"Katniss! You're going to be late!" her mother shouted up the stairs. "The car is here!"
"Just a minute!" Katniss frantically ran her fingers over the dress. "What else?" She touched her hair, ran her finger outside her lips to catch any gloss, checked her teeth in the mirror and spun to Prim. "What else?"
"Go have fun?"
"I feel sick."
"You're just nervous," Prim smiled, handing her little jeweled bag they'd borrowed from her grandmother. "You look beautiful."
Katniss turned to look in the mirror. The long silver dress just tapped the top of her feet and she had found silver flats so she wouldn't tower over Peeta. Her mother had set her hair in hot rollers, but it was so long it hung it loose waves down her back. She pinned the sides away from her face and let her mother help her with simple makeup since she had no practice with it.
"I don't know," she murmured. "I look…like me." She pulled at the small ribbon belt with the rhinestone buckle.
"That's who he likes, Katniss!" Prim laughed.
"Liked," she muttered as she checked her eyeliner.
"He still likes you, Katniss," Prim insisted. "I'm sure of it. He's taking you to prom."
"I'm taking him, Prim. He didn't even want to go with me, I just trapped him in it so he didn't have to tell his dad what happened."
"Oh for God's sake. He called to see what kind of flower you wanted for your corsage. He made sure you liked sushi. If he didn't care, he wouldn't be making sure the details were perfect." Katniss gave her a very doubtful look.
A horn honked outside.
"Oh my God."
Prim chuckled. "It's Gale and Madge and Peeta. All people you know and like. Now go have fun!"
"Katniss!" her mother called from downstairs. "Peeta's here for you."
"I'm shaking, Prim. I'm going to fall down the stairs."
"I hope he brought a catcher's mitt," Prim grinned, yanking her out of her room to the stairs. "Peeta, get her out of here," she called downstairs.
Peeta was waiting at the bottom of the stairs. His hair was combed. Katniss smiled as he tugged nervously at the rented tuxedo. It fit him well. She hope she looked as well as she ran her fingers across the strapless sweetheart bodice.
"Hi," he tried to say, but it came out of more of a croak. He coughed. "Sorry. Hi."
The plastic box holding her corsage shook lightly in his hand.
"Hi, she whispered, trying not to smile so hard. Her cheeks hurt.
"I…found a daffodil," he said uselessly. She could see the flower clearly. "Um."
"It's beautiful," she smiled. "Will you put it on for me?"
He glanced nervously at her mother taking pictures and back to the strapless gown. "It has a wrist band," he stammered, opening the clamshell and located the shimmery elastic band. She held out her hand and she could feel his own trembling as he slipped the band over her wrist.
"Katniss," her mother murmured. She glanced over and her mother handed her the boutonniere she'd stuck in the fridge that afternoon while she was panicking over her hair and face.
She carefully opened the safety pin and poked the daffodil to his lapel.
"Ow," he said.
"Oh no!" she jumped.
"I'm kidding," he smiled at her.
She tried to frown. "That is not funny."
"It's kinda funny," Prim giggled from the stairs.
The horn blew from outside, followed by Gale's shout of "Let's go, Mellark!"
Her mother laughed. "One more picture….smile!"
Peeta took a step closer to Katniss and cautiously wrapped an arm around her waist. She smiled bravely at the camera. She had her work cut out for her to make him trust her again.
"Okay. Let's not keep you any longer, go on." Her mother grinned, pushing them towards the door.
"Oh, um. What time does she need to be home?" Peeta asked.
"Whenever she can't possibly have any more fun," her mother smiled. She caught herself and hastily added, "Within reason."
Peeta blushed furiously. "Yes, ma'am."
"Mom!" Katniss covered her face.
"Okay, okay, get out of here!" she laughed and she and Prim pushed them out the door and closed it quickly.
"Sorry about that," Katniss mumbled. "They're embarrassing."
"Not compared to my dad," Peeta argued.
Gale's head popped up through the moon roof. "Let's move it! I'm starving." Madge's laughter floated up through the opening.
"He's in a state," Peeta warned. "He's showing off for Madge like crazy. I'm regretting encouraging her to ask him," he moaned as he started down her sidewalk. Katniss stopped him with her hand on his wrist.
"Peeta? Thank you for taking me. I know you probably weren't going to ask me after…I was an asshole."
"I definitely wasn't," he admitted with a rueful smile. He saw her shoulders sag. "But I am glad we have a chance to…get to know one another," he said.
He helped her into the limo.
Bristel whistled. "You clean up nice, Everdeen."
Katniss blushed as the limo pulled away from the curb. She glanced around to see Delly seated next to Bristel, wearing a turquoise and green halter dress with a seashell necklace. Madge was wearing white, but she doubted it would stay pristine the way she and Gale were hanging all over one another. Gale's tux bowtie was already handing undone and Madge was toying with it in giggles. She was not surprised to see Bristel was already tugging at her simple purple knee-length dress in discomfort.
"You really look lovely!" Delly smiled.
"Thank you," Katniss said appreciatively. "Are picking up your dates too?"
Delly flushed a little red. "I'm here with Bristel."
"Oh!" Katniss raised her eyebrows. She never picture silly, giggling Delly Cartwright and serious jock Bristel Miller would ever suit one another. But Bristel smiled as she took Delly's hand.
"My parents know," Delly said, "but I don't think a lot of people at school know we're dating."
"Don't think it'll be a big deal," Bristel added. "I heard Todd and Mike are going together and their baseball team is all cool with it."
"Well, you got us if there's weirdness," Peeta said from Katniss' side.
"Who doesn't want to watch two girls kissing?" Gale laughed.
Delly rolled her eyes while Bristel pushed him off the bench seat. He fell into a pile with Madge slipping on top of him and Katniss tried not to laugh.
"Have you ever been to Kyoto?" Peeta asked.
"Me? No," she said.
"They set fire to the grill. Make sure you lean back," he warned. "I lost an eyebrow my first time there."
"Part of it," Bristel scoffed. "You're such a drama queen. It was barely half your eyebrow."
Katniss studied Peeta's eyebrows. "Oh yeah, that one's a bit more sparse."
"Wait, what?" he touched his forehead in a panic while she and Bristel laughed.
The rented hotel ballroom shimmered in silvers, blues, and greens. Katniss gasped at the twirling light effects that cast images of corals, exotic fish and flowing sea plants across the walls.
"And you didn't even want to go," Gale teased in a whisper as Madge pulled him past her to the dance floor. He handed Katniss Madge's purse and followed his date.
"I guess I'll put this at the table for you?" Katniss called after them. "You're welcome!"
Peeta chuckled softly. "C'mon, we're at Table 37."
She followed him to the table where Delly was setting down her purse and Bristel was eating the foil-wrapped chocolates decorating the centerpiece. Katniss dropped Madge's purse in an empty chair and her own next to Peeta. Bristel glanced over at the two of them avoiding each other's eyes.
"Delly, let's get some punch!" she blurted out, yanking away her protesting girlfriend.
Katniss watched Peeta fidget with his jacket.
"Um. Do you want to dance?" she asked nervously.
"Well. Sure. I'm not very good," he said quickly.
"I've never danced, don't worry," she smiled. He reached out for her hand.
He led her out to the floor and she wrapped her arms around his neck and leaned her temple on his shoulder. She could tell he was surprised, but recovered and rested his hands on her waist.
"I'm having a really good time," she murmured.
"We just got here."
"I know. But if I say something stupid later and ruin your night, I just want you to know. You made me really, really happy today." She let her chin slip off his jacket and looked at her toes. "And in Florida. And all semester. Since eighth grade. I guess," she whispered, "always." She forced herself to meet his eyes. "I'm so sorry."
"It's okay, Katniss," he sighed heavily.
"It's not. Please stop pretending I was doing anything that was remotely okay after what you did for me and Prim."
He bit his inner cheek. "No, I should apologize too."
He looked at the mirrorball hanging on the ceiling. "I spent so long just imagining this person I thought you were that I didn't see you, you know? I set you up on this pedestal. That wasn't fair to you," he said sadly. "I'm sorry I tried to make you the person I thought you were. Katniss?"
She'd stopped swaying. She was staring hard at the buttons on his shirt. "Who did you think I was?" she whispered.
He heard the quaking in her voice and shifted nervously. "Are you all right?"
"Who did you think I was?" she repeated.
He cleared his throat. "I guess…someone that needed protecting?"
She met his eyes. "And?"
His face was getting red. "Someone who would appreciate my trying to help her little sister." He coughed. "We should get off the dance floor."
"Someone who wouldn't lie about losing their father. Someone I could rely on. Someone who wouldn't treat me like shit, Katniss." The soft flesh around his eyes was pink. "I don't want to dance anymore."
He turned on his heel. She grabbed his arm and yanked him back to her. She heard a gasp that could only be Madge behind her watching them closely.
"That's not fair," she nearly yelled.
"What?" He was glancing on the dancers around them eyeing their display.
"You can't hate me now!" she cried. "Not after all these years. Not after you've done so much for me. Not after you made me love you."
He took her in. "I don't hate you," he sighed. "I know I can't hate you. I've tried. Every time you push me away or break me down, I decide that is the time I'm giving up on Katniss Everdeen. But I can't," he grieved. "Katniss, I don't know what it is about you...there's just..."
"Something," she breathed.
"Yeah." He chewed his bottom lip. "Maybe I should go away to college. Get away from here. It might not be too late-"
"Stop. Please. Just listen." She swallowed hard. "I don't need protecting. I'm too overprotective of Prim to appreciate anyone else helping her. I am a liar. You know that. You've known that since we were thirteen."
"And you're not what I thought you were. Condescending. Nosy. Pitying. I was wrong too."
"I think I was wrong in a worse way," he thought aloud.
"You were still wrong." He reluctantly nodded.
"I'm not all good," she continued. "I'm not perfect. But you saw those things, you did, and you decided they were perfect...for you. And now I can see you, Peeta. I see foolish kindness. And undeserving forgiveness. And," she flushed, "wanton passion. And those flaws are perfect...for me."
Peeta searched her face, trying to read her thoughts. He stumbled looking for the words.
She took the lead and gripped his hand. "Look. I worked for four months, harder than I've ever worked, to send my Prim to that finalist round. You know I have the drive to do anything."
"And no, you don't have a choice," she told him, letting a hopeful smile sneak across her mouth. "You made me love you. I'm going to get you."
He still hadn't spoken.
"I don't know what to say."
"Then dance with me."
His arms around her provided a relief she had been craving for years.
"Will you forgive me?" she whispered into his ear.
"Maybe," he murmured with a smile. "I kind of want to see what you'll do to get me before I decide."
She'd won him over in about two hours.
By the time the dance was over and they were heading over to Delly's house to set off fireworks in her driveway, she was draping her legs over his lap on the limo bench and his fingers were laced through his. They weren't as obvious as Madge and Gale whose limbs and lips were nearly knotted together, but it did make Bristel smile to see her friends happy again. After Bristel had accidentally set fire to the hydrangea bushes with a sparkler and Mr. Cartwright had ordered them all inside, Katniss had pulled Peeta around the side of her garage.
"Will you forgive me?" she whispered in the moonlight.
"Maybe." But he couldn't hide the smile in his eyes.
"What do I have to do?" she murmured, slipping closer.
"Okay." She stretched her leg and let her foot glide a little closer to him.
"Let me help out once in a while."
"Mmm-hhhm," she toed her way further to him.
"Don't encourage my dad."
She laughed. "Done."
"Kiss me in Delly's garden?" he asked.
"Done and done," she sighed, leaning in.
He very nearly grabbed her to kiss her. His mouth was warm and eager and she dissolved into his arms. She slipped away to breathe.
"I have no player skills," Peeta sighed.
"You sure don't. It's my favorite flaw," she grinned, pressing her lips to his. She inhaled the smell of his skin and the feel of his arms around her. "Don't ever change. Stay as flawed and imperfect forever."
"You too," he said. "Stay my messy, awkward, ridiculous Katniss forever."
"Yours?" she teased.
"Mine," he insisted.
The screen door to the lower level slid open around the corner and they heard footsteps rounding the corner. Katniss quickly wiped her lipstick from Peeta's mouth.
"They're out here!" Gale called as he rounded the corner. "Just making out, they're fine."
"Why don't you tell the neighborhood?" Katniss groaned.
"Like we didn't know what you were doing," Gale snorted as he turned to head back inside.
"We should join them," Peeta said, turning to walk inside.
Katniss caught his hand. "In a minute," she smiled.
They had been dozing on the pull out sofa in a pile with Delly and Bristel when Peeta spied the sun threatening to break over the horizon. He woke Katniss with a start and hurried her groggily out the door to get her home to her waiting mother.
They tiptoed up to the house, her shoes in her hand. "Is your mom going to kill me?" Peeta whispered.
"I hope just me."
"What time is it?"
"I'm never going to get to see you again."
Katniss smiled as Peeta fretted outside her front door. "It's my fault."
"She'll absolutely believe that," he moaned.
The street lamp overheard flickered on. "Oh no," she whispered.
She started wiping his cheek and neck. "My lipstick is on your face. And your collar," she frowned at his shirt.
He pulled at it as though he would be able to see it. "My dad is going to kill me."
The door opened. They froze.
"Hi Mom," Katniss said meekly.
Her mother was dressed her robe with her hair piled on her head. She raised an eyebrow when she saw Katniss hanging on to his lipstick-stained collar. "I think it's time you went to bed, Katniss."
"It was all my fault, Mrs. Everdeen, I'm really sorry," Peeta burst out. "We went to a diner and then to Delly's and then there were some kids setting off fireworks-"
"It was my idea to stay for the fireworks," Katniss admitted.
Her mother rolled her eyes and disappeared inside the dark house, leaving the door standing open.
Peeta sighed. "If I don't get grounded until I'm thirty, want to come over for dinner this week?"
"I'd love to," she smiled. "If I don't get grounded until I'm forty."
Her mother returned with a damp paper towel. "There's lipstick on your ear, Peeta. You might want to clean that off before your mother sees you."
He took the towel with embarrassment. "Thank you. Sorry. Thanks."
"Come on, Katniss." Her mother led her into the house.
She waved sheepishly at Peeta as she ducked inside. Katniss watched him crawl back into the now-empty limo.
"Wait!" She dove out of the door and ran down the cracked sidewalk. He stepped back out, ready to ask her what was wrong when she jumped in his arms and kissed him. He smiled against her lips.
She pulled back. "Just had to say that," she grinned and darted back to her mother's impatiently tapping foot at the door. He was grinning as he pulled the door shut to the limo and it pulled away from the curb.
Katniss turned to her mother. She wished she could stop smiling.
"So. I take it we had a good time?"
"A really good time," Katniss smiled, toeing the carpet.
"All above the neck," she flushed.
Her mother sighed. "I didn't need to know that much. Okay, okay. Get upstairs, you ridiculous girl."
Katniss hurriedly ran up three steps and stopped. "Can I have dinner with his family this week?"
"If you can keep yourself off his face during the meal," her mother called, heading to turn off the television.
Katniss laughed and ran to her room.
She closed the door gently, hoping to let Prim sleep. She unzipped her dress and stepped out of it, hanging it over the back of the vanity chair. She stepped around on the ground and found the tee shirt she was wearing to bed and yanked it over her hair. She fell into her bed with a happy sigh.
"Katniss?" came a sleepy voice across the room.
"I didn't mean to wake you," she apologized to Prim.
Prim sighed, "S'okay. Did you get a boyfriend?"
Katniss grinned at the ceiling. "I think I did."
"Good," Prim whispered. She rolled over. "It's nearly five am."
"Now that is one hell of a first date."
Katniss and Prim giggled until their mother called for them to be quiet and go to sleep.
Three Years Later...
Katniss could hear Peeta and Gale swearing outside. The sound of the sofa clanging against the fire escape stairs sent her into the living room piled with boxes.
"I'll ask her," Bristel was saying to Delly. "Kat. You're pregnant, right?"
"What?" she shouted. "No!"
"Told you," Delly said. "It's just moving in together, Bristel. Not everyone gets married because of a baby."
"We're not getting married, Del," Katniss sighed. "It's just an apartment."
"It's three years together and an apartment. I'm telling you," Bristel said, cracking open a beer from the only food cooler in the house, "when he graduates you're getting a ring or a bassinet."
"Ooh! You should go to Disney World to get engaged. Like a renewal of when you got together," Delly sighed.
"I told him I hated him in Disney World," Katniss grimaced.
"Then an ironic renewal?" Bristel laughed. "You should get engaged on the Hollywood Hotel right before they drop the car down that mine shaft."
Katniss rolled her eyes. "If I needed to have a when-are-you-getting-married conversation again, I'd call Peeta's dad."
"Katniss! Where do you want these lamps?" Prim called from the bedroom. She followed her voice. Prim was sitting in a fortress of half-unpacked boxes. "What are you smiling about?"
"Sorry?" Katniss asked.
"You look pleased about something."
"Oh. Um. I passed my classes this semester."
Prim frowned. "We knew you were going to." She narrowed her eyes. "You aren't pregnant, right?"
Katniss flopped face-down on the mattress on the floor. "Is everyone saying I'm getting fat?"
"Shut up," Prim laughed, nudging her with her toes. "You're just always smiling and happy. It's very un-Katniss."
"Thank you, Prim." She rolled her eyes.
"Babe, did we decide on the sofa on the window wall or the kitchen wall? Why are you on the floor?" Peeta wiped his face on his tee-shirt.
"Am I getting fat?"
"Bristel thinks I'm pregnant." She rolled over and pouted at him.
"She's just jealous you're getting all this," he joked, striking an exaggerated model pose.
Katniss laughed. "I bet that's it." She climbed to her feet. "Is that it?"
"Yeah, the truck's empty. Gale's going to take it back to the shop for me."
Gale poked his head in their bedroom. "I never want to see another box. I'm leaving."
"Thank you for helping," Katniss said earnestly. "I wasn't getting that sofa up those stairs."
"You shouldn't lift heavy things in your condition anyway!" Bristel yelled from the living room.
"I hate her," Katniss scowled.
"Don't you laugh, Madge told me you had a scare last month," Peeta warned.
"Yeah, but her dad looooves me," Gale grinned. "He'd be thrilled to have another me around. Like all of you would." He checked his watch. "Shit, I need to get home to shower before dinner."
"We owe you pizza and a beer!" Peeta called as Gale darted down the metal steps to the parking lot behind their little apartment building.
"And a back brace!" he grinned and hopped into the truck and sped off.
"Well, I'm not going to unpack your underwear," Bristel sighed. "C'mon, Del. Let's get out of here."
"Oh, can I catch a ride?" Prim hopped up and headed to the living room.
"You're leaving too?"Katniss asked.
"Yeah, I have a date," Prim smiled.
"With who?" Peeta demanded.
"I can't remember. It's either Stevie tonight and Dan tomorrow or Dan tonight and Stevie tomorrow. I wrote it down somewhere," Prim shrugged.
"Tell them they show you a good time or I'll cut them," Peeta muttered.
"Relax, they know I've got four surrogate brothers," she sighed. "Between you and the Hawthorne boys it's amazing I ever get asked out at all."
Katniss stuck her hands on her hips. "If you had any more dates, you'd need an assistant."
Prim stuck out her tongue and laughed as a sofa pillow soared past her head. She chased Delly and Bristel down the steps into their car. "Turn in those scholarship forms before your date! You've only got a few months before tuition's due."
"I will!" she yelled from the backseat.
Katniss sighed and closed the door. "So."
"So," Peeta smiled.
"We're alone in our…very….own…apartment."
He grinned and stepped over to her. "Just the two of us." He leaned over and kissed her.
"You need a shower," she laughed.
"And now you need one," he teased, grabbing her and rubbing his forehead on her neck. She laughed and wrestled him to the ground until they lay panting on the floor by their new kitchen.
"I have an idea."
"Hmm?" she said, letting her head rest of his chest.
"Let's leave this mess for tomorrow."
"I need to turn in my class schedule at the community college tomorrow," she sighed.
"We can do that when we take a lunch break," he offered. "Tonight, let's take a shower, put in a movie and not watch it."
She gave Peeta a sly smile. "Okay."
They didn't end up plugging in the TV.
She hopped up and wrapped her legs around his waist as they stumbled from the shower stall in their bathroom to their bedroom. He tripped over a box and they fell onto the mattress with an "oomph!"
She smiled up at him.
"I love you."
"I know," he smiled. "I love you too."
She kissed him.
"What's that?" he asked.
"That little box right there?" he frowned.
She glanced over her shoulder at a tiny little cardboard box. "Hunh. I don't know. I didn't see it before." She reached over and picked it up. "It's not taped."
She turned it over and a smaller box fell into her hand. She recognized the name of the jeweler imprinted on the leather clamshell. She looked up at him, fidgeting and biting his lip.
"I couldn't wait," he whispered.
She started to cry before she even had the ring box all the way open. He pulled her close and kissed her damp cheeks. "Will you?" he murmured to her ear. "Forever?"
She nodded, grinning and hiccupping. He pulled the ring from the box and slid the diamond on her finger. "Forever," she cried happily.
He kissed her again, holding on to her as long as his arms had strength.
"You've really done it this time," she sighed into his chest.
"Now no one is going to believe I'm not pregnant."
"Well, we do have the den space," he hinted. "We could make it a nursery."
"Ask me in fifteen years," she grinned.
"Ten!" she laughed.
She sighed and rested her temple on his shoulder.
"Whenever. Really," he sighed, kissing her forehead, her eyelashes, her lips.
"As long as it's forever."