we had a chance to warn her off? Good on ya, mate.”
The others laughed, and Peeta joined them, clowning around, like it was all a big joke. It didn’t feel like a joke to Katniss.
It didn’t feel funny at all.
Finnick introduced Katniss to the other two people in the group, another firefighter and her husband, and Annie lamented that the smog and oppressive heat meant they’d have to eat inside. “What’s the point of having this big garden if we can’t even use it,” she sighed. 35 degrees in mid-November. Katniss wasn’t sure she’d ever get used to that. Back home, people were already wearing parkas. There’d probably be snow on her condo balcony this week.
“I promise there’ll be garden parties,” Finnick said. “The heat wave can’t last forever.”
The others were all clearly long time friends, with lots of inside jokes, and Peeta was the teller of most of those jokes, the one who kept conversation flowing. He had an easy way about him, a humour that was ironic and encouraging, but never directly at anyone’s expense.
But it was uncomfortable, a little. With the others coupled up, Katniss had the distinct feeling that she was being set up with Peeta, and while she was definitely attracted to him, she hated the feeling of having been manipulated, first by him, and now by the Odairs. Her irritation definitely showed in the clipped answers and frowns she shot her old friend every time Annie looked her way, all through the meal.
She was going to give Annie a piece of her mind as soon as she had a chance. But when she asked Annie to accompany her to the kitchen for more wine, Peeta came instead.
“I’m sorry,” he said as soon as they were away from the others, and Katniss shrugged, giving him her back. She was irritated that even with the manipulation, she was still so attracted to him. “I didn’t mean to make you feel badly, keeping this from you,” he continued. “I only wanted a chance for you to know me before…” he trailed off.
Katniss turned to face him, expecting to see the brash half smirk he’d been shooting her all evening. Instead, he was looking at the tiled floor, his shoulders hunched, his confidence gone. “Why would it have mattered, telling me that you know Annie?”
He gave her an appraising look. “I’m more than my history,” he said, and she knew instantly what he meant. The things Gale had said, about his reputation for bouncing from one woman to the next, never settling down. The half-hearted warning Finnick had issued.
Katniss fought the urge to roll her eyes. “I don’t care that you enjoy casual sex,” she said. “We’re alike in that way.” Peeta watched her, his expression unreadable. “But I do care about honesty.”
“You want honesty,” he said softly, advancing on her, backing her into the counter. “The truth is I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you since that morning you came to my bakery.” He leaned in, bracing his hands on the cabinets behind her, almost surrounding her. He continued, his voice low, intimate. For her only. “I didn’t know who you were then. I didn’t know until after you’d stitched me up. And by then, I was already a goner.”
Her breath shuddered out. There was nothing fake about his words or delivery. Nothing fake about the way he was looking at her either, with a hunger that she could feel deep in her stomach. His scent surrounded her, soap and sunshine and just a little bit like fresh baked bread. It was evocative. He was evocative. He must have seen her wavering, because he smiled, not the smile he’d been wearing out with the others, but the one she saw when she closed her eyes. “Go out with me,” he murmured.
“I don’t really date,” she said, but it felt like a thin excuse. She wanted him, and she knew he knew it.
“I’ll teach you how.” He was teasing her, but she couldn’t get angry, couldn’t really even think. His words ghosted across her lips, his nose just barely brushing her own.
“I’m only here a few months.”
“Then let’s not waste them,” he said. His eyes were fixed on her mouth, his biceps twitching beside her head. He wanted to kiss her, she could see it in every taut line of his body, feel it in his ragged breaths. But he was waiting. Waiting for her to make the choice.
“Peet,” Finnick yelled from the other room. Katniss jumped, and Peeta stepped back from her, just enough to be out of her personal space. Just enough to feel like a lost opportunity. “The pagers are goin’ off, mate,” Finnick said as he burst into the kitchen.
Peeta swore softly and reached into the pocket of his shorts, extracting an old-fashioned pager, the likes of which Katniss hadn’t seen since residency. Her hospital back in Seam had switched to a secure smartphone app years ago. When she mentioned that, Peeta smirked, but distractedly. “Not much mobile service in the bush,” he said. “Pagers are more reliable here.” She supposed that was true.
There was a flurry of activity as Peeta, Finnick and Maysi, the other firefighter in the group, grabbed their things and piled into Peeta’s SUV. Maysi’s husband offered to stay and help clean up, but Annie sent him away too. Katniss stayed, loading the dishwasher and wiping down the table.
“I’m sorry, Kat,” Annie said once they were alone. “I hadn’t meant to blindside you. Peet’s just such a fun guy, I figured you two would get along like a house on fire.”
“Dammit, Annie, you know I’m not here for that,” Katniss whined. “And if I need to blow off a little steam, I’d rather pick someone you don’t know, so there’s no complications.”
“I didn’t mean a fling,” Annie said, “though is it really such a bad idea? He’s hot, he’s a nice guy, and neither of you is looking for anything serious.” She paused thoughtfully. “You know I’d never set you up with someone who would hurt you. Peet’s a really great guy, treats his dates like gold. He’s just not looking to settle down. But neither are you. And don’t you deserve to have a little fun, after everything?”
“Annie,” Katniss started, but Annie shook her head.
“No, Kat, you’re not the one who died. And she’d be pissed off if she knew how little living you’re doing.”
Katniss was tempted, so very tempted, to tell Annie she was wrong, to tell her about the day with Peeta, about the woods and the hamburgers, the sunshine and flirting. But somehow, that felt sacred. Like something she wanted to hold close and not let go.
“We’ll see,” she said instead.
Chapter 10: Chapter 9
Peeta was dragging his arse big time, absolutely buggered. He’d been out on a call with the brigade until past two in the morning, then at the bakery at 4:30 to start the morning prep. It was a good thing he had it down to a science since he did at least half of it with his eyes closed.
But when he saw her climbing the bakery steps just before six, he felt far more awake.
It was unlike the first time he’d seen Katniss there, this was the confident professional tap-tap-tapping on the glass door, a small smile on her pretty face. She was dressed for the day in slim black pants and a breezy green blouse, professional clothes even though Peeta knew she’d change into scrubs once she got to the hospital.
In truth, he hadn’t been sure he’d ever see her again, outside his fantasies.
She’d been so angry when he’d seen her the night before, hurt too, he thought, though she’d hidden it well. He couldn’t even blame her. He hadn’t meant to keep his friendship with Finn and Annie secret, hell, he thought she’d already have known when he’d shown up at her place that morning. But when he’d realised she didn’t, well, it’d been like a gift. Like a blank slate. A chance to show her who he was.
Except that had led her to thinking he was a creep.
But she was there, at his bakery. That had to mean something.
“G’day, Doc,” Peeta said as he pulled open the door, and Katniss scowled at him. “Sorry,” he amended with a chuckle. “Good morning, Katniss.”
“Good morning to you too,” she said, her voice like a caress. She had the best voice, authoritative but also warm and rich. He’d love to hear that voice screaming his name.
“Have you come for brekky?” They weren’t technically open, but he didn’t care a whit. Most everything was ready anyway.
Her silver eyes twinkled at the suggestion, and he relaxed a little. She might still be angry with him, but she didn’t seem upset anymore. “Maybe partly,” she said, peeking around his shoulder to look at the chalkboard menu. He snickered, and guided her further inside, his hand on her back. Her attention caught on the cheese buns that were his bakery specialty, and he slipped around the counter to grab one, plating it instead of putting it into a bakery bag. He’d already made that mistake once.
“Have a seat while I warm this up for you,” he said, pointing her towards one of the café tables. It was a risk, seating her there where other people might see and assume he was open. But a risk he’d take to spend a few minutes with her.
The first streaks of sunrise were painting the sky, and Katniss was watching through the window when he brought her a warm cheese bun and spiced tea. When she turned, the pale light filtered through her loose hair, crowning her like an angel. His heart lurched unfamiliarly. This was more than a simple crush, and he wasn’t sure what to do with it.
He sat across from her with a cup of tea of his own. She sighed over her chai, a sound that had him half hard in spite of his exhaustion and uncertainty.
“I also wanted to know if you were on call tonight.” She didn’t meet his eyes when she asked, but her words were enough to get his heart pumping.
“I’m not,” he said, a languid smile spreading. “Were you thinking you might like to spend the night with me?” he teased.
She rolled her eyes. “How about we start with dinner, Hotshot. I’m off at seven.”
“Like a date?”
“Like two people getting to know each other better,” she said.
“Getting to know each other in the biblical sense?” He was still using a teasing tone, but he genuinely did want to know. He could be friends with Katniss, hell, he’d love to be friends with Katniss, she was funny and fun, witty and smart. But he’d also really like to get her into his bed, get his mouth on her, taste every inch of her flawless olive skin. And for the first time maybe ever, he wasn’t sure which way she was leaning, or even which way he was hoping. Girls generally wanted one thing from him, and he didn’t mind that. He knew he was attractive, and he worked hard to keep himself in shape. But she was different.
“You’re incorrigible,” Katniss said, but she was smiling.
Peeta pushed the plate closer to her. “Once you’ve had my hot buns, love, you’ll be begging for more.”
“How on earth do you ever score with lines like that?” Katniss laughed.
Peeta chuckled. She’d be surprised, he thought. But he liked that she was going to make him work for it. He enjoyed a challenge. And it would be that much sweeter when they finally played doctor in his bed.
He was waiting in the hospital parking lot when she finished her shift, clutching a bunch of wildflowers like a nervous schoolboy. It was crap, picking her up at work instead of from her house. But such was the life of people like them with strange hours and overtime and on-call shifts. You had to stand down on the formalities a bit. Her delighted smile when she saw the flowers—and saw him—cut through his nerves. But she looked tired. “Still up for a wild ride tonight?” Peeta said, his cocky tone covering real concern.
“Oversell much?” Katniss said mildly, but her face was buried in the sweet blooms, enjoying their heady scent. Peeta grinned.
“Love, I promise you I never oversell anything in the bedroom.”
Katniss laughed, warm and amused. “How about you feed me first?”
Peeta laughed too, and helped her into his ute. But he noted that she didn’t immediately shoot down the idea of ending up in his bed.
He headed out of town, along the backroads to a little place about 20 minutes away.
“It’s like you don’t want to be seen around town with me,” she teased as they pulled into the parking lot. There was an element of truth to that, Peeta thought. Panem was a small town with a lot of gossips and he had already pegged the doc as private and reserved, maybe even a little shy.
“Not interested in sharing you with the rest of Panem,” he drawled, but there was a deeper truth in that answer too.
He took her hand as they walked into the restaurant, and she let him, fingers entwining so naturally.
Peeta had given some thought to where their first date should be, choosing a casual place that specialised in local fare. He was pretty sure Katniss wasn’t the linen tablecloth and champagne bucket sort. Her smile as she looked around at the rough hewn wood and exposed brick told him he’d done well. “Annie said you knew all of the best places,” she said once they were seated, perusing the wine list.
He did know all of the best places, he’d grown up in Panem, but he knew that wasn’t what Annie meant. Peeta had spent a few years, a few too many years, maybe, hitting up singles nights at the pubs and clubs around Panem and beyond. If there was a party, he knew about it. He hadn’t been to singles night in months, but he wasn’t sure that Annie and Finn had even noticed, wrapped up as they were in the excitement of the new baby.
And maybe Katniss would like some of those places, the music and dancing and fun. Maybe he’d show her around the scene at some point. But not for a first date. No, this first time, he wanted to show Katniss something different. A little bit of himself, maybe.
But to her he said, “I figured after twelve hours in A and E, you wouldn’t want anything stuffy and pretentious.”
Katniss smiled. “And those fussy places always have tiny portions too.”
Peeta laughed. One thing he’d learned about Dr. Everdeen was that she liked to eat. He’d enjoyed watching her pack away a hamburger when they’d gone hiking, and she hadn’t been demure about the meal at Finn’s either. He liked that, liked the honesty of it. She didn’t pretend to be someone she wasn’t, didn’t change so that other people would like her.
She ordered oysters to start and let him choose the wine. He couldn't resist teasing her about them being an aphrodisiac. “I promise you won’t need those to get in the mood,” he said when the waiter walked away. “I’ll get you revved up, just you wait and see.”
“Still with the overselling,” she smirked, and Peeta couldn't help but chuckle. He liked their banter, liked that she didn’t humour him or pretend to swoon. Liked that she pushed back.
He just liked her.
The waiter returned with wine, and Katniss seemed completely oblivious to the appreciative looks he shot her way, the extra attention he paid pouring her glass, the way he fawned.
“Is aggressive flirting an Australian pastime?” she deadpanned after the waiter left.
Peeta snorted. Not so oblivious after all. “Only when there’s an absolutely stunning sheila around,” he said, and Katniss cocked an eyebrow in disbelief.
“I can’t believe you ever get dates,” she said. But she was smiling.
A beautiful tray of oysters cradled in shaved ice was set on the table between them, and Peeta enjoyed the way Katniss’s eyes lit up. She ignored the mignonette, he noticed, and ate them only with a bare squeeze of lemon. It was insanely erotic, the way her throat flexed as she swallowed, her soft moan of delight. He could do nothing but watch her eat and still be completely satisfied.
But that wouldn’t be much of a date, would it?
“So why medicine,” Peeta asked over his glass of crisp white. Small talk about work was always an easy way to ease into discovery. People loved to talk about their careers. “Family trade?”
Katniss froze. Something dark and pained flashed in her eyes, and she looked down at her glass, swirling the amber liquid almost compulsively. Demons, Peeta thought. Clearly she had them. That was unexpected.
Silence hung between them, heavy and pained. He couldn’t leave her to suffer, his instinct to rescue her from the pain in her sterling eyes was too strong.
“Okay,” he said, smiling easily. “Let's start with something more basic. Isn't it strange that I know you'd fly halfway around the world to help out a friend... but I don't know what your favourite colour is?”
A small smile crept onto Katniss’s lips. “Green. What's yours?” she asked, raising her eyes to his.
“Orange,” he said.
“Orange?” She was incredulous. “Like a safety cone?”
Peeta laughed. “A bit more muted,” he said. “More like... sunset.”
“Sunset,” she murmured, then closed her eyes as if envisioning it. “You have the soul of an artist.”
“The brushes too,” he said with a smirk, and Katniss’s brows furrowed. But only for a moment.
“The landscapes in your bakery?” she trailed off.
“I painted them, yeah.”
Her eyes widened. “Peeta,” she breathed. “They’re extraordinary.” He knew it wasn’t empty praise, he’d seen her examining his work both times she’d been at the bakery. “Why aren’t you in a gallery?”
He was, actually, and more than one in fact. He had been a prolific painter in his youth, all through uni, well into his twenties, had sold quite a few pieces and knew some were still displayed. But life had gotten busy, and he’d stopped making time for it. The easel he’d set up in the sunroom when he’d first bought his house had rarely seen any use. It was pushed against the wall now, only coming out when one of the kids wanted to paint. “You want to pose for me?” Those silver eyes might be just the thing Peeta needed to push him out of his slump.
“If you say you’ll paint me like a French girl,” Katniss groaned and Peeta laughed. He hadn’t meant nude, but loved that her mind went there. And now that he was thinking it… “One track mind,” she sighed, shaking her head.
“Trust me, love,” he said, still chuckling. “Once I get your clothes off, painting will be the very last thing on my mind.”
Chapter 11: Chapter 10
As first dates go, it was pretty much perfect. Not that Katniss had a whole lot to compare it to. Grabbing lukewarm vending machine coffee together after a quickie in the on-call room wasn't exactly a romantic date.
He’d let the subject of her family drop yet again, understanding without her saying so that she couldn't talk about them. Katniss was so grateful for that, for the undemanding way he’d simply redirected conversation. Peeta took what little she could offer and didn’t harass her for more.
She liked that. A lot.
Good food and easy conversation flowed, and even though she was tired and could see he was exhausted, they closed out the restaurant. Peeta insisted on paying, she told him she’d get the next one before she could catch herself.
She couldn't regret the promise though. Not when it made him smile like that.
He drove her home, both of them quiet, introspective. Yet an energy crackled between them. She was aware of his every breath, his every subtle shift. Could feel the adrenaline pulsing off him, throbbing in time with her own racing heart.
He walked her to the door, then waited. She wanted to kiss him. She wanted to invite him in.
But she was afraid of the consequences.
It’d been easier when he was just her hot neighbour, just the backyard beefcake with the pornstar abs.
He still had porn-worthy abs. But he was also part of her temporary social circle. And worse, he was a guy whose company she really liked. That threw up a whole slew of complications. And she didn’t have room in her life for new complications.
But she wanted him. Badly.
She slid her key into the lock, then paused, torn.
As if he could read her indecision, Peeta moved up close behind her, scattering her senses with his warmth. “Invite me in, Katniss,” he drawled, his breath hot against the shell of her ear.
“It’s late,” she breathed, and it was. They both had to be up in only a few hours. Asking him in would be irresponsible.
“You know neither of us is going to sleep,” he murmured, the words a caress against her sensitised skin. “We might as well be awake together.”
He was chipping away her defenses with his sexy voice and his flirty words. She wanted to taste that mouth. She wanted to hear what he’d pant in her ear when he was deep inside her.
“Peeta.” She meant it as a protest but it sounded like a plea.
“I know you’re attracted to me,” he said lowly, crowding her against the door, muddling her thoughts with his presence, his scent. “Why do you keep fighting it?”
“Pretty sure of yourself, Hotshot,” she smirked, turning to look up into his eyes, navy and electric in the dim.
“Not sure enough,” he laughed. “Can’t say I’ve ever worked this hard for a woman.” It was said in a teasing fashion, but Katniss could hear the underlying truth, the hint of uncertainty.
He was in turns shy and outrageously flirty, and something about that combination fascinated Katniss. It was dangerous. She was physically attracted to him, sure, but this went deeper than that. She liked him, liked his voice and his ridiculous pick up lines. Liked his kindness and his selflessness. She wanted to know him, to dig deep beneath his cocky exterior.
It was terrifying.
Sex was safer. Sweaty, satisfying fun, no emotions. But for the first time maybe ever, she wasn’t convinced of her ability to keep what was between them purely physical.
Peeta reached out to tuck an errant lock of hair behind her ear, his thumb trailing down her jaw in a gentle caress. Waiting.
She opened the door and pulled him inside.
There was no need for subtlety or pretext, no use pretending there was any doubt as to where they’d end up. It had been an inevitability, she thought, right from the first time she’d laid eyes on him.
She took his hand and led him through the darkened living room and up the stairs.
In the quiet dim of her bedroom, Peeta seemed larger than life, those broad shoulders a sexy shadow, trim hips a delicious silhouette. She reached for the placket of the soft blue button down he’d worn to take her out, had slipped two buttons free before Peeta grabbed her wrist, halting her action. “I need to see you,” he said softly.
He fumbled for the bedside light, and as Katniss squinted in the sudden brightness, Peeta smirked. “Been fantasizing about having you for weeks,” he drawled. “I want to see what I’ve been dreaming about.”
His hands, long-fingered and so very warm, slid under her blouse to rest on the bare skin of her waist as he pulled her closer, pressed snugly against him. And oh god, he was hard everywhere, his chest a brick wall, his abs like corrugated steel. And lower…
Katniss draped her hands over his shoulders and looked up expectantly. He’d been driving her crazy for weeks, she had him in her bedroom and he still hadn’t even kissed her yet. “What are you waiting for, Hotshot?” she challenged.
His lips twitched at the nickname. Then he leaned in.
She knew there was chemistry, knew the attraction was strong and two-sided. But she was utterly unprepared for the explosion of passion between them. They met in a tangle of tongues and teeth, lips bruising and lungs burning. She barely had time to register what was happening before he’d lowered her to the bed and his hard body was stretched over hers.
They fit so well together, she thought. Like he was made for her.
Before she could dwell on that idea, he pulled back, kneeling between her thighs. His big hands slid her silky blouse upward, exposing her toned torso, then the soft swells of her breasts, encased in her favourite bra, the one she’d changed into after her shift hoping he’d like it.
He didn’t disappoint.
“Christ, Katniss,” he cursed. “You are so bloody beautiful.” He seemed stunned into stillness as she wriggled her blouse the rest of the way off, only his chest moving with each deep, shuddering breath.
“Take yours off too,” she pleaded, pulling his shirt from his waistband. Peeta reached up and pulled it over his head with that one-handed manoeuvre all men seemed capable of. His golden torso, the one she’d admired from afar so often, gleamed in the low lamp light. He was a marvel of anatomy, utterly perfect, a sculpture brought to life. She reached out to stroke trembling fingers over each iron ridge of his abdomen, enjoying the way the muscles flexed at her touch.
“If you don’t stop looking at me like that,” Peeta growled, “this is going to be over way too fast.” Katniss laughed, but her mirth was cut short when he roughly freed one breast from its lacy confines and lowered his head to feast.
Katniss cried out, arching into his hot mouth, wordlessly begging for more. And he provided, teasing her nipple to aching stiffness, then sucking hard while she tugged his hair and writhed. She was so engrossed in what his mouth was doing, she didn’t even notice him unbuttoning her slacks. Until his big hand slid into her panties, cupping her roughly. “Fuck,” he groaned against her breast. “You’re so wet for me.”
She was. Wet and throbbing and aching. She couldn’t even be offended by him mentioning it since it was clear her excitement was fuelling his own.
She tried to squirm out of her pants but only managed to free one leg before those long fingers, two of them she thought, were thrusting into her. And God did they feel good. She could do nothing but surrender to the ecstasy of those fingers driving into her, his thumb teasing her clit. She rode his hand helplessly as he panted against her skin. “Just like that,” he gasped between hard sucks. “Need to feel you come.”
He managed to unhook her bra with his free hand and send it flying without stopping his attentions. “Impressive,” she gasped.
“I’m highly motivated,” he grunted, and she was tempted to laugh again.
This was new, she thought, the fun, the laughter. The sheer joy.
New and reckless.
She attempted to seize control of the situation, reaching between them and stroking him roughly through the canvas of his khakis. His fingers froze and he hissed against her breast, a tremor wracking his big body. Her other hand slid down to undo his zipper, pushing his pants down his hips, freeing his length. Her eyes widened as she palmed him, smooth and hot and so hard.
And bigger than she was expecting. Her inner muscles clenched around Peeta’s fingers in anticipation, and he moaned.
Katniss understood then, why he’d wanted the lights on. She was desperate to see him. She used his stupor to shove him over onto his back, straddling his thighs.
He was utterly beautiful, splayed under her, eyes hooded, cheeks flushed with arousal. His cock seemed even larger laying across his stomach than it had against her hand. She licked her lips, and watched as his shaft twitched, a pearly bead of precome already sliding down his crown.
“Fuck, yes,” he groaned, bringing his fingers, glistening with her arousal, to his mouth. “So sweet,” he murmured, his voice like liquid lust. “You gonna ride me, love? You gonna take what’s yours?”
This was what she needed. His dirty words and his raw hunger, the attraction that roared between them.
She was so grateful for the strip of condoms she’d grabbed from the hospital’s sexual health clinic and stored in the bedside table, just in case.
Just in case of this, she admitted to herself. They were always going to be for him.
Peeta smirked knowingly as she handed him a purple foil packet, emblazoned with Family Planning NSW and the hospital’s crest. But his smug expression faltered when she leaned forward and took the head of his cock in her mouth.
He fell back against the pillows, his pained moan like music. “Fuck,” he gasped, and she grinned. She sucked him with quick, deep strokes, loving how he twitched and swelled against her tongue. “You’ve gotta stop, love,” he said, catching her chin. “I need to be inside you.”
Katniss didn’t argue semantics, releasing him with a wet pop that left him shuddering. She liked seeing him like that, with his control in tatters, desperate for her. It was sexy, and empowering. She took the condom from him, and rolled it down his impressive anatomy while he watched, his expression awestruck.
That gave her pause. She didn’t want there to be any misunderstanding here. Lust and fun and mutual satisfaction, that’s what they could share.
“This is all I can give you,” she said quietly, struggling to hold his gaze.
“I know,” he said, though his expression didn’t change. He reached out to squeeze her knee, reassuring. “I’ll take what I can get.” Then he smirked. “And I’ll give you all you can take.”
She gave in to the laugh that bubbled up. Then she notched that thick cock into place and sank down slowly, smoothly.
Katniss hissed, a little edge of pain in the midst of all that pleasure. He was big, and it had been awhile.
Peeta was staring, absolutely unblinking, at where they were joined, watching her body engulf him. But she was watching him. His chest heaved, his blue eyes glowed with pleasure. He was beautiful.
When she was seated fully, filled by him completely, he moaned low and deep, clutching her waist, holding her steady. But she was impatient and a little bit greedy. She dragged her short nails down his chest and began to ride.
Beneath her, Peeta groaned and swore, his hands roaming restlessly, like he couldn't decide what to touch first. He was clearly a boob man though. “Love these,” he gasped, squeezing each bouncing mound. “Loved them since the first time I saw you.”
Katniss was silent, body infused with pleasure. So much pleasure. He fit her so well. Like he was made to touch her, to fill her.
Peeta reached up and pulled the elastic from the end of her braid, unweaving the plait until it fell in a dark curtain around her. Carding his fingers through the rumpled waves with a sigh. “So beautiful,” he murmured. His gaze was soft, reverent.
It was too much.
She leaned in to kiss him hard. To erase that softness, silence that reverence. He responded in kind, wrapping a big hand around her nape and drilling his hips up while his tongue plundered her mouth. Filling her over and over as she whimpered against his lips. Lust was good, blind, carnal lust.
She came with a mindless wail of pleasure, clinging to Peeta as her body pulsed and shook. He followed, groaning, a half dozen hard thrusts then he stilled, holding her body flush against his own as he filled the condom.
Katniss was completely drained, sprawled across Peeta’s chest, her heart thundering against his. “Wow,” Peeta gasped, and Katniss laughed tiredly. Wow indeed.
She was drifting when he sighed, pressed a kiss to her temple, and slipped out of bed. Then she could hear water running in the bathroom. She waited for his quiet departure, a few words, maybe even a parting kiss. Instead, he flipped off the light, climbed into bed behind her and pulled her back against his chest.
She was so comfortable with his big body pressed against hers, so warm and content. It would be so easy to just give in and fall asleep. But that wasn’t her style. She didn’t have sleepovers, not even with hot firefighters who’d rocked her world.
She needed to send him home, so he didn’t get the wrong idea.
“Shhh,” Peeta said, his arms tightening. “I can hear your brain spinning. Go to sleep, Katniss. It doesn’t have to mean anything.”
But she was so afraid that it did.
Chapter 12: Chapter 11
It wasn’t the first time Peeta had slid out of a woman’s bed silently in the pre-dawn. But he hated doing it this time, and not just because he’d only slept about two hours.
Katniss was sleeping soundly, black hair tumbling over the pillows, pretty face so peaceful and young looking in repose. He pulled the plain white doona up over her shoulder and kissed her forehead softly.
He’d never been so conflicted about leaving before. Never been so bloody afraid that sneaking silently away would send the wrong message.
Peeta wasn’t a love ‘em and leave ‘em guy, he really wasn’t. He’d call himself a serial dater, maybe. Always monogamous. But never with any intention of forever. He had one night stands, sure, but he’d had a few relationships that had lasted into months too. Just never anything serious.
This was different, he knew it deep in his gut. It wasn’t a relationship at all, Katniss had been pretty clear that she was only here temporarily, that they were just having fun. But it wasn’t a one night stand either.
Or at least he hoped it wasn’t.
He sent her a text as he walked out her door, then kicked himself for it. A text. What a bloody impersonal way to tell someone she’d rocked his world. He was definitely off his game.
He’d have to step things up.
By the time Kip came to pick up the day’s deliveries, he had a plan. He loaded up the back of Kip’s cargo van with breads and pastries for the hotel uptown and the coffee shop, then handed him a carry tray and bag. A tenner guaranteed Kip would bring them to Katniss before his other deliveries. By Peeta’s calculations, his little surprise would arrive right in that sweet spot after Katniss was up and ready for the day, but before she actually left for her shift.
He wasn’t sure what it meant, that he already knew her routine.
When his mobile rang twenty minutes later, he launched himself at it. “Good morning, love,” he said more confidently than he felt.
There was the briefest of pauses, just long enough to make him sweat. “I wanted to thank you for sending me breakfast,” she said softly, a little stiffly. As if she was unsure. As if she hadn’t expected to hear from him again. “You’re very sweet.” It sounded like a question.
“Not half as sweet as you are,” he drawled. He was flirting with her, he couldn’t help himself, but he meant it. She was sweet, though she hid it behind brusque professionalism and forced nonchalance. But he’d seen glimpses. And he wanted to see so much more.
But she snorted, clearly misunderstanding his words. Hearing the sexual subtext.
Not that she was wrong to think that. He’d barely tasted her last night and he was craving more. Already, he was addicted.
“You have to stop feeding me all of these pastries,” she said, but he could hear the grin in her voice. “I’m going to be as big as a house.”
Peeta snickered. Katniss was tiny, barely bigger than Ollie or Charlie. “I’ll help you work it all off,” he grinned.
“I bet you will,” she murmured, warmth infusing her voice and Peeta felt like a damned king.
“Then I’ll see you tonight?” He was pushing, and he knew it. But he hadn’t had nearly enough of Katniss Everdeen yet. Not by a long shot.
“I'm working until seven,” she hedged.
“I’ll cook for us,” he offered. “Salads and lean protein, I promise.” He could almost sense her argument, so he preempted it. “You have to eat. I have to eat. We might as well eat together. Come by after your shift.” She didn’t reply right away, so he added, “please.”
She laughed, softly and musically. His dick jumped in response. “Yeah, okay,” she said.
“Bring an overnight bag,” he added, and her laughter increased.
“Don’t push your luck, Hotshot. See you tonight.”
Oh but he was feeling very lucky indeed.
Chapter 13: Chapter 12
Katniss should have been far more tired than she was, a long day yesterday, an incredibly busy night, and an even longer day today. But she walked out of the hospital at 7:20 with a spring in her step and a smile on her lips.
Truth be told, she’d been grinning most of the day. Cressida, one of the other emergency doctors on her shift, even asked her if she was feeling all right. “You’re flushed, and your face is all weird. Are you on drugs?”
Gale, also on the same shift, scowled at her in passing. She had no doubt he’d figured out the reason for her good mood and was judging her for it.
Even that hadn’t been enough to stifle her smile.
Though she’d reminded herself all day that she shouldn’t see Peeta again tonight, that it would give him the wrong idea about what was happening between them, she found herself pulling into his driveway, rather than her own.
What could it hurt, really? It was just dinner, and like he said, they had to eat.
He opened the door before she had a chance to knock, gorgeous in a plain t-shirt that clung to his biceps and athletic shorts that sat low on his narrow hips. His hair was slightly damp, curling at the ends. He was unfairly hot, no wonder he was so damned confident.
No wonder she couldn’t say no to him.
That confidence was on full display when, instead of ushering her into his house, he cupped her jaw in those incredible hands and kissed her like he had every right to. Any complaint she might have had about his assumption was quickly swept away, lost in the explosive chemistry between them.
Katniss was flushed and breathless when he finally pulled away. “Hey,” she said softly.
“Wasn’t sure you’d really come,” Peeta said. She wanted to tell him that she hadn’t been sure either until she pulled down his street. But his expression was so pleased and open, and just a little vulnerable. Instead, she smiled.
“You promised me food, Hotshot,” she grinned, and he laughed, then pulled her inside.
“I’ve got chicken on the barbie,” he said, leading her through his living room. His house was a copy of her own from the outside, albeit better maintained. But inside? Completely different.
She hadn’t given much thought to what Peeta’s space would be like. But he was single, and a very busy man, so she wouldn’t have been surprised to see a stereotypical bachelor pad with video game controllers and pizza boxes everywhere. There was the giant TV that all men seemed to have mounted to the wall, true. But that’s where the bachelor decor ended.
His home was tidy but not a mausoleum. The walls in the main living area were painted pewter, the floors grey tile. It should have looked cold, sterile, but it didn’t. Low lamps set on glass tables cast a warm glow over everything, moody yet subtle. The floor was softened by a plush area rug in an abstract pattern of greys. A comfortable looking leather sectional was brightened by a soft orange throw. His favourite colour, she remembered.
And even better, there was artwork everywhere. More landscapes like the ones in his bakery hung on the walls. Industrial chic metal sculptures peeked out from a wooden bookshelf. Twisted glass shaded the lamps. She wasn’t sure if it was all his work, or if he was a collector as well as an artist, but every piece was perfect for the space, every work suggested a story.
This, she realised, was a home. Not like her rental cottage, or even like her condo back in the Seam, which was functional but terribly impersonal. She hadn’t bothered with anything more than utility. Hadn’t seen the point.
She was seeing it now.
Peeta noticed her gawking and raised an eyebrow. She shook her head a little self-consciously, then followed him into the kitchen.
Here too, everything was different from her rental, even though the structure should have been identical. “It feels so much bigger in here than at my place,” she said, looking around wide-eyed. Had one of the walls been moved? There was easily three times the counter space.
“I did a few renos,” he said. “Kitchen is the heart of the home.” She was still pondering that when he handed her a glass of wine. He himself was drinking water, she noted. When she asked about that, he smiled, a little sheepishly. “I’m on call,” he said.
“Seems like you’re always on call.” Katniss knew what that was like, she’d been around doctors and nurses and paramedics her entire adult life, but in the short time she’d known Peeta, last night was the only time she was sure he’d been off. And he didn’t even get paid for all of this time!
“One of the blokes is out with a back strain,” he said. “I’m covering.”
Katniss would have bet the farm—not that she owned a farm of course—that Peeta had volunteered to cover his crewmate’s absence. He always seemed to be helping people out. Her, not least of all.
She was going to ask him if she was just another project to him, tease him about being another lost soul for him to save. But he sidled up next to her, clinking his glass against her own. “Cheers,” he murmured, voice like silk. There was no mistaking the interest in those blue eyes that caressed her face, slid down over the couple of buttons she’d left undone.
There was no point denying it, at least not to herself. She liked the way he looked at her, liked feeling all of that focus on her alone. He’d brought her libido roaring back to life and it felt good.
“If I didn’t have food on the barbie,” he groaned, one finger tracing the soft skin along her collarbone. Instead, he took her hand and towed her towards his yard.
They passed through his sunroom, the one he used as a home gym, and she shot a guilty look through the glass at her own darkened house. She didn’t think he’d be able to see her skulking in her bedroom window, peeping at him. But she couldn’t be certain.
They stepped into the yard. It was full dark now, and the smell of smoke hung heavy in the air, stronger even than the scent of grilling meat on Peeta’s propane barbecue. “How close are the fires?” Katniss asked. It had only been a few days since their hike in the woods, since he’d pointed out the fires burning in the distance. But every day since then, the air had gotten thicker, and the number of patients coming into emerg with respiratory ailments had grown. She’d put five children on nebulizers today alone.
His jaw tightened. “Good portion of the south coast is already burning.” Katniss’s eyes widened, and Peeta squeezed her hand. “Still more than fifty kays away, love.”
She wasn’t much comforted by that. “Heading this way though, right?” She didn’t have much time for watching the news, but the television in the hospital’s breakroom always seemed to be showing bushfire reports.
Peeta nodded. “Yeah,” he said. She waited for him to smirk, to get all cocky and reassure her that firefighter Peeta was on the scene. But he didn’t. Nor did he offer platitudes about her safety. He just squeezed her hand again.
He was quiet, introspective for a few moments, looking out over the shadowed yard, the moon mostly obscured by the haze that clung to town. Then he seemed to shake off whatever he was thinking, and grinned at her, lifting her hand to graze her knuckles with his lips. “Let’s get you fed,” he smirked, “so I can have dessert.”
And she laughed at the cheesiness of the line, at his way of lightening the mood. But though he grinned back at her, his eyes said he was serious.
Katniss shivered in anticipation.
They ate grilled chicken salads perched on his couch, and he listened intently as she told him about her work at the hospital, about the differences between the Australian system and the Canadian one, and the challenge of adapting both to the new system, and the very different ways that medicine was practiced a world away. Peeta had a way of focussing on her as if even the most banal small talk was utterly fascinating. Like she was fascinating.
He’d be the only one to think that.
She chuckled, and he raised one blonde eyebrow. “What?” he asked.
She tried to shrug it off, but his open expression coaxed her to confess, “you’re a good listener.”
“Because you’re interesting to listen to.”
She was not. Introspective and far too blunt, Katniss Everdeen had never been good at small talk. Or any talk. She snorted. “I wish my uncle could hear you now.”
“He doesn’t think you’re interesting?” The question was softly asked, languid and non-judgemental. The warmth of his gaze, a full belly and the two glasses of excellent white wine, her guard was down a little.
“He used to call me a prickly cactus,” she said, losing herself in the memory. “When I was in med school, I thought I’d go into family medicine. Haymitch, that was my uncle, he dissuaded me. I remember him saying, ‘You’re incredibly skilled, sweetheart, but you have all the charm of a dead slug. Why don’t you think about orthopaedics?’”
“He sounds like an arse,” Peeta said, brows furrowed.
Katniss laughed lightly. “He was. We’re a lot alike, actually. But he took good care of us. Anyway, I didn’t go into orthopedics, obviously,” she said, shaking her head. “But emergency medicine seemed a good fit.” A place where her brusqueness could be explained away as simple efficiency. “No pressure to build relationships in the midst of life and death.”
Until Prim got sick, Katniss thought, her smile falling. Then, sitting with her sister through oncology consults, through chemo and radiation, and finally, through palliative care, she saw another side of medicine. A side where relationships mattered . Those doctors couldn’t save her sister, in the end. But they made her feel important and respected. They cared.
Prim’s death had been the catalyst for Katniss to shake up her life. But the seeds of discontent were sown months earlier. She was already questioning whether she was doctor material even before the hospice. It was a large part of why she’d come to Australia. To figure out if medicine was even still what she wanted.
The pain of it clutched at her heart. Prim had been her biggest cheerleader. And she was gone.
Peeta was silent. She glanced over, and his expression was concerned, and confused. “You’re not prickly at all,” he said. “You’re incredibly compassionate, kind, funny. And you make a difference every single day.”
Katniss shrugged, discomfort mounting. She hadn’t meant to share so much with him. “I’m not sure some of my new colleagues agree either,” she answered honestly, thinking about Gale, his disgust with her self-centredness. About Cressida’s bewilderment that Katniss was even capable of smiling.
She barely had any friends back home either. Even before Prim died, there’d been only a handful of people in her life, and most of them kept at arm's length.
“You have no idea,” Peeta said, “the effect you have.”
His expression was so open and earnest. Katniss's stomach squirmed, unaccustomed to anyone but Prim complimenting her. But there was more than that. Under the discomfort was an even more unbearable emotion.
Chapter 14: Chapter 13
She was an enigma; fierce, brash, intelligent, a coolly confident professional who was utterly in control of her life, and yet she was rendered speechless by his honesty.
There wasn’t a bit of Dr. Katniss Everdeen that he didn’t find compelling. The entire package was insanely attractive.
She was chewing her plush lip, the only outward sign that she was uncertain or maybe anxious. His eyes were drawn to the action, lingering on her mouth. He watched those lips curve upwards in a slow smile as she recognised his interest. “I can think of better things to do than talk about my dead uncle,” she practically purred, and he chuckled. Truthfully, he’d love to hear more about Katniss’s life, about what made her tick. But he was very amenable to enjoying her mouth in other ways too.
Katniss set aside her wine glass and straddled him. His hands slipped under the hem of her blouse to find the soft, warm skin of her waist. His smile widened.
She was the aggressor, kissing him fiercely, winding her fingers in his hair. He let her take control, let her pull off his shirt and explore the contours of his chest with fingertips and teeth, let her suck the sensitive skin of his throat hard enough to mark. He merely stroked her skin, smooth and hot, waist to rib cage to those sweet, round arse cheeks under her tailored daks.
He knew she was trying to lose herself in the explosive connection between them, to forget her earlier discomfort. He didn’t completely understand why she’d reacted poorly to his genuine compliment. But he was happy to be that for her, a distraction, but also a source of pleasure.
He’d love her so good she’d forget to be uncomfortable.
Peeta stood suddenly, Katniss yanking his hair in surprise. But he merely gripped her more firmly, holding her against the steely length trying to escape his shorts, then headed for the stairs.
Katniss tipped her head back and laughed, throaty and wild, as he took the steps two at a time. He tossed her on the bed, then knelt over her, stripping away her blouse and trousers. He paused then, taking in all of that taut skin hungrily. “So bloody gorgeous,” he groaned.
Katniss reached for him, but he slid down the bed, kissing a path down her toned stomach. “Peeta,” she whispered, an edge of uncertainty in her voice.
“Been thinking all day about you,” he rasped, tugging her little panties off and spreading her thighs wide. She was already wet for him, and he groaned in bliss. “Been dreaming about eating you out.”
Two thick thumbs parting her, Peeta bent his head closer, inhaling her scent, breathing a rush of hot air across her sensitive flesh. She trembled beneath him, body tense with anticipation, hands fisted in the doona. He wanted to tease and torment her, but he was too hungry, too greedy. A long, slow lick through her folds had her squirming and gasping with pleasure.
Peeta grinned, and grabbed her ankle, propping her foot on his shoulder. “Watch me, Katniss,” he whispered.
Then he feasted.
She chanted his name as he fucked her with his tongue, then words failed her completely when he filled her with two blunt fingers and sucked on her clit.
When he hit just the right rhythm of pumping and swirling, her hands flew to his hair, holding him in place as she rode his face. It was so fucking hot, watching her silver eyes roll back in pleasure, the flush that painted her face and chest, the way her nipples peaked and strained against her lacy bra. He groaned against her flesh, hips pistoning into the mattress, desperate for any friction.
He held her gaze as her thighs began to tremble, as her walls clamped down on his fingers, as she practically sobbed her release.
Muscles slackened, Katniss sprawled across his bed, sweaty and disheveled, one arm thrown across her eyes. “Holy,” she mumbled, breathless. “I’m dead.”
Peeta grinned. She was splayed out before him, pussy swollen and glistening from his mouth, wrung out by the pleasure he’d given her, it was the hottest thing. Perfection. He stripped off his shorts and underwear, unable to resist palming his cock, shuddering at the sensation. Katniss shifted her arm, watching him stroke himself, then groaned. “Condom,” she rasped. “Now.”
He barked out a laugh as he reached for the foil square already waiting on the bedside table. She was bossy, and he liked it.
Katniss unhooked her bra as he rolled on the condom and he smirked. Clearly she’d already figured out that he liked her tits, liked to watch them bounce. She was damned near perfect for him.
It was with that thought that he hooked her knees over his elbows and thrust deep.
Thrust home .
Engulfed by her heat, with her beautiful face twisted in bliss, it took every ounce of his self control to go slowly, to draw out their connection. Under him, Katniss writhed, clutching his arms, begging him to go faster. But he didn’t want to race ahead. Exhausted, they’d rushed the night before. Now, he wanted to savour her. Wanted to show her how much he wanted her, in every way.
Katniss wasn’t having any of it.
“More,” she gasped, clawing at his back, trying to pull him in. “Peeta.”
“Patience, love,” he growled, releasing her legs to grab both small wrists. Her eyes widened as he pinned her arms over her head, not hard, but leaving no doubt that he was setting the pace. She seemed uncertain again, but after a moment wrapped her lean thighs around his hips and arched up to kiss him softly. Acceptance.
Slowly he rocked against her in a primal rhythm. Katniss groaned, eyes screwed shut, lifting her hips for each maddeningly controlled thrust. But he wanted more. “Open your eyes, Katniss,” he said. She did, and he could see that uncertainty again. “Good girl,” he breathed, rewarding her with a hard thrust, and she whimpered his name.
Her gorgeous silver eyes were fixed on his as he moved inside her, his measured pace almost leisurely. He leaned in to lap at each bouncing breast and her hazy gaze followed, watching him worship her body. He pushed them both higher and higher. “You feel so good,” he crooned, and she smiled, just faintly. Peeta smiled too.
He wanted it to last forever, but it was too much, too good. The feeling of her tightening around him, the soft sounds of pleasure that fell from her plush lips. The connection between them, unlike anything he had experienced before. Her every emotion was laid bare for him and he held nothing back from her. He sped up, just a little, but it was enough. Eyes still locked with his, Katniss arched beneath him, coming with a long, low moan that sent him hurtling over the edge.
Only then did he release her hands, burying his face against her throat as he filled the condom. “Beautiful,” he whispered. “You are so beautiful, my Katniss.”
Drifting in a post coital haze, it took a minute for him to realize that she was quiet and tense beneath him. He rolled away, sliding off the condom as he did, then reached for her.
But she was already slipping away.
“I need to go,” she said, sitting up and throwing her legs over the edge of the bed.
“It’s late,” he hedged, heart sinking. But Katniss wouldn’t be dissuaded.
“I’m just around the block,” she said, standing while he was left clinging to nothingness.
She was running.
It hurt, especially since what had just happened between them was beyond anything he’d experienced before. But as he watched her, he realized she wasn’t leaving because she didn’t feel it, the immensity of the connection between them.
She was running because she did.
He could see the discomfort written all over her beautiful face. He understood that the intimacy was scaring her, though he wasn’t sure why. She’d been skittish ever since she mentioned her family back home earlier, something he reckoned she hadn’t meant to share.
There was a story there, he was certain of it, and whatever it was it made her wary, guarded, fearful of sharing, of letting him in. He could ask Annie, no doubt she’d fill him in on whatever she knew. But Katniss had been angry the last time he’d asked Annie about her, he wouldn’t make that mistake again. Besides, he wanted Katniss herself to be the one to tell him her secrets, to open up to him.
He’d have to be patient. But he could be what she needed now. He could back off a little, give her space.
“Right,” he said, but punctuated it with a languid no worries smile. He tucked his hands behind his head and watched her gather her clothes. She moved stiffly, not looking at him. Once she was redressed, he spoke again. “What are you up to this weekend?”
She finally glanced over at him, confusion painting her features. He knew why, the weekend was still three days away. She had probably been bracing herself for him to try to dominate her time again tomorrow. He’d like to. The idea of going three days without holding her gutted him. But he’d play her game.
“Oh, I,” she started, then seemed to get distracted. Possibly by the fact that he was still in the nuddy, stretched out on top of the doona, his semi-erect cock twitching against his thigh. It’d be more than a semi if she kept looking at him that way, heavy-lidded and with arousal flushing her cheeks.
Peeta laughed softly, and Katniss tore her gaze away from his body. “I’m not sure,” she said, and it sounded like a question, rather than a brush-off. Progress, he decided.
“Let me take you somewhere,” he said. “A day trip. Promise you’ll like it.”
“I’ll uh. I’ll let you know.” She was off-balance, and Peeta liked that. Liked knowing she was fighting herself, an internal battle between her clear desire to be with him, and whatever was holding her back. He’d win, he was sure of it. What they had was too powerful to resist.
He caught her hand as she passed by the bed, heading for the door. “Good night,” he said, holding her eyes and bringing her knuckles to his lips.
Those silver eyes softened, and she bent over to kiss him properly. He teased and tasted, savouring her. It would be so easy to pull her back into bed, to use the potent attraction between them to coerce her into staying the night. Instead, he slowed down, gentling the kiss until finally breaking apart. “Sweet dreams,” he whispered, dragging his thumb over her swollen lip.
She looked dazed, but she nodded, straightening with obvious reluctance and turning towards the door.
Then he watched her walk away.
Chapter 15: Chapter 14
Bushfires were brutal all across Australia that dry season, tens of thousands of hectares in flame, large swaths of the National parks system destroyed. Peeta and the rest of the volunteers at the brigade were stretched thin.
His sexy new neighbour must be feeling the same exhaustion, Peeta reckoned. He knew she left for the hospital just after six each morning, and he hadn’t seen her come home by nightfall.
The fires were close enough to the town that thick, acrid smoke blanketed everything, giving the sky an apocalyptic red tinge even at midday. Schools were keeping the kids inside, people were walking through town wearing masks. It was impossible to go for a run, impossible even to walk to work with the choking smoke. Accident and emerg was full of breathing problems, all day, every day, Peeta knew from speaking with Finnick. He also knew that the medical staff were all putting in extra time, to handle all of the respiratory issues they were seeing.
He had the night off. It gave him too much time to think about Katniss. To wonder if she was thinking about him. It had only been a day and a half, but he hadn’t been able to get her out of his mind, even with everything else he had on his plate. She was under his skin, plain and simple.
Despite his vow to himself to leave her be, to give her space, he left a meal on her doorstep. Peanut satay and noodles, good cold or heated up. He told himself he was just being neighbourly.
He was sitting in the sunroom when she called. “You don’t have to keep feeding me, Peeta,” she said, but there was no anger in her voice, only fatigue.
“I like to,” he said quietly, knowing the words might scare her off. But he did. He liked to take care of her in whatever small ways she would allow. Cooking enough for two when he happened to be home anyway was the very least he could do.
She sighed. “What am I going to do with you?”
Peeta laughed. “I can think of a few things,” he smirked.
She laughed too. “I’ll keep that in mind, Hotshot.”
“What are you up to?” he asked, enjoying the unexpected opportunity to connect with her, if only by phone.
“About to fall into bed,” she said. His dick had very enthusiastic thoughts about that, but he tamped down the urge to tease her.
Across the yard, a light flipped on at her house, in the upstairs window, the one he knew would be her bedroom. She moved to the window, silhouetted but still he could make out the curve of her waist, one long, willowy arm pressed against the glass.
She was a beacon, a light in the darkness.
He stood and moved closer to his own window. Her soft, breathless laugh came down the mobile line. “Well hello there,” she said.
“Hullo yourself,” he chuckled.
“You’re not working out?” He had earlier, but now he was sitting at his long-neglected easel.
“Finished already,” he said, a little confused. Could she see the treadmill behind him? The only light was the spot clamped to his easel.
“Right, you always start around six.”
Peeta startled. Had she been watching him? He’d had no idea she could see so clearly into his space. “You’ve been watching me?”
Her response was a laugh, husky and warm.
Peeta pressed his hand to the glass. He wanted to run through the yard, jump the fence and take her in his arms. But he’d promised he’d take only what she was willing to give.
The light in her room clicked off, leaving him to his imagination. “Sweet dreams, love,” he murmured.
After the briefest of pauses, she replied, “Good night, Peeta.”
Chapter 16: Chapter 15
She wasn’t completely certain he’d show up for their planned outing, not after she’d bolted from his bedroom three days earlier. Three days . It felt like a lifetime. Three days where she’d been unable to think about anything but Peeta Mellark, about the tender way he’d touched her. The possessive glint in his blue eyes when he’d filled her and fucked her and shattered everything she thought she knew about herself.
She wasn’t certain she even wanted to see him again, wasn’t sure she wanted to tempt fate that way. Spending time with Peeta was like playing with fire, and she was afraid of getting burned.
But he’d respected her boundaries, intuited her need for space, even though she hadn’t said a word. He’d given her room to think, but hadn’t abandoned her completely. A few flirty texts, a meal dropped off after an exhausting day, reminders that he was there but no pressure.
He understood her, and that was maybe the most frightening part of all.
Despite that, when he texted to tell her to be ready at nine, she’d felt a frisson of excitement. She wanted to see him, wanted to spend time with him. Wanted all of that laser focus pointed her way again.
She didn’t know what to expect when she opened the door. Would he kiss her with that barely restrained passion, like he had last time? Would he play it cool, irritated by her earlier dismissal of him and what they'd shared? Or would he make her choose their path?
Peeta was leaning against the doorframe, smiling down at her with those warm blue eyes, no trace of anger on his handsome face. “G’day, love,” he said softly. “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?”
He did kiss her, but just lightly, a promise of more. And his genuine happiness to see her made her stomach swoop. “Ready?” he asked.
They drove out of town again, the morning sky a hazy orange. “Are you taking me hiking?” She’d love to be back in that cool mountain air, missed the woods terribly, though the smoke would make the inclines more challenging.
But Peeta chuckled. “You don’t want me to get predictable, now do you?” He was predictable, a little, but in a good way. She’d already come to expect his kindness and selflessness. But she merely grinned and waited.
The drive was short, twenty minutes and they were pulling off the highway onto a dirt track that snaked into the trees. Part of the magic of Australia, Katniss was finding, was how fast it turned rural. One minute you were in a town, the next, in the middle of nowhere.
Peeta pulled off the dirt track onto an even narrower and less road-like road. Katniss was thankful his SUV had good suspension but she was a little wary about what kind of adventure he was planning so far off the beaten path. “This adventure has nothing to do with serial killers, right?”
He laughed out loud, warm and pleased. “Don’t you trust me, love?”
A low building, painted blue and bordered on two sides by fences of what looked like corrugated metal, came into view between the trees. Not a restaurant or a museum, that was for sure. Still, Katniss held her tongue. Because she did trust him. She didn’t trust many people but Peeta had somehow gotten under her defences.
He parked beside a pair of blue and white pickup trucks with wire caged beds, and held her hand as he led her to the building’s door. Inside was a sort of makeshift reception area, a statuesque blonde in khakis standing behind a melamine counter. When she glanced up, she broke into a supermodel smile. “Peet,” she called, circling around the counter to approach them.
Katniss wondered if the glamazon was one of Peeta’s former conquests. It seemed like she was going in for a hug, or maybe more. Katniss wasn’t one for jealousy, she never got attached enough to feel it. But the tightening in her gut could be nothing else.
Peeta, though, kept hold of her hand, and the gorgeous woman’s smile widened when she noticed. “You must be Katniss,” she said, and Katniss felt her eyebrows lift. “I’m Madge.” The women shook hands and Katniss noticed a thin golden band on Madge's left hand. Then she felt silly for her possessiveness all over again. “Welcome to our wildlife rescue.”
“I’m sorry?” Wildlife rescue? It made sense, Katniss guessed. Madge was dressed kind of like the crocodile hunter from that old TV show.
“And you look confused,” Madge said, but her smile wasn’t mocking at all. Katniss had the unfamiliar thought that this was someone she’d like to have been friends with, in a different world. “Peet, didn’t you warn her at all?” There was a fondness in Madge's voice, under the exasperation.
Peeta shrugged, but his grin didn’t slip. Madge turned her attention back to Katniss. “We rescue and rehabilitate injured wildlife here, particularly with the bushfires. Peet and the other firies bring us a lot of our patients.”
“Reckon being Canadian you’ve never seen a koala up close. And I figured this would be more your thing, instead of a zoo,” Peeta said and his smile was still wide but Katniss could see that little sliver of uncertainty. It mattered to him, whether she was pleased to be there.
Her heart did another slow tumble. This was definitely more her speed. He’d figured her out so damned easily.
“I never have,” Katniss admitted, flashing Peeta a shy smile before turning back to Madge. “Are you a vet?”
“I am,” Madge grinned, leading them back past the counter. “And you’re a vet for humans,” she teased.
And Katniss laughed.
“We don’t let the general public back here,” Madge continued, “but we’ll make an exception for you. Reckon you’ll know not to stress our patients.”
They spent hours, gloved and gowned, visiting the sickest of the animals inside the shelter and those a little closer to being ready for release in the outdoor enclosures. It was sobering to see so many injured animals, so many burns especially, and so many that, like their human counterparts, were struggling with smoke inhalation.
Katniss fed orphaned wallabies and helped change bandages on fire-maimed wombats. She even got to hold a koala, an old fellow named Sparky who was blind and too docile for release back into the wild.
It was an incredible day.
Easy conversation flowed between the three of them, and Katniss left the rescue with a full heart and a new number stored in her cellphone.
Katniss hadn’t had a lot of friends growing up, girlfriends especially, and that hadn’t changed in adulthood. Prim had always been her closest confident. Beyond that, there was Annie, who she’d known for years, and Johanna back home who’d pretty much forced her way into Katniss’s life. A couple of people she knew well enough to meet for drinks once in a while. But Madge felt like a kindred spirit. And Katniss had the distinct impression that Peeta had anticipated that, not just that she and Madge would get on, but that Katniss was feeling lonely and maybe needed someone.
Katniss reached across the centre console as they bounced along the rutted drive, back to civilization, and set her hand on Peeta’s thigh. He glanced at her, grinning. “Thank you for today,” she said quietly, voice choked with emotion. “It was everything.”
Peeta set his own hand on top of hers and squeezed. “No worries,'' he said, with more gravitas than the flippant words suggested. “You had a good time?”
“I did,” she smiled. “But it’s more than that. And I think you know it.”
He glanced at her again, and again she saw that flicker of vulnerability in his expression. He looked back at the road, and Katniss flipped her hand to twine her fingers with his. “I really liked Madge,” she admitted.
“Yeah, she’s a beaut,” he said fondly. Katniss didn’t feel jealous about that anymore. Peeta and Madge had indeed dated, Madge had mentioned it while they’d eaten a cold lunch in the centre’s breakroom. And somehow knowing they'd dated and were still so friendly with each other made Katniss feel more comfortable. When this thing with Peeta ran its course, there wouldn’t be any hard feelings.
“So where to now?” Katniss asked, grinning. It was only late afternoon, and she was riding a wave of feel-good endorphins. Spending more time with Peeta sounded pretty great.
“Where would you like to go?” He was smirking in that cocky way he had, but Katniss could feel the underlying weight of the question. He wanted her, she knew he did. But he was leaving the choice to her.
She squeezed his hand. “I’m not ready to let you go just yet,” she admitted.
Chapter 17: Chapter 16
Katniss was beside him in his Ute, holding his hand, sunglasses obscuring her sexy silver eyes but not the soft, content smile on her face.
It’d been a risk, taking her to the rescue instead of on a more traditional date, but he’d gone with his gut and it had paid off. Madge was a good person and her personality had been a good fit for Katniss; he’d known they’d hit it off. More than that, he reckoned Katniss might be more comfortable doing something that didn’t involve them being alone together, at least not right off the bat. Not with how panicked she was last time he’d seen her. Better to ease her back into spending time with him, show her that they could enjoy no-pressure fun with an outing that had her actively involved in doing something good.
She’d called herself prickly, but Peeta knew it wasn’t true. She was guarded, yes, but under that hesitation was a huge heart. She was so fiercely compassionate and she cared deeply.
He really liked her.
And she’d agreed to come back to his place.
He’d promised himself he wouldn’t pressure her, would keep things light and fun. But he was going to wine and dine her, remind her how damned good they were together. The sultry looks she kept aiming his way suggested she didn’t actually need much reminding. Peeta grinned lazily, and she squeezed his hand, maybe reading his mind.
It was going to be one hell of a night.
Peeta held onto that thought right up until he turned down his street. Then his heart sank. Parked in his drive was a familiar car. “Shit,” he grumbled under his breath.
He parked on the street; as soon as he stepped from his Ute the doors of his brother's car flew open and little boys tumbled out, along with one bigger and very angry bloke.
“Where’ve you been? I’ve been ringing you an hour,” Brann barked. Peeta knew it, had been ignoring his mobile. All for naught, it seemed. “I need your help, Brann said. “It’s Charlie.”
He wanted to lash out, to say that it was time for Brann to figure his shit out. But Charlie was sitting in the front seat of the car, skin grey and waxy, coughing up a mean streak.
Katniss walked around, opened the passenger door and crouched to Charlie’s level. “Hi, do you remember me?” she asked softly. It was a testament to how poorly Charlie was feeling that he merely nodded miserably.
Brann looked like he wanted to intervene, Peeta laid a hand on his arm. “She's a doctor,” he said quietly, and Brann slumped. It occurred to Peeta how utterly out of touch his brother was with Peeta’s life to not know the occupation of the woman he was dating.
Or even her existence.
Katniss appeared to be giving Charlie a cursory exam. Peeta couldn’t hear what they were saying, not with Ollie and Paddy running roughshod and screaming like banshees. But after a few minutes, Katniss stood and approached Peeta and his brother. “Dr. Everdeen,” she said, offering Brann her hand. “Has Charlie been diagnosed with asthma before?”
“No,” Brann said. “Is that what’s going on?” He looked like he might be sick.
“We’ll need to run some tests to be sure,” she said. “The air quality has been terrible, and some kids are just more sensitive to it. Especially the active ones.” As if to punctuate her words, Ollie and Paddy went tearing across the lawn behind them. Charlie coughed miserably. “You’ll need to take him to the ER, Mr. Mellark,” Katniss said, all concerned professionalism. “He needs some oxygen, and some medication to relax his airways. I’ll call ahead.” She pulled out her mobile and turned away.
Peeta leaned in the car and ruffled Charlie’s curls. “Hang in there, mate,” he said. To Brann, he continued, “Go. I’ll keep the others.”
He was disappointed to have to cut his day with Katniss short. He’d been looking forward to seducing her. But this was family.
“Oi, come on you cobbers,” he called as Brann backed out of the drive. “Let’s go see what we can round up for tea.” The boys bolted for the house, and Peeta turned to Katniss. “I am so sorry,” he said, but she just smiled, her eyes soft and affectionate.
“You are a good man, Peeta Mellark,” Katniss said, then stretched up on her toes to kiss him, just lightly, before towing him into his own house.
She stayed. He didn’t ask, it hadn’t occurred to him it might be a possibility. She just entertained the boys while he threw together some spag bol. When he glanced into the lounge, Ollie was playing fortnite and explaining something on the screen to Katniss while Paddy perched in her lap.
It hit him like a fist, the domesticity of it, the rightness. He wanted it, and not just for a few hours on a Saturday evening.
His heart stumbled in his chest.
He’d always been the funny one, the class clown, the one that nobody took seriously. He was the guy you called when you wanted to go out for pints or to a footy match, the guy who was always ready to have a good time. And lately, he was the fun uncle who would spend time with the kids while you were out doing important grown up things. He’d been pigeonholed into that role so long, he didn’t know how to be anyone else. He wasn’t sure who he really was anymore.
She made him want things. Things he’d thought were only for other people.
And she was leaving.
Chapter 18: Chapter 17
“You’re good with him,” Peeta murmured. Katniss smiled tiredly, shifting the little boy who was sleeping on her chest. She’d played all evening with the boys, then read Paddy stories and sang softly to him until he fell asleep in her arms.
“He reminds me of my sister.” And not just physically, with his blonde curls and big blue eyes. Prim had been cuddly like Paddy, especially when she was little. Katniss hadn’t realised how much she missed it. How starved she’d been for uncomplicated affection.
“You’ve never mentioned a sister before,” Peeta said lightly, settling onto the couch beside her, careful not to jostle the sleeping child. Ollie was stretched out in the recliner across from them, snoring softly.
Katniss nodded. She should deflect, change the subject, it’s what she usually did when family came up. But she missed Prim, so damned much, and it felt like a betrayal to deny her existence. “She died. Nine months ago now.”
“Oh Katniss,” Peeta said, his arm tightening around her shoulder. “I’m so sorry.”
“Thanks,” she said. “It was cancer. She fought so hard, but it wasn’t a winnable battle.”
“What was she like?” Peeta asked, and Katniss was touched that he seemed to understand her need to talk about her sister. He was really good at knowing how to read her moods.
“She was my best friend.” Katniss sighed, and snuggled into Peeta’s shoulder, her chin resting on Paddy’s downy curls. “Prim. She was four years younger, but we were as close as any two people could ever be.” They’d faced so much together, depended on each other so long. Two peas in a pod. Two sisters against the world. “She used to cry when I cried before she even knew the reason.”
“I can’t imagine you crying,” Peeta chuckled, and Katniss smiled.
“I mean, you’re not wrong,” she laughed. “But back when we were little, I meant. She always wanted to be just like me.” Katniss’s smile fell. “She even followed me into medical school. She was in her second year of residency when the headaches started. She seemed really run down too.” Katniss drew a deep, shuddering breath. “I should have known something was wrong. But I was only a couple of years out of residency myself, I knew how exhausting the schedule could be. I just thought she was working too hard.
“One day she fell on the ward, and couldn’t get back up. It was a glioblastoma.” She glanced up at Peeta. “Brain tumour. Highly aggressive.
“We knew, right from when she was diagnosed, that she was terminal.” They were doctors, they knew the odds. “But she still had the surgery, and chemo, and radiation, to delay the inevitable. To buy us a little more time.” It hadn’t been enough, not by a long shot. “She was determined to squeeze out every bit of life from the time she had left. I cut my hours at the hospital, and we spent the months after her surgery crossing things off her bucket list.” Katnss bit her lip against the threat of tears. They’d barely made a dent in Prim’s list of dreams before her symptoms had gotten bad again and they'd been forced to slow down. But even then, Prim’s spirit had been indomitable. Swollen from the steroids and largely confined to a wheelchair, she’d still made plans for things the sisters could do together every week, even as simple as feeding the ducks on the bay.
“She smiled right to the end,” Katniss whispered. “Thin as a ghost, drugged out of her mind to control the pain and the seizures, she still smiled at every doctor and nurse who saw her in the hospice. Still smiled at me.”
The pain of it overwhelmed Katniss, even all of these months later. Her sister, the sweetest, sunniest person she’d ever known, gone forever. “She was only twenty-seven. Her life had barely even begun.”
They sat in silence, Katniss lost in her grief, Peeta’s arm a solid comfort.
“She’s why I came here,” Katniss whispered after many long minutes. “Everything about the hospital in the Seam reminds me of her.”
Peeta nodded, his jaw lightly brushing her hair. “Is it easier, being here?”
“I don’t know,” Katniss replied honestly. “I feel so lost, so untethered without her. But I think she’d be thrilled that I’m here. I kept thinking about her, the whole time we were with the koalas. How much she’d have loved to see them.” Katniss laughed softly. “Maybe I’m finishing some of her bucket list now.”
“I bet she’d have loved that,” Peeta said, and the kindness in that single sentence made Katniss smile.
“You’re right,” she said. “She would.” Prim would have loved Peeta too, Katniss realised. Would have seen in him a kindred spirit. How she wished her little duck were there, to guide her, to give her some sisterly advice. Because this thing with Peeta, it was more than a fling. But it couldn’t be a relationship, she wasn’t built that way, and she was leaving anyway.
Katniss glanced at Peeta. His arm was snug around her shoulders, his free hand idly stroking his sleeping nephew’s hair. He was a good guy, he was fun to be with, he didn’t push her for more than she could give. Meeting Madge quelled some of her fears about things being awkward when this was over. So why was she holding back? She could have fun, let down her hair, enjoy her limited time in Australia. And go home in a few months with some really good memories.
She leaned up to kiss his jaw. He met her eyes and smiled.
They sat in comfortable silence until Brann showed up a half hour later, walking into Peeta’s house without ringing the bell. He looked exhausted, Katniss noted, and more than a little sheepish.
He picked up his eldest son from the recliner, Peeta took little Paddy from Katniss’s arms, and the brothers walked together out to Brann’s car. Katniss wandered to the front door, watching. They were very similar, the two men, but Brann seemed so much older, even though Katniss knew there was only four years between them, the same as had been between her and Prim.
They were talking in low tones, but Katniss could hear them clearly. “I’m sorry about earlier,” Brann said to his brother. “I was an arse. I was scared, but that doesn’t give me any right to be a wanker.”
Peeta embraced his brother in that one-armed way men do. “S’all right, mate,” Peeta said.
Brann glanced up to where Katniss watched them, making eye contact. “I’ve been an arse longer than tonight, haven’t I?”
Peeta glanced over his shoulder and smiled at Katniss, then led his brother back up the stairs. “Weren’t introduced properly earlier,” he said. “This is Dr. Katniss Everdeen.” There were words left unsaid there, Katniss could feel them. Feel Peeta itching to define what they were to each other. But he didn’t.
“Hi,” Katniss said softly, but the rest of her words were lost when Brann grabbed her and pulled her into his chest. “Oh,” she murmured against his shoulder. He was a hugger. That was uncomfortable.
“Oi, quit molesting the lady,” Peeta said, mirth in his voice. Brann pulled back, and Peeta wrapped an arm casually around Katniss’s waist, not possessively, not this time, just steadying. She appreciated it more than she could articulate.
“Sorry,” Brann said, smiling a smile very similar to Peeta’s, but less warm. “I just,” he pushed a shaking hand through his hair, the same blonde as Peeta’s but greying at the temples. “Thank you,” he tried again. “For knowing what to do for Charlie. For watching the other lads.”
“I had something to do with that last part too,” Peeta teased. Brann punched him in the shoulder, but then laughed. It eased the seriousness of the moment.
“Your kids are really lovely,” Katniss said. “I enjoyed letting Ollie trounce me at Mario Kart.”
“I don’t think there was any ‘letting’, love,” Peeta laughed. It was true. Neither of them had come even close to beating Ollie, though Peeta had at least given it a good effort. He was engaged with his nephews, knew what they liked, knew how to relate to them. But he wasn't a pushover. Katniss wasn’t sure exactly what the situation was, why the boys’ mother wasn’t in the picture, but it was clear Peeta filled a void for his little nephews.
“Ah yeah,” Brann laughed. “Ollie’s a ringer. Ace reflexes.” A faint cough came from the car, and Brann’s smile faded. “They gave me a machine with a mask. Four times a day he’s gotta breathe in the meds.” Brann looked stricken. “I had no idea he was that sick until he started gasping.”
“Sometimes it comes on fast,” Katniss said, laying a hand on Brann’s arm. “You got him the help he needs.” Katniss didn’t have a lot of experience counselling patients or their agents. There wasn’t much of that in emergency medicine. It fell to the surgeons and internists, and often the oncologists, to comfort and reassure. “You’re doing everything right.”
One small sentence, a partial truth really since Katniss has no way of knowing how long Charlie had been symptomatic. But Brann seemed so grateful for her words.
“Thanks, Doc,” he said, voice thick.
“It’s Katniss,” she said, smiling. After all, this was Peeta’s brother, his family. There was no place for formality.
“Thank you, Katniss.”
Peeta squeezed her a little tighter as his brother drove away. “You’re an amazing woman,” he murmured against her temple.
She turned in his arms and cupped his jaw in her hands. “Alone at last,” she said with a smirk.
A big, broad smile stretched across Peeta’s face. Then he tossed her over his shoulder and carried her, shrieking and laughing, back into the house.
Chapter 19: Chapter 18
Peeta’s emotions were all over the place. His dick was so hard it was aching. But his chest felt full and tight and somehow light too, and he wasn’t sure what to make of that feeling.
The sexual attraction was easier to deal with.
He set Katniss beside the couch; she was flushed and grinning, her plait half undone, but her silver eyes shimmered with heat and affection. The perfect combination of sexy siren and girl next door. Insanely attractive. That fullness in his chest swelled bigger. Instead of dwelling on it, he cupped her face and kissed her.
Katniss whimpered sweetly, thrusting her fingers into his hair and tugging just hard enough to make his dick jump.
She was sugar and spice. It fascinated him and turned him on like nobody’s business.
He pulled her lithe little body snugly against his own, a collision of soft and hard. As if they’d been doused in fuel, hunger and passion exploded between them. They were tongues and teeth and wandering hands.
Her shirt landed on the floor before he even recognised he’d been pulling it off, the bra followed, then his hands were full of her sweet tits. Katniss was just as aggressive, his shorts were around his knees and those hot little hands were gripping his dick. There was no grace, no finesse. Just two people desperate for each other.
The bedroom was too far away.
He bent to kiss and lick and taste those sweet peaks, Katniss only allowed it a few moments before she was pushing his head away and stripping off the rest of her clothing. He ripped his shirt over his head as he watched the wet dream that was Katniss Everdeen kneel on his couch, presenting her bare arse like a gift.
Peeta shuddered, so turned on he could barely form coherent thoughts. He grabbed her hips, then dropped to his knees. “Peeta,” Katniss gasped as he nuzzled her thigh. But he would not be deterred.
She was already wet for him, and he lapped at her folds hungrily. She widened her knees and arched her back, wordlessly begging for more. Oh he’d give her more all right.
He’d give her everything, if she’d allow it.
She couldn’t keep still as he pleasured her with his mouth, squirming and bucking and riding his face with abandon. It was so hot. He loved how she responded to him. How well they worked together, sexually, but also as friends. She challenged him not just in bed, or on his couch, but every day, with her sharp wit and brilliant insights. Watching her with Madge had been a revelation, the keen observations, the wicked memory. He’d had a really good time, the whole day had been fun. Even the evening with the boys had been fun. Not the carefully curated fun he usually planned for dates, but a more laid-back, honest fun. And he’d liked that better.
He pulled back, stunned by his thoughts. Normally he’d be absolutely mindless at this point, consumed only with chasing pleasure for both of them. Instead, his head was full of Katniss, not just her scent and her taste and those sweet bouncing tits. But about the whole package. It was new, and a little disconcerting.
Katniss glanced back at him, silver eyes hooded and lust-glazed. “Now, Peeta,” she breathed. “I need you now.”
Peeta fished around for his shorts, extracting a condom from his wallet while Katniss watched with hunger laid bare. He could barely roll on the prophylactic, he was so desperate for her. So pent up. Three days he’d thought about her, dreamed about her, with only his own fist to soothe the ache.
She watched him prepare himself, and as he lined himself up with her entrance she arched more deeply and crossed her arms against the back of the couch, as if braced for his invasion.
He couldn’t hold back.
Katniss cried out as Peeta buried himself to the hilt, and he groaned at both the exquisite heat enveloping him and the music of her surrender. He should slow down, should love her reverently. But he couldn’t.
He fucked her hard and fast, gripping her hips so tightly he’d probably leave bruises. Katniss dropped her head against her crossed arms and swore softly. The air filled with his grunts and the slapping of their skin, an erotic soundtrack that drove him absolutely mindless.
He was already close, so bloody close, but he needed to get Katniss there first. He took a deep, steadying breath, then leaned across her, pressed himself against her soft, warm skin and gently bit her shoulder. She practically purred. He reached beneath their bodies to stroke her clit roughly and the noise she made was beautiful. He whispered filth and praise in her ear as she shuddered beneath him.
It was so damned perfect. She was so damned perfect.
He felt it when she flew over the edge, her whole body tensed, her sheath gripped him like a fist. It took every last speck of his willpower to hold off his own orgasm. But he wasn’t bloody well ready to be done.
He continued thrusting shallowing as she pulsed around him, riding the waves of her orgasm, sliding his hands languidly over her body. “Do you know,” he gritted out from between clenched teeth, “how sexy you are? I fantasize about you every damned day.” The way she moaned and dropped her head spurred him on. “I wank myself raw thinking about this arse. About everything I want to do to you.”
She looked over her shoulder, locking eyes with him, lips curled up in a smirk but expression sultry. He could tell his words were turning her on as much as his cock was. With her wild hair and her half-lidded silver eyes, she was the sexiest thing he’d ever seen. He wasn't a possessive man by nature, but he was overcome by an urge to mark her as his, to stake his claim.
He pulled out, holding her gaze, then dragged off the condom and fisted his cock, stroking himself roughly. Katniss’s eyes widened, perfect peach lips parting as she guessed his intention. “Yes,” she moaned, arching her back, giving him the most perfect visual fantasy come to life. And it was all Peeta needed to hear.
Peeta dragged his hand up and down his shaft, and Katniss watched, enthralled. “Faster,” she panted, and Peeta jerked himself harder, grunting with every slick slide. “Come for me, Peeta.”
Her words in that husky voice pushed him over the edge. With a guttural groan, Peeta came, rope after rope of his release landing on her arse and back, pearly white against her olive skin. It was so damned hot his eyes nearly rolled back in his head.
He collapsed forward, barely managing to shift them so she was curled against him instead of pinned under him. His heart thundered against her back, his sticky release cooling between them. Their harsh pants were the only sound for several minutes.
“You have a dirty side,” Katniss teased, satisfaction in her voice.
“You bring out the animal in me,” he laughed, though that wasn’t quite it. More like she freed him, in some ways.
He would have liked to simply drift off to sleep with Katniss cradled so sweetly in his arms. But she was already squirming, uncomfortable, whether from the leather of the couch on her bare skin, his cum squelching between them or, most likely, the intimacy of their bodies pressed together in the afterglow of what they’d shared. But he was not going to let her run, not this time. Not without a fight anyway.
“Come shower with me,” he said, pulling away with reluctance but keeping his tone light.
“I have a shower at home,” she hedged, but he chuckled.
“You really want to walk around the block with my spoof all over your arse?” Katniss burst into startled laughter at his words, and his whole body relaxed at the sound.
“You have a point, Hotshot,” she snickered, and let him lead her upstairs.
Peeta had renovated the bath too, pushing back a wall to gain an extra half metre of space, which he’d used to put in a wide stall with multiple shower heads. He could tell Katniss was impressed. Put the cramped tub and shower combo in her bath to shame.
“Wow,” she said softly. “If I’d known you were hiding this up here I’d have come by every morning,” Katniss teased, and Peeta only narrowly bit back the admonisment that he’d tried to get her to stay before. He had to be careful with her. Light, fun, no pressure, that’s what she needed and that’s what he was going to give her.
And have a hell of a good time along the way.
They showered together, and before she’d even finished rinsing her hair, he was hard again. He bent to lap the shower water from one perfect breast and she rolled her eyes, but didn’t push him away.
He was still kissing her, still teasing her when the water ran cold. Laughing, they hurriedly towelled off and he hustled her to his bedroom.
There, she hesitated and seemed uncertain. “I should go,” she said, but it was nearly a question. He wrapped his arms around her from behind, pressed gentle kisses along her neck.
“Stay,” he said.
She spun in his arms but didn’t pull away. “And have you wake me at crazy o’clock when you leave for work?” She was joking, but he was not.
“I’m not the one opening the bakery tomorrow. You can sleep as late as you like.” He knew she didn’t sleep in on her days off anyway. “There’ll even be brekky in it.”
A small smile tugged at her lips. He knew he was getting to her. He moved them both to the bed and pulled back the doona, sliding between cool sheets and bringing her with him. She was still tense, still not quite convinced. He kissed her, softly.
“I’d really like you to stay, Katniss. I’d like to spend the night beside you, then wake you in the morning with my head between your thighs and your taste on my tongue.” He could feel her body’s response where she was pressed against him, see the arousal that painted her cheeks.
“You’re a very persuasive man, Hotshot,” she murmured, relaxing against him, her head pillowed on his biceps.
He was indeed, he thought, but didn’t gloat. He merely clicked off the light and buried his nose in her still-damp hair.
Chapter 20: Chapter 19
The bushfires still blazed in New South Wales, but that didn’t stop life.
Finnick Odair was a social butterfly, and the impending birth of his first child was as good a reason as any for a party. It wasn’t a baby shower, at least not like any Katniss had known back home. It was more like a block party, the kind her father used to like to host for Canada Day, a long, long time ago. The only concession to the baby part was the table laden with blue gift bags, and Finnick’s ‘ who’s your daddy? ’ shirt.
They’d told her to bring a plate, and Katniss had no idea what that meant until Peeta laughingly explained the party was a potluck. He, of course, brought a tray of professionally frosted sugar cookies, decorated with baby motifs in pastel blue and gold. Far too beautiful to eat. Katniss bought a fruit platter at the IGA and a big bunch of cut flowers. She couldn’t compete with Peeta in the food department, but she knew Annie’s weakness for fresh flowers.
When Peeta had offered her a ride over, she’d hesitated. Would arriving together say more than she was willing to put out there? In the end, though, it’d made the most sense. They were neighbours, after all.
And no one needed to know that they’d also woken up together. Or that it wasn’t the first time. Or second.
Or even the tenth.
They’d fallen into a routine. Their schedules were crazy, yet every time they had a few hours off at the same time, they spent them together. Not always having sex, though there was plenty of that. But often sharing a meal or exercising together, or just talking. And laughing. Katniss hadn’t laughed so much since long before Prim got sick.
She knew she was probably getting in too deep, but she couldn’t bring herself to worry about it. Not just yet anyway.
Katniss and Annie were sitting on the deck in Annie’s beautifully landscaped yard, shaded by a sunny yellow canopy and drinking lemonade, which in Australia was apparently a fizzy drink that contained nothing even vaguely resembling a lemon. The wind had shifted, and the air was a little clearer, the perpetual smokey haze still present, but a little less thick. Katniss could breathe anyway.
The guys were standing around the barbeque, drinking beer and critiquing Finnick’s grilling technique. Brown bottles dripped condensation in the blistering heat. Most of the men had taken off their shirts, a parade of glistening skin, rippling muscles and ink on display. Annie fanned herself. “Phew,” she said. “They sure do make them hot here.” Judging by the way she was leering at her husband and his friends, Katniss suspected she didn’t mean the weather.
Katniss’s eyes drifted, as they so often did these days, to Peeta. He too was shirtless, his broad shoulders sun-pinkened. He was teasing Finnick about something, she couldn’t hear what, but she could see the way his abdominals rippled as he chuckled. As she watched, he lifted the beer bottle to his lips, and she reflexively licked her own. He was so sexy.
He glanced over, caught her staring. She smiled, and his blue eyes glowed under the shade of his cap. She expected him to wink, flirty was his default after all. Instead, his gaze was hot and needy, and held a longing she was unprepared for.
“Finny and I still haven’t decided on a godfather for the baby,” Annie said, interrupting Katniss’s gawking, and she snapped her attention back to her friend. A glass was balanced on Annie’s stomach, the persistent thump of a little foot or elbow making it bounce rhythmically.
“Hmm?” Katniss replied, not willing to admit she hadn’t been paying attention.
“My sister is going to be the godmother, of course, but we can’t agree on a godfather. Maybe Dalton McHenry?”
Katniss wrinkled her nose. “I hadn’t realised you were close.” She’d heard Annie mention Dalton exactly once before, but had never met the man.
“He and Finn met in college,” Annie hedged. “And he’s better than Cato.”
Katniss frowned. Cato was one of the other firefighters in Finnick and Peeta’s brigade, and he was kind of a jerk. He wasn’t even there, celebrating the baby. He’d be a strange choice for sure.
She thought back over the past six weeks. The choice seemed obvious to her. “What about Peeta?” He was Finnick’s closest friend. He was the one who helped put together the crib for baby Odair, the one who constantly brought Annie the sausage rolls she craved. He’d been part of their lives for years, was at all of the social gatherings, checked in with them all of the time, even ran errands for them. He certainly seemed like a great friend to them.
Annie looked surprised. “Peet? He wouldn’t want that.”
“You already asked him?” It was obvious that Peeta would do anything for Finnick, she was bewildered that he’d turn down being a godparent for their baby.
“No,” Annie admitted. “But he’s a bachelor, a party guy. Not someone looking for that kind of responsibility.”
Katniss wasn't sure about that, after seeing Peeta with his nieces and nephews. It was clear he loved kids, and he was amazing with them. “He has his brothers’ kids all of the time. He’s great with them, you know that.” Katniss was surprisingly upset. They’d consider Cato over the kind, generous man who had started setting up the buffet table while the others continued their discussion?
“That’s because he’s one of them,” Annie laughed.
No, Katniss thought. It’s because they see him, they see what a good man he is, and they love him for it.
“I think he’d be an amazing godparent,” Katniss murmured. Annie made a non-committal kind of noise and the discussion halted as Finnick announced that the meal was ready. But Katniss couldn't stop thinking. How the people in Panem didn’t seem to see the same Peeta she did. Didn’t seem to see the kind, generous man under all of that flirty fun.
The man occupying her thoughts slid next to her, wordlessly handing her a bottle of beer. They moved towards the buffet table—the one Peeta had set out—together.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Peeta murmured against her ear as they perused the spread. Katniss was loading up on the prawns Finnick had grilled. The seafood in this country was definitely worth writing home about. “Two pennies if those thoughts involve you and me and that bowl of whipped cream.”
She glanced up at him. He was smirking again, in that flirty way. She was beginning to understand that the boisterous, fun-loving guy was Peeta putting on a show for the assemblage.
She just didn’t know why.
The Peeta who had taken her hiking, the one who played in his yard with his little nieces and nephews, the one who’d taught her how to make fairy bread, that Peeta was lively and fun. This Peeta, the face he showed his friends, he was too, but in an exaggerated way, high energy and peppy to the extreme. She liked this Peeta fine. But she preferred the Peeta she got to see glimpses of when the others weren’t around.
“Later,” she said, pressing a fleeting kiss to his scruffy cheek.
Chapter 21: Chapter 20
It was late when the Odairs’ party finally wrapped up. Peeta was bagging up trash in the garden when Annie waved off their firie buddy Kyle and his husband Thom, the last of the guests apart from himself and Katniss.
Peeta wanted nothing more than to get Katniss alone, but he couldn’t in good conscience leave the Odairs with a huge mess, especially knowing that Annie was particular about cleanliness and Finnick… was not.
“Come sit, Annie,” Katniss said, her husky voice floating out through the patio doors to wrap around Peeta. The pretty little doc had him tied up in knots with her sexy voice and perky boobs and legs that went on forever.
Peeta laughed to himself. It was more than just her looks, and he knew it. Something about Katniss excited him on a new level. He’d been watching her, lounging with Annie, chatting with his mates and their wives, fitting so smoothly into the life he loved. For a few moments, he thought about what it would be like to have her there permanently, by his side at all of the parties, in his bed every night. It was a bloody beautiful vision. But he wasn’t DADS, he knew it was impossible.
Reentering the house, he was enormously pleased to see that Katniss had settled Annie into a kitchen chair, then had rolled up her metaphorical sleeves and attacked the dishes. She had a strong work ethic, his girl, and it was obvious she cared deeply. Peeta reckoned that’s why she went into medicine in the first place.
Annie was grinning, chatting easily with Katniss. When she saw him come in, her smile widened. “Peet, you don’t have to do that.”
“Of course I do, beautiful Annie,” he said.
“I should send you kids off to have fun,” Annie sighed. “But I can’t turn down the free help.”
It didn’t take that long, really, to have Annie’s place back in shape. Finn wandered in and out, cracking jokes and making half-hearted attempts to help, most of which were the opposite of helpful. Katniss smiled at their shenanigans. She smiled more often now, Peeta noticed. Despite the overwork, she seemed happier.
He liked it.
He helped her into his Ute, and she held his hand across the seat the whole drive home. She was quiet, but Peeta figured she was just tired. And though he wanted—badly—to take her back to his place and make her scream all night long, he instead pulled into her drive.
He turned off the engine, and turned to her, hoping to at least steal a kiss or ten, and maybe...
“Why do they treat you like that?” Katniss interrupted his musing, and he frowned. “They don’t take you seriously. Like you’re the life of the party—“
“I am the life of the party,” Peeta interrupted, waggling his brows suggestively.
“Don’t,” Katniss said, her eyes wide in the streetlight’s glow. “Don’t put on a show. Not with me.” Peeta sobered, and Katniss continued. “They treat you like you’re incapable of being serious, all of them. It’s like they don’t even see you.”
Peeta sighed, gathering his thoughts. It’s not like he’d never thought about it, but it was hard to explain to someone else, especially her. But the darkness was a shield, a warm blanket, protecting him.
“When I was a kid,” he started, barely a whisper, “my parents didn’t get along. My mum in particular, she was shirty.” He paused at her confused expression. “Ill-tempered,” he clarified. “Anyway, I figured out pretty early that joking around defused a lot of tension. And it was fun, being that bloke. The party guy, the one everyone wanted to hang out with.” He smiled, just lightly. It had been fun. His teenage years had been a blast, same with uni.
“Eventually, my brothers and I grew up, and dad and mum moved to the city. I didn’t need to be that guy anymore. But old habits die hard. And Panem is a small place, where everybody knows everybody. So once they thought of me as a joke, I couldn't shake it, no matter how much I changed.” He shrugged. “It’s not bad, really. I have a good life, lots of friends. I’m well-liked.”
“But not well-known,” she said softly. “Or not deeply known.”
It felt like a blow, how easily she had stripped away his veneer, seen the nervous little boy beneath, the lad who just wanted everyone to like him. No one else had done that. The other women he’d dated, he’d given them what they expected. Good times, lots of fun, no heavy stuff. But also no depth. They’d never looked past his fun side, but that had never bothered him.
“Maybe not,” he agreed softly.
“It’s their loss,” she said, leaning across the centre console and pressing her lips to his jaw. “You’re something special, Peeta Mellark.”
Then she led him inside and showed him just how special she thought he was.
Chapter 22: Chapter 21
The news came in over the radio as they were returning to the station. A burning gum tree had crashed into the cab of a fire truck belonging to a neighbouring brigade. Two dead, three more injured.
They called those eucalyptus trees widowmakers, and for good reason. Even unburnt, they had a nasty habit of dropping massive limbs without warning. And now, with the extreme temperatures and endless drought, they were even more dangerous.
Being a firie meant accepting risk, meant knowing there was a possibility that you might not come back from a call. But these blokes, they were young guys with young families, both of them. Volunteers who died keeping their communities safe.
And now two little kids would grow up without their daddies.
Peeta was utterly sick over it. He hadn’t known the men, but they were all mates in the service of the greater good.
None of Peeta’s brigade spoke as they put away their turnout gear at the station and prepared to go home. The good work they’d done beating back the fires that were too close to Panem now for comfort was lost in the anguish over the other firies who weren’t coming back.
Today, Peeta relished the walk home, even through the ever-present smog. Relished the early morning quiet, the space to lose himself in his pain.
He didn’t notice the car until it was right beside him, creeping along to pace him. Katniss’s little red hire car. Just getting off shift, he reckoned. She rolled down the window and smiled. “Hey,” she said just loudly enough to hear over the engine.
“Hey,” he called back, dully.
“Jump in,” she said, but Peeta shook his head.
“I’m not going to be good company right now.” He was too bruised, too raw.
“Peeta.” Her tone caught his attention, and he looked up from the sidewalk to meet her silver eyes. “You don’t have to pretend with me. Let me take you home.”
He climbed in the car.
They drove the last few blocks to his house in silence. He wasn’t surprised when she parked and followed him in. He was too numb to fight it.
Katniss guided him to the lounge, gently pushed him to sit on his own couch, then left him to his thoughts. He could hear her puttering in his kitchen but couldn’t muster the energy to join her. He felt hollow.
She returned with a warm mug of soup, the canned stuff Peeta kept in his cupboard to make sauces with. “I’m not much of a cook,” Katniss said, settling beside him with a mug of her own. “But you need some sustenance.”
They ate silently, and when they were done, Katniss asked, “do you want to talk about it?”
He did, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t share how his despondence at their deaths was only partly for the firies themselves. How a large part of him couldn’t help envisioning himself in their shoes. In their coffins. And how that part of him wondered who would grieve for him. No one really needed him, he thought. His family didn't need him. They would mourn him, as would a handful of friends. But they would get on. Life would go on, and he would have left nothing of himself in the world.
Peeta swallowed hard, and shook his head. “Okay,” Katniss said softly, and stood, reaching for his hand. “Let’s get you to bed.”
Normally he’d have had a sexy comeback, would have flirted shamelessly, teased her about wanting him in bed. And he did want her, he always wanted her. But not now, not like this. Not when he was so broken and so damned vulnerable. “Katniss,” Peeta started, but she shook her head.
“Just to sleep, Peeta. You’ve been up twenty-four hours.” More than that, actually, he’d done the morning prep at the bakery the day before. And he should really check in with his part timers before catching some rest.
But he let her lead him up the stairs.
She undressed him with gentle hands, stripping away the stale layers, baring his skin to the air conditioned room. Leaving him only in underwear. Then she pulled back the sheets and pushed him down. He was tired, so tired. But when she turned to leave, panic gripped him.
He caught her hand. “Stay,” he gritted out.
Katniss smiled down on him, her eyes soft and affectionate, like an angel. He watched her discard her own clothing, leaving her panties and bra. Then she climbed into bed beside him, and gathered him in her arms. His face settled against her lace covered breast, the thrumming of her heartbeat beneath his ear soothing. She ran a hand through his hair, stroking the curls back over and over. Hypnotic. He was falling apart at the seams, and she was still there, comforting him, letting him be vulnerable.
“Two firies died today,” Peeta murmured against her skin.
She froze, just for a moment. Then he felt the press of her lips against his head. “I'm sorry,” she said softly, her hand resuming its gentle caress. “I’m so sorry.” She didn’t say anything else, and he was grateful. He didn’t need platitudes, didn’t want her to cajole him out of his pain. She just held him and let him feel it all; the misery, the hollowness, and the gratitude.
It was midafternoon when Peeta opened his eyes again, far later than he should have slept, but he couldn’t find it in himself to be upset by that. He felt refreshed in a way he hadn’t in weeks.
Katniss was still there, still asleep, warm and soft in his arms. Her back was pressed snugly against his chest, his hard cock nestled against her arse. He buried his face in her hair, the faint scents of lavender and antiseptic buried under her natural scent, and sighed. It felt so damned good. It felt… right.
He was falling hard for this woman, he realized, this glorious, brilliant, funny woman who hadn’t pushed him away when he let his guard down.
It was really going to hurt when she left.
He shoved that thought away, shoved away all of the unfamiliar and complicated feelings and instead kissed her bare shoulder, poking out from the sheets. She stirred a little, and sighed. He took it as permission to continue, kissing the nape of her neck, then tracing his tongue down each undulating vertebral swell. By the time he reached the waist of her panties, she was awake and squirming.
He slid her little scrap of fabric down her lean thighs, his lips following, kissing and licking and biting every inch of skin. She moaned softly with each kiss, every caress. She was so damned responsive, it drove Peeta crazy.
She rolled over as he climbed back up her body, gazing at him with heavy-lidded eyes, a flush of arousal painting her cheeks. She was beautiful, more radiant than the sun. “C’mere,” she murmured, her voice husky with sleep and need.
He settled on top of her, still wearing his trunks. She felt so small this way, her delicate curves fitting him in every way. She arched up to kiss him, not the frenzied kisses they usually shared, but softer, more reverent. He rocked against her, his cloth-covered cock aching to be inside her, but something deep within him compelling him to go slowly. Katniss seemed to understand, without him saying a word. She pressed herself against him, wrapping those sexy bronzed calves around his thighs, whispering bits of nonsense and praise against his lips. And though he was the king of dirty talk, words failed him. He could only listen, only feel.
He needed her bra off, needed to worship those perky little breasts, and she obliged, arching so he could undo the clasp. Those gorgeous, firm swells spilled out, and he suckled each in turn, lavishing them with attention.
Every other time they’d been together, Katniss had rushed him along before he’d had his fill of her sweet breasts, but this time, she merely purred, encouraging him with breathy little moans and whimpered affirmations, her hands twisting in his hair, anchoring him.
“Let me touch you,” she whispered against his ear, and he released her rosy nipple with a wet pop. Yet even when her hand slid inside his shorts, there was no rush, she stroked him with maddening restraint. Peeta rested his forehead against hers as she pumped his cock, driving him closer and closer to the edge. Their mouths drifted together in a kiss that was barely more than shared breath. She blinked lazily and smiled at him, a smile of pleasure and contentment, and he felt that smile deep in his gut.
He slipped a hand between her thighs, felt the pool of her desire. The sounds she made as he slid first one, and then a second finger deep inside filled him with wonder. That she wanted this, wanted him, so fiercely, even still. “Yes,” she cooed, “oh yes.”
He couldn’t possibly last, her soft whimpers and her strong fingers wrapped around his cock, he was overwhelmed in the best possible way, enveloped in pleasure. He leaned in to kiss her again, deeply, enjoying the tangle of limbs and breaths and heartbeats. They were connected in almost every way.
“Peeta,” she whimpered, as if reading his thoughts. “Please. I need you inside me.”
His hands shook as he fumbled a condom into place, she placed a soothing kiss above his heart.
Her body welcomed his, slick warmth closing around him like a fist, as if she wanted to hold him inside and never let him go. Peeta moved slowly, so slowly, drawing out their pleasure. Katniss continued dropping little kisses all over his chest, his neck. The words bottled up inside him, only gasps and groans emerged as the pleasure built, radiating not just from his dick, but from his entire being.
This wasn’t the easy, uncomplicated fucking they’d enjoyed before. This was something different.
She clasped his face in her small hands, bringing his gaze to her hazy silver eyes, kiss-swollen lips, and the flush that spread down her throat to pool between her lush breasts, bouncing with each measured thrust.
And they continued that way, eyes locked, leisurely building their pleasure, together, not a separate sprint to the finish, but a marathon for two.
But he was only human, and the feeling of her body squeezing his own, the sound of her voice whispering his name like a prayer, it was pushing him to the edge. He knew he couldn’t hang on much longer. Katniss noticed. “Come with me, Peeta,” she whispered, just as he felt her quickening, the first pulses of her orgasm squeezing him, milking him.
The ecstasy washed over him, a flood of pleasure, waves that stretched out to every cell of his body. Transcendence. Words flew through his mind, words he’d never said to a woman before, never felt before, but he swallowed them back. They weren’t words she wanted to hear, he knew that. Yet the way she was looking at him, so open, so happy, it made him wonder. Made him hope.
And hope was a dangerous thing.
He nearly collapsed on top of her when it was over, even pulling the condom off took a herculean effort. He was utterly drained, but sated, and electrified. And it seemed like Katniss felt it too, she clung to him, face pressed into the crook of his neck, lips brushing languidly against his throat. They lay still and silent for a long time, letting the sweat cool on their bodies, letting their heart rates return to normal.
When she sighed, he knew what she was going to say.
“I have to go,” she whispered against him, and he nodded. He didn’t want her to go, wanted to stay wrapped in this serene bubble forever, if he could. But duty called. They were first responders, and the life they’d each chosen meant putting other people ahead of themselves.
She pulled on his t-shirt and her own trousers, Peeta threw on a pair of trackies and walked her down. She paused at the door, turning to wrap her arms around his waist. “I’ll come see you at the bakery, after my shift, okay?”
“I’d like that,” he told her, the first words he’d said since waking. She smiled, kissed his cheek, and walked out into the late afternoon sun.
Peeta figured out early that people would shy away from him when he shared the less pleasant parts of his life, when he tried to talk about the bad stuff at home or his fears. People only wanted happy go lucky Peeta, only wanted the fun bloke, the optimist. Any whiff of pain and they’d retreat, stop taking his calls until he was back to what they wanted him to be.
But he’d been vulnerable today, and Katniss stayed. She hadn’t tried to minimise his grief, hadn’t tried to cheer him up. And even though he wasn’t fun, he wasn’t smooth talking and flirty, she’d stayed, she’d still wanted to be with him.
She’d still wanted him.
He didn’t want it to matter. But it did.
Chapter 23: Chapter 22
The atmosphere in the bakery was always different when it was open than in those hushed pre-dawn visits. It was dynamic, bustling with people, bright with lights and warm with the scents of baking.
And in the centre of all of that activity, Peeta, standing behind the counter, serving a customer.
Katniss stood just inside the door, watching him. He was smiling, but she could see that it was the smile he wore like a mask, like a shield over his true emotions. It was an attractive smile, but it wasn’t really real.
He glanced up then, caught sight of her watching, and his expression changed. His eyes filled with warmth, his smile a little less bright but a lot more genuine. The young woman he was serving didn’t even seem to notice the change.
But Katniss did. She saw him.
Peeta passed off his customer to Delly, standing beside him, and came around the counter. “I didn’t mean to disturb you,” Katniss said as he leaned in to kiss her cheek.
“I always have time for you, love,” he said. “I’m glad you’re here.” She knew that was the truth. And she was glad to be there too. She’d only left him 14 hours earlier, but it felt like an eternity. “Have you had brekky?”
Katniss shook her head. Peeta wrapped his arm around her waist. “Come back to my office,” he said, and there was none of the cocky flirtiness he so often employed. There was just Peeta, smiling softly, looking at her like she was more radiant than the sun.
“You don’t have to-” she tried to argue, but he was already guiding her towards the back.
“I want to,” he said.
They passed through the big industrial kitchen but didn’t linger. Peeta was always careful about health regs, he never let anyone, including Katniss, just hang out in his bakery kitchen. A pair of young men in hair nets and heavy aprons waved as they walked by.
Peeta’s office was a small room at the rear of the building, and the air conditioning wasn’t fighting the ovens in there. It was blissfully cool. He didn’t bother turning on the overhead lights, there was enough illumination from the small window to bathe the room in a gentle glow.
Katniss expected him to invite her to sit while he fetched them both some food, it’s what he’d done in the past. Instead, he closed the door behind them, then wrapped his arms around her, burying his face in her hair. She melted into the embrace. “Are you okay?” she whispered.
“I am now,” he said. “Thank you, for yesterday. You don’t know what it meant to me, having you there.”
She was tempted to brush off his gratitude, she’d done nothing but heat up canned soup and listen. Instead, she squeezed him tighter.
When he pulled away, he was looking at her with such affection it made fear, hot and sour, crawl through her gut. There were expectations in that look. Promises. But he merely kissed the tip of her nose, and told her he’d be right back.
In the time it took him to gather tea and cheese buns, Katniss calmed down. He was simply feeling close to her because she’d taken care of him, it was natural, they learned about it in med school. It wasn’t anything more than that. It couldn’t be anything more than that. They’d agreed.
Though that agreement felt strange now. Wrong.
Katniss shook off that thought too, shoved it down deep into that place where the things she couldn’t deal with went. Peeta settled beside her on the low leather couch that dominated one side of his office, and Katniss was happily distracted by the tangy cheese pastries and spicy tea Peeta fed her. By the comfort of just being with him, no expectations.
“Are you working over Christmas?” Peeta asked, and Katniss startled. Christmas . She was working, of course. No one had less seniority at the hospital than the foreign doctor who’d only been there seven weeks. It wasn’t her schedule that surprised her. It was the proximity to the big day. Christmas had always been her sister’s favourite holiday, yet Katniss had barely given it a thought this year. It didn’t feel like the week before Christmas with nothing but sunshine and 40 degree days. And it definitely didn’t feel like Christmas without Prim.
“Yeah,” Katniss said softly. Even if she hadn’t been low man on the totem pole, she’d have volunteered to work the 25th. There was no reason not to. She had no family anyway. “You?”
He shook his head. “I close the bakery the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth. Going out to see my parents. Was hoping you might come along.”
Katniss shook her head, and Peeta shrugged good naturedly. It surprised her to realize that if the circumstances were different, she would have been tempted.
“They’re in the city, right?” He’d mentioned before that they had left Panem when they retired. Backwards, she’d thought. Didn’t people usually want to escape the city for small town life?
Peeta nodded. “Mum and Dad always make a big ‘do for the holiday,” he said, smiling faintly. “Dad covers the house in lights. Mum puts up the biggest tree. There’s heaps of food and pressies for the kids.”
“Sounds nice,” Katniss said. “Does your mom make a big turkey?” She couldn’t imagine turning the oven on in this heat.
Peeta snorted. “Naw, Mum doesn’t really cook. We used to have a roast, back when my grandparents were alive. These days, my dad usually does up prawns on the barbie, and my sister-in-law makes a bunch of salads, and then we spend the arvo in the pool.”
“What do you bring?” Katniss asked. “Something baked, obviously.” Not a bûche de Noël, like Uncle Haymitch had always bought from the French pâtisserie downtown when she and Prim were young. Katniss hasn’t thought about those cakes in years. It made her a little wistful.
“I’m in charge of the Pavlova,” Peeta smirked. “It’s not Chrissie without a Pavlova.”
“What else does Christmas involve here?” The hospital and the streets of Panem were decorated with lights and tinsel, like the Seam would be, but the colours were entirely different. The Aussies apparently didn’t care much for red and green. Peeta had decorated the bakery in wreaths festooned with white shells and blue starfish. Gorgeous, but nothing like home.
“Mangoes,” Peeta said without hesitation. “And pretending we don’t care about the Boxing Day Test. Cricket,” he explained at her confused expression. “We all pretend we hate it, but then spend the arvo checking the score on our phones.”
“So different from back home,” Katniss murmured, melancholy infusing every word.
“Homesick?” Peeta asked.
Katniss shrugged. “A little, but not the way you’re thinking. I don’t miss the place. I miss a different time.”
“And your sister.”
She swallowed hard. “Yeah,” she said. “Christmas was her favourite holiday.” Peeta stayed silent, looking at her with soft eyes that encouraged her to keep reminiscing. “She loved everything about it. The music, the decorations, the glitter. Every year it was a big production to find the biggest tree.” Katniss laughed softly. “Haymitch always indulged her, no matter how ridiculous. I can’t even tell you how many times they dragged home a tree at least a metre too tall for the living room.”
Peeta smiled languidly. “And lots of pressies from Father Christmas too, I reckon.”
Katniss snorted, but nodded. Haymitch had been generous, there were always plenty of gifts for the girls. But by the time she’d gone to live with him, she was long past believing in Santa Claus, or magic. Or much of anything at all. “You too?” she asked.
“Naw,” Peeta said, but he was still smiling. “Usually a big gift for the three of us lads to share, a new video game or surfboard or the like. Then new school kits and other practical things. My parents didn’t have a lot of money. There was a new beach towel for each of us, every year though.” He laughed. “Likely be one this year too.”
“We always got new pyjamas for Christmas,” Katniss said. She’d spent last Christmas with Prim in the hospice, even still, they’d exchanged pyjamas. She’d bought Prim a bright purple fleecy onesie. There was a picture of her wearing it on Katniss’s phone, sallow skinned but smiling brightly. Prim had given her sexy silk pyjamas, gorgeous and butter soft, patterned with autumn leaves. They were tucked in a drawer in her condo back in Canada. She’d had no need of them then.
It occurred to her that Peeta would have liked the colour.
“What was your favourite gift ever,” he asked, and she answered without even thinking.
“A bow and arrows. Child-sized. My dad had them made for me.” She’d been seven that year, her father’s little shadow. “He taught me to shoot in the woods behind our house.” Her father had been a bow hunter, an excellent one at that, bringing in rabbits or the occasional wild turkey for his family. But Katniss had only ever shot at the targets he’d pinned to a tree. Her mother hadn’t been happy about it, but all of those hours in the woods with her father had been the best of her life.
Lost in the memory, she didn’t realize her mistake until she glanced at Peeta, who was looking at her with undisguised interest. “Your dad?” he murmured.
Katniss froze. She’d gotten too comfortable, and now she’d cracked open the door to her past, to the things she never wanted to discuss. “He, uh. Died,” she croaked. “I was pretty young.” It wasn’t the whole story, but it was as much as she could stomach sharing.
Peeta squeezed her hand. She didn’t know if he could feel how hard she was shaking. “Thank you,” he said. Then before it could get weird, he continued, “Sure wish you were off over the holiday though. Surfing on Boxing day, there’s always at least one bloke wearing a Santa hat and budgie smugglers,” he winked. “You have no idea what you’re missing.”
Chapter 24: Chapter 23
Katniss had worked more Christmas days over her career than she’d had off. She didn’t mind, really. Better that the doctors with young families, like Cressida, were home for Christmas morning.
Back in the Seam, Christmas day in the ER brought heart attacks, influenza and falls on icy walkways mostly, or the odd child who’d swallowed a battery from their new Christmas toy. In Panem, it was a different story. It was apparent that Chrtistmas in New South Wales involved football, the beach, and a ton of alcohol. In addition to all of the breathing problems they’d been seeing for weeks, there was an endless parade of sports traumas. She finished stitching up her fourth surfing injury— yes really —and finally went to change out of her scrubs, hours later than she should have left.
She grabbed her phone from her locker and grinned. It was filled with texts from Peeta.
He’d gotten up early that morning, on one of his few days off, just to talk with her before she left for her shift, wishing her Merry Christmas with a sleep-rough voice that tightened everything south on her. And throughout the day, he’d sent messages, little updates, pictures, just notes that said he was thinking of her.
The latest, timed only an hour earlier, was a picture of him mugging for a selfie, hanging off the side of a pool with his two nieces clinging to his broad back. Her breath caught in her throat, and she sat down hard on the plain wooden bench. She traced the picture with a shaking finger. His smile was wide and genuine, eyes brilliant blue in the twilight. Her heart skipped a beat. She missed him, so much. It hadn’t even been 48 hours, yet she was counting down the minutes until he came home the following evening, when they’d agreed to celebrate Christmas together, just the two of them. She wasn’t sure she could wait that long.
Alarm bells rang faintly in her mind, that she was getting too attached, letting this turn into something it never could be. But she pressed the dial on her phone anyway. “Hey,” Peeta said, picking up on the first ring. “Finished up?”
His voice wrapped around her like a hug, instantly making everything better, but making her ache for him too. “Yeah,” she said softly, rising and tossing her scrubs in the bin as she headed out of the locker room. She heard splashing and kids shrieking in the background, he must’ve still been by his parents’ pool. “Am I disturbing you?”
“Only in the best way, love,” he said, and the warmth in his voice was almost her undoing.
“I’m heading to my car,” she said. “I just wanted to hear your voice.”
“Oh, love,” he said. “I have thought of nothing but you all day long. And about all of the things I’m going to do to you when I’m home tomorrow.” Katniss laughed. He was so good at that, at teasing her out of her melancholy. At making her feel good.
“I might have been thinking about you too,” she said.
“I’m glad you called,” he said seriously. “I missed you today.”
“I miss you, too,” she said quietly, before she could bite back the words. It was too much to confess to him, she was risking giving him the wrong idea. But she was lonely. It was Christmas, dammit, and she was going home to a silent house and a vegemite sandwich. Surely this one day she was allowed a little bit of melancholy, a little weakness?
“Are you heading to Finn and Annie’s?” They’d invited her to spend the evening with them, as had Madge. But they’d all be surrounded by family and loved ones, and she wasn’t up to the company, or for the reminders.
“No, I’m tired.” It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t the whole truth either. He hummed, and she knew he had questions, wanted to try to talk her into going. But he held back. And she appreciated it, how he understood her moods and respected her agency. It was a rare thing.
He was a rare man.
Boxing day was a repeat of Christmas, but with shorter tempers and hungover nursing staff. Still, Katniss was in a fine mood, and she had no desire to overthink it.
After work, she went directly to Peeta’s place. He was already there, waiting for her, golden and grinning and her heart felt full to bursting.
He insisted on making her dinner, and she didn’t argue. Katniss liked watching him, even when he was just throwing together pasta with crushed tomatoes and mussels. He had a grace and confidence in everything he did, long fingers and spare motion, precise, elegant. She sat on his counter, the granite cold under her thighs, and sipped a glass of excellent wine while he cooked and told her about Christmas with his family, the antics of his little nieces and nephews.
While it was light and easy conversation, the air between them practically crackled. Every touch, no matter how innocent, how inadvertent, burned like a brand.
They ate slowly, perched on tall chairs pulled up to his counter, chatting and reconnecting. Forcing themselves to stay in the moment. Forcing themselves not to rush. But as soon as the meal was done, he was on her, lifting her onto the narrow kitchen counter again and kissing her hard, hands slipping under her top to palm her hot skin.
Whatever restraint Katniss had snapped. She was squirming and panting even before he managed to get her shirt off. She wasn’t used to wanting this much. To needing this much. Sex had been enjoyable enough before Peeta, but nothing special. Now? He was ruining her for other men, forever.
And she couldn’t care less.
“Now,” she gasped against his lips, then pushed him back and slid off the counter. He watched with amusement glinting in his blue, blue eyes as she stripped off her clothing.
But when she tugged at his belt, he grabbed her hand. “Woah,” he growled, lust roughening his voice. “Slow down, love.”
“No,” Katniss said, pushing his hands away and yanking down his pants. His shorts came with them, he was already hard for her. She licked her lips. “Need you,” she rasped. She guided him to sit on a chair by the kitchen entry, and she wasn’t gentle about it, then she fished in his discarded shorts for his wallet. Thank God there was a condom there.
“Christ,” Peeta hissed as she rolled the rubber down his length, then she climbed into his lap to claim her prize. “What’s gotten into you?” He was amused, and still wearing a shirt she noted.
“Do you want me to stop?” His cock twitched in her hand, and she knew the answer. She notched him into place, then took him in slowly, revelling at the stretch, at the burn of his possession. At the overwhelming joy of being crammed full of him again.
“Katniss,” Peeta gasped against her temple, his big hand cupping her nape in that way that made her feel so warm and cherished. For a moment, they were still, breathing together, relishing the feeling of being joined again.
But she needed more.
“You’re so sexy,” she moaned as she moved over him. But her toes barely touched the floor, making it impossible to ride him hard and fast, like she wanted. She groaned in frustration. “Peeta,” she whined.
He understood. She knew he would.
He grabbed her ass and stood, then lowered her to the cold tile floor, never breaking their connection. Katniss was so far beyond reason that she didn’t even care about the setting. She hooked her heels around his back and bit his lip. He began to move again, deeply, but too slowly, cradling her head against the hard surface below. Careful. Too careful. “Don’t hold back on me, Hotshot,” she whispered.
Peeta grunted at her words but gave her what she wanted, what she needed, pounding into her again and again. Katniss was lost in the rhythm, lost to the pleasure Peeta was giving her. The kitchen tiles bit into her shoulders with every thrust and she was captivated by the tightness of his jaw, the pulse that pounded in his throat. He needed this as much as she did.
Her thighs trembled and her walls spasmed, her vision going black around the edges. “Now,” she gasped. “Peeta, please.” Then she was shattering. She was coming apart at the seams and Peeta was panting filth in her ear as he fucked her through the orgasm that overwhelmed her.
Only when she came back to herself, when she could breathe again, did he let go, filling the condom and whispering words of gratitude.
He rolled them so the hard floor was against his back and she was sprawled across his chest. “Well that was a nice welcome home,” Peeta teased, but the thunder of his heart under her ear told her he was as affected as she was. The connection they had, it was unlike anything she’d ever experienced.
Katniss tried to laugh, but it sounded like a gasp. In truth, she was utterly stunned by her reaction to him. She knew she was attracted to him, knew they always had amazing sex. But her desperate hunger, that was new.
And so was the uneven thunk thunk thunk in her chest.
“Couldn’t wait any longer,” she said. “Was too long. You can’t leave again.” She tried for a flippant tone, but only sounded vulnerable.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said softly, and the unspoken words hung between them, the expiry date to whatever this was.
Katniss was alarmed by how much the thought of leaving him hurt. At least it was still months away, her contract lasted until May. This, whatever this was, would have run its course by then.
Peeta’s broad chest inflated beneath her as he sighed. “Let’s get up off the floor, love,” he said, against her hair, his voice soft and filled with fondness. She shifted to climb off him, but he sat up abruptly. She yelped and clutched the shirt he was still inexplicably wearing, and he laughed. He was on his feet with her cradled in his arms before she could say anything.
Peeta wasn’t a huge man, but his strength was an incredible turn on.
As was his gentleness.
She shook her head as he headed towards the stairs. “You’re something else, Hotshot,” she said softly, kissing his scruffy cheek. “Something else.”
They showered together—his huge shower stall was a marvel—then slipped back downstairs like children on Christmas morning, him only in boxers, her in his t-shirt that fit almost like a dress. They sat in front of his Christmas tree, a plastic thing he’d covered with lights and let his little nieces and nephews decorate. It reminded her, just a bit, of the trees she’d had as a small child, straggly pines covered in construction paper loops and school photos edged with glitter. Haymitch always had professional quality decorations, even with the girls helping the trees couldn’t help but look like they were from a catalogue. But those early trees her father would sneak into the woods and chop down were the ones that lived in her memory.
She swallowed hard, unwilling to get sucked back into the sadness that had shadowed her whole Christmas season this year. She was here with a great guy who was a fun distraction from all of that.
She gave him the gift she’d had her friend Jo send over from Canada, a Roots hooded sweatshirt in orange. His bark of laughter was infectious. “I’ll wear it with pride,” he said, sliding it over his head despite the heat. She couldn’t help grinning. He looked fantastic in orange. He looked fantastic in everything.
And definitely in nothing at all.
With a gentle kiss to the tip of her nose, Peeta stood and grabbed a wrapped package resting against the wall. His gift to her was large and flat, she had a sneaking suspicion it was one of his landscapes.
It was not.
Instead, the painting was of Katniss herself. Not nude, like he’d teased. But of her face, emerging from a silver-grey mist that matched her eyes exactly.
It was extraordinary.
Every detail was rendered so perfectly, the smattering of freckles on her nose, the hints of blue in her irises. It was almost like looking in a mirror. Katniss gasped. “How did you do this?” she whispered. She hadn’t posed for him, and he hadn’t known her all that long. “Did you have a picture of me?” She had no idea where he’d have gotten one. Her social media was locked down tight and mostly empty anyway.
Peeta shook his head and reached out to trace her cheek with a long finger. “I see your beautiful face every time I close my eyes,” he said.
“You have a remarkable memory,” she whispered.
He smiled fondly. “I remember everything about you,” he said. “You’re the one who’s not paying attention.”
She was now.
This wasn’t a silly shirt or an impersonal trinket. Peeta had given her a piece of his soul. And she wasn’t sure what to do with it.
She set the painting aside carefully, so carefully, understanding what a precious thing it was, then straddled his lap and wrapped her arms around him, holding him tightly. Overwhelmed with gratitude. And so much more. “Thank you,” she whispered against his throat. “I’ll cherish it always.”
He held her silently, letting her work through the maelstrom of emotions. It had been so very long since anyone had surprised her, since anyone had affected her so deeply. When Prim died, Katniss figured the number of people who truly understood her had fallen to zero.
But now there was Peeta.
It was well past midnight. When Peeta suggested they go to bed, it didn’t even occur to her to protest, to say she should go to her own home. She simply took his hand and walked upstairs.
They had sex in the darkness, slowly, a sleepy coming together, more comfort than passion. Lingering kisses and quiet affirmations, touches that were worshipful but also so incredibly familiar. The kind of sex Katniss imagined people in long term, committed relationships would have.
She came not in an explosion of lust and carnal delight, but in a flood of sweetness and warmth, glowing from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. Utterly infused with pleasure. Grateful for the dark that disguised her stinging eyes. And after, Peeta’s sigh of contentment as he gathered her in his arms nearly broke her.
She was in far too deep.
Katniss laid awake long after Peeta had fallen asleep, worrying. What was she doing? She’d shared too much with Peeta, let him in too deeply, and now she was scared he was starting to expect things from her.
Things she couldn't give him.
She chided herself in the darkness. It’s not like he’d asked her to marry him or confessed his undying devotion. She was overthinking things. He called her love, it was true, but it didn’t mean anything. It was just the way Australians talked.
He knew as well as she did that this was temporary. It was the incredible sex, she decided. It was messing with her hormones, heightening her emotions, making her see things that weren’t real.
Still, Katniss thought, they could probably both use a break, a chance to catch their breaths. A reminder that they were just having fun. She should probably just head home now.
Behind her, Peeta groaned softly in his sleep and his arm tightened around her waist, pulling her more snugly against him, his skin hot against her back. It felt so impossibly good that she didn’t have the heart to slip away.
Tomorrow, she decided. She’d start fixing this tomorrow.
Chapter 25: Chapter 24
Katniss was quieter than usual, and a little withdrawn. Peeta thought she was tired, and certainly she was. But he sensed it was more than that. She was pulling away from him, subtly, not the way she’d run in the early days of their relationship. But there was a distance. A chill.
They hadn’t spent the night together since Boxing Day.
He tried not to pressure her, but he missed her, and the more he reached for her it felt like the less she responded.
She worked through New Years, and Peeta knew, rationally he knew, that it was because she had no seniority at the hospital. But sitting by himself at Finnick’s place, surrounded by other couples, watching the clock count down to midnight alone with a lukewarm beer hurt like hell.
So when she mentioned two days later having a day off, and was amenable to spending it together, Peeta rang Dels right away and she agreed to open the bakery for him.
He’d drop everything, to spend time with Katniss.
He decided to take her surfing, a lighthearted, fun adventure, the kind of outing she seemed to like, the kind of outing where she sometimes let down her guard.
Her beautiful smile when he suggested it made him rethink his worries. Tired, he decided. Overworked. Not bored of him. Not yet.
He took Katniss down the coast to Jervis Bay, where the ocean was gentle enough for a beginner. It was still early in the season, but the waves were decent and the sun was bright. Katniss dropped her big tote on the sand and shook out a blanket while he ran for the surf to show off a little.
As soon as he was up on the board, he turned to look at Katniss… then promptly wiped out. She was standing in the shallows, wearing a bright orange rashie that was so clingy it concealed nothing, overtop of tiny green bikini bottoms.
How could a man be expected to concentrate on the waves in the presence of perfection?
Her laughter soothed his bruised ego. Making Katniss laugh, he decided, was his life’s goal.
It hit him then, how much he was thinking about a future with Katniss. And it stung. Because she wasn’t thinking that way, clearly. He was arranging his life around her, and it felt like she was keeping him at arms’ length.
But she was looking at him with simmering heat and an affectionate smile and he decided he was overthinking things. She’d shared her sister with him, and her dad, however reluctantly. She would let him in, he was sure of it. She just needed the right opportunity. He’d give her that, show her he was interested in all of her and give her the support she needed to open up.
“Your turn on the board, love,” he said with a smile.
She snorted. “I don’t think so, Hotshot. I value my life.”
Peeta laughed, and it felt so good after a few tense days. “These are baby waves,” he said. “Even the ankle biters are out there.” He gestured towards the azure bay, where a bunch of grommets no bigger than Charlie were hanging ten. “Being dunked in the surf and losing part of your cossie is a true baptism.”
“Yeah well, when your baseline is Australia, you need a lot of excitement to actually get some excitement. My baseline is Canadian lakes, not ten metre waves and killer sharks.”
Peeta sidled up to Katniss, inhaled the sweet scent of her sunscreen. His hands slipped under the hem of her rashie to caress the hot, smooth skin of her waist. “Don’t worry, love,” he teased. “I’ll take real good care of you.”
He couldn’t see her eyes under her sunglasses, but her smile was enough. She lifted up onto her toes and kissed him, softly. A tease of things to come.
They frolicked like children in the summer sunshine, laughing. Katniss, it turned out, was an excellent swimmer, but it didn’t stop him from pretending to help. Any excuse to put his hands on her, to carry her through the surf, to kiss the salt from her lips.
She did manage to get up on the board, and he shouted triumphantly. The sight of her wet bikini bottoms clinging to her arse as she wobbled precariously was nearly Peeta’s undoing. Only the crowd of families on school holiday prevented him from tossing her on the blanket and having his way with her.
He did kiss her on that blanket, over and over as they enjoyed the lunch he’d packed for them. Then they laid in the shade of a beach umbrella Peeta had stuck in the sand, enjoying the cleaner air by the ocean.
Katniss was watching a little girl build a sandcastle with her parents a ways up the beach, dark plaits sticking out from under a red sun hat. Peeta couldn’t see Katniss’s eyes behind her sunglasses, but there was something sad and mournful about her expression. Peeta suspected the little girl resembled Katniss’s late sister. He’d seen her looking at his nieces the same way. “Did you go to the beach with your sister when you were little like that, back home?” he asked, nodding towards the child. He knew she lived far from the ocean in Canada, but she had mentioned a lake, and she was definitely comfortable in the water. And the way she was staring at that child, like she’d seen a ghost, it had to be more than just a superficial physical resemblance.
Katniss glanced at him, startled, and maybe a little shaken. As if he’d read her mind. But she pulled herself together quickly. “Uh,” she said. “No. Not really.”
He cocked an eyebrow. She was a terrible liar. Katniss grimaced slightly, but shrugged. “I mean, maybe a couple of times. I don’t really remember.”
Another lie, Peeta noted. He was confused. But he let her keep her secrets, this time.
Chapter 26: Chapter 25
Peeta Mellark was so damned hard to keep away from, so utterly irresistible. Katniss tried to limit the time she spent with him, to cool things off between them, give them both some space. But it was nearly impossible. Every time she ignored one of his calls she felt like shit. Every time she skipped out on him after a quick and sweaty roll in the proverbial hay, her heart ached. It felt like every attempt to lighten things between them instead made her fall harder. Need more.
Spending the day with him at the beach had been a huge mistake. Oh, it’d been fun, almost every minute of every day with Peeta was fun. Watching him surf, laughing and glistening under the brilliant Australian sun, was a rare and wonderful treat. But the day had stirred up a tidal wave of emotions she couldn’t quite tamp down.
There had been a little family building sandcastles, not unlike the ones she’d made so many times with her own mother as a child at the lake in the forest, on the narrow patch of boreal mud and clay that passed for a beach. It had been their laughter ringing down the seashore that caught Katniss’s attention. Not the boisterous shouts of the kids surfing and playing volleyball, but a gentler kind of amusement, one that spoke of deep contentment.
Her heart had squeezed so damned painfully while she watched the little girl, a clone of herself some 28 years earlier. She could almost imagine it was her own mother smiling so fondly as she pushed around the wet sand with a blue plastic shovel. Her own handsome father bringing buckets of water to make a moat. Echoes of a life filled with so many simple joys, with so much love.
Peeta, catching her fixation on the family, had asked her if the little girl reminded her of her sister, and Katniss told him honestly no. Prim had been like Peeta, all sunshine and light, golden and beautiful. That little girl on the beach with her dark pigtails and floppy hat had, instead, reminded Katniss of older losses, brought up emotions long buried but never forgotten.
The melancholy followed her for days. She dreamed repeatedly of that family, and in the gauzy violet-tinted world, that perfect little family morphed. Her dream-self could almost envision a beach day like that with a child of her own. Sitting in the bright Australian sunshine, with Peeta’s warm voice in her ear and a raven haired toddler between them. Each time, she’d awake trembling and heartsick, torn between wanting to run as far away as she could, and yearning for the comfort Peeta gave so unreservedly.
She couldn’t let herself dream of things like that. Those dreams were for other people. People who weren’t stunted and shattered.
But pulling away from Peeta, shielding him from the poison that bubbled up inside her, was proving harder than she ever imagined. He was so heartbreakingly persistent, never getting angry with her when she brushed him off, always available when, in her weak moments, she sought him out.
Moments like now.
Katniss was watching him from her bedroom window. That he now knew she could see him did nothing to diminish her desire to observe him. The afternoon light hit his house just right, illuminating him through the windows where he was working out. Turned his bare torso to gold as he did rep after rep with the weights he kept in his sunroom.
He looked up and must have caught sight of her, leering like a pervert, because he lost his rhythm, stuttering to a stop, the dumbbells dangling from his hands. As she watched, he set them on the bench, then moved towards the windows, shielding his eyes from the sun as his head tipped up in her direction.
She ached to be with him, to hear his voice, feel his hands. Breathe through him.
Even though she knew—she knew , dammit—that it was a bad idea, she beckoned.
There was just the slightest of pauses before he moved away from the windows. Her heart slammed in her chest as he walked through his sunroom and slid open the back door.
His languid strides ate up the brittle grass between his home and the fence that separated their yards, and when he vaulted the fence, she burst into laughter. She was down the stairs and standing at her own glass door by the time he covered the distance between them.
She threw open the door and practically leapt into his arms. Peeta laughed against her hair. “I’m all sweaty, love.”
“Don’t care,” she murmured against his bare shoulder, and it was true. She would take him any way she could.
Peeta carried her into her home and lowered her to the couch, ranging his hot body over hers, eyes sparking with interest. In truth, Katniss would have been happy to simply hug him all evening, to just be with him in comfortable silence. But that wouldn’t keep things between them superficial.
And superficial was what they needed. There was no room for complicated emotions, only lust. There was no future for them, only right now, and the ways they could pleasure each other.
Yet as Peeta moved inside her, she kept her eyes squeezed shut and her bottom lip clenched tightly between her teeth, unwilling to allow the maelstrom of emotions to show on her face.
Unwilling to let him burrow any deeper into her heart.
Chapter 27: Chapter 26
She was an enigma and Peeta was getting more and more frustrated trying to solve her.
He carved out every minute with her that he could, however few they were. But more and more, it felt unreciprocated. They were busy people, she was a damned doctor and he essentially had two full time jobs with how bad the bushfires were. But every time she beckoned he went running, subsisting on the dregs of her attention. A quickie now and again as one came home from a night shift and the other headed out to a day shift. A game of frisbee in the yard with his nephews. A handful of texts. A wave from her bedroom window as he worked out his irritation on the heavy bag. But no more meals together, no more days together, no more dates. Nothing deep or substantial at all. And the times he picked up his phone, hoping to just talk, she was always too busy. It felt like she brushed away his every attempt at real conversation.
It felt like she was brushing him off. And for the first time, he wasn’t ready to let go.
He was at the end of his rope when she rang his mobile. It was the first time she’d called him in over a week, he noted. “Hi,” she said softly, and despite his pique, his heart squeezed at the sound of her voice.
“Hey yourself,” he replied.
He’d only gotten home from the bakery ten minutes earlier, hours later than typical. He’d stayed late, taking advantage of a rare quiet afternoon to inventory, making up some of the time he’d lost to firefighting or he’d shirked to spend with her. He had a feeling she knew that he’d just gotten in. Had maybe even been watching for him. “Never too busy for you, love,” he said. It was a line, truly, but he meant it. He’d drop everything just to spend a little time together.
“Did you want to come for dinner? I picked up one of those meal kits from the grocery.” Peeta snickered. Katniss really didn’t cook, but he’d introduced her to the meal service that the Aldi in the next town over offered. He was glad to hear she was using them. That even if she wouldn’t let him feed her, she was still getting a decent meal.
“I’d love to,” he answered honestly.
“Then come on over, Hotshot,” she drawled. There was an intonation to her words that he couldn’t ignore. There would be more than food on offer.
He chuckled, hung up his mobile, and headed out back, hopping the fence between his place and hers, then tapping on the glass door of her sunroom.
She was an absolute vision, ebony hair damp and hanging loose around her pretty face. She was dressed in lounge pants and another of those singlets that made his cock stand at attention. Her smile pushed away the last of his irritation, and her gentle kiss was balm to his soul.
He ended up cooking the meal kit for them while she watched, smiling and stealing kisses. And it was good, so good. This was what he’d been missing, the connection, the comfortable way they just fit together.
They ate in her lounge, catching up, then made out like teenagers.
And after, they both sprawled bonelessly on Katniss’s couch, her head in his lap, his hands gently carding through her loose hair. He liked this, the cuddling, the spending time together. He might even like it better than the sex.
He wanted it long-term, he realised. “This is nice,” he said softly.
She hummed in agreement.
“I wish I could freeze this moment, right here, right now, and live in it forever,” he murmured and she froze.
He knew he’d said too much.
“I should, you know...” she gestured vaguely, edging away from him, grabbing her singlet from where it had landed on the coffee table. Buying herself time to invent some errand that would allow her to bail. He knew that, knew her. How she fled every time there was even a spark of true intimacy between them. How uncomfortable she got anytime he hinted at having deeper feelings.
He was sick of it.
“Why won’t you let me in?” He was irritated, too annoyed to continue letting her hide. He’d opened up to her in ways he hadn’t ever with anyone else, let her see the man behind the flirt. He’d chased after her for months, but it was completely one-sided. “What are you afraid of?”
She scowled, of course she did. “I’m not afraid of anything,” she snapped.
“Then talk to me. In all this time, you’ve barely shared anything real with me.” His voice was low, but carried an edge. “I want to know you, Katniss.”
“You know me,” she protested, but it was hollow.
“I know the superficial things,” Peeta said. “I want the rest.” He held his breath.
He shouldn’t have bothered.
“Peeta,” she said, and his heart sank. So stupid, he thought. He was so stupid. “You know I’m leaving.”
“You’re here now.” He was grasping at strings.
“This can’t be anything deeper,” she said.
“If things were different,” he started but she cut him off.
“But they’re not,” she said.
“I know!” His frustration was a living thing, he was angry with himself for putting himself out there. For wanting more.
For not being the kind of guy who was worth the risk.
“Forget it,” he said, grabbing his shirt and heading for the door.
“You don’t have to go,” Katniss said softly. He thought she sounded regretful, though maybe that was wishful thinking. And it didn’t matter. He did have to go. He couldn't be what she wanted, not anymore. He couldn’t keep fucking her, knowing there was a looming expiry date.
For once, he wanted more. And he wanted it with Katniss.
But she didn’t need him. No one did.
The door slammed behind him with finality.
Chapter 28: Chapter 27
Katniss threw herself into her work, staying late, picking up extra shifts. Anything to distract her from the gaping hole where her heart had been.
The hole Peeta left when he walked out of her life.
It was better this way, she knew. She couldn’t afford the kind of love that led to marriage or a family. She wasn’t built that way, and despite what the people of Panem seemed to think, Peeta definitely was. It was better that he hated her now, and used his time to find the right woman to give him that family and that future.
But she missed him. So much . And not just the sex, though she felt slick and hot and empty every time she woke up alone.
More than that, she missed his smile and his flirty winks and the way he made her feel grounded, safe. No one's arms had made her feel that way in a very long time. Not since her father died. Not since the Katniss who was capable of love died with him.
“You miss him,” Annie said. They were sipping lemon barley water—which Finnick’s mom swore was fantastic for Annie’s pregnancy-induced indigestion—on Annie’s deck, boxes of takeout pad thai between them. Nightfall had barely taken the edge off the sticky summer heat and the scent of bushfire smoke hung heavy in the air. A constant reminder of the danger that surrounded them. A constant reminder, too, of Peeta.
Katniss didn’t know if some of their coworkers had told Annie about her foul mood or if she’d been talking to Peeta, or if maybe she’d just intuited that Katniss was alone and miserable. But Annie had insisted on a girls’ night in, just the two of them. Finnick was in the city again, and Peeta, well, she hadn’t seen or heard a peep from him in days.
And damn did that hurt.
Katniss shrugged. There was no point pretending she didn’t know who Annie meant. She’d tried to keep what she and Peeta had been doing private, but Annie was her closest friend. “It was just a fling.”
“It wasn’t, Kat,” Annie said. “Not for you. You really care about him.”
She did. And that’s why it hurt so much that he walked away. That she let him walk away.
“It’s for the best.” He was always going to leave, once he figured out how broken she was. At least this way she could keep her dignity. “I couldn’t love him the way he deserves.”
“You sell yourself short, Kat,” Annie said. “You’ve got an incredibly big heart. Anyone who ever saw you with Prim knows that.
“With your patients too. You care.”
“Caring isn’t the same as loving.” Katniss sighed. “I don’t have that gene,” she said. “I’m not made for relationships.”
“That’s bullshit and you know it.” The curse word, so unexpected from mild mannered Annie, caught Katniss’s attention. “You’re afraid, and I get it.”
“You don’t.” Katniss looked away. Prim had been the only one who understood, who knew how truly screwed up she was.
“I know about your dad, and about your mom snapping.” It wasn’t a secret, not really. Though Katniss didn’t talk a lot about Dale Everdeen, she’d shared a few bits of information with Annie when they were living together. And Annie had known the Everdeen girls had gone to live with Haymitch because their mother hadn’t been well. She’d probably guessed why.
“I know about the foster care too,” Annie whispered.
Katniss’s head snapped up, her expression horrified. “How?” she whispered. She’d never told a soul. It was her private shame.
In the days and weeks after her father’s death, Katniss’s mother had ceased to function, had climbed into bed and simply not gotten up again. At eleven years old, with Prim just seven, Katniss had been forced to take over as head of the family. There had been no other choice, their mother couldn’t take care of them.
She’d held on as long as she could, tried to stay strong for her sister. But one day at school, with no lunch and in filthy clothes, a teacher had asked Katniss if everything was all right at home.
Her mother had always said that the teachers were there to help her. So, tired and disheartened and so very hungry, Katniss had confessed. She’d hoped old Miss Trinket would give her a sandwich, maybe.
Instead, she called the police. And they’d called Child Protective Services. Katniss was sent to one foster home, Prim to another.
It took six long months to find a relative—Uncle Haymitch, their mother’s estranged half-brother—willing to take the two girls, to go through the court system to have him declared legal guardian and finally to send them to his house in the city.
It took six months to destroy Katniss’s childhood entirely.
The foster home itself had been fine, her foster parents somewhat distant but she was provided with the essentials. But her ability to trust anyone was shattered. And with the exception of Prim, she was certain her ability to love anyone had been too.
Haymitch was a cardiologist, unmarried and uninterested in having children. He was far too busy to pay them much attention. But he did give them a roof over their heads, food in their bellies, clean clothing, private school tuition. He’d helped them both get into med school and paid their way. It was a good life, and Katniss was grateful. But the happy little girl she had once been, the one who liked to go fishing with her father and sing old folk songs, that child was gone forever.
Adult Katniss didn’t blame the teacher, she herself was now a mandatory reporter after all, she knew Miss Trinket hadn’t had a choice. But that distrust, that inability to allow herself to be vulnerable in front of anyone, that had never left.
“Prim told me, that summer she lived with us, before she went off to school.” The summer after Haymitch died, Katniss remembered. Between Prim’s undergrad and first year of med school. Katniss scowled. “No,” Annie said, “don’t be mad. She just wanted to protect you.”
“How does that protect either of us?” Katniss mumbled, shame stealing over her, making her eyes sting. She hadn’t even thought Prim remembered, she’d been so young at the time and they had never, ever spoken of those months, after. Now all of the secrets Katniss had held onto so tightly, all of the poison she’d fought so hard to hide from... Annie knew about it all.
“It doesn’t define you, Kat.”
But it did.
Eventually, their mother had returned to them, released from a psychiatric in-patient program to live in Haymitch’s house with him and her daughters. Prim had been thrilled to have her back, but Katniss kept watching, waiting for her to disappear. Never trusting her. Some small, gnarled place inside hated her mother for her weakness, for her neglect, for the months she had put them through. Prim forgave her, but Katniss had taken a step back from her mother, from everyone but Prim, really, put up a wall to protect herself from needing anyone, and nothing was ever the same again.
Their mother’s ultimate abandonment some months later ensured it never could be.
“I’ve seen what happens when you get in too deep, when you let yourself rely on someone,” Katniss whispered.
“You’re not your mother,” Annie said softly, the killing blow.
“Loving my dad destroyed her.”
“No, honey, it didn’t,” Annie said, wrapping her arms around Katniss. “She had a disease.”
“I know that,” Katniss said. She’d taken a psychiatry unit in medical school, had learned all about bipolar disorder. If she was being honest with herself, she’d known long before that. But the associations her child-self had made, between her father's death and her mother's break with reality were stuck fast on her heart. Not only had she lost a father that day, but a mother as well. “I know.”
“Then you know that it would be okay to let yourself love Peeta. And to let him love you back.”
Katniss hadn’t cried since she was eleven years old. She hadn’t cried when the social worker put her in a car and dropped her all alone with strangers. She hadn’t cried when her mother killed herself or when Haymitch’s heart had given out. She hadn’t cried when the doctor told her and Prim it was cancer. She hadn’t even cried when Prim closed her eyes for the last time.
She sure as hell wasn’t going to cry over Peeta Mellark.
Katniss swallowed back the pain, shoved it down deep. She’d loved her mother once, long ago. But she’d learned how to wall that up, push it away to where it couldn't hurt her anymore. She woud learn to do the same with Peeta. Eventually.
“It’s too late, Annie,” she said. “He’s already gone.”
They all left, in the end.
Chapter 29: Chapter 28
Finnick was waiting in the car park when Peeta finished at the bakery. Peeta couldn’t even be surprised, he’d been ducking Finn’s calls the better part of a week.
He’d been ducking everyone, really. He'd even sent Dels home early, he just couldn’t be pleasant with her. He’d barely managed to serve his customers.
Finn dragged him to the pub in the old hotel, and Peeta didn’t fight it.
It was too hot and the air quality too poor to sit outside, so they grabbed a table in the back corner. It was cool and dim, the perfect place to brood. Finn ordered a pair of Tooheys, and then waited for Peeta to talk. He’d be waiting forever, Peeta thought. There was nothing to say.
Finnick apparently didn’t have the patience for that.
“Never seen you so devo, mate,” he said after only a couple of minutes of silence. Peeta would be smug about Finn’s impatience, except he really didn’t want to talk about this, not even with Finn. “You broke up?”
“There was nothing to break up. We were having fun. Now we’re not.” It hurt his gut to say the words, but they were true. She didn’t want him. Not long term anyway.
“That’s not what it looked like,” Finnick said, frowning.
“Yeah well, it’s how it was for her,” Peeta said bitterly.
“Are you sure, mate? She seemed pretty into you.”
“She’s not.” It wasn’t quite true, and Peeta knew it. Katniss was definitely attracted to him, and the sex had been explosive, out of this world. The kind of chemistry you couldn’t fake. But that’s all there was, just lust. In the end, she hadn’t been willing to let Peeta in, to treat him as more than a fuck toy. Their relationship, it turned out, had been superficial, just like all of the others.
“Not as into you as you are into her,” Finnick surmised, a foul waft of pity in his tone. Peeta scowled. “Did you at least talk to her about it?”
“She knew how I felt,” Peeta scoffed, and Finnick raised an eyebrow.
“Does she?” he asked, and Peeta noted his use of present tense, but didn’t comment on it. “Did you tell her then, how you feel? That you’re falling for her?”
Peeta rolled his eyes and took another pull from his pint.
“Ah,” Finnick said. “So you joked around with her. Flirted her up, told her she’s special .” Finnick threw up a pair of air quotes and winked obnoxiously. “Ol’ Peet who’s never sincere about anything, who’s dated half of Panem but never wanted more than a roll in the hay. How many people d’ya suppose warned her that you’ve never been serious about a girl? And she was just supposed to guess that you meant it this time?”
“Fuck off,” Peeta grumbled. He knew plenty of people had told Katniss he wasn’t worth her time. But he’d thought she’d seen past all of that. Seen him.
“I know,” Finnick said softly. “I know she’s different. You haven’t so much looked at another girl in months. But how’s she supposed to know, if you don’t stop acting all wounded and tell her?”
“She’s leaving, Finn,” Peeta spat out the words like shards of broken glass. “I’m just a distraction, for while she’s here. Just a bit of fun.”
“Have you even asked her to stay?” Finn asked, far too rationally.
“Why would she? Her life is over there.”
“What life, Peet? What does she have back home? Haven’t you ever wondered why she could just pick up and fly to the other side of her planet? She’s got no one there.” Peeta picked at a crusted bit of gunk on the bar table and refused to look at Finnick. He knew her sister was gone, had pieced together that she was probably an orphan from the bare scraps of her life she’d shared with him. But what did it matter? She wasn’t interested in making a life with him, she’d made that abundantly clear. “You’re just chickenshit,” Finnick said, and Peeta bristled.
“I’ve heard just about enough out of you mate, you’d best pull your head in,” Peeta growled.
“You’re too afraid to put yourself out there and risk her saying no. You’ll end it instead.”
“She’d have ended it anyway,” Peeta yelled.
Finnick shook his head, stood and threw a couple of blue swimmers on the table. “Never took you for a coward, Peet. If you love her, fight for her.” Then he left, and Peeta ordered another beer.
Chapter 30: Chapter 29
It was after midnight when Katniss’s phone rang. She’d been ignoring the phone all week, ignoring texts and calls from the few people she knew in Panem. She wanted to ignore this call too, to ignore everything and everyone, to simply wallow in her misery, but seeing Annie’s name on the display, she picked up. She was ready to brush her friend off, but Annie’s voice was panicked. Finnick was gone on yet another call with the firies, way up north where the cell service was spotty. And the baby was coming, now. Three weeks early.
Katniss didn’t think twice, she jumped in her car and picked up her friend, driving in a panic to the hospital where they both worked. Annie had called ahead and they were ushered up to labour and delivery right away. There was no need for bluster, no need to throw her credentials around, yet Katniss did anyway, demanding tests and monitors, quizzing Annie about her status, barking at the nurses. Trying to exercise some measure of control, to abate her utter helplessness.
Only when they were in a private room in labour and delivery did Annie grasp Katniss’s hand. “Please,” she said. “You’re making this harder.” Annie looked so small, the controlled physician gone, a scared woman with no husband and no family beside her.
All Annie had, at least until Finnick arrived, was Katniss.
Her heart clenched in understanding. She had done an obstetrics rotation in med school, but that was a long time ago, and the urban hospital she worked at back home had an obstetrical department, so she seldom saw women in labour at all. Let alone helped them. But it didn’t matter. Annie didn’t need Katniss the doctor. Annie needed Katniss the friend. She needed the relationship. She needed care and support.
Katniss could do this.
She ignored the monitors, let the nurses take care of the medical aspects of Annie’s care. Instead, Katniss held her friend’s hand, and told her repeatedly how amazing she was, how lucky this little baby was going to be, to have a mother like Annie.
The labour was fast by first baby standards, but also endless, timeless and otherworldly. Katniss was there, every minute. Not the doctor, not the detached professional. Katniss, the woman. The one behind the wall, the one who loved fiercely.
She could almost feel her sister by her side, could almost hear Prim encouraging her. Reminding her that this Katniss who built relationships, who cared , this Katniss had been inside all of the time.
Dawn was breaking when baby Odair came into the world, red-faced and bloody, screaming in righteous indignation.
Annie and Katniss both cried.
“Thank you,” Annie rasped, holding her infant to her chest with one arm while still clutching Katniss’s hand. Katniss knew the nurses and obstetrician were still working beyond the drape, but it was as if they weren’t there, as if she, Annie and the baby were completely alone in a bubble of utter magic. “I couldn’t have done this without you,” Annie said, but Katniss shook her head vehemently.
“Yes you could have,” she said, tears still streaming down her face, the first time in her adult life she’d cried. Something profound had shifted inside Katniss. Two decades of stoicism undone by one tiny, squawking being, by the awe and beauty of his birth. “But I’m so glad I could be here with you. To experience this with you.” As a physician, Katniss dealt with life and death every day, knew the rush of saving a patient, the forced numbness that protected her psyche when she lost one. But she’d never experienced anything like this before. Never felt everything so keenly. It was exhilarating.
It was terrifying.
Katniss was still with Annie, in the postnatal ward, when Finnick Odair burst through the door to the suite. He was in his civilian clothes, but streaks of soot on his neck spoke to how hastily he’d washed.
She felt like an interloper, watching their reunion, seeing both Odairs cry as they embraced, as they fawned over their newborn child. Katniss snuck away quietly, though she was sure they wouldn’t notice her exit anyway, so engrossed were they in their joy.
The hallways in labour and delivery were more crowded now than they had been the night before, bustling with nurses and orderlies, shrill wails of infants drifting through the organised chaos. And slumped against the wall just outside Annie’s room, a big, brawny blonde firefighter, rubbing his eyes with dirty hands.
God how she missed him.
“Hey,” Katniss said softly. Peeta looked up at her.
“They okay?” he asked with no preamble. Katniss nodded. She saw his relief, knew he’d probably made himself sick worrying about Annie being alone. “Good,” he nodded.
“Yeah,” she said softly. She longed to tell him about the birth, about the immensity of the experience. She wanted to share it with him, the story, and so much more.
She wanted to let him in.
She opened her mouth, to apologise, to tell him he was right, that she was afraid but that she wanted to try. But he was pushing himself away from the wall, and turning to leave.
“I’ll see you around, Doc,” he said, and Katniss felt the impersonality of it like a spear to the chest. The pain must have shown on her face, because Peeta’s cool expression faltered, something like regret flashing in his eyes. But his jaw clenched, and he nodded, then walked away.
And she watched him walk away.
It was what she had told him she wanted; no strings, no complications, no risk. But she didn’t really believe it anymore. She wanted Peeta, and more than that, she wanted the life her friends were enjoying. The partnership. The relationship. The love.
And she wanted it with him.
But she’d ruined it. Shut it down before it’d even had a chance to bloom. Shut down on him, walled off her heart to keep him from breaking it.
It had broken anyway.
Katniss went home, feeling more alone than she ever had, the glow of what she’d experienced at the hospital fading fast.
She watched Peeta’s house from her bedroom window, aching to go to him. She watched until exhaustion forced her to bed, but she saw no sign of life there.
Chapter 31: Chapter 30
Only days after Finnick’s little guy was born their brigade was sent south, to assist in a massive bushfire burning out of control near Nowra. Peeta had barely slept the previous couple of days, haunted by silver-grey eyes filled with pain, pain he knew he was responsible for inflicting. But he answered the call, despite his exhaustion, despite his dented heart and the guilt of seeing her standing in her bedroom window for hours, watching for him. Because Finnick was on parenting leave, and the rest of the guys needed Peeta. Depended on him. And maybe he’d let Katniss down, by asking too much, by not being able to be what she needed. But he could at least be there for his crew.
Though the drive down to the south coast wasn’t long, it gave Peeta far too much time to think.
He felt awful that Finnick had missed his babe’s birth. As soon as they got word, Peeta had driven him back to Panem in the command vehicle, lights flashing and sirens screaming. But they’d been too late, the nearly five hour drive from Wollemi National Park just too far. The man himself was pragmatic. He’d been a firie for a decade and had married a doctor, they were used to the unpredictable schedule and the calls that wrecked weekend plans. And they were grateful for the community that stepped in when one of them needed help.
Grateful for Peeta. So grateful, they’d asked him to be godfather.
Peeta had longed to share that news with Katniss, but he couldn’t. He’d been twice to see baby Nick, carefully timing his visits around Katniss’s work schedule, so he wouldn’t bump into her. But her presence was all around him anyway. In the stories that Annie told him about how perfect Katniss had been in the birthing room, in the giant bouquet of flowers on their coffee table that he knew without a doubt she’d sent. In the pictures on Annie’s phone of his silver-eyed angel holding the tiny bundle and beaming like a lighthouse.
He hadn’t worked out all week, he couldn’t, knowing she was watching for him. But he’d been unable to to keep himself from looking for her anyway, from peeking through the upstairs blinds. And he’d seen her each evening, keeping vigil by her bedroom window, just a lonely silhouette. A candle in the window. An invitation. But one he couldn’t bring himself to take.
He knew he’d been wrong, pushing Katniss away like he had. But Finnick was right, he was bloody petrified to put himself on the line, to hear once and for all from the only lips he’d ever loved that he wasn’t worth staying for.
Love. It killed him to admit to himself that he’d fallen in love with Katniss.
The fire was fierce, and seemed insurmountable. Sweat ran down Peeta’s back in rivulets and his skin felt braised, even through the equipment. His muscles ached, and his spirits flagged and there was no end in sight. They were five rural brigades from all across the southern part of NSW, experienced and well-trained. But they were losing this battle. Orders were near constant through Peeta’s two-way, status updates each more bleak than the one before.
He wasn’t even surprised when his group captain’s voice came over the comms. “Turn around,” Jasper barked. “We’re being overrun.”
They piled into the pumper, Peeta, Jasper and four other members of their crew. There were four pumpers all together, bouncing single file along the rutted rural road, driving through hell. Peeta’s truck brought up the rear.
The flames encroached, closer and closer, embers cascading over the truck. There was no sprinkler safety system in the machine, they were beyond vulnerable. Radiant heat turned the cabin into an oven, almost unbearable. “Put your breathing gear back on,” Jasper told them. They bumped along, tense and without speaking, only the radio and the roar of the flames.
One of the trucks ahead stopped suddenly in the middle of the road, and Peeta watched in horror as men fled from it, running alongside the flames and climbing into other pumpers. “Fuck,” Kyle, another brigade member mumbled from his spot beside Jasper as he eased by the abandoned rig, knuckles white on the wheel..
Closer and closer the flames came. “Fire’s on the road already,” Jasper said into the radio. They couldn’t even see the pumper ahead of them anymore. It was as if they were completely alone.
Peeta stared hopelessly out the window. It was apocalyptic. The bush was nothing but fire, an otherworldly pink-orange glow, and intensely hot. He grabbed a fire suppression blanket, hoping to shield them. “Jasper,” he yelled to the man seated in front of them. “Jasper, put the blanket up.” Between them, they managed to drape the blanket over the windows, but it offered little in the way of protection.
This could be it, Peeta thought. This could be the end.
He wasn’t afraid, not really. You couldn’t be a firie and not be prepared for death. But he was overwhelmed with regret. He was going to die here without ever telling Katniss that he loved her. Their fight and his fears seemed so small, so petty now. He shouldn’t have run off. He shouldn’t have been so petulant, so wounded.
He should have fought for her.
If they managed to get out of this mess, he would fight for her. He’d follow her to Canada, if he had to, he’d court her, he’d prove himself. He’d tell her over and over that he loved her, until she caught up.
If they lived.
“Crikey,” Kyle said. The flames were licking the side of the pumper, Peeta could smell the acrid stench of melting rubber thick in the cabin, even through his breathing apparatus. They weren’t going to make it, he thought grimly.
It happened in an instant, the flames surrounded them completely. “Flashover, flashover!” Jasper yelled into the radio. Flashover—when the air gets so hot that everything explodes into flame. They were in the bowels of hell, surrounded by fire on every side, in the centre of the inferno.
One of the men behind Peeta started reciting the rosary.
“Keep going,” Jasper told Kyle, but there was a resignation in his voice, hopelessness tempered only by years of training and innate leadership skills. “Keep going…”
Chapter 32: Chapter 31
Katniss paced the hallway in triage, just out of the view of the waiting patients. Her shift was over, but she couldn’t leave. Not until she knew.
When the call had come in about the flashover, about the fire trucks full of volunteer firefighters trapped inside the massive bush fire raging only 20 km away, she knew, deep in her gut. She knew Peeta was one of them.
She was firmly but kindly removed from duty, moved aside as the others set in motion protocols for dealing with a large number of injured.
Despite her efforts to keep what she and Peeta were doing private, to keep how she felt about him quiet, they apparently all knew. There truly were no secrets in small towns.
No one chased her away though, as she paced the halls.
Katniss had often wondered, in the past, why the families of the sick and wounded remained in vigil outside her triage rooms and operating theatres, even when there was nothing they could do, even when they knew the wait would be interminable. Wondered why they stayed. And now she understood. It was because there was no other choice. She was held in place as if by an unknown force, unable to resist. Helpless.
Fear was a living thing inside her, churning. She was a physician, damnit, she was used to desperate situations, cool under pressure, detached. But not today.
“Hey,” a deep voice said behind her as a large hand landed on her shoulder. Gale Hawthorne. Though they’d had a bit of a rough start, they worked well together. They were more alike than Katniss had realised at first. There was mutual respect, if not quite a friendship.
“Gale,” Katniss said, swallowing back her terror, fixing the bland expression on her face that worked so well in treatment rooms. She turned to face him.
He raised an eyebrow, apparently unconvinced by her mask. “You should go home,” he said softly. “They’ll likely put them right onto the plane and fly them out to Sydney.” Them meaning the injured firefighters. There was a major trauma centre in the city, far better equipped than their small, rural hospital. A small airfield behind the hospital spoke to how often they had to transport the injured away to where there were more resources.
What Gale didn’t say was assuming any of them survived . But Katniss couldn’t accept that. She couldn’t give in to the hopelessness.
“I can’t,” Katniss said honestly. Gale nodded, and squeezed her shoulder, but didn’t otherwise try to convince her. He stayed with her a few minutes longer in quiet support. Eventually, though, he left again to join the medical fray.
Left Katniss alone with her regrets.
Doctors and nurses hurried by, the regular rhythm of accident and emerg didn’t slow just because the bottom had fallen out of Katniss’s world. But all wore the same grim expressions, the same fear, the same anxiety. Some nodded as they passed, sympathy in their eyes. The solidarity of a small town where everyone knew every one of those firefighters. Knew her too, now.
Katniss wasn’t one for praying, it hadn’t brought her father back, nor had it worked when Prim was sick. But she found herself making promises, sending out bargains to the unknown. Please let him come back. Please give her another chance.
There was a scuffle of some sort, the sound of lots of footsteps, coming from the waiting area. A patient coding, maybe. But voices drifted back, shouts and cheers, and she ran.
She rounded the corner and skidded to a stop at the sight before her. Six people in turnout gear, coated in so much ash and filth they were almost indistinguishable from each other. Six people, alive, whole and standing under their own power.
One was apart from the others, head swivelling as he scanned the gathered hospital workers, blue eyes bright in his blackened face. His hair was flattened to his head and dark with grime and sweat, but she didn’t need to see his golden curls to recognise him. His eyes landed on her, and his teeth flashed white in a grin.
Katniss covered the final few paces between them, leaping into his arms without thought. He grunted and wobbled slightly at the impact, the only sign of the ordeal he’d been through. But his arms were around her, clutching her impossibly tight as he pressed his face into the crook of her neck. He smelled of smoke and dirt and adrenaline. He smelled like home .
She wrapped her legs around his hips and clung, uncaring of the people milling around them, her patients and coworkers and peers. Her friends, she realised. Her community.
“Katniss,” Peeta whispered against her hair, his voice hoarse, smoke-damaged maybe. She started to pull back, to assess him, but his big hand cupped her head, kept her pressed snugly against him. “I love you,” he said, and her heart skipped a beat. “I love you and I need you to stay with me. Or if you can’t stay, take me with you. I’ll go anywhere, as long as I’m by your side. You’re it for me.” His voice broke and his grip tightened further, as if he was afraid of her response. Her heart cracked a little, her Peeta, the best man she knew. He hid a world of vulnerability under that hotshot persona. But she saw him. She knew him. She wanted him.
“I love you, too,” she whispered, barely a breath. Her heart pounded in her throat. She had never said those words to anyone outside of her family, had never felt them for anyone but her parents and Prim before. But she felt the truth of them now.
Peeta’s grip loosened, his hand sliding around to cup her cheek, disbelief widening his eyes. “Yeah?” he said.
She laughed. “Yes. I love you.” And then there were no more words because he was kissing her. Kissing her like his life depended on it. Faintly, she registered cheering, but she didn’t care. Let them see.
Chapter 33: Chapter 32
Peeta was back in treatment room 4 in accident and emerg, only this time instead of perching cool and confident on a stool, Katniss was sitting beside him on the gurney, clutching his hand.
They’d been nearly silent since one of the other doctors, Cressy, he thought her name was, insisted he be looked at. Peeta just wanted to go home, to shower away the grime and terror of the night, and to hold Katniss until he forgot everything except how perfect her little body felt pressed against his, the thunder of her heartbeat in time with his own. This woman he loved.
Instead, he was staining the white paper sheet with the soot that covered him head to toe, an oxygen mask over his face and a little monitor with a red light clipped to his finger.
He was surprised, a little, that Katniss wasn’t doing the examination. She wasn’t the type to sit by quietly and let other people do the work, it wasn’t in her nature. Maybe it’d be unethical to treat him, now that they were… well, whatever they were? He wasn’t sure, though he doubted that if it were it’d keep her from examining him, if she was of a mind to do so. But she made no move to check the monitors, hadn’t unstrung the stethoscope from around her neck, or even checked him for new burns. She’d simply held his hand and leaned against him. Offering him comfort instead of clinical care.
The privacy curtain was open wide, exposing them to the hustle and bustle of doctors and nurses dashing by. Many of them smiled and waved as they passed, a couple had even paused to express relief that the men had gotten out, and congratulate him on a job well done. Congratulations he reckoned he didn’t deserve. They’d only been doing their jobs. The entire brigade was extremely dedicated and well trained. They knew what was needed and they did it. The volunteer fire service was built on teamwork, strategy, trust, hard work and a sense of purpose. It might look chaotic, but fire fighting was extremely calm, methodical, structured, fact-based work. Even in hellish circumstances.
Especially in hellish circumstances.
Beside him, Katniss sucked in a sharp gasp, and he turned to look down at her. She was wide eyed, staring almost unblinking. He followed her line of sight. A television screen flashed over the nurses station, just barely visible from where they waited. The 24 hour news network was reporting, as they had near constantly for weeks, on the bushfires. But the video they were playing looked mighty familiar. Peeta watched with dawning horror.
The flashover, the one he’d just survived. Filmed from inside his truck, by the looks. How had they gotten that so quickly?
It must have been Maysi beside him filming, Peeta could see flashes of his own shoulder in the shot, watch himself struggling with the fire blanket. On the screen, it looked utterly horrifying, a haze of red, sparks flying everywhere, the whole cabin engulfed. There was no sound, but he knew what they’d been saying, fear in their voices, hopelessness in their hearts. He had no idea how they’d made it through, why any of them were still alive, and relatively unscathed to boot. They shouldn’t have, not based on what the video was showing. He could only call it a miracle.
Or a second chance.
Pressed against him, Katniss was shaking. Tears coursed down her cheeks. “That’s you,” she whispered, silver eyes huge and glassy in her shock-paled face. He could only nod. “I almost lost you.”
Katniss was crying. His Katniss, the strongest person he’d ever met. She was crying.
He wanted to tell her that would never happen, that she’d never lose him. But it wasn’t a promise he could make. Life was unpredictable, there were no guarantees. He could only promise to love her, to make every minute they had together count.
He pushed off the oxygen mask and gathered her in his arms, awkwardly with the tubes and wires. “I’m all right,” he rasped. “We’re here now.”
Katniss clung to him, silent tears wetting his neck but said nothing else.
They took an Uber back to his place, both too shaky to drive.
With the adrenaline of the day gone, Peeta was exhausted, utterly knackered, and bloody sore to boot. But mostly his heart was dented. Katniss was with him, but he didn’t know what that meant. She’d told him she loved him, but had said nothing else since.
“I need to shower,” he said when they entered his home. Katniss merely nodded. But instead of releasing him, she led him up the stairs.
He’d left his gear with one of the brigade admins who’d come to the hospital to collect all of the PPE, but the cargo pants he’d worn were stiff with sweat and grime, the t-shirt itchy and stinking. He peeled off his clothing, unsure of her intentions but too worn out to question.
She sat on the closed toilet lid while he washed away the day. He pressed his forehead to the cool tile and let the water pound against his sore muscles. She said nothing, but every time he glanced through the glass door she was watching him.
Only when he was towelling off did she finally break her silence. “Can we talk?” she asked, her voice small. He should have been afraid, nothing good ever came from a conversation that started with can we talk. But he wasn’t. He needed her words, whatever they might be. He needed to hear her fears, all of the reasons it wouldn’t work between them.
Then he’d tear her arguments apart. Then he’d talk her into trying to make the life they deserved together.
He wrapped the towel around his waist and took Katniss's outstretched hand, letting her lead him to the bedroom.
Just glancing at the bed made his dick twitch hopefully. Memories of the things they’d done in this room. Sex was always easy between them, they were explosive together. And he wanted that, needed that.
But he needed more.
He needed to know she was staying. He wanted always.
He sat up against the bedhead, a pillow tucked behind him, and waited.
Chapter 34: Chapter 33
Katniss fidgeted nervously. She knew Peeta deserved to hear her story, to understand why she wasn’t someone who could easily love. Or be loved, frankly. But the idea of tearing down the walls she’d built around herself, of opening all of those old wounds… he was right, she was afraid, terribly afraid.
But she was more afraid of losing him without at least trying to fix her mistakes. Not this time. She couldn’t let it happen again.
“Do you mind if I change?” she asked quietly, gesturing to the scrubs she still wore, rumpled and smudged with soot. She hadn’t put on her civilian clothes at the hospital, had only let go of Peeta once the whole time they’d been in emerg, only while he was being x-rayed, and even then she’d waited just outside the room. Afraid to let him out of her sight.
“Help yourself to whatever you need,” he said. She had no clothing at his house, she’d been so careful not to let their lives get entangled. Yeah, that had worked out well. She took a pair of his shorts from the drawer and turned away to change into them. She was wearing a tank under her scrub top, and even though it didn’t smell particularly good, she left it on. A conversation like this needed clothing.
Peeta coughed behind her. His lungs had looked clear in his x-rays, but she imagined his throat and chest hurt. Katniss glanced over her shoulder and met his eyes. He was watching her, and even in his exhaustion and wariness, she could read his interest. It was comforting to know that he still wanted her, even after everything.
She wasn’t sure how long that might last.
“Let me make you tea,” Katniss said, buying herself more time. Peeta tried to protest, but she slipped away.
She took several deep, cleansing breaths in his kitchen while she gathered what she needed. Bottom line, she reminded herself, she trusted Peeta. She trusted that he would listen, and even if they were truly over, if there was no repairing the damage she’d done, he wouldn’t judge her. He was a good man, the best she’d ever known.
He was sprawled across the bed when she returned, propped against the headboard. From her vantage point, she could see the marks on his handsome face that his breathing gear had left, marks that would bloom into bruises she knew. His bare torso gleamed damply, another bruise forming on his shoulder, muscled forearms littered with scrapes. Exhaustion practically oozed from his pores. But he was there, he was whole and alive.
His blue eyes opened when she walked in, and he smiled, small but genuine. “Thought you might be running away,” he said lightly.
Katniss knew she deserved the jab, she’d done nothing but run right since the beginning. But she was done with running. “Didn’t want to give the neighbours a show,” she said, waving a hand in front of her tank top and oversized boxer short ensemble.
Peeta’s grin widened, and she relaxed a little more.
She perched beside him on the bed. “Here,” she said, handing him the mug. “Honey and lemon. It’ll help sooth your throat.”
“Learned that in med school, did you?” he joked. Katniss’s smile fell slightly.
“No,” she said, looking down at her lap. “From my mother.”
She heard his raspy intake of breath. She’d surprised him, she knew. In all of the months she’d been here, all of the time they’d spend talking and growing together, she’d never mentioned her mother, not once, not even when he’d prodded.
“She’s the reason I went to medical school,” Katniss said softly. She knew Peeta assumed it was because of Haymitch, everyone did. But truthfully her own mother had sown the seeds many years earlier.
“She was a doctor too?”
“No,” Katniss said. “She could have been. She came from a family of doctors, and she had an incredible understanding of natural medicine. But she chose my father instead.”
She glanced up from her lap to find Peeta watching her, tea forgotten on the nightstand, a droplet of shower water slipping down his temple. His expression was openly curious, but also soft and affectionate. Patient. She knew without him saying that he’d wait while she fumbled the words out. He was so good, it was too painful to look at him.
“They never should have even met.” Katniss spoke to his bedspread, but could feel all of his focus on her. “She was from a wealthy family, fresh out of a private all-girls’ school. He was an inner city kid who’d dropped out in tenth grade. But they both liked to escape into the woods, to forage for medicinal herbs. And once they found each other, they were inseparable.
“My grandparents, my mother’s parents I mean, they were outraged.” Katniss snickered. “I never met them, but they sounded like real pieces of work. They gave my mother an ultimatum: stop seeing my father, or they’d kick her out, cut her off. She was only eighteen, I’m sure they thought she’d dump her summer fling in a heartbeat.”
Katniss fell silent, lost in her memories. “She didn’t though?” Peeta prompted.
“No.” Katniss shook her head. “They moved in together, my mother with only the clothes on her back, my father with barely more than that himself. My grandparents involved the police, tried to have them haul their daughter back home. So my parents got married. Spouses have more rights than parents, even very wealthy parents.
“I used to think it was so romantic, that my mother gave up everything to be with my father.” Katniss laughed, she’d been so naïve. There was nothing romantic about the hardships faced by two teenagers, utterly impoverished and pretty much alone in the world. Her father’s mother had been alive then, but he’d had no father of his own and no siblings, and none of her mother’s large extended family had ever reached out. “I really don’t know how they made it, but by the time I came along they’d been married six years and had a little house on the edge of the forest, a life together. If anything, they were even more in love.”
“It sounds beautiful,” Peeta said softly.
“It was.” It hurt to unpack those memories, shoved down deep for so long. She’d had a happy childhood, before it all fell apart. Loving parents, a home full of music and laughter, the illusion of security. Katniss took a deep, cleansing breath. “It all ended when my father died.”
Beside her, Peeta made a soft sound of sympathy, but offered no platitudes. She appreciated that.
“I was eleven when he died,” Katniss said. “It was a car accident. Winter, icy roads, bad visibility. He was dead on impact.” As a doctor, Katniss thought it was better that way than teetering between life and death, better than suffering. But as a daughter, she wished that he’d hung on until they’d had a chance to say goodbye. Maybe her life would have been different.
“Prim and I were devastated, of course,” she said, though devastated hardly scraped the surface of how their father’s passing affected them. “But my mother…” Katniss trailed off. She’d never told anyone this part. Haymitch had known, Annie had figured it out. But she’d never once given voice to it.
“You don’t have to—” Peeta started, but Katniss shook her head vehemently.
“No, you were right. I didn’t let you in. I need to now.” Her breath shuddered out. “I want you to know me, to understand why I’m so screwed up.”
“Katniss,” Peeta admonished, and she shook her head.
“Just listen,” she whispered.
He reached for her hand and held on tight, and she allowed it, the warmth of his grip grounding her.
“My mother,” she said again, “absolutely fell apart. It wasn’t even that she cried or screamed, that would have been better. She just disappeared into herself. She went to bed, and she didn’t get back up.”
Peeta nodded, but Katniss knew he didn’t understand.
“I mean literally. She didn’t get up. She wouldn’t take care of us, wouldn’t even eat except what Prim forced into her. She just laid there, vacant eyed. We were terrified.” Katniss was shaking, Peeta gripped her hand harder. “We didn’t have anyone we could call for help. I tried so hard to keep everything together, to feed myself and Prim, to get us to school and help Prim with her homework. But I was only eleven, Peeta.
A lone tear slipped down her cheek, for the little girl she’d once been.
“We toughed it out for nearly three months,” she said, and Peeta swore softly. “Then the authorities stepped in and took us away.”
“You went to live with your uncle?” Peeta guessed, but Katniss shook her head.
“He didn’t even know we existed then. We went into foster care.” Katniss laughed, a bitter sound. “It took them another half year to find him. We didn’t know any of our mother’s family, and she was still just staring at the walls.” She knew she sounded bitter, but how could she not? Her mother had abandoned them, plain and simple.
She glanced at Peeta then; he looked stricken. She rushed to reassure him. “We weren’t mistreated, there was no abuse. But the whole experience wrecked me. I know, I know it doesn’t sound that bad—”
“It sounds plenty bad,” Peeta interrupted, frowning, and she smiled sadly.
“In the grand scheme of things, I know it could have been so much worse. But what she did? Abandoning us like that? Even at eleven, I knew that my dad didn’t choose to leave us. But it felt like she did. It… it broke me.” She looked down at their entwined fingers.
Peeta did as well. “I don’t think you’re broken, love,” he said, and the pet name was almost her undoing. “Scared and hurt, understandably. But not broken.”
She sniffled loudly. “I’ve spent my life since pushing people away, never getting close to anyone. Until now, anyway. I used to think that love was destruction.”
“It’s not.” Peeta was fervent in his denial.
“I had no other examples of a healthy relationship, growing up. Haymitch’s only long term relationship was with a bottle of scotch. I just internalised the idea that love was going to destroy me, like it destroyed her.”
Peeta shifted, pulling Katniss into his side, strong and warm and so solid. His big hand came up to cup her cheek. “I don’t know your mother,” he said. “But love didn’t destroy her, I’m certain of that.”
“I know,” Katniss whispered, allowing herself to sink into his touch. “She was mentally ill. She came to live with Haymitch later, after a stint in a psychiatric facility. I was in my first year of high school. She tried to make things right with me and Prim. But I couldn’t trust her anymore. Prim tried. I kept my distance.” Katniss laid her head on his shoulder. Peeta pulled the elastic from the end of her braid, then carded his fingers through her hair. Soothing.
“Where is she now?” Peeta asked after a while.
“Dead. She hung herself in Haymitch’s attic that summer, when Prim was away at camp.” Left her daughters again, that time for good. Katniss still blamed herself for it.
“Oh, love,” Peeta murmured against her hair.
“She wanted our forgiveness, but I couldn’t give it. I couldn’t let her back in. It was safer that way. She could never hurt me again.” Her matter of fact tone was at odds with the pit of grief and regret her mother’s loss had left in her soul.
“That’s why you keep yourself closed off,” Peeta whispered. “They can’t hurt you if you don’t let yourself love them.”
Katniss laughed, a sound more tears than mirth. “You’re a better shrink than my psych prof.” But she sobered quickly. “I’m sorry for shutting you out, Peeta. You deserve so much better than this.”
Peeta pulled back, held Katniss by the shoulders, forcing her to maintain eye contact. “I love you, Katniss. Nothing you said changes that. I love you, and I think we have something special together. Something real.”
Her heart slammed in her chest. Her every instinct was to run. But she was tired of running. Tired of hiding, tired of keeping things bottled up.
Tired of being alone.
“I’m going to screw up,” she said. “A lot, probably.”
Peeta smiled, like dawn breaking, illuminating every inch of his gorgeous face. “You think I won’t?” he chuckled. “I have never had a real relationship before. But love, we can learn together. I want to learn together. I love you. Just be with me, the rest we’ll figure out as we go along.”
“Okay,” she sighed.
“Yes,” she said. Then his lips were on hers, kissing her and laughing against her mouth. Loving her. “I don’t know how we’ll make the two countries work,” she admitted when they broke apart. “My contract expires in May.”.
“We’ll figure it out together,” he said.
“They might kick me out of Australia.” Her visa was employer sponsored.
“I’ll come with you to Canada. I don’t care where I live, Katniss. I just want to be with you.” He pulled her down so she was laying beside him, pressed against his hot, golden skin, wrapped in his strong arms. Safe. Loved.
“What if they won’t let you?” Her protest was more for show at this point.
“Then we’ll live on a boat in international waters,” he joked. “You’re stuck with me, Dr. Everdeen, I’m in this for the long haul.”
And Katniss trusted him. Believed in him. “Me too,” she whispered, the hardest words she had ever said.
Peeta’s arms tightened. “My Katniss,” he whispered against her hair.
Katniss tensed, but then relaxed again, and pressed her lips over Peeta’s heart.
It was terrifying, but also thrilling, and she wanted it, wanted him, more than anything she’d ever wanted before.
Chapter 35: Epilogue
Rain pattered on the windows and greasy grey light filtered through the curtains. Katniss looked around at the plain white walls and dated furniture. With her few possessions packed, the cottage was unchanged from when she first saw it six months previously, but in the dark of an Australian winter, it seemed sadder and lonelier.
Or maybe that was just melancholy talking.
This place was never meant to be anything other than temporary, a landing pad while she figured out what to do with the empty shell of her life. But somehow, it had come to feel like home.
Katniss walked through the cold, quiet house to the sunroom at the back, the space she’d anticipated becoming a yoga studio when she’d first seen pictures. That hadn’t happened. So many of her expectations for her time in Australia had been derailed.
She looked out over the yard, careful not to touch the freshly washed glass. Across the lawn, her house's twin stood dark and lonely against the grey skies, no sign of life at all. “Perving on your hot neighbour?” a low, sexy voice said from behind her, and Katniss smiled.
“Not much to see today,” she said. “No sign of life at all.” She watched Peeta’s reflection in the glass as he moved closer, the orange of his sweatshirt a bright spot against the gloom.
“Wonder why that is, love,” he murmured. He was close enough for Katniss to feel his warmth.
She couldn't resist leaning back into him. His arms came up to wrap around her collarbones, his lips pressed against that ticklish spot where her neck met her shoulder.
“Sure gonna miss jumping that fence to sneak in here and fuck you senseless,” he murmured, and his sultry tone tightened everything sensitive in Katniss.
“Once more, for old times sake?” Katniss breathed, forgetting about the spotless glass and bracing her hands against it to arch back into him.
He was already hard.
Peeta groaned, hands dropping to snake under her shirt, caressing bare skin. “Temptress,” he hummed, rutting lightly against her, pulling her earlobe with his teeth. Her panting breaths fogged the window glass.
“Peeta,” she gasped as those incredible hands slid up her ribcage to squeeze her breasts. She knew she didn’t have time for this. But he was completely irresistible.
“You guys back there?” The raucous voice of Finnick Odair rang through the room. Katniss jumped and tried to push Peeta out of the way, but he held his ground, though he did slide his hand out of her bra.
And just in time. Finnick walked into the sunroom without pausing. “Oi, you copping a root in here?” Finnick teased, not the least bit embarrassed to have caught them in flagrante delicto.
“We were trying to,” Katniss grumbled, and Peeta laughed, squeezing her one last time before spinning them both to face the interloper.
Finnick was grinning goofily. “Aren’t you two cute, but the removalists are done, the truck’s already heading out.”
Katniss snorted. Six months in this crazy place and still the language surprised her. “I thought Aussies were all about making words shorter. How’d you end up with ‘removalists’ instead of movers?”
Peeta laughed, burying his face in her hair. Finnick merely shrugged, the motion shifting baby Nick, asleep in his carrier on Finnick's chest. “Australia’s a special place,” Finnick said.
“It sure is,” Katniss agreed, as they followed Finnick to the door.
Then she walked out of her little cottage for the last time.
They paused on the porch, sheltered from the rain, watching as Finnick darted to his car, moving his sleeping baby from carrier to car seat with practiced efficiency. Peeta squeezed her hand. “Ready for the next adventure, love?” he asked.
“Scared shitless,” she breathed.
He chuckled. “That’s how you know it’s going to be amazing,” he said.
Katniss looked up at him, still golden and beautiful even in winter. Her brawny blonde beefcake. The man she loved. He’d spent the past six months breaking down her walls, helping her learn to love and to accept his love in return.
It hadn’t been easy, but Peeta grounded her, prevented her from running or hiding. And in return, she gave him a safe place to be his truest self.
Despite everything, Katniss had built a community for herself in Panem, for maybe the first time in her adult life. Her relationship with Annie was better, stronger now than it had been in med school, and she had bonded with Finnick too. She chatted with Madge almost daily, met up with Gale from time to time for drinks, and had coffee with many of the other hospital staff too. Besides that, she enjoyed spending time with Peeta’s friends, his mates from the fire brigade, the people he knew from school and from the bakery and just from a lifetime in Panem.
On the other side of the planet, far from everything she had ever known, she’d found herself.
It wasn’t just Katniss’s world that changed, though. Gradually, the people who meant something to Peeta began to see the man Katniss saw. Began to relate to him differently.
Her community got wider, while his got deeper.
“I guess this is it,” she said, gazing up into Peeta’s smiling eyes. She wrapped her arms around his waist, basking in all of that attention he focussed on her alone. He cupped her cheek in one big hand and kissed her, just lightly.
“Crikey,” Finnick yelled from the open window of his car. “Your new house is only ten minutes away. You can walk by the old places any time. It’s not like you’re moving to Canada!”
Peeta laughed, and Katniss grinned up at him. “Our new house,” she whispered.
“Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?” Peeta murmured, resting his forehead against hers.
It was a huge step for both of them, taking this thing between them to the next level. Once her contract with the Panem hospital was extended, Katniss had to think about where to live. She was already spending almost every night at Peeta’s place, so moving in with him was logical.
But curled up together one evening, Peeta encouraged her to look beyond logic. To take an even bigger leap with him.
They found a lovely four bedroom home with loads of potential just a few blocks away from the house Finnick and Annie shared. The kind of home for putting down roots.
A forever home.
“Shall we?” Peeta asked softly. “I have plans to christen every room as soon as the removalists are gone.”
She was so ready.
Thank you for reading Flashover, written for juststella and shannon17 as part of the fandom for Oz fundraiser for bushfire relief efforts. I am so very grateful for their generosity both in supporting bushfire relief charities through this initiative, and for graciously allowing me to share this story with all of you. It was truly a labour of love.
The video that Stella provided as inspiration for this story can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUs6iUpa4U4 (and the dialogue in the video was used verbatim in Chapter 30)
The firies who died in Chapter 21 were based on this story: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/dec/20/nsw-bushfires-rfs-two-firefighters-killed-south-west-sydney
Katniss's visit to a wildlife sanctuary in Chapter 15 was inspired by this story: https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/koala-animal-sanctuary-australia-wildfires-1.5423833 (a warning, some of the images in this story are heartbreaking)
There is an absolutely magnificent piece of fanart for that chapter here: https://dandecatlady.tumblr.com/post/634136168798257152/a-quick-ish-fanart-for-xerxia31-s-flashover
And another gorgeous fanart here: https://taylerwrites.tumblr.com/post/640970684242231296/fic-art-5