This fic is dedicated to misshoneywell, whose idea it was in the first place. Thanks for coming up with this brilliant idea months ago and letting me do something with it.
Huge thanks to my beta, atetheredmind, for her stellar and super speedy work.
Disclaimer: The Hunger Games belong to Suzanne Collins.
Peeta Mellark had been her best friend since she was eleven. Until that point, she'd had no trouble making friends. Katniss was a lively child, raised by loving parents who encouraged her to sing and laugh, and with a baby sister who giggled at every funny face she made. She carried this attitude into school and moved seamlessly from one group of friends to another. Her teachers described her as eager and bright; her biggest flaw was a quick temper, usually exacerbated by her own failures or fierce protectiveness over those closest to her.
When she was eleven years old, however, her father's life was claimed by a drunk driver—her daddy, the calm voice that sang her to sleep and made her laugh when she was in her cruelest tempers. With him went her mother, for all intents and purposes.
Of all her school mates, the only one who made an appearance at the funeral was Peeta, which came as a great shock to her; in all her time at school, they'd hardly shared more than a passing greeting. He was exceptionally shy around girls, it seemed, because he had no trouble talking with all the boys about sports and super heroes and video games, but he had never once approached her. He had round, red cheeks, pudgy knees, a baby belly he hadn't grown out of (not unlike others his age), and a short frame, as yet unchanged by puberty.
Through her grief, through the lowering of her father's coffin into the ground and her sister's hands tugging desperately at the skirt of her only black dress, she focused on him. She focused on him because it was easier than feeling the absence of her mother at her side—and because Peeta's presence was so unlikely and so odd.
He had come alone. In the distance she thought she could see his cherry red bicycle propped against the gate of the cemetery, the one she'd seen him ride home day after day, hopelessly trying to keep up with his older, more athletic brothers. He wore a button-down shirt, untucked over his belly, and sleeves that extended past his fingertips. He distractedly tugged on his cuffs and shifted a brown paper bag from one hand to the other, glancing up to meet her eyes every so often before letting them flit away quickly. She wondered why he had come, how he'd even known, and why he was by himself. It kept her from thinking too long about why none of her other friends had shown up.
After the funeral ended, as her Uncle Haymitch led Katniss and Prim away, she felt a tug on her sleeve, too high for Prim to reach. She turned around and met Peeta's ruddy, round face. His blue eyes were glassy. Haymitch picked up a crying Prim and headed toward the car.
"I, um," he started, shifting from foot to foot in red Spider-Man sneakers, wholly incongruous with the rest of his outfit. "I'm so sorry, Katniss." His voice cracked on the last syllable of her name, not uncommon for boys in her grade, but the raspy whisper of his voice comforted her; she knew it matched how her own voice would sound if she could form words at the moment. He shakily held the paper bag out to her, and she took it tentatively, furrowing dark brows at him.
"It's all, um, I could get. I'm sorry, I—" he trailed off, distracted by something on the ground. He bent over, his blonde curls flopping into his face, and plucked a yellow flower from the ground. "Here." He held it out to her, offered a small, pained smile, and turned on his heels, almost tripping over his khaki pants to get to his bike.
Her hand grew hot from the warmth seeping from the bottom of the bag, and she peeked in to find a loaf of fresh bread, presumably from his family's bakery. She inhaled deeply, closing the bag and holding it to her chest, an unlikely source of warmth on the damp, overcast morning, and walked over to Prim, tucking the flower behind the girl's ear to earn her sister's first smile in days.
In the weeks and months and years that followed, Katniss took to sitting next to Peeta at lunch. And in classes, when she could. And after school, at each other's houses. She no longer felt herself to be the friendly, easygoing girl she had once been and, at a loss to explain herself and unable to forgive friends who seemed to shirk from a young, grieving girl, she clung to Peeta as her only friend.
He, in turn, did the same. He still spent time with the boys in P.E. class or for birthday sleepovers, but Katniss was his best friend—for life, he'd told her. With her, he stopped being shy or sheepish. In fact, in private she found he had plenty to say, things that made her laugh and roll her eyes and pinch his arm. Sometimes, she wondered how he never seemed to run out of words. Unlike the other boys, he didn't talk to her about video games or sports he pretended to like; he spoke about his beloved charcoal set, or the color of the sky after a storm, or the best way to make a really good whipped cream.
By the time they entered high school, Katniss' slim legs had lengthened, and she grew modest curves that were mostly hidden, apathetically, in plain, practical clothing.
Peeta had hit a growth spurt, too, but due to the stocky frame he inevitably inherited like the rest of the men in his family, his figure didn't lengthen enough to hide his still pudgy arms, rotund stomach, and chubby cheeks. Girls he'd never bothered talking to in elementary school started teasing him, pinching his belly or calling him a "heifer." The latter comment he'd heard early in junior high, and he ran home, almost in tears, to ask his father what the word meant. His father hedged, and his mother told him to "suck it up and, for the last time, stay away from the sweets."
He was strong, though, strong enough to lift heavy bags in the bakery, or to hoist Katniss halfway up his body so she could reach the sweets Haymitch hid at the top of the refrigerator. The latter favor he was more than happy to oblige.
He was a slow runner, he knew that—always had been. When he and Katniss would race to the playground or, in later years, to the brook in the woods, she always won. She dodged people and trees, her gamine figure springing on light legs, hardly disturbing the terrain beneath her feet. She never teased him when she won. Just collapsed in a fit of giggles or, as she got older, gave him a sly smile when he came huffing and puffing behind, cheeks pink and hair askew.
He thought they made an odd pair, the two of them. The oddness, he thought sadly, surely rested with him.
Katniss thought they were perfect. He was perfect.
When she got to school, she pulled herself onto the high ledge of the wall in front of the library. From this vantage point, she could see all the students meandering through the front gates of the high school in the early morning. She spotted Madge Undersee, who shot Katniss a quick smile, which she returned. Katniss kept scanning the crowd. Her eyesight was sharp, but that was incidental; she could have picked him out of the thickest of crowds.
She soon spotted him, the sun glinting off his near golden hair. He kept his head down and hands on his backpack straps as he made his way through the throng of students. He was wearing her favorite blue flannel shirt. He didn't know it was her favorite. Her mouth could never form those words, certainly not to him. But she beamed anyway, before schooling her features into that of a more restrained joy.
He made his way toward the library and saw her immediately. He knew to look up.
"Hey spider-woman, wanna come down from there?"
"Can't," she replied, looking dramatically off into the distance. "Vigilante justice to exact."
"Uh huh," he said sarcastically, pulling a paper bag from his backpack. "Like you've ever done any good on an empty stomach."
He dangled the bag in front of her. She was starving. She would have to needle Haymitch into grocery shopping again, or at least steal his wallet and make a run tonight. She had given the last of the cereal to Prim this morning. Peeta couldn't wrangle treats from the bakery often, but he always seemed to know when she needed them.
He put the bag down and held out his arms. Her heart rate sped up. She shimmied to the edge and his large hands spanned her waist, lifting her effortlessly and bringing her down. She grasped his shoulders tightly, a little light-headed from more than an empty stomach. She held on as long as possible before he gave her a smile and bent over to pick up the bag.
"Gross, Mellark!" came a high pitched-voice. "I can see your ass hanging out! Get your mommy to buy you some bigger jeans."
"Fuck off, Glimmer!" Katniss shot back. "Get your mommy to buy you a new nose."
The blonde let out a sharp gasp, her eyes murderous. Katniss walked a few steps towards her and Glimmer backed away, storming off with her gaggle of followers. Katniss may have been small, but people knew not to mess with her when she got that look in her eye.
Peeta had yet to turn around, one hand clutching the bag and the other fiddling nervously at his waistband.
"Peeta, just forget it. She's—"
"Katniss, stop. It's fine," he said. It was his usual refrain when things like this happened. Someone would say something nasty—not always, Peeta was well-liked among his peers, but there were always a few who liked to make his life miserable for no apparent reason—and then Katniss would shoot back, and Peeta would beg her to forget it.
"She's an ugly cow!" she finished, undeterred by his plea.
He laughed bitterly. "No, she's not."
Katniss frowned, unsure why he would believe the bottle blonde in the push-up bra was worth defending. She glared after Glimmer, who tottered on wedges in a short denim skirt. Katniss ran her fingers along the neck of her loose black t-shirt self-consciously.
From the corner of her eye, she noticed Peeta staring at Glimmer's group, too, but he was pulling at his shirt as if trying to create space between it and his body.
"Hey," she said, wrapping her fingers around his strong wrist. "Stop it. I like this shirt. You're going to stretch it out."
"I already have," he mumbled, staring at his stomach.
"Hey!" she repeated, more sharply this time. Bright blue eyes met her own. "There is nothing wrong with you. I like this shirt. And these jeans." He smiled tentatively at her. "They make your ass look good," she said in a mock-joking voice, hoping her face didn't turn red.
He laughed, deep and rich. It was her favorite sound.
"Your hair, though," she continued, reaching up and tugging at a curl that refused to sit flat, "is ridiculous."
He smirked and smacked her hand away.
"All right, all right, shut up and eat your cinnamon roll," he replied, pulling it out of the bag. Some of the frosting stayed on his fingers, and he wiped them on the paper.
She wished he would just suck it off his fingers. He deserved to enjoy it—because he made them, because he made them for her knowing they were her favorite, because he deserved something sweet, because there was nothing wrong with him. And because she wanted to watch him do it.
He pulled an orange from his backpack. She enjoyed watching his hands work as he peeled it. She said nothing, though. She wanted him to stop being so hard on himself—he had enough people to do that for him—but he'd been weaning himself off sweets and fatty foods for almost a year now; sometimes, he almost looked proud of himself—and that, she could enjoy watching.
He smelled like oranges for the rest of the day, and she failed to come up with any more excuses to touch his hair.
They found a different place to eat lunch every day. Neither of them liked the manic pace of the cafeteria crowds.
Sometimes they snuck out to the front lawn where technically only seniors were allowed. That was tricky, but worth the effort it took when they found themselves sitting in the relative quiet beneath the shelter of a maple tree. Other days, they would sit in the calculus classroom where the Chess Club periodically met. It was always quiet and relatively free of people, but when either of them laughed too hard or Katniss' temper would flare as Peeta tried to teach her some basic strategy, they would earn themselves glares and impatient huffs.
Today, they settled down in a far corner of the choir room, away from the "chorus cult," as Katniss called them. As soon as they'd pulled out their lunches, Delly Cartwright came bounding up. Katniss suppressed a groan. It wasn't that she didn't like Delly. It was sort of impossible not to like her; she was so genuinely kind and positive, she made Peeta look like a curmudgeon by comparison. Katniss didn't want to think about what that made her.
"Hey, guys! Did you hear?" Before they could even attempt to answer, she went on. "They're doing 'Oklahoma' for the musical this summer. I'm so excited! I would love to be Laurey, but I'm probably not good enough. That's okay, though! There are so many talented people. I'll be happy just to be in the background..."
Delly continued talking on in an excited rush, hardly pausing for breath. Peeta met Katniss' eyes and enthusiastically nodded his head, feigning serious interest in Delly's words. Katniss shot him a scowl in response, and he burst out laughing.
"Oh! Katniss!" Delly said, as if Peeta's laugh had reminded her of something deeply important. "You should try out. Do you remember when we were in chorus together in elementary school? You would be wonderful."
Delly said this with such confidence that Katniss had to suppress the urge to snap at her. She tried to school her face into a mask of indifference, but feeling Peeta's eyes on her made her struggle to keep the flush from appearing. She had loved singing. Her dad had loved singing. In junior high, she'd had the opportunity to sign up for chorus again, but she couldn't find it in her, not even when Haymitch begrudgingly offered to drive her to the events—as long as they didn't interfere with his "social calendar." Even at twelve years old, she had to roll her eyes at him.
"Um, no, Delly. I don't think so. It's not really my thing." Delly made a ridiculous pouty face and opened her mouth to speak again.
"You should do it," Peeta mumbled quickly. "You...you have a great voice."
Katniss stared at the top of his head as he refused to meet her eyes. She was struck quiet and, amazingly enough, so was Delly.
"How...how would you even—" Katniss eventually sputtered. "You've never heard me sing."
"You sing in the shower sometimes," he said, looking up at her. He bit his lip nervously, and she could tell he was resisting the urge to look away again. Katniss saw Delly's eyes widen comically in her peripheral vision. "I mean! I just...sometimes Haymitch lets me in when I'm waiting for you, and I can hear it all the way down the hall. I don't think you know you're doing it."
Katniss moved her jaw, but no words came out; she was mortified at this revelation and mildly disbelieving—she certainly didn't think about it when she did it. She didn't even realize she was that loud.
"Oh, yes!" Delly interjected. "And Peeta, remember we used to perform at assemblies? You always sat up front, I remember. And that one time you gave me a cupcake afterward! You must have heard Katniss then."
Peeta's ears turned vaguely red, and Katniss couldn't figure out if it was from embarrassment at having heard Katniss sing or the revelation that he had given young Delly a treat. It created an anxious feeling in her gut that made her sandwich look far less appealing.
Luckily, Delly broke the silence again (Katniss was momentarily thankful for the girl's inability to keep quiet—until she imagined a young, round-faced Peeta handing Delly a pink frosted cupcake). "Ohhh, maybe I can talk them into doing 'Annie Oakley' next year! You'd be perfect!"
"Thanks, Del," Katniss said shortly, wanting to bring an end to the subject. "But performing on stage in front of a bunch of people is kind of my nightmare. Good luck, though," she added begrudgingly, seeing the girl's forlorn expression.
Peeta pulled a banana and a sports drink from his paper bag before folding it up and putting it back so he could use it again tomorrow. Katniss wanted to tease him about his conscientious habit, but she noticed that he'd pulled nothing else from the bag.
"That's your lunch?" she asked, eyeing it judgmentally. Peeta just shrugged and scratched his head.
"Bananas have a lot of potassium," he replied. She scoffed at him and held out half her sandwich.
"Here, have half of mine. You're going to be starving by sixth period."
"No thanks," he said, frowning at it.
"What's wrong with it?" she shot back. She wasn't the world's best cook, but she was still in charge of making most of the meals at home, and she could certainly put together a damn sandwich, even if it was the cheap bologna.
"It's white bread," he replied.
"You work in a bakery," Katniss said, her voice rising in incredulity.
"No, he's right, Katniss. It has a lot of sugar and carbs. Or are those the same thing? I can't remember from chemistry. Anyway! Some of us don't have the metabolism you do, Katniss—right, Peeta?" Delly giggled.
About a thousand nasty responses ran through Katniss' head. Peeta didn't need another person drawing attention to the fact that he had a few extra, meaningless pounds. How could Delly, of all people, say something like that?
Katniss remembered the kids at school poking fun of Delly when they were little, chasing her around and making "oink" sounds. But she had developed curves that she dressed in fitted sweaters and flowing skirts, and Katniss often struggled not to be jealous of the way she had filled out like one of those bombshells in the old Hollywood movies Haymitch fell asleep to on the couch. Had this made Delly utterly insensitive to other people's insecurities?
Katniss was stopped from voicing any of these thoughts by the sound of Peeta's laugh. He was laughing at Delly's joke. Delly's joke that was at his expense, and maybe even Katniss'— implying that her metabolism made it so that her body couldn't develop beyond an adolescent boy's. As if that was something to envy.
But Katniss was more taken aback by Peeta's attitude. Any reference to his body usually made his cheeks go splotchy in embarrassment, even if it was something positive, like Katniss encouraging him to take off his shirt to go swimming for once or commenting on the size of his forearms.
Katniss scowled at Delly, who was happily dipping pieces of lettuce into a small cup of vinaigrette. Peeta bumped Katniss' knee with his own and, with a mouthful of banana, rolled his eyes back in feigned ecstasy and moaned, "Mmm, so good."
Despite herself, she giggled. She didn't bother trying to interpret the looks Delly shot the two of them as they continued to make fun of each other's lunches or when Peeta tried to wipe away a stray bit of mustard on Katniss' face and ended up smearing it across her cheek.
By the time the last bell rang, the heavy clouds that had been looming all day finally rained down upon the school in sheets, an unexpected late spring downpour.
Katniss waited as Peeta pulled his books from their shared locker. She had one of her own, but it was in a distant hallway near the freshman classes, so she rarely used it and, Peeta being Peeta, he insisted she store her stuff in his locker instead of making the long trek every day.
"Ugh, okay, found it. Knew it was in here somewhere," he said.
She looked up from where she was jotting in her planner to find him pulling out what looked like a canvas sheet.
"What is that?" she asked. He shook it out and she realized it was a windbreaker, one she'd never seen him wear. She laughed at the sight of it.
"I know it's ugly," he said with a smile. "It was my dad's. He tried to pawn it off on me."
"Which is why it's shoved in the back of your locker," she noted, wryly.
"Yes, but!" he said, draping it over her shoulders, "It'll keep you dry."
Her smile dropped, and she looked at him with wide eyes. This action shouldn't have surprised her, and it didn't really, but in the last few years she had struggled to understand, and lately, suppress, her reactions to him. He was the kindest person she'd ever known. He had the good nature she remembered in her father, compassion to rival her little sister's, and a quiet gentleness all his own. He also made her laugh harder than anyone else. That wasn't necessarily a tall order; she didn't surround herself with many people. Haymitch only made her laugh when he bumped his head on cabinets while searching for coffee to ease his hangover. Prim made her laugh, partly because she was so goofy and clumsy and partly because Katniss knew she appreciated her smile the most. But Peeta was funny in a way most people didn't realize—sharp and witty, his way with words never failing him. He could have had a whole group of close friends, hanging on his every word and his kindness, but he stuck with her. Always. And when he made her laugh really hard, he would smile so wide in triumph that it brought out the dimples in his cheeks.
"It's only until we get to the car," he promised, laughing at what he assumed was a forlorn expression on her face. The jacket fell mid-thigh—Peeta's father was a large man—and she regretted that it smelled more like musty locker than like Peeta.
"Katniss, you sure you don't wanna put some poles in that, use it as a tent?" She heard the voice before she saw who it belonged to. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply; she didn't want to see Peeta's reaction. She could picture it clearly in her mind, anyway.
David Marvel had been hitting on her since the start of junior year; she couldn't imagine why. She didn't smile at him; she didn't make conversation. Her face was usually scrubbed fresh and her hair pulled into a practical braid. She wore clothes that were plain and unembellished because she wasn't much for adornments, and she couldn't really envision dragging Haymitch to the mall so he could buy her a hipper wardrobe. She didn't know what Marvel saw in her, but maybe he saw her as a challenge. She cringed at the thought.
"Seriously, though, you could use that thing for shelter. That's what you get for borrowing clothes from Peeta-bread," he said, laughing at his own joke.
Peeta clenched his jaw and looked determinedly over her shoulder. She knew he was trying to control his temper. He and Marvel had never clashed before this year, having many of the same casual friends in common. But apparently, Marvel saw Peeta as a threat and assumed that mocking him in front of Katniss would break the strong connection between the two; he could rarely approach her without finding Peeta at her side. Even in Chemistry, where the two were unfortunately partnered, she spent more time staring at the back of Peeta's head than she did listening to Marvel spout off his baseball stats.
"You're right; it is a little big," Katniss replied. She saw the wounded look on Peeta's face that he tried to hide by staring at his shoes.
She took the jacket off and draped it over Peeta's shoulders. Before Marvel's smile could grow too wide, however, she snuck her arm under Peeta's and snaked it around his waist, covering herself in the remaining fabric and effectively sharing his jacket. She turned to Marvel.
"It looks better on him anyway," she said, giving him a saccharine smile. She knew her face had to be bright red; she could feel it burning. But she wanted to prove a point to Marvel, that she wasn't interested in him—and maybe to Peeta, too, who had failed to pick up any of her hints during the school year, who still seemed to be waiting for her to leave him behind.
She was a terrible flirt. She hadn't understood why she would ever need to be a good one until she realized that every kind word, every smile, every touch she bestowed on Peeta was interpreted as friendship and—sometimes, she deeply feared—pity. So she tried harder, doing things outside of her comfort zone, and apparently out of his as well, judging by the way he stared at her in confusion right then. She heard Marvel scoff and walk away, but her eyes didn't leave Peeta's.
"What? We can share," she shrugged, not wanting to move away from the warmth of his body.
He seemed simultaneously grateful and nervous as he squirmed under her touch. She hoped it wasn't because he disliked her nearness, but her greater fear was that his squirming was due to any discomfort he felt at the possibility of her hand discovering parts of his body he was ashamed of.
"All right," he said, rolling his eyes, but his cheeks were tinged pink. He slipped his free arm into one sleeve of the jacket and the other he used to pull the loose side over Katniss' shoulder, where he let his arm rest, cocooning her in his warmth. She fought the urge to snuggle closer to his scent as they made their way to the parking lot. When they stepped out the doors, he pulled the neck of the jacket up over his head so that it covered both of them from the rain. She laughed at his actions, and he shot her a dimpled smile.
He walked her to the passenger side, and she slipped in quickly, the rain managing to pelt her face and chest before he could shut the door behind her. He jumped into the driver's seat, shrugging off the jacket and throwing it into the backseat with a flourish, making her smile. It was kind of ugly.
"You should save that," Katniss said, trying not to focus too much on the way a raindrop dripped off a stray curl and onto his earlobe.
"The jacket?" he asked incredulously, starting the car. "When am I ever going to wear a tan windbreaker?"
"I don't know. It might come in handy when you're like 80, shuffling to church in your white orthopedic shoes."
"That's really offensive, Katniss," he said with a straight face. "You know I don't support organized religion."
"Fine, when you go to the local diner to slurp your soup," she said. "With the way you drive, you'll fit right in with the early bird crowd."
"Watch it, miss," Peeta said, turning onto the town's main boulevard. "I'll drop you on the side of the road."
"Ha! Like hell," she laughed.
"Okay, well..." he trailed off, pretending to stroke his chin in thought as he pulled up to a stoplight. "I'll drop you at that cafe in the square. You know, the one with the cranky owner and no WiFi? Good luck with that. Oh! And he has those three-day-old, dry-as-hell pastries that he tries to sell as fresh. You'll be begging me to come back in no time."
"I don't beg," she said flatly.
She didn't immediately realize the implication of her words, but with her naturally smoky voice and her teasing tone, she had a feeling she knew where his mind went. Especially when he stared at her for a moment too long, his eyes dropping to her neckline before darting away, his foot releasing the brake pedal too quickly at the green light.
She looked down, noticing that her cotton t-shirt clung more closely to her frame from the rain, her chest dotted with stray raindrops. She didn't think there was anything particularly special about the way she looked, but when she could still see the blush on his face as they pulled up to her house, she counted it as a victory.
His blush wasn't an uncommon occurrence. In fact, his father always joked that he looked like a little cherub as a child: pink apple cheeks, blue eyes, angelically golden hair. Peeta hated it, she knew. He felt it drew attention to his chubby face. For that reason, and because his bullies reveled in the clear physical indication of the mortification and shame they inflicted on him, she wished he could control it better. But these were fleeting thoughts. That face was Peeta, blush and all, and she associated it with the warmth of the bakery, the heartiness of his laugh—and the few times her presence would fluster him.
They sat at her kitchen table, surrounded by textbooks. She'd gone upstairs to switch out her wet shirt for a dry one and ended up choosing one of Prim's. Katniss was petite, and Prim had grown tall enough that they could share clothing. They rarely did; Prim's style was in no way similar to her own, but she couldn't resist pulling out a light cotton scoop neck that vaguely showed the outline of her bra. She felt uncomfortably exposed, but after noticing his attentions in the car, she figured she couldn't let this opportunity pass.
Peeta had never been regaled with female attention, and while she was selfishly relieved, it also filled her with sadness and fear—sadness because she knew it affected his self-esteem, just one more blow to his ego and more voices telling him there was something wrong with him, and fear because she knew one day a girl would come along and really see him, for his goodness and quick wit, for his broad shoulders and the prettiest eyes she'd ever seen. And what was the likelihood that he wouldn't jump at that opportunity?
She wasn't exactly beating guys off with a stick, though she didn't have to guess why. She lived in a safe bubble of those she loved, and anyone outside it hardly earned more than tentative acquaintance, indifference, or hostility, depending on the person. Her uncle said she had all the charm of a dead slug. Maybe he had a point; she couldn't even get her best friend to give her more than a sheepish smile or an awkward hug. Once, when she met Peeta's aunt, the lady had drawn her into a warm embrace and Katniss responded with an awkward pat on the back; Peeta had laughed and joked that Katniss was "not a hugger."
If she'd known that encounter would mean Peeta would save those embraces only for holidays and reunions after a long absence, she would have jumped into the woman's arms to demonstrate how much of a "hugger" she was.
She slid into the chair across from him, avoiding his eyes and attempting to seem casual.
She flipped to the right page in her book, before finally chancing a glance in his direction. She caught him looking at her, and he immediately refocused on his notes, pulling his book closer and almost knocking his water glass over in the process. She bit her bottom lip to stop her growing smirk, and the two were uncharacteristically quiet until they heard the back screen door slam shut.
She sighed heavily at the sound of shuffling feet.
"I think he walks louder than I do," Peeta noted wryly.
"Yeah well, he shuffles. You have a heavy gait," she replied. He frowned and looked away.
She immediately regretted her choice of words. She'd always teased him for his loud walk, saying she could hear him before she saw him, but this time she knew he was taking it the wrong way. Sometimes, she felt like she walked on eggshells around him; she couldn't even look at him for too long without him noticing and immediately pulling at his clothing or wrapping his arms protectively around himself.
She wished she were allowed to look. She wished she could tell him why she wanted to look so badly.
There were times when he fell asleep on the couch, and she would study every inch of him she could. She got lost in the length of his eyelashes or the fine golden hairs on his forearms. She would wonder how soft the skin was at the base of his neck. She studied all the freckles on his skin that she could see and wondered about the ones she couldn't see.
She sometimes thought about curling up next to him, feigning sleep and learning the feel of his body pressed up against her own for an extended period of time. She never did it, though. She couldn't bear the idea of him looking at her like she was a freak, and if Haymitch ever walked in on that, she'd never hear that end of it. He'd probably congratulate her with a sarcastic slow clap.
She always got the sense he liked Peeta more than he liked her, anyway.
"Kid," Haymitch grunted at Peeta, before setting his eyes on Katniss. "What's up with you, sweetheart? You got school pictures today?"
"It's June," she gritted out, willing him to drop the subject as he scrutinized her too closely. "School ends in a week."
"Uh huh. You're wearin' pink," he said with narrowed eyes.
"It's off-white!" she squeaked, horrified at the sound of her voice.
"Yeah, it is off-white. As in not white. Because it's pink."
Peeta started laughing, and Katniss immediately glared at him.
"Why do you even care, Haymitch?"
"I dunno. Suppose it's my job or something," he replied lazily, grabbing a water glass and some Advil. Katniss knew, if he was forgoing the beer, that meant he was working the night shift. For the moment, he was getting his kicks tormenting her. "And I know you did the laundry this week because my undershirts aren't in a pile on the floor."
"Yeah, you're welcome, by the way," she said bitingly.
"Yeah, yeah, I'll buy you your favorite ice cream later at the store. Don't have a fit," he said, and before she could respond he turned to Peeta. "So what's her deal? She got a date tonight or something?"
Peeta's mouth gaped open before he turned to her with a bewildered, almost fearful, expression.
"No, of course not!" she said in answer to his silent question. "I would have told you. I don't—I mean, no one's—"
Haymitch cut off her sputtering with a laugh.
"Just checkin', sweetheart. She certainly doesn't dress that way for us, does she, boy?" he said, leaving the room before Peeta could muster up a response.
Peeta scratched behind his ear and stared down at the table. Katniss warred with a dozen different feelings at once. She didn't know what Peeta was thinking, and she hated that…for a number of reasons, mainly because he was her best friend. But she also hated that kicked-puppy look on his face. Maybe he was angry at the idea of her having a date and keeping it from him.
"I don't have a date," she said, her emphasis on the word mocking the very idea. "It's not like anyone…I mean, god. I've never even—"
He looked up at her expectantly.
"It's just a stupid shirt!" she finished.
He gave her a crooked smirk. "It looks nice on you," he said quietly. Before she could beam in response, he continued with a hesitant shrug, "I'm sure David would appreciate it or whatever."
"Marvel?" she drew his name out in disgust. "What, do you hate me or something? Why would you subject me to that, even hypothetically?"
He laughed, and it lessened the weight on her chest.
"It'll be enough just trying to avoid him at the pool this summer. What a creep."
His laugh immediately stopped, and she looked at him in confusion.
"Katniss," he started. "There's something, um—well, there's something I've been meaning to tell you, but it just hasn't seemed like, I don't know, the right time, I guess."
Her breath caught in her throat, and she hoped he couldn't see the pulse jumping in her neck. She leaned forward intently, hanging on his every word.
He looked up, and she met blue eyes that had steadied her since childhood.
"Um," he said, "Well, the thing is…my family's going away for the summer."
"Huh?" she asked, her brain struggling to catch up with her mouth.
"Yeah, I know I should have told you. I know we had plans. I mean, nothing concrete, obviously. But we were supposed to hang out, and you said you wanted to try that new ice cream place at the lake, and then you mentioned—I don't know if you remember, but you said you wanted to try white water rafting. I was going to try to save up for us to do a trip or something; it was going to be a surprise but…"
He was rambling, and her breath grew ragged at his words; he had to be fucking kidding.
"I know that's all shot to hell now. And I'm so sorry. I don't want to go at all, trust me. I would so much rather—" he cut himself off, finally taking a deep breath and seeming to re-route his words. "You know my mom. It's this whole resort thing she has planned out. There's no getting out of it, believe me. Even my dad tried."
"Oh," she said in a small voice.
"I know." He hung his head, and she fiddled with her fingers, willing herself not to do something stupid like cry.
He was going to be away for the entire summer. The summer before senior year, after which they'd inevitably have to part. This was a nightmare. There would be no stargazing from her roof, no long, aimless drives with the windows down, no water fights like the one last year where he had thrown her over his shoulder to get her to drop the hose, the squeal dying in her throat at the feelings of his hands on her.
Sometimes, late at night, she'd even think about what it would be like for him to visit her at the pool again where she lifeguarded. Admittedly, with his pale skin, she could hardly tell if he was blushing when he looked at her or just burning up from the sun, but maybe…maybe this year her curves had filled out a little more, or maybe something else would finally get him to look at her the same way she looked at him.
"Um, I'll miss you," she said. She needed him to know that, at least.
"I'll miss you, too," he said on a breath, sounding relieved. "You're my best friend, Katniss."
"You're my best friend, " she replied. She felt overwhelmed, regret and doubt and fear mingling with the happiness she felt in knowing she was just as important to him as he was to her.
"I—I, um, want you to know," she started. She met his gaze; and his eyes were intense. "I...I'll call you."
He laughed, and she tried to recover.
"No, I mean, I know that I hate the phone," she rambled, desperately backpedaling from the words that had nearly spilled from her mouth. "But I'll call you, I swear, and you can call me, too, obviously. I promise I'll pick up...unless I'm napping."
"I don't want you to pick up if you're napping, believe me," he said with a shudder, referring to all the times she'd snapped at him in a sleepy stupor.
She smacked his arm lightly in response, and he caught her hand, turning it in his own so they were palm to palm. The laugh died in her throat.
She looked up and met his eyes, soft and searching. He intertwined their fingers and she couldn't help but note that this was the first time they'd held hands like this in the entirety of their friendship.
"You look good in pink," he said, glancing down before meeting her eyes again with a sly smirk on his face.
"Shut up," she laughed and tightened her hold on his hand.
If she closed her eyes tightly enough, she could still faintly make out his scent and feel the warmth of his body against her own. He had hugged her. The memory ran on a loop in her mind, and she wanted to commit every detail to her memory, especially because she had a few long, lonely months ahead of her.
They'd spent the entire day together before he was set to go away with his family.
He picked her up in the morning, and they ate an indulgent breakfast at the diner in town. She stole all his home fries, and he let her. She choked down the weak coffee that she hated, and he laughed at her for complaining that it was too damn early; this was one of the few days where she didn't really mind.
They went on a hike near their favorite brook, and she playfully dashed from tree to tree in an impromptu game of hide and seek. She purposely slowed her movements so that when he lunged for her, she could feel his arms around her waist when he caught her. She felt small in his arms, and the thought was simultaneously comforting and thrilling; so much of the time, her personality and thoughts and entire being felt so large and unwieldy that for a moment she wished she could lose herself in his arms and just be still.
While they hiked, she huffed and puffed louder than she usually would to make him less self-conscious about his own breathing. They could have been hiking uphill for five miles, and he'd still be ashamed of his own heavy breathing, as if it were a neon sign that labeled him as "fat" or "out-of-shape"; no encouragement from her—even when they'd been children and Katniss was less successful at holding her tongue—would make him believe it was normal.
On their way back into town, they picked up fast food for a late dinner and pulled into the parking lot of the town park to eat on the hood of his car.
As if he could sense that her mood was turning somber, he started asking her ridiculous questions, like the grossest thing she would lick for a thousand dollars or whether she'd rather have a hook for a hand or a peg leg.
She laughed so hard her belly ached. She stopped abruptly when he asked her what her favorite color was.
"You don't know my favorite color?" she asked, aghast. She pinched his arm, and he pulled away laughing.
"I'm kidding. Of course, I do." She waited, eyebrows raised. "It's black."
"It is not black!" she huffed.
"Your wardrobe begs to differ," he said, eyeing her shirt with a sly grin.
"Besides, black isn't even a color. It's the absence of all light," she said with her arms crossed.
"Is that right?" he asked.
She continued staring at the sky, but she could sense him looking at her, his head turned toward her on the windshield. She squirmed under his gaze, and she could hear him chuckle lightly, as if he knew that his attention unnerved her.
"It's not black!" she repeated finally. She opened her mouth to say more.
"It's green," he said quietly, and she looked into his eyes, his pupils large in the darkness and surrounded by rings of deep indigo flecked with gold. For a split second, she wanted to change her answer.
"Yeah, okay," she finally conceded, and his cheeks dimpled.
"Bet you don't know what mine is," he said smugly, turning his gaze skyward.
She didn't know what made her do it. Maybe she was high from the euphoria of the day that belonged just to them. Maybe it was a last-ditch effort to get him to notice her before he went away for months (hopefully to a place where women were scarce or elderly). But she knew Peeta better than anyone, and anything she wanted to know, she simply had to ask or, most of the time, listen. He knew her, too, not so much from things she said about herself but really from years of paying close attention. He was good at that.
And she had to admit to herself that she not only knew his favorite color, but that this item of clothing in this particular hue hadn't made its way into her closet by accident.
So she summoned all her courage and turned to him, undoing the top button of her blouse.
He turned his head at her actions, and his pupils grew even larger, his eyes appearing almost black as his mouth dropped open.
She stopped at the one button and pulled her orange bra strap up so he could see it.
"Something like that?" she asked wryly, willing her voice not to crack.
"Mmhmm," he mumbled as if in a daze before quickly averting his gaze. "It's a good color," he said, trying to inject some lightness into his tone and failing miserably. He swallowed heavily.
"Your favorite?" she prompted.
"Maybe," he said and wiped his palms on his jeans subtly before wrapping his arms around his stomach. She buttoned her blouse and fell back against the hood again, a little closer to his side this time. She could feel the heat coming off of him in waves. She loved summer.
Eventually he had to drop her off. He had an early departure the next day.
He walked her up to the door and she felt a lead weight in her stomach at the prospect of not seeing him all summer. It was so distracting that she didn't notice the awkwardness of the moment until they reached the front step. And then they looked at each other, shuffling on their feet, as if it were the end of a first date.
He didn't normally walk her to the front door. He would just wait in his car to make sure she got inside safe and, sometimes, annoyingly, he'd insist that she text him later so he knew everything was okay. She never told him that she didn't mind doing it as long as it meant he would text her back when he was home, so that she knew he was safe, too.
He pulled his mouth to the side in a sad half-smile. She lifted her shoulders and released them with a big exhale.
"Well…" she said sullenly.
"Hey," He grabbed her shoulder with one hand. "I'll be back before you know it. Text me stupid stuff, and wear sunscreen, and don't let Prim get crushes on stupid boys, and if any other stupid boys hit on you at the pool…"
"Punch 'em in the nose?"
"I expect nothing less," he said with a smile.
She tried to muster a brave smile in return. He reached forward and lightly pulled on her braid, caressing his fingers down its length as if committing it to memory. As soon as he let go, she stepped forward and looped her arms around his shoulders. He hunched down to reach her, wrapping his arms lightly around her back. She felt the small distance between their bodies as he angled his away from her. She went up on her tip toes and held on tighter, closing the distance.
She thought she felt a light pressure on the top of her head, and she couldn't tell if he had planted his nose there or his lips, but she squeezed her eyes tighter. Eventually he stepped back, and they said their goodbyes.
She knew the memory should make her sad, and maybe soon it would, after days of his absence had sunk in. But for now, in the quiet of her room, the feeling of his body against hers invaded her mind, the reality of it enhanced only by the stretches of her imagination, where she could change certain details, like what they were wearing and where they were and what it would have felt like if he was pressing against her from above.
She tried to steady her breathing, but it was no use; she closed her eyes and tilted her head back on her pillow, her hand traveling over her stomach and under her shorts. The breeze came in from the open window and sailed over her skin, bringing up goose bumps.
She drew up his image in her mind and collected memories of his expressions to play against the black of her closed eyes like a movie screen—the way his eyes had darkened on the hood of the car, the times he would chew on his lip after she'd caught him staring. She imagined what his lip would feel like if she could draw it into her mouth, what it would feel like against the skin of her throat. Her nipples hardened against her top. There, too, she thought fleetingly, struggling to hold on to anything specific in her mind as her hand started rubbing beneath her underwear.
She was damp with arousal and she wondered what his reaction would be if he knew what he did to her, or what she did to herself when she thought about him. The practical side of her knew she'd be horrified if he had any clue, but she pushed that thought out of her mind and instead let herself wonder if he ever thought about her when he did this. In her more lucid moments, she knew it had to be a distinct possibility, especially with the way guys were, but she always tried to ignore the possibility that she was just one face, one body in a revolving door of shallow male fantasies.
But right now, with the scent of his shampoo lingering in her senses, the idea of him doing that while thinking about her—maybe doing it right at that moment—it only made her wetter, and she turned her head and stifled a moan against her pillow.
She imagined the two of them sitting on the couch side by side as they so often did, but instead she would lean back and pull him down by his shoulders, opening her legs to him and letting him settle against her body. She wanted to know she had an effect on him, wanted to feel it between her legs, pressing against her. She would thrust her hands into his hair, clenching tight and forcing his head down to the crook of her neck where she knew she was sensitive because every time he whispered in her ear from behind her in class, his breath would ghost over that spot and she'd have to suppress a shiver. Every time.
She moved her fingers to her entrance and dipped them inside, imagining his fingers instead—thicker, slightly calloused, but so strong and deft. He'd never been bad at anything with his hands. The thought made her clench.
She moved her fingers back up to her bundle of nerves, circling more swiftly, her breath coming out in soft pants. She thought about cornering him somewhere, pulling him into some dark hallway or against the bark of a tree and pushing his shirt up slowly, hoping his pupils would dilate like they had tonight. She wanted to explore every inch of his pale, lightly freckled skin and see if it was that soft everywhere, the way it was on his hands and arms. She wanted to feel it against her own bare skin. In her fantasies, she had the courage to straddle his waist and let her hands find purchase on his broad shoulders or the solid width of his chest.
She wanted him to grab her face and bring it to his own, coaxing her tongue out of her mouth while relentlessly thrusting against her center. These thoughts escalated and collided in a random series of filthy, tantalizing images of—
"Peeta," she gasped into her pillow, her hips still jumping with aftershocks of her orgasm, the muscles of her body unclenching in succession until she sank into her bed, feeling boneless.
She looked at her clock, which read 1:13 a.m. and then at the post-it on her desk that had his return date written on it.