My daddy walks me to school on my first day. All the other kids' mommies and daddies are there too, so I don't feel so silly for being scared. And I'm not scared, not really, I just don't want to go. I want to stay home and sing songs and play with my baby sister. But my daddy says that I'm a big girl now and big girls go to school. So I let my mommy force me into a red plaid dress and do my hair in two braids.
"Now, Katniss," my daddy says, kneeling down in front of me. "Be brave, my little huntress. Be nice to the other kids, no matter what anyone says, okay?" And even though I don't understand what he means, I nod. "Good girl. And remember what we've been practicing." He taps my nose and kisses my cheek and sends me on my own into the school yard.
The first day is a blur. We get a tour of the school, meet all our new classmates, and get to pick our cubbies for the rest of the year. Mine is next to a blond boy with blue eyes and a constant smile. He waves his chubby hand at me when I put my tennis shoes away and I smile back. "I'm Peeta."
"Katniss," I answer quietly.
"Hi, Katniss." Then he flushes and turns away back to his desk. We don't talk anymore that day, but anytime I look over at him, he's looking at me with that same smile and red cheeks.
Before we go home, our teacher asks if anyone knows the Valley Song and my arm shoots up without thought. I make my way up to the front of the room and sing just like my daddy and I practiced all summer. As I finish, I see Peeta staring at me with an open mouth. Now it's my turn to blush.
After school, I wait for my mommy and sister to come pick me up so I sit under a tree picking dandelions and popping the heads off. I save the stems so Prim and I can make necklaces from them. I sense a shadow and look over to see Peeta standing over me. "Hi," he says.
"Can I sit with you until my papa gets here?"
I nod and scoot over so he can lean against the trunk of the tree with me. I quietly pop the heads off the dandelions with him while he whistles a little tune I don't recognize. He pauses and looks over at me. "You sing good."
"Thank you. I liked your drawing," I answer quietly, referring to our first art project. We were supposed to draw something that makes us happy and Peeta was the only one who's picture we could identify. Our teacher even pinned it up on the wall because it was so good.
It's our first conversation that year. The next day, he shares his sugar cookie with me at lunch and I give him half of my cheese and apples. And everyday we wait for our parents under the tree. My mommy always smiles when she walks up to get me and finds me sitting with him. And his daddy always makes sure to ruffle my hair like he does Peeta's. Peeta tells me I'm his best friend and someday he's gonna marry me because you're suppose to marry his best friend.
We're sitting under our tree in our graduation robes, ropes and caps slung off the side. My head is on his leg and he's popping off the heads of dandelions so they land on my face. I giggle softly when one tickles my nose. He's the only person I laugh around anymore other than Prim. While all my other friendships dissolved after my father died, Peeta somehow forced his way further into my life and refused to let go. We grew closer during those teenage years, helping each other with crushes and puberty. He stayed by my side, talked when I couldn't, listened when I needed it. I snuck him into my house when he couldn't be around his mother any longer. We never pushed but we were always there for for each other.
He even turned down a prestigious college experience to go to State with me which no one in his family took too well. Even his dad, who I thought liked me, told him he was making a mistake.
"Peet? Will we still be friends when we go off to school?" It was easy in high school, since we planned our class schedules together. But college was going to be different, we had different majors and career plans and part of Peeta's scholarship required him to live on a different side of campus than where I got placed. I worried that we would get too busy for each other. Too different.
"Don't be silly, Katniss," he answers with a smile. "You're my best friend. And after the first year, I can switch dorms so we can live closer."
He kicks his leg so I'm forced to sit up. He reaches into his bag and pulls out his exacto knife from his art class – the only difference in our schedules. He slices the pad of his pointer finger until it bleeds. Before I can stop him, he grabs my hand and slices my finger. "I promise," he says, pressing our fingers together. "You're kind of stuck with me, Everdeen."
"You don't know that," I protest. "You'll meet new people and want to spend more time with them. You'll start dating and get married and all that stupid shit."
He shakes his head. "How about this, then? Let's say, if we're both single at 30, I'll marry you. That's how positive I am that you will always be my best friend."
I laugh and pull my finger away from his, holding it in my mouth until it clots. "How does that prove we'll still be best friends?"
"Remember when we were younger and I told you that you're supposed to marry your best friend? Well – if we're both single at 30 and I marry you then that proves you're my best friend because that's who I'll marry." He laughs. "That made more sense in my head."
"You're ridiculous," I say. I see him watching me expectantly, waiting for some kind of response. "Well, I doubt you'll be the one who's not married at 30 since I don't ever really plan on doing it myself. But...sure. If we're both single by that point, I'll marry you, Peeta Mellark."
He grins and pops a dandelion head right in my face again.
~12 Years Later
The room is too big for my liking. It's too big and floral and there are far too many people here. People I don't even recognize – but over half of them are blond haired, blue eyed, and fair skinned so I know they belong. I'm the one who doesn't feel like she belongs. I can count on one hand how many times I've worn a dress out in public. But never one this formal or expensive. I've been overly cautious about not tripping or slipping or sitting in something and ruining the evening. I didn't want to wear the dress but I knew it made everyone else happy, so I sucked it up and put it on. The only saving grace is that in a few hours I can take it off and never have to wear anything like it again.
Before that, I have to survive the night. And more specifically, I have to survive my toast. I've been dreading this since Peeta asked me if I'd mind doing it. It's ridiculous though because he, of all people, knows I hate public speaking. But, like the dress, it's important to him so I do. Because I'll do anything for him. Including speaking at his wedding. He must know how I'm feeling because he reaches over and squeezes my hand before I accept the microphone from his brother.
I take a deep breath, my hands shaking so badly I'm sure I'll drop the cards I wrote my notes on. "Peeta and I have known each other since kindergarten. Though, if you were to ask him, he'd tell you that we've been best friends since kindergarten. At first, and he can attest to this, I thought he was just being nice. Because it was Peeta and Peeta Mellark was, and still is, the nicest, kindest person in the entire world. But it turns out, Peeta knew what he was talking about. He's someone who, when he sees what he wants, he goes after it and, more often than not, gets it." I turn and smile at the handsome groom, my eyes welling up.
I feel my phone buzz in my pocket and I smile when I see that Peeta has sent me a new photo message. It's kind of silly but I love our tradition. Right after graduation, Peeta had his first published work in a tiny magazine and exploded from there. He was still free-lance but his networking ability and sheer talent behind a camera turned him into a bit of a wunderkin. It was great for his career and he was doing what he loved every day of the week. He's been on nonstop assignments for the last three years, covering news stories all over the country – and even on other continents when needed. The hardest part, according to him, was being away from his friends and missing birthdays and Christmases and every other special day. We kept in contact whenever he had time, a text here or there, a postcard with one of his latest pictures, little trinkets from his travels that he thought I'd enjoy. On my end, I made sure to purchase and keep every single picture of his that was published so I could follow his career as much as possible from here.
His selfies always make me smile, so I slide my phone out of my pocket to check it. If my boss, Effie, was here, she'd be snapping at me about how rude it is to be on my phone during a work-related lecture, but she can bite me. It's my birthday and I'm struggling to stay awake at the moment. I'm expecting to see Peeta's goofy face in front of some strange animal or a beautiful building complete with gargoyles on the ledges or even a group of kids who flock to his easy-going charm, anything to show where he's at and what he's up to. I'm confused when, instead, I get a picture of a lecture hall. In the middle of a lecture. On the use of organic pesticides to improve crop yield. Wait...
I snap my neck up to the presentation in front of me. Then back at my phone. Up. Back. Up. Back.
Don't hurt yourself, Birthday Girl.
I turn in my seat, eyes scanning the audience and I smile when I spot him. He motions with his head to leave and, without a second thought, follow behind him. I'm on him as as soon as we're out the door. I wrap my arms around his neck and laugh when he holds me tight and picks me up off the floor. "What are you doing here?" I ask. "Shouldn't you be off taking pictures for Time or Newsweek or something else like that, Hotshot?"
He laughs and I realize in that moment how much I miss his laugh. I still have a message from him on my phone that I listen to when I get lonely but it's not the same as hearing him in real life. "I figured the flooding in the Midwest could wait while I come see my favorite girl on her big birthday. Happy birthday, Katniss." He pulls a small item from his pocket and hands it to me.
I rip apart the tissue paper wrapping and run my fingers over the gold pin. "It's beautiful. Where did you get this?"
"That is from when I was over in the Galapagos. The bird songs there are out of this world." He takes it from me and pins it onto my shirt. He smiles. "It suits you."
I smile take in his form. "I've missed you."
"Me, too. I've been thinking about you. Can I take you out for dinner tonight for your birthday or do you have some big plans?"
I think it over, knowing a few of my coworkers had been talking about taking me out for my 30th. But Peeta is my best friend so they'll have to get over it. "I'm all yours."
His smile lights up his face. "Good. I've got some big news. Pick you up around seven?" He leans in and gives me a hug, holding me just a little longer than usual and I breathe him in. Having him so close again makes me realize just how long it's been and how big the hole in my life has been since he's been gone. I sneak back into the lecture, no longer able to pay attention to pesticides or crop output because all I can think about is Peeta and what his big news could be.
I'm still in my towel when I fling my front door open and pull Madge into my apartment. We work in different departments but always end up having lunch together so we've gotten to know each other over the years. She's reserved, which I appreciate, and although we've never seen one another outside of work, I knew I could count on her for an emergency. Like what I'm supposed to wear for a birthday dinner with Peeta Mellark.
"Holy cow," she whistles when she steps into my room. Every piece of clothing I own is strewn about my room. "Okay. Let's...let's see what we can work with." She smiles at me and goes to work picking through my modest collection of outfits. I can't remember the last time I've been on a date and it's not my style to have flowery dresses or flowing skirts. And I'm pretty sure the only pair of heels I own are from high school and pinch my toes. But it doesn't stop Madge from trying. "So...who are you having dinner with that's causing you such a fuss?"
"I'm not in a fuss!" I call from the bathroom, where I'm braiding my wet hair. I hear her snort and I pop my head out to see her shaking her head with a smile. "I'm not. It's just…" I sigh and sit on the edge of the bed. "So I had this friend when we were kids. Well...more than kids, we basically grew up together. But after college he got a great photojournalism job and has been moving all over the place ever since."
"Oh, the National Geographic guy?" Madge asks.
I nod. "He's freelance, technically, but yeah, that one. Peeta Mellark. What?"
She's smiling again and quickly looks back down at the clothes in her hand. "So that's why you've turned down Gale so many times."
I feel my jaw drop. "That's...what?" How did she manage to bring Gale, one of the research developers in our building, into this?
Madge shrugs nonchalantly. "I'm just saying, I understand now why you haven't taken him up on his offer. I'd turn a guy like him down if I was in love with someone else, too."
What is she talking about, I wonder. Gale and I are too similar, he's too hardheaded and temperamental and neither of us would ever budge if we ever were to fight on things. We're good friends, we have some hobbies in common, but he's too much like a brother to ever be anything more. I've told her that. It has nothing to do with being in love with anyone else. Who would I even be in love with?
"Peeta," she answers when I ask her. "Aren't you? I mean...it's just...the way you smile when you say his name and you collect all his photos and…" she gestures around her. "You've torn your apartment apart to figure out what to wear. I've never seen girls do that for boys they're not in love with."
"Of course I love Peeta," I answer quietly. "He's my best friend. But I'm not in love with him. That's just...that's silly…" But even as I say them, the words feel wrong. It's not silly to be in love with Peeta - everyone who met him fell in love with him. It was part of his charm and personality and, objectively, his ridiculous good looks. Whoever he ended up with wouldn't really deserve him because no one deserved someone like him. He was selfless, passionate, patient, and...perfect as far as I was concerned. "Did I ever tell you about our high school graduation?" I ask with a smile. She sits back and listens to me talk about our promise to marry each other if we're both single at thirty, laughing when I show her the scar on my finger from where he cut me with an exacto knife.
"I think that's sweet," she says.
"It was," I agree with a sigh. "So, any ideas about what to wear?"
She purses her lips. "I think I can make something work. You have a little black dress, right?"
I roll my eyes. Because of course I have a little black dress. Even if it is only because Prim insisted I get one as soon as I moved out here. I don't think I've ever actually worn it, I've never had a reason to wear it, but I'm sure I have one. "In the back of the closet." It's the one thing I didn't consider so it's still hanging where it's been since I moved in.
Madge pulls it out and her smile threatens to break her face. "Katniss, you are going to knock him dead!"
It takes her a little over an hour to work her magic and I have to admit that when I look at myself in the mirror, I hardly recognize myself. In a good way. She's convinced me to let my hair down and nearly squealed when she saw the soft waves in it from drying in my braid. She applied a very light layer of makeup, "just to accentuate your features," she told me, and let me borrow a pair of kitten heels since she knew I wouldn't be comfortable in full heels.
"He said he had something important to tell me," I say, playing with the hem of the dress. "I wonder what he wants."
"Well," she says, thoughtfully. "It is your 30th birthday, right? So maybe he's been thinking about that promise you guys made. When is his birthday?" She kisses my cheek and leaves me alone in my apartment thinking about what she just said. Peeta made such a big deal about being home for my birthday, this specific birthday as opposed to any other. Could he be thinking about that promise we made? I rubbed the pad of my finger, feeling the small scar and couldn't tell if my racing heart and fluttering stomach was from excitement over our promise or pure fear.
Peeta picks me up promptly at seven - because Peeta Mellark is never late for things - and my breath catches in my chest. He's always looked good but he must have been doing something different during his assignments because the grey dress pants and light blue button-up look better on him than anything I've ever seen him in. "When did you get so svelte?" I asked, trying to keep my voice level and not stare at where the sleeves of his shirt are rolled up to his elbows.
He laughs. "You're one to talk. I almost forgot how well you clean up, Everdeen." He holds his hand out for me and we walk together down to his rental car. It feels intimate, the way he opens the passenger side door for me and makes sure the radio is already pre-set to a station I like. When we reach the restaurant - a little bistro he's heard so much about - his hand is on the small of my back and he effortlessly leads me to our table. I search my brain trying to remember if this is how we've always been or if the occasion has called for a difference.
We easily talk about our lives since we last saw each other. At least, Peeta talks and I listen, trying to keep my wandering brain on a leash. I can't help but to stare at him, the way his eyes light up when he's talking about all the experiences he's gotten and all the things he's seen. Or the way his nose wrinkles slightly when he laughs. Or how his tongue sits between his teeth when he's listening to my boring work stories about crop rotations and our fight against GMO's. All the little things about him that I forgot when he was away are intensified now that he's sitting in front of me.
"I still don't understand how you can spend so much time outside and still be as pale as the moon," I say as we finish our dinner.
"Sunscreen is a powerful thing for us fair-skinned peasants," he jokes back. He takes a sip of his wine and sets the glass down. "So, big 3-0, huh?"
I roll my eyes. "Big 3-0. But don't be too high and mighty, yours is coming up soon." We both smile softly and I couldn't stop myself from saying what was on my mind. "Do you remember that promise we made in high school?"
"About staying best friends forever?" He reaches across the table and takes my hands in his. "Of course I remember that promise, Katniss. I think about it all the time. I think about you all the time."
I'm sure my hands are sweaty but I refuse to pull them away when they feel so right in his. "I think about you, too."
"Actually," he pauses, "that's kind of why I wanted to talk to you tonight. I, um, man I don't even know how to start asking you this. I know it's been forever and a half since we've seen each other and so much has changed since we were kids. But this is huge. And it's not really fair since I basically won't take no for an answer."
"Okay," I say in a breathy voice.
"I...um...well I need you to...or I was wondering if you...as my best friend forever...would agree to be a part of my upcoming wedding."
My stomach drops. I feel like I'm going to throw up. I pull my hands out of his and quickly down the rest of my wine, avoiding the look in his eyes because I can't bare to know what he's thinking. That maybe he thought I was expecting some different sort of question because that would be ridiculous to think. "You're...you're getting married?" I finally choke out.
I wish I hadn't looked up. Because there's that light in his eyes again. "Yeah. I, uh, well I met someone on one of my assignments. She's a reporter for the local news back home."
"You met her in Twelve?" I ask, sure the hurt I'm feeling is evident in my voice. Twelve is our home. It's where we met. "Do I...do I know her?"
"No, she's not from there originally, she just got transferred a while ago and I was passing through and I ran into her and we just started talking and it was...like we had known each other forever." He reaches out for my hand again and I reluctantly let him take it. "She's different. I can't explain it but she just is. But I need you there with me, Katniss. You're my best friend and I can't do this without you."
"When...when is the wedding?"
He chuckles. "Funny story."
"I doubt it," I mumble under my breath. None of this has been funny..
"I leave for Trinidad in a few weeks and we talked about maybe going there for an extended honeymoon so...um...in two weeks."
"That's so soon," I whisper. How can he be getting married in two weeks? Wasn't this what I was always worried about? About Peeta going off and getting his own life and leaving me behind? Being off working was one thing because I knew he'd come home to me. He'd send updates to me. We were each other's. Now the idea of sharing him with some other woman, someone who deserved more of his time than me. A wife was more important than a best friend.
I don't know what he thinks of the tears that start forming in my eyes but he's instantly at my side, kneeling beside me. This image, of him down on one knee next to me only intensifies this feeling of loss and betrayal inside me. "I'm so scared, Katniss. I need you next to me. I can't do this without you."
Then don't do it! I scream in my head. Don't marry her if you're so scared. But I see it on his face. I hear it in his voice. Scary isn't bad for Peeta Mellark, he's always taken risks when it comes to his heart. It's burned him so horribly in the past but I've been there for him through it all. I have to be there for him now. "Yeah," I say, wiping my eyes with the back of my hand. "Of course. Whatever you need."
And when he hugs me, fully embracing me in his arms, I rest my head on his shoulder and cry for the third time in my life.
AN: This story is dedicated to the wonderful dracoisalooker76. Thanks goes to SwishyWillow for prereading and making me feel guilty for her feels ;)
LOOSELY based on My Best Friend's Wedding but with my own Everlark (YES, EVERLARK) twist. I'm a 100% proponent of an Everlark HEA so please trust me. :) I don't own THG characters, I just play with them a little.