Written for Prompts in Panem round 3, day 3. The prompt, Europe. Inspired by the Audrey Hepburn movie of the same title. No need to have watched the movie to follow the story :D
Peeta Mellark looked at his pitiful lunch in front of him and sighed. The office lunchroom, which their boss who loved too much whiskey made to look like a snazzy bar, was starting to fill. The giant LED TV in the corner played the latest soccer—no, football—match. They were in Europe—Milan, to be exact—and he had to get used to calling things a different way. Like how the restroom is called a water closet. Thank god he was not assigned to London or else he would be driving on the wrong side of the road.
The bass from the speakers subtly made his water bottle dance. Theirs was a most unusual office setting, because their boss insisted that working in the creative industry meant they should not be confined to a boring setting. It would be detrimental to their job and brain cells. Peeta wanted to tell him alcohol would do the same to him.
By the time he was halfway through the cold noodles, his co-worker Finnick plopped down in the chair in front of him. Two thirds of their pitiful team were complete. Only Marvel, the managing editor, was missing.
And before one would get any ideas, no, Peeta Mellark did not work directly in a magazine. He worked for several in fact, or rather his department did. He was a copywriter, in charge of writing the boring words for the dull advertorials (advertising editorials, thank you very much, paid handsomely by their advertisers) that readers flip past but their clients still think relevant and useful for their commercial ends.
Whatever, he thought. It paid the exorbitant rent of his tiny studio that did not even have a kitchen.
And that was why he was forced to buy his lunch in the smoky streets or go out for dinner every single day.
As the music increased in volume and the lights dimmed some more, a hand covered the greasy top of his bowl. "I'll trade you that for this one," Finnick said, pushing a pack of cigarettes to him. Peeta rolled his eyes and took the offer, lighting a cigarette. He didn't have much of an appetite anyway.
He looked up as he took a drag and saw their boss stumbling into the room. Mr. Abernathy roared for the music to stop and for the channel to be switched.
All the editors turned their attention to screens, which now featured the goodwill tour of some princess. Since he wasn't really an editor, Peeta ignored the news flash and went back to minding his cigarette and playing a game on his phone.
Paramount News brings you a special coverage of Princess Katniss's visit to London, the first stop on her much-publicized, goodwill tour of European cities. She gets a royal welcome from the British, as thousands cheer the gracious young member of one of Europe's oldest ruling families.
"What a weird name," Finnick said, scrunching his nose, turning back to him.
"So listen," Finnick said, not minding the news now. "We're one short for the match tonight. Care to play? I'm still missing a striker."
Peeta tore his attention away from the game. The others were still glued to the screen.
After three days of continuous activity and a visit to Buckingham Palace, Princess Katniss flew to Amsterdam, where her Highness dedicated the new International Aid Building and christened an ocean liner. Then went to Paris, where she attended many official functions designed to cement trade relations between her country and the Western European nation.
"But we have work tomorrow," Peeta reminded him. "I don't know, we might pull off another all-nighter for this client."
"Fuck," Finnick cussed into his noodles, careful not to be overheard by the boss.
"Why don't you ask Thresh?" Peeta said, dipping his head back to play.
And so to Milan, the Princess's stop in Italy, where the Princess's visit was marked by a spectacular military parade...The smiling young Princess showed no sign of the strain of the week's continuous public appearances.
The room was suddenly silent as Mr. Abernathy suddenly switched the television off.
"Ok, lovely people. Now who will volunteer to go the sweetheart's press conference tomorrow on a lovely Saturdaymorning?"
It was funny how not one of the editors wanted to work on the weekends, looking elsewhere but the boss, perhaps because their jobs were already secure. Peeta's job was dependent on the revenue his department made, so he had no choice if they were made to work on weekends.
Yet how he wanted to be an editor.
He wanted to be a writer first, after always being praised in school for his way with words.
But his mother had not approved of diving headfirst into the life of a struggling writer, which she viewed badly along with struggling artist and struggling musician. It was a pity then that all her sons were one among those three.
So after slaving away in grad school, Peeta Mellark found a job as a copywriter for an ad agency before he was headhunted to this publishing company, who shipped him off to their satellite office in Milan, his first time traveling outside the US. He ought to feel flattered, but a horizontal career move was not always a good thing.
"Oh your enthusiasm is simply commendable," their boss slurred as he reached for another bottle from the bar.
"Cato! Clove!" he barked as he opened the bottle and poured himself a drink. "You two do the press con."
Peeta was staring at the scene just in time to see the identical looks of disdain from the two editors before his phone's alarm beeped to remind him of a client meeting. He could smell the liquor as Mr. Abernathy walked past them.
He finished his cigarette and reached for his jacket, thumping Finnick in the head as he passed by to get the other man going.
One day, he thought as the revolving doors led them to the cool spring air outside, he would find his ticket out of here.
What Peeta Mellark did not know was that his ticket was waiting in the elevator at the Four Seasons Milan.
Princess Katniss was always, always, surrounded by people. It had been like this as far back as she could remember. There was never one moment where she could play alone with her dolls or her cats as there was the shadow of someone else nearby.
When the faint chime of the elevator indicated that they had reached the floor of her suite, Princess Katniss walked ahead of her entourage purposely, until a clearing of a throat made her stop.
Her chaperone, Countess Trinket, made the noise, and Katniss waited for one of her aides to offer his arm to escort her to her room.
I can walk perfectly well, she groaned.
Yet her face remained perfectly serene. It was perfectly serene last night too, during the ball to welcome her to Italy, wearing her resplendent ball gown and her sparkling tiara. It was perfectly serene while she greeted the guests of the ball one by one, all three hundred of them. It was always perfectly serene even if inside her was a storm of emotions.
As she walked into her suite, the long corridor was filled with the sounds of the news reporting her goodwill tour. She was about to walk to her room when Countess Trinket directed her to the receiving room.
The PR machine of the palace stood waiting for her. Lord Heavensbee and Lord Flickerman bowed to the Princess as she daintily took her seat, adjusting her skirt and removing her silk gloves as she turned to address the two.
Lord Heavensbee eagerly stepped forward with that fanatic gleam that always twinkled in his eye, alerting her to another one of his PR schemes.
"Your Highness, the debut of your tour has been received splendidly by the press!" He motioned for Lord Flickerman, who produced his tablet and showed the Princess all of the news clippings and video coverage of her tour.
Katniss made a motion to regard the tablet and scrolled down at the photos. Her face looked perfectly serene in everything.
"That is a relief to hear, my lords," she replied.
And it really was a relief. The reason for the whole tour was that, as a small country, Panem was not as blessed as its sovereign neighbors, and they needed a boost to their image if they were to improve their economy that slowly sunk alongside its sisters in Europe.
What better way to do that, Lord Heavensbee proposed one night, than to parade their direct heir to the throne around the continent, meet with people and attract investors, put Panem in a good light in the midst of all this depression over fiscal debts and downgrades.
Yet there was another, more important reason for the tour, too. Their Parliament, pushed by the deterioration of their currency, was screaming for the abolishment of the monarchy.
It was archaic, they said.
The Palace needed this tour to bring the tide of favor to their side. So they brought Lords Heavensbee and Flickerman onboard and the two concocted their schemes and flexed their PR muscles. And Princess Katniss, being the only heir, was forced to comply.
And now Panem was all over the news, as well as her. Her father, the King, called her earlier to congratulate her on the success, commending her for her fulfillment of her duty. They all spoke of how she was regal and poised and attentive.
Yet nobody had bothered to ask her how she had felt about all this. She was merely a piece in their games.
When Lords Heavensbee and Flickerman finished congratulating themselves on their success, Princess Katniss looked at her chaperone and faked a cough. Everyone turned their heads towards her, and Countess Trinket rushed to her side. They always worried about her health, and she played that card often. She was escorted out of the receiving room at once to take her rest.
Princess Katniss walked faster than her escort when she neared her room. She hurried some more until she reached her door and slammed it shut behind her, before falling down slowly to the floor, exhausted and burdened.
She would cry again alone tonight, never truly being able to ascertain the source of all her despondency.
Later that night, Princess Katniss stood on her bed in her dainty white nightgown with small pink rosebuds. Her hair was down and her head ached from the pins used earlier. It was usually easy to bounce back from her mood swings, but tonight was difficult. The stress and demands of the tour must be weighing down on her. Still, she had to present her best face to her guardian.
Countess Trinket entered the room, bringing her nightly snack of milk and crackers.
"I hate this nightgown," Katniss told her. "I hate all my nightgowns and all my underwear too!" Princess Katniss exclaimed while brushing her hair.
The Countess came over to her bed as she plopped down to her pillows. "My dear, you have lovely things."
"But I'm not two hundred years old!" Katniss said, pulling the collar of her nightgown with the rosebuds. "Why can't I sleep in pajamas?"
"Just the top half. Did you know that there are people who sleep with nothing at all?" Katniss said, further shocking the Countess.
Countess Trinket walked over to the window to open them. She turned to Katniss and said, "I rejoice to say that I did not."
The Countess then proceeded to give her the tray of milk and crackers.
"Everything we do is so wholesome," Katniss complained while munching on her crackers.
"They'll help you to sleep."
"I'm too tired to sleep."
The Countess ignored this and put on her glasses, ready to read the itinerary for the following day from her handsome notebook. Katniss absentmindedly played with her napkin. It was always the same routine every night anyway.
"Now my dear, if you don't mind: tomorrow's schedule. Eight thirty, breakfast here with the Embassy staff; nine o'clock, we leave for the Polinory Automotive Works where you'll be presented with a small car."
Katniss perked up and smiled, "Why thank you," she said while pretending to practice her wave.
"Which you will not accept."
"No, thank you," she sighed, leaning back to her pillow, picking up a cracker and splitting it to pieces.
"Ten thirty-five, inspection of the Food and Agricultural Organization will present you with an olive tree."
"No, thank you," was her automatic reply.
"Which you will accept," the Countess pointedly added.
Katniss tuned what Countess Trinket droned on and on about for tomorrow. Her day was booked, as always, not even a minute spared for herself. One o'clock, lunch with Cultural Ministry, a visit to a tomato farm and with a photo op of her trying to make pizza. Her schedule pressed down on her, an invisible cage with invisible manacles she would never escape.
"Four o'clock sharp, tea with the Foreign Ministry—"
"STOP!" Katniss suddenly screamed. Her eyes were full of hysterical tears that started pooling at the announcement of the tomato farm.
"Please, stop! Stop!" she begged, looking away. It was getting harder to breathe and she clawed at her nightgown. Her milk and crackers spilled. She pushed the covers of her bed away.
The Countess recovered quickly. "It's alright dear, it didn't spill too much," she said, taking the tray away.
"I don't care! I want to drown in it!" Katniss screamed some more.
The Countess put her arm around Katniss to comfort her. "My dear, you are ill. I'll send for the doctor."
"I don't want the doctor. I want to die! Please let me die in peace," she sobbed, begging.
"You're not dying."
"Leave me." Katniss ordered, sitting up. "LEAVE ME!" she shouted.
Countess Trinket, unfazed, looked at her. "It's nerves; control yourself Katniss."
And the Countess walked out the door to fetch the doctor.
"I don't want to," Katniss brokenly whispered against her pillow. "I don't want anything to do with this anymore."
Later, Countess Trinket returned with Doctor Aurelius and Lord Heavensbee. Katniss was pretending to sleep, facing away from them.
"But she was in hysterics mere minutes ago," she heard her chaperone tell the doctor.
She felt a soft touch to her shoulder. "Are you asleep, ma'am?" the doctor asked.
"No," she said turning. "I'm sorry. I… I was suddenly crying and I don't know why." A thermometer was placed inside her mouth.
"It's perfectly normal to cry," Doctor Aurelius gently said.
"It is most important that she be calm and relaxed for tomorrow's press conference, doctor." Lord Heavensbee silkily added.
Katniss took the thermometer out and wanted to throw it at Lord Heavensbee. She turned to the good doctor and said, "I'll be perfectly calm tomorrow. I-I'll bow and I'll smile and I'll improve trade relations… even if I know nothing about economics because princesses were only taught how to draw and play music, and smile and bow…" she trailed away, sobbing once more.
"There she goes again. Give her something, doctor," Countess Trinket worriedly said.
Doctor Aurelius produced a syringe and began to disinfect a patch of skin on her arm. Katniss didn't care as she was poked with the needle. As she looked up, she saw Lord Heavensbee looking green.
"What's that?" she asked Doctor Aurelius dispiritedly.
"Sleep and calm," the doctor replied as he packed his things. "It will relax you and make Her Highness feel a little happy."
"But I don't feel any different," Katniss mumbled.
"It may take a little time to take hold. Now lie back, Your Highness."
"May I read?" Her books, stories of freedom and love and adventure, always made her feel better. They were her only comfort.
"Of course. Best thing I know is to do exactly as you wish for a while."
Katniss smiled weakly at the doctor. "Thank you."
They left her alone again, with Lord Heavensbee almost tripping on the rug and furniture. The Countess bid her goodnight before closing the door.
Katniss sighed. She opened her bedside drawer and pulled out a pamphlet of Rome she discreetly took from the airport.
The Eternal City looked splendid in the photographs. She so badly wanted to see the sights ever since she read about them on the royal plane to Italy. But it was useless. She was confined here. She was confined to her duties for the rest of her life. She placed the pamphlet back to her drawer.
Bored while waiting for the calm the drug promised, she climbed out of bed and looked out the window, drawn by the shouts of men playing football. She looked at them longingly, at the city lights she will never walk under at night. At the stars that were always seen from inside a window. At the people littering the streets she envied the most.
And she was sick of her room. Sick of her clothes forced upon her. Sick of her nightly snack of milk and crackers. Sick of her entourage. Sick of her chaperone. Sick of it all.
Katniss heard more shouts from the men and how she longed for what they enjoyed. Freedom. Choices. Possibilities.
Suddenly filled with determination, she had decided to do as she wished, just as the doctor ordered. And that was to get out of here.
After hurriedly dressing, Katniss looked at her watch. She had five minutes to escape while the guards changed. She looked around her room to see if she missed anything.
A last minute decision, she took the pamphlet of Rome and tucked it into the pocket of her midi skirt. She wore her bowed blouse and sensible flats and felt very free already. She took a deep breath before heading out the door of her room.
Her suite was empty, thankfully. She silently walked to the main door, out into the hallway, and into the elevator where she punched for the second floor.
Katniss knew she couldn't very well go out of the lobby. So she had decided to escape from the second floor window. She smiled to herself. It was like the adventures she had read in books!
Except, climbing out the window and into the dark street proved easier in thought than in action. The wall was wet from the spring drizzle. Thankfully, she chose the window facing the backstreet where the supplies were unloaded, and if she could just jump into that stack of crates to her right, she would be all right.
And she did, and it was only a matter of climbing down carefully. She would have hated to wound herself accidentally.
Once on the damp street, Katniss dusted her hands and smiled, her skirt swinging from the evening breeze.
Without looking back, she ran.
She was free.
Except she had no clue where to go.
Katniss had almost gotten run over by a motorcycle as she crossed the street without looking, the driver shouting at her in angry Italian.
But this was wiped from her mind as she looked around. The city at night was overwhelming. Instead of the drone of her entourage, she heard cars zooming past her and the drunken rush of people in bars. Instead of stiff formality greeting her, nobody here minded her. She heard a flower vendor call out for the last discount for freesias. She smelled the grilled artichokes from a nearby open food stall. A man bumped into her and apologized, and she actually smiled at the normalcy.
She loved it instantly!
She had walked and walked until she reached the park she saw by her window earlier. The field was well lit and she could hide behind the trees as she looked on curiously. She had never seen a football match before. She giggled as the men laughed and tossed the ball around in the mud. They were sweaty and rough with their speech.
And one caught her eye.
He was not as tall as the others. He had blonde hair that stuck in clumped waves to his forehead. And he played very well, bursting in spurts of energy as he kicked the ball.
Katniss found herself rooting for him from behind the tree she was hiding in.
She even clapped as the blonde man scored his second goal.
She walked to the next tree, following the man, fascinated. She thought it cute that he stuck a bit of his tongue out as he passed the ball to a bronze-haired man. She watched the match play on. She watched them take their water breaks. She watched the blonde man's team score another goal.
Then Katniss yawned. She had completely forgotten about the drug the doctor injected her with and she was starting to feel its effects. Sleep suddenly seemed a good idea now. Anywhere, really. She just wanted to lie down.
She yawned again and walked away from the match, with a last glance at the handsome blonde man.
Peeta had just double-knotted his shoelaces and picked up his duffel, ready to go home. They had won. Finnick was thrilled he had decided at the last minute to join their team.
He whistled a tune and walked away from the field. And passed a bench where a woman was fast asleep.
Weird, he thought.
"Soooooooo happy," the woman mumbled.
He paused and looked again. The woman was stirring. "How are you this eveniiiiiiing?"
It was quite an amusing sight. She was too clean and well dressed to be a beggar yet here she was, sleeping in one of the park benches.
The woman turned and was about to fall to the ground. Peeta hurriedly rushed to her side before she could plop down to the puddle.
"Hey hey hey! Wake up!" he said as he turned her back to the bench.
"Thank youuuuu. Very much delighted to meet you."
She opened her eyes but she still looked woozy.
"Nooooooo, thank you," she mumbled again, raising her hand to him. "Charmed."
"Charmed too," Peeta replied, amused, as she wobbled from side to side while trying to sit straight.
She looked up at him, loftily raising her eyebrows. "You may sit down."
"Listen, you have to go. Or else you'll get picked up by the police."
The woman took a deep breath. She was not fully awake again. "Police. Two Forty Five, back to the hotel to rest. Three Fifteen off to the Orphanage…"
Peeta furrowed his eyebrows. What in the world was she talking about? He glanced at his watch. It was getting late and he had to go to work tomorrow.
He cradled her face with his hand to keep her from moving like a pendulum.
"Miss, will you be alright?"
She smiled serenely at him. "I love you too Daddy,"
"Ooookay." Peeta said, standing up as the woman leaned to the side and lay on the bench once more.
Clearly, this girl was going nowhere.
But he couldn't very well leave this girl here. There were too many drunks that roamed the park before dawn approached. And he had to go somewhere, his apartment, to sleep. It would be a grueling day at work tomorrow.
He sighed impatiently and hoisted his duffel on one shoulder, and the girl on the other.
"You know, people who could not hold their alcohol should not drink at all," he huffed as he walked. The girl's full weight was on him.
He hailed a taxi from the next street corner. The driver gave him crooked smile, looking leeringly at the incapacitated girl who embarrassingly dropped her head to his lap, facing his crotch.
Peeta glared at the driver and adjusted the girl to a sitting position.
Thankfully, the journey did not get any more excitement.
He paid the driver hastily and guided the girl by the waist. She was starting to wake up again.
"Oh a taxi!" she exclaimed. "I have never ridden one before," she mumbled, turning to face the taxi but Peeta dragged her by the arm to move to his gate.
Peeta shook his head and fished out his key for the building's gate, letting the girl go for a second. He took the girl by the wrist once inside, guiding her up the stairs, letting her go again when he was opening the door to his studio.
He stopped, leaning forward to open it, when he felt a weight on his shoulder. The girl was leaning into him. He exhaled and straightened the girl before going through his door.
His studio was not big. It was enough for one person but too small for two people.
"Is this the elevator?" the girl asked him.
"No, it's my apartment," he replied, annoyed. He set his bag down and unzipped his jacket. He turned to see the girl walking to his bed.
"I'm terribly sorry to mention this but the dizziness is getting worse. Can I sleep here?"
"That's the general idea for beds," Peeta replied as he walked to his closet and pulled out clothes for the girl. Perhaps his one pair of old pajamas would do. He usually slept in his boxers, and he couldn't very well give that to her.
He turned around and found the odd girl sitting on his bed.
"Can I have a silk nightgown with rosebuds in it?" She said.
"I'm afraid you're gonna have to rough it in these," he said, handing her the clothes.
"Pajamas!" she exclaimed, startling Peeta, taking the pajamas from him.
What an odd girl indeed. What has she been drinking? Or sniffing?
He walked to his bureau, which he used to stack many things. His vodka, for instance. He was about to pour himself a drink when the girl spoke again.
"Will you help me get undressed, please?"
Peeta nearly dropped the bottle. He turned to see the girl looking expectantly at him, as if it was the most natural request in the world.
"Errr, ok." He said. This was so surreal.
He walked over to her, still standing ready. He took the bow of her blouse, loosened it, and handed it to her.
"I think you can manage from here," he mumbled. The girl looked at the bow blankly and took it.
Peeta returned to his bureau and downed two shots of vodka.
"This is very unusual," the girl mumbled. He agreed in thought. Peeta calmed himself before turning around again.
She was now unbuttoning her blouse.
Peeta shook his head.
"I've never been alone with a man before, even with my dress on," she said, pulling the hem of her blouse that was tucked into her skirt.
Who was this girl?
"And with my dress off," she continued, taking her top off and clad only in her bra, "It is most unusual indeed."
Peeta swallowed. He looked away from the lacy patterns of her forest green strapless bra.
"And I see you don't seem to mind," she said with a laugh. "And I don't seem to mind too." She smiled at him with hazy eyes.
"I think I need to step out for a bit," Peeta declared, grabbing his jacket again.
"And I need to sleep," the girl mumbled.
"Yes, and you do that on the couch, over there," Peeta said.
"No, the bed's here," she countered, making a motion for his blanket.
"No," Peeta said, "On the couch, 'cause I sleep in the bed," he said, trying a sterner tone with her.
"Okay, okay," she said dejectedly. Peeta thought he could finally leave, but the girl pulled him, crumpling the shirt on his chest.
"No wait, you don't get to order me around," she said, in a fierce tone. She pushed a finger at his chest for added measure.
The girl was still wobbly in her feet, and before she could sink in front of him, he caught both her wrists. Her forehead bumped painfully to his nose.
When he had finished seeing pinpricks of light, his eyes directed to her plump lips. And her expressive gray eyes. A most unusual color. He breathed out. She breathed in, staring at him.
"I need to go," he whispered, settling her hands down.
When she didn't fall, he bolted out the door.
Peeta stumbled back to his apartment hours later to find the strange girl sleeping in his bed.
He groaned out loud.
Selfish, ungrateful girl.
He walked back to the door and slammed it shut again, seeing if the noise would wake her.
And the room was spinning. Fuck, he shouldn't have drunk that last shot.
It was getting very late and he needed to sleep. So he moved the girl and plopped down beside her, cursing this night.
The girl spoke again beside him. "So happy."
"Pleasure's all mine," he replied, not knowing why, before shutting his eyes and falling asleep immediately.
In what seemed like only moments later, Peeta awoke with a jolt.
He grabbed the clock from his bedside table.
The time he read shook the sleep from his eyes. It was almost noon, and he had to work!
He was puzzled to see a sleeping girl beside him, tucked to her side. The night before swirled around in his mind. He slammed the clock back to his bedside table.
"Silence, I'm sleeping" the girl croaked.
"Oh shut up," he grumbled as he hauled himself out of bed, putting his work clothes on. There was no time to shower. His hangover pounded in his head as he made his way out.
He walked to their cluster to see an irate Marvel standing over Finnick, whose nostrils were flared as he retouched a photo on his computer screen.
"I see someone has finally decided to come to the office today," said a voice behind him. The voice of his boss.
Peeta turned, a hundred alibis on his lips, but his boss waved him off. "Bore someone else with your incompetence to comply with work schedules. I need the copy for the pitch in an hour."
Peeta waited until Mr. Abernathy had walked away before rushing to his desk.
He booted up his Mac and swiveled his chair to face Finnick and Marvel, who were arguing.
"Don't use that photo, she looks constipated there."
"Her expression's the same in all the photos."
Peeta's eyes moved to the screen and saw her.
Rows and rows of photos of her.
The girl who was still asleep in his bed.
He shook his head and looked again.
It was still her.
"Wh—Who's that girl?" he asked.
Marvel didn't turn when he replied, "Princess Katniss. Clove's photographer wasn't able to take a photo earlier because the press con was canceled because little princess was apparently ill. And the client wants to use a photo of her in their advertorial so here we are searching for a photo where she looks even remotely approachable."
The wheels in his coffee-deprived mind started turning. It was a miracle they turned at all. But the idea was all he needed. And he couldn't shake it from his mind anymore.
Peeta rushed from his chair and ran to his boss's office.
He knocked, and without waiting for a reply, let himself in.
This was it. This was his ticket to becoming a real writer.
"How much is it worth?" he panted out.
Mr. Abernathy scowled at him instantly. "What—"
"How much is an exclusive story on Princess Katniss worth?" he iterated.
"Are you out of your mind? She's indisposed, taken violently ill this morning at three am. No one can write about her."
Peeta walked to his boss's mahogany desk and leaned in. "But what if I could," he whispered almost maniacally. The hangover was oddly boosting him. "What if I could give you an exclusive? That's why I was late this morning." He finished triumphantly, straightening out.
Mr. Abernathy was unimpressed. He replied in an almost mocking voice.
"If said hypothetical article did get produced, I would say it'd be worth a hundred grand to any tabloid title. But you work in a magazine company, and that is not your line of work, unless you wish to transfer and I could fire you right now."
"I'm serious," Peeta said.
"Well, so am I"
"I can get you the article."
"With pictures? Because god forbid no one would believe you without properly captioned pictures," his boss exclaimed sarcastically.
Peeta paused. "I will get you the article, and when you have the exclusive, you can sell the issue like hotcakes to advertisers. And they would be lining up at your door, begging to advertise in that commemorative issue. And I want an editorial position afterwards."
"And how, pray tell, will you get said article? While disguised as a thermometer to her Highness? Whatever kid. I like you. You work hard. I'd say you smoked too much last night. Go back home and come back, clean and sober, on Monday." And his boss turned the chair around, effectively dismissing him.
Perfect, he thought. As his scoop was still sleeping in his bed.
He googled her on his phone as he ran up the steps of his building.
Peeta pushed the door open, and to his relief, she was still fast asleep on his bed.
He locked the door and tidied up his apartment. He made coffee and popped some apple turnovers into the meager toaster. He considered vacuuming, but the noise might make her irate.
He walked quietly to the bed, still unbelieving. He took out his phone and compared the photos to her sleeping face, tilting his phone so the angles were similar.
Finally, he decided on one more test. "Your Highness? Your Royal Highness?" he asked.
"Yes?" she sleepily replied.
Peeta whooped in the air silently. Jackpot!
"Doctor Aurelius, is that you?" she asked.
Peeta was unsure what to do. So he played along.
"Yes. Well, you're, uhhh fine, don't you worry. Is there anything else you want?"
"Hmmm? There are a lot of things I want, doctor."
Peeta sat on the bed and moved closer. "Really? Well tell the good doctor everything."
She was beginning to stir. "Well I dreamt. I dreamt..."
"Go on. What was your dream?" Peeta moved to get her wrist and acted as though he was checking her pulse. He reached for his smart phone. Better take some notes down.
"I dreamt that I slept on the street and a young man picked me up and he was blonde and strong and… and… he was mean to me."
"He was?" Peeta asked, puzzled, setting her arm down.
She blinked open her eyes, her face relaxed. She smiled and sighed. Then she opened her eyes more fully and looked at him. Then looked at the window. Then looked back at him again. Her expression changed.
"You. It was real. My dream. It had been real." She looked like a girl about to scream.
Peeta did not make any sudden movements, careful that he did not scare the princess before him. His career depended on it.
"Good morning," he cheerfully greeted.
"Where's Dr. Aurelius?" She asked sharply.
Peeta smiled shyly. "I'm afraid I do not know who you're referring to."
She narrowed her eyes. "How did I get here then?"
"As you said, your dream was real. I found you passed out in the park. I couldn't very well leave you there, in the middle of a dangerous night."
She looked down at her clothes. "How did I come by these clothes?"
"I gave them to you."
"And did you help me into them?"
"No, you were perfectly capable of dressing yourself last night," lied Peeta smoothly.
"Would you be so kind as to tell me where I am?" she commanded, raising an eyebrow.
"You're in my apartment," Peeta replied, calmly.
She looked around. She eyed a lone cobweb by the wall with distaste. Damn it, he should have cleaned that. She sniffed with disdain.
"So I've spent the night here with you?"
Peeta shifted uncomfortably. Her eyes were sharply assessing him. "Well, I wouldn't use those words exactly, but err, from a certain angle, yes. Nothing happened," he tried to reassure her.
She looked around again, a bit more relaxed this time. And to his surprise, she smiled widely and held out her hand to him.
"How do you do?" she asked, suddenly formal and polite.
"Very well, thank you. And you are?"
"I'm Katn—Kat," she stammered.
"Delighted, Mr. Mellark," she replied, smiling.
"Please, call me Peeta. Mr. Mellark's my dad. And you don't know how delighted I am to meet you."
Katniss smiled shyly. "What time is it?"
"About three thirty."
Katniss stood up suddenly. "My goodness, I've slept for too long."
"Oh no hurries," Peeta said, standing up as well and headed for the table with the coffee. "We have lots of time."
"Oh no, I've been enough trouble to you as it is."
Peeta turned back and smiled devilishly at her. "You're not what I'd call trouble."
He approached her again and gave her a steaming cup of coffee. "Listen, you look like someone in need of a break. I'll run you a bath, you can relax, then we can figure out what to do next. Sound good?"
Katniss nodded, allowing herself to be led to the bathroom. She hastily picked up her clothes from the floor.
While taking her bath, Peeta opened his laptop and began writing down his ideas for the article. Definitely he'll include her views on fashion, as that's what girls liked to talk about. He considered calling Glimmer, one of the fashion editors, but decided against it.
What he needed to do was spend a day with this girl and get her to like him, confide in him. See her in a setting where she's not poised and guarded of her feelings. It shouldn't be too difficult. He easily made friends and could charm anyone if he wanted to. He could see his career skyrocketing now.
When the princess stepped out of the shower almost an hour later, she was dressed in the same clothes as when he found her, except the bow he had untied last night was hanging limply around her neck. Her hair was damp. He closed his laptop and handed her a comb from the bathroom.
"So, Kat. What were you doing in a park bench last night?"
Katniss took the comb from him. "I..uh.. I skipped school. And I had been injected with a drug, so I could be happy and relaxed." she said, not meeting his eyes and blushing.
He can see the headlines now.
"Drugs?" He clarified.
"Not what you think! The school doctor gave them to me, to calm down."
"I see," Peeta said. "Well where's your school?"
He saw the girl narrowing her eyes. Perhaps he should back off for now. Earn her trust first. They were still strangers to one another, after all. "Well, if you're uncomfortable, you need not answer. I was just simply concerned about your situation. They must be worried about you."
Katniss nodded. His eyes were too blue.
"They probably are, so I really do need to go," she insisted. "But I thank you for your generosity in letting me stay the night and caring for me while I was indisposed," she said, walking up to him. Peeta stood by the door, blocking her exit.
Shit. He needed an excuse to stay with her.
But there was none.
He had to let her go. Then follow her. Then accidentally bump into her, perhaps.
"All right, if you insist and if you think you are well," he said, opening the door for her.
"Goodbye, Mr. Mellark. And if I do not see you again, I really do hope you get to live a nice life," she said, smiling at him.
Peeta closed the door and moved to clean the bathroom. And when he saw an orange and blue pamphlet of Rome with the Coliseum at the cover, he knew the game was back.
Katniss was just about to open the building gate when she heard hurried footsteps down the stairs and a masculine voice calling her.
She didn't turn around, but remembered suddenly that that was the name she had given Mr. Mellark, no, Peeta. Katniss faced him with eyes slightly wide. What did he want now? She was itching to discover the city by herself, for once free, as she had wished.
"Do you want to go to Rome?" he blurted, handing her the pamphlet she had stupidly left behind.
"What?" she asked, confused.
"I mean it, do you want to go Rome? You said you were skipping school anyway, and I saw your doodles in the pamphlet. You look like you really want to go, and I can accompany you. I'm not doing anything for a while anyway."
"Don't you have a job?"
"I do, I'm a copywriter, meaning I deal with boring advertising, but I'm on a freelance assignment this week, which pretty much means I'm free," he said smiling playfully at her.
The wheels in Katniss's mind were turning. It would be her chance run away! They would probably search for her here in Milan and never think of her going to Rome. It would be perfect! And she had always wanted to see the Eternal City.
She looked at Peeta. Could he be trusted? But the more she thought of it, the more it made sense to team up with him. She didn't carry any money, for instance, and she couldn't very well go back and ask for it from her country's embassy. He lived here, so he would probably know things about Rome. And he seemed well meaning, after caring for her for a night even if she was a stranger.
It would be a gamble, she thought. A very risky one.
"Okay," she finally relented. This was nowhere near as big a decision as last night was, anyway.
And on the bright side, she thought, as Peeta led her back to his apartment to plan their little sojourn, high risks could also mean high rewards.
Peeta could not believe how easy this was going.
It took a toll on his wallet, of course, but that is simply a speed bump he could overlook in the general scheme of things.
He and the princess were snugly seated in their cabin on the train to Rome the following morning. He purchased the journey on the new train unveiled a few years ago, the one that would cut the travel time in half and have them arrive in the city at mid morning. Katniss had not stopped looking out the window, which was now showing the blur that was Florence. She had insisted on cutting her hair shorter yesterday, which was now a bit above shoulder length and layered.
He had called Finnick too, or rather left a message at his machine. Told him of a scoop he just had to write. And asked him to cover for him when he was gone.
Peeta reached into his duffel and brought out a medium sized, unassuming notebook with blank pages. Katniss chose precisely that moment to turn her head and asked him what it was.
"It's for the trip," he answered truthfully.
"Well, since we're both on a holiday, your first holiday as you said, I thought we could keep track of what we do in Rome."
She looked unconvinced.
"Give me your ticket," he said, and she fished it out of her purse. "It's an old tradition started by my dad. Whenever we would take a trip, we would paste tickets and photos and scribble down what we did just so we could commemorate the trip." Peeta took out a glue stick and some colored felt tip pens. He wrote "ROME" on the first page and glued the ticket in another.
"So it's like a memory book!" She exclaimed, latching onto the idea now.
"Yeah. It's nice to keep things that remind you of your time there. My brother tore out the pages of his memory book and converted it into a wallpaper for his new house."
Katniss smiled as she traced the name of the city with her fingers. "That's a very good idea," she whispered.
Peeta took the pamphlet of Rome Katniss had on her lap. He began drawing the famous sites of the city onto the other pages while she watched, fascinated. The Coliseum. The Forum. The Pantheon. The Trevi Fountain.
"You draw really well," she commented. "Can I put my thoughts there too?" she suddenly asked.
"Of course! That would be a lovely addition."
They passed the trip exchanging the notebook, with Katniss writing down random words about places she would love to see and Peeta drawing more famous sites.
Katniss observed the man beside her. He was different when he drew, when he was not bossy and peppering her with questions. The morning light streaming through the window allowed her to see his blonde eyelashes more clearly. They were lighter than his eyebrows. It was a secret moment when she could observe him without fear of reproach. Trace his cheek with her eyes. Dart to his earlobes and to the thin curls behind his ear. It was only broken when a clinical voice told them they were nearing Rome's Termini.
She wondered if he knew how important this was for her. It would probably be just another trip to him, humoring a poor, lost girl he pitied. But she didn't care. This would be her one chance to escape.
As they gathered their things and Peeta slid the door open, when she passed him, and gave thanks, she thought,
You're my ticket out of here.
She wanted to ride the Vespa to see the city sights.
No, insisted on it.
And he had no choice but to comply.
After checking in at their hotel, where he was worried that she would be recognized even with her new haircut, Peeta asked the concierge where they could rent a damn Vespa.
So here they were, by the hotel's street corner, carrying their helmets. Katniss was nearly skipping, and he could not help smirking. He had to remind himself that everything was new to her. That he needed her to be at her most unguarded so she could give him her honest perspective.
But looking at the dainty scooter made him miss his car. Still he sucked it up.
Peeta adjusted Katniss's helmet before helping her in. When her arms were secure around his waist, they zipped off into the crazy Roman roads with even more insane drivers, cutting and switching lanes half the time and honking on the other half. But all he heard were Katniss's squeals of delight and "Oooh look Peeta, there are gladiators!" as they passed the Coliseum, or "Caesar was stabbed somewhere here!" when they zoomed through the Forum. Her mouth was agape when they passed the Vatican's St. Peter's Square but returned to carefree giggles soon after they passed Piazza Navona. She rested her head against his back again soon after while she hummed a tune.
When he grew thirsty, he remembered one could drink out of the many, ancient water fountains scattered throughout the city. They stopped on a quiet, skinny street crammed with buildings leaning crookedly. Peeta knelt on the cobblestone street to drink from the spout while Katniss remained by the Vespa.
He was about to call out to her to try the water, a jibe already at the ready in case she had reservations about its hygiene, when he heard the Vespa hum back to life.
With Katniss by the handles, unsteadily trying her balance.
And accidentally twisting the accelerator.
He heard her gasp. It moved so slowly in his mind that it was about half a second later that his legs hit the stones as he sprinted. He hopped on the wobbly scooter before it gave another spurt and speeded up.
But Katniss was laughing as he tried to balance the vehicle for the two of them.
"Don't let go!" he commanded, as his hands snaked towards the handle.
She steered the Vespa back into the main roads. They got sprayed by a sprinkler. They got screamed at as Katniss chose a narrow street lined with street vendors. Peeta swiped a scarf that flew to his face. She terrorized café dwellers enjoying their espresso and sent a fruit vendor's melons rolling to the street.
He was terrified for their lives but she didn't seem to care.
When he finally got control of the vehicle, they stopped at a safer spot. Peeta exasperatedly switched off the scooter while Katniss dismounted and eyed him playfully. He tried his sternest face but it only ignited more of her joy.
Then she laughed.
It was a deep throaty laugh and Katniss had never laughed like this. It hurt her belly. The happiness was bursting from her, coupled with the rush of adrenaline. She had never been so free. She had never felt more alive. The air was thrumming against her skin while she drove. And the look on Peeta's face was priceless.
She saw fear, then relief, then annoyance.
And she laughed harder, snapping her head back.
"If I could freeze your face right now, I would," she told him between guffaws.
He was still not amused. But moments later, he cracked too, and snorted. People were starting to look at them.
When it had died down, when he could form coherent words and she was massaging her cheeks from the effort, he told her they should go to lunch and asked her what she wanted to eat.
She wanted pasta, of course, and some limoncello she had read about.
"Can we stay outside? I want to look at the people," was her first request as soon as she saw an empty table beneath a taupe umbrella on a street café.
Peeta complied. He found that he complied with her wishes a lot. It would pay off soon anyway.
She made a face when she tasted the limoncello, saying it was too strong for her, and he had to finish it before asking for the check.
Then she saw his cigarettes.
"Can I try it?"
"Sure," he said, lighting it up for her.
She rested between her middle and forefinger and inhaled. Then exhaled.
"Nothing to it!" she exclaimed, smiling at him. Peeta took out his phone and Katniss gamely posed for a picture.
After she had finished, Katniss checked her pamphlet again on where to go, sipping on her espresso. Peeta let her be and started thinking about the structure of his article, what angle he should write from. He was considering structuring it like the article that impressed him last month in a journal when Katniss slid the pamphlet to him and pointed at St. Peter's Square. Their first stop.
He was not prepared for her initial reaction when they parked the Vespa behind one of the colossal columns in the square.
Katniss ran, arms spread out, straight into a peaceful flock of gray pigeons pecking at the ground.
He heard the flapping of wings and her telltale laughter.
"Slow down there!" He called out, throwing their helmets onto the seat, and jogging after her.
She twirled as the pigeons flew around her, a smile wide on her face and eyes closed.
Peeta placed his arm around her waist to steady her. "Hey you, what are you doing?"
With eyes still closed, she replied. "I wanna be a bird in another life. Be free. Fly away."
He laughed at her wish.
"What?" she asked, looking at him.
"Ok, what else do you want?" He asked, indulging her.
Katniss paused. Now that she was posed the question, what did she want, instead of which did she prefer as the people in the palace always did, she found she had to think of the answer, so she returned his with a question.
"Why do you want to know things about me?"
Peeta slid his arm away from her waist and looked her in the eye. "Because that's what friends do. They get to know one another. Or do you plan to just use me for this trip?" he joked.
Katniss rolled her eyes. "Didn't you know it yet?" she mocked. But she was secretly glad someone had asked her.
They were walking to the Spanish Steps when she answered his earlier question. If he was puzzled, Peeta did not show it.
"Well, I still secretly like Disney movies. I want to watch them on my free time, the old ones and not the recent ones, even though the story lines are impossible," Katniss said.
"Well, it's just so fast! I mean Cinderella fell in love after a dance? Or Sleeping Beauty after a duet in the woods? It's not real."
Peeta tried to subdue his laughter. "That's why they're fairy tales." She swatted his arm.
The Spanish Steps were full of people, though there really was nothing to see. Peeta was a little disappointed that it was just a grand staircase that swept to the streets. But Katniss, of course, did not let that deflate her mood.
A testament to her boundless energy, she sprinted down the steps, telling him she was racing him to the bottom, leaving Peeta to chase after her.
There were no words for this, he thought again as the article slipped into his mind.
Her effervescence would not translate well into paper. She would seem vapid if he tried to catch her essence, her joy, and he found that he did not want that. Her actions easily prompted a smile from him. Her innocence was endearing. She was radiant, a nebula blooming with newborn stars.
Peeta saw her pause a few steps from the bottom and turn to her back. And he saw why.
She had left one of her silver ballet flats behind.
Unbelievable, he thought.
Peeta went down the steps two at a time to get the shoe before she did. He kneeled in front of her and slipped on the errant footwear while she balanced her hand on his shoulder.
"Why don't we make a story for the memory book?" he asked as he stood back up and looked at her.
"What would we write about?"
"Anything you want."
Katniss exhaled and gave it some thought. He would probably think it silly but what the hell.
"I want the main character to be a princess who turns into a bird but returns to being human every night."
"Ok, interesting start."
"A warlock turned her that way, as well as twelve princes who stand as statues in her garden, who she dates when they turn back to being princes at night."
Peeta shifted his eyes to the side, as if trying to comprehend the turn of events.
"How original," he remarked. She rolled her eyes at him. "You asked," she retorted.
"And which one will she fall in love with?"
"No one," Katniss shrugged.
"You don't want a happy ending for your princess?"
"There are no happy endings for princesses," she replied truthfully, looking him in the eye. "Besides," she added "How could she if she only spends the night with them."
He paused, then waited for her to turn to him. "You said earlier that the love in the fairy tales weren't real. But if you think about it, isn't that what's wonderful about love? That it's never the same for everyone. A day. A year. If everything is right, what does it matter? And doesn't the magic lie at the improbability of it all?" he asked.
She looked skeptically at him, but he held her gaze. She didn't know whether to agree or not because she had never fallen in love.
And she also didn't know what saddened her more, that she had never felt love, or that the man with her had experienced it already, and that it made her feel out of his league.
The next stop on their very full itinerary was the very touristy Trevi Fountain. But the hordes of people did not stop Katniss from admiring the colossal marble sculptures. She was alone, as she made Peeta buy her a gelato. She marveled more as the lights of the fountain began to spring into life, illuminating the waters and shining on the thousands of coins lying at the bottom. The sculptures were so real, like they were not carved out of something so hard as marble. It was a miracle of talent, she thought, to make stone look like flowing water.
A cone appeared in front of her, with tufts of creamy yellow gelato, then a hand, an arm, and then the face of the man that had been accompanying her uncomplainingly throughout this trip.
"What's the flavor?" she asked.
"Cheese," he replied.
She made a face.
"Hey, don't knock it until you've tried it."
And she did. And it was salty. And creamy. And buttery at the end. She couldn't quite place the flavor.
"What type of cheese?"
"Pecorino Romano. Do you like it?"
"It takes some getting used to. What did you get?"
Later, Katniss found that she did like her gelato. It was a flavor that blossomed on her tongue, slowly hypnotizing her taste buds until she couldn't get enough.
"Did you throw a coin already?" Peeta asked, devouring the last of his cone.
Katniss shook her head. Peeta gave her a couple of Euros. "Remember, right hand over left shoulder."
She licked the gelato that dripped to her palm as she tossed the coin. And another one. And another one, until Peeta reminded her of the value of what she was throwing into the pool.
"What did you wish for anyway?" he asked as they turned to leave.
"Won't come true if I say it!"
"Fine, let's move to something closer. Your dreams then," Peeta rebutted as they moved through the crowds, his hand around her wrist to guide her.
"Wait, wait, let me guess," and Peeta paused dramatically and faced her. "A castle in the sky!"
She shoved him playfully.
"No," she said thoughtfully. "If I were to choose where I'd live, it'll be in a small apartment, enough for one, in a building covered with vines, on a narrow street with a wrought-iron gate up to the waist that creaks when you open it."
"Which real estate site did you get that from?"
She shoved him again. He pretended to get hurt. Then an over eager tourist shoved her aside and she almost tripped. But Peeta caught her, put his arm around her, and never let go, even if the street they walked on gradually became empty. She snuggled closer, smelling the crisp scent of his shirt. She closed her eyes and held onto the moment and her heart blurted a truth.
She never wanted this day to end.
Katniss wished to throw a coin in the fountain for it.
The pamphlet told them it was best to discover Rome at night through a river cruise that departed from the Castel Sant'Angelo. It was already dusk, and it amused him how hell bent she was to follow her strict itinerary.
They returned the Vespa and decided to walk to the pier.
He had long withdrawn his arm around her and he thought she pretended not to care.
He broke the silence while they walked.
"Still planning to remain a stranger to me?" he teased.
"We've been together for more than a day and I still don't know some basic things about you."
"Let's start with the basics: favorite color?"
"Green, like the forest. My parent's house has a forest, I mean, there's a forest behind our house."
Peeta looked dubiously at her. He should have googled her home.
She made a face. "Like a popsicle?"
"No, like that," he said, turning her so she faced the sunset. They were on top of one of Rome's many hills and the setting sun burned with a passion behind dusky purple clouds.
"Oh, yeah, it's beautiful," she whispered. He agreed, looking at her.
He could start the article with her facing the sun on a picturesque hill, biting her lower lip as the warmth spread through before the moon stole the show in the sky. He should add how lovely her eyes would look in the moonlight, like a melted mirror peeking from dark lashes. But the sentences in his mind were scattered and varied, with no cohesion, no explanation, much like her actions throughout the day. Snippets, clippings, moments that never showed the full picture.
He sighed. This would not do.
So he decided to probe more as they walked on a bridge.
"What do your parents do?"
"They're in… you can say public relations."
"Are you following in that direction?"
"There's none other for me."
"Favorite place in the world?"
She paused. "Rome," she replied, smiling.
"Favorite subject in school?"
"Social Studies?" she answered unsurely.
"Thoughts on recent events? The wars? Hope for world peace?"
She snorted. "Never gonna happen. We're fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self destruction."
He laughed at that one. She was smart, too.
"What do you do for fun?"
"Fun?" she asked.
"Yeah, you know, just for your self."
"Uhh, I sing when I'm alone in my room."
"No dancing with an invisible microphone?" She bumped her shoulder on his arm.
"Why do you wanna know all these things?"
"Because we're friends. And for the memory book, too."
"Fine. Well, I used to take ballet. Wanna see my plié?"
And she walked ahead of him, one hand on the bridge as though it were a barre, and she bent her knees together, then gracefully encircled herself with her arm. She looked cute.
"Try it," she challenged.
"No, I'll look stupid."
"Just try it!"
"Fine." And it was hard, because the muscles on his legs didn't fold at that angle. After one try, he gave up. She was suppressing her giggles.
"I didn't think you'd actually try."
He felt foolish.
Katniss looked past his shoulder and she must have spotted the boat, because her smile got bigger.
"There's dancing in the boat!" she exclaimed as she saw a band setting up, and pulled him toward the pier.
Rome at night was breathtaking, yet Katniss was a bit disappointed to see no one dancing on the floor. He must have seen her expression, because he stood up from the table and offered his hand.
"What are you doing?"
"Tell me you don't want it," he challenged.
"But no one's dancing yet. And the music's too slow."
Peeta shrugged. "Sounds even better then, we won't get crowded. Dance with me."
He smiled that rogue smile that pulled her up from her feet and placed his hand in his.
As they walked to the dance floor, she looked at Peeta and he didn't look away. It inspired warmth in her, one that started from their joined hands.
There was distance to their bodies at first. She didn't care if people looked at them. She was alone with Peeta and he was alone with her. Then he twirled her, gently, just like in the movies she loved. Their bodies ended up closer. And closer. Until their cheeks touched. She could feel Peeta exhale on her shoulder. It was warm. And it tingled, spreading throughout her.
How she had prayed for a day like this, when she could forget everything and be young and free, be a girl without the weight of a title, to do anything her mind latched onto without ever consulting a schedule. It was liberating and addicting, and she thanked the man with her now for it. Their day was like the first ray of sunshine after weeks of cloudy gloom in early winter. She had never laughed as she did earlier. She had never told anyone of her dreams. Her actions were a surprise, yet a delight. And Peeta, Peeta had been the source of it. But she never would have met him if she didn't decide, at that one moment in her hotel room, to push for what she wanted. But she could only continue this, be with him, if she weren't a princess, if she weren't constantly shadowed, if she weren't a glass-encased doll owned by her country.
Katniss sighed. And a lonely tear slipped out. Before it could reach Peeta's cheek, Katniss leaned her head on his shoulder instead. The clouds were slipping back and casting a shadow to her Roman holiday. And as she thought more of Peeta, her feelings became a tangled mess. She wanted more of this, and it was unfair, both to her and to her responsibilities. It was a hunger that possessed her, a hunger for more of the warmth she felt as they danced. A hunger for his arm again around her, protecting her. A hunger for his shy glances and teasing words. A hunger for him to look at her in a certain way.
Peeta felt something damp on his shoulder and though she tried to hide it, he knew she shed a tear.
And there would be more, he knew, if she knew what he was up to.
Yet this was the moment that he knew he could capture the real her. When she was unguarded. When she was vulnerable. He could ask her anything and she would answer truthfully.
But he couldn't.
The questions did not come to his mind. Instead, it kept forming sentences about her. How he could perfectly describe the tone of her laugh, or how she was bossy when she wanted something, or how she made a little dance when she got her way. Their moments together played like a movie in his head, and he found that he preferred this more.
The music slowed to its stop. Katniss lifted her head. Her eyes were dry, but sad. He led her back to their table. The boat was returning to the pier and people were starting to pack or get some last minute refreshments from the bar. She sent him to the bar to get them some wine before they left.
Katniss looked at a scuff in her shoe and bent from her seat to clean it. When she reached for her tissue, strong hands encircled her wrist. They were painful. They were not Peeta's.
"Your Highness," a deep voice muttered.
Katniss's stomach plummeted.
She looked up and saw a brawny man in plain clothes. He must be one of the agents looking for her.
How did they find her?
She tried to make a scene but the man's grip was secure. People were starting to look at them. She had no time.
She screamed for Peeta.
Katniss saw their drinks splash to the counter as he ran for her. She was surprised when he punched the man that gripped her. The man tumbled backwards but Peeta caught her.
And they ran. They left tables upturned and broken glasses in their wake.
They sprinted to the back of the boat. They looked back and saw other agents making their way to them from the pier.
They were trapped.
"What do we do?" She asked him.
"Jump!" he said, almost crazily.
"What?" she asked incredulously, looking at the black water.
And she did. They plunged into the water together. The wind made the water of the Tiber River feel cold. Katniss wished she had gotten one of the flotation devices that hang by the railing.
It was not a very long swim to the other bank. They heard sirens, meaning someone must have called the police. Good, she thought, maybe they could round up those agents.
Peeta helped her onto a rock by the sandy shore. The darkness concealed them, but the far streetlamps helped them see each other at least. They were still breathing heavily from the exhaustion, the rush. Katniss started to laugh again. The trip must have sent her mad.
Then Peeta leaned in and kissed her.
It was soft. The water from his hair dripped onto her face. His wet hands cupped her cheek. She leaned in closer. His scent was her drug.
It was magic and fire and sweetness. What she dreamt in secret, when she was lonely and unhappy, paled next to the kiss she received.
Her eyelids, heavy with her desire, fluttered open as Peeta pulled away. Her lips were still parted. She touched them. Peeta smiled at her.
"The moment was too perfect to not do that," he confessed. "Tell me fast, did I ruin anything?" he asked.
Katniss shook her head. She wished he would do it again.
But he had already stood up, hand outstretched to help her. "There's something I want to show you."
She thought the magic stopped at the riverbank, but she was wrong.
They were on top of the dome, the cupola, of St. Peter's Basilica. Peeta's father had a friend who worked at the security office and allowed them access after closing hours.
They were alone, seated against a pillar, with Katniss leaning back into Peeta.
And it was perfect. Rome was even grander at night, outshining the stars that had come out to boast their brightness. The horizon swam with golden buildings. The air was ripe with the nightly, eternal revelry.
Katniss shivered when a breeze drifted by. They were still in their wet clothes. But it was immediately replaced with warmth when his strong arms wrapped around her. She was surprised that she allowed such a bold action. And that she wanted it to stay.
"Look at the city," she breathed.
"It's nothing compared to this," and he nuzzled his nose to her neck, the electricity between their bodies thrumming. When he stopped, he dropped a kiss to her shoulder.
"You're right, it is better," she teased, leaning her head back to rest against his shoulder. It was only now that she was beginning to feel the exhaustion of the day, and the languid warmth of Peeta was helping her to relax.
They talked of random things, things taken for granted by friends but treasured by those who want to know a person better. They whispered it into the night and to each other. She learned he had two brothers. He learned she had wanted another sibling, a sister perhaps. She learned his family ran a food business. He learned she was fascinated with archery, but never learned it. She learned he had a way with words, and even heard the poems he wrote while studying. He learned that she never thought of dreams until today, when she was asked. They talked more and more, the night breaking their guarded walls as the city twinkled around them.
Then came the comfortable silence.
Soon after, they fell asleep, together.
Peeta woke first, slowly, and he felt the weight of Katniss's head leaning against his chest. Theirs was a tangle of motionless limbs and quiet dreams. The sky was beginning to shed its dark cloak.
They had slept at the cupola for the whole night.
And it was time to go back to their hotel before the church opened again for the day.
He wondered why he brought her here and not back to their hotel. It was reckless and impractical and impulsive, yet he knew he wanted more of those rare moments with her.
He nudged her awake. She snuggled closer and he smiled. He nudged her again.
"Hey beautiful, wake up," he whispered, clearing his throat that was also heavy with sleep.
She looked up at him, those sleepy eyes clearing of cloudy dreams, and smiled. "Good morning," she murmured.
"Good morning," he said, as their noses touched. "Have you ever seen a city wake up?" he asked. She shook her head and sighed, closing her eyes again, the sight a perfect picture of contentedness.
"Let me show you, but we need to go first," he said in a soft tone, as if pacifying a child.
She nodded sleepily and snuggled closer to him. Then woke up again and poked him playfully.
And he knew at that moment, with that smile of hers bursting from her shy lips, and that spark in her eyes that could command an inferno of emotions in him, that she had stolen something from him he won't be able to take back.
The realization exploded in his mind. It wasn't supposed to happen this way, but it did. It him like a wallop from nowhere.
He loved her.
He was a goner.
It was a miracle they weren't sick with colds that morning, but Katniss was thankful. She awoke with such a delicious feeling that she could only link to Peeta, and to everything they did the day before.
They strolled the streets that were just beginning to gain momentum for the day's activities. Vendors were arranging their wares. There were no children running around yet. Tourists were still asleep with their maps folded inside their belt bags.
They ate breakfast sampling the fruits in season from the market. Strawberries, nectarines, mandarins. They ate soft white goat's cheese wrapped in basil. An elderly florist gave her a free stem of a pink rose and she tucked the flower behind her ear. Their pace was unhurried, unlike yesterday's excitement.
They passed by a flea market. Peeta bought her a vintage locket and she wore it snug against her chest.
He asked, as he always did, what she wanted to do next, like it was a natural process for them. It was a pity because a ticking clock hovered over them.
And Katniss knew this. Knew it from the start but was too preoccupied with her freedom to acknowledge it. But there was no escaping it now.
She had to be truthful to him. No more lies, she thought. Friends didn't do that, especially people who kissed each other and slept together on top of churches.
Dejected, she told him she wanted to go back to the hotel and she was quiet the whole way.
Peeta found her, standing in the balcony, after taking a shower. His phone vibrated on the nightstand, telling him of another missed call from Finnick.
He found her crying when he turned her around. His hands immediately wiped her tears.
"What's wrong?" he asked her gently.
She couldn't face him, and she kept turning her head away. He kept moving her chin back to look at him.
Finally she whispered, "What's wrong is that it has to end."
"What has to end?" he indulged her, fingers skimming her jaw to coax her into looking at him.
"This," she replied brokenly.
She sobbed some more, her cheeks splotchy with salty tears. "Because I haven't been truthful to you. I'm not who you think I am," she said, finally looking at him.
"No," he said, holding her face between his hands so he looked her straight in the eye. "I know exactly who you are. You're bossy and it's endearing. You bite your lip after you smile. You like to sing in your room. You run straight into a flock of pigeons. You laugh like it's the first laugh you've had. I've never met anyone so full of life. And you're a terrible Vespa driver," he added with a smile.
"And I'm a princess," she blurted out.
Peeta regarded her with sadness. "I know," he confessed.
Her eyes grew wide. "What? How? But why did you let me—"
"Because you needed to be who you really are, not the person behind a title. The Katniss I know," he said, using her real name. "The one I've seen these past days when she's free of her shadows, she's glorious. And I love her," Peeta confessed, resting his forehead against hers. "She showed me a purity, an honesty to things that I didn't know I lost until I saw it in her again."
"You don't think me silly?" she sobbed.
"Oh no, of course not."
"You love me?" she asked, bewildered.
"I do," Peeta said.
Then he kissed her. Soft again, at first, then moved to slowly play with her tongue and tilt her head. She sighed against him and he was drunk with it. But Katniss broke the kiss.
"I still need to go back," she said sadly, heavily, searching his eyes.
Peeta looked at her. That was the moment he knew he had to let go. She would never be his.
"I understand," he choked out.
They had only borrowed their time together and it was about to end, like a shooting star that burned its brightest before its demise.
They cuddled on the train back to Milan. They kissed a lot. They wrote on the memory book. They slept. They moved slowly, trying desperately to extend their time.
It was raining when he drove her back to her hotel.
The drive was solemn, both not speaking until that final moment. The car stopped on the corner before the hotel's street.
Katniss turned to him. His clever words didn't help him now. Her eyes dripped with tears once more. "I'm going to leave you now," she whispered. He felt heavy yet he remained silent. She looked like a dream to him. His emotions were eating him.
"I want you to stay in the car and drive away," she sobbed as she took his hand. "Promise not to watch me go beyond the corner. Just drive away and leave me, as I leave you."
Peeta breathed heavily now. He shook his head a fraction, and took her head and pulled her for a kiss. She cried into it. "I don't know how to say goodbye."
"Then don't," he pleaded, a last, futile attempt.
Katniss looked down. Their hands had entwined themselves. She was unable to say the inevitable. "No goodbyes then, no words."
So she turned quickly and opened the door, never mind the rain. She didn't look back. Her walk turned into a run.
And Peeta watched her, as he promised not to, until the swing of her skirt disappeared in the edge of the street's corner.
He drove back home, miserable.
Finnick was waiting for him by his door.
"Where were you?" his friend nearly screamed. "Are you crazy? I fucking covered your ass so Haymitch wouldn't fire you and you wouldn't even return my calls?"
Peeta was not in the mood to explain things now. So he didn't answer and shooed Finnick away.
But Finnick would not budge, not let Peeta in without an explanation.
Perhaps it was best to do the mundane things now, just to forget for a little while. He opened the door and they went in.
Peeta opened the TV and, just his luck, Katniss's face was plastered all over the news.
"That's why I was missing," he said, pointing to the TV, as he unpacked his duffel. He fished out his phone and showed Finnick a photo of Katniss by the Coliseum.
"You were in Rome." His friend said, placidly. "With her," he added, jerking his head towards the TV. "That was the scoop you were talking about?" Finnick's eyes glowed.
"Yeah, it was. But I have no story."
"What?" Finnick's face was starting to look angry.
"I'm not writing it," Peeta repeated.
"Are you fucking crazy?! Your job's on the line!" his friend roared.
"I don't care."
"Write the damn story, Peeta. She's fair game. It's always open season on princesses."
Peeta looked at his friend. "I can't write it without hurting myself." He was sure Finnick saw it in his eyes.
"Oh shit," his friend exclaimed, defeated. He sat back to the couch.
Then the anchorman announced that the embassy was holding a special press conference tomorrow now that the princess had recovered. Finnick switched off the TV.
"Are you going to that?"
Peeta saw their memory book peeking out of his bag.
He knew he wouldn't be able to resist.
But first he had to do something.
The hotel's ballroom was cold. The appetizers were cold. The champagne served was cold.
Peeta knew it was a mistake to come here. But he had to see her, one more time.
Someone announced that the conference would start in five minutes. They were ushered to move to the front.
It was a packed one. Hundreds of journalists and photographers from all over Europe gathered here, as this was the princess's last stop in Europe. She would not continue her tour to Germany but instead return home.
Peeta drank the last drop of champagne just as the lights began to dim.
His hands were sweaty. His stomach was in knots. His mouth was dry. But it didn't stop time moving forward and soon, another voice announced her presence.
And she was different. She carried herself differently. Stiffly. Unhappily. Her face was blank and her eyes were dull. She was still regal, but it was hollow.
Peeta wanted to reach to her, hop over the rope that formed a boundary. Wanted to take her hand and run away into the morning. But it was a wish of the heart that would never be fulfilled. To give up the dreams of what could have been was the hardest part.
So he just watched her from afar. Until her eyes flickered to him.
It had been an exhausting night for her.
Everyone questioned her when she returned, insisting she brief them of where she had been, if anybody had seen her, why she escaped the agents tasked to retrieve her etc. etc. and why had she cut her hair?
She was lectured, about duty and responsibilities, and she snapped. She had responded coldly that if she had not been aware of her duty to her family and to her country, she would not have come back that night. Or ever again.
They left her, thankfully, to cry alone in her room, but not before reminding her of her packed schedule tomorrow.
Then she trudged to her bed and her body crumpled into her silky pillows.
The little glow left in her heart from her time with Peeta, a lone, bright star against a dark night, helped her through the sobs that crushed her. She never knew when she fell asleep.
She woke up and stumbled back into her old life. Back to the whirlwind of empty talk and useless parties, of appearances and interviews. Back where what she wanted never mattered, only that of the image she projected. The real Katniss drowned in despair once again.
She would never see Peeta again, that was the brutal truth that destroyed her. She had no appetite for breakfast. She stood in her shower for ten minutes, feeling the walls to be a prison. She broke down again after rinsing herself.
And now, the bright lights hurt her eyes. A hundred eyes were upon her, waiting on her every word. She scanned the first row, and she found him.
But how could it be? How could he be here?
"I'm a copywriter, meaning I deal with boring advertising," she remembered. Liar, she thought, hurt.
Being here meant he was part of the press. That he could write about everything that happened between them.
And he had proof too. The memory book. And the photos he took with his phone.
Her stomach felt cold and she wanted to heave her anger. How foolish was she! How naïve!
She felt angry, for being toyed with, for being yet another piece in someone's game.
But she had to swallow her emotions and remain passive. She would have time to cry, again, later. It never ended for her.
The press began to ask her questions. She did not know where the energy to respond enthusiastically came from, even if inside was a complete tempest. But she answered as charmingly as she could.
And he dared to speak. She fell silent. Whatever buoyed her moments ago left her when she heard Peeta's voice again.
"I think I speak, your Highness, on behalf of the press, to bid you goodbye," he said with a steady voice.
Traitor. They said to never say that word.
"It was a joy to see you tour Europe for the first time. We trust that you had enjoyed your time immensely here."
She swallowed. "Yes, I very much did."
"If I may ask, what was your favorite country?"
She had been briefed to not play favorites. She had to be diplomatic after all. But she worded her response carefully.
"All my experiences were wonderful, for I had gotten to know a great many things about the people here. I have faith in their purity and honesty that I once believed had been lost."
Peeta looked at her straight in the eye. And she saw him shake his head almost imperceptibly. It was a message for her.
And she understood, that their time would remain a secret, that her faith would not be unjustified, and she wanted to run to him at that moment. Thank him. Kiss him and scandalize all of Europe and her family. Run away into the morning with him into a holiday that never ended.
But she couldn't, so she thanked him the only way she can.
"And I would like to add," her voice almost breaking, "that this tour had shown me all the wonderful things of how life could be, of how I could be, and I would never forget it."
The press was lapping it up, ignorant of their exchange. When no more questions were posed, the conference should have ended, but Katniss declared that she wanted to meet the members of the press. And this time, she did not care how many hands she had to shake.
When she reached him, she thought he looked a little too rough for wear. Yet it was still endearing. His smile was a balm to her heart.
His hands reached out for a small pocket from his coat. It was a small brown envelope.
"May I present your Highness with some commemorative photos of your visit?"
Katniss took the envelope and opened it, removing one of the photos to slightly see. She saw it was the one of her by the bridge before they went to the cruise. She had to suppress her amusement from the rush of memories.
"Thank you. I will cherish this," she said demurely as she turned to the next photographer.
And she knew his eyes never left her as she greeted everyone. Not even when she walked back to the front for the photographs. Not even when she was ushered out.
Later on, when she asked about Peeta through Lord Heavensbee and learned about the publication where he worked, she also learned that he was the last to leave the ballroom earlier, staring at the empty stage, before he too walked away.
His boss bugged him relentlessly for the story. When he didn't turn it in, the taunts began, and he knew he would never be taken seriously again.
So he quit, and Peeta returned home and helped out in the family business. He learned a year later that Finnick quit, too, and they stayed in touch, going out for a beer when he was in town.
His mother was not pleased that he quit his job in glamorous Milan. She had no more reason to visit Europe, even though she never did while he was there.
His brothers married, and he stood by their sides at the altar as best man. He took some business courses to help his dad, even though finance was still a puzzle to him.
He did everything he could to forget.
It took two years before he could write again.
And he realized he didn't want to forget.
So he wrote her story.
It was cruel to have found the right words now, when he never could while he was with her. He pulled them from a secret place, dark as a cave.
He wrote in the early hours of the morning before people woke up. He wrote in the evening long after they had slumbered.
Peeta considered sending the story to her. Mad, really. But he guessed that was what sadness did to a person.
And then one day in the news, as though fate had intervened, he heard her name again.
But there were bigger news that night, so the anchorman did not dwell in it, except that the country of Panem was abolishing its monarchy. No surprise, really, given the depressing state of everyone's economies, of additional taxes, and sinking debts.
He wrote even more since that day, revising, writing, editing, writing. He became like a man possessed. Somewhere inside him, he knew he had to give the story to her. When you meet that someone who changes you, they burrow inside you and stay. And he had met her.
Three years had passed since their time together when Finnick sent him a curious email. He was dating a new girl right now, and it was serious. And she turned out to be her publicist.
So that was why, standing in this empty street lined with buildings covered with vines, he found himself opening a wrought-iron gate that creaked. He brought flowers too. He was dressed quite nicely, but without a tie.
Peeta pressed the button for apartment D on the 12th floor.
He pressed again.
Still no answer.
Perhaps another time, he thought. He was a stupid man for coming here unannounced anyway.
Then he heard the purr of a scooter. And the creaking of the wrought-iron gate. Soon he was staring at her.
She was in shock, her plump lips hanging open.
She carried a small bouquet of flowers and a basket of groceries. They stared at each other for a long time, memorizing what each had lost, each terrified of what the other could do to their hearts.
And it was Peeta who spoke first. "I brought you something," he said.
She was frozen in her place as he walked to her. She had grown thin. Her hair was in a braid, hung over her left shoulder. But she still had such expressive eyes, and they swept him immediately. He was a goner again.
Peeta reached for the thick, bound papers from his bag. It was a manuscript, but he really had no plans of sending them to an agent or a publisher.
They were only for her.
Katniss took them slowly. The first page was blank. But the next one made her heart leap. It was the first page from their memory book. And the next one the second, too. After the memory book started the words. She read them while her sight got blurry.
"This is the story of a girl who wished to be a bird," she laughed, her tears spilling. "She's a girl with too much spirit, like a summer love that could not be contained. Irrepressible. Endearing. Unforgettable."
Katniss was crying now. She looked up at Peeta to see him crying too.
There was so much to tell him.
Peeta pulled her to him, dropping his bag and her groceries, and her flowers, and she was only glad to lean into him again and breathe in the scent that lingered in her dreams.
Peeta cradled her face in his hands reverently. "I'm here because I need to know if it was real for you too, all those years ago," he asked.
She leaned her forehead against him, kissed him softly, and whispered, "It's still real."
I changed the ending so it would end happily.
Thank you so much for reading! I would extremely appreciate it if you could give me your lovely feedback. :D