Love is the difficult realization that something other than oneself is real - Iris Murdoch (1919 - 1999)
The first time he came in, it was a Tuesday in July. She remembered because the heat had been a bitch, and rivulets of sweat had been trickling down her neck, under her collar and down her back as she spoke to him. She knew it was a Tuesday, because Delly worked a half day on Tuesdays, and that was the only day she had to keep an eye out for any customers that came in.
That Tuesday was the first time she met Peeta Mellark.
The bell tinkled through the baby monitor she'd installed in her work room, indicating a customer had come in. Katniss glanced at the clock, cursed Delly, then swiped a hand across her forehead. Summer had finally arrived, and with it a sweltering heat that had her longing for October. Well, anywhere or anytime, really, other than here, with the fiery fury from hell that called itself a heatwave.
She put down the twine she gripped tightly, quickly washed the dirt and grime from her hands, and pushed through the clear door into the blessed cool air. The AC was the only good trade off on Tuesdays.
Walking out of the back room, she spotted the customer glancing over the displays Delly had carefully laid out. Katniss had to admit the bubbly, cheerful blonde knew how to do her job in displaying the arrangements throughout the space. Walking from one end of the room to the other, Katniss always felt she'd moved from a pretty English garden, to a field of wildflowers, to an exotic jungle, all within a matter of feet.
She studied the back of the customer for a moment, as he looked at the arrangement of roses that took pride of place near the front window. Katniss could appreciate the view – the broad shoulders, the wavy blonde hair, the ass in jeans that looked like they had been made especially for him – but wrinkled her nose at his choice of flowers.
He couldn't help it if he had bad taste.
She cleared her throat nervously – she hated serving customers – and moved out into the main floor. "Can I help you?" She asked, approaching the man. He turned, and she couldn't help the way her eyebrow quirked. The front view was just as good as the back.
"Ah, yeah, that'd be great," he replied with a friendly grin. "My grandmother is in town, and I wanted to get her some flowers. Something that says both "I love you Gran" and "I like you more than Mom" at the same time."
Katniss couldn't help but laugh, and she rubbed at the sweat that insisted on trickling down her neck. "Ok, well, I don't think that roses are the best choice for that message." She gestured towards the extravagant bunch in front of him and shook her head. "I don't really know your grandmother – or mother, though that sounds like it's a good thing – but would you say she's a happy person? Quiet? Fun?"
The man cocked his head to the side, folding his arms across his chest. "Well, she's a lot like my dad. So friendly. Happy would be a good word too, I guess. Why's that?"
Katniss turned, moving over to the other side of the room, towards an arrangement she'd only finished an hour before. A combination of alstroemeria, gladiolus and a few sprigs of lavender seemed ideal to her, and the minute she lifted the small arrangement from the clear shelf and held it out to him, she knew she was right. The surprise on his face was instant, and a smile crept across his face. He moved towards her, chuckling quietly.
"That's exactly it. Exactly it. Thanks. I'll take it," he told her. She nodded, moving back behind the counter to ring it up. She surreptitiously glanced up at him as he fumbled in his pocket for his wallet, studying his profile. He was familiar somehow, though she couldn't place where from.
"You, ah, don't normally work here do you?" The man asked. She raised an eyebrow at him again, and he blushed. "Ah, sorry. That sounds a bit forward. I just haven't seen you here before, only Delly. I work across the street, at Mellarks? My father and I own the bakery." So that's where she knew him from. "I'm Peeta, by the way. Peeta Mellark." He held out a hand across the counter and she stared at it for a moment before hesitantly reaching out.
"Katniss. And yeah, I do. I own this place. Took it over from Effie Trinket. But I work out the back. I make all the arrangements, and don't have to speak to anyone. Delly works the floor, and doesn't go anywhere near the flowers when I'm putting them together. It works pretty well. Except on Tuesdays, when she takes a half day." She pulled a face, took her hand back and finished putting the sale through the register.
"Well, for someone who doesn't like speaking to people, you seem to be speaking to me just fine," Peeta replied.
"Lots of unwanted practice," she sighed. She named the total price, and he handed over a few folded notes. Was it just her, or did his fingers linger against hers a little longer than they should have?She glanced up, accidentally locking gazes with him. She felt the pit of her stomach bottom out. Well. They're some damn pretty blue eyes.
Katniss coughed, glancing away, and moved the arrangement to his side of the counter. "Well, I hope your grandmother likes these, and your mother hates them," she told him. Peeta laughed.
"Oh, I don't doubt for a second that's exactly what they'll both think." He picked up the arrangement, looked over at the display he'd originally perused, then back at Katniss. "Not a fan of roses?" he asked. "You didn't seem particularly enthused when I was looking at them."
She shrugged, her mind already beginning to wander back to her prep room, and the irises that were waiting for her. "I've never liked them, really. I'm not sure why. There's just something about them. I know that's odd for someone in my profession, but it just is. I work with them, use them, but I much prefer not to."
"If you have a least favourite, do you have a favourite?" Peeta asked. She shook her head.
"No. Not really a favourite flower. But I like the meanings behind flowers. I always think that means so much more."
"But don't roses represent love or something like that? Isn't that the ultimate meaning?" He looked at her, a ridge forming between his eyebrows, as if puzzled.
"Ah, love," Katniss smirked. "Maybe that's the real reason I don't like roses. Does love really even exist?" She watched as Peeta's eyes flickered in shock, and he opened his mouth to speak. She realised that she'd probably spoken out of line, and beat him to it. "Sorry about that. Just ignore me, the heat must be getting to my brain. Enjoy your flowers, Peeta. I have to get back to mine." She turned on her heel, rushing, not waiting for him to exit. She pushed through the door, back into the damp heat of her workroom, and cursed herself for being so honest.
She'd never retain customers if she did nothing but hate on roses and love. Two things that went hand in hand with her business, and helped her to make a living.
It wasn't her fault, really, that she didn't like either of them.
"Morning Katniss!" Delly sang gaily from the front room. "I have donuts!" Katniss closed her eyes, her stomach rumbling the minute Delly mentioned she had food. While she liked the first hour of the morning she had on her own in the shop before her co-worker started, she was just as fond – if not more - of breakfast time.
Katniss moved out into the front of the store, and stared down at the box Delly had placed on the counter. Mellarks, it announced in bright green script, on a stark white background. She shrugged, flipped open the lid, and plucked up the fattest jelly filled in the box. She bit into it, the powdered sugar covering her fingers, falling onto the front of her shirt.
"Peesha Marrk cha in yeshday," she mumbled around a mouthful of donut.
Delly rolled her eyes, dumping her handbag on the counter, and picking up a simple glazed. "Wait til you've eaten, Kat, then demolish the English language."
Katniss crossed her eyes, and swallowed. "I said, Peeta Mellark came in yesterday. He came to buy flowers for his grandmother."
Delly's eyes lit up. "Really?! Isn't he lovely? So nice! And he's got such a good ass too."
Katniss choked on her second mouthful of donut, her eyes watering. She forced herself to swallow before speaking. "Shit, Dells, you're married!"
"Married, not dead, Katniss. I can appreciate a fine ass, and Peeta Mellark has one. But that's beside the point, though a very valid one. What did you sell him?"
"The alstroemeria, gladiolus and lavender combo I put together yesterday."
Delly nodded approvingly. "Good choice. I'm sure his mother hated them."
Katniss looked at her, surprised, and tipped her head in question. "Do you know her then?"
"Ugh, yes. My mom and her play bridge together every Thursday, come heaven or hell. I know her well enough to know that she'd hate that bouquet. Not ostentatious enough for her."
Katniss laughed, popped the last bite of donut into her mouth, wiping her hands on the back of her shorts. "Well, considering Peeta said pretty much the same thing, I think I picked the right arrangement." She studied the appointment book in front of her, noted Delly had two consulting appointments with bride-to-be's, then looked back up at the blonde, who was happily devouring another donut. "How long have you known him anyway?"
Delly smiled around the donut, scrunching up her nose. "Peeta? Oh, forever. I'm surprised you've never met him before, really."
"I don't socialise very much," Katniss reminded her, reaching under the counter, pulling out a large loop of orange ribbon.
"Well you should – oh my god, Katniss, you should go on a date with Peeta!" Katniss rolled her eyes at Delly's over-abundance of enthusiasm, grabbed another donut, and headed towards her workroom.
"Nope, Dells, I shouldn't. You know I didn't move here to date. I'm quite happy just as I am." She pushed aside the little niggle of interest that kept trying to worm its way into her, that had kept sneaking in at the oddest times since yesterday. She didn't have time for that. She had a business to build, and really, there was only one person in her life that she could afford to think of. And that was herself.
He came in a fortnight later, begging for some flowers for a wedding cake topper. His father had originally planned to go with icing flowers, but at the last minute, Peeta had decided that nothing would do but fresh.
Katniss sighed, watching the slight panic in his eyes, studying his dishevelled hair, as if he'd been running his hands through it nervously. It looked…..good.
"Who gets married on a Wednesday, anyway?" she asked, turning to the wide, double doors of the fridge she'd had installed behind the counter. She studied the blooms behind the clear glass, ones she'd yet to use, ready for situations like this, or impromptu arrangements.
"I know. Kind of odd. But, you do flowers for weddings. You'd know any day is now kind of a free-for-all, right?" Peeta replied, leaning across the counter.
Katniss shrugged, eyeing the groupings of orchids she had in there. "You said orchids, didn't you?" She glanced over her shoulder, watched him nod, the turned back. She had a perfect pink Cymbidium Orchid that she'd been dying to use in a bouquet – but maybe this would be better. The centrepiece, of something everyone would marvel at. Really, who didn't like looking at cake? She took it out, placing the plant on the counter. "Ok, how's this? From what you described, this should match what you're looking for."
Peeta reached out, tracing a finger down the petals. If she thought for half a second what that touch would feel like on her skin, she dismissed it quickly. He grinned up at her.
"You've done it again, Katniss. That's perfect. The shade is exactly what I wanted."
"Great," she replied. "I'll prep it so it will work for the cake, and if you want to come back in about an hour, you can pick it up."
"Sounds good, I'll do that. And thanks. I appreciate your help." He stood up, looked over his shoulder across the street at the bakery, and grinned back at her ruefully. "I'd better go before dad loses his shit. He hates it when I get these last minute hair-brained ideas. But that's what happens when I get good brides who give me free reign." He winked, and she hated the flip in her stomach. "I'll be back in an hour with my wallet." She watched him walk out, then glanced down at the counter, which now had streaks of flour across it. She studied the white powder for a moment, then went back to her work. She left the counter as it was.
Peeta came in like clockwork after that. Every Tuesday, without fail, at 2.30, the bell would sound through the monitor, and she'd know who it was. She began to enjoy their chats, some about her flowers, others about the cakes and pastries Mellarks made – which he'd taken to bringing over when he realised she'd never ventured to their bakery – others about whatever came to mind. Books, movies, music, politics, somehow they covered it.
For someone who hated talking to people, Katniss did a lot of it with Peeta Mellark.
She shifted on the stool she sat on beside the counter, and rolled her eyes. "You've got to be kidding me, Mellark. You've never been to Coachella?"
He shook his head, grinning. "Nope."
"But you live, like, half an hour away from it. I used to live further away than that, and I've been. Granted, I went kicking and screaming because who the hell wants to hang out with a big group of sweaty people listening to music or groping each other or whatever." She shuddered.
"Why did you go then?" he asked. The smile that had been on her face slowly slid off, and she fiddled with the corner of the Mellarks bakery box.
"I, uh, went with my boyfriend at the time," Katniss replied. She hopped off the stool, pushing it back under the counter and brushed her hands. "Uh, anyway, I'd better get back to work. Thanks for the buns. I'll, uh, see you around."
"No, Katniss, wait," he reached out over the counter to her, fingers loosely resting on her arm, before she could turn away. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you. Don't go on my account. We can talk about something else if you want."
Katniss glanced up at him, from where she'd been staring intently at the fingers on her arm – long, elegant, strong fingers – and shook her head. "You don't need to apologise, Peeta. It was a long time ago, but not necessarily a good time in my life. Somehow I always ended up dating guys who were assholes. That's why I don't anymore."
"Don't what?" Peeta asked.
"Date," she replied, matter-of-factly. "I wasn't kidding when I told you that I don't think love really exists. There's lust, and attraction, and probably a hell of a lot of like, but love? What is it even? Something people like to blame their crazy actions on. 'Oh, I'm sorry I was a douchebag. But it's just because I love you'. 'I'm sorry I cheated, honey, but you have to believe I love you'. I hear it all the time in this business."
Peeta looked at her, a mixture of surprise and sadness on his face. "That kinda sucks, Katniss. I mean, love makes the world go round. Love makes bad things seem better. Love….makes us better people."
Katniss snorted. "Maybe I should get you to write my sales collateral. When I need a new catalogue created, I'm coming to you."
"You shouldn't be so jaded, Katniss. One day love is going to creep up on you, and it's going to be real, and it's going to be amazing." He rose from his own stool, and grinned. "But in the meantime, here's this weeks' crossword. It's your turn to do the down words." He flipped the paper onto the counter, and strolled out.
She sighed, looking down at the half finished cross-word. She felt bad that she'd practically word vomited over him, but she couldn't help it. She couldn't help how she felt.
She also couldn't help that she watched his ass as he walked across the street back to the bakery. It wasn't like she was dead or anything.
In the following months, Katniss started socialising more. Delly's infectious enthusiasm – and incessant nagging – finally wore her down, until she started going for drinks on a Friday, BBQ's at Delly and Thom's on a Saturday and even (she shuddered to remember) a day at the spa for Delly's birthday. Somehow, she found herself with the biggest circle of friends in her life. She spent time with Delly, with Thom. With Madge and Gale, Finnick and Annie, with BT and Thresh and Rue. With Peeta.
She couldn't decide whether she loved or hated it.
The first flower arrived on a Monday. The October she'd longer for had come and gone, and November had arrived. On that morning Delly didn't say anything, simply opened the workroom door, shuddered at the dampness in the air, placed the flower on the counter, and walked back out again.
Katniss stared down at the simple freesia that sat there, with a thin green ribbon tied around it, For Katniss scrawled across a small white tag. Her brow furrowed in confusion, before she gripped it in her hand and stormed back out to Delly.
"What the hell is this, Dells?" She demanded, tossing the flower on the counter.
Delly shrugged, a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. "Looks like a freesia to me, Katniss," she replied. Katniss rolled her eyes.
"I know that. But what the hell is it doing with a ribbon around it, addressed to me?"
"I don't know. Some little kid came in and gave it to me."
Katniss' jaw dropped. "A kid?" she repeated incredulously. "Some kid gave you a flower to give to me?"
"I highly doubt you have a kid admiring you, Katniss. Maybe they were just playing messenger."
"I don't know!" Delly threw her hands up in frustration. "Who have you met recently?"
"I've met a lot of people, Delly. But I didn't think I'd left enough of an impression to encourage anyone to do shit like this."
"Well, I think it's nice," Delly replied. "Be thankful. You have an admirer."
"Ugh. Just what I damn well need," Katniss groaned, and stomped back to her workroom.
She missed Delly's knowing grin.
The next Monday it was a bunch of pale orange ranunculus. The week after, a handful of pale pink amaryllis. The following day, Katniss dropped her head in her hands, as Peeta looked over at her, grinning.
"But whyyyyyy?" She groaned. "This is ridiculous. Some guy – or girl, I don't even know! – is sending me these flowers each week."
"Maybe they like you?" he shrugged.
"Because I'm soooooo likeable," she retorted, rolling her eyes. He laughed.
"Well, not when you're moaning about like that, you're not," He told her. "I think it's kind of sweet."
"Of course you would, Mr Romantic. If I didn't know any better, I'd swear it was you, being a smart ass."
"Now why would I do something like that?" he asked lightly. "When I know how anti-love you are?"
"Exactly!" She announced, pointing her finger at him. "That! That's why none of this makes sense. Everyone I've met here knows how I feel, that I'm not interested in any of that shit."
"Maybe they're hoping you'll change your mind." She pulled another face at him, then smiled. If there was one person she was glad she'd met since coming to Panem, it was Peeta. Granted, she still had that stupid flutter in her stomach sometimes when he looked at her, or would wonder how the firm muscles of his bicep would feel under her hands, but she'd mostly managed to forget about those thoughts.
She didn't have to believe in love to believe in broad shoulders and nice hair.
She went to the Mellark Bakery Christmas party, and if she felt something when she caught Rue giggling and planting a kiss on a blushing Peeta's cheek under the mistletoe, it certainly wasn't jealousy. Not at all.
It wasn't until the bright yellow daffodils arrived that she thought about it a little bit more. She knew what they meant – chivalry – and wondered if her flower-giving mystery person knew that too. And then she thought about the meaning of the other flowers she'd received. Splendid beauty. Innocence. Radiance. She couldn't deny the thought made her feel a little uncomfortable, that someone might think of her in that way. But really, who paid any attention to the meaning of flowers anyway?
And then it hit her.
"But I like the meanings behind flowers. I always think that means so much more."
"Now why would I do something like that? When I know how anti-love you are?"
Peeta Fucking Mellark.
She should have known all along.
(She still didn't want to admit that it kind of made her happy. That the butterflies in her stomach weren't a good thing).
She waited for him the next day, determined not to run out to his beck and call when the bell rang. She heard it ding through the monitor, but ignored it. She imagined him standing there, shuffling his feet, checking his watch, glancing at the half finished crossword, and dying to finish it, instead of handing it over to her to complete.
Katniss wondered how long it would take him to seek her out.
20 minutes later, she heard the door creak open behind her, and she turned, watching as Peeta peered in.
"Hey," he greeted.
"Hey," she replied, turning back to the tulips she was putting together into a bouquet for a Christmas Eve wedding.
"You, ah, didn't come out," he said, hovering in the doorway.
"Yup," she replied. "Can you come in or go out? I don't like leaving the door open." He nodded, walking inside and closing the door behind him. It wasn't as bad in there during the cooler months – in fact she preferred it. Surrounded by rows upon rows of flowers in the makeshift greenhouse they'd built off the back of the shop, the smell of flowers, and peat moss and earth, she could almost pretend she was outside.
"Hey, this is all pretty cool," he announced, studying the groups of flowers.
"Yep," she said shortly. She heard him clear his throat, and glanced over at him. "What?"
"Is everything ok?" He asked. His blue eyes – dammit, those freaking blue eyes – studied her, concern and confusion evident. His lips pursed together, before his tongue flicked out to lick the lower one. Shit.
But she couldn't be cool, calm and collected like she thought she could be.
She whirled, thumping her fist on the table. "Why the hell are you sending me the flowers, Peeta?" She demanded.
His eyes widened. "How did – did Delly tell – what?" Peeta stuttered, and she pointed her finger at him angrily.
"She didn't! I guessed! But now I know. And Delly! I am going to kick her ass to kingdom come. She knew about this, and kept it from me. And you! You did this. Why? You know how I feel about things like this! I'm not interested in love and relationships and all that. You asshole."
Peeta threw the newspaper on the ground, his own eyes blazing angrily, and crossed his arms across his chest. "Shit, Katniss, get over yourself. Delly did it because she loves you and she loves me. She thought it was sweet. You know why I think you feel the way you do about 'love'?" He raised his hands, using his fingers to indicate quotation marks as he said the word love. "You're afraid. You've had some assholes treat you like shit, and now you think it doesn't exist. Or you don't deserve it, or something like that. I'm not blind, Katniss. I know you watch me. Just like I watch you. I can't help but watch you. You held those damned flowers out to me 5 months ago, with a smile on your face, this messy braid hanging over your shoulder and a big streak of dirt across your forehead, and I felt like I got struck by freaking lightening. So yes, I've been sending you flowers. I've become your friend. Because I love you? I don't even know. But I know damn well that I'd like to find out if I could." He stopped, breath ragged from his outburst. Katniss simply stared at him, mouth wide open.
She hadn't expected that.
"So? What have you got to say?" he demanded.
She gripped the edge of the counter for a moment, as everything he said landed on her, weighing her down like a lead balloon.
Shit, she hoped she didn't regret this.
She reached forward, gripping his collar between her fists, pulling his body to hers and pressing her lips forcefully against his. His lips were soft and tasted like cherries – cherries, for god's sake – and she couldn't help when her tongue flicked out, licking along his top lip, before sucking it into her mouth. She opened her eyes, to see him looking back at her in surprise. And then his closed, his hands gripped her hips and he changed the angle of the kiss, plunging his tongue into her mouth, warring with hers.
She slid her hands down his chest, to his arms, wrapping her fingers around them like she'd been dying to for so long. He pushed her back, so that she bumped against her work table. She heard the crack of a pot break as it hit the ground, but she didn't care. All she cared about was the feel of his lips on hers, his hands on her ass and the length of his body pressed up against hers. Peeta's hand crept up, slid up her torso until it rested against her breast, flexing his fingers, cupping it in his hand.
And here she was thinking that people going weak in the knees only ever happened in the movies.
He bit down on her lip gently, and she moaned, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck. She felt both of his hands slide down to her hips, molding to them and lifting her up until she was resting on the worktable. He slid a hand into her hair, the other around her waist, pulling her close until they were lined up, shoulder to hip, every part of them touching. And she sighed into his mouth at how good it felt, how good he felt pressing and grinding into her.
She never expected to use her workroom like this.
He kept kissing her, fingers knotting in her braid, trailing his lips down the column of her neck to her collarbone. His body thrusting against hers, voluntarily or involuntarily, she didn't even know. But then he was pulling away, his breath uneven, face red, erection bulging obviously in his pants. And she felt a little lost.
He cleared his throat, adjusting his pants, glancing down at the paper on the ground. "I,uh…I'm sorry. But I don't think that we should do that." He paused to catch his breath, but he still didn't look at her. "I like you, Katniss, I like you a lot. I'm pretty sure I could love you if you let me. But that's exactly it. I believe in love, ok? And I don't want to waste my time on someone who doesn't. I don't want to get hurt either. I'm not sure what you meant by kissing me, but….I think you need some time to think."
Katniss opened her mouth to protest, before she realised he was right. What the hell had she been thinking?
She watched him pick up the paper, holding it out to her. "This is yours to finish. I'm going to go. Have a…have a good Christmas, Katniss."
She watched him leave, her breath still stuttering and her body aching with need, the paper dangling from her limp fingertips.
Christmas was depressing.
So was the day after, and the day after that.
She couldn't stop thinking about him.
So when the following Monday rolled around, and no flower arrived, her heart ached. Her stomach dropped. And everything inside her felt like it died a little.
She stared out the shopfront window on the Tuesday, watching the steady stream of customers go in and out of Mellarks. So much for New Year diets, she thought ruefully. She glanced down at the small, sweet pot of tulips she'd put together from the flowers leftover from the Christmas wedding, and suddenly, she knew what she needed to do. What she wanted to do.
Katniss dashed around the counter, grabbing a simple white tag, and a length of orange ribbon. She scrawled her message on the tag, then quickly ran outside, forgoing her jacket against the cold air. She crossed the street, thrilled when she saw Madge heading towards the bakery. Katniss thrust the pot into her hands, quickly gave her instructions and ran back to the shop, not waiting to see the grin that Madge sent her.
She stood in the doorway of the shop, biting her fingernails nervously. But she didn't have to wait long. He stepped out of Mellarks, framed in his own doorway, white apron covering his jeans and shirt, the pot of tulips held between his hands. He stared at her, and even from here she could see the hope in his eyes. She nodded gently, and within seconds he was across the street, arms wrapped around her waist, lips pressed to hers. She felt the ceramic from the pot digging into the small of her back, but she didn't care.
Finally, he pulled away, rested his forehead against hers. "Tulips mean 'Declaration of love', huh?"
She nodded, a blush rising on her cheeks. "Sorry I didn't tell you before. I didn't think love existed, you know. And I tried to ignore what I was feeling for a long while. But someone told me once that love makes the world go round. Love makes bad things seem better. Love makes us better people. I think they were right. I think love is real."
He grinned, rubbing a thumb softly against her cheek. "I knew I was right," he told her, and kissed her.