Peeta looked absolutely adorable standing in my door frame.
The rain from outside had effectively drenched his entire outfit, which from the looks of it had been really cute. He had on a blue and green plaid flannel button up with the sleeves rolled up to his that accentuated his gorgeous blue eyes. The same eyes that managed to stop me in my tracks whenever I looked into them. His jeans, while soaked, hugged his athletic frame in all the right places. He gripped a wicker basket in his right hand that must have been holding the contents of whatever he had brought to make me feel better in my current state of illness. I knew that I was staring, but just couldn't tear my eyes away from him.
"Katniss, would you mind if I came in? It's getting kinda chilly out here." He raised his eyebrows and allowed that one pesky dimple to creep in. I was borderline mortified by my ability to be so easily distracted, but moved aside to let him in.
"Yeah, of course, please come inside." He stepped in and made a right, heading towards the kitchen. I didn't question how he knew where to find it; instead I just shuffled behind him, listening to the sound of his squeaky Converse on my hardwood floors. "Jeez, Peeta, it must really be pouring down out there. Let me go get you something dry to put on." I left him to his own devices in the kitchen I started towards the guest bedroom that Gale generally inhabited on his nights over.
I quickly pulled some sweats out of the dresser and a dated Van Halen t-shirt from their last reunion tour. I had bought Gale tickets to see his favorite classic rock band for his birthday a few years past. It was the summer I stayed in the city with my father, after him and Prim had permanently left the Westchester house. And while Van Halen was far from my favorite band, he still brought me along with him. The best part of the night was letting loose with my best friend, back before things got complicated- not just between us, but in general.
Peeta was leaned over the stove, whatever he was whipping up filling the room with an absolutely delicious scent. Aside from Gale's breakfast earlier, my state of the art kitchen very rarely saw any action. I wasn't much of a cook, and certainly didn't have enough time to spend on getting any better. "Uh, Peeta? I brought you a change of clothes." He turned quickly, obviously having been completely unaware of my presence.
"Oh, thanks. Sorry, I get kind of in my zone when I'm in a kitchen." He laughed and pushed his hair back off of his face.
"Well, Mr. Mellark, you seem to be a man of many talents; photographer, master chef, visual artist and Julliard alum. What can't you do?" I tossed him the clothes with a teasing smile. He swiftly caught them and headed towards the guest bedroom, throwing a gentle retort back in my direction.
"I can't seem to get you, Katniss Everdeen."
I was glad he wasn't facing me, because the blush that I was sure covered my entire neck and face would have given away how I was really feeling. Peeta Mellark unnerved me. He brought out the middle school girl in me. And it wasn't like I had never dated before. Obviously I'd been through a long but ultimately disastrous 'A-list' romance with Jason Cato, but I'd also had a pretty steady boyfriend early on in my college years; which put me at a staggering two boyfriends in my 25 years of life.
Okay, maybe my experience wasn't staggering, but it was something- something that should have prepared me enough for an innocent dinner with Peeta.
Peeta emerged moments later, all but being swallowed by Gale's clothes. Not that he was a small guy or anything, but Gale might as well been shaped like an oak tree. There weren't many people who could fill out his long pants. "Well thank you for the change of clothes, Katniss, but I think that whatever giant left these behind might not be pleased with me wearing them." His lips turned up into that familiar half smile.
I moved from behind the counter to sit on a stool at the island. "They're Gale's. He's like 6'6" or something outrageous like that. I don't know how he even finds clothes to fit his oversized body. He um, still had them over here from when he was assigned to my security detail." Peeta busied himself with what was on the stove again. He even found an oven mitt (that I didn't know I owned), and pulled open the oven. When I hadn't been looking, he must've slid something into it. "What are you making anyway?"
"Well, when you told me you were sick, I knew exactly what you needed; some good old fashioned Mellark family cheese buns. I'm just reheating them, actually. And I got some chicken stew from Sae's on my way over, just for good measure. They have the best soup there." He turned back around, placing the tray on the counter. He had whipped me up an entire meal just because I'd given him the most thinly veiled excuse to bail out on plans I could have possibly given him. This guy just kept on getting better, even when I didn't deserve it.
"I love Sae's." I remarked, taking a huge bite out of a piping hot cheese bun. "Oh, my goodness- that's hot!"
He rushed over, fanning my mouth with his oven mitt, attempting to help any way he could. "Katniss, my goodness, patience is a virtue." His eyebrows knit in concern. He tilted my chin up so he could examine my tongue. "Are you okay?"
"Yehumfun." I mumbled out. My excitement had caused me to singe some of my taste buds off. Peeta took a step back, put his hands on his hips and frowned slightly.
"Look at that. Now you can't even express yourself in the King 's English. I wonder if your laughter would even be the same in your current state of duress." I couldn't stop him before his agile fingers found my ribs. I hated being tickled, but couldn't help but burst into a fit of laughter as I tried to fight him off. Between his tickling and our furious laughter, I slipped off of the stool and landed in a heap on the floor. Peeta came tumbling down on top of me, his expression suddenly changing to something I couldn't quite place. "Well, we've really got a situation now, don't we?"
His voice was just above a whisper. I just nodded in response, my smile somehow fading along with his.
"How're you feeling?" His voice was husky. I just wanted to bottle up the way he sounded and play it back on those nights when I forgot what it felt like to want someone- because right then I wanted him more than I'd wanted anything in a long time.
"I'm good." He brushed a wayward hair out of my face it the feeling of his dexterous fingers sent shocks down my spine. I was a real goner.
The sound of the oven timer snapped the two of us out of our trance and Peeta scrambled to his feet, holding a hand out for me. "Well now you know my big secret; I'm a huge klutz." He laughed halfheartedly and went back to the stove, turning off the burner. We managed to get through dinner with just enough conversation and few enough accidental brushes of our fingers to keep it from being sufficiently awkward. But in all honesty, all I wanted was to be back on the kitchen floor with Peeta hovering over me, staring into my eyes with that same look of longing he had before.
When the meal was over, the weight of the day and the warmth of the meal threatened to pull me into another deep sleep. But I didn't want to stop whatever this was with Peeta. Not quite a date, but obviously not just a friend bringing another friend soup. Still, I couldn't help but allow a yawn to escape. Peeta immediately stood and straightened himself out. "Where are my manners? You must be exhausted. Please, don't let me keep you up."
"No, don't! I mean, stay for a while. I'm not really that tired anyway." I took the napkin off of my lap and tossed it on the table. I didn't know what had come over me, but I was headed to my bedroom, hoping that Peeta would just follow without question. I flopped down on my bed and motioned for him to sit down next to me.
He kicked off his shoes and climbed on. I clicked on my television and casually watched what looked like Rock Hudson and Doris Day's budding romance in Pillow Talk. We watched comfortably in silence for a while, before I felt the need to speak up. "Peeta, full disclosure?" I looked to him briefly and he nodded for me to continue. "I wasn't really sick tonight. I was more scared than anything."
He stretched his arms behind his head and leaned back into the pillow. "Full disclosure, I had a feeling you weren't sick. But I wanted to find a way to way to spend time with you anyway."
"Well, aren't we a couple of tricksters?" I laughed. I pushed the sleeves up on my Penn State hoodie and looked turned on my side, so that we were face-to-face. Peeta smiled back at me and reached over to brush away one of my stray bangs. I really should consider buying some headbands.
"Why were you scared about us hanging out tonight?" I noticed that his hand didn't move from my face. Its warmth was enveloping my entire being, but I didn't make any move to get away. Which up until recently, I had become a master at doing.
"Because I didn't think I could handle hearing another reason why I should be disappointed in myself." I couldn't look into his pure eyes anymore, so I turned my attention elsewhere. "I've been messing up a lot of stuff lately with a lot of different people, and I just didn't want to hear you say that I messed up, too."
Peeta flipped on his side as well, causing Gale's old t-shirt to ride up just slightly. I could make out the v of his waist/abdomen area. He just kept getting better and better.
"You didn't mess up at all. If anything, I've messed up- which is the whole reason why I'm here, actually. I had to tell you that I'm sorry… for everything. I wasn't completely honest with you from the beginning, and that wasn't okay. The truth is, Katniss, I've wanted to speak to you for some time now, but obviously was either too scared or too preoccupied with being preoccupied to do anything about it. When I heard that you were going to be our cover story, I chomped at the bit trying to land the interview. I just, I can't explain it…"
He sat up, folding and unfolding his hands in his lap. I wanted to say something, anything to prod him to keep going, but I didn't dare. One thing I had learned in our time together was that Peeta was a very eloquent speaker. And if he was having trouble getting out what he wanted to say, it must have been important. "I know things have changed since our days in school together. I mean, I know that I've changed since then. But I just, when I look at you -especially today- I still feel everything I felt when I saw you back then. You're just so natural and honest. There aren't many women like you out there- at least, not that I've met in my lifetime."
Peeta Mellark was blushing. His normal, self-assured attitude was wavering and he didn't know quite what to make of the situation. He had liked me in college, and that realization alone was hard to process. I tried to think of the girl he knew back then, but couldn't quite picture any semblance of that now. In college, I still held onto my youthful naïveté. I still believed that the power of music could right all wrongs. I was still under the impression that my mother would realize what she did wrong and come back to my father.
But at the end of the day, those were all fantasies.
I sat up, driven by pure instinct. I was tired of talking, tired of thinking everything out. "Peeta, I'm not one for exposition, so I'm just going to say this once, okay? I don't know how much of what you're saying is real or not real. I don't know how much of the Katniss you remember is still in here." I placed one hand over my heart and cupped his cheek with my other. "But I do know that since I've met you, I've been confused and happy and scared- in the best way possible... And that accounts for a lot in my book. So maybe, just for tonight, you could kiss me and I'll promise not to run away?"
He didn't waste any time. Peeta's soft lips caressed mine with more desire than I ever remembered. His hand gripped my waist underneath my hoodie, gently massaging the skin. I wanted to be closer to him. I wanted him to know that even after all of my screw ups tabloid cover stories, I could still be okay. I could still feel and reciprocate emotions without being scared of them.
I wanted to know that for myself too.
I removed my hands that had been tangled in the hair at the nape of his neck, and reached down to pull my hoodie over my head. Peeta broke away momentarily, only allowing the slightest hint of disbelief to cloud his otherwise lust-filled gaze. I didn't think I was looking especially alluring in my Everdeen Athletics sweatpants and hot pink sports bra, but apparently Peeta felt otherwise. The way he looked down at me almost made me want to put my oversized hoodie back on and turn the lights out for the night, but he wasn't having it. Peeta's lips reconnected with mine momentarily before breaking away and trailing kisses down my neck and onto my collar bone.
I urged his shirt up and he threw it aside quickly. I immediately wished that I had never given him that freaking Van Halen tee in the first place. Peeta was built like a statue, crafted by the most masterful sculptor in Europe. His abs were perfectly chiseled and his chest was defined to perfection. I ran my hands over his chest, feeling the fine blonde hairs that weren't visible to the naked eye. Just like what I'd wished for in the kitchen, Peeta was finally hovering above me again, this time without any false pretenses.
"Katniss," he began breathlessly, "we should stop."
"Stop? I promised not to run away, remember?" I didn't want him to go- not again. I knew what I wanted now, and despite my earlier actions to imply the contrary, I wanted him.
He fell onto his back and stared up at the ceiling. We were both breathing pretty heavily, and with one look at his sweatpants, it was no secret as to why. "Let's pump the brakes tonight. As much as it quite literally pains me to say this, I want to wait." He looked at me gently, imploring me to understand. "I want to wait until we have a real date; a night that's not filled with emotional confessions and pent up sexual desires. Well, we could actually keep the pent up sexual desires part."
I smiled at him and nodded. I understood what he meant. For Peeta, having known me much longer than I had consciously known him, another week of foreplay wasn't going to kill him. Peeta Mellark never ceased to impress me. I curled into his side, fitting perfectly into his form. He wrapped an arm around me, while another hand unraveled my braid and fingers deftly ran through my hair. "Will you stay with me tonight?"
I floated through the next few days.
Those weren't my words; by the way, both Madge and Johanna had pointed it out at various points. Between receiving flirty texts throughout the day from Peeta and feeling as though I finally maintained some control over the balance between my personal and professional lives, I was feeling pretty good. Almost good enough to forget about the board meeting on Friday that was set to call my leadership abilities into question.
"I swear you've been floating around like a dog that just got his first bone since Saturday." Johanna folded her legs underneath herself in one of my huge office chairs. I had decided to work through lunch today, but Jo decided to stop by and pay me a visit anyway- which of course entailed plenty of jests on her part. "Or just got boned for the first time." She added with a cackle.
I huffed and shut the screen on my Mac. "Jo, must you be so vulgar?" She rolled her eyes and stepped behind my desk to look out the huge picture window. One of the perks of this gig was the near perfect view of the Empire State Building. I spun my chair around to gaze alongside her. "What time does your flight leave?"
"I need to be at the airport in three hours." Instinctively, Jo reached up to push her bangs back, but was met with nothing. She had gotten her hair cut this morning in preparation for her resumed training. After our conversation the other night, Johanna had made the commitment to reapply herself to the cause of 2016 Olympic qualification. And now was headed to the training center in Boulder, Colorado this afternoon.
"You know, Jo, if it's worth anything, I'm really proud of you." I stood up and bumped my hip into hers. Her green eyes flashed with pride before she allowed her amusement to creep in.
"Oh what, Everdeen? You didn't think Johanna Mason was really going to give up that easily, did you?" Her bony fist connected with my shoulder and a playful punch. She had a point. There was no way she could call it quits after one slip- not the Johanna Mason that I had grown up with.
I smiled broadly at the thought and turned to sit on my desk. "Yeah well, not many high school students skip the senior prom to attend Olympic trials in Prague- so we all knew there were big things ahead of you, Jo." She had been groomed for this destiny her entire life. Even in school she had periodically missed weeks on end for training and triathlons, until one day, her parents decided to pull her out completely. Instead opting for private tutors and online correspondence.
Attending Worthington Preparatory Academy for my formative years would have been all but awful if it hadn't been for Jo's presence. Although she technically came from a family of relative wealth, her life had never been perfect. Riddled with scars of both physical and mental abuse during her adolescence, Jo was a cynical girl. While that cynicism wasn't always well-received, it had been a breath of realism among our WASP counterparts. That was probably what drove us together; our collective desire for something real to hold onto.
"Prom is overrated anyways, Kat. Banging that gorgeous rower from the Spanish national team that night, though- that I'll never forget." We both burst into a fit of laughter. She crossed her arms and leaned against the window. Jo was a mess. Her attitude, her history- my best friend, no matter how screwed up, had always been there for me. Her smile slowly faded. "You know, Brainless, I know that I've done this whole thing before. This time it just feels different. What do I have when I'm not achieving these great athletic feats anymore? It's … it's all I have left. It's all I've ever been."
"That's just the thing, Jo. This isn't all you have. Because me and you? We're family. You got me, Mason."
It wasn't long before Madge was buzzing me to remind me of a meeting with a prospective buyer, and Jo had to get ready to go catch her flight. As we gave our goodbye hugs and Johanna turned to leave, I recognized that I had allowed some of the tears that'd been on the verge of spilling out cascade onto her black t-shirt. And as she tossed me a quick smiled over her shoulder, I realized something that I never had before.
This time –for the first time- I wasn't the only one crying.