She is fifty miles from home, surrounded by people she doesn't know, in the midst of a setting she'd only ever seen in TV shows before this day— a large lecture hall filled with stadium-like rows built for a huge number of students. Yet, as soon as Katniss sits down, the back of her neck prickles with a sensation that is eerily familiar.
She pulls her braid over her shoulder, using the opportunity to crane her neck back so she can surreptitiously scan her surroundings. Her teeth tug at her lower lip self-consciously when she catches the curious stares of the students in the seats behind her, and she's just about to turn back and pretend she was merely stretching when she spots him.
Bright blues eyes widen, then flit away. Without thinking, Katniss sits up and leans towards him, as if better posture can improve her vision and confirm that, yes, Peeta Mellark is in her lecture hall, and not unlike he did at the age of 11, 12, 13 and pretty much every year after that, he'd been staring at the back of her head in the middle of a classroom.
As if sensing that he can't really get away with averting his gaze and pretending he hadn't seen her— not when they're in the same class, in the same school (a fact she'd previously been unaware of)— Peeta glances back at her and smiles sheepishly, the right corner of his mouth tugging to the side until a dimple appears. He gives a short wave, too, then focuses back on his notebook.
Her mouth is agape and it takes her a moment to realize it, but as she hears the professor clearing her throat from the lectern at the front, she lets her jaw snap shut and slowly turns forward.
It's impossible to feel violated, as much as she wants to. Because, for one thing, it's Peeta Mellark. And while she's scarcely shared more than a few words with him in all the years they've gone to school together, she knows he's too sweet and good-natured to ever be considered threatening. Only he could get away with staring at a girl year after year like she was a science project and still come off as well-meaning and harmless.
And secondly, she's the one in foreign territory. Peeta, along with the majority of her graduating class, had gone to college right after graduation and was currently in his second year while Katniss is just getting her feet wet as a freshman. She had stayed behind for a year to save up money and help her sister through her first year of high school. It hadn't even registered to her that Peeta would attend one of the nearby state colleges. Her good friend Madge did, but if Katniss ever had to guess where Peeta Mellark would end up, she'd have assumed he got some wrestling scholarship or went to a fancy private school his parents could afford.
But really, more than anything, after being away from her sister for the longest period in her life, struggling to find her way through the sprawling campus, and having to adjust to rooming with three girls, the familiarity of having his curious eyes on her is something she can take secret comfort in, eerie or not.
"Well, this is familiar."
Madge's droll voice cuts into her thoughts, ones Katniss can't quite recall as she shakes herself out of a daze.
"What?" Katniss asks defensively at Madge's knowing smirk.
"I dunno, just you and Peeta Mellark…staring at each other from across the room." Katniss' eyes bug out and Madge's grin only widens. Before Katniss can respond, in what would probably be embarrassing sputters, her friend continues. "I mean, it's kind of comforting. Good to know you're settling in."
Katniss' eyes narrow, but Madge merely picks up her sandwich and takes a dainty bite, beyond used to being on the receiving end of that scowl.
"I don't even know what you're talking about. I was just staring off into space. Probably because if I have to hear you talk about which nail polish colors you're choosing between again, I'm gonna stab myself with a fork."
At this, Katniss does stab her fork into a piece of chicken on her plate, the teriyaki sauce only somewhat improving its rubbery texture.
"Snow Me White…I decided like five minutes ago. If you'd been paying attention."
Katniss scrunches up her nose at this, wondering when simple choices like cerulean blue and forest green were thrown by the wayside; but then, the fact that she would choose a nail polish color by the names of Crayons is probably why she never goes with Madge to get manicures.
"And we weren't staring at each other!" Katniss blurts out, still troubled by Madge's comment and her insufferable nonchalance about it. "I didn't even know he went here. I was surprised. For someone who gossips as much as you, you managed to leave out that little tidbit."
Madge takes a sip of her sparkling water, refusing to rise to the bait. "Well, why didn't you ask me about it when you saw him, then? Unless you had spotted him already and just wanted to admire from afar."
Katniss is regretting college more and more by the minute, especially her decision to room with the girl across from her. "Maybe I just wanted him to know what it feels like," she snaps, hating the petulance in her voice.
"Well, I'm sure he does now," Madge says. "He probably felt your creeper gaze on him—"
Katniss drops her plastic fork with a clatter to the table. "You are such—"
"Because he's staring at you right now," Madge finishes.
Katniss only just stops herself from whipping her head around to exactly where she knows he's sitting in the crowded student union. She spares Madge a quick glare, before slowly raising her eyes to his.
His mouth drops open, clearly caught off guard again at being spotted, which is a little ridiculous, Katniss thinks with derision, considering how obvious he's always been. When he doesn't do anything but gape at her, she raises her eyebrows at him, silently imploring him, not-so-kindly, to explain why he's staring at her. He just smiles sheepishly at her again, his cheeks stained pink, and then manages a quick wave to Madge, one that feels much more relaxed as his smile widens confidently.
Katniss can feel her mouth twitching in a frown.
"So I guess he was staring at you, smartass," Katniss snipes at her. She feels her irritation grow, especially at the kind, almost welcoming grin Madge had plastered on her face when she waved back at Peeta.
"Ha!" Madge snorts, the action almost strange coming from such a well-mannered girl who never has a shiny hair out of place. "Totally. If that's the case, he needs to get his eyes checked, because he's been staring at the wrong girl for the last, like, fifteen years."
Madge draws out her phone to send a quick text message, and the last thing Katniss wants to do is start a fight with the only friend she has here, especially one she has to share a bedroom with. So she makes her way through the rest of her rice in silence, hoping that Madge will forget what they were talking about and explain what the hell kind of shade "snow me white" is.
"So I take it you haven't talked to him yet?" Madge says as she glances up.
No such luck.
"He's in my Psych class," she shrugs. "I felt his creeper gaze, okay?"
"Okay, I was just teasing you!" Madge says, dropping her phone to the table and putting her hands up in a defensive gesture. But when she crosses her arms on the table top and leans forward, Katniss knows she's in trouble. "He's not a creep though. Peeta's a really nice guy."
"Oh, so you're friends with him now?"
"Of course I'm friends with him!" Madge laughs. "We've known him since kindergarten!"
"Well, I'm not his friend. I've barely—"
"Spoken two words to him? Looked in his direction?" she asks with an eye roll. "Yeah, we know. Therein lies the problem."
"God, English majors are the worst," Katniss groans, wiping her mouth with a napkin. "Are you using the royal 'we'?"
"Katniss," she says seriously, tucking her phone into her purse and leveling her with a serious look, "Prepare to get friendly."
"I fucking hate you."
"Can you stop bitching and start handing me beers?" Madge asks, crouched in front of the fridge, knocking over Diet Cokes to make room. "We both know if you didn't really wanna be here, you'd be hiding in the library right now. So relax."
Katniss heaves a sigh before leaning down and pulling green bottle necks from the case. "Heineken? You're one classy chick," she says, handing them to Madge.
"We are not going to be one of those dorm rooms with a beer can pyramid in the corner, I'll tell you that right now."
"I'll remember that when you start drinking from your box of wine like it's a juice box," Katniss says.
"Hey, that was one time and it was at the very bottom of the bag!" Madge protests.
"And you were plastered."
"That, too," Madge says with a smirk. "Besides, that won't happen again. This is just a relaxed study group, get together thing."
Katniss laughs and hands her the last of the beers. "Oh, very convincing. That's why you bought a 24 pack." She stands, breaking down the cardboard beer case before tossing it in the recycling. "And invited Peeta Mellark," she grumbles quietly.
She looks up from where her arms are crossed to find Madge smiling at her, annoyingly.
"You don't have a problem with Darius coming over, or Glimmer, or—"
"I do, actually," Katniss says shortly, "Darius sits too close to me, and Glimmer never shuts up."
"Like I said," Madge responds easily, turning to unload the rest of the groceries. "If you had such a problem, you wouldn't be here. And you wouldn't have spent all that time in the bathroom—"
"I had to dry my hair!" The frantic whine in her voice makes her clam up as soon as the words have left her mouth.
"I didn't even know you knew where the hair dryer was," Madge says lightly, a smile evident in her voice.
"Whatever," Katniss says, struggling for a better retort. "I just don't like this weird set-up thing you think you're being so stealthy about. Like I'm not gonna be uncomfortable enough."
Madge tosses the empty grocery bag in a drawer and mimics Katniss' position, leaning against the counter, arms crossed at her chest. Though she manages to look cooly indifferent, whereas Katniss can feel the defensiveness in her own posture.
"Oh, did you not set Gale and I up, pot?" she teases.
"Only because you were in love with him for like, ever, kettle. And didn't do anything about it!"
"And I appreciate the push," Mage responds, pressing a hand to her chest in mock-sincerity. Katniss rolls her eyes. "Who else is going to buy us beer?"
Katniss has every intention of teasing her further, well aware that Madge's feelings for Gale go much deeper than some girl enjoying the perks of a hot, older boyfriend, but before she can, Madge steers the conversation back to Katniss, something she's only growing more adept at.
"So anyway, from one lovesick fool to another, consider this me returning the favor."
Katniss' eyebrows pinch in confusion. "How is this a favor for me?"
"Who said I was talking about you?" Madge retorts, leaving the kitchen to join their roommates in tidying up their living room.
The luxury of living with Madge, a second year, is that she was able to pull Katniss into her student housing apartment, something Katniss would have had no shot at getting as a freshman. Instead of living in a 10x12 brick-walled box, she and Madge share a two-bedroom suite, complete with living room and kitchen, with two other girls.
Though she is no stranger to sharing a tight space, it was a definite adjustment for Katniss to live with anyone other than her mother and Prim. Fortunately, she and Madge seemed to luck out in the roommate lottery because they got two of the quietest, most mild-mannered girls in existence. Annie is shy and sweet, though she has a tendency to drift and get caught up in her own head, something Katniss was all too familiar with. Lacey is never big on chatting either, though Katniss suspects from her animated expressions that the redhead is full of opinions she doesn't express.
So Katniss is surprised that her roommates were so amenable when Madge sprung the "study group" party on them at the last minute. Instead of asking Madge to keep it down, or locking themselves in their shared bedroom, Annie and Lacey both cracked open a beer and plopped down on the couch, their textbooks forgotten on the coffee table as they watched the TV and waited for people to arrive.
Katniss is surveying the both of them critically, wondering how she suddenly became the stick in the mud amongst their group, when she hears a knock at the door. Gale had said he'd be back after he grabbed some more stuff from his truck, so Katniss doesn't think twice before walking to the door and swinging it open.
Her expression immediately settles into a discomforted frown at the sight of Peeta Mellark, and whatever he had been about to say dies on his lips as his jaw hangs open, his expression frozen at the sight of her.
"I'm—" he finally says, stopping short immediately. He seems to regroup after a moment and his mouth forms into a friendly smile, as if through sheer force of will, and he tries again. "Sorry, I just realized I'm probably a bit early," he says, craning his head to see her roommates sitting idly on the couch.
Madge sidles up to Katniss, who startles, though Madge's sandals smacking against the wood floor should have been signal enough.
"Hey!" he returns brightly, shifting the tray he's holding (another thing Katniss failed to notice) and giving Madge a one-armed hug.
Katniss can only imagine the kind of expression she must have on her face, because as Peeta catches her eye over Madge's shoulder, he pulls back and turns to Katniss. She draws up immediately, unsure of how to react if he moves in for a hug, but instead, he steps back from Madge and gives Katniss a short wave. "Hey Katniss, good to see you," he says, his eyes not quite on her face.
It can't be offense that she feels, but something about the exchange makes her mouth purse like she's tasting something sour. When Katniss turns to Madge for some kind of silent comfort or communication— something she's become startlingly reliant on— she only finds her friend's answering smile, one that's more smug than anything else, and Katniss rolls her eyes predictably.
"Peeta, that looks amazing. Katniss, can you help him to the kitchen with that?" Madge pushes her forward gently and it's only due to her quick reflexes that she doesn't trip over her own feet. She turns her head sharply to find Madge retreating back to the living room without another wave.
Unthinkingly, she sighs in irritation before feeling the familiarity of Peeta's gaze burning into the back of her head yet again. She turns back to him, and the corner of his mouth kicks up in a small smile, almost like a twitch he has.
"Sorry, I, uh," he starts, gesturing between the two of them. She can't begin to predict what he could be apologizing for, as if Peeta Mellark has ever committed an offense in his life. "You're probably sick of me waving at you," he jokes, playing off what must be embarrassment, judging from the light pink blush across his cheeks.
"Especially from across crowded rooms," Katniss says pointedly. Though she meant to inject humor in her tone, it seems it was too dry for him to pick up on, because his ears turn even redder and he seems to be suppressing a gulp. "Kidding," she says lightly, motioning him to follow her.
He follows her the few steps it takes to get to the kitchen, which is only separated from the living room by a row of cabinets. "Here's the kitchen Madge wanted me to show you," Katniss gestures around the small space.
"Well, thank you for the guidance," Peeta says. "I would have gotten lost on the way to the east wing."
Katniss is grateful he's focused on the tray of food he's currently unwrapping, because that was definitely a snort that came out of her in response. Peeta turns back to her quickly, with almost boyish satisfaction on his face, but she schools her expression back into a tight frown.
She's about to leave the kitchen and find a safe space in the corner of the living room where she can sneak away before too long, but she finds herself focused on the tray he's unwrapping.
"What is that?" she asks, moving beside him.
Her arm brushes against his and she can barely register the soft flannel of his rolled up sleeve before he startles slightly, only just managing to right the tray before it falls off the counter. She looks up at him questioningly, but his attention is riveted to the food in front of him and he begins speaking rapidly.
"It's crostini," Peeta says lightly, his voice going up uncertainly, as if in a question. "Anyway, that's just like a fancy word for toast with stuff on top. Good bread is what really makes it. These ones are topped with goat cheese and olive slices," he says, gesturing to the left half of the tray, and she follows the movement of his strong hands, masculine and smooth but for an array of tiny white scars like an interrupted pattern on his skin. "These other ones have olive oil, basil, cherry tomatoes and sea salt."
"Like bruschetta?" she asks brightly, excited at the prospect.
He finally brings his eyes up to hers and, for the first time, she can really register the deep blue that was always striking, even from a distance. He smiles at her so sweetly that her breath stutters; she prays he can't hear its erratic pattern.
"Yeah, exactly like that. You like Italian food?" he asks.
"You mean carbs and cheese and tomato sauce? Yes. Yes, I like Italian." She goes for the same wryness that usually affects her tone, but at the sound of his rich laugh, she laughs, too…just a little.
"Me, too," Peeta says in excitement, as if it's the most interesting thing he's heard all day. "If we didn't have a free gym at this school, I'd be about 300 pounds thanks to chicken parm."
And if he hadn't said that exactly, then she might have made it out of the kitchen with some degree of the indifference she was aiming to maintain, and then not spared him more than a cursory glance the rest of the evening. But instead, her eyes drop to travel over his physique, broad shouldered and slim waisted, with lightly freckled forearms that show off their granite muscles as he shifts the crostini on the tray.
"So what's your major?" Katniss blurts out. Her face immediately flushes. Not that, of all the questions she could have asked— the most trite and banal question college students hear on a regular basis. She's never been a skilled conversationalist, but she could have at least steered away from that cringe-inducing question. "Sorry. God," she says almost to herself.
He chuckles and turns to lean his hip against the counter, eyeing her with amusement. "It's okay. I'm not really decided yet. I'm considering Business, English, Art…you know, basically anything that won't guarantee me a job."
She laughs again and he watches her too intently, so she plays with a strand of her loose hair instead of making eye contact.
"Same." Before the silence drags on too long, he speaks again.
"Do you miss Prim at all?"
Her eyes shoot up.
"What?" she asks sharply.
"I'm just—" He fumbles, turning back to the food before seeming to realize there's nothing for him to do with it. "Your sister. You two were always so close. I was just wondering, you know, how things are for you…being here…"
She waits for him to continue, but he studies his shoes like he wants to be anywhere else.
"Prim is 15. I'm sure she can deal. Besides, the last thing she wants is an overbearing sister hanging around." Her tone had started off as dismissive, as annoyed by Peeta's invasive question as she is by his stares, but there's a vulnerability that creeps in that she's immediately ashamed of, especially in his presence.
"Do you mind if I get a drink?" he asks.
Her eyes widen at this non-sequitur and she stutters an affirmative before gesturing to the fridge. He pulls out two Heinekens, gesturing to her with one in question, and she nods quickly. He locates the bottle opener magnet on the fridge without her direction and opens both of them before handing her one.
She sips quietly, thankful for something to do with her hands.
"I have two older brothers—"
"I know," she cuts in, surprising even herself. His mouth relaxes into ghost of a smile that makes her stomach tighten.
"Well, yeah, they uh—" Peeta starts, taking a sip of his beer and staring off in thought before returning his gaze to hers. "They're great. I love them, you know? But we were never very close. It was the usual brotherly stuff. Gross sex talk I didn't wanna hear." Her face burns and she resists the urge to bring the cold bottle to her cheek. "Play fighting. Name calling. But we never really talked that much, they ignored me in the hallways at school…"
He looks wryly amused at his own confession, and she's amazed at his ability to offer up such vulnerability to a stranger…to offer it up at all, really, without someone backing him into it.
"Anyway, you and Prim always seemed so close. Like she was the most important thing to you in the world. I always kind of wondered what that would be like."
"Hard," she says simply, but he grins at her and she can't help but return it. "Yeah, I do miss her. But it's good for her to get space without me bossing her around all the time. It's probably good for me, too."
She rolls her eyes good-naturedly, but instead of giving her another dimpled smile, Peeta takes a step closer to her and opens his mouth to say something.
"Excuse me!" Madge says primly, and Katniss turns her head in surprise to see where her friend has entered the kitchen and is eyeing them both with barely concealed amusement. "Some of us are hungry out here."
Katniss immediately pushes off the counter, making sure not to brush against Peeta when she walks past— a feat, considering how close he was to her in their small kitchen. She schools her expression into one of wry exasperation, but she doesn't make eye contact with either of them as she walks out, so she has no idea whether or not they bought it. An even bigger mystery is why she has to suck in air like she's been holding her breath.
"Hey Kat, there's room here next to me!" Darius pats the spot on the sofa next to him, and though he waggles his eyes exaggeratedly like he's just fooling around, the way he always leans into her and breathes her in when he's drunk tells her that there's a good chance he's partly serious.
"'Scuse me," Peeta says, and she almost jumps at his soft voice behind her before he brushes past to move in front of the couch, setting down the crostini. "My contribution to the study snacks. At least before we get drunk and decide to order a bunch of crappy pizza," he says, pushing the tray to the middle before sinking down onto the couch, right next to Darius.
"Hey man! This is Katniss' seat," Darius tells him, shoving him in the ribs good-naturedly.
Katniss can't think where Peeta and Darius might have met; though they all grew up in the same town, Darius is older and ran in Gale's circle, one that was decidedly separate from Peeta who hung out with everyone from the football team to the yearbook nerds, whereas Gale and Darius skivved off half their classes working part-time jobs and doing god knows what else. But like everyone else he meets, Peeta seems to have charmed his way into a friendship with the redhead.
"Sorry, man. I just wanted to be close to you," Peeta says, and some of the girls giggle, including Glimmer, who Katniss just now realized is sitting in the corner. "Katniss, did you want this seat?" Peeta looks up at her questioningly, but she can read the knowing look in his eye, probably just as well as he can read her reluctance to sit close to Darius.
"Nahh, I'm not about to come between the two of you," Katniss jokes mildly, and drops into the seat next to Peeta on the other end of the couch. She can see in her peripheral that his eyebrows go up in surprise, but she pretends not to notice and immediately grabs for a piece of bruschetta.
"Always count on Catnip to be the first one to eat," Gale says as he leans forward to help himself before settling back in the La-Z-Boy, a huge concession from Madge, who thought the chair was too ugly to put next to the beautiful couches her father had outfitted the apartment with. But she looks happy enough perched there in his lap and Katniss doesn't want to think about the methods Gale used to persuade her into allowing his ratty old chair into their living room.
"You're welcome, Miss Manners. Don't think I didn't notice that you grabbed two," Katniss shoots back around a bite of juicy tomato.
"Look at this goat cheese!" he says in wonder, holding the piece of bread up to his face. "Peeta, you realize you could have just bought a couple bags of Cheetos at the gas station, right?"
Madge pinches Gale's arm and he yelps. "Peeta, this is amazing. Ignore these barbarians, I once caught them eating Spaghettios with sporks."
Everyone laughs, even Annie, whose lilting giggle makes Katniss smile.
"Spaghettios are bomb, Madge! What are you talking about?" Darius asks, aghast.
"Eww!" Glimmer whines. "It's basically all sodium."
"I know," Madge says sagely. "And they were sharing a can on the floor. They looked like a couple of hobos."
"Snob!" Darius calls out, drawing it out like he's sounding a horn and Katniss tries not to laugh, not wanting to draw his attention back to her.
"What, you want me to eat Spaghettios in a three-piece suit?" Gale asks his girlfriend. "'Too much sodium.' Woman, what do you think is in those Lean Cuisines you eat?"
Madge and Gale start bickering and, just as predicted, absolutely no studying is going on. It's only the first week of classes, so it's not as if anyone's even close to being swamped yet, but Katniss notices all the books have been stacked under the coffee table haphazardly, completely forgotten.
Everyone seems to be getting along well and there are no awkward lulls in the conversation and, much like her timid roommates, Katniss has no problem sitting back and just observing the interactions.
She doesn't even think about how much she's eaten until she catches Peeta watching her as she crams another one in her mouth. "What?" she asks through a mouthful, which makes him laugh.
"You really like the bruschetta," he notes.
"Sorry," she says, embarrassed as she tries to return the other piece in her hand to the plate.
"No, no," he says, catching her wrist to stop her. His thumb brushes almost absentmindedly against the soft skin of her inner wrist, and they both pull away like they've been shocked. "Um, enjoy as many as you want. It's the best compliment a cook can get." Peeta grins at her and her lips quirk up timidly. "I just—do you not like olives?" he asks, gesturing to the other pieces on the plate.
"Oh no, I do. I like pretty much everything," she says. "I just really love basil."
"Oh man, me too," Peeta says. "It makes everything taste better. And it smells so good."
Katniss smiles to herself and it takes her a moment to realize he's watching her carefully, waiting for her to respond.
"Sorry, I just—it reminded me of something."
"What?" he asks, his body leaning toward hers almost unconsciously.
"Well," she starts, twisting a loose chunk of wavy hair around her palm. "My mom used to have this amazing herb garden. Herbs for cooking and medicine…all kinds of stuff. When I was little, I used to pick the basil for her and carry it around in a bouquet, sticking my nose into it like they were roses or something." She almost cringes at the memory of such a naive, fanciful girl, but she can't regret the way it always led her father to putting them in a vase in the middle of the table, making a young Katniss giggle and her mom roll her eyes when she came home to find them.
"I can picture it," Peeta says seriously, scrunching his eyes closed. "Dirt all over your hands and face—"
"Stop," Katniss groans, covering her face with her hand.
"—two long braids and an all-green bouquet," he finishes, opening his eyes and giving her a wide, dimpled smile.
"How'd you know I used to wear my hair in two braids?" she asks quietly, dropping her hand to study his face.
"I mean…" he beings timidly, like he's searching for an appropriate answer, "We've known each other since we were five, Katniss."
"I know, but…" She hesitates and furrows her brows. "This is the first time we've ever—"
She gestures between the two of them, and when he speaks again, she's grateful she doesn't have to expand further.
"Well, I've known you since we were five."
She doesn't have the chance to ask him what that could possibly mean because she's interrupted by a whoop from Darius.
"Yes!" he crows when Gale lands on ESPN. "God, I love football season."
Katniss catches Madge's eye and her expression is so curious and expectant, especially when her eyes dart meaningfully to Peeta, that Katniss averts her gaze and sinks further into the corner of the couch, away from Peeta's eyes as well.
"Peet, you like football?" Darius asks.
"I like it about as much as I like nicknames," Peeta says dryly, a tone Katniss has never heard in his voice.
"Well!" Darius says dramatically, clutching his chest. "Ladies, I just want you to know that I'm not as uptight as Peeta here. You can call me whatever you like," he says with a roguish grin.
"You say that now," Katniss says, "but 'douche nozzle' didn't go over so well last time."
"You, don't even speak to me!" He waves his hand dismissively. "My charms are clearly wasted on you. Excuse me, Glimmer," Darius adds, turning his attention to her. "Have I told you how lovely you look this evening?"
"So 'douche rag' is still on the table?" Glimmer asks, and she and Katniss share a quick smile.
"Peeta, weren't you on the football team?" Gale pries his eyes from the TV and thankfully interrupts before Darius can affect more offense.
"Nah, just the wrestling team."
"Oh, I remember! You were really good," Madge says kindly.
"Didn't you lose to your brother?"
All eyes dart to Katniss and part of her didn't even realize she'd said it out loud.
"Katniss!" Madge says in shock.
"Dude," Gale adds under his breath, snickering and shaking his head.
"Sorry! I just—" Katniss stammers and she can feel her face heat, turning redder the longer everyone stares at her.
"It's okay," Peeta says, laughing lightly. "She's right. I lost to Rye. He was always bigger than I was. And, you know. Better at wrestling."
People laugh kindly, but he turns to Katniss, studying where she's drawn herself into the cushions. The rest of the room seems to fade away and she can't seem to will the blush off her face.
"I didn't know you were there," Peeta says. She merely blinks at him. "You know, the match. With me and Rye."
"The match?" Her voice nearly squeaks, and she feels juvenile in her lack of social graces. If only she'd listened to her mother and learned to keep her mouth shut. "Wasn't it at an assembly or something?"
"No," he says simply. "It was after school."
"Oh," she says. He seems to be waiting for her to expand on it, but the way he's looking at her feels far too expectant and…hopeful. She almost prefers the way his eyes used to dart away nervously after they locked on hers.
"Well, anyway. It was a while ago," Peeta says lightly, finally letting her off the hook. "You remembered that I lost. That's all that matters."
"God, I said I was sorry!" she laughs, resisting the urge to shove him just a little, something she'd never live down if Madge saw. "You made it to the final round, or whatever, right? I dunno, however wrestling works. But you should be proud," she deadpans.
"Man, if only I had had you as my cheerleader, things might have gone very differently," he says, mimicking her tone.
"Forget I ever said anything. Ever," Katniss groans, almost serious. She's no stranger to struggling for words, or even regretting the ones she lets slip out of her mouth heedlessly, but she doesn't generally care so much, especially if there's nothing to gain from the conversation. And maybe it's because he seems to hang so intently on her every badly-chosen word, or the way his words seem so clever and self-assured in comparison, but talking with him makes her feel increasingly self-conscious and uncertain. And she's used to being the surefooted one.
"Oh no, I definitely can't do that," Peeta replies with a short laugh she doesn't understand. "It's actually kind of nice to know you were there. In fact, if I had known…" he trails off and she holds her breath. He finally just shakes his head. "No. I probably would have done worse. Way, way worse." He laughs again, a little deeper this time, but equally self-deprecating.
Her eyebrows furrow in confusion, but she laughs along with him just a little, just for something to do. He's still smiling when he stops, but that appraising gaze travels over her face again and instead of looking away, she finds herself studying the length of his eyelashes.
"I'm sorry. I'm probably making you uncomfortable," he says, gesturing at her, and Katniss notices the way her shoulders are hunched around her protectively, her hands compulsively peeling the label on her empty bottle of beer. She tries to relax, embarrassed that she can't handle a simple interaction without completely retreating into herself, but he speaks again. "We never spoke once in fourteen years, and now in one night I just…can't shut up."
"It is a little surprising," she admits, smiling just a little because now he looks like the uncomfortable one.
"Which do you prefer, do you think?" he asks, narrowing his eyes playfully like he really needs to know her answer.
"I don't know," Katniss draws out thoughtfully. "You ask a lot of questions." He hangs his head like a puppy and can't see that she smiles in response. "But talkative Peeta who gets me food and beer might have a slight edge over mute-Peeta."
"In that case, can I get you another beer?" he asks immediately, running all his words together in a rush. She bursts out laughing and he preens.
Darius looks over at that moment and eyes them almost suspiciously. She feels confident that as soon as Peeta gets up, he's going to scoot over next to her and either jump straight into his come-ons, or grill her about Peeta, and neither possibility is acceptable.
"Um, I'll actually go grab it myself, but thank you," Katniss says, pulling herself up from the couch.
Peeta shakes his head. "Fine, you just made me lose my edge again."
She glares at him, but gestures to his bottle. "Do you want me to grab you another one?"
"Nah, I'm still working on this one." He holds up his half-full bottle. "You don't have to fetch me beer." She won't return his grin again, so she tucks her hair behind her ear and retreats to the kitchen.
But she doesn't even make it to the fridge before she hears two loud sets of feet trail in after her.
"Katniss," Madge sing-songs.
"Oh my god," Glimmer breathes.
Katniss refuses to turn around until she has a another beer cracked open and ready to go.
"You and Peeta look pretty cozy," Madge needles.
"You two are so cute right now, I can't handle it," Glimmer agrees. "Laughing, flirting…"
"We are not flirting!" Katniss finally answers, taking a big gulp of her beer. "Jesus, it's like you guys have never seen two people socialize before."
"Okay, I'll stop you right there," Madge says, holding up a hand, "because socialize is not a word I'd ever associate with you."
"We're a man and a woman talking. What a scandal!" Katniss snaps settling back into another scowl.
"That's not how you talk to Darius," Glimmer points out.
"Darius is like his own annoying species," she starts, struggling for an answer. "And that is how I talk to Gale, so I dunno, Madge, maybe you should watch out. Talking to a male friend must mean I'm two steps away from undoing his pants."
"'I'm not his friend,'" Madge says in a deep voice, crossing her arms and mimicking Katniss' position. Katniss immediately drops her arms. "Wow, why does that sound so familiar? Oh! Maybe because that's what you told me about Peeta like, 24 hours ago."
"Didn't you invite him here so I would be his friend?" Katniss asks, struggling to keep her voice down so it doesn't carry into the living room. But their ambush is starting to raise her hackles more than a little.
"Well, yeah," Madge admits. "Because Peeta's funny and smart and super cute, and if you're interested in him as more than a friend, then you should just go for it." Katniss opens her mouth to retort, but Madge beats her to it. "And not deny yourself just because you're stubborn and want to prove us wrong."
"I'm—" Katniss starts and takes a bracing breath. The way they're both staring at her expectantly doesn't help. "Can you two at least pretend to be getting drinks or something?"
They both move around her to the fridge almost cautiously. Madge fills up her wine while Glimmer pours herself a glass of some 'skinny'-something concoction, so Katniss takes the opportunity to speak without feeling like she's under interrogation.
"I've only been talking to him for like 10 minutes, okay? So can you just back off a little? This is only making me more nervous."
"It's been like 40 minutes, actually," Glimmer notes, gesturing toward the oven clock with her head.
"Okay, okay," Madge says, pushing past Glimmer, "we promise to stop pushing—"
"And watching my every movement!" Katniss adds.
"Yeah, that, too," Madge waves off. "If you promise to just keep an open mind."
She and Glimmer watch intently for her response. Katniss just blinks at them boredly. "Sure, consider it open."
When they had returned from the kitchen, Katniss found Darius leaning over the side of the couch in an intense discussion with Lacey, which led Peeta to give up his seat for her and make his way over to the other couch with Katniss. Though she originally dreaded the added speculation due to their proximity to Gale and Madge, Madge's upheld promise to behave herself made way for much more relaxed conversations, to the point where Katniss stopped trying to disappear into the furniture or fight blushes. In fact, the growing redness on her cheeks throughout the night is due more to the countless beers she's consumed. The rest of them weren't far behind, even sending Gale on another beer run at some point. Peeta offered to walk with him to the liquor store, but Gale smiled almost knowingly and told him to relax and enjoy himself.
"She was that pasty-faced girl, right?" Katniss asks, interrupting Peeta's story about his disastrous time at the junior prom.
"Oh my god, Katniss," Madge wheezes through an unladylike laugh, the first sign she's had too many. "Why do we let you talk?"
"You don't let me do anything," Katniss says haughtily.
"I really wouldn't, if I had my say," Madge answers.
"Okay, Delly was…yes, a little pale," Peeta says carefully. "And, you know, maybe…"
"Pleasantly plump?" Glimmer suggests. Madge and Katniss both gasp and chastise her, but she merely shrugs and drains her drink.
"I'm not even touching that one," Peeta says.
"Oh, I'm sure you didn't," Glimmers says. Madge grabs her stomach, tears leaking from her eyes as she laughs, and Katniss merely snorts and shakes her head at them.
"Okay, that is my cue to go," Peeta says, scratching his head sheepishly, and Katniss is just drunk enough to find it cute.
"Wait, wait!" Madge calls out as he stands. "Why were you with Delly anyway? We didn't get to that part of the story. Didn't you date that Lavinia girl in high school?"
"Umm, not for that long," Peeta says quietly. "A few months."
"Oh yeah!" Glimmer chimes in. "Lav and I were close for a while. I remember that."
"Okay, Peeta would like to leave now before you two bring out the Burn Book," Katniss says, standing up and surprising even herself. She ignores the wide-eyed stares of the two blonde girls and tilts her head towards the door. "Come on," she encourages Peeta and he follows her almost dumbly.
When they get to the door, she pulls it open and Peeta walks through and turns, ready to say goodnight. But Katniss steps out into the hallway with him and pulls the door closed behind her. He's still staring at her, dumbstruck, when she leans against the front door, crossing her arms, but this time to keep warm. She's still in her tank top and it's much colder out here than it was in their apartment.
"Sorry," she says in answer to his silence. "They would've just kept staring at us."
"What are we going to be doing that's so interesting?" he asks, tilting his head and narrowing his gaze playfully, but she can see the dimple forming in his cheek.
"Stop," Katniss admonishes with a laugh. "We could be doing a crossword puzzle and they'd be staring at us." She groans and runs her hand over her forehead. "Sorry, they're even worse when they're drunk. They've watched too many romantic comedies or something."
Peeta's mouth is pulled up in that lopsided grin, and somehow she can tell he'd be happy to stay out here and keep talking all night, but she can't trust herself not to run off at the mouth, especially when she's been drinking, and she's had enough embarrassment for one evening.
"Anyway," Katniss says to break the silence, or to break the almost affectionate, contented look on his face. "Thanks for coming. And putting up with my friends. Oh, and bringing amazing food! I'm actually getting hungry again…" she trails off. "It was actually really good to talk to you, after all these years. Are you okay getting home?"
She's proud of herself for being a good, considerate hostess, and she's ready to go in and brag to Madge about how gracious she can be, when Peeta moves into her.
He's so close that she has to draw in breath, afraid that if she exhales, her chest will up brush against his, which looks equally soft and hard— that broad frame under warm flannel. She can feel the heat of his body against hers and it's doing a much better job of keeping her warm than her own arms were. She sneaks a glance down and notices that their feet are almost touching, and he braces himself on the wall with two arms on either side of her waist, leaning in just slightly.
He's not obscenely tall like Gale, but she has to tilt her head back to meet his intense gaze. It's a scary prospect, but the thumping in her veins and her drunken curiosity doesn't allow for anything else.
"Listen," Peeta says softly, and unnecessarily, because she is. "For all intents and purposes, we just met. And something tells me your instinct is going to be to run and hide. Or at least, it would be if you hadn't had half a case of Heineken." He breathes out a laugh and she lets out a shaky one, too. His head ducks for a moment and she thinks maybe he's about to pass out, but instead his nose brushes against her hair for just a fraction of a second before he pulls back again to find her watching him with wide, silvery eyes. "But it's been forever and if I don't take this chance now, I'm kinda scared I'm never going to."
She can hear soft panting and she doesn't know if it's coming from his mouth or hers. Her body stiffens and she's certain he's going to lean in to kiss her, and until the exact moment he does, she has no idea if she'll shove him away or return it.
But he doesn't kiss her.
"Do you wanna maybe get dinner with me?" he asks. "There's this really great Italian restaurant on campus. This husband and wife have owned it for like a century. Just really good food. Rustic. Low key."
She takes this opportunity to blink, something she's not sure she's done in a while. He forges on like he senses hesitation.
"I mean, you don't even have to sit with me. I could just sit by myself in the corner and stare at you through your meal. That way, at least you'd be comfortable," he says, and his laugh breaks up his intensity. She's not sure which she likes more.
"Um," she starts, biting her lip and breaking eye contact for the first time.
"Why don't you think about it?" he asks, brushing hair away from her cheek and tucking it behind her ear. Her answer is on the tip of her tongue when he speaks again. "I should probably force you to answer now and take advantage of your happy drunkenness, but I'd like to earn it for real." He shrugs and steps back. "Let me know, okay? Madge can give you my number. Goodnight, Katniss."
He gives her a short wave, which makes her laugh, before turning and leaving. When she wakes up the next morning, she doesn't remember how long she had stood there before she finally peeled herself off the door.
"Mmmpf," she groans into her pillow.
Cold air hits her bare legs as she feels her covers being dragged back. She rolls closer to the wall.
"Come on! I made smoothies," Madge persists.
Katniss sits up and pushes matted hair out of her eyes. "They better come with a side of waffles."
It turns out, the smoothie is all her hungover stomach can handle and just the thought of a rich breakfast makes her want to retch. Glimmer sits perched on a stool next to her, sucking down Madge's green hangover concoction like it's her lifeline.
"Thanks for letting me stay," she says, looking a little worse for the wear herself. "That couch is more comfortable than my dorm bed."
Madge waves her off. "Of course, Glim, you know you can always stay."
"I didn't know if you'd be sleeping on one of the couches, too, Madge," she says, and Katniss catches Glimmer smiling at her slyly. She's too tired to acknowledge it.
"Why?" Madge laughs.
"Well because I thought Katniss might want the room." She raises her eyebrows pointedly.
Madge whirls around excitedly, a thousand questions on her lips. "Yeah, Katniss. You gave us zero details last night." She leans over the counter and Katniss feels them circling around her like vultures. "You just went out into the hall with him for like 10 minutes, came back and went straight to your bed to pass out. What'd he do to you?"
"You're gross," Katniss mumbles into her glass.
"Gross? What's gross? You could use a little gross," Madge says.
"Seriously," Glimmer adds. "Ten minutes of fooling around, then you're down for the count? That's the dream."
Even Katniss laughs at this, and it makes her eyes ache in her skull. "Nothing happened, okay? I just walked him out and…well—"
"What?!" Glimmer and Madge both ask at once.
"I dunno," Katniss says, swirling her straw in figure eights in her smoothie. "He leaned into me, and then asked me to go to dinner with him. And I think he smelled my hair. I don't know. I could have imagined all of this."
"Ohhhh my god," Glimmer breathes. Madge merely gapes.
"What?" Katniss snaps when they don't say anything else for a minute.
"That is so sweet," Madge says dreamily.
"He leaned in?" Glimmer asks. "And just asked you on a date? Nothing else?"
"I don't know," Katniss says. "I guess he like, tucked my hair, you know? Back behind my ear." Just describing it makes her feel so stupid, but their faces both light up.
"Fucking A," Madge says. "Finally."
"Wait! What'd you say?" Glimmer says, grabbing Katniss' arm, clearly upset she had forgotten this vital piece of information.
"Well, I didn't really say anything, actually," she says, trying to work out the fuzzy details in her mind. "He just told me to think about it."
"Dude, what is there to think about?" Madge asks, pulling out ingredients from the freezer for a second batch of smoothies.
"Um, that we don't know each other? And that I just started school here and dating a guy wasn't really on the agenda?"
"Babe, it's never on the agenda," Glimmer says. "And it's freshman year, okay? No one takes it seriously."
"Okay, I agree with about half of that," Madge cuts in. "Look, I know I'm pushing you, Katniss. But Peeta is so great. And so crazy for you. I just think it would be dumb to let this go. Plus, if anything, it'll get you laid."
"Ugh, I knew we would end up here," Katniss says, pushing her glass away in disgust. "You're obsessed with my sex life."
"Katniss," Madge says, and the sincerity in her tone makes her look up. "You can do whatever you want to do. I just hate that you've only had bad, awkward, meaningless sex. If you just give up forever, it'll be a real tragedy. And if you're with someone like Peeta…I mean, look at how much attention he pays to food! Imagine that kind of intensity focused on you." Her eyes drift off and Katniss is about to ask her what the hell she's thinking about now.
"Well…" Glimmer starts so reluctantly that they almost don't hear her, but they're both drawn out of their thoughts immediately.
"What?" Madge asks quickly.
"Peeta is the greatest, Katniss, really," Glimmer says imploringly, but it only causes Katniss to narrow her eyes suspiciously. "But, um…"
"What?" Madge exclaims when she won't continue. "What's the problem?"
"Well, you know he dated my friend Lavinia, right?"
"Yeah," Madge says cautiously. Even Katniss is sitting upright and listening intently.
"He was a really good boyfriend. Sweet and attentive. Funny—"
"Glimmer, Jesus Christ!" Katniss snaps.
"He's bad in bed!" Glimmer blurts out. She covers her mouth with her hands. "Oh god. I'm sorry."
"No!" Madge gasps. "That's…okay, that's crazy. I mean, even if he were, that was high school. He was probably a virgin, right?" She nods at Katniss encouragingly, but Katniss just looks desperately between the two girls.
"I think so?" Glimmer says uncertainly. "But, well…they did it more than a few times. And I guess it didn't get any better."
"I didn't need to know this," Katniss groans, burying her face in her hands.
"It's fine! Katniss, it's totally fine. It's not a big deal, right?" Madge says brightly, but even without seeing her face, Katniss knows she's giving Glimmer a death glare.
"Fuck. I'm doomed to be hit on by guys who are terrible in bed," Katniss says to herself.
"Stop it! You are not!" Madge insists.
"It's gonna be so awkward now every time I see him in class."
"Wait, you're not gonna go?" Madge asks sharply, all sympathy dropping from her tone.
"Um, out on a date with a guy I barely know that may end in another terrible sexual experience? No, Madge. I'm not gonna go."
"I can't believe you're not even going to give him a chance! Do you know how many guys like Peeta there are in the world?"
Katniss just stares at her and Madge continues to glare at her severely. "Is that a rhetorical question?"
"Yeah, it is! There's no answer because there are so fucking few, no one can find them anyway!" Madge says, moving her arms around like she does when she gets really angry.
"Guys, I'm so sorry," Glimmer says, sounding truly contrite, and desperate to head off their bickering before it escalates further. "I shouldn't have said anything. Shit, I have no idea, okay? That was a few years ago now. I bet he's awesome."
"And even if he isn't," Madge adds, staring Katniss down, "it shouldn't matter that much! It's just sex. It's not all there is to a relationship!"
"This is from the girl who keeps telling me I need to get laid!" Katniss shouts, feeling a surge of anger energize her even when she just wants to fall back in bed and hide under the covers. "And who said I wanted a relationship anyway?"
"It's just one date! He asked for one date, right?" Madge asks almost desperately. "A few hours of your time. You don't have to marry him. You don't have to sleep with him. It's a free dinner, all right?"
Katniss can read the defeat in her friend's posture, the way exhaustion seems to be creeping in, despite the fact that Madge's energy always appears boundless. And she thinks of their two-room apartment suite, and the smoothies, and the shiny MacBook she lets Katniss use all the time to FaceTime Prim.
"I will think about it," Katniss says slowly, and Madge sighs gratefully. "I promise. When I have like five more hours of sleep and some Advil."
Madge smiles at her Katniss shakes her empty glass in her face.
"If I go back to sleep on the couch," Glimmer asks sheepishly, "you guys aren't going to stick my hand in hot water or anything, are you?"
Katniss snorts, but Madge looks like she's seriously considering it.
When Katniss makes her way into the lecture hall the following Tuesday, she refuses to lift her eyes and scan the room. She makes her way down a few rows, distancing herself from the napping students in the very back, and looks up to find a group of empty seats in the middle. She pulls her notebook out and writes the date on the top. Then the class name. Then her own name, because even though it's written on the inside cover of her notebook, you never know. These few pages could get ripped out or something and she could lose them and they could have really vital information on them. Information she could never recover.
She has drawn about ten different 3D cubes in the corner of the page when her eyes flit up almost involuntarily at movement two rows in front of her. Students have been filing into the hall for the past five minutes, but it's his glinting blonde curls that draw her attention. She's studying the line of his shoulders when his neck starts to crane. She drops her eyes and returns her attention to her notebook, frantically grabbing for her pen, but she manages to knock it off her desk to the floor with a noise he definitely hears. She leans down to grab it, wishing she could keep her head below her knees for the remainder of the class period, and when she sits back up, she can't help that her eyes go straight to him. And he's watching her with barely concealed amusement.
Just as he hadn't been able to the other day, Katniss knows she can't pretend she didn't see him. So she rolls her eyes and shrugs her shoulders at him, dropping her pen onto the tabletop. He smiles even wider at her, but instead of giving her a familiar wave, he just mouths, "Hi." The expression in his eyes is confident and searing, as if they really know each other; as if he hasn't been waiting three days for her answer.
"Hi," she responds under her breath, even though he can't hear it. And he doesn't even try to follow her when she nearly runs out of the room at the end of class.
She promised Madge she would keep an open mind. And she meant it. Her mind is wide open. To the possibility of saying yes and going on her first real, official date. Of his hand on the small of her back. Of pretending not to be amused by his jokes. Of kissing him. Of sleeping with him just to realize he's clumsy and awkward. Or rough and selfish. Though the latter doesn't seem much like Peeta.
She keeps her mind open to the idea that, after one meal with her, the fascinated glint he gets in his eye whenever she opens her mouth will have faded completely and he'll realize she's just another girl with no interesting stories to share and a chip on her shoulder. That he'll be the great one and she'll just lie there stiffly, terrified by the idea of a person knowing her so intimately, body or mind.
And so she doesn't say no, but she doesn't say yes either.
Until she comes back from class one day to find a large bushel of fresh, deep green basil tied to her doorknob with a bow. And a note attached that says, "To the girl who hates impractical romantic gestures."
Madge makes them pesto that night and Katniss asks if she can get Peeta's number from her phone.
A/N: Written for Prompts in Panem, Round 4, Day 4: Pride.
I'll try not to keep people waiting too long for the second part. Thanks to anotherbrokencompass for sparking the idea. ;) Find me on tumblr at dirtytalkingpeeta.