My second reader request, a "Light N' Fluffy" for my fabulous beta, eeg01. I'm not very good at light, so this is a bit angst-y, but the first version read like a background story for The Wire, so this is probably as fluffy as it can get coming from me.
Katniss Everdeen sighed as she looked at the crepe paper adorning the cafeteria over her head.
"Why is it all blue?" she asked.
"It's going to be a fish theme," Madge Undersee murmured, picking at her yogurt.
"Like the ocean. With fish and coral," Madge shrugged.
Katniss nodded as though she understood, but she was still confused. But she and Madge rarely had long, in-depth conversations. They ate lunch together since Katniss didn't make friends easily and as the mayor's daughter everyone was too afraid of Madge's family to talk openly in front of her. Katniss eyed her sole companion. She found her nerve.
"Are you going?"
Madge blushed furiously. "I…um…yeah."
Katniss tried to look pleased for Madge, but her stomach sunk even further. Now she wondered if she was the only one not going to her senior prom. Probably. She shook it off. "Who?"
Madge's response was barely audible. "Gale."
"Gale Hawthorne?" Katniss' jaw was on the table. She couldn't imagine why he hadn't told her this.
"Yeah. I asked him this morning," Madge whispered. She looked at Katniss fretfully. "You don't mind do you? He said you hadn't asked him."
"No, no. He's not my boyfriend."
"I know," Madge insisted, "but he is your best friend."
"It's fine. I wasn't planning on going."
"Oh." Madge looked crestfallen. "I thought you were. At least I hoped you were. My dad is making me go."
"Yeah. He says I sit home too much. He says shy people don't get elected to public office." She made a face.
Katniss smiled. Madge was rarely silly. She appreciated it. A burst of laughter took her eyes to the next table. Her stomach sank again. Delly Cartwright was mopping up the soda she'd spit out laughing at a joke Peeta Mellark had told. Every lunch was the same at that table crowded with kids from the upper-middle-class part of town.
He'd transferred to her school last year when his own across town was closed for underperformance. While Katniss had been an outsider even after attending Eastpoint High for four years, Peeta Mellark was class president by senior year. Perfect GPA, calculus club captain and incredibly friendly, he was the student the administration had been dying to take in. Katniss wanted to hate him on principal, but unfortunately he was also devastatingly attractive. His blond hair glowed like fire when he introduced the pep squad during spring rallies and he'd caught her staring at his lake blue eyes more than once. She walked into lockers watching him drink from the water fountain. She dropped her books and notebooks constantly during classes they shared. He'd once asked her about history homework and she fell down a short flight of stairs stammering an answer.
She wondered if he called her by her name anymore or just referred to her as That Weird Girl with the Mouse-Brown Hair. If he talked about her at all.
"You don't think you can go at all?" Madge begged. "I don't know if Gale and I will have anything to talk about."
"Why did you ask him?" Katniss asked.
Madge blushed again, even deeper. "He's really handsome."
Katniss stared. "You like Gale?"
Madge could barely mouth "yes".
"I had no idea," Katniss replied. "I mean, he's always said really good things about you."
"Really?" Madge looked so hopeful, it made Katniss sad for her. Madge was sweet and loving and generous, but so painfully shy it was amazing to Katniss she was able to leave her house. Katniss was convinced Madge only decided to befriend her since she never bugged Madge to talk about anything. Prom was going to be a huge challenge for her. "Oh, Katniss, please come. I'm so nervous now."
"It's tomorrow, Madge. I didn't even buy a ticket."
"You can get them at the door."
"What about a dress? I don't have a dress."
"I have lots of dresses! Dad buys them for dances I don't go to. You can have whatever you want," Madge pleaded.
"Madge," Katniss felt her face burn. "I don't really want to go alone." She didn't want to tell Madge she couldn't bear to watch Peeta and Delly make out on the dance floor either.
"Well, why don't we just go as a group, then?" Madge suggested.
"Madge," Katniss sighed. "You want to go with Gale as a date." Madge flushed pink. "I'm not going to get in your way."
"Maybe you could take Vick?"
"He's a sophomore," Katniss groaned. "That would make me even lamer."
"Umm. Well, I don't think Tate's asked anyone."
Katniss glanced over at the table of goth kids. Tate was finishing a pen tattoo of barbed wire across his forearm. He pulled out a mirror and started on a teardrop on his face. She looked back at Madge. "Alone would be better."
"How about Andrew?" They twisted to look at the science club president picking at the acne covering his face with a plastic spork.
"Madge, please. I'm not going. Gale is going to show you a good time, I promise."
"Hi, Katniss. Hey, Madge."
Katniss spun around. In four years, she'd never been approached in the lunchroom. Delly Cartwright was smiling at her, spots of the spit-up soda still fading on her white lace scarf. Peeta Mellark was standing behind her. Katniss stared. She felt her face get hot and she started to perspire.
"I'm having a party tonight," Delly beamed, pulling two construction paper fish from her pocket. "It's like a pre-prom party, celebrating our last full week of school before it's over!"
Katniss stared at the fish Delly held out to her. It had Delly's address and phone number and the times written in swirly blue marker.
"Are you free?" Peeta asked. "I know it's kind of late notice, but Delly's parents just texted her that they're heading out to their mountain cabin this afternoon, so she'll have the house all to herself."
"Your parents won't be there?" Madge's eyebrows nearly lifted off her face. Her father had never left her unsupervised in seventeen years.
"Nope!" Delly grinned. "It's going to be kind of small, so keep it on the down-low." She winked.
"Yeah, fifty people tops."
"Fifty?" Katniss swallowed hard. She wondered if that was a small party or Delly was exaggerating. She'd never been to a house party either way, so she couldn't tell. The last party she went to was her little sister's birthday and Primrose's idea of a party was convincing her small group of friends to volunteer at the animal rescue shelter for the day.
"So you can come?" Peeta asked her directly.
"Umm." Katniss stared at the blue paper fish. "Umm."
"Yes!" Madge said. "Yes, we'll be there."
"Great!" Peeta looked unusually relieved and followed Delly back to their table. Delly nodded at their fellow table mates and started picking at her French fries again. Katniss was still watching them when Bristel Miller furrowed her brow and glanced over at the table with two lone girls.
"Why did you do that?" Katniss hissed, turning on Madge. "I don't want to go to Delly's house!"
"Katniss, this is great practice for me talking to people. And I need someone there."
Katniss frowned at the table. "Why did they even ask us?"
"Well," Madge thought out loud, "we were Girl Scouts with Delly. Maybe she's inviting all her old friends."
"Delly's friends with everyone. That party would take up the county." Katniss eyed the table of popular kids again. This time Leevy Sheldon glanced over at her. She caught Katniss staring and smiled politely.
"I don't like how they keep looking over here," Katniss frowned. "Why are they talking about us?"
"Katniss, please," Madge begged. "Let's just give it a shot. We're the biggest outcasts in this school and we've just been invited to a party by the Homecoming queen and class president. Let's go, please."
Katniss looked over at the crowded table one more time. Peeta looked back and waved at her. A wave of embarrassment and longing hit her and she dropped her napkin and when she sat back up from fishing it he was looking away, talking to Delly in earnest.
She was filled with doubt. She looked at her friend. "Madge…" Madge clutched her hands and looked at Katniss beseechingly. "Fine," she sighed. "Can you give me a ride?"
"I can't believe you didn't tell me," Katniss scolded, leaning over the open hood of the rusted Camry and peering down at Gale on the creeper underneath.
"She stopped by on her way to school this morning," he protested. "Was I supposed to call the office to pull you out of class and make an announcement? Hand me the 3/16ths."
Katniss sighed noisily as she searched the toolbox next to her shoulder for the wrench. "I can't believe you're going to my prom and I'm not."
"You could have asked me."
"I didn't even want to go," she said, kneeling down and sliding the wrench to him.
"Then why are you complaining?"
"I don't know. I guess I just felt like at least Madge and I were equally outcast. Now I've officially won Top Loser contest."
"How can you win a contest at losing?" he smiled.
"I hate you," Katniss grinned.
"Just go by yourself," he suggested. "It's always just a big party anyway. I didn't see Charlotte half the night last year. I mean, yeah, it turned out she was in the janitor's closet with Mr. Edelstein, but still. Didn't really miss her that much." Gale laughed at the disgusted face he'd earned from Katniss. "Or why don't you take Vick? He's not doing anything this weekend."
"Gale! Gaaaalle!" Vick screamed from the front office of the auto body shop.
"Fuck it, Vick, just walk onto the damn floor!" Gale yelled from under the car. He turned his face to Katniss where she still crouched and was watching him work. She raised an eyebrow. "Right. Nevermind."
"Yeah," she agreed, rolling her eyes.
Vick shuffled over to them. "Hey Kat," he nodded. "Some blond chick just dropped a fish off for you."
Gale slid out from under the car. "A fish?"
"Oh my God," Katniss gasped at the construction paper fish in Vick's hand.
Katniss took the fish from Vick, who immediately lost interest and left the floor.
"Delly Cartwright invited me and Madge to this party tonight too."
"Madge?" Gale grabbed the fish from her. "A party?" Katniss watched him. "What?" he asked defensively.
"You like Madge?"
Katniss had never seen Gale blush before. "She's cool, that's all."
"How did I not notice?" she breathed. "I mean, you've known her for years! Why didn't you ask her out?"
"She's the mayor's daughter, Kat," Gale groaned. "I work at my dad's auto shop and spend the day covered in transmission fluid. Why would she go out with me? Why would her dad let her?"
"Because you're a great guy and this shop will be your own business when your dad retires," Katniss insisted. "God, I can't believe I never noticed."
"Don't say anything," Gale begged. "I'm trying to play it cool." Katniss gave him the most withering look she could. "Well, cooler than I usually am."
"Gale, all the girls at school still think you're hot. You don't even go there anymore and your name still pops up on bathroom stall walls."
He gave her a wicked grin and slid back under the car.
"Are you coming to the party tonight?" Katniss asked hopefully.
"Of course. Free beer and a cute girl? Well, cute girls," he winked at her.
She rolled her eyes. "Nice try, but you can't make me feel better about this. I'm only going for her. I guess for you both. Madge is giving me a ride, why don't you come to my place at 8?"
"I have a car."
"Madge has a Lexus and we're going over to Brighton Woods. A busted pickup won't fit in on that street." Gale was quiet. She thought maybe she'd hurt his feeling as he slowly slid out from under the car.
"Kat, are you embarrassed by me?"
"What?" she nearly fell over. "No, why would you ask that?"
He shrugged. "Madge invited me to prom as I am. Delly invited you to this party as you are. Your car and your clothes and where you live shouldn't matter."
"They don't matter to me," Katniss answered slowly. "They matter to other people."
"Bristel. Leevy. Peeta."
"When did they say that?"
Katniss stammered. "Well, they've never said it."
"Exactly, Kat!" he said as he tossed the 3/16ths aside and wiped his hands on a stained rag. "No one's ever given you a reason to think they don't like you. And if they don't like you because we live in Perkins and they live in Brighton they're not worth it. So go to the damn party and have a good time and stop spending so much time making yourself an outsider. You have less than a week left in school. Make it count." He stood up and offered his hand. She let him help her up. He smiled down at her. "That being said, go home and shower."
She laughed as he pulled her in for a hug. "They should like me sweaty with transmission fluid on my jeans!"
Gale gave her a brotherly kiss on the top of her head. "They should. But they won't sit close to you when you smell like diesel," he grinned. "C'mon, I'll give you a lift home."
"How does this look?" Katniss tugged at her mother's borrowed blouse again.
Prim frowned. "I think it's a bit tight across your chest," she said warily. "Um. I mean, if that's what you want?"
Katniss looked in the mirror. The sea foam green shirt brought out her grey eyes, but it did fit her snugly. She smooth her denim skirt with shaking fingers. "I don't know," she whimpered. "Am I supposed to wear something tight to parties? Maybe I should call Madge."
Prim smiled. "Katniss, it's just a house party with your friends. Relax."
A horn honked outside. Katniss spun around. She looked hard at Prim. "Maybe I should stay home. Mom won't be home from work until 11. You'll be alone for three hours."
Prim rolled her eyes. "I'm fourteen. I think I can figure out how to turn on the TV and sit on the sofa by myself."
"You're a pretty, blond fourteen year old and we live in a shitty neighborhood."
"I know how to work the deadbolt."
The horn honked again.
"Katniss." Prim set her jaw. "Go. You deserve to have a good time."
Katniss sighed in defeat. "Don't answer the door."
"I'll hide behind the refrigerator with Buttercup whenever a car goes by," her little sister grinned. "Also, put on some shoes."
Katniss was strapping her sandals on when she heard Gale's voice at the door. "Katniss? Where are you?" She opened the door hurriedly. "Thought you'd left already," he said. She stared.
He'd had his mother trim his shaggy haircut and his face was freshly shaved. His nail beds were still red from scrubbing them clean and his button-down shirt had been ironed and tucked into his jeans. She smiled.
"What?" he asked.
"You really like her."
"Bye, Prim!" Katniss called. Prim waved a non-committal farewell as she curled up on the sofa and fed their fat cat popcorn from her palm. Katniss turned the lock and shut the door behind her.
She hopped down the stairs. "You're letting Madge drive?"
"Dad wanted to change the timing belt on the truck," Gale insisted. "It has nothing to do with her car."
Gale opened the car door for her and she climbed into the back. He slipped into the passenger seat.
"Madge, you look great," Katniss breathed. "Are you wearing makeup?"
"Yeah," she blushed. "My stepmom helped. She used to work at the Estee Lauder counter to pay for her Miss Ohio competition cosmetics and costumes." Katniss was a bit envious, but didn't think she'd like a mother figure barely ten years old than herself. How beautiful Madge had managed to escape those pageants was a mystery to her, but her shyness probably saved her from a lot of awful weekends in hotel conference rooms.
Katniss settled back into her seat. She hadn't thought of makeup. Her mother barely had any; being a second- and third-shift nurse usually meant lip balm and mascara and that was it. Katniss had never even seen an eyeshadow compact in their house. She touched her bare face nervously. Her braid suddenly seemed juvenile. She quickly reached behind her back, pulled the band out and let the waves fall loose.
Gale asked Madge about her family and Katniss watched enviously as they hit a stride in their conversation. They were interested in each other's answers and listened eagerly to one another. Watching two people grow more crazy about each other made her feel lonely and left out.
Finally they found the house and Katniss sunk down in the seat. It was larger than she had remembered.
"Whew. I'm a bit nervous," Madge breathed.
"Don't worry. I'm here," Gale smiled.
"Katniss? You're awfully quiet," Madge smiled, turning around. "Feeling all right?"
"You're just nervous," Gale smiled. "It's only a party! Let's go get some beers, eat some of their food, make fun of that mascot that knocked over the kicker at the last football game of the season, steal their silverware and good towels and go home." Madge giggled and even Katniss managed a grin. "Okay, here we go."
Katniss took a deep breath and opened the car door. She shuffled nervously to the front door. She could hear music and laughter inside. Her scalp started to sweat in her anxiety. Gale pressed the doorbell.
Delly opened the door with exuberance. "Hi guys! I'm so glad you're here!" Her cheeks were rosy and she smelled slightly of beer. "Ooooh, Katniss. Is that a vintage blouse?"
Katniss glanced down at the shirt she'd borrowed from her mother. "Um. I guess."
"It looks really cute on you," Delly slurred slightly. "Come on in!"
Katniss glanced nervously at her two friends as they stepped into the house.
The first thing that hit her was the heat. It was stuffy and warm and there were kids everywhere just making it warmer. Katniss' stomach twisted and she felt nauseated. She stumbled on the carpet.
"You okay?" asked Madge.
"It's so warm," Katniss breathed, fanning herself.
"It is, isn't it?" Delly giggled. "The pool deck's open, let's go back there." Gale followed confidently and Madge hurried on his heels. Katniss tried to hide behind them as they made their way through the party. "I think Peeta got the pony keg tapped." Katniss felt the back of her knees start to sweat. She tripped on the doorframe as she followed Delly out onto her deck and fell hard onto the fake wooden slats. She could hear the gasps of people around her and wanted to roll off the deck and hide underneath it.
She heard a soft laugh on her right and hands on her elbow pulling her to her feet.
"I just did that two minutes ago," Bristel laughed. Katniss glanced down and was relieved to see there was in fact a tear in Bristel's long shorts over her knee. "Delly's house will try to kill you, be careful."
"Wah-waah," Delly teased and stuck her tongue out. "Did Peeta get the keg tapped?"
"Yeah, but you need this first," she said, handing Delly a bottle of water. She pouted, but accepted the bottle. Bristel turned back to Katniss. "Do you want a beer?"
"Oh, um, I guess. Should-" she turned to ask Gale if she should and discovered he and Madge were already over collecting red plastic cups from a folding table by the pool edge stacked with sodas. "I guess yes."
"In a cup or keg stand?"
"Just kidding," she laughed, popping a cup off the stack and pouring a cup for her. "You seem a little tense. Was trying to break the ice a little."
Katniss didn't know what to say, so she grabbed the cup and took a big drink. It was bitter and awful and she started to cough.
"Jeez, Kat, take it easy," Bristel grinned. "Trying to forget a boy or something?"
"What?" Katniss coughed harder.
Bristel laughed again. "I'm still kidding."
"She's always kidding," Delly chuckled, draping an arm lazily over Katniss' shoulder. "I'm so glad you came, Katniss. We never hang out anymore."
"Did we hang out before?" Katniss blurted out in surprise.
"All the time. Remember middle school? We did all our Girl Scout projects together. I feel like this year you disappeared on me. I think the last time we even talked was….the weekend before I went to Homecoming."
With Peeta, Katniss bit back. "Well, you're so busy…"
Madge and Gale were back. Madge's cheeks were flushed and she had clearly been laughing. "Want to go inside?" Katniss asked quickly, slipping free of Delly's arm. She didn't wait for an answer and ducked inside, hopping carefully over the threshold so she didn't fall again.
She wandered in and out of the faces she recognized but didn't know, hearing Gale and Madge's voices behind her as they lost themselves in their own little world. She looked at the beer in her hand and tried to find a place to dump it.
"Where do you want to sit?" she turned around to Gale and Madge but found herself facing Peeta.
"What?" he asked in surprise. Katniss' breath caught in her throat. The blue tee shirt he was wearing made his eyes look electric. She tried to remember English.
"Oh sorry. I thought you were Gale. Or Madge," she sputtered.
Peeta laughed. "I could only hope I'm as pretty as Madge," he grinned.
Her face turned pink and her neck started to sweat. She couldn't think of what else to say. She looked at the cup again.
"Did you want to sit down?" Peeta finally asked. "There's not too many people in the den." She blinked at him. "Katniss?"
"Oh, yes." She followed him, feeling like an idiot. She waved for Madge and Gale to come with her, but she wasn't even sure they noticed her begging for help. Peeta wound his way through the clusters of friends, nodding and greeting everyone.
"Tate! Great teardrop," he said, noticing the finished pen tattoo on Tate's face.
"Thanks, Peeta. Hi…ummm…Kiersten?"
"You know Katniss," Peeta said, sighing. "She's been at this school as long as you have." Tate shrugged and turned back to a short girl with blunt black bangs and a pen tattoo of a dragonfly on her left cheek. "Whatever," Peeta whispered into her ear and kept walking. Katniss continued with him, feeling more foolish than before. Everyone knew his name after one year and not even the Goth kids who purposefully ostracized themselves remembered her. She didn't even know why she was following him anymore. What was she going to say? She was at his girlfriend's party. Gale's words seemed far away and she did feel ashamed.
The den was larger than she'd anticipated but he was right; it was less crowded. She gawked at the 51" television on the wall and Delly's cheerleading trophies lining a display cabinet.
"Here's a spot," he said and dropped onto a small loveseat in the corner. She stood over him for a minute, wondering if she should sit down or make an excuse to find Gale and Madge. But then Peeta was offering her the seat and she found herself sitting next to him.
"So," he began. She looked at the red plastic cup she hadn't found time to lose. She took another gulp and grimaced. "I've never seen you with your hair down. It's really beautiful."
She felt like she was standing on the surface of the sun. She was sure her blouse was sticking to her back. He tried again.
"Where are you going to college?"
Her face burned. "I'm not."
"Oh," he said awkwardly. "Cool. Staying around here?"
She nodded silently.
"Do you have a job lined up?"
"Not yet," she mumbled.
They lapsed into silence. She struggled for something to say. "Are you going?"
"Yeah," he said. "Just in-state," he added quickly. "My brothers are out of state and my parents need help at work."
"They run that bakery on Elm?"
"You've been there?" he asked eagerly. "I've never seen you there!"
"Um. No. I just…saw the sign. From the bus." She took another gulp of beer to find something to do.
He nodded. "You should come by sometime. My dad makes the best cupcakes." She nodded. "Um. What's your favorite flavor?"
"Of cupcake?" she asked.
"I don't know."
"Oh c'mon," he smiled, scooting closer to lean in. "Everyone has a favorite cupcake flavor."
She could feel the hair on the back of her neck standing up. He smelled like nutmeg. "I like carrot cake."
"Yeah," she whispered. "I like it better than chocolate."
"Me too!" He was so enthusiastic it surprised her. "I think chocolate's overrated," he said eagerly. "Carrot and spice and coconut are so under-appreciated. You need to come by for a carrot cupcake. I put raisins in the cream cheese frosting; it's really good!"
"Okay," she struggled out. This was the longest conversation she'd ever had with him and it was making her woozy.
"Sorry," he blushed. "I get really excited about cake."
She laughed softly. "It's cake," she shrugged. "What's not to get excited about?"
He laughed. She loved the sound. She smiled into her cup as she took another gulp.
"Are you going to prom with Gale?"
She coughed into the cup and started to choke.
"Katniss!" He started to pat her on the back and she coughed beer onto her blouse.
"I'm okay," she gasped. She looked in horror at the specks of moisture on her mother's shirt.
"Sorry," he mumbled. "I seem to make girls do that a lot." He handed her a roll of paper towels from the desk by his elbow.
She shrugged and sighed and dabbed at her blouse. "You're funny, it's bound to happen."
"Really? You think I'm funny?"
She couldn't believe she'd blurted that out. She focused on blotting the loose chiffon tie in the front of the blouse. "Well, I hear your table laughing a lot. You make Delly laugh a lot."
"Delly likes to laugh at me," he grinned. "Bristel's usually making fun of me."
"So you're going with Gale?"
"Um..no. He's going with Madge."
"Really?" Peeta scooted closer. "Who are you going with?"
"Peeta!" Delly stumbled into the room. "There you are! It's time for games," she grinned. The cup of beer in her hand threatened to spill.
"Oh no," he sighed. "Are you drinking water?"
"Yes, Dad," she groaned. "C'mon, you and Katniss come into the kitchen." She giggled and tripped up the stairs.
"Is she okay?" Katniss asked as Peeta pulled her to her feet and they followed her out.
"She's fine," he said, rolling his eyes. "She's such a lightweight. I bet she's only had one beer."
"Two," Bristel's voice came over her shoulder. Peeta raised his eyebrows. "I was giving her light beers, dude. I promise."
They joined the edge of the circle Delly was collecting in her kitchen. She kicked off her flip-flops and ambled to the center of the room, in front of the food pantry. She tapped her plastic cup with a plastic knife for attention.
"Happy near-end of school to everybody!" Her guests cheered. "Okay, that's enough. As we are all here to have a little fun before prom and graduation and going away to college, I think we ought to play a few little games," she grinned. A few catcalls made Katniss nervous. Her stomach twisted and she looked around for Gale and Madge. Delly continued on. "I think the first game we should play is…Seven Minutes in Heaven!"
A cheer went up and Katniss looked around frantically. Madge had the car keys.
"I was going to invite Hawthorne and Undersee to go first, but since they're already making out in my parents room…" Katniss was horrified as the kids around her laughed and applauded and whistled, "I think we should let Peeta and Katniss do the honors!"
Katniss felt like the floor had just fallen out from underneath her. She stared at Delly but couldn't understand what was happening over the deafening cheers around her. Delly darted forward and grabbed her wrists before she could run away.
"Delly! But…" she started. Delly laughed joyfully and opened the door to the food pantry. It was practically a walk-in closet. Bristel pushed a blushing Peeta in right after Katniss and the door slammed, leaving them in darkness. There was a din of noise and giggling and calls for more beer on the other side of the door.
A light clicked on and Peeta's hand on was on the drawstring for the bulb overhead.
Katniss buried her face in her hands.
"Sorry about Delly. She gets kinda…frisky when she's drunk. She thinks everyone always wants to get it on too."
"I can't believe she'd send her own boyfriend into a closet for Seven Minutes with someone else!" Katniss gasped.
"What? I'm not dating Delly."
She blinked at him. "What?"
He shook his head. "She's with Bristel. I thought everyone knew that."
Katniss' jaw dropped. "She's dating Bristel?"
"Yeah. Nearly two years."
"Yep," Peeta confirmed. "She had me over when she told her parents this summer. They were really cool about it, it was great. Well, Bristel's really good for her anyway, they've always liked her."
"You're not dating Delly," Katniss repeated.
"No. I'm not dating anyone," he said softly.
She stared at a jar of peaches on the floor.
"Sooo…do you have a date for prom?"
She was having trouble breathing. "I'm not going."
"Not going? Are you grounded?"
"No," she whispered. She felt like she was suffocating. "Just…wasn't…invited."
He looked at her. She thought he looked nervous, but she couldn't tell since she'd only ever seen him confident.
"Um. Um." He licked his lips. "Do you want to go with me?"
She couldn't see for a moment. "What?" she croaked.
"Um. Neither of us have dates. So…we could go together."
Katniss felt the small of her back slick with sweat. The pantry started to grow unbearably warm. She couldn't think of what to say.
"And…I want to go with you," he smiled slowly. She stared. She blinked. He cleared his throat and scratched at his neck. She looked at the pink patch on his pale white skin where he had scratched. "It's just, um. Katniss, I…I think you're really cool. And," he breathed a nervous laugh," really pretty." He shrugged. "I mean, I wanted to ask you for a while but," he laughed, "I always figured after I accidentally made you fall down those stairs you didn't really want to hang out with me. But…I figured maybe if we got the chance to talk again, I mean here at Delly's, I um…I wouldn't get so nervous and knock you down." His giggle was nervous and frantic. "Wow, this is not helping me at all, is it?"
She didn't reply and he took a step forward, inhaling deeply. "You're really…I just…I really like you and I can't stop thinking about you and will you go to prom with me?"
She stared at him as he gasped for air. "What?"
"Oh fuck it," he rasped, and leaned forward to press his lips to hers.
His mouth was sweet with the hint of the beer's sharp bitterness. He sighed against her cheek as he relaxed and kissed her again. She was shaking. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close, slipping his tongue into her mouth to taste her. She felt dizzy and held onto his arms to support herself. He tasted warm and rich and the smell of nutmeg filled her lungs. She moved her hands to his hair. He groaned and pulled her tighter and her chest hurt from where he gripped her so tightly. Her hip was cramped against the shelf behind her and she shifted closer to him.
He pulled back to murmur, "You smell really good," before burying his face in her neck. He traced his tongue along the vein where her heart pounded under the flesh and she felt the juncture between her thighs throb and she moaned softly. She wanted him to press against her harder.
"You smell like cake," she whispered.
He laughed a breathy exhale and brought his mouth back to hers, letting his hands roam her back and sides. Her leg twitched and he reached down and grabbed one of her knees to wrap one leg around his waist. She could feel the pressure of where he pressed their groins together and it felt incredible. She never wanted it to end.
"Time's up!" Delly swung the door wide open.
Katniss gasped as she felt the light of the kitchen hit her face and a hundred eyes watching her in amusement. Peeta pulled back and grinned at Delly. "Del, come on! Things were just getting interesting," he laughed. The kids in the kitchen cackled and hooted. Katniss felt his hand on her upper thigh and realized her fingers were still in his hair.
Katniss shoved him off her and covered her face as she ran out of the pantry. She knocked Delly back into Bristel as she dove through the swarm of people and ran to the front door. She was out into the night in seconds.
"Katniss! Katniss, wait! Where are you going?"
She spun around, nearly falling onto the lawn with her momentum. Peeta jogged to catch up with her. He grinned. "What's wrong?"
She slugged him in the face with everything she had. He fell backwards onto the lawn.
"Fuck you!" she screamed.
"What? I thought you were having fun!" he said in surprise, holding his bloody nose.
"Fun? Is this your idea of fun?" She could feel the tears coming now. "Invite the biggest outcast to a party so you can laugh at her? Make her think you don't care she's dirt poor and her dad left and she can't go to college! Pretend you give a shit about anyone but yourself and showing off for your cruel friends. I can't believe I fell for your shit! Stay the hell away from me!"
She kicked him hard in the leg and took off running as he cried out in pain.
She was at the edge of the housing development quickly and could hear voices behind her in the distance. She ran across the road, busy during the day but now deserted in the night hours. She ran hard into the densely wooded embankment and ducked behind an old oak tree and held her heaving breath.
"Katniss! Come back!" cried Delly from far off.
"Katniss!" shouted Bristel. "Where did she go?"
Katniss covered her mouth with both hands to keep from screaming. She heard Bristel turn around and yell in the other direction. "What did you do?"
"Nothing!" she heard Peeta shout. "It was just a game!"He called her name and she felt tears of rage boil up. She took off her sandals quickly and silently crept through the dark trees.
The voices behind her faded into the night.
It was a quarter mile before she emerged on the other side of the embankment and another half mile before she reached the bus stop by the public library. She paused under the streetlight to check her ankles for ticks and count the change in her pocket. Just enough for the ride home. She slumped down onto the dirty bench and willed herself not to cry. The main road she'd found was busy on a Friday night and she feared a classmate might spot her alone and weeping the day before prom.
The bus arrived ten minutes later and she climbed the stairs in defeat. The coins made a raucous clanking noise as they fell into the machine.
"Are you all right, honey?"
She looked up at the bus driver in confusion. The driver was looking her up and down. Katniss took herself in using the warped passenger fisheye mirror and saw her tear-streaked face and dirty clothes. She looked like she'd escaped a mental hospital.
"I'm fine," she sighed, shaking her head. She shuffled away down the aisle under the scrutiny of the other passengers, surely wondering if they should call the police or the asylum. She dropped into an empty seat and let her forehead loll against the grimy window. She could see the woman across from her gawking at her. It would be a long ride home.
She disembarked at the entrance to her neighborhood and didn't turn around as the driver called for her to be careful. She shuffled along and tried to think of what she would say if Prim was still awake. She hoped she'd fallen asleep watching a movie and she could shower without Prim ever knowing she'd been humiliated in front of her classmates. It wasn't even 11:00 yet, so at least she didn't have to explain her appearance to her mother. She still didn't know how she was going to convince her mother to let her stay home for the rest of the year.
She turned the corner and stopped dead. Madge's car was in front of her house.
"Shit," she muttered to herself. She slowed her pace, dreading the moment she reached the house. Finally she reached the stoop and had no choice. She put her key in the lock. Prim was yanking it open before she could put the keychain back in her pocket.
"I was so scared," Prim was crying into her shirt. "What happened? Are you okay?"
Gale and Madge were behind her. "Katniss! Don't ever run away again," he said angrily, his eyes betraying the fear. "You scared the shit out of us." Madge was dabbing at her eyes.
"I'm sorry," Katniss mumbled. "They were all laughing at me."
"Who?" Prim demanded, pulling her inside and slamming the door.
"Peeta and Bristel and Delly," she choked. "We…we…" she shook her head.
"What happened?" Madge said, guiding her to the sofa. "We heard shouting and we came downstairs and you were gone and Peeta had a bloody nose."
Katniss took a deep breath. "Delly started a game of 'Seven Minutes in Heaven'."
"What's that?" asked Prim.
"Making out in a broom closet," Gale said.
"How is that a game?" Prim questioned.
"Shh," Madge hushed her. "Katniss, what happened?"
"Delly put me and Peeta in the closet," she stammered. "And he told me he liked me and asked me to prom. And I…just…he kissed me…and I liked it," she whimpered. "So I kissed him back and he was holding on to my leg and they opened the door and they laughed at me," she cried out, bending over and putting her face in her lap. "He was laughing at me. It was all a big joke. They only invited me to…" she was too ashamed to continue.
Prim wrapped her arms around her. She was so angry she couldn't speak. Gale was hugging Madge, who had broken down and was wailing that she left Katniss alone and it was all her fault.
"I'm going to kill him," Gale muttered. "I'll get him alone in the boys' room at prom and drown him in the sink. And you can dance on his body," he said stonily to Katniss.
"I'm not going," she said defeatedly.
"But Katniss," Madge started.
"Forget them, Katniss," Gale said bitterly. "We'll all go together and we'll have a great time."
"I'm not fucking going."
Madge started to protest.
"No!" Katniss stood up. "Why would I? So they can all point and laugh? How can I ever show my face at that school again?"
"Because if you don't they get away with it," Prim stood up.
Katniss stared at her little sister. "What?"
"They chased you away from this party and you let them. You're better than they are, they were lucky you went!" "Prim, no one thinks that," Katniss sighed dejectedly.
"Because they're fucking stupid!" she yelled. "Katniss, you helped raise me since Dad left, I know what kind of person you are. I've seen you work so hard taking care of the house and yard and groceries so Mom can rest after she comes home. I know you're not going to college because you don't want Mom to have to worry about money. You're gold and they're shit."
"Prim's right, Katniss," Gale said softly. "I know you watched Rory and Posy for free all the time so my mom could have a break and go out with my dad. You're always generous with your time. I don't know how we could do it without you."
"And you always sit with me at lunch and volunteer to do projects with me so I'm not alone," Madge whispered. "You're the only one who talks to me and makes me laugh. I'd rather have you as my one friend than a hundred of those worthless kids."
Katniss looked back and forth between her friends and sister.
"Katniss, please go," Prim whispered. "I know you really wanted to."
Katniss sighed at her lap. "I…I don't…"
"Sleep on it," Madge said gently. "Things will seem better in the morning. I promise."
Katniss forced a weak smile. "You sound like my mom."
"Oh shit, Mom! You've got to get in the shower and change!" Prim jumped up and grabbed Katniss' hands. "You're covered in-"
The front door opened.
"Hey girls! I'm home-" Mrs. Everdeen stopped dead. "Oh my God! Baby, what happened?" She dropped her purse and tote bag on the floor and ran to Katniss.
"Oh," Katniss stammered. "Umm."
"She fell off my porch," Madge said. "We were having lemonade out back and the old plastic chair finally broke and she tumbled off the deck."
"You've been crying!" Mrs. Everdeen exclaimed.
"But I'm fine," Katniss said quickly. "More scared and surprised than hurt."
"We thought she'd broken her arm," Gale added.
"I was afraid my dad wouldn't let me have friends over again," Madge lied smoothly.
"But I'm fine, really," Katniss promised. "Just knocked my elbow. Sorry I got your blouse dirty. I fell into the garden."
"Oh, that old thing," her mother dismissed. "You should keep it. It looks better on you. Fits you better," she smiled, nodding at the way it hugged her daughter's body. "I don't fill it out like that."
"Mom!" she objected, folding her arms over her chest.
Gale laughed. "It'll get you some attention, I promise you that."
Katniss rolled her eyes. "I'm going to take a shower."
"I should get back home anyway," Madge sighed. "It's getting late. My dad will worry I've been in a car accident."
"Thank you for bringing her home," Mrs. Everdeen smiled. "Take care!"
"Bye!" they called in unison as they slipped out the front door. "I'll see you tomorrow," Madge winked at Katniss.
"Tomorrow?" her mother asked as she closed the door.
"Kat's going to prom tomorrow," Prim said quickly and definitively.
"Oh sweetie! I'm so glad you decided to go!" Mrs. Everdeen hugged her daughter. "You worked so hard this year," she beamed.
"I don't really want to," Katniss moaned. "Madge wants me to go so she's not so nervous around Gale."
Her mother chuckled. "From the way he looks at her she could say the multiplication tables and he'd be interested. Are you," her mother asked gently, "taking someone?"
"Well, that's fun too," she said quickly. "I went with Madge's mother and her sister, you know. We had a wonderful time. As I recall, I woke up at the gates of Cedar Point with the school mascot."
"Mom!" Prim laughed.
Her mother laughed. "The time to have fun and adventures is when you're young," she insisted. "You only get a few chances to make your best mistakes and learn from them. And besides, that mascot and I were married for ten years and had two beautiful daughters. It was the best mistake I've ever made."
Katniss sighed. "Okay. I'll go."
The latest Mrs. Undersee gently dabbed the shadow onto Katniss' lids. "What you want is a light shimmer," she whispered as she concentrated. "Just to make your eyes glow a little. That's what the judges are looking for."
Madge gave Katniss a look over her stepmother's shoulder. Katniss tried not to smirk.
"Okay. What do you think, Margaret?"
"She looks good, Stephanie," Madge smiled. Stephanie Undersee looked pleased and turned to put away her makeup suitcase.
"Margaret?" Katniss mouthed. Madge shrugged helplessly.
"Your hair is incredible," Stephanie said as she returned. "Who's your stylist?"
"Your mother did that?" Madge asked. Katniss turned to look in the mirror. Her mother had braided the hair back from her face to join around the back of her crown. She'd left the bottom half of her hair fall loose and she curled the ends into loose waves down her back. She smiled and touched her hair.
"Okay, now go get dressed! Gale will be here any minute and you're still in your loungewear!" Madge and Katniss laughed and hurried upstairs.
"She calls it loungewear?" Katniss snorted as she followed Madge into her room.
"She tries," Madge sighs. "I think she didn't realize how awkward being so close to my age would be. She never knows when to be a mom or to be a friend," Madge admitted. She shook her head. "At least she's giving it a shot. My mom's boyfriend is a jerk." She threw open her closet door. "Pick one."
Katniss stared. "How many dances have you not gone to?"
There were dresses of every color and style hanging in a walk-in closet larger than the bedroom Katniss shared with Prim. "How do I pick?" she breathed.
Madge frowned in thought. "Hmmm. You look great in light green," she said, pulling down a dress with a sheer overlay and mermaid skirt. "But you've never worn pink," she added, pulling down a pale pink shift with a short train and puffed sleeves. "I like you in purple," she continued, hauling down a one-shouldered gown with a slit up the side. "That one's from Stephanie," she added. "But…for you…I would wear this."
The dress was magnificent even on the hanger. It was draped low on the back with a single jeweled rope to rest across her shoulders. The drape's tails hung down like a cape on the ends, detailed with small jewels. The color was the richest night blue she'd ever seen. "Madge, this dress…" she breathed.
"Is perfect for you." She pushed the dress into Katniss' hands. "Put in on."
"What are you going to wear?"
"This," Madge said shyly. She held up a shimmery white dress with short sleeves and pearls up the seams. The bottom swished like a bell. Katniss grinned.
"Let's get dressed."
Madge walked out of the bathroom five minutes later. "What do you think? Too much like a cake topper?"
Katniss laughed. "You look incredible." Madge grinned and shooed her into the bathroom. When Katniss walked out, Madge stared.
"Margaret! Katniss! Gale is here!" Stephanie called up from the foyer.
"What are you doing?" Madge looked at Katniss as she slipped on her Chuck Taylors under her dress.
"Madge, I cannot fall down tonight and rip this dress. I'm going to wear my sneakers."
Madge smiled. "Okay."
They hurried out the door, grabbing jeweled bags and wraps. When Madge hurried ahead, Katniss checked to make sure she had enough bus fare in her purse. Just in case.
She got to the top of the stairs to see Gale blushing furiously as he pinned a red rose corsage on Madge's dress. Stephanie was snapping photos gleefully. "Katniss!" she gasped. "You look fabulous!"
Gale glanced up. "Wow. You clean up good, Everdeen."
She giggled happily and hurried down the stairs. "Are you driving or is Madge?"
Stephanie clapped her hands. "Why don't you take the Jaguar?"
Gale's eyebrows nearly lifted off his forehead. "Your dad has a Jag?" he whispered. Katniss was concerned his might start drooling.
"Well, technically it's mine," Stephanie sighed, "but I don't like how it handles. I drive the BMW all the time instead."
Gale's knees nearly buckled and Madge took the keys from Stephanie. "Thanks, Steph." She gave her a quick hug. Stephanie looked surprised and happy.
"Sure…Madge. Have a great time!" She waved them goodbye as they slipped out the garage door.
"Oh. My. God." Gale lay down across the hood of the beautiful, dark green luxury car. "You're so pretty," he whispered to the car. "Let's be friends."
Madge laughed. "I take it you want to drive?"
Katniss swore Gale could have proposed at that moment. "Are you serious?"
"Of course," she said. "If I trust anyone with cars, it's you."
He nearly lost it grabbing the keys and running to the driver's door. "Sorry, sorry!" he said, darting to the passenger doors to help the girls in first. Katniss shook her head and climbed in the back. Madge dropped into the front seat and turned back to Katniss as Gale giddily jumped behind the wheel.
"How are you feeling?" she asked as he gently guided the car out of the garage.
"Nervous," Katniss admitted. "But I'm going to my prom with my two best friends. No one is taking that away from me."
"Glad to hear it," Gale said. He turned on to the main road. "Oh my God, this car purrs like a kitten." Madge laughed.
"There are so many people," Katniss breathed as they waited in the line for tickets. She looked around. "I wish our prom was at a hotel, like Broadhurst's."
"Broadhurst is a private school," Gale reminded her. "Our county lost so much funding this year it's amazing we still have classes."
Katniss handed her mother's cash to the administrator who gave her back a ticket. It was a stamped with little blue fish and swirly blue waves. She felt the heat of Delly's living room and tasted Peeta's lips on her own for a moment and her heart sank.
"Wow," Madge whispered as they stepped into their cafeteria.
The lights were covered in paper of every color blue and the windows were covered with clear vinyl blue wraps. Crepe paper swayed in the breeze from the vents and Katniss felt like she was standing in a sea of kelp and corals, waving back and forth with the warm ocean currents.
Gale watched Madge adoringly and they made their way over to the tables. Finding one that had not yet been claimed by shoes and purses, they set down their bags.
"Want some punch?" Gale asked them both.
"Yes, please," Katniss said.
"I'll help you," Madge offered. As she turned to follow Gale, Madge spun around. "Are you going to be all right for a moment?"
Katniss glanced around. She didn't see anyone from last night nearby. "I'm fine. Go get him, tiger," she grinned.
Madge blushed bright red and scurried away .
Katniss dropped into a chair and took in the room. She admired the lovely dresses and jewelry of her classmates, sighing at the limos she could see pulling up outside when faculty opened the side door to smoke. She wiggled her toes, grateful she was wearing her sneakers.
She turned around, expecting Madge and a cup of punch.
But it was Bristel.
"Hey," Bristel said, dropping into a seat by her.
Katniss moved to stand up. Bristel grabbed her arm. "Please wait. Delly's so upset she doesn't even want to come over here."
"Good," Katniss spat, looking for Gale.
"I had no idea you were so shy, it's just a game. I do it to my friends all the time."
"Then you're a shitty friend, Bristel."
Bristel looked stung and let go of Katniss' arm. Katniss ran to the bathroom.
A girl with frizzy red hair was so startled when she burst through the door she smeared lipstick across her cheek. She gave Katniss a glare and started to clean up her face. Katniss mumbled a half-apology and ducked into a stall, clicking the lock firmly and wondering what to do. She heard the redhead smack her repaired lipstick and walk out; leaving her alone in the bathroom. She tried to remember if there was a window she could crawl out.
Two gossiping girls barreled in to the bathroom. Katniss crouched down against the stall.
"Wait, so what happened?" one asked.
"Well Cinder wasn't there, but she says she heard from Rika who heard from Fawn who heard from Leevy, that he left crying."
"Why?" the first girl gasped.
"No one knows!" The second girl gushed eagerly. "Apparently they were in the pantry making out and then she punched him and left. Cinder says Delly nearly called his dad to come get him."
"Oh my God," the first girl breathed.
Katniss felt her face burn. She curled into herself.
"What the fuck does he see in her?" the second girl scoffed. "She's so cold. She and Madge just sit there at their lunch table with their perfect hair and perfect faces and think they're better than everyone else."
"You're so much nicer than she is, Bonnie," the first girl said. "And besides, if he just likes her for her looks, he's shallow."
"But he's soooo hot," moaned Bonnie with a giggle. "I can't believe he's not coming now."
"Ugh. Katniss Everdeen totally ruined this prom for me," the first girl said. Then Bonnie made a clucking noise in agreement. "Okay, that's long enough. Let's go pretend our dates are Peeta."
Bonnie laughed as they walked out the door, "Or Gale Hawthorne. Did you see him in his tux..."
Katniss stood shaking in the stall.
They thought she was a snob? They thought she was perfect? They were jealous? She let her shoulders roll forward and she sighed heavily. She unlocked the stall.
Madge opened the door. "There you are! I was afraid you'd run away." She lowered her voice. "I saw Bristel and Delly are here. Katniss? What's wrong?"
"I just…I think I made the bed I lie in."
Madge frowned. "I'm not following."
"I always thought no one liked me for the things I don't like about me. I think I made them not like me for the things I don't like about them."
"That's not really helpful."
Katniss smiled helplessly. "You don't think I'm a snob, right?"
"What?" Madge nearly fell over. "No!"
"Thank you," Katniss smiled. "Let's go dance."
She took Madge's hand and led her out of the bathroom to the dance floor.
"I need a break," Gale sighed. "My feet are killing me."
"Wuss," Katniss grinned.
"Yeah, can't keep up with the girls?" Madge dared to tease him. He grinned and kissed her on the cheek. She squeaked in excitement as he winked and walked back to their table.
Katniss and Madge danced together and laughed. Suddenly Madge froze up.
"What's wrong?" Katniss had almost asked when she felt the tap on her shoulder. She turned very slowly.
"I'm so sorry."
He was wearing a tee-shirt and jeans, drawing attention like a beacon in front of all the other boys in their rented tuxedos. She'd left a pale blue bruise on his face, but she was more distracted by the split lip.
"What happened to your mouth?" she said involuntarily.
"Your sister punched me."
Katniss gaped at him. "What?"
"I tried calling you a bunch of times, but she kept hanging up on me. So I found your address online and I went over to talk to you but she said you'd gone to prom. Well, she actually said a lot of things," he frowned. "She's really mean," he pouted.
"She's the sweetest girl in Ohio," Madge countered. "You made her mean!"
"She pushed me down the front steps!" he argued.
Katniss stomped away. She hoped she looked confident.
He was in front of her immediately. "You gotta listen to me."
"Why did you invite me to that party?" she accused him. "Why did you embarrass me in front of all your friends?"
"I'm so sorry," he breathed. "Delly and I just pull that crap on each other all the time; I wasn't even thinking about how you might not think it's funny." He stepped forward and tried to take her hand. She pulled away nervously. "I invited you," he insisted, "because I've been trying to find a way to talk to you for a year."
"It didn't seem like you were interesting in talking last night," she said bitterly.
"It's not my fault you're gorgeous," he shot back.
"Don't try to make me think I'm pretty and smart and you like me! You're just going to trick me again!"
"Go away! Why can't you just leave me alone?"
"It's not that easy! After you fell down the stairs and stopped talking to me. I tried to just forget about you. But there are reminders everywhere." She stared at him. He smiled ruefully. "Do you know in how many bathroom stalls your name is written? I see your name dozens of times a day. I hear people talking about you all the time. I can't forget you."
"Stop it," she whispered, covering her face. "Just stop."
"I'm not going to fall for this again. You're going to try to make me feel like I'm special and pretty and then you're going to throw pig's blood on me."
"You think this is Carrie?" He smiled, hoping she was joking.
"Only I don't get to burn the school down. I get humiliated and you and your friends walk away and laugh at me."
"No one's laughing, Katniss."
She looked over his shoulder. Delly was leaning against the wall fifty feet away, chewing her nails nervously watching them. Her expression was concerned and fretful. Bristel was holding Delly's free hand. She spied Katniss and offered an apologetic smile.
Peeta dared to take a step closer. "I'm not pretending anything. I saw you that first day I came here last year and haven't thought of anything but you since."
"Stop," she whispered.
"You were wearing your hair in a braid, but you kept sticking your pencil in it so it got looser and these little strands slipped out around your face," he told her. "You had on a shirt with the Pacman ghosts across the front and your jeans had a rip just above your right knee. Your shoes had mismatched laces, and you were talking to your friend Gale outside the chemistry lab. You laughed and it sounded like music.
"I tried to go talk to you the next day, and the one after, but you were always with Gale. I thought he was your boyfriend. But over the summer when Delly and I became friends she told me you were free so I decided I was going to try to talk to you this year.
"But you were even prettier. And taller. And so intimidating. I just kept thinking; well if I'm calculus club captain she'll ask me about homework. If I run for student office, she'll think I'm smart and successful. And yes, I do realize how stupid that sounds but really I would do anything to get your attention." He looked down at himself. "Including showing up to prom looking like this."
"I'll show you."
She watched in frozen horror as he jogged to the stage. The music suddenly cut off and the microphone gave a horrible squeal. Kids shrieked and covered their ears in pain. He'd climbed on the platform and unplugged the DJ's turntables. He took the microphone.. His voice was echoing from the maxed-out speakers.
"Katniss, will you go to prom with me?"
She could feel the eyes in the room turning to her. She glanced to her left and right. Tate's date was gawking. Her mouth felt dry. She couldn't think of what to say.
Peeta started to look worried. "Or, I guess will you stay at prom with me?"
It took her a few times to answer.
"Why?" she gasped.
"What?" he asked.
"Why do you like me?" she said, bewildered. "I'm awkward and clumsy and I can't even figure out how talk to anyone so people - well those girls right there anyway - think I'm a snob, and I just don't get it. Why do you like me?"
He smiled at her. "That's why I like you." He shrugged happily. "You're not like anybody I've ever met. You're just…you."
She looked around. Everyone was staring at her. The two girls from the bathroom were alternating glares at her and longing gazes at Peeta. Delly was at her side.
"Katniss. We've been friends for years," she whispered desperately. She leaned in close. "I know about your dad. He's not like that, Katniss. Peeta's a good guy. Give him a chance."
Tate's date pulled at her elbow. "Girl," she said, eyebrows raised under her blunt black bangs. "You gotta give that a chance."
Katniss turned around. Gale was standing behind her, watching Peeta on stage. "I think…I think you should give him a shot." He looked back to her. "One," he said firmly.
Katniss looked back to the stage.
"Okay," she murmured. "I'll go with you. Since we're already here," she smiled shyly.
He dropped the microphone on the stage and it shrieked again and prom guest bent over and covered their ears. Katniss winced and when she opened her eyes again he was in front of her.
Gale moved in front of Katniss quickly. "Just so we're clear, if you screw this up I will kill you."
Peeta nodded seriously. "Understood."
"Good." Gale turned and winked at Katniss before leaving them alone to talk.
She bit her lip and stammered. "I don't have a boutonniere."
He smiled. "I brought you flowers, but I left them in the car."
"You brought me flowers?"
He nodded seriously. "Took me a long time to get them away from that new mother leaving the hospital, that's for sure."
It took her a moment, but she burst out laughing. He grinned and sighed. "God, your laugh is like music."
She blushed and covered her face. He took her hands in his. "I love to see you laugh," he whispered, pulling her close. "I love everything about you. I love your eyes, I love the way you walk into lockers for no reason, I love how you throw a left hook-"
"You talk too much." She rocked forward on her toes and kissed him.
"Cannonball!" Katniss turned around to see Bristel tearing across the deck in her underwear before leaping into Delly's pool with a terrific splash. The wave lapped over the side of the pool, soaking her dress and Peeta's rolled up jeans where they sat with their legs dangling in the water.
"Oh my God," she gasped, looking around her back at the huge wet blotch over her backside and thighs.
"Well, if you can't beat 'em…" Peeta grinned, holding the zipper of his jeans suggestively. He raised his eyebrows to test if she would follow suit.
She blushed fiercely as Delly's dress hit deck next to Bristel's discarded shoes by her leg. A tug at her elbow revealed Madge peeling off her dress.
"Madge!" she whispered in surprise.
"You only live once," Madge muttered with nervous excitement. Katniss glanced over to where Gale watched the white dress slip off Madge's shoulders. Not unexpectedly he was pulling off his shoes moments later.
She turned and hurried inside.
She was opening kitchen cabinets in search of a dish towel when he closed the deck door behind him. She turned. "You should swim if you want to," she said. "I just…I'm not…."
"I just want to hang out with you," he shrugged. "Dry land or not."
She smiled with relief. "Do you know where they keep dish towels?"
"I have a better idea," he said, taking her hand. He showed her to Delly's room and opened the drawer of pajamas. "She doesn't mind, really. Borrow whatever you want. You can hang your dress up in her bathroom right through there."
He left so she could change privately. When she had tied the drawstring to the pants with ducks wearing sombreros and hung the dress over the shower rod to dry, she padded downstairs. Hearing the TV on in the den, she found him sprawled across the loveseat in a set of sweatpants and dry t-shirt.
"Are those her father's?" she asked in amusement.
"Bristel's, actually," he grinned sheepishly. "What? They're sweatpants. They're gender-neutral."
"Nothing. You look good in purple."
"It's periwinkle blue."
"Right," she laughed.
"Come over here," he said, stretching out his arms.
She complied, albeit nervously, and he pulled her down on top of him, cradled against his shoulder with her spine resting against the soft back of the loveseat. He sighed contentedly. "I can't tell you how long I dreamed about holding you like this."
"I can't tell you how many times I walked into lockers because I was staring at you," she admitted, smoothing his shirt with her fingers. She looked up to his face and he stretched down to kiss her. She kissed him back feverishly and shifted her hips against his thighs.
"What's wrong?" she asked, jerking back.
"Sorry. That was right where you kicked me," he winced gingerly.
"I forgot I did that," she smiled, covering her mouth. "Oops."
"Why are you smiling?" he teased, pouting in jest.
"Sorry. I'm just kind of impressed at myself for that."
"Oh yeah?" he bit his lip, tickling her side.
"Augh! Stop it," she laughed. "I'm so ticklish, stop!" She tried to climb off the loveseat, but slipped and landed on his leg.
"Ow!" He rolled to the side and they fell into a giggling heap on the floor. He spread his legs over her hips and pinned her arms above her head with one hand and ran his fingers up and down her ribs. She writhed on the floor in gales of laughter.
"Stop, I'm going to wet my pants!"
He grinned and let his free hand trail up her arm to clasp his fingers in his. He watched her face. Leaning over her, he dipped his mouth to hers.
He tasted sweet. She could smell the chlorine on their skin from the pool. His breath was warm against her cheek. She pressed up against his mouth and he freed his fingers to tangle them in her hair. The pressure against her hips change as she felt him stretch out on top of her, leaning on his elbows to keep his weight off her.
She parted her lips and he darted his tongue into her mouth. The kisses grew more fervent. He rolled onto his right side to hold her body against his. He brought his left hand to her leg and pulled it over his hip, pressing against her tightly. She groaned against his lips. His left hand traveled slowly up her thigh and slipped under the Eastpoint Tigers tee shirt she'd borrowed from Delly.
"Wait," she gasped, pulling back. She was breathing hard. His pupils were dilated.
"Sorry," he breathed. "That was a little fast."
"You're really hot," he blushed. "I shouldn't have done that."
"No, no, it felt really good," she admitted. "It's just…" She looked at the boy tangled up in her legs. "My mom got pregnant with me on prom night."
She felt his grasp around her back loosen. "Whoa."
"Yeah," she shrugged awkwardly against the carpet. "Kinda…"
"Whoa," he said again. "I didn't mean…I was just…gonna touch…I was going to feel you up," he confessed awkwardly. She raised her eyebrows. "It's not that I don't want to do that," he said quickly. "I totally do, I just…we just started dating barely two hours ago and I'm not ready for kids and we're in Delly's parents house and my dad would kill me."
She laughed quietly at him.
"What?" he asked.
"You talk too much."
He smiled and let his head drop back on the carpet. "You make me so nervous and awkward. Any assembly, I'm calm and cool. Then I see you in class and my tongue is in knots and all I want to do is touch you."
She tucked her head down against his shoulder. "I wish I'd trusted you. I wish I'd trusted me enough to give you a chance. I get so afraid that I'll fall for someone and they'll leave."
Peeta let a silence pass.
"Is that what happened?" he asked quietly. "Your dad, I mean?"
She nodded against his shoulder. "I was ten. Prim was six. He left a note that he met this waitress at a truck stop on his route." She laughed bitterly. "He wrote he wanted me and Prim to meet her one day."
"Mom said we could visit him if we wanted to; she got full custody but wanted us to know him. Prim went once. I told Mom she'd better keep me away from that diner or start saving bail money that day."
He raised an eyebrow. "And you were surprised you could deck a guy?"
She smiled. "I never got close enough to one before yesterday."
"Well. I guess I'm honored," he told her. He leaned forward to kiss her again. "I'd never do that, Kat," he whispered against her lips.
"I know," she whispered. "I know now."
She relaxed against his body and felt her eyelids grow heavy. The sound of the television seemed to slip away as she grew tired. His breathing grew deep and steady.
"Katniss?" he whispered sleepily.
"Do I really smell like cake?"
She smiled. "Carrot cake. My favorite."
Madge's father was so surprised she wanted to throw a graduation party for her friends that he hired a band and caterers and nearly booked a petting zoo before she wrestled the phone away from him.
Gale was nearly green with nausea from fear of meeting her father. Katniss worried over his button down shirt as they rang the doorbell. "He'll like you," she promised.
"I'm going to vomit," Gale whispered.
The door flew wide open. "Katniss! Come on in. And you must be Gale?" Mr. Undersee asked.
"Yes. Sir. Yes, sir," Gale stammered, holding out his hand. "Gale Hawthorne." Undersee grabbed his hand and pulled him into the house with a firm handshake.
"Like Hawthorne Motors? You're Henry Hawthorne's son?"
"Yes, sir," Gale croaked.
"Saints alive, I haven't seen Hank since we were hunting buddies. Must've been ten years now. Christ, maybe fifteen. I can tell you some stories about your old man," Undersee laughed, throwing an arm around Gale's shoulders as he showed them to the party. "Don't be mistaken, your father is a good man, but good Lord can he tell a filthy joke. How is that ol' bastard?"
Gale flushed and stammered, "Really well, sir. Looking forward to retirement."
"Jeez, it's been a long time. We'll have to get some hunting time back in when he's got the time! Do you hunt?"
"Just deer and duck."
"Deer?" Undersee launched into a what would clearly be a long story about hunting with Gale's father and Katniss gave him a thumbs up over his shoulder before she slipped away towards the source of conversation and music. She stepped in Madge's usually quiet sunken living room to find at least thirty of her classmates playing video games, talking over one another and showing each other battle scars from prom-related injuries. She smiled. Delly and Madge had both scraped their knees on the pool deck playing Marco Polo at 3:30 in the morning and Gale had burned himself cooking breakfast the next morning. The worst she had was a crick in her neck from sleeping on Peeta all night.
She slipped out back and found another cluster of graduated students screaming over a local band she recognized from a poster on Vick's wall. She continued her search.
She found him sitting on Madge's old tree swing around the side of the house.
"What are you doing all the way over here?" she smiled.
"Waiting for you," he told her.
"You should be saying goodbye to your constituents," Katniss advised with mock solemnity. "If you run for mayor someday, they'll be voting for you then."
"You think I should run?" he mused.
"You'd get elected."
"Eh," he shrugged, watching Madge run over to rescue Gale from her overly enthusiastic father. "Not in the cards for me."
She leaned against the tree. "Did you want to go out of state? To a bigger school?"
He looked at his shoes. "I got a full scholarship to go out of state."
Katniss gasped. "Your parents couldn't hire someone to help out? I mean, a full scholarship…"
"They could have," he mumbled. "I'm the one that turned it down."
He looked up at her. "Katniss, I don't think you realize just how much I like you."
She stared. "You stayed in state for me?"
He nodded embarrassedly.
"Just on the off-chance we'd start dating?"
"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."
"You sound like Delly."
"You threw away a good school and a scholarship to stay here for me."
"Well, when you put it like that-"
She was in his lap before he could finish the sentence. She held on to him as he threatened to topple out of the swing, kissing him over and over. She pressed her forehead to his. "I guess I can trust you after all."
"I'm really too stupid to cause you any grief," he grinned.
"You're the smartest stupid person I've ever met."
"You're the most popular outcast I've ever known," he countered.
She kissed him again. "Never get smart," she whispered.
"Okay," he agreed easily. "Oh, hey, I brought a carrot cake."
She let go of the swing and he fell over backwards as she ran to the refreshments table.
He taught her how to make his mother's famous carrot cake with raisin cream cheese icing the second week she worked at the bakery. The sixth week she worked there, his father caught them fooling around in the back of the delivery truck.
In the fall, he started classes at the campus across town. He told his parents they'd save money by him living at home, but Katniss knew it was so he could see her more often. She told him he was missing out on the college experience by spending so much time away from campus.
So he found them an apartment across the street from the university quad on the bus line that dropped her off a block from the bakery. The day they moved in, she pulled him into the walk-in food pantry to finish what they started six months earlier.
When he accepted his diploma, he tipped his motor board so the viewing monitor could see it read "Marry Me Katniss" in duct tape across the top. His father hugged her while she and his mother cried and embraced.
Two years later, the second pink line appeared on the test. She tamed her joy and strolled to the kitchen where he was practicing making frosting flowers on a pastry nail for Madge and Gale's wedding cake. She adopted her best smirk and tried to sound mad.
"I knew it."
He looked up from the flower. "What?"
"I knew I couldn't trust you."
He put the pastry bag down. "What? What's going on?"
"You went and knocked me up. Isn't it just like a guy to take a girl to prom and knock her up?"
He blinked at her. He opened his mouth and closed it a few times while he tried to connect the thoughts in his brain. She let the smile break across her face.
She held up the test. "Do you think it was that time on the flour sack?"
He forgot to put down the frosting rose and smeared sugar all over her tee shirt when he grabbed her into his arms. She laughed as he nearly cried with excitement.
"We should call my parents!" he exclaimed.
"We have to call my mom," she said. "And Prim."
"No! She'll punch me."
"She's back at school. You're safe until spring break," she teased, pulling away. She frowned suddenly as her shirt shifted on her back. "Did you get frosting on my tee?"
"Oh… Yes," he said, looking at now empty frosting nail in his hand.
She pulled off her shirt and turned it around to examine the blue streak across the tee. "Peeta!"
He grinned and took her hand. "You look better without it." He leaned in and rested a palm over her belly button. "Hi there," he murmured to her stomach.
Katniss watched him gaze dreamily as he imagined their child growing under his hand.
"Peeta?" she whispered.
"You won't ever leave him behind? Or her?" she added. "You won't forget about her?"
He looked up slowly. "Never."
"Never." He stepped in. "Never." He gave her a small smile. "The bathroom stalls across the state wouldn't let me anyway."
She batted him arm away and laughed. She turned to find a new shirt when he caught her around the waist.
"You know," he whispered into her ear, ticking her lobe, "we won't be able to escape to pantry much in nine months..."
"Well, really eight," She gave him a coy smile and pulled him into the closet after her.
"You know what's funny?" he said, ticking her and making her jump and giggle.
"It's been seven years," he said.
She thought for a moment. "It has," she frowned, searching for him meaning.
"And it has," he said, "been heaven."
"Seven Years in Heaven," she grinned.
"And that," he promised, "is only the start."