This is a follow up to my fic "And Your Bird Can Sing." When I first finished the story, I had some comments that the ending seemed rushed, and because of that it always seemed unfinished. I've revisited the universe a few times before, but never that grow together stage. This story takes place right after Peeta's return to Pittsburgh, as he and Katniss work on their tentative friendship.
The door burst open dramatically, followed soon by an equally theatrical Prim hauling a laundry basket against her hip.
"Two loads in one week!" she exclaimed. "No single person should go through that many clothes in seven days."
"I could have told you that," Katniss said, not even looking up from her notebook as she scratched a few lines with her ball point pen.
"I'm going to have to learn to ration," her sister said. She heaved the basket onto the dining room table with some struggle and then let out a triumphant hum. "Perhaps it's reasonable to wear the same pair of jeans more than once in a week."
Katniss narrowed her eyes. "How many pairs of jeans do you have?"
Prim's lips pursed in that way they always did when she debated how to spin something she knew her sister would disapprove of. Instead of replying, she merely smiled innocently.
Katniss rolled her eyes and returned to her work. Her pen tapped against the page a few times, but as usual, not a single word came to mind. She bit her lip and dropped the pen. "Need any help?"
Prim was struggling to flatten an especially chunky sweater for her folded pile.
"No, I'm good," she said. "I'm bidding my time until the next load is finished."
That was one of the luxuries of their new apartment - besides the second bedroom. There wasn't a washer/dryer in the unit, but there was a communal one on each floor that operated with a tenant swipe card, which meant they didn't even need quarters.
When Katniss had returned from Los Angeles, finding a new apartment had been her first priority. Not only was this one closer to Prim's school, but also to downtown, where Katniss spent most of her time writing.
It was also, Katniss realized as she glanced up towards the window, directly across the street from the Mellarks' bakery. Which happened to be next to a vacant shop. A shop she now knew to be occupied by the youngest Mellark.
"Are you all right?" Prim said, snapping Katniss from her reverie.
"You were staring out the window like you were trying to teleport through it."
"Was I?" Katniss said absently. "I guess I have a lot on my mind."
Prim lifted a pair of socks to inspect, balling them together when she was assured that they matched. "Oh, right. Brooding and such."
"I'm not brooding."
"You're always brooding."
Katniss rolled her eyes at her sister's pleased grin, and went back to scratching her pen along the margins of the page. "I saw Peeta yesterday," she admitted abruptly.
The socks dropped from her hand. "On television?"
"No. Right down the street."
"And you didn't tell me!" Prim said, sounding exasperated, as if the revelation direly affected her personally. "Did you talk? What did he say?"
"He's opening a restaurant," she said, careful to keep her tone casual.
"Where? In LA?"
Katniss felt oddly calm as she addressed her sister. "Next to the bakery."
"He's here?" Prim darted towards the window and peered out. "Right there?" she said, tapping her finger against the glass for emphasis.
"I don't know. He could be," Katniss said. "I'm not sure if he's at the restaurant every day."
"No. He's standing outside, I can see him."
Katniss joined her at the window. Sure enough, there Peeta was, chatting with his father outside the row of shops.
Prim began ushering Katniss towards the door. "Go talk to him," she said.
"I don't even know what to say to him," she said, struggling against her sister's freakishly strong grasp.
Prim huffed and swiped Katniss's journal from the table, thrusting it against Katniss's chest. "Take this," she said, then plucked something from her purse – a tube of lipstick, which she also extended in Katniss's direction. "And this."
Katniss stared at her sister dumbly.
"Tell him you need a change of scenery. You know, a part of the writing process. And then ask if he needs some company."
"Should I be concerned by your extensive knowledge of flirting?" she said flatly.
"No, you should be relieved that I'm well adjusted," Prim said, shooing her out of the apartment and slamming the door behind her.
Katniss stared at the lipstick tube in her palm. She didn't even have to open it to know it was the frosty pink shade that Prim adored. Every time she applied a coat it looked like she had just bitten into a powdered donut. Katniss pocketed it and headed towards the stairwell.
She could probably hide out in the lobby for a while and wait for her sister to lose interest. But knowing Prim, she'd be waiting diligently by the window until she witnessed the first contact. Katniss had no choice, really, although if she were being honest, she kind of wanted to see Peeta again.
She paused at the edge of the curb, taking a moment to gather her nerves with a single breath before she made her way across the street.
Mr. Mellark spotted her first, his smile broadening into a familiar grin that was so similar to his son's, she was momentarily taken aback.
"Katniss!" he said cheerfully. "Your ears must have been ringing, because we were just talking about you.
Peeta turned then, his eyes wide and the telltale signs of a blush darkening his ruddy cheeks. "Hey," was all he could manage to say.
"Hi," she parroted.
"Well I need to get back to the bakery," Mr. Mellark said cheerfully, retreating toward the shop door with a bow. "I'll give you two some privacy."
They grinned awkwardly at one another until Katniss finally spoke. "Damn shippers," she said.
It was only to lighten the mood, but it seemed to have the opposite effect. He stared at her bewildered for a moment, his smile fading before he said, "What?"
"It's this word for people who really want a couple to be together..." she began to stammer.
"No, I know what it means. I'm just surprised that you do."
Now she was the one who was blushing. She'd only learned of the term a few weeks ago when Prim had shown her a series of manipulated photos of her and Peeta together, explaining that there were fans who were devastated over the break up.
"Sorry about my dad. He thinks he's helping, when really all he's doing is humiliating me."
Katniss smiled shyly. "Don't worry, my sister is the same way." She reached into her pocket and extended the lipstick. "She told me I should put this on."
He inspected it with a chuckle. "How very old school Britney Spears of you."
She snatched it away and rolled her eyes. "Don't get any ideas."
He looked away at that, as if he'd been caught, and there was a slight lull in the conversation before she broke the building tension by clearing her throat.
"So," she said finally. "How's the restaurant coming."
His easy smile returned. "Fairly well... I hope. I'm finalizing the menu today."
"Oh," she said. "Need any company?"
He arched a brow at her suggestion, and she struggled to recall the advice that Prim had given her. She held up her notebook. "I've been working on some song lyrics and I could use a change of scenery. You know, for inspiration."
"I don't know how inspiring my restaurant is," he said with a laugh. "I put Effie in charge of the décor."
She grimaced, but she couldn't hide her amusement.
"Now I really want to see it," she admitted.
"You mean it?" he said. He was looking at her now with that awestruck expression that she often caught him in. That look that made her feel both thrilled and terrified in the same breath. Her eyes darted away until she noticed he was opening the door for her.
The restaurant was not at all what she expected for a shop in a strip mall. The walls were painted a dramatic crimson, and the booths and tables were a dark espresso colored wood with brushed nickel accents that seemed to pop.
"This is really nice," Katniss said, tracing her finger along a hand blown, wall length light fixture that contained swirls of orange and yellow, like molten liquid when it glowed.
"I know I'm considered a has been now," Peeta said in his usual deprecating fashion. "But I've still got a reputation to maintain. Most of my investors are from LA, so there are expectations."
"Don't worry, I can smell the elitism."
"Perfect. That's exactly what we were going for," he said wryly. He gestured towards one of the booths and Katniss took a seat. "Lighting okay?" he asked while he tinkered with the small shade on the wall mounted lamp over her table.
He was leaning over her, closer than he'd been in months. She could catch the faint hints of his cologne. The blend of flour and spices he must have been using this morning. The warm heat he radiated like a portable furnace. She was so caught up in the memory of him, she'd hardly noticed him talking to her now.
"What?" she said absently.
"The lighting. For your writing? I feel like it's really dark in here."
"Oh." It was dark. She could barely see the lines on the page in front of her. She smiled anyway. "It's fine."
"Okay," he said. He smiled at her and slowly backed away, bouncing on his heels a bit to stall another moment longer. "Well I'm going to get back to the kitchen. Let me know if you need anything."
The door to the kitchen swung open then shut and she stared at intently, as if he'd suddenly rematerialize even though he'd just left. Her eyes flitted around the restaurant, catching small details before settling again on the kitchen. She wanted him to come back.
She startled when the door abruptly swung open again, and she rushed to pick up her pen to busy herself with her notebook.
He placed a basket of bread on the table, calling it "brain food."
He nodded towards her lyrics. "Got anything good?"
She pushed the notebook aside and smiled sheepishly. "Not even close."
"Maybe I can help?" he said, leaning an elbow against the back of the opposite bench.
"I'm looking for another word for expectation," she said.
"What's wrong with expectation? You can rhyme a ton of words with that." He changed his stance to mimic holding a guitar. "Make it like one of those 90's alterna-rock songs, where you just strum the same chord over and over, then string together expectation, reputation, allegation, calculation," he was counting the words on his fingers, his eyes focused on the ceiling like they were written there. "Confrontation... that's a good one. Ramification."
She arched a brow. "Speculation?"
"See, you're much better at this than me," he said. "That's why they pay you the big bucks."
It was an innocent comment. One of Peeta's standard jokes. But given the context, the remark left her feeling guilty. Even though she hadn't been involved in the decisions that resulted in their PR demise, she'd thrown her romance with Peeta under the bus to get her record contract.
Water under the bridge, she could already hear Peeta say if she ever tried to broach the subject. They were moving on from the events of last spring. She had to stop thinking about it.
She reached for one of the rolls in the breadbasket to distract herself. It was still warm from the oven, and when she bit into it, her mouth was filled with deliciously oozing cheese.
"Mmm," she moaned approvingly. "This is way better than Red Lobster's." She flinched. That was such a stupid thing to say. Here Peeta was about to open an upscale restaurant and she was comparing his food to mass, mid-level chains. "What I mean to say..."
"I take that as high praise," he said, watching her with an amused smirk. "Those biscuits are delicious."
She blushed behind her hand, struggling to swallow the mouthful of bread before reaching for a second.
"Can I ask you a question?"
Peeta looked up from the pad of paper he was sketching on. Technically it was Katniss's lyric book, and he had been granted access to the last few pages.
"Yeah?" he said, setting his pencil on the table.
"Why don't you hate me?" she said.
She was sitting at the bar, unpacking samples of glassware that Effie had sent. Most of the options had ridiculously elaborate stems that would no doubt break by the second washing. They looked nice at least. To Effie, aesthetics always trumped functionality. All you had to do was look at her shoes to come to that conclusion...
He realized he was stalling.
"Why would I hate you?" he said.
"Because I took advantage of you," she said. "And basically destroyed your career."
"Katniss..." he started.
"Your involvement in my downfall pales in comparison to the part played by the scheming and backstabbing studio executives. And you want to know how I know that?"
She shrugged, her morose frown suggesting that she wasn't yet convinced.
"You actually seem to care," he said. Her cloudy eyes lifted to meet his and he flashed her a reassuring smile. "The industry is toxic, and I was tired of it. I was tired of not knowing who my real friends were. Now I do." He looked down and tapped his finger against the table to word his next statement carefully. "Honestly, the only thing you were guilty of was not loving me back. And I can't really fault you for that."
There was a long silence before he worked up the courage to speak again. "Is it awkward for you? Knowing that I'm in love with you."
Katniss set another glass aside, her face masked to hide any emotion that could give way to what she was thinking. He wished so badly that he could read her. That being around her wasn't like being trapped in a never ending mystery.
Her gray eyes lifted to meet his. "No," she said, with the faintest hint of a smile ghosting her lips.
He picked up the pencil again. He could live with that answer for now. As long as they were honest with one another, they could get by. He pressed the graphite against the page, shading along the edge to make the image pop.
"What are you drawing?"
Peeta looked up to find Katniss standing beside him, peering over his shoulder.
"I'm working on some logos for the restaurant," he said. This one was an abstract looking cornucopia overflowing with a harvest of rustic looking bread.
"I didn't know you could draw," she said, leaning closer to inspect his work. "This is really good."
"Thanks," he said, suddenly stiffening at her proximity. There was this shifting balance to their friendship that was starting to include a lot of touching. A hand lingering on a shoulder. A comment murmured discreetly in the other's ear. Faces always impossibly close when they shared a booth. He liked how at ease they could be around one another. But at the same time, he still struggled with the overwhelming urge he constantly felt to kiss her.
"It's my secret talent," he explained.
She lifted her chin, her eyes bright and mischievous against his guarded gaze. "Really? You seem to be full of those."
He wanted to groan. Wanted to plunge his face into a bucket of ice water to relieve the tension. He wanted to kiss her so badly. To do ungodly things to her right on this table. Every nerve ending on his body seemed to buzz in her presence, revealing sensations he'd never before known existed.
It was like his body was starting to malfunction. He couldn't remember how to breathe or blink in a natural way, and he was overcompensating with a flurry of fluttering eyelids and staccotic gasps of air. He probably looked insane. He probably was insane.
"I have to keep a few surprises up my sleeve," he said, recovering quickly. "Or else you'd realize how boring I actually am."
She backed away then, her grin still playful on her lips. "So it looks like the glasses that Effie sent do everything but hold liquid," she said, returning to her sorting.
"It's probably my fault," he said. "I probably should have been more specific with my request for drinking glasses."
"At least they look... interesting," she offered weakly. She looked at the time on her phone. "Oh, wow, it's already after seven."
There weren't very many windows in the restaurant, and those were blocked off by a partition between the entrance and the dinning room so the room was basically dark all the time.
"You don't need to hang around if you don't want to," he said.
She seemed to hesitate, lifting a glass and then quickly setting it down again. "Are you working much longer?"
He had glasses to order, a menu to finalize, graphics to design, a staff to hire, all before his investment money ran out from paying rent on a vacant store...
"Maybe a few more hours," he said, trying to brush off his growing anxiety with a chuckle.
"You could take a break you know."
"I don't think so."
Something seemed to be on her mind, but in usual Katniss fashion, she floated around the point and waited for him to find it. She sank onto the bench across from him, her mouth quirking into a thoughtful scowl.
"When was the last time you left the restaurant?"
He set the pencil down and leaned forward on his elbows, hands folded formally before him. "Is this an intervention?" he asked in a deadly serious tone.
She rolled her eyes.
"I've been busy," he admitted.
And perhaps, sometimes, the attention his return had received was a bit overwhelming. It was nothing compared to being hounded by dozens of strangers hiding behind cameras, shouting crude things at him to garner a reaction. Or seeing every second of his life recapped on the covers of gossip magazines.
No. Instead it was the friendly advice from concerned fans that left him cowering in obscurity. They had an opinion about his career choices, the people he had chosen to associate with, his management team, and above all, his relationships. And they were not afraid to be completely candid about these opinions. Often being blunt or down right rude about it. What bothered him the most, though, was that usually, they were right.
"Half of that town was riding on your coattails," one especially wise woman had told him. "Those girls may have been pretty, but their claws shred right through you. Vultures. All of them."
Peeta glanced down at Katniss's short, blunt fingernails.
Why don't you hate me?
"Have people ever tried to talk to you... about us?" he said.
"You mean random strangers?" she said, flashing half a smile. "The studio censors the death threats, but I still get a few well placed 'whore's and 'how could you's on the street every now and then."
"It comes with the territory," she shrugged. "Your adoring public really adores you."
He shook his head and frowned. "Nobody deserves to be treated like that."
"Is that what you've been hiding from?" she said.
"People?" he said with a smirk. "I haven't taken up agoraphobia or anything. It's the unsolicited commentary of all my life choices that's sort of clouding my judgment. It's weird. To go from trying to convince people that something's true when it's a lie, to trying to prove that something's real when everyone's convinced it's a farce."
She stared at him for a long moment. "Who cares what other people think?"
Peeta had spent his entire life trying to earn others' approval. He didn't even know where to start with the alternative.
"Isn't that letting them win?" she added.
"My sister says I have to learn how to be selfish," she said cryptically. She picked up the pencil and began to shade a corner of the page from across the table.
"That's not advice you hear everyday." He watched the tip of the pencil curl along the blank surface in a shiny gray streak. "So how do you plan on doing that?"
"I'm still trying to figure that out." She handed the pencil back to him and stood. "I think it's something you should consider too." She went to pick up her purse from the counter. "Have a good night."
He felt suddenly anxious, like he was about to miss something important.
"Hey, Katniss," he said before she could reach the door. "Do you want to do something tonight? Maybe catch a movie?"
She turned, eyeing him skeptically. "Isn't that the last place you'd want to be?"
"Well, yeah," he nodded dumbly. He flipped the cover of the notebook shut and slipped it across the table towards her before she forgot it. "I just remembered that Finnick had a movie coming out soon. One of those contemporary historical dramas where they wear low cut jeans and still somehow have iPhones."
"It did, last week," Katniss said. "Prim's already seen it twice."
"Showoff," he mumbled playfully.
Katniss folded her arms across her chest. "Did you want to see it?"
"I wouldn't say 'want to' so much as 'have to,' since Finnick's part owner of this establishment. You know, loyalty and such."
She swiped the book off the table and tucked it into her bag. "Don't try and oversell it," she said wryly.
"Oh it'll be worth it," he said. "These sort of mainstream art house films are prime for razzing fodder. And you know just as well as I do that Finnick could use a few notches cut from the ego department."
Her smile turned conspiratorial but quickly faded. "Do you think it's a good idea though? To go some place. Public. Together."
"Probably not," he said. It's not like there'd be a pap waiting to snap their picture. Their exposure had overstayed its welcome on the cover of US Weekly, and there was no longer a PR team fueling interest behind the scenes. At worse they'd show up in a sightings recap in the local paper's gossip column, he reminded himself. There really wasn't anything to be worried about. This time it was only them. "But I want to," he said.
"Okay, yeah," she said, nodding in confirmation for both his and her own benefit it seemed. "Let's go."
There was a movie theater a few blocks away. One of those old school converted theaters that had a balcony, red velvet seats, and little ornate brass details. During the week, they played classic films, but on the weekend, they sold out and showed a new release. Finnick's new movie was big enough to earn the coveted slot on their single screen, which was good, because otherwise they'd have to go to the overly crowded, twenty screen multiplex on the other side of town.
Peeta stepped up to the concession stand, still mulling over his options. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen a movie outside of a premier, and those were usually catered and had a cash bar. Now his only option seemed to be several hundred ounces of carbonated sugar syrup versus several hundred ounces of frozen sugar syrup. He was getting into a somewhat heated argument with the cashier over his refusal to upgrade an extra 30 ounces for twenty cents when there was a tap on his shoulder.
"Excuse me, are you Peeta Mellark?"
He turned to find two girls – no more than fourteen – staring up at him with eyes as wide as saucers. He noticed then that the girl who had spoken to him was trembling. This was the other type of fan encounter he had grown accustom to. The completely humbling kind.
He grinned at them, hoping to put them at ease. "Unfortunately," he said. "And what's your name?"
"I'm Madison," the girl said. "And this is my friend Claire. We're huge fans." He looked at the other girl who was now pressing her lips together so tightly they looked white. "Could we... could we maybe get a picture with you?"
He glanced around the lobby. There were only a couple of people meandering towards the auditorium, so it was unlikely that a quick photo op would cause a scene.
"Of course," he said. "I don't know why you'd want my ugly mug spoiling your picture though," he added, eliciting a giggle from his two fans. He crouched down a bit to meet their height, and even held the phone for them so that they were all in the shot.
"Thank you so much," Madison said in a flurry. "One more thing," she said, dropping her voice so he had to lean closer to hear. "Are you here with Katniss?"
Over the girl's shoulder he saw that Katniss had reemerged from the ladies room, and was watching him curiously from across the lobby. Madison turned slightly to follow his gaze and then squealed in delight at the confirmation.
"Shh," Peeta said putting a finger to his lips.
The two girls nodded eagerly, assuring him that the secret was safe, before they scurried off towards the theater, barely able to contain their excitement.
"What was that about?" Katniss said, snatching his soda from the concession stand to take a sip.
"Poor kids mistook me for Gloss Matthews," he said, accepting his change from the cashier, and pocketing the bills. "I didn't have the heart to correct them."
His hands were full with the popcorn and she tipped the soda toward him for him to take a drink. It was such an oddly intimate gesture, and he was suddenly struck by how normal the situation was. He and Katniss hadn't really done normal before.
He liked it.
Katniss shifted beneath the covers, her arm stretching across the empty expanse of the mattress where the sheets were cool from neglect. She frowned and rolled toward it to bury her face in the opposite pillow. The bed was too big to sleep alone in.
She tried to conjure the memory of the few brief nights she'd slept with Peeta. His broad chest rising and falling from beneath her cheek. His arms encircling her waist to secure her body against his. Katniss had never been the affectionate type, but around Peeta, her body craved physical contact.
The hours they spent holed up in his empty restaurant had taken their toll on her psyche. Being near him, touching him, kissing him, it was all she could think about now. She hugged the plush pillow tightly and let out a strained whimper.
Why was this so hard? Why couldn't she just tell him?
Katniss was still in a fog when she climbed out of bed and stumbled sluggishly into the living room. Prim was already up, and seated by the window, her face buried behind the screen of her laptop as usual.
"Morning, Little Duck," Katniss said through a yawn. She passed through the kitchen and opened the fridge, her fingers just curling around the orange juice when...
"How was your movie last night?" her sister asked cheerfully.
Katniss froze and shut the door with a snap. "How'd you know about that? Were you there?"
"No," Prim said, still entranced by her computer. "Some girls from school were. They wouldn't stop Tweeting about it."
"Yeah, someone even posted a total stalker pic,"she said, turning the monitor in Katniss's direction.
Katniss moved to stand behind her, squinting her eyes until she could make out the image. It was dark and grainy and probably taken right before the lights had dimmed. In the photo, she and Peeta were looking at one another, their faces in profile to the camera, as they laughed over something – most likely one of the jokes he'd cracked during the pre-show trivia.
"That's weird," Prim said, leaning in for a closer look. "It says it's been retweeted over eight hundred times." She clicked through the details and sure enough, at the top of the retweet list was Fulvia Jacobs, one of the most notorious entertainment bloggers in the industry.
A feeling of dread knotted at the base of her neck. It was happening again.
Prim clicked the link to her website, scrolling about halfway down the page before the photo appeared again, this time captioned with little drawn in hearts and the words "everlark forever more!"
Looks like our favorite summer romance may not have fizzled after all. Are the AWOL actor and burgeoning pop princess striving for May-December status? Pittsburgh readers, you're our eyes and ears to this unfolding scoop, so keep your eyes peeled and your iPhones at the ready!
"Sorry Katniss," Prim grimaced.
Katniss collapsed onto the sofa and cradled her pounding head in her hands.
As if on cue, her cell phone buzzed to life on the table. It wasn't Peeta or Haymitch as she had expected. No, it was Plutarch Heavensbee.
It was still fairly early in Pittsburgh, which meant it was even earlier on the West Coast, especially for a Saturday, which meant it was very unlikely that he was just calling to say hello. Of course he wasn't. Fulvia had been Plutarch's assistant at Panem Pictures before she started her tell all blog. He knew.
She stared at the screen for a long moment before answering.
"Katniss!" he chirped on the other end of the line, rambling on before she could get a word in. "If it isn't our favorite client! I can not tell you enough how excited we are to be absolutely blown away by your album. In fact, we want to push up the release date to the end of the month."
"Excuse me?" Katniss nearly shouted. "But it hasn't been recorded yet."
"Our sound engineers have an amazingly quick turnaround time," he assured her.
"I'm still writing it," she countered.
"We can work with that," he said, seemingly unfazed by her protest. "And Katniss, bring your friend along," he said before promptly hanging up.
Katniss drafted a message to Haymitch, knowing there was no way he'd be up this early... or at all for that matter. "STOP PLUTARCH NOW," it read.
"I'm sure it will pass," Prim said gently, setting a comforting hand on her arm. "People were just excited to see you since it's been so long."
"Yeah," she said absently. This was definitely a calculated move on the record label's part. One that she and Haymitch would have to squash before it got out of hand. It wasn't something Prim had to worry over.
She glanced towards the window where Peeta's restaurant was just out of view. She'd have to fix this before Peeta got the wrong impression. Things were still fragile between them from the last stunt, and while she hoped he trusted her sincerity this time around, she couldn't depend on it.
She moved to the window and drew up the blinds, rolling onto her toes to get a better vantage of the street below. Peeta was just arriving, and he paused in front of the shop to look up at her apartment window, a smile spreading in recognition when he caught her watching him. She raised a shy hand to wave at him, and he did the same.
"You coming?" she could see him mouth, and he pointed at her window and then to the shop door for emphasis.
By his still chipper attitude, it was obvious he hadn't seen the blog post yet. She leaned her weight against the window sill to keep from collapsing, her smile tight as she nodded in confirmation.
She threw on a sweatshirt and pulled the hood over her head, tugging on the strings until only her nose was poking out. It was silly to think a 40 yard walk could be that eventful, but she was suddenly feeling paranoid again.
"You look nice," Peeta said, when she slipped through the restaurant door and slammed it quickly behind her. "Is that uni-bomber chic?" He tugged on the end of the drawstring so that the opening was no more than a pinhole.
She shoved weakly against his chest then struggled to untangle herself. "Have you looked at Fulvia Jacob's blog this morning?"
"I knew I forgot to do something between coffee and Lucky Charms this morning."
"You happen to be a starring feature," she said with a grimace.
Peeta reached into his pocket to retrieve his phone, tapping against the screen with his thumbs. "Well that's lovely," he said flatly. "At least they caught my good side."
"I'm sorry," she said.
He looked up from his phone. "How was this your fault?"
"Plutarch already called about pushing up my album release."
"Would you look at that," he said, turning the screen her way even though it was too small to read. "Effie e-mailed me. Thrilled about you and Katniss," he said, adopting his former publicist's enthusiastic trill. "Would you consider pushing up the restaurant opening." He shut off the screen. "Savages."
"Did you want to..." she began nervously.
He ruffled a hand through his hair, his smile still pleasant in spite of the anxiety Katniss was feeling herself. "What... pretend again?"
She laced her fingers together and twisted her hands until her knuckles began to burn. This was harder than she thought it would be. Her bottom lip felt the brunt of her nerves next as her teeth chomped into it.
"If that's what you want?" he said, but she could hear the resignation in his voice.
"Would it really be pretending now?" she finally worked up the courage to say.
"It depends," he said carefully. "On what we're pretending." He was standing on the other side of the restaurant now, his hand tapping idly against the bar top. He was nervous too.
"I don't want to put on a show anymore," she said with a determined nod.
He smiled easily. "That's good, because I really rather not either."
"I don't want to do any of it, I just..." she sighed. "I want to do this. Whatever this is." She met his eye, his gaze so intent and focused it made it impossible to think clearly. "What is this though? What are we doing?"
He pursed his lips together thoughtfully. "I don't know." He looked at the floor and scuffed up something non-existent with his shoe. "I was about to bake something. That's what I was doing," he said. "Do you want to help?"
"Okay," she said.
"Okay," he repeated. "I'm trying to perfect the consistency of this country loaf," he explained, guiding her into the kitchen. "It needs to be dense so it doesn't fall apart right away when you use it for a sandwich."
"Dense? My specialty," she said with a shrug.
He balled his hand into a fist and tapped it against her temple lightly. "What's the secret ingredient in there?"
She rolled her eyes. "Stubbornness, I think."
He smiled at her. "I think there may be some of that in tapioca flour."
He lined all the ingredients along the stainless steel counter and produced a large assortment of measuring devices. When it came to baking, he assured her repeatedly, accurate measurement was key. He reviewed the technique with her several times, even using a scale to verify, until they had 4 and a half cups of perfectly measured flour.
Next, was the critical temperature required to activate the yeast. He held his hand under a stream of water for several minutes before switching to the alternate hand for comparison. "What does that feel like?" he said, taking her hand in his and guiding it beneath the stream.
She focused on the water smoothing over her fingers, her mouth twitching into a frown in concentration. "It doesn't feel like anything," she said curiously.
"Really?" he replaced her hand with his. "That's only because you run hot," he said. Only when she was near him, she wanted to say, but was still feeling shy. He placed a bowl beneath the water and filled it halfway, then quickly dropped in a thermometer. "120 on the dot."
"Am I supposed to be impressed?" she said drily.
"No. You're supposed to be dropping yeast."
She took the pre-measured spoon and turned it over the bowl with a splash. "Next?"
He grinned at her, shaking his head slightly in faint amusement. "Now we assemble the dry ingredients."
She positioned the large glass bowl on the counter and held out her hands expectantly for the sifted flour. Peeta's smile turned mischievous when he reached for the flour. He stepped close to her – far closer than necessary, and held up the small bowl so that it was level with her nose.
"This?" he said.
She lifted her eyebrows in challenge. "Yes, please."
His face twisted then as he dramatically impersonated an imminent sneeze, then he blew, hard, sending a thick cloud of flour around her face.
She blinked a few times, blinded by the clumps that clung to her lashes.
"What was that for?" she shrieked, scrubbing a hand across her face.
He couldn't contain his laughter. "I am so sorry, I couldn't resist!"
She took a remaining fist full of flour from the bowl and chucked it at him. "That was perfectly measured!" she cried.
Some of it must have gotten into his mouth because there was a puff of white looking smoke when he laughed this time. He paused to dab at the congealed bits of flour in the corners of his eyes from the amused tears that had sprung from them.
"I can't believe you wasted all of that!" she added, reaching for the bowl of resting yeast to splash in his face.
"That was the expensive part," he argued.
She took the last of the flour and turned the bowl over on top of his head. "Oops," she said innocently.
He darted for her and she backed away with a yelp, catching herself on the edge of the counter when her hips crashed into it. She was cornered now, and Peeta's eyes darkened as he zeroed in on his prey. She recognized that look, that hazy look in his eyes that flooded them right before he kissed her.
She felt that heat again. The one that had haunted her every time she was close to him. Warmth swelled from her chest, spreading to the surface of her skin until every fiber was screaming to be touched.
His arms trapped her against the basin of the sink, his hips pinning her in place so that it was impossible to move. It wasn't necessary though, since her wobbling knees couldn't carry her far. She could feel the light whisper of his lips teasing against hers. Her elbows began to buckle in anticipation, and she reached blindly to steady herself, catching onto something not quite secure. The hose.
She grinned wickedly as his lips touched hers, snaking the hose between them and directing the spray into his face. He was drenched. Streams of milky white liquid dripping down his cheeks and heavy curls plastered to his forehead. He overpowered her easily, the flow of water turning on her and soaking down her shirt. He hit the knob so the water turned ice cold, and she shrieked, writhing helplessly against him.
Their bodies were moving frantically in the playful struggle, generating a delicious friction that left her breathless. He was panting too, casting aside the hose to claim her waiting lips. The kiss was hungry and fierce, an ignited spark from months of built up tension.
The floor was lost from beneath her feet when he hoisted her onto the edge of the sink. He was between her parted legs, his fingers splayed along the underside of her thigh to ease her weight from the sharp metal, while the other arm wrapped low around her back to hold her against him.
His lips were icy from the water, yet warm at the same time, spreading a million different sensations when her tongue touched cold to hot to cold again. She shivered.
"Are you okay?" he murmured between kisses, moving to latch kisses to her throat.
Her teeth were chattering now, her sopping sweatshirt clinging to her waist and soaking her to the bone. "I'm cold," she admitted.
He shivered against her. "Me too," he said. "I'm also a bit of a mess."
She pulled back to pinch a clump of slimy flour from behind ear.
"We both are," she said. He bowed his head to kiss her again. "I think we need to start over."
"No," he said. "I think we're finally getting it right."
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